JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

Issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

July 13, 2007

CALL OF THE TINAMOU
Last Sunday my friend Pancho invited some of us at the Reserve to visit his family home in the mountains just northeast of Jalpan, and a nearby cave. To reach the cave we had to hike up a steep slope. As we approached the mountain crest vegetation changed from low, spiny scrub to a regular forest with attractively spreading oak trees interspersed with an unusual number of Mexican Walnuts (Juglans mollis). The Reserve protects the ridge forest, else so close to town firewood gatherers surely would have decimated it by now.

Even at that only modestly high elevation a coolish, fresh breeze filtered between the oaks' black trunks, light was sharper and more contrasty than usual, and even sounds were crisper and clearer than usual. At the top we heard it. If your PC can handle MP3 audio files (Windows Media Player), you can hear it, too, at http://web2.uwindsor.ca/courses/biology/dmennill/CostaRica/THTI.mp3.

That's a good audio file, showing exactly what the sound was like: Background birdsong framing a shimmering, penetrating, clear, hollow and haunting monotonal whistle. It was the call of the Thicket Tinamou, CRYPTURELLUS CINNAMOMEUS. You can see a painting of a female Thicket Tinamou at the bottom of http://www.1-costaricalink.com/costa_rica_fauna/thicket_tinamou.htm.

Tinamous are strictly neotropical birds -- not found outside the tropics, and nowhere but in the Americas. They have their own ORDER, which is pretty impressive, since only about 30 bird orders are recognized, and most birds most people know belong to just one order, that of the "perching birds." Taxonomically, tinamous are as different from other birds as doves are from parrots and hummingbirds from seagulls -- they're all in their own orders.

Tinamous are large-bodied, almost tailless birds with slender necks and small heads, maybe 30% larger than a bobwhite. They look a bit like emus, but smaller. They fly but prefer to walk or run, and they're secretive. Their nests are scrapes on the ground, and the birds eat vegetable matter and small invertebrates. One female may lay for several males, and more than one female may lay eggs in the same nest.

I've heard tinamous in out-of-the-way places throughout my life but I've never clearly seen one. A Nahuatl-speaking friend once showed me how to call a Thicket Tinamou, and I can make them come closer with my whistle, but, still, I've never identified one with 100% certainty.

Being such plump-bodied birds, country folks have long hunted them. Their occuring on the Reserve-protected ridge is a testament of the Reserve's efforts.

*****

CAVE OF THE GODDESS CACHÚN

UPDATE:

Miguel Angel Izquierdo Sánchez, an amateur archeologist in Morelos, writes confirming that Cachún was indeed a Pame diety. He further writes that he has read that the Franciscan priest Fray Junípero Serra, founder of many villages and churches in Sierra Gorda, removed a monolith of Cachún and gave it to the Archobisp of Mexico, who was known as a destroyer of monoliths in his ideological war against indigenous beliefs.

The cave we visited is known as the Cave of the Goddess Cachún. Pancho and his family didn't know anything about Cachún, not even which indigenous culture she was from -- maybe Pame, he suggested -- and I can't find anything about her on the Internet.

The cave's entrance, with a small wooden cross mounted above it, was about large enough to admit a Volkswagen Beetle if somehow you could get a Beetle onto that steep slope. Just inside, however, a large cavern opened up. The picture I took with a flash turned out perfectly black, but with Photoshop I was able to coax a grainy image into being, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070713cv.jpg.

In that picture the globes of light toward the right are reflections of drops of water. There were no bats or snakes, but there were plenty of broken stalactites and other shattered and crunched speleothems. People had thrown stones at the ceiling to knock stalactites down. Pancho said typically only two or three people visit the cave in a year, but, still, the destruction mounts up.

The Eastern Sierra Madres are mostly composed of limestone, which is very different from the Western Sierra Madres, which consist mostly of igneous and metamorphic rock. Limestone tends to fracture, water seeps into the fractures, the water is slightly acidic and dissolves the limestone so over thousands and millions of years subterranean cracks develop into caves and caverns.

Don Gonzalo tells me that inside the cave there's a stone throne where the Goddess is supposed to have sat. The Don also says that there's another cave in the area with a woman in it hanging from a rope, wearing old-time clothing. Well, Don Gonzalo also says he has a burro who can make the sign of the Cross, so who knows?

I hadn't realized what a cave-oriented place the Sierra Gorda area wass until I came here. Many backcountry people, if they see a gringo wandering around, stop and ask if we're looking for good caves; this happened to me last week. In past Newsletters whenever I've mentioned our area's caves I've received a flurry of email queries from spelunkers and rock- climbing connoisseurs of Mexico's deep holes. For those folks I provide links to the following Mexican- cave sites:

The Association for Mexican Cave Studies' lists of long and deep caves, and deep pits, appearing at http://www.amcs-pubs.org/longanddeep.html.

To see unbelievably large crystals in Chihuahua state (notice the man at the left in the top photo), go to http://www.crystalinks.com/mexicocrystals.html.

A list of Mexico's major "archeological caves" is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_caves_in_Mexico.

"The Cave Diving Website" for Mexican caves appears at http://www.cavediving.com/where/mexico/index.htm.

*****

FIDDLEWOOD FRUITS CHANGING RED TO BLACK
A common bush or small tree around here flowering now is a CITHAREXYLUM species, possibly C. berlandieri, sometimes known in English as Fiddlewood. The lustrous fruits start out as green ovaries, turn orangish, and then at maturity finally black. You can see the fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070713rb.jpg.

The fruits of several species turn orange or red before maturing to black. For example, blackberries and several viburnum, mulberry and plum species follow the same green --> red --> black pattern. Therefore, is there an advantage to this color-changing strategy? For example, might the red fruits attract birds who come and then eat the black, ripe fruits, whose seeds are more ready for dispersal?

Finding answers hasn't been as easy as might be expected. One complication of the issue is this: Birds don't see the landscape the way humans do; they live in a much, much more colorful world.

Human eyes have three kinds of cones (one of two kinds of photoreceptors in the eye's retina) while birds have four. The extra cone type enables birds to see twice as many colors as humans, as well as ultraviolet light. Therefore, what looks to a human like a red fruit turning black may look much more spectacular and complex to a bird.

For my part, I'm glad that even today the world of science hasn't figured out all the mystery inherent in something as simple as a fruit being red right before it matures, then turning black.

By the way, while Googling this matter I ran into a thought-provoking sentence I haven't been able to confirm or disprove yet. Here it is:

"Even though you may be camouflaged and in a blind, European Starlings can see in the UV spectrum, so they can see you glowing below them."

*****

CACTUS LEAVES
The main bodies of cacti -- the pads or barrel-shaped parts -- are actually modified stems. Moreover, most cactus morphologists say that cactus spines are either modified leaves or modified bud scales. Even bud scales are regarded as modified leaves. With so many parts having derived from leaves, the question arises: Do modern cacti still have leaves?

The answer is yes, at least during part of their life cycles. Some cactus leaves are large and obvious, some are so tiny you need a good lens and imagination to see them, and leaves in many species appear and fall off before most people notice them.

The other day Don Gonzalo yelled to me as I walked between classes that he'd brought me a yellow plastic bag full of tunas, or cactus pads for eating, which he'd hung on a Sweet Acacia tree. He hadn't had time to cut off the little spots bearing those tiny spines that get into your fingers no matter how you try to avoid them (the glochids), so I needed to whittle on them before slicing them for cooking in my solar oven. The pads were young ones, sprouting as a consequence of our rainy season having begun, and they bore small, green, cat-claw-curved leaves on them, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070713cl.jpg.

In that picture, down near my thumb, you can see where a few leaves already have fallen off, leaving white spots where glochids might arise. The curved leaves are so loosely attached that just brushing them with a handkerchief knocks off most of them. It's interesting that even these tiny, rather useless leaves retain xylem and phloem, and many stomata on their lower surfaces. These features served the ancestral species' larger photosynthesizing leaves well but for today's vestigial nubbins they seem superfluous plumbing. A fine page on cactus leaves and their evolution is at http://www.sbs.utexas.edu/mauseth/ResearchOnCacti/Leaves.htm.

*****

WHY DO WE BREATHE?
I'm meeting lots of people who don't know some of the basic facts of life. For example, not many really can explain why we breathe. They may know that we need oxygen, but can't explain why oxygen is important.

Oxygen enables us to get energy from food. We use that energy to move about, digest, think, to renew parts of our bodies as they wear out -- just about everything that makes air-breathing organisms what we are. I think of the food --> oxygen --> energy transformation as a three-step process.

The first thing the body does with food is to break it up and reconstitute it into chemicals the body can deal with -- such as glucose (simple sugar), amino acids and fatty acids.

The second step leads to releasing the energy stored in the bonds between atoms of glucose and other "energy holders." The name of the process releasing that energy is respiration. Maybe you remember from school the chemical equation for respiration:

C6H1206 + 602 = 6C02 + 6H20 + ENERGY

The C6H1206 in the above formula is glucose (sugar), but there are other energy-producing formulas starting with amino acids, fatty acids, and other energy bearing chemicals beside sugars. Notice the oxygen in the above equation -- the 602. The above formula expressed in words is "Glucose plus oxygen equals carbon dioxide plus water plus energy."

The above formula for respiration explains why we breathe and why oxygen must be in the air.

A miraculous chain of chemical events uses oxygen atoms to release energy from glucose and other energy- bearing compounds. You can start getting a handle on the process by studying the flowcharts of the Krebs Cycle and the Electron Transport System at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellular_respiration.

By the way, the above formula for respiration also shows that not all water we pee has been drunk. The body can make water from sugar and oxygen.

The third step involves transporting the energy released in respiration to parts of the body needing that energy. Inside our bodies' cells there are billions of tiny, organ-like things known as mitochondria. Mitochondria take the energy released through respiration and "charge" a flood of molecule-sized, rechargeable batteries known as ATP molecules. Blood then carries those ATP molecules to where energy is needed in our bodies. When the ATP molecules discharge their energy they're returned to the mitochondria for recharging.

It's all a beautiful, beautiful process that took billions of years of evolution to develop. One reason it's good to understand a little about the process is because once we can visualize the precise formulas and the fragile mechanics that keep us alive, it becomes easier to see how it's possible to screw up the whole process by throwing in a molecule of heavy metal here, by changing the blood's pH there -- by allowing pollutant contaminants into the system, or by not eating and drinking properly.

You can see a mitochondrion at http://cellbio.utmb.edu/cellbio/mitoch1.htm.

*****

A TRADITIONAL WOVEN-PALM-FROND RAIN CAPE
Last week my friend Demóstenes invited me to visit his fine little community museum next to the cathedral in the nearby town of Landa de Matamoros. For me one of the most interesting treasures on display there was a traditional rain cape woven from local palm fronds. You can see a close-up showing the weaving pattern at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070713wv.jpg.

The cape wrapped around a person's back and tied around the neck. In the picture, with a bit of effort and guesswork, and using a blade's hue to follow it through its knots, you can get an idea of how the weaving was done. The cape consisted of two layers, the bottom layer consisting of vertically aligned blades and the top of the connected knotings.

Demóstenes says that a few old people in the area still know how to weave fronds like this, but they're disappearing fast and young people aren't interested in learning the art.

*****

A TRADITIONAL HOUSE-BUILDING STYLE
Leaving town we passed by a new restaurant and Demóstenes almost choked with disgust, explaining that the building's uninspired architecture could be explained by "emigrants," by whom he meant native Landa residents who'd returned home from working in the US with unacceptable gringo tastes. To remind us where we were, Demóstenes drove us a little off the main road so we could see the kind of house city people here used to live in, disintegrated enough to show how its adobe, poles, stone and stucco constituents had been put together. A close-up of one of its walls is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070713ad.jpg.

A few days later I got to see the remains of a traditionally built, unstuccoed country schoolhouse near Jalpan, once attended by my friend Pancho. This other expression of the adobe, pole and stone technique is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070713a3.jpg.

I like to show such things not only because it's interesting and often beautiful, but also because once the "globalization infrastructure" collapses it may be useful to know certain things -- like how to build a house from local materials and keep ourselves dry when it's rainy and cold.

*****

SUNDAY MEAL AT A MOUNTAIN RANCHO
We returned from the cave hike in mid afternoon, hot, sweaty, dirty and dog-tired. We plopped into chairs, some handmade from whittled wood, others all-plastic lawn chairs, others of similar miscellaneous sorts, and were served sweet agua de melón, or blended water and melon, the melon tasting like cantaloupe. A delicious breeze blew among our shadowy figures beneath the tin roof set atop rough poles. Roosters crowed, dogs scratched themselves and chased pebbles thrown for them, several soft, musical conversations took place, and we were served a meal set on two picnic tables placed end to end.

The picture of my meal before I dug into it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070713cm.jpg.

In that picture you can see the half-empty cup of melon-water, hot, freshly baked corn tortillas, and quartered avocados in a bowl. Atop the folded tortilla next to my bean-bowl is a block of white queso ranchero, or ranch-cheese. My white bowl is filled with soupy beans and scrambled eggs. The eggs were prepared with onions, tomatoes and hot peppers.

In the table's center lay a bag of small plastic spoons but I noticed that Pancho and his family didn't bother with them, so I didn't either. They tore their tortillas into sections, adroitly folded the sections into scoops with which they scooped up beans and eggs, and did so without their fingers touching anything but the tortillas. My efforts to make tortilla scoops with one hand the way the family did was a source of hilarity for all. At meal's end I'd learned the technique but I'd splattered the whole area with bean juice.

In Mexico corn tortillas are gradually being replaced by more expensive, less tasty and far less nutritious wheat-flour tortillas, the wheat imported from the US. When I asked Pancho why this was so he said that people go to the US to work, see people up there eating white bread, and return here wanting to eat wheat, not corn.

Simple, and sad, as that.

Mexico's fruit-waters are wonderful and if you have a blender you can make them, too. Read about them and find some good-sounding recipes at http://www.ocregister.com/ocr/sections/wine_food/wf_recipes/article_470789.php.

*****

EGGS WITH CHILI PEQUÍN
One reason I was tickled with Pancho's invitation to visit his mountain rancho is that Pancho's wife, Aurora, makes the best-tasting hotsauce I've ever eaten. Sunday I wasn't disappointed, either, for the scrambled eggs arrived swimming in it.

I think one of Aurora's secrets is that instead of using the usual jalapeño or habenero peppers, in her stone metate she grinds the tiny pepper called chili pequín (peh-KEEN). Chili pequines are graced with a rich smoky/citrus/nutty flavor, and they're much hotter than jalapeños.

You can see several dried Chili Pequines in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070713cp.jpg.

That picture shows that chili pequines are tiny. Taxonomically they're CAPSICUM ANNUM var GLABRIUSCULUM. Green and red peppers belong to the genus Capsicum, and they're divided into a few species:

Since jalapeños and bell peppers belong to the same species, when they're planted together in a garden they can mix -- which you know if you've ever planted sweet bell peppers next to jalapeños, and ended up with very hot bell peppers.

Above I said that Chili Pequines are hotter than jalapeños. On the "Chili Pepper Hotness Scale" page at http://info-s.com/chart6.html we see that pepper hotness can be rated according to "Scoville Units." Here's how various peppers rate:

  • SWEET BELL PEPPERS..... 0 Scoville Units
  • JALAPEÑOS.............. 2,500-5,000
  • CAYENNE................ 30,000-55,000
  • CHILI PEQUÍN........... 70,000-100,000
  • HABENERO............... 225,000-550,000
  • *****

    A HANDMADE BURRO SADDLE
    While we sat at the tables recuperating from the cave hike and sipping agua de melon, Pancho's father made a cigarette by sprinkling a line of brown, shredded tobacco onto a square sheet of white corn-shuck and rolling it into a cylinder. He'd taken his tobacco from a spherical, hollow, brown, gourd-like fruit produced by a tree growing in the neighboring state of Guanajuato -- I'm pretty sure it's the fruit of the introduced Cannonball Tree, Couroupita guianensis.

    Noting our interest in his old-time ways the father went inside and returned with a handmade wooden saddle-like creation made to be placed atop a burro's back, to enable it to carry large loads, particularly firewood. I took a picture of that, and I invite you to look not only at the artfully made saddle-like object but also what's in the background -- a girl sitting idly in a homemade chair as woodsmoke from the kitchen drifts by, the three-legged dog called Pinto wandering around joyfully sniffing and wagging his tail, the crooked calendar in the background bearing an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, light passing between the poles constituting the walls of the shed behind the sitting girl, the miscellany of things hanging on the wall beneath the corrugated tin roof...  The picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070713sa.jpg.

    Try to conjure up the feeling of sitting in this congenial, sleepy ambiance smelling woodsmoke, baked tortillas, the odor of our melon drinks and flowers, moist earth and crushed grass, feeling cool breezes flowing around us, hearing birds singing, and there being enough garden plants flowering all around us for there to be gorgeous color everywhere, everywhere...

    When I was a kid in Kentucky I knew this kind of generous, peaceful, disorganized, colorful, enriched environment, and the people in my community and family back then knew how to sit around enjoying a summer breeze, white clouds in the sky, not feeling a compulsion to keep the conversation rolling, and not really feeling compelled to do anything other that what we were doing at that moment. I remember it as a deliciously satisfying manner of living. Often in later years I wondered why we'd all worked so hard, so single- mindedly and so successfully to create a world that increasingly felt like something I needed to escape from.

    The point of these words is this: I invite you to think of the ten thousand ways you struggle to "clean things up," to organize, to sterilize, to standardize, to modernize. And then I ask you further:

    Are you sure you're not creating a living environment so sterile and methodical that no healthy human spirit can long endure in it?

    For my part, after years of circumspection, I say that I'm on the side of having a little stinkiness, a little rust, a few holes here and there, a little backwardness and occasionally even a mouse or two gnawing through the night, since, in the end, that's where the color is, that's where the enduring fragrances are, the hominess, the peace and definitely the humanity.

    And I just wonder what the "carbon footprint" of Pancho's family looks like compared to that of the typical consumption-focused North American family?

    Down with Lysol, down with neatness and complicated accounting. Long live vagrant summer breezes and the three-legged dog joyfully wagging his stump of a tail!

    *****

    Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

    Jim

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