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.}

December 10, 2007

FIRST TRIP INTO THE "RESERVE"
Fifteen days earlier the invader chief had told me that in fifteen days I could enter the "reserve." Therefore, last Tuesday morning, imbued with a sense of beginning something of long-term significance, for the first time since I've been here I entered the "reserve," of which certain people regard me as "Director."

Entering a trail at about 1750 meters in elevation (5740 ft), up and up I climbed, first across an invader cornfield, then through oak-pine-Sweetgum forest that had been chewed up pretty badly by firewood gatherers, then at around 2000 meters (6500 ft) there was another cornfield, this time cutting a broad, continuous swathe from one end of the "reserve" to another. When I entered forest again at about 2070 meters (6800 ft) it displayed a different structure and many new plant species had appeared while others had dropped out. Researchers from the UK's East Anglia University in 1986 classified this higher forest as cloudforest. The entire transition zone between oak-pine-Sweetgum and the cloudforest, the species-rich "ecotone," had been obliterated.

Continuing upward through the cloudforest soon I encountered barbed-wire fencing with cattle grazing on the other side, weedy pasture stretching all the way to the ridge peak above me, tot about 2250 meters (7400 ft). I didn't realize that day that the trail I'd been following wandered off of Yerba Buena property. The last time I'd taken it there'd been cloudforest here, but now it was just weedy, eroding pasture.

The area inside Yerba Buena "Reserve" in that area was so hacked up and weedy that I couldn't find a trail, if one exists, to intact cloudforest. I'm told there's still good forest there but that day I couldn't find it.

Years ago Quetzals, magnificent birds of the Trogon Family with long, flowing, iridescent-green tails, occupied this very cloudforest. I know this for sure because I've seen the taxidermied bodies, dry, faded and dust-covered, atop a cabinet in a missionaries' home below. Who knows what other fabulous species have been extirpated? One of the missionaries has told me how as kids they'd come down the mountain with both hands dragging Boa Constrictors by the tail, for "fattening up" before skinning. I doubt that any boas are left, either.

The next day, once again I headed upward hoping to find intact cloudforest via another trail. Invader men were waiting for me, blocking my way.

"The government didn't pay us the money they'd promised, so you're prohibited again... "

Square One. For that, the quotation marks around "Reserve."

*****

FAN-LIKE MOSSES
I remember what it was like when I first entered Yerba Buena's intact cloudforest back in the 70s or 80s. It was a fairyland of low trees with gnarled branches completely enshrouded in lichens, mosses, ferns, bromeliads and orchids. The ground was wet and spongy with dewy mosses, club-mosses, liverworts and other highly specialized plants adapted to this very special, habitually cool, extremely humid environment.

Last Tuesday, inside the cloudforest zone, in certain coves with steep sides, there were hints of what the forest used to be like. Despite the intense, crystalline, high-elevation sunlight, an icy feeling permeated the air. In the still air, steam from my breath and exercised body rose straight up, vividly billowing against the forest's black shadows. It was so silent that the silence was like a noise, the buzzing of a renegade fly from the neighboring pasture uncannily loud and persistent.

The shaded tree trunk next to me was encased in a kind of fan-shaped moss I've not seen further down, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071210fm.jpg.

Most mosses are cylindrical, with spore-producing capsules arising from their tops. You almost don't want to believe that what's in the picture is a moss until you notice the capsules, which are quintessential moss reproductive structures. You can review my page on moss structure at http://www.backyardnature.net/mosses.htm.

*****

OREOPANAX
An unusual tree was flowering that day, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071210ox.jpg.

That's an Oreopanax, a member of the Aralia Family, along with North America's Ginseng and the very spiny Devils-Walking-Stick or Hercules Club. Though Oreopanax's vegetative parts don' look much like either of those, the flowers are of typical Aralia-Family construction, which means that, like flowers of the closely related Parsley Family, blossoms have one inferior ovary topped by typically five petals, and five stamens arise from a ring-like thing called a disk, best seen with magnification. In both the Aralia and Parsley Families, flowers are small, greenish or whitish, and usually are clustered in umbels or umbellate heads, an umbel being a typically flat-topped cluster whose individual flower stems, or pedicels, arise from a common point, like an umbrella's stays. To be flat-toped, flowers at the edge of an umbellate cluster need longer pedicels than those at the cluster's center. A close-up showing a few of Oreopanax's many umbels, arranged in a spike, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071210oy.jpg.

The Aralia Family is different from the Parsley Family in that ovaries of blossoms in the Aralia Family usually possess more than the Parsley's Family two styles, Aralia Family fruits tend to be grapelike, instead of the Parsley Family's often flattish, dry and ribbed appearance, and Aralia Family species tend to be woodier than those in the Parsley Family.

Oreopanax's leaves are "digitally compound" -- leaflets arising from the tip of a petiole in the manner of a hand's "digits." You might be interested in seeing what Oreopanax's evergreen leaves' petiole bases look like, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071210oz.jpg.

Note their stout, cylindrical form, as opposed to the wide but narrow, or shield-shaped petiole bases typical of woody, deciduous species in the Temperate Zone. Clearly, these petiole bases plan to remain attached for a long time. In the tropics you often see such petioles on broadleaf evergreen trees.

Five species of Oreopanax are listed for the reserve.

The "oreo" in Oreopanax means "mountain." "Panax" is from classical Greek, meaning "all-healing," as in the word sharing the same root, "panacea."

*****

TALL CANNAS FLOWERING
In another of the cloudforest zone's sheltered coves I encountered the reddish-orange-blossomed cannas shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071210he.jpg.

I think of cannas as heat-loving plants, but at this elevation, about 2100 meters or 6900 ft, it was downright cool, even in the middle of a sunny day. The most unexpected thing about these cannas, though, was their height -- 3.6 meters or twelve feet or more. Leaning toward an opening in the canopy with sunlight glowing in their broad, elegantly parallel-lineated blades and their flame-colored blossoms simply afire, these plants projected a dignified and imposing presence. I have no idea which species this is. Breedlove's Flora of Chiapas lists five canna species, though none is listed for the Reserve.

Canna flowers present several interesting variations on the standard blossom theme so you might be interested in looking over my Canna Flower Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_canna.htm.

*****

A NATURALIST QUIZ
Speaking of cannas, what's going on in the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071210ch.jpg?

That's a canna leaf on a canna growing as a weed along a stream below where I'm staying. The peculiar feature is the series of four holes arranged in vertical lines, with the vertical lines on the right being farther apart from one another than the vertical lines on the left.

The secret to understanding what's going on is to know that when a canna leaf emerges at the top of its stem it's rolled into a cylinder with its broad blade overlapping itself several times. Some emerging leaves open like a book.

Visualizing the broad rolled into a cylinder, recognize the fact that the leaf-side inside the cylinder has to be rolled tighter than the outside leaf-side -- the inside leaf-side overlaps itself more times. Now I bet you're starting to visualize an insect drilling a hole from outside the cylinder toward the center so that when the leaf enlarges and unrolls it'll show a series of holes, and the holes on the leaf-side that was inside the cylinder will be closer together than those on the outside leaf-side.

That doesn't explain why each vertical row has four holes, though. Well, either one insect made four holes by drilling with its strawlike proboscis, or four insects burrowed toward the center. I suspect that one insect drilled with its proboscis and it sauntered up or down the canna stem.

*****

BENT-DOWN CORNSTALKS
Despite corn, or maize, being the main crop grown here, there are no mechanized corn-pickers of the kind every corn grower owns up north. People here are too poor to have them, plus the slopes are too steep, as attested by the joke told about campesinos falling off their cornfields.

I haven't seen corncribs here, either, or farmers gathering their stalks into sheaves, or storing them in trees, as they did back in Querétero. Here farmers snap the 12-ft-tall cornstalks and leave the top part with the ear of corn hanging upside down, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071210bc.jpg .

Sometimes farmers say they do this to help the ears mature but surely the main reason the tradition developed was because, hanging downward, rainwater is less likely to penetrate inside the shucks, spoiling the corn. Even so, most of the ears I've peeked into have been at least a little cobwebby, sometimes ruinously so, with white strands of fungus spreading across the ear's surface. When I buy loose corn kernels in town to ground as thickener for my campfire breakfast stews, I have to shop around to be sure the individual kernels aren't heavily infected with dark-gray fungus.

Rainwater getting into their dangling ears of corn is just one problem farmers here have. Especially at the edges of their fields you very often see where critters have stolen some meals. One ravaged ear is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071210bd.jpg.

In the forest I met a very old man loading firewood onto his burro. He was embarrassed because he knew he shouldn't be collecting firewood on Yerba Buena property, but I wasn't about to berate him even as the owners' chainsawing continued as we spoke, and trucks were being loaded with big tree trunks often showing 70 annual rings or more. To put the old man at ease I asked him which animals ate his corn. He got a big, impish grin on his face letting me know what a pleasure it'd be if he could just shoot some of those critters, and he told me stories about corn-eating raccoons, coatis, squirrels and what he called "pesquites," which I think must be Tepescuintles, also called Pacas.

If a "pesquite" really is a Tepescuintle, then that's one of the most interesting mammals surviving in the "reserve." It's a raccoon-sized, white-spotted, piglike rodent that used to be very common, but which now has been hunted to extinction in most parts of its former distribution.

*****

VIEW FROM BELOW A DEWY LEAF
In the next section you'll learn that this week I accidentally spent some time taking a close-up look at some weed flowers. That experience reminded me what a delight it is to occasionally change gears in your mind and start viewing the world from an insect's perspective. For example, one dewy morning this week as I was photographing butterflies I remembered my close- up experience with the weed flowers and just lay down in the dewy grass and began looking around. Beside me happened to rise some of Inés's Crinum Lilies, so I scooted over beneath their overarching leaves, gazed upward, and saw the beautiful essay in blue and green at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071210bg.jpg.

Long I lay there, the morning's sunlight warming my upper side but the cold dew chilling me below, studying the interplay of colors, textures, light and shadow. The bubbly designs of course are droplets of dew atop the leaves. Isn't it marvelous how the color green has so much yellow in it? And think how flat and void of character the picture would be without shadows, the old Yin and Yang thing. And the blade was long and straight, but the part that pleased me most was where a weakness in the blade caused the curve at the picture's bottom. More Yin and Yang, I suppose.

These days I hear references about "the hectic holiday season" up north. I hope that you will remember to sometimes give yourself enough time and space to let your mind graze among colors, textures and meanings the way mine did that day, taking an insect's view of things.

*****

WEED-SLIP
Descending the slope last Tuesday, returning through the cornfield belt, I slipped. In the forest the soil was soft and loose, cradling one's feet, but years of corn growing here had converted the soil to hard, slick mud. My right elbow hit a jagged limestone rock, one of many emerging from the land as soil erodes from around them on this steep slope. The part of my elbow that hit the rock was what my father used to call the funny bone, because when you hit it it's like getting an electrical shock.

That day my elbow hurt so badly that for a couple of minutes I just lay on the steep path with my teeth gritted and eyes clinched shut, unable to move my fingers, waiting for the pain to ease, feeling blood dripping from my elbow. My mind was in no better shape, in such a dark mood that the idea occurred to me that maybe this my fall was somehow appropriate after seeing such destruction, that when I did open my eyes all I'd see would be forlorn-looking corn and hacked-up forest, so why not just keep the eyes closed, maybe forever?

But, life is fixed so that eventually you have to open your eyes. I was lying on my side among weeds and the vision that came into focus before me wasn't at all what I'd expected. Long I stared, warm sunlight feeling good and the herbage I'd crushed when I fell issuing a fragrance sweet and minty. A soft breeze rustled peacefully among the cornblades. Without moving my eyes I reached into my pocket, retrieved the camera, and photographed exactly what you can see yourself at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071210wf.jpg.

How pretty were those friendly statements of purple, blue, yellow and white against the soft, generous background of green.

Long I stared, until way after my elbow had stopped hurting and the blood had hardened to a blackish crust.

A while back I mentioned here that to protect my own sanity I identify with weeds, not more stable communities such as old-growth forests, whom I suspect to be doomed by climate change's storms, droughts, floods, fires, pestilences and such, if somehow they last long enough by escaping the workings of human commerce. Some readers said that this was a sad example of my "giving up."

Lying on my side among the weeds, looking at a purple Cuphea blossom nodding under the influence of a tiny black bee, I thought about that statement again. A reserve was in the process of being destroyed, putting me into a black mood. But now weeds, like so many times before, were good-naturedly charming me back to being myself.

I know that with my personality structure an unrelenting diet of seeing beautiful, noble things replaced by gross vulgarity makes me so cynical, so depressed, so simply crazy, that I'm no longer any good to anyone.

However, identifying with weeds, even in this eroding cornfield at the scene of an ecological disaster, suddenly I find myself smiling at an agreeable little band of brothers and sisters encouraging me on, telling me to keep blossoming and offering nectar and perfume to the wind and all visitors who come with sun- glistening wings or songs in their hearts.

How pretty were the weeds that day.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim