JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: with notes made during a visit to
Nevado de Toluca Volcano, México State, MÉXICO

October 8, 2007

LEAVING JALPAN (Querétaro State)
On Saturday, September 29th, I was reminded how easy it is to leave a place you've been rooted in for a year, or even a lifetime, I suppose. An hour before dawn you gather bags you packed the day before, you hike down to the main road, and then a car comes with two friends you've been talking to about this trip. Within five minutes Jalpan is a scattering of lights in the valley below and, for all anyone knows, this is the last time you'll ever travel this road.

Months ago plans for this first stage of my current move began falling together when I heard that one of my coworkers, Gabriel, was from Toluca, a fair-size city across the mountains west of Mexico City, in Mexico State. Rising above Toluca is the impressive volcano called Nevado Toluca, which reaches ±15,197 feet (±4632 meters), higher than both California's Mt. Whitney and Switzerland's Matterhorn, but only fourth in height among Mexico's peaks. Several times in years passed I've camped on Nevado Toluca and now I want to do it again. You may enjoy my birding notes from a visit made to Nevado Toluca in October, 1996, posted online at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexbirds/08toluca.htm.

When we arrive in Toluca around 10 AM only the volcano's lower slopes are visible, the rest being cloaked in clouds. Gabriel wants to camp with me the first night so his sister drops us off at the park's entrance. It's possible to drive on a gravel road to near the summit and actually enter the crater, which many people do, but we want to hike. It's all upslope, maybe 16 miles or so. Near the top, cold and with dusk approaching, we both suffer from the altitude, Gabriel with a headache and racing heart, me trying to manage one attack after another of hypoglycemia by gorging on animal crackers but still I get dizzy, disoriented, and have the chills.

We're planning to camp inside the crater but darkness comes too soon and a storm is brewing. Near the ranger station at 13,287 feet (4050 m) I finish setting up my tent just as rain with lots of hail and wind hits. Gabriel's tent isn't ready so he abandons it and dives into mine. I haven't had time to trench around my tent or tie things down. In fact, my fingers are so numb from the cold that I couldn't do those things if I wanted. In the night it rains hard and the wind keeps blowing like crazy. Water drains beneath our tent's floor so we end up lying in icy pools and twice I have to go out to pull the tent's fly back in place, getting soaked each time. At dawn Sunday morning the tent is blotchy white with ice.

*****

SUN AND WIND
It's not as bad as it sounds. At dawn Sunday morning Gabriel is exuberant and I can't take my eyes off the valley below as golden sunlight floods over the ridge.

After visiting the crater Gabriel hitches a ride downslope, for Monday is a workday for him, back in Jalpan. As he leaves I have one thing on my mind: If I don't dry my sleeping bag and clothes, tonight will be a real mess. Immediately I pack things up, wet as they are, and hike a mile or so to an exposed, boulder-strewn slope with abundant sun and wind. Soon all my wet things are spread on pink rhyolite boulders flat against the cold but intense sunlight, with the wind whistling and whooshing all around.

The clothing dries fast but for the rest of the day every half hour I need to turn and fluff the sleeping bag. By the time slate-gray clouds start boiling over the ridge above me, cutting off the sun, the sleeping bag is crisp and dry.

On that isolated slope there's so much sun and wind that somehow as my stuff dries out, so do I. Hours of cross-legged perching on a pink, hippopotamus-size boulder becomes the ceremony needed to formally make the transition from my Sierra Gorda Life to what comes now.

You can see the view of the volcano from my pink perch at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008nt.jpg.

In that picture the cluster of white buildings to the peak's right is the ranger station near where we spent our first night. Notice how the tree line begins just below the station. Nearly all the vegetation from the tree line to where only bare rock outcrops is covered with clumps of clumpgrass, probably the genus Trisetum. Each clumpgrass tuft is topped with open panicles of straw-colored, fruiting spikelets the size of mosquitoes. Buzzy sunlight explodes in each of the millions and millions of spikelets on that slope as cuttingly thin, icy wind shakes them as if trying to get the attention of the whole Universe. Immobile on my boulder, painfully blue sky above, hard cold wind, and all these hysterical, sun-exploded clumpgrass spikelets...

A picture loses the animation and you can't see how sunlight erupts in the spikelets, but there's a picture taken upslope from atop my pink boulder at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008sk.jpg.

As with my sleeping bag, atop that boulder throughout the day I get lighter the way that mud gets lighter as it turns to dust; like the wet clots inside my sleeping bag, now my interior clottings of Sierra-Gorda routines, job descriptions, co-worker and friend interdependencies, institutional status... all come undone, shatter, blow away in icy wind as ebullient sunlight imparts its paradigms to me.

And the main paradigm the sunlight shares with me is the one based on the fact that pure, joyous sunlight is a concoction of a rainbow of colors: Diversity refines itself into brilliance: Empathy and love for all things reveal unity.

*****

BELOW THE TREE LINE
There's a problem with enlightenment: At the end of the day you're still in a human body with its uncompromising hankerings for food, water, warmth and other things our hormones and genes program us for. This is why the natural next step after enlightenment is extinction. All that keeps an honest philosopher alive is love and/or curiosity and/or a highly developed aesthetic sense along with a notion of Nature as Creator-art.

On that wind-and sunlight-crazed slope last Monday I have all I want, except for water. As soon as the ice melts from my tent fly I head downslope. Once below the timber line I locate a spring and erect my tent on a parklike ridge with widely scattered pines and more clumpgrass. You can see the view from my tent door at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008ts.jpg

The pines are Pinus hartwegii, sometimes known as Timberline Montezuma Pines.

With that fine view, sitting in my tent as it glows in the afternoon sunlight, a mellow warmth overcomes me, almost the opposite to the feeling of all that sun and wind above the tree line. What a pleasing thing is a long afternoon nap in that glowing, peaceful spot.

*****

THE RIVULET
On Tuesday morning I follow the little stream located the day before, a rivulet I suppose, up a valley far enough to feel confident that the water is pure. Warmed by the morning sun I drink icy water, eat an apple and some smashed tostados, and can't imagine anything tasting better. The water effervesces with its own internal energy. The whole morning I sit on a log next to the rivulet admiring textural variations on the simple themes of stark shadows and dazzling light -- sunlight and shadow now inside gracefully arching clumpgrass tufts, now on black, blocky pine bark, now among the fuzzy hairs investing a thistle, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008tf.jpg.

I'd almost forgotten what can be remembered in a place and a time like this. Routines make us efficient and useful, and they help define our identities but, like highways bypassing the countryside's landmarks, they steer us away from what feeds the soul.

Something of the rivulet's icy water gets into me, and it feels young, pink and supple. The yellow apple's taste agreeably mingles with the oily, toasted-corn flavor of tostados. The blue sky hangs cloudless and deep. My skin feels the wind's iciness even as it tingles in the intense sunlight. As I sit on a log all this gets inside me and somehow twists and turns, rearranging my interior into something that feels healthy, hopeful, and pretty.

I think that here I'm describing a transformative process that park and reserve administrators struggle to claim as "a value of wilderness" when they put together funding proposals. I'm not sure this ever can be done using words reputable enough to be received gladly by the folks higher up.

*****

CLUMPGRASS
Timberline Montezuma Pines are the only trees along the rivulet and surely 99% of the ground here is mantled with the clumpgrass I'm thinking must be the genus Trisetum. The way this grass dominates slopes it's clear that it's exquisitely adapted for exactly this habitat. See one frost-bleached, sun-drenched clump at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008ch.jpg.

One of clumpgrass's adaptive features is that it creates its own microhabitat. The deeper you penetrate into a clump the more the tender inner sprouts protect one another from intense sunlight and wind.

Similarly, fire quickly incinerates a clump's outermost leaves and panicles but, deep inside the clump, stems are so closely packed that little air can circulate among them. Fire reaching there gets snuffed out because of lack of oxygen. The burnt clump will be a black nubbin, but soon green shoots will emerge from it, and a clump with gyrating spikelets will appear again.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008cg.jpg you see the top of a roadcut where clumpgrass clumps have fallen away revealing their extensive, interconnected networks of fibrous roots. Above the dislodged clumps notice how clump roots keep the soil intact, even as soil erodes from beneath zone of root penetration. Clumpgrass obviously does an amazing job stabilizing soil.

*****

A MIXED FLOCK FORAGING
The tent makes a great wildlife blind. At dawn last Wednesday just as sunlight began flooding the top halves of surrounding pines, three or four Western Bluebirds -- permanent residents here -- arrived at an open, flat clearing near my tent. They perched on low limbs and atop tall weeds, swooping onto the ground when something worth eating was spotted.

When sunlight flooded the whole area, five to seven Yellow-eyed Juncos joined the bluebirds, mostly foraging for weed seeds on or near the ground. The whole mixed flock was a diffuse, informal affair seldom with more than three or four birds visible at one time, each bird giving its neighbors plenty of space.

When the air warmed a bit two Townsend's Warblers streaked into a chest-high pine right beside my tent, one chasing the other as if it were Spring courtship time, not the beginning of their overwintering period after spending summer somewhere between southeastern Alaska and the US Pacific Northwest.

About the same time two Hairy Woodpeckers peek-called, briefly one chased the other around a pine trunk, one flew off but the other remained to forage among the orange "misteletoes" heavily infesting all the slope's pines. Then a tiny Mexican Chickadee silently and furtively slinked through a little pine near my tent. Throughout all the above activity American Robins nasally clucked in treetops all around, though I never saw one.

For about an hour the mixed flock put on a circus in and around the sunlight-flooded clearing. But then suddenly the sound of a logging truck intruded. Every bird changed what he was doing and most flew to perches to see better, cocking their heads this way and that. The truck came no closer than a hundred yards but it was close enough to cause the flock to dissolve before I realized what had happened. Into the icy, pine- scented air drifted the odor of hot motor oil.

And then there was silence, except for the wind.

*****

THREE VARIATIONS ON AN ERYNGO THEME
In the picture taken upslope from my pink boulder at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008sk.jpg you can see a few scattered thistlelike plants scattered among the clumpgrasses. Those plants can be called eryngoes, which is a general term for species of the genus Eryngium, which is placed in the Parsley Family, the Umbelliferae. Over 200 eryngo species are known, and they're most abundant in the Mediterranean area.

You can see a close-up of three fruiting heads the size of my hand with outstretched fingers, on knee-high plants growing beside my tent at the second camp, the one above the tree line and with pink boulders, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008e1.jpg.

In Oscar Sanchez Sanchez's La Flora del Valle de Mexico that plant keys out to ERYNGIUM MONOCEPHALUM. The Latin name translates to "One-headed Eryngo." Eryngium monocephalum displays the basic features that make a plant an eryngo.

First, many tiny flowers are clustered into oval heads subtended by conspicuous "involucral bracts." The whole assemblage thus looks like a single blossom, similar to how it is in the Composite Family (sunflowers and daisies) and among teasels.

Also, eryngoes are nearly always spiny and with rigid leaves almost like those of yuccas and agaves.

So, those features constitute the basic eryngo theme: the head of flowers, the spininess, and the stiff leaves.

The "One-headed Eryngo" was abundant above the tree line. Below the tree line the one-headed species fairly disappeared, but in disturbed soil, especially in grassy areas, a dwarf eryngo species appeared, entire plants usually being no larger than the One-headed's single head. You can see the dwarf species at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008e2.jpg.

Despite the huge difference in sizes, note that the dwarf species still possesses all the basic eryngo features: Tiny flowers in heads, spininess, and stiff leaves. The dwarf species keys out to ERYNGIUM CARLINAE.

On my last night in the park I camped near the entrance road, so low in elevation that oaks appeared among the pines. There in a much lusher, wildflower-rich vegetation the two above eryngoes were absent but very common was the robust, head-high species you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008e3.jpg.

In this species, which I key out to ERYNGIUM COLUMNARE, the involucral bracts are very small relative to the head size, it's much taller than the other species, and each stem bears several heads. Yet, all the features making it an eryngo are still there, despite the huge outward differences.

For me, this kind of "variation on a theme" is one of the most aesthetically pleasing features of Nature. In some taxonomic groups the variations are almost overwhelming -- think of all the variations on the wood-warbler theme, on the aster and goldenrod themes, on the theme of quartz in all its forms, and of snowflakes and stars, and of all the personalities the human species comes in...

I have often thought that a Bach fugue and a walk in the woods are almost the same thing.

*****

A LATE-BLOOMING BEARDTONGUE
The feeling of the upper elevations was that of late fall. I hadn't expected that, but it pleased me, for it's been a long time since I've experienced it, and it's one of my favorite moods. It's a bit after the first killing frost, but not quite yet full-fledged winter. At that season sunlight is a blessing. Wind chills menacingly on the body's shadow side, but somehow pleases with its uncompromising wildness.

At this season nearly all wildflowers have died back or are fruiting. On the volcano's middle slopes lupines were heavy with fruits. A sun-graced lupine fruit-cluster with individual seeds showing inside is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008lu.jpg.

One very common and conspicuous wildflower abundantly flowering even at this season was the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008pn.jpg.

That's one of many species of "beardtongue," possibly PENSTEMON GENTIANOIDES. Beardtongues get their name from the fact that one of each flower's five stamens develops into a sterile, match-stick-like thing called a staminode, and in many Penstemon species that staminode bears a "beard" of long hairs.

In the above picture you can see the stiff, pale staminode lying near the corolla tube's floor, and you can also see that it is beardless -- a beardless beardtongue. You can also see a high-elevation bee that just happened to zip into the middle blossom the moment I snapped the picture.

My Manual of Cultivated Plants says that this species, sometimes named Penstemon hartwegii, is often hybridized with P. cobaea to form a flower-garden favorite known under the trade name of Penstemon gloxinoides.

*****

FIBROUS-LOOKING ICE
On my last morning in the higher elevations I saw a lot of what's shown in the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071008hv.jpg.

There you see silvery ice crystals issuing from black soil in a roadcut. The crystals, which look like asbestos fibers, extend about 1.5 inches from the soil.

Notice that atop many of the elongated crystals there reside black specks of soil. Also notice that the crystals tend to grow directly from the soil and then as the morning warms they topple over.

So here is a case of ice lifting soil into the air, then dropping it over an inch farther downslope. This process repeated many mornings year after year, century after century, could occasion quite a bit of soil movement, I'd think.

I find such fibrous crystals arising only from wet soil.

*****

STILL ON THE ROAD
Nevado Toluca was just a stop along the way. It's taken me several days to get to where I could plug in my computer and get the Newsletter ready to be carried on a memory stick to a "ciber" where I can issue it for a price.

The story of what happened when I left Nevado Toluca National Park will begin the next Newsletter, whenever and wherever I manage to get that one out.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net