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

September 14, 2007

EXCITEMENT AT THE COMPOST BIN
Last Monday around noon I returned from the market to find several folks standing around the compost bin with body languages saying "Look at that!" When I got there Pancho told me they'd corner a "coralillo," a coral snake. In the Yucatan I got used to coral snakes being nocturnal, and nearly always in the past when people told me they had a coral snake it turned out to be a mimic species, so I didn't get too excited.

However, it turned out to be the real thing. Just to make sure my mind wasn't playing tricks I recited to myself the handy little verse:

Red on yellow,
Will kill a fellow...

And that's what it had. You can see the red bands looking like they were applied atop wider yellow bands at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070914cs.jpg.

It was the Eastern Coral Snake, MICRURUS FULVIUS, which is different from what we had in the Yucatan, which was the Variable Coral Snake, Micrurus diastema. Our Eastern Coral Snake was the same species found in the US Deep South and, as we see, through Texas into eastern and central Mexico. It's described as being "mostly diurnal," meaning that it comes out during the day. Often I've mentioned the advantages of being able to make assumptions about unknown species by extrapolating certain kinds of information already known about other species belonging to the same genus, but here's an example of how making such assumptions can sometimes be dangerous.

I don't particularly enjoy handling venomous snakes but it was clear that this one couldn't remain among the office buildings -- even though it provided a valuable service keeping the mouse population down around the compost heap. Therefore, with the snake's head pinned with a stick, I took him in my hand, snapped the above picture, put him into a two-liter Coke bottle with a cap on it, and gave him to Pancho to release in the mountains, which he did.

A funny thing about that picture: When I downloaded it into my computer, for an instant I thought I surely had the wrong picture, for the snake I remembered grabbing had certainly been at least three times longer and thicker than the teeny little thing shown in my hand...

*****

BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS ARRIVED
During the winter dry season the most common bird species out in the scrub is definitely the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Sometimes so many buzzy TZEEEER sounds come from around you that it's funny.

Gnatcatchers have been absent here the last few months. That's kind of surprising because the distribution map in my "Howell's" -- as birders refer to the two-inch-thick tome that's the last word on Mexican birds -- shows the species as a permanent resident here. Plus the similar Black-tailed Gnatcatcher also is a permanent resident. Still, I haven't seen a single one of either species all "summer."

In all but the cooler parts of North America Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are common though many birders who just watch species in their backyards may not know them. Gnatcatchers like treetops, plus they have small, slender beaks for catching insects, so they don't find birdfeeders holding seeds so attractive. You can see nice pictures of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers at http://www.1000birds.com/latest20050502BGG.htm.

Despite their being so abundant here, it's always a pleasure hearing their buzzes among the Sweet Acacias, and seeing their long tails flitting through the trees' frilly, diffuse leaves.

*****

NEON SKIMMER DRAGONFLY
Sunday a bit after dawn I was walking along the reservoir road when I saw a dragonfly species I've wanted to photograph ever since I got here. Always in the past they've flown away as soon as I started approaching but this time a chilly rain had fallen in the night so maybe now he'd be too cold fly.

In fact I was able to get so close that my camera couldn't focus any closer, and still he didn't move. You can see the resulting masterpiece at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070914df.jpg.

That's the Neon Skimmer, LIBELLULA CROCEIPENNIS.. They're so common along our reservoir's banks that I suspect the area's kids suppose that dragonflies are generally red. As a kid in Kentucky I always thought of dragonflies as being mainly greenish or bluish.

*****

DEVIL'S CLAWS FROM PRETTY FLOWERS
Along weedy roadsides nowadays there's a knee-high herb graced with strikingly pretty clusters of drooping, 1.5-inch-long blossoms, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070914my.jpg.

Notice how each flower's corolla is provided with a large lower lip where pollinating insects such as bees can land, then follow yellow nectar guides to where the nectar is. The entire plant, including the flowers, is invested with gland-topped hairs, giving the parts a velvety, sticky feeling. In the picture you can see debris and tiny insects adhering to all parts. This is an unusual plant, and assigning it to its family makes a good exercise.

One reason for that is that the species is MARTYNIA ANNUA, a member of the Martynia Family, the Martyniaceae, which isn't a well-known family. Often plants in the family are called "Devil's Claws" because of the 2-hooked form of their seed pods. The fruits are well adapted for dispersal by large mammals, maybe even mammals long extinct. A whole page just about the hitchhiking abilities of fruits in this family is at http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ww0801.htm.

Martynia annua is native to Mexico and Central America but its excellent dispersal mechanism has helped it spread throughout the tropical world as a weed. I read that "In novelty shops of Mexico the pods of Martynia annua are hooked around a central disk to form a clever decorative sunflower."

In India the plant has been known long enough for it to constitute part of the traditional pharmacopia. Its leaf juice is gargled for sore throats, oil from its fruits and seeds is smeared onto scabies infections, a paste of the seeds and fruits is thought to be effective for bites of venomous insects and scorpions, and more.

*****

"HOJA DE XALAPA" WORM TREATMENT
Speaking of doctoring, I go barefooted a lot and when you do that in the tropics it's a good idea to give yourself a good de-worming every now and then. Certain intestinal worms can enter through minor cuts and abrasions on your feet.

Therefore, last Saturday morning when I passed by a dealer in medicinal herbs plying his wares on a narrow side street next to Jalpan's marketplace I asked what was on hand for expelling intestinal worms. You can see the fellow I spoke to, on the right, and his bags of herbs displayed in bags atop wooden crates at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070914mh.jpg.

A closer-up shot showing some of the bags' contents is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070914mi.jpg.

The instant the dealer knew what I wanted he thrust his hand into a bag of brown, curled-up leaves and began telling me what to do with them:

"This is Hoja de Xalapa, also called Hoja de Cigarillo," he said. "Each morning for nine days brew some leaves in one and a half liters of hot water, and drink it."

Naturally I wanted to know exactly which plant the leaves were from the names he gave weren't very useful. In Mexico the name Hoja de Xalapa usually is applied to the pretty Four-O'clock that used to attract so many hummingbird moths at my last base in Mississippi. The leaves the man sold me weren't that, and the literature doesn't even mention Hoja de Cigarillo, which means "Cigarette Leaf."

In my solar oven I brewed up the first dosage and the first sip of the stuff convinced me that it would probably rid me of all intestinal parasites, tasting as bitter as you'd expect a powerful de-wormer to taste.

A few minutes after drinking the brew my stomach began feeling a bit cramped, and I didn't feel good the whole following night. I thought I might be getting the cold that's been going around because of all the coolish, drizzly days we've been having. However, soon after taking my second dose the next day the same cramps returned. The next morning I had diarrhea and didn't feel good at all.

I decided that if any worm could withstand that stuff and hang on through all my intenstinal turbulence it was welcome to stay. I abandoned the treatment.

I suspect that a lot of traditional treatments are like that. They may work but it's always hard to judge what a particular dosage should be, especially since in natural populations there's always variability in everything, including chemical composition. And who knows how long the leaves had been dried, what effect the drying had, and what chemicals were in the leaves other than the de-worming agent? And maybe the guy didn't even know what he was selling.

I still don't know what plant it was, though some fruits were included in the medicine bag I came home with, and they clearly belonged to a plant in the Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae.

*****

CORN, SQUASH, BEANS AND QUELITE
Across from a store where sometimes I buy my bananas there's a cornfield, a view into which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070914qu.jpg.

Notice that the corn is much taller than what is grown in fields up north. I held the camera about five feet above the ground and you can see how the corn towers above the lens. At the picture's lower left the large, roundish leaves belong to squash plants. If you look closely below the squash leaves you can see trifoliate blades of bean vines. The purplish plants among the corn stalks are AMARANTHUS HYPOCHONDRIACUS, often known in English as Prince's Feather, while people around here call it Quelite. Quelite is a general name used for several similar potherbs. Amaranthus is the amaranth genus.

Before the corn got so tall, when the Quelite was knee-high with a more compact inflorescence and with leaves more succulent and closer together, it was perfect for being picked and cooked just as northerners cook wild poke or turnip and spinach greens.

Thus Quelite is growing among the corn not as a weed but as part of a sophisticated, traditional food-growing system. Don't forget that the bean-vine's roots bear nodules with mycorrhiza, which produce nitrogen for the other plants. This shaggy-looking garden space is very efficiently providing four nutritious and tasty food items.

The other day I visited a hut in the mountains where the señora was busily stripping Quelite leaves from purple stalks her little boy had brought home, surely from a cornfield like this. Back on the farm in Kentucky we had Amaranthus hybridus -- thus a member of the same genus as Quilite -- growing weedily in our garden and around the barn, and it also could have provided us with nutritious greens. However, we called it Pigweed and would have laughed, if not felt insulted, if someone had suggested eating it.

*****

ROADCUT FAULT ALONG THE RESERVOIR
As you might expect of limestone rocks that used to constitute a calcium-rich, muddy ocean floor but now outcrop in a mountain-valley roadcut, rock strata around here display a lot of fracturing, tilting and faulting. The other day I walked past the fault you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070914ft.jpg.

The fault line runs from one side of the picture to the other. Notice that layers below the fault line seem to lie horizontally but above the line layers not only dip steeply to the left but also have been twisted relative to the lower ones. Also observe the highly fractured, crumbly nature of the stone at the fault line itself. This is where rock shattered and crumbled as the two rock face ground against one another.

At http://www.iris.edu/gifs/animations/faults.htm you can see simple animations demonstrating the movements of four kinds of fault.

Even with the help of that page I don't really know what kind of fault is shown in the picture. Did the slippage take place because of pressure applied to both sides, or because the two sides were being pulled apart? Even though it looks like the strata above the fault line scraped over the stable lower strata, we can't assume that the lower horizontal layers were horizontal when the fault occurred. Often around here you see layers that once were horizontal (they all started out horizontal) but now are vertical. In some large roadcuts you even see strata so curved that on one end or the other the older strata has to lie atop the younger. Of course a basic premise of geology is that the deeper you go, the older the sediment becomes, and limestone once was sediment.

Whatever kind of fault this is, it must have fractured a very long time ago, since now our part of Mexico is quiet, geologically speaking, people saying that they never feel the temblors that are so common farther south.

*****

VICTOR'S PIG FEED
The other day during a banana-buying trip my friend Victor stopped his truck for a chat. He's spent some time working illegally "on the Other Side," has a smidgeon of English, and likes to practice when he can. I asked how things were going.

"It's getting harder," he said. "The price of feed for my pigs is skyrocketing and I don't know how I'll feed them. They say it's because after NAFTA Mexican businesses started importing most of their grain from the US. Because of your agricultural subsidies, big machines and relatively cheap fertilizers, it's cheaper to grow grain up there. But now up there they're making gasohol from their grain and that's driving the price way up, even for our locally grown corn... "

Victor is one of the best ranchers around. He grows tomatoes organically for sale, fertilizing them with his pig manure. His whole operation falls apart if he doesn't have affordable pig feed.

"I may have to go back north," he said, shaking his head, and I've heard him say how he misses his family and the countryside when he goes north. "But if I can't make it here doing the very best I can, what's the alternative?"

*****

PIG FEED, QUELITE & MAGIC
Victor's expensive pig-feed represents a working-out of the Globalization Paradigm while the above-mentioned Quelite growing in the cornfield with squash and beans represents the Diversity/Sustainability Paradigm.

I know that in some places people are going into organic farming, communities of vegetarians are forming, and the back-to-Earth cachet sells items in malls. Still, it's clear that in relative terms nearly everywhere the Globalization Paradigm is supplanting the Diversity/Sustainablility Paradigm.

Why is that? Who made the decision that it's better to fill WalMart with items made in China instead of locally produced items?

Of course, no one made these decisions. It just works out that plastic bowls made in China and shipped to the US are cheaper than those made in local shops, and US corn is cheaper in Mexico than Mexican corn.

However, the Globalization Paradigm is not sustainable. Globalization provides dividends in the short term because it continually shifts the costs of environmental protection to other countries, and takes advantage of lower wages in other countries. Years ago my mother lost her factory job in Kentucky when the factory she worked in moved to Mexico. Now many Mexican factories are moving to China.

The end result of this process is an Earth where every region has had its air, water and soil ravaged. The end result is that traditional societies with enduring values and customs are replaced with populations in which unfulfilled individuals spend nearly all their time trying to acquire more money, more possessions, and more indulgences of their appetites -- all activities that degrade and destroy the biosphere even further.

The processes in which Globalization is rooted are natural. It's natural for a biological organism to gather and consume resources, thinking mainly of its own comfort and security. It's Darwinian "survival-of- the-fittest" for business people to spend their money so that it benefits themselves without regard for their actions. When George Bush attacked oil-rich Iraq, it was natural.

It takes something magical to stop biological organisms from behaving naturally. But, magic is hard. Before the magic of profound insights occurs, one needs solid information about the surrounding world. However, information is precious, and the world is full of smoke and mirrors. Before the magic of love and compassion can occur one must have feelings for many things, yet having feelings means being vulnerable. Before the magic of any profound and fundamental change in a human can take place there must be a spiritual awakening, but awakening takes effort, and it's easier to embrace pre-packaged religions.

Still, the Diversity/Sustainability Paradigm will keep us and the Earth alive, while the Globalization Paradigm offers a recipe for planetary death.

All we can do is to hope for magic.

The blossoming of Nature around us all the time offers the paradigm for the kind of magic we need.

For, Nature extravagantly creates diversity, when She'd need to invest much fewer resources maintaining a deserted Universe. She is always experimental and gushy with enthusiasm, even though universal non-action would be less trouble. She could have everything uniform and neat but, instead, at all corners of the Universe and in every dimension, we espy Nature lustily transcending Herself, practicing every kind of magic.

Again, magic becomes available to humans through the agencies of information, of sensitization, and spirituality.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim