JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

July 20, 2007

MANGOS
I've been waiting for this. For weeks and weeks little green mangos have been dangling from stocky, good- sized trees with dark green, evergreen leaves shaped like giant peach leaves. Slowly, slowly they've been growing. You can see a couple of softball-size fruits currently on a neighbor's tree I pass each day at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070720mf.jpg.

Those fruits are still too green, only now beginning to show a hint of burgundy on their topsides. Look how they dangle on foot-long cords, which are what's left of the central axes of big flower-inflorescences. The flowers themselves were tiny, pinkish-white things bearing only a single fertile stamen per blossom and clearly few of the blossoms set fruit. Soon after flowering sometimes you could see several little fruits forming in the same inflorescence, but the weak ones aborted, falling off the tree, leaving the best to develop.

At http://www.fruitlovers.com/mangoposter.jpg you can see a colorful poster showing 143 distinct named mango varieties. The variety names are provided at http://www.fruitlovers.com/mangonames.html.

I just got back from the market with a bagful of mangos and you can see a couple of those at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070720mg.jpg.

I'm told that the ones in the above picture, probably the same kind hanging on our neighbor's trees, are the Kent variety. Notice the big, flattish, white seed in the fruit's center. Nowadays all over town you see these seeds discarded by mango eaters. Before long the furry, sun-bleached seeds will mount up in gutters like so many fast-breeding albino cockroaches.

In the above picture do you see the fibers arising from the seed's edge? Those fibers keep you from biting into a mango the way you would a peach. If you try to eat them peach-like, you'll end up picking fibers from between your teeth. If you cut mango flesh from its seed, then fibers are no issue.

Botanically there's something weird about those seeds. Each seed usually contains several embryos, and any embryo can make a tree. Usually only one of those embryos has resulted from fertilization. All the others are asexual, possessing exactly the same genetic makeup as the mother tree. People who grow mango trees on a large scale know to choose their seeds from superior trees, then destroy the sexual embryo while encouraging an asexual embryo to sprout. You don't want the sexual embryo because you never know what the pollen provider was like. In this way a whole plantation can be populated by genetically identical trees, all from a single superior mother tree. A document in PDF format explaining and illustrating all this resides at http://www.haitihap.org/pdf/MT01.pdf.

Most people around here say that the smaller Manila variety is better than my Kent. You can see Manilas at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070720mh.jpg.

Nowadays you can buy a bag of six to eight perfect Manilas for about 90 cents US. As more trees ripen the price falls. When the rainy season really gets into gear little white worms will begin appearing in the fruits and the price will drop more. I remember times when I was low on dough but could buy an inordinate number of sublimely sweet mangos, a few jalapeños and a kilo of freshly made, still-hot tortillas, and banquet like a king.

By the way, mangos are the fruits of MANGIFERA INDICA, native to northern India, Burma and Malaya, and are members of the Cashew Family, in which we also find Pistachio, sumacs, and Poison Oak and Poison Ivy! With that pedigree I wouldn't be surprised if some people show an allergic reaction to mangos. Happily, not me.

*****

LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRDS IN MAGUEY FIELDS
Last Saturday morning I hitched a ride with the tree- planting fellows into the mountains southwest of Jalpan, to a few miles south of Pinal de Amoles. It was a hot, muggy morning in Jalpan but as we ascended the too-curvy road with me riding in the back of the truck the wind felt cooler and fresher with every mile.

Maguey, the giant agave from which the fermented drink pulque is made, grows on dry, eroded slopes in those highlands as well as in the hot Jalpan Valley, so as I roamed the area's backroads I passed plenty of it. A commonly occurring bird zipping among the maguey plants uttering high-pitched, excited-sounding twittering chips was the very pretty Lucifer Hummingbird, both sexes of which are shown close-up at http://www.woodley.ws/pages/Hummingbirds/LuciferHummingbird.htm.

The tiny male's most distinguishing features are his glittering, rose-pink-with-violet-blue-highlighted throat area, or gorget, plus his deeply forked tail. The female is much less spectacular with her green and black top, buff throat and belly, and normal tail.

Lucifer Hummingbirds are shown in North American field guides because the species' distribution barely extends into southern Texas and Arizona. Unlike most Mexican hummingbird species (about 65 species are listed), Lucifers are migratory, occurring in northern and central Mexico during the summer, and south- central Mexico during the winter.

*****

RED-LEGGED FALSE-BROOK SALAMANDER
At dusk I pegged my tent beneath one of those relict-community Sweetgums I've told you about present in this part of the world thanks to the last Ice Age. On that cool, moist mountaintop the ground was carpeted with moss and when I got comfortable and sat looking out my tent door I was thrilled to see a stubby- tailed, dark little salamander emerging from the moss. Probably I'd disturbed him setting up the tent. As salamanders go he was awfully small and at first I thought his tail was deformed because it was so short. But, no, this species, about two inches long (5 cm) just had a real short tail. You can see my snapshot at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070720sa.jpg.

At first I thought he was void of any decent field mark that would help me identify him, but then I saw it: Behind each tiny leg appeared patches of orange color, reminiscent of the leather elbow patches on coats favored by college professors back in the 60s.

I'm fairly sure this was PSEUDOEURYCEA CEPHALICA, supspecies RUBRIMEMBRIS, endemic to a few states in upland northcentral Mexico and known in the literature as the Red-legged False-brook Salamander. At this address  I read that "Rubrimembris probably deserves species status, as it is quite distinct morphologically and displays an allopatric distribution from other cephalica ssp." "Allopatric" means "occurring in separate, nonoverlapping geographic areas," so this subspecies occurs in an island population separated from other members of the species, and if it's a species all by itself it's a narrow endemic.

What a treat seeing this little being occurring only in a tiny part of the whole world, and known to science so poorly that so far they can't judge whether our population represents a mere subspecies, or a whole different species all by itself.

*****

RED-BELLIED SQUIRRELS
Oaks and walnuts were common on the slopes and ridges south of Pinal de Amoles, and there were squirrels. They struck me as looking and behaving exactly like North America's Gray Squirrels except that they looked as if they'd been crouching in orangish French dressing; their bellies and the backs of their legs were bright, rusty-orange. The squirrels were Red-bellied Squirrels, SCIURUS AUREOGASTER, which you can see (with a black color morph of the same species) at http://www.greglasley.net/redbelliedsquirrel.html.

Red-bellied Squirrels are distributed from northeastern Mexico to northern Guatemala and have been introduced into Florida. As far as I can tell, other than their French dressing, the only big difference between them and northern Gray Squirrels is that they bear litters of one to two young anytime during the year, while birthing among northern Gray Squirrel is seasonally synchronized.

*****

TOBACCO, THE REAL THING
I grew up on a tobacco farm in western Kentucky, so last Sunday when I saw a certain weed with large, soft-looking leaves on a stem topped by lots of white flowers with a pink tinge, I knew I was looking at tobacco. What really caught my attention, however, was seeing where it grew: On a steep, rocky, dry, mountain slope.

Looking at that robust, healthy-looking plant I remembered how hard we used to work to make sure that our tobacco patch's soil was loose and moist, fertilized just so-so, kept free of weeds, and also I remembered the battles we had to fight with tobacco worms. Yet last Sunday's prolifically flowering, healthy-looking, un-wormy tobacco plant on that much-abused, dry, weedy slope couldn't have looked happier exactly where it was. You can see it for yourself at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070720tb.jpg.

In this year's February 23rd Newsletter I introduced you to yellow-flowered Tree Tobacco, which is a "real tobacco" in the sense that it's a member of the genus Nicotiana, to which cultivated tobacco belongs. The plant in the above picture belongs to the same genus AND species. Just like cultivated tobacco, it's NICOTIANA TABACUM. It's the REAL real thing.

Back when I was a kid, how often our fancy tobacco plants contracted diseases, or withered if the rain wasn't just right, or was eaten to shreds by tobacco worms, or had leaves snapped by whirlwinds. Those hybrid, overfed, coddled, wimpy plants we tried to grow simply wouldn't have survived an instant on that slope.

Genetic diversity. How lucky Nicotiana tabacum is to have some of its ancestral stock still growing wild and still harboring genes in which are encoded the secrets of thriving in rough, uncompromising places.

*****

CLOSE TO "INDIAN PINK"
Last weekend's most spectacular wildflower grew atop a high ridge in a pasture at the edge of a woods. Known as Hierba del Burro (Burro Herb) and Sangre de Toro (Bull Blood), it was SPIGELIA LONGIFLORA, to be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070720sp.jpg.

What's so spectacular about this plant is its large cluster of brightly red flowers, which are nearly three inches long, crowning the soft-green, big-leafed plant. Southeast North America's Indian Pink is in the same genus and looks a lot like the above, except that Indian Pink's red flowers are yellow inside.

I found only one small community of the plants and this cluster grew inside a group of ancient, collapsed, indigenous ruins. Often I've noted unusual plants existing only around ancient ruins, and I believe that this confirms that changes we humans make in soil structure and chemistry can affect local ecology for centuries and millennia to come.

*****

APPALACHIA IN MEXICO
Some of those valleys in the mountains last weekend looked and felt like Appalachia -- big trees, lush green slopes and broad, fertile valleys checkered with cornfields on the valley floor. You can see an early- morning view from near where I was put off the truck at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070720am.jpg.

The above photo also reminds me of Appalachia because it shows a rich land inhabited by impoverished people. The larger, clearly visible white structures in the picture are cinderblock houses in various stages of construction and occupation. Most are empty, some only partly inhabited, and only a few are fully utilized. The usual story is that a man went to the US and with his earnings built or slowly is building his dream home -- to which he may or may not eventually return.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070720an.jpg you see a typical such dwelling, not yet quite finished, the parents' traditional dwelling immediately above, and just beyond the parents' home, another house, probably belonging to the first brother to leave, for that one is occupied. I saw a young woman carrying a baby walk down the trail to the lower, unfinished house and just stand looking at it for awhile. Who knows what she was thinking, but it seemed to me she thought, "My husband is away from us today, but this is what he's working for."

You don't think of Mexico as having such lush, fertile landscapes as I hiked through last weekend. Actually, when the Spanish conquistadors first arrived, oak-pine forest mantled vast stretches of the interior high plateau, and there were lakes and streams where today there's dry barrenness. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan occupied an island in a large, fish-rich lake where dusty Mexico City now stands. You might find interesting an essay on the history of water availability in the Mexico City area at http://www.theglobalist.com/DBWeb/StoryId.aspx?StoryId=4886.

*****

CORNFIELD ON A STEEP SLOPE
You can see a typical mountain slope above a road I hiked last weekend, with a cornfield at top, center, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070720cf.jpg.

A field of maguey can be seen downslope from the cornfield, and to the right of the cornfield notice the limestone rock poking from the soil. These rocky patches surely result from cornfields being placed there in the past. In my own lifetime I've seen slopes like this in the southern state of Chiapas pass from being covered with lush forest to being open, weedy fields with more exposed rock than soil. Where once forests absorbed rainfall and slowly released it like a leaking sponge during the dry season, now rainfall on such land rushes immediately into muddy streams, carrying topsoil that ends up filling reservoirs downstream.

Actually, compared to mountain slopes across the Sierra Madres in San Luis Potosí, beyond the Reserve's boundaries, this slope is in relatively good shape.

Near the center of the above photo you can make out a tin-roofed building. By luck I met the man living there walking down the road. Though he was small and so wrinkled I couldn't say whether he was 30 or 60, his body was wiry and strong looking. He said that up on that slope he grew corn, beans, squash, peaches, apples, nopal and tunas, had goats, pigs, chickens and turkeys, and whenever he needed a little cash he just dipped into his magueys and carried pulque to town to sell. "Like picking up money from the ground," he said. Also, he drank a lot of pulque himself, and certainly he had all he could ever want.

He didn't see any environmental disaster unfolding around him. In fact, he believed he had it made, from his peaceful little rancho able to look down into the valley on people who hustled and hustled their whole lives, but never seemed to have what they wanted.

*****

CANÍCULA
Two weeks ago our rainy season suddenly turned dry again. For about a week we went without a single good shower. I mentioned the matter to Don Gonzalo and he said things would change with the Canícula. Canícula was a new word, so I looked it up.

It turns out that there are as many opinions about what a Canícula is as there are how a burrito should be concocted. Don Gonzalo says that this year's Canícula began on July 15th and will run for 40 days more or less to the beginning of September. The person who wrote the Spanish Wikipedia page about Canículas says it begins on July 20th and lasts until August 25th. Other sources suggest other dates.

Everyone seems to agree on this, however: The Canícula occurs -- at least in the Northern Hemisphere -- during the hottest, rainiest part of the year. Vegetation is lusher then, the bites of insects and reptiles are most venomous, skin wounds are most likely to fester, and people are most likely to get sick. That's how most people here think of the Canícula -- simply as the rainy period when natural things, especially those which can cause trouble, get more intense than usual.

I like Don Gonzalo's beginning date for the Canícula because on that date of July 15th, for the second and final time this year, the Sun passed directly above Jalpan. You'll remember from my May 26th Newsletter that on May 26th the Sun's ecliptic passed directly above Jalpan as it moved northward to the Tropic of Cancer, which it reached on the Summer Solstice, June 21st. Now as the ecliptic moves back southward it passed over us again on July 15th, on its way to the Tropic of Capricorn, exactly above which it will stand on the next Winter Solstice.

The word Canícula has good roots. It's based on the constellation name Canis Major: Canis --> Canícula. During the Canícula the Sun is in conjunction with Canis Major, which means that the Sun looks like it's passing among the stars constituting Canis Major. We can't see the stars because the Sun is so bright, but people who plot astronomical charts know what constellation the Sun is in even if they can't see the stars around it.

Also, the Latin name for the star we call Sirius, or the Dog Star, is Canicula.

By the way, on the day Don Gonzalo said was the first day of the Canícula, a downpour restarted our rainy season just as he'd said it would, and it's rained every night since then...

*****

WALKING WITH CARL JUNG
On my walk near Pinal de Amoles last weekend so many people expressed amazement about my preference for walking instead of riding that it got me to thinking about why walking is important to me. It took several miles before I remembered the chain of events that got me to walking, and the insights that have kept me walking all these years.

Part of it is that it helps keep my body toned up, but really that's not the most important reason. More important is that it helps keep me together psychologically and spiritually. I think that without my long walks -- and walking ALONE is what I'm talking about -- either I'd eventually go nuts, or become so grouchy and negative I couldn't live with myself. Last weekend I also remembered how my long walks, alone, are rooted in my youthful studies of Jungian dream analysis.

Carl Jung, who lived from 1875 to 1961, was the Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology. He emphasized understanding the psyche by exploring the worlds of dreams, art, mythology, world religions and philosophy. Back when I was about 20, using Jungian techniques, I trained myself to remember dreams and write them down immediately upon awakening. By interpreting my dreams I learned about my own psyche.

For example, "I" am a projection of any number of smaller personalities who reside inside me. Some of those personalities can more or less stand alone, but others are fragmentary. Some are male, some female, and some have no gender. Each needs to express him/her/itself from time to time, else one or more of these inner selves act up and my psychological ecosystem drifts out of whack.

When I'm walking, that's when these inner voices get to express themselves.

Sweat dripping from my elbows and isolation humming in my ears, the week's unsaid thoughts get said. All the little people and sub-people inside me bring up whatever issues have been bugging them, each of us looks at the issue from the other's perspective, and then the following night, what a fine sleep I have, and what peace there is inside me.

But, also my experience with dream interpretation taught me this: Dream analysis is potent, and can be as dangerous as it is revealing. I quit it for the same reason I've never done drugs: Exploring the mind like that is like opening up your computer and poking your fingers here and there. It's not really something that should be done without great care and guidance. Also, as in quantum mechanics, in the dream world, just observing something changes it. And I don't have enough information to go changing my own building blocks.

There's a good bit about Carl Jung's philosophy at http://www.answers.com/topic/carl-jung?cat=health.

After a few paragraphs of promotional stuff, Jungian dream interpretation is addressed at http://www.dreamanalysis.info/.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim