JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

Written at Yerba Buena and issued from a ciber in nearby
Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan, Chiapas, MÉXICO
{at about 1740 meters in elevation, ± LAT 17° 11' 27"N,  LONG -92° 53' 35"W.}

October 15, 2007

OFF THE VOLCANO
On Thursday morning, October 4th, I catch a bus at the entrance road to the park surrounding the volcano known as Nevado Toluca, in central Mexico west across a mountain range from Mexico City. The rest of the day is spent busing across the cities of Toluca and Mexico City. The distance doesn't look great on a map but this is the second-largest metropolitan area in the world, road organization doesn't make much sense to a North American mind, there are endless detours and surprises, and it takes a while.

At 3:30 AM the next morning I awaken aboard a bus entering Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco. In past trips from the US to the Yucatan this was the point at which my journey southward ended, I made a U-turn eastward following the Gulf of Mexico's southernmost shore, and began heading northward into the Yucatan.

This time, however, as dawn approaches I let the bus to Mérida leave without me. Instead I hike a few blocks to the second-class bus terminal and buy a ticket to a little town a couple of slow-bus hours south of Villahermosa, to Pichucalco, in the state of Chiapas. Chiapas is Mexico's southernmost state, up next against Guatemala. Pichucalco is a colorful little town lying at the base of Chiapas's mountains, and entering those beautiful and troubled mountains amounts to a major policy decision for anyone, so most buses coming south from Villahermosa don't run any farther south than this.

The first seconds after stepping from the bus in Pichucalco I know I'm in a completely different cultural milieu from what I've experienced the last year in Querétaro and before that in the Yucatán. For one thing, the music blaring from nearby radios is marimba -- perky music played on the free-standing, wood-block musical instrument often referred to as the xylophone. A tiny lady in a blue dress carries an orange plastic bag out of which arches the long, slender neck of an old, white hen, looking backwards with a wide-eyed look on her face saying she knows she'll never see that view again, or maybe any other view at all.

The decibel level here is higher than farther north, but homier in its various origins, less industrial. People are more informal and outgoing. Instead of calling me "Don" as in Querétaro everyone calls me "Tío," which technically means "Uncle," but effectively it's what you call any old fellow you don't know what else to call, but you feel like you need to call him something: "Tío, wanna buy some pig cracklings?" "Tío, what're you doing here?" "Tío, maybe you need a little drink?" These people around the bus station are continually cutting up, laughing hard, like kids on a fieldtrip, but this is everyday real life for them and, especially in this heavy heat and humidity, I wonder how they maintain such an energy level and good humor day after day.

After a big, beautiful two-dollar breakfast of eggs scrambled with onions, tomatoes and chili, and refried beans sprinkled with crumbly white cheese, and all the fresh corn tortillas and red hot-sauce dipped from a stone molcajete I can eat I enter a small local bus with open windows you can hang out of pointed upslope and we launch into a slow, gear-grinding, stop-for-anyone-halfway-looking-like-they-need-a ride trip all immersed in marimba music into the Chiapas highlands.

Two or three hours later, in chilly, pine-scented air, I disembark at an access road I know well from a time before these Newsletters began and descend to the gathering of buildings known as Yerba Buena, which means "Good Herb."

*****

YERBA BUENA
If you've read my online book "Yerba Buena: Word- Snapshots from a Missionary Clinic in Southern Mexico's Indian Territory," you already know about Yerba Buena. The book, with pictures, can be accessed at http://www.mexicanmercados.com/yb/

Sometimes in the late 70s or early 80s, I think, I was wandering in the Chiapas highlands when I stumbled upon Yerba Buena, a hospital clinic offering basic medical care, often for free, to the area's desperately poor Tzotzil-speaking indigenous population. The clinic was operated by Seventh-Day Adventists from the US. Despite my aversion to all religions, I liked what the Adventists were doing.

In 1988 I returned for a few months, wrote a book about Yerba Buena and the people it served, and gave the manuscript to Yerba Buena administrators with the understanding that income derived from sales would be used to support the hospital's operation, not to proselytize Adventism. When the administrators made their trips North to speak in churches, they'd be able to sell this book.

The book describes a well functioning missionary clinic with a doctor and a good number of student and professional nurses offering vital services where they're desperately needed.

Now the hospital is abandoned. The cloud-forest nature reserve that earlier served to provide pure water for the hospital community has been occupied by militant campesinos, or poor farmers. Some of the most majestic, biologically diverse forest I've ever seen has been converted to weedy, eroding cornfields. Someone with an uncertain right to do so -- the question is before the courts now -- occupies the former hospital and surrounding buildings, refusing to leave.

Aggressive words are painted on Yerba Buena's buildings declaring that they have been taken possession of by militant campesinos. You can see such a declaration on a building beside where I'm staying at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071015xx.jpg.

In badly spelled Spanish the sign reads, "Owner get out. Taken by Battle Group II in Rebellion. The land is ours. AC get out. EZLN."

AC is an Adventist organization supporting Yerba Buena. The EZLN is known by Northerners as the Zapotista National Liberation Army, which conducted an uprising here a few years ago and which still occupies, or liberates -- depending on your perspective -- several communities, but not here.

On the main highway above Yerba Buena, land occupied by another militant campesino organization, CIOAC, is proclaimed with a sign and a flag, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071015xy.jpg.

The sign in the above picture reads "Taken by CIOAC." Most road signs here have "CIOAC" painted on them. So does the dwelling I'm living in.

But, these declarations and the flag are several years old. There's a feeling in the area that things are settling down, people are sick of confrontation and violence, and want to think about other things.

That's why I've returned. At least one document I've seen this week describes me as the Director of a development plan focusing on "Ecotourism, bird-watching and cave exploration." The "cave exploration" part rests on the fact that nearby lies the Soconusco cave complex with more than 50 kilometers of caves, including three of the ten deepest vertical caves in Mexico.

*****

MY NEW CULTURAL & GEOGRAPHICAL SETTING
People here are different from those at my earlier locations. The indigenous element is very strong. People here are considered "an upland Maya subgroup" who speak Tzotzil, which some regard as a Maya dialect, but most think of a distinct language maybe as different from Yucatec Maya as English is from German, or Italian is from Spanish -- same roots but very different language. Sometimes the Tzotzil speakers are called Chamula Indians. Though fewer people wear colorful native costumes than when I was here during the 90s, many still do, especially older women. Some women I buy from in the market know Spanish numbers so they can sell things, otherwise speak only Tzotzil. Sometimes women have Spanish-speaking children with them who handle sales.

People here in the highlands are far too reserved to call me either "Don" or "Tío." When they "shake hands" their fingers just barely and fleetingly touch, quite a change from the exuberant handshaking I experienced in Querétaro. The line between "pure Indian" and "mixed blood," or mestizo, is much clearer here than in other places I've been in Mexico. In general, in most Mexican minds, "mestizo" means "upper class" here.

I have no Internet connection at Yerba Buena but there's a "ciber" in the town of Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan, a two-kilometer walk to the south. For now, all my Newsletters, website maintenance and emailing originates there, and so far the system works pretty well -- except that I suspect I'll be going to town only about once a week.

Yerba Buena is perched on a mountain's upper slope at about 1740 meters (5700 ft, thus over a mile high). Just to the north the mountain peaks at over 1900 meters (6230 ft). The little Río Duraznito below us cuts to about 1200 meters (3940 feet).

For those of you familiar with the upland-Chiapas tourist town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, better known to European backpackers and Canadians than to US tourists, Yerba Buena lies about 50 air-miles (80 kms) northwest of that town.

I visited Yerba Buena during my 1996/1997 birding trip through Mexico. You can see my birding notes from then at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexbirds/15yerba_.htm.

In 1986, before the invaders destroyed so much, the United Kingdom's University of East Anglia conducted an expedition to what was then the "Yerba Buena Reserve." The next year they studied plants and animals on land adjacent to and just below Yerba Buena, at Linda Vista Adventist College. The report from that trip with lists of plants and animals, maps, weather information and more can be had in PDF format by using a search engine and the keywords "University of East Anglia Mexico Expedition 1987," then downloading from that site.

*****

CHIAPAS MORE GUATEMALAN THAN MEXICAN
From the biogeographical perspective there's a significant difference between the highlands extending from the US through Mexico all the way south to Oaxaca state south of Mexico City, and the highlands of Chiapas. The difference is caused by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Isthmus is Mexico's narrow neck connecting the "mainland" to the north and west with the Yucatan and Chiapas to the south and east. The Isthmus's landscape is so low that engineers periodically consider cutting a canal across it, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, thus bypassing the Panama Canal.

To plants and animals adapted for upland environments, the lowland Isthmus constitutes an ecological barrier. Lots of species are found on one side of the Isthmus or the other, but not both sides.

For example, White-breasted Nuthatches occupy highlands from the US to well south of Mexico City, but don't occur in Chiapas. The same is true of American Robins, Bewick's Wren, Western Bluebirds, Horned Larks, Black- headed Grosbeaks, Curve-billed Thrashers, Scrub Jays and others.

By the same token, several species extend from the Central American highlands into Chiapas's highlands, but not to the other side of the Isthmus. For example there's the Bar-winged Oriole, Blue Seedeater, Yellow- throated Brushfinch and the Slender Sheartail Hummingbird.

On the other hand, many species do appear on both sides of the Isthmus, either with a continuous distribution or discontinuously. The Isthmus's lowlands aren't really all that extensive after all. Any bird or airborne seed not making it across such a small distance probably isn't trying too hard.

Still, biologically, Chiapas belongs more to Central America than to Mexico. There's not a Pauraque- whisker's difference between Chiapas and Guatemala.

*****

BIRDING AS I WALK TO TOWN
Last Wednesday I walked to Pueblo Nuevo. It was a dark, drizzly, chilly day not at all good for birding and I didn't really make much of an effort, but I listed them so you can have a feeling for what kind of birds you can hardly miss here. They're listed in the order spotted:

1) Brown-backed Solitaire, a thrushlike bird whose song, an "accelerating, squeaky, metallic, jangling series beginning hesitantly before running into a jumbled crescendo," as Howell describes it in his Mexican-bird masterpiece, heard the moment I step outside; maybe the prettiest birdsong in Mexico.

2) Wilson's Warbler silently foraging in a Sweetgum tree; has just arrived from a summer someplace in Canada, Alaska or the northwestern US, a male in summer plumage with a distinct black cap.

3) Great-tailed Grackles loudly shrieking, clacking, whistling and chattering around the old clinic buildings.

4) Townsend's Warbler silently foraging in a pine after spending the summer in Alaska, western Canada or extreme northwestern US.

5) Slate-throated Redstart flitting nervously among several trees, a slender, slate-gray bird with a red belly, long tail with white spots, and dark red crown.

6) Rufous-capped Warbler flitting among several trees calling excitedly with rapid chips, a yellow warbler with a rusty cap, white eyebrow, and rusty cheek patch

7) House Sparrows in Pueblo Nuevo.

8) Turkey Vulture circling over valley.

The star of the above list is the Slate-throated Redstart, distributed from Mexico to northern Bolivia and Venezuela.

I'm always amazed at the sheer numbers of Wilson's and Townsend's Warblers overwintering here. In many places if you see a small bird flitting among weedy bushes chances are better than 50:50 that it's a Wilson's. The same is true about the Townsend's if you spot something among a pine's or oak's lower branches. I just wonder if they are similarly ubiquitous in their summer haunts?

The University of East Anglica's 1987 Expedition Report fails to list the first bird I hear every morning, the Brown-backed Solitaire. In recent years it's seemed that this species has been turning up in more disturbed places than it used to, like North America's Pileated Woodpeckers. If that's so, I'm glad, for anyone hearing the Brown-backed's bubbling, ebullient song can't keep from cheering up.

*****

ALCATRAZ OUTSIDE MY WINDOW
I've been invited to live in part of a duplex that once must have been one of the finest dwellings for many miles around. It's been abandoned for a long time, though, so it's more ruin than regular home, with nonfunctional plumbing, plaster from the walls heaped on shattered tiled floors, big holes in the roof, etc. There's one room, however, in pretty good shape, and that's where I stay. A large fireplace still functions enough for me to build my morning campfires in it, and I'm very happy to have that daily ritual again. Workmen are busily renovating the rest of the building so I may end up living in a pretty fancy place!

Outside my window as I type this, in a garden long abandoned, several plants once planted for the beauty of their flowers have been surviving year after neglected year, and one of them is even flowering. This flower represents a ray of hope in the current rather desperate-seeming situation, so I want to tell you about it. You can see its flower and leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071015zd.jpg.

That's the gardener's Calla, ZANTEDESCHIA AETHIOPICA. When you see a fingerlike item emerging from a wrap- around, urn-like thing as in the picture, you should immediately think of that large, mostly-tropical plant family in which you find Jack-in-the-pulpits, arums, anthuriums, philodendrons, caladiums and "Elephants-Ears," the Arum Family, or Araceae. Plants in this family always all have that "Jack" surrounded by or at least subtended by his leafy "pulpit."

The orange-yellow "Jack" in the picture is actually a special kind of flower-spike called a spadix, and the "pulpit" is a special modified leaf called a spathe. On the spadix the actual flowers are tiny, much simplified affairs. The spadix's orange-yellow surface is composed of the male flowers' very closely packed stamens. In this species male flowers occupy the spadix's top part while female ones cluster at the spadix's bottom.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071015ze.jpg there's a close-up showing the more widely spaced female flowers, the ovaries, clustering at the spadix's base. Eventually the male section will wither away while the tiny ovaries will enlarge into fruits packed together like the individual juicy bags of a blackberry fruit.

I didn't see too many Callas around Jalpan, though in gardens on moister mountain slopes both above Jalpan and all through central upland Mexico Callas are a garden favorite -- that, despite the fact that originally the species is from South Africa.

Mexicans usually call the plant Alcatraz.

*****

OCOTE
When I arrived at Yerba Buena the only person left from the old days was the caretaker, Inés, a substantial lady of about 45 who puts me in the mind of the former Chicago Mayor Daley the way she is so loud, so firmly planted and strong minded. She can use and fix a chainsaw and makes a pretty good boss. She doesn't like what Mexican men expect of a woman so she's single, almost unheard of here. When any of her many chickens, turkeys, dogs or cats misbehave she gives them long, very well-reasoned lectures loud enough to hear every word of fifty yards away and when the critters still misbehave she just laughs and lets it slide.

As part of her welcome to me she handed me a machete she'd just sharpened to perfection herself, and a block of ocote (oh-COTE-eh) wood.

The word ocote is used to describe a pine tree or the wood thereof, though the word pino also is used. The word ocote isn't in my Spanish dictionary so maybe it's a Mexican specialty, from a native language.

That block of ocote wood couldn't have been a more appropriate welcome gift, for Inés knows I like to fix my breakfasts over a campfire, and nothing is better than ocote wood for starting a fire. It ignites easily when you put a flame to it and burns intensely, but more slowly than, say, paper. You can see some ocote wood sliced from the block Inés gave me at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071015oc.jpg.

Notice the wood's large cells and how the wood glistens as if shellacked. The glisten is from dry resin, and that resin burns like crazy. A loopy, black smoke arose from the burning splinter in my fingers, like that when you set oil-soaked rags afire.

On the slopes around where I'm staying there are two pine species. One is called locally Ocote Blanco, or White Pine, and the other is Ocote Colorado, or Red Pine, sometimes also called Ocote Rojo. I think the White Pine is PINUS TENUIFOLIA and the red one is PINUS OOCARPA. The red one provides the best firewood, and it's by far the less common species.

So, the greater the resin content, the better the wood burns, and resin content varies greatly from species to species, between trees of the same species, and even between different parts of the same tree.

In traditional markets here often you can buy neatly tied bundles of pre-cut ocote splinters for starting fires. It would be wasteful to burn entire ocote logs, plus they'd burn too fast and intense. You want a wood fire to last.

In fact, I've heard of some enterprising US folks who've begun selling ocote splinters attractively packaged and for a hefty price in upscale back-to- nature boutiques in the US.

*****

THE SIGN
I'm often asked why I live the way I do. Maybe it all began one summer back on the farm in Kentucky, in the mid 60s.

That was the summer I discovered the basic features I love about nature, in a nearby bottomland woods. That summer especially I sensitized myself to squirrels, for those swampy forests were full of them. One result of my observations that summer is the online book about one year in the life of a Gray Squirrel called Mistletoe, which you can read at http://www.backyardnature.net/squirrel.htm

I had never dreamed that wild animals could be so complex and that individual wild animals could exhibit so many unique personality traits. That summer I think I got to know every squirrel in the forest.

And then came squirrel season. You can imagine how it felt hearing shots in those woods day after day as I wondered who among my friends was being killed.

Later the forests were bulldozed and converted to soybean fields. Then my family lost our farm, largely because in today's world a truly small family farm just can't make it.

In fact, often I have felt that my part of rural Kentucky has been invaded, or "taken," as CIOAC would say, by an alien people, people wanting more and more of everything. They've simply shoved aside the old farmers I knew, the ones in blue coveralls smelling of old sweat and greasy biscuits, and who lived dignified lives governed my temperance and common sense. My home has been occupied by the enemy and -- with a few beautiful exceptions -- the people and land I spring from have gone extinct.

So, as an exile, I don't invest much emotional energy in permanent bases or beautiful, vulnerable places such as natural areas. Actually it gives me the creeps to be in old-growth timber because I know that before long it'll be logged, or blown down by a global-warming storm, or killed by bark beetles thanks to the trees' lower disease-resistance because of global-warming- caused droughts, or whatever.

I identify with weeds. Among weeds I am perfectly at ease for, among weeds, the damage already has been done. Among weeds, there's nothing but hope and possibilities.

Now look at the sign mentioned in this section's title, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071015xz.jpg.

When I first arrived at Yerba Buena I could read that sign's message explaining what a wonderful place the Yerba Buena Reserve was, why it was so important in terms of biodiversity and as a watershed, and how we should honor it.

Then there was vandalism, there was occupation, there was clearing forest and planting cornfields, there was more sloganeering and posturing than I could deal with, more and more people, all wanting more and more...

That sign is both a real-world and abstract symbol of something that's happened here, and is happening all over the world. In that sign you can read chaos, ugliness, meaninglessness, all the consequences of there always being more, more, more demands on an Earth that stays the same size, and whose resources are ever less, less and less.

When I use Google Earth to see the land around my childhood home in Kentucky and find nothing left but flat soybean and corn fields, it's exactly like looking at that sign.

I don't know how to battle the forces that converted the diverse, generous and loving forests and fields of my childhood into industrial, pesticide-drenched farmland but, just maybe, I can do something about that ugly sign.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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