JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

September 21, 2007

RUDOLFO'S HOLLERS
Last Saturday I hitched a ride with Rudolfo making his weekly weekend visit with his family in San Juan del Río across the mountains to the west in the arid highlands. This was a special weekend because last Sunday, September 16th, was Mexican Independence Day. You should have seen all the trucks and cars flying Mexican flags with their red, white and green colors, the colors, people say, of the tomatoes, onions and chili peppers of their hotsauces.

The big moment of Mexican Independence Day is El Grito, which translates to "The Shout," the yell or call, or, as a Kentuckian might say, the "holler." The first Grito was given in 1810 here in Querétaro State when a priest called for Mexicans to revolt against Spain with the fiery words "Long live religion! Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe! Long live the Americas and death to the corrupt government!"

Rudolfo told me how his family would celebrate El Grito:

"Tonight we'll visit some friends' house and eat some tacos and drink a little, and then at 11:30 or so we'll give our own Grito, though the purest Grito is when you're in the town square and the Governor or even the President speaks from the balcony and the speech ends with the Grito."

Of course I had to ask what people yell and how they do it, so Rudolfo showed me, but he's a hopeless romantic so he didn't holler about politics or religion but hollered something like "¡Viva the indomitable spirit of the human will! ¡Viva friendship and love! and on and on, ending of course with "¡Viva México!"

Our little red Volkswagen Bug sped around unending hairpin curves climbing and descending walls of enormous canyons. Usually across the canyons at least one rainstorm loomed in plain view silently downpouring white torrents that never seemed to catch us. Because of a short in the wiring the little VW beeped each time we hit a bump, and with ebullient Huapango music on the CD, and moist wind fragrant with herbage of the heart- rendingly green and shadowy mountain slope and the odor of woodsmoke and toasting tortillas from roadside huts gushing through the windows somehow it was delicious hearing Rudolfo's Grito ending with "¡Viva México!"

*****

SHELLFLOWERS FLOWERING
To keep my motion sickness under control I had to watch the road constantly but, still, once we were onto moist slopes, splashes of red and yellow began catching my eye and despite myself I'd turn my head trying to see what it was. It was one of Mexico's prettiest wildflowers blossoming among roadside weeds. You can see its spectacular, five-inch-across blossom here.

This was TIGRIDIA PAVONIA, sometimes called MEXICAN SHELLFLOWER, a bulb-producing member of the Iris Family. Species in the genus Tigridia are generically referred to as tiger-flowers. Tigridia pavonia is found from about here to Honduras, plus it's invasive in other tropical countries.

Anything this pretty and arising from a bulb is bound to have been tinkered with horticulturally, and that's the case here. Lilac-, yellow- and pure-white-blossomed varieties have been developed, as you can see at http://www.floriana.ws/fotocat1/Tigridia_pavonia_in_var.jpg.

A distinguishing feature of Tigridia species, which you can see in the first picture above, is that the stamens' filaments (the sticklike parts atop which pollen-producing anthers are affixed) join into a slender column at the blossom's center that conspicuously extends above the corolla. Atop the column three large anthers tilt away from one another.

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HIGUERAS ON SUNDAY MORNING
When a certain mountain ridge is crossed near Camargo it's amazing how quickly the world changes from moist, chilly, mostly-pine forest to arid semi-desert with widely spaced, low, spiny shrubs and cacti. Last Saturday we passed by the spot I wrote about in my February 23rd Newsletter, for this time I wanted to explore a new area. I told Rudolfo to stop whenever he saw any kind of road or trail leading off into the desert, and that's what he did.

We stopped before a narrow, freshly asphalted road that for a mile or so snaked up a barren ridge. At the crest I followed the ridge away from the road and got my tent set up just in time for dusk. How magnificent are stars seen from the desert! At dusk Scorpio and Sagittarius were high. The next morning, rising over the eastern ridge, Venus shined with astonishing brilliance. Later my computer told me that it glowed with an apparent magnitude of -4.5, which is very bright, since the brightest possible for Venus is -4.7. The brightest star, Sirius, is only -1.47. The lower the number, the brighter the object. The full Moon is -12.6 and the Sun itself is -26.73. The rating system is explained at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apparent_magnitude.

That Sunday morning I descended to the valley floor and hiked into the little town of Higueras wedged between steep, sparsely vegetated slopes. On this Mexican Independence Day Higueras was festive and soccer was being played in the town's athletic field, one team wearing bright jerseys sporting the Bancomex name (a Mexican bank), the other's bearing the words Office Depot, in English. You can see the little town, its stone church atop the hill, soccer players in the soccer field, and the big, high-roofed basketball/ theater structure beside the mostly dry river bed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921hi.jpg.

Though Higueras means "fig trees," I didn't see any edible-fig trees there. However, very common was the ornamental fig Ficus benjamina from India, which produces pea-sized figs with little taste. Also prominent were eucalyptuses from Australia and Brazilian Pepper Trees from South America. To top that list of non-natives off, the most common bird was the European House Sparrow.

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BRAZILIAN PEPPER TREES GONE WILD
A narrow gravel road beyond town led a few kilometers down a descending valley with a modest stream flowing in its bed. Brazilian Pepper Trees had spread from town down the valley and they were in flower. In the Mexican uplands you can't miss this species because it's planted abundantly as street trees and often escapes into natural areas. Leaves and flowers are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921sc.jpg.

Brazilian Pepper Trees are SCHINUS MOLLE and belong to the same family as do Poison Ivy and the sumacs, the Anacardiaceae, usually known as the Cashew Family. If you think about it, sumacs have pinnately compound leaves like the pepper tree's in the picture, and dense clusters of pale, tiny flowers as well. BB to pea-size, rose-colored fruits develop from the flowers. The tree's drooping, limber branch-tips and feathery leaves are distinctive. The leaves are aromatic when crushed. Male flowers occur on one tree, female on another (plants are dioecious).

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"LITTLE MARVELS"
I arrived in the semi-desert too late in the rainy season to "see the desert in bloom." Especially the many cacti bore brown, desiccated corollas or no corollas at all atop swelling ovaries slowly maturing into fruits.

Still, one wildflower species was absolutely stunning, especially in the morning's brilliant sunlight. You can see a particularly handsome colony spectacularly abloom on a talus slope below a roadcut at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921mv.jpg.

I'm pretty sure this is a member of the genus MIRABILIS, but I'm not sure which species. Mirabilis is the Four-o'clock genus. You can see how similar the flower structure is to your own garden Four-o'clocks at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921mw.jpg.

Mexicans call members of this genus Maravillas or Maravillitas, which means "Marvels," or "Little Marvels." It's a decent name because you do want to just sit and marvel at how sunlight glows in the flowers. Even the Latin Mirabilis means "wonderful."

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SEEPS & SPRINGS
A special thing about the valley occupied by Higueras is the river which, even though most of the time it's hardly more than an ankle-deep trickle, provides water in an arid land. Moreover, here and there seeps and springs issue from the valley's slopes.

In one place a roadcut severed an underground stream causing a large, moist, dark-stained spot to form. There was no running water, just moistness, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921ws.jpg.

Down lower another subterranean stream emerged from where the river had cut into the slope, but this time water emerged more vigorously, hundreds of little trickles uniting into a flow about equivalent to a faucet turned on full force. From a nearby stand of bamboo someone had whittled a little trough enabling passersby to easier drink from the seepage, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921bw.jpg.

Often, especially in limestone territory, I ignore such water sources because one never knows where the water has just come from. Water can travel quickly for long distances in underground caves, for instance, without ever being filtered at all. Maybe what gushes from a spring just a few minutes ago leaked from a cattle pond. When emerging water is warm and there's no geothermal activity in the area it's certainly been surface water recently.

However, at this seepage I could see that all the water emerged very slowly from clay, and it was cold. It was as healthy as water could be. It tasted good, with a slightly clayey flavor, so I filled my bottle with it, glad for my body to assimilate minerals from such a pretty little valley.

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AN ABANDONED MERCURY MINE
At midday I was looking for shade so when I saw an abandoned adobe hut across the valley I followed burro and goat trails toward it, the actual road to it long severed in several places by landslides and washouts.

The structure was roofless and at midday the sun was so directly overhead that the building afforded hardly any shade at all. A cluster of mesquites rose nearby so I headed there and found that they hid the entrance to an old mine. Gold, silver... ? I tried to remember my old geology-class thinking patterns. The mine was exactly where two geological formations met, one side of the shaft being against limestone, the other against darker, crumbly rocks I couldn't identify. Then I saw it, the red streak across white limestone shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921hg.jpg.

The only mineral I could remember with that dark, blood-red color is cinnabar, a mineral composed of equal numbers of atoms of mercury and sulfur, as shown by its chemical formula HgS. I'd heard of mercury mines in these mountains, and here was one of them.

To confirm my suspicion I examined the shattered rock tailings pushed into the valley below the mine and there I found many rocks coated with the same bloody color, and a few pebbles of apparently pure cinnabar. You can see a rock from the tailings at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921hh.jpg.

Long ago people learned how to separate mercury from rocks like these by crushing and then heating them until the mercury evaporated, the fumes being distilled almost like alcohol. Since mercury is a metal that is liquid at room temperature it's not surprising that it evaporates at a relatively low heat. You might enjoy reading about mercury, which is quite a remarkable element, and a dangerous one, too, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_(element).

Near the abandoned mine stood the claim marker claiming rights to all land within 300 meters. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921mm.jpg.

*****

SMOOTH MESQUITES
I'm an old hand at escaping the desert's midday sun beneath frilly-leafed mesquite trees. Sunday, after reading awhile, I leaned back and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921mq.jpg.

Those are mesquite leaves on a spiny, burro-chewed branch. Note the leave's curious configuration. Each leaf is doubly compound, the first division creating two featherlike leaflets atop the petiole, and then each of those leaflets is divided into numerous sub- leaflets, or pinnules. The Y-shaped form with frilly Y-arms is very unusual among tree leaves.

Something about this mesquite tree seemed different from others I've known farther north and farther south. It turns out that our Queretaro mesquites are PROSOPIS LAEVIGATA, sometimes known as Smooth Mesquites. The species so abundant in the US arid Southwest as well as in the Yucatan and southern Mexico is Prosopis juliflora, which has larger, longer leaves. Our P. laevigata seems to be a central-Mexican endemic.

Mesquite, like the abundant and useful Sweet Acacia or Huisache around Jalpan, often is treated as a trash tree. That's a shame because all mesquites are wonderful, not only for the delicious shade they offer at midday. First, they're members of the Bean Family so their roots bear fungus-inhabited nodules (mycorrhiza) that enrich the soil with nitrogen.

Also, mesquite legumes can be dried, ground and used as nutritious flour. A study analyzing mesquite-legume flour found that the "Functional characteristics of whole mesquite pod flour were similar to those of bean flour (Phaseolus vulgaris), and superior to those of whole wheat flour (Triticum sp)." An abstract of that study can be reviewed online here.  

But mesquite provides great firewood. You can't beat it for the kind of ranchero-style barbecuing done around here. That's one reason our Prosopis laevigata is on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species, as shown at http://www.iucnredlist.org/search/details.php/32939/summ.

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BALLOON-VINES
Climbing into the mesquites was a vine with trifoliate leaves and eye-catching fruits, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921cd.jpg.

This is CARDIOSPERMUM HALICACABUM, called Balloon-vine in English, a member of the Soapberry Family, the Sapindaceae, a family not well represented beyond the tropics. Another species you might know in the family is the Golden-rain-tree from Asia, sometimes planted as a street tree and also producing papery-walled fruits.

In the picture I'm holding one of the Balloon-vine's fruit pods from which one side has been removed so you can see how the immature seed is suspended inside the bladder. This is a beautiful example of how a fruit can be adapted for wind dispersal. Bladders fall to the ground, perhaps being blown a good distance from the vine as they fall, then wind can roll them even farther.

Balloon-vines are native to tropical America but it's planted in northern climes where it dies back each winter, and is considered an annual ornamental. In Mississippi it was a weed in my garden and climbed lustily along fences.

*****

SPITTLEBUGS
During recent days we've had several nights of rain, then the next morning sunbeams would slant in from over the eastern mountains lighting up grassblades tipped with water droplet and acacia leaflets shiny and bejeweled. On many grassblades also there have been spittlebugs enshrouded with white foam, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921sp.jpg.

Folks here call the white, spittle-like blobs angelitos, which means "little angels," and that makes sense when you see the glowing, white globules held aloft on their grassblades.

Despite gracing spittlebug spit-blobs with such a benign name, Don Gonzalo also calls them a plaga, a sort of plague on the plants they appear on. For, inside each cluster of bubbles there's an immature insect, a nymph, with a slender, strawlike proboscis inserted into the plant's conducting tissue, robbing the plant of its juices. In the above picture you can barely make out something dark in the blob's center, and that's the nymph.

Insect nymphs constitute the middle stage of incomplete insect metamorphosis. Remember that the stages of complete metamorphosis undergone by such insects as butterflies and moths are:

EGG >> LARVA >> PUPA >> ADULT

The stages of incomplete metamorphosis are:

EGG >> NYMPH >> ADULT

Insect nymphs are similar to adults, except that they're smaller, have no wings or their wings aren't yet fully developed, and the nymph usually has a paler color than the adult.

That's the way it is with spittlebug nymphs. They look a lot like their adult stages, except that they're smaller, wingless, and paler. Several photos of spittlebugs in their nymphal and adult forms are shown at http://bugguide.net/node/view/145/bgimage.

The adults are often called froghoppers because their blunt heads have goggly eyes, and they are very powerful hoppers. They're closely related to cicadas and aphids. Other insect groups with incomplete metamorphosis, and therefore with nymphal stages, include dragonflies, grasshoppers, "true bugs" such as stinkbugs, and termites and earwigs.

*****

THOUGHTS BENEATH THE MESQUITE
So what do you do at midday in the desert when it's 95° and sunlight on white limestone hills is blindingly bright? I found a mesquite tree with a breeze and finished a book from Jalpan's library about Mexico's Cristero Rebellion. Now I understand better how this 1926-1929 conflict between the Mexican government and the Catholic Church grew to the point that 90,000 Mexicans died violently and up to 5% of Mexico's population fled to the US. The rebellion is outlined at http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/history/jtuck/jtcristero1.html.

The interesting point is that the fervent, understandable but very disorganized outrage of Mexico's religious people was encouraged by landowners and business people. Encouragement took the form of channeling arms and funds to the Cristeros, and by publishing inflammatory propaganda. Landowners sought to destabilize the government because the new Mexican Constitution of 1917 provided for the acquisition, dismantling and redistribution of very large landholdings to small, rural communities as part of the ejido (eh-HEE-do) program. Ejidos are explained at http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-ejido.html.

What fascinates me is that this same theme occurs again and again throughout human history. The theme has two parts. First, a tiny minority stirs up and directs unfocused discontent among the masses. Second, consequences of the resulting violence turn out to be disastrous for the masses, but advantageous to the minority.

Even before the Cristero Rebellion Mexicans experienced the full force of the theme when a tiny band of outside-funded Spanish conquistadores manipulated the discontent of the Aztecs' neighboring tribes and lead them into rebellion against the Aztecs. The results were that the tiny Spanish minority ended up dominating not only the Aztecs but eventually nearly all of Mexico's indigenous peoples.

It was the same with the Nazis -- their funding by German industry, the way they stirred up the mass's patriotism and appealed to their less noble impulses, the unceasing program of misinformation and propaganda, and the subsequent disaster.

Some would say we needn't look so far back or so far away for other examples.

The historical periodicity, the uncanny way the same elemental forces converge again and again in so many strange and unforeseen permutations... It would be pretty the way a Bach fugue is pretty with its surprising variations on basic themes, were the theme's workings-out not always so very tragic.

That's what I saw so clearly when last Sunday I put my book down beneath the mesquite near Higueras.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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