JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

August 31, 2007

BLACK WIDOW
When Pancho came to my door carrying a glass jar with something in it I knew that another Newsletter entry was brewing. Inside the jar was a Black Widow Spider, the red hourglass figure on the bottom of her black abdomen strikingly visible, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070831bw.jpg.

Black Widows are North America's most venomous spiders, but they inject little poison, and seldom bite humans unless they're provoked, as by lying on one or putting on clothing containing one.

By saying "Black Widow Spider" I'm referring to any of about six species of the genus Latrodectus. Pancho's find was probably LATRODECTUS MACTANS, the same one native to the eastern and central US. Widows occur in most of the world's warm spots. A chart showing the differences between the three most common US species is found at http://kaston.transy.edu/widow.html#species.

I didn't want to release the widow back onto the Reserve grounds so I placed her in a plastic cup with a few Guácimo leaves and with a top on it, and put the cup aside until I could take a walk. A few hours later Silviano came with the widow's egg sac, which Pancho had left behind, so I dropped the sac into the cup as well.

In late afternoon I walked down to the reservoir with my cup of spider and egg sac. When I got ready to dump the widow I was amazed to see that she'd suspended her somewhat battered and dirty egg sac among silk strands she'd strung between two Guácimo leaf surfaces facing one another so that the sac touched nothing but her silks. Then she'd taken up a defensive position next to it, which you can see my inadequate picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070831bx.jpg.

Instead of dumping the lady I carefully nestled the cup horizontally between rocks in a collapsed stone wall and placed a flat rock over it as a roof.

A lot more information about black widows can be found at http://www.desertusa.com/july97/du_bwindow.html.

*****

A HURRICANE-DELIVERED MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD
After providing the Black Widow with a cozy home I lay back at the water's edge and read while the sun went down. It was a short story by Gabriel García Márquez, about an old couple who find an aged, decrepit angel half dead on the beach, locked him in a henhouse because his wings bore feathers, and sold tickets to the world to see him.

When the light began to dim I put the book down and saw circling offshore before me a mature male Magnificent Frigatebird, just as you can see at http://www.dlcphotography.net/CR3-3/1D2_02404.htm...  

Magnificent Frigatebirds aren't supposed to occur this far inland. Those of you with me in the Yucatan may recall how Hurricane Wilma blew Magnificent Frigatebirds inland to Hacienda San Juan. Though that was only ten miles south of the beach I thought it was pretty good to see frigatebirds there.

Here in Jalpan we're about 130 miles inland (210 kms) and the Eastern Sierra Madres rise between us and the sea.

Surely Hurricane Dean the previous week had driven the frigatebird here. I've even read that 1988's Hurricane Gilbert blew frigatebirds north into the US as far as Iowa. Still, this frigatebird before me over Jalpan Reservoir was something very special, almost apparitional, just the right thing to see in the magical realism mind the angel story had put me in.

Imagine, on those 7.5-ft.-across wings losing yourself in a stormy night's winds, but this night unlike any you've ever experienced, being carried not only far inland but skywards, all your senses rebelling as you rise and rise up the altiplano's eastern slope, the acrid, chilling odor of pines and junipers diluting the fish smells you live for, and then the winds suddenly plummet on the leeward side, and die, and you circle in a kind of black hollowness, and at dawn the ocean is gone, and you search and search for water and finally find a silvery spot in a deserty valley without sandy beaches and rolling waves, without crabs and jellyfish, without seagulls to rob of their catches, just this calm shininess of saltless reservoir-water...

Sitting there with the book on my lap I figured the storm-buffeted frigatebird before me must have a hunch what García Márquez's disoriented angel felt that day he awoke on his sordid beach, and I lay another flat rock atop the widow's nest to better keep the rain off.

*****

IGUANA HACKBERRIES FRUITING
Along the gravel road skirting the reservoir a small tree is fruiting. Any North American familiar with hackberries would see the tree's resemblance to them, but there's one easy-to-see feature that makes a Northerner scratch his head: The tree's stems bear small, backward-curved, very sharp spines. You can see the spines, yellow-orange fruit and leathery leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070831ct.jpg.

The species really is a hackberry, by which I mean that it's a member of the genus Celtis. It's CELTIS IGUANAEA, called Iguana Hackberry in English, and I can only guess what it has to do with iguanas. Five hackberry species are listed for the Reserve. The Flora of North America lists six hackberry species for North America north of Mexico. The US Southeast's Sugarberries are hackberries.

In North America Hackberries are often misidentified as elms, and one explanation for that is that they're in the same family, the Elm Family, so they do share similarities. However, there are easy-to-see differences between the leaves of the two tree-types.

Mainly, in the above picture notice how in hackberry leaves the lowest two side-veins arise from the midribs exactly at the blades' bases. This gives the impression of hackberry leaves being "three-veined from the base," like a three-fingered hand with webbing between the fingers. Also, teeth on hackberry leaf margins are usually irregularly spaced, few or absent, while on elm leaves teeth are many and regularly spaced. Fruits of the two trees are very different, elm fruits being like papery wafers while hackberries are cherrylike drupes. Typically flesh so thinly covers a hackberry fruit's seed that, even though the flesh may be a bit sweet, it's hardly worth the effort to pick them.

Another interesting feature of our Iguana Hackberry is that it's one of those trees acting as if wants to be a vine. Along the reservoir road it usually looks like a regular small tree but sometimes bigger specimens start leaning onto other trees, sending slender branches through them like a vine held in place by those spines.

*****

A RED-FLOWERED GRAPEVINE, ALMOST
There's a full-fledged woody vine climbing into trees, securing itself with wiry tendrils tightly clinging to tree limbs. It's just like a northern grapevine, except that its leaves are divided into three leaflets, while you think of grapevine leaves as being a single broad blade. Also, this vine's flowers are red, and of course grapevine flowers aren't supposed to be red. You can see this handsome woody vine in full flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070831cc.jpg.

From descriptions on the Internet, I figure this is CISSUS CUCURBITINA, apparently with no English name. I can only find reference to it occurring in Mexico, so maybe it's endemic here. It's such a robust, pretty species that it deserves to be propagated horticulturally.

Belonging to the genus Cissus, it almost IS a red-flowered grapevine, since Cissus belongs to the Grapevine Family, the Vitaceae, and the genus Cissus is closely related to the Grapevine genus, Vitis.

The genera Cissus and Vitis are separated by the fact that Vitis's FIVE flower petals stick together to form a "cap" that falls off as a single unit, while Cissus's FOUR separate petals spread and fall off independently. Cissus fruits do look a lot like Vitis grapes, however. Most of them are pea-size or smaller, like the North's wild Frost Grapes, so they're great for birds but not so interesting to humans. The genus Cissus includes about 350 mostly-tropical species, while Vitis only has some 60 mostly-northern ones.

*****

MEXICAN MAIDENHAIR FERNS
Below North America's moistest, most sheltered, shadowy rock ledges lushly mantled with mosses and ferns, very often the most eye-catching, prettiest fern species are maidenhairs. Maidenhair ferns are easy to identify because their cascading, fanlike fronds seem to be composed of pieces of green confetti held in place by slender, wiry, black or blackish stems. You can see a typical maidenhair colony cascading from a rock face along the Río Escanela in the mountains west of Jalpan at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070831mi.jpg.

I think the above species is ADIANTUM TENERUM, the Fan Maidenhair. Along more exposed, drier limestone roadcuts beside the reservoir road there's a different species, ADIANTUM POIRETII, the Mexican Maidenhair, I think it is. Four maidenhair species are listed for the Reserve area. Nine species are listed in the Flora of North America.

The Fan Maidenhair illustrated in the first picture has a history of medicinal service in Mexico. My Las Plantas Medicinales de Mexico says that country folks use it to stimulate menstrual flow. On the Web various sites also claim that it's good for chest complaints, catarrh, to increase lactation, for bad colds, to aid in kidney function, as an antiparasitic, against dandruff, and, as is clear by now, as "a general cure-all."

*****

SCARLET SAGE
I hesitate to mention so many flowering plants but the fact is that this is the time of year when so many marvelous flowerings are taking place that you just can't ignore them. Back during the winter/dry-season, some weeks it'd be hard to find anything that hadn't been blooming for a long time but ,now, on every walk there are new flowers, new species jumping out demanding attention.

One of the most eye-catching flowering herbs here grows among limestone outcrops along the reservoir road. It's attention-getting because of its flowers, which are so red that on a dark, overcast morning it's hard for the eyes to focus on them. You can see such blossoms at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070831sv.jpg.

This is SALVIA COCCINEA, found throughout tropical America north into the southern US, from coast to coast. Probably its most common English name is Scarlet Sage, though the Scarlet Sage gardeners buy in the spring is a different species, a horticulturally modified plant based on a wild Brazilian species, Salvia splendens. Garden Sage, the one used as a seasoning, is Salvia officinalis.

So, our wild-growing Scarlet Sage is a real sage because it belongs to the genus Salvia. Salvia is a vast genus with over 900 species and most of them are either bright red or bright blue. You know you have a Salvia when your plant is a Mint-Family member whose flowers bear only two stamens, the calyx is divided into distinct upper and lower parts, the leaves are deciduous, and the corolla's upper lip is either rounded or two-lobed.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_polln.htm I provide a diagram showing how sage-flower two stamens bear "levers" that cause the stamens to swivel down to douse a hummingbird's head when the bird's bill is inserted.

*****

FLORA OF NORTH AMERICAN KEYS
North Americans who enjoy identifying their local plants and who know enough basic botany to use identification keys employing technical terms should know that much of the Flora of North America, the FNA, is now accessible online. Only part of the plant families are finished, but some of those are important ones.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/fna.htm I've set up a page with links to each of FNA's family treatments. In each family treatment you can find a detailed description of the family and a key to genera within that family. When you click on a genus name in the key you are sent to a similar page describing that genus and including a key to the species within that genus.

For example, if you're having trouble identifying an oak, on my page click on "Fagaceae," the oaks' family, then the link to Quercus, the oak genus. On the Quercus page you'll find keys for identifying all North American species in the oak genus Quercus.

Among the most useful family treatments now available are the Cactus Family, the Composite or Aster Family, the Sedge Family, the Orchid Family, the Lily Family and the Iris Family.

*****

WANT TO TEACH AN ONLINE NATURE-ORIENTED CLASS?
One of my tasks here at the Reserve has been to set up a "virtual campus" or online school teaching Spanish speakers about sustainable living. The "campus" is actually an extensive and powerful computer program enabling teachers anywhere with an Internet connection to teach classes to students anywhere with an Internet connection.

The program is referred to as Moodle. To my mind it's a wonderful example of something good made possible by the Internet. The Moodle program is "open source," which means that it doesn't belong to anybody. People all over the Earth in many languages contribute to the program, helping to improve it, for free, and use of the program is free, too.

I've set up Moodle on my own website in the hope that people with special knowledge relating to nature will want to develop free courses and make them available at the site. Teachers don't need to have degrees, just enthusiasm for sharing knowledge.

Here are examples of classes I'd love to see someone offer:

To get an idea of how the Moodle platform works, and to browse some sample "classes" I've set up, go to http://www.backyardnature.net/moodle/.

If you'd like to produce a class, drop me a note at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/writejim.htm.

*****

SUSTO
In backcountry Mexico I'm always asking people how they use this and that plant. You'd be surprised how often I'm told that a certain plant, especially if it's aromatic, is used for curing "susto."

The dictionary translates susto as "fear," "shock," or "fright." Since my earliest days of traveling among backcountry folks in Latin America I've realized that susto is really much more than what we Northerners think of as fear, shock or fright. My first published book, On the Road to Tetlama, was about my experiences among a family in San Luis Potosí state, across the mountains from here, with roots in the Nahuatl-speaking culture.

While preparing that book one day as I sat writing next to the family's hut an old woman came trudging up the slope carrying a bouquet of herbs. She was a curandera, a traditional healer, come to cure the family's little girl of susto. The family explained that a tree had fallen trapping the girl's shadow -- not her sun-shadow, but rather a spirit shadow. As the little girl sat in a chair the old woman circled her several times shaking the herbs and brushing the ground with them until the herb's pungent fragrance penetrated the whole area. The plant was some kind of mint. The curandera prayed and the whole ceremony was repeated again and again. Then the curandera left, and the little girl was cured.

Silviano here at the Reserve once was cured from susto he'd gotten by being swept away by a flooding stream. He slept all the time and couldn't eat, so a curandero was sent for. Silviano lay on the ground as the healer poured aguardiente (the local "firewater") around him, outlining his body on the ground. Then Silviano was brushed with branches from the common, white-leafed "Salvia" I told you about earlier, Hyptis albida, which also is a pungent member of the Mint Family. Then dirt dug from inside Silviano's aguardiente-delineated outline was applied to his chest and back, and the whole process was repeated for a second and third time.

It cured Silviano instantly, he says, and he's sad the knowledge of such healing is disappearing these days. Don Gonzalo knows some of the old cures, he says.

We in Western technological society regard experiences such as these as examples of the Placebo Effect, as discussed at http://skepdic.com/placebo.html. In that article we see that placebos often bring about real and substantial cures, and can even remove warts.

Our minds separate us humans from other animals, and our minds demand answers. In pre-science times, to provide answers, superstitions and religions arose from those parts of our minds most able to exercise themselves under primitive conditions, the parts accounting for imagination. People who could best accommodate themselves to the resulting superstition- and religion-permeated societies passed along more genes to us than did the skeptics. The unquestionable powers of placebos must be rooted in that genetic inheritance.

The same way we humans are programmed to benefit from the Placebo Effect, we're programmed to gorge ourselves on high-calorie foods, to obsess about sex, and to gather material goods around us. To our Paleolithic ancestors these predispositions were necessary adaptations. They needed to eat efficiently, to concentrate on high-calorie foods, for their food supply often was limited. From Nature's perspective, nothing was more important for them than sex because, without it, the species faced extinction. If our cave- dwelling ancestors hadn't compulsively gathered supplies for the coming winter, they wouldn't have survived. Today our predispositions for overeating, our fixations on sex, and our obsessions for accumulating material goods are perfectly understandable.

However, understanding the innocent roots of influences that today are destructive doesn't make them any less acceptable.

Nowadays we can discuss the need for dieting, we can understand society's addiction to sexiness, and we can recognize the threat to Life on Earth posed by societies based on materialism.

How long will it be before we can even begin the discussion on whether, and to what extent, we should trade our genetically based predispositions for superstitions and religions for rational, life-confirming science and spirituality?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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