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 24, 2007

BLUE-THROATED MOTMOT
Last Wednesday near my dwelling I walked around a bend and right there on the trail before me pecking at something on the ground was a mostly green bird I hadn't seen before. At first I thought it was a Green Jay but this bird had a blue throat, not black, and its crown was green, also not black, like the Green Jay's. Its beak was slender and curved like a cuckoo's, but cuckoo's aren't green. Its face suggested a motmot's, but motmots bear longer tails with barbs missing from the lower part of their tail-feathers' shafts.

What a pleasure when something new comes along! Pulling out my field guide I consciously savored my confusion and all the possibilities. Turns out it was indeed a motmot, but a special one, the Blue-throated Motmot, ASPATHA GULARIS. It's endemic just to the Mexican highlands this side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the highlands of southern Guatemala and Honduras. Howell describes it as a shy and elusive species so maybe that's why I've not seen one before. The genus Aspatha is monotypic -- so unusual that it contains only one species, our Aspatha gularis.

One feature making the Blue-throated Motmot unusual is its tail, which lacks the missing barbs characteristic of other motmot species. You might recall that in the Yucatan Turquoise-browed Motmots were frequently seen. When I introduced them I wrote:

"The tail consists of two long central feathers that are stripped of their webbing for an inch or two, an inch or so above the tips. The adult birds remove the webbing themselves and I'm not at all sure why. Moreover, the birds tend to perch slowly swinging their tails from side to side like clock pendulums."

At dawn on Thursday morning I saw the bird again near where I first saw him. This time he couldn't quickly escape into weeds and I saw that he was injured and couldn't fly more than a second or two. I'm guessing that a kid with a slingshot got him because most boys and young men here shoot everything that moves, and the more unusual the target the harder they try. The bird clambered up the roadcut next to us and entered a hole beneath a tree root, leaving only his tail exposed outside. Motmots love cavities in cliffs and bluffs. A Maya legend explains that this very habit of hiding in a cliff-hole while leaving the tail outside is why motmot tails are missing those feather barbs.

This blue-throated species is a tropical-upland specialist found in humid to semihumid forests between 1500 and 3000 meters (4900 to 9800 feet).

*****

"EIGHTY-EIGHT" BUTTERFLIES
The other day Iván and I were walking to town when alongside the road we found a beautiful butterfly that'd been killed by a car. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/butt-014.jpg.

The eye-catching feature of this butterfly is that the lower surface of its hindwing bears an unmistakable representation of the number 88. The wings' upper surface isn't nearly as interesting, as you can see at. See http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/butt-013.jpg.

This is a tropical species known as Anna's Eighty- eight, DIAETHRIA ANNA ANNA. It's one of the "brush- footed butterflies," which means that it's a member of the largest of all "true butterfly" families, the Nymphalidae, along with such all-time favorites as the Painted Lady, fritillaries and checkerspots. The main field mark distinguishing members of the Nymphalidae is that their front legs are greatly reduced, often so short and hairy that they look like brushes.

A few days later I photographed the species shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/butt-020.jpg.

That's obviously another "eighty-eight" species but its 88s aren't as perfect as the Anna's. It's the White-patched Eighty-eight, DIAETHRIA BACCHIS. Since it belongs to the same genus as Anna's Eighty-eight the similarities are understandable.

Apparently from time to time other "eighty-eight" species turn up in Texas not far from the Mexican border or in southern Florida, where introductions might be suspected. But most North Americans, unless they come way south, will never see "eighty-eight" butterflies in their natural habitat.

By the way, my gallery of upland Chiapas butterflies continues to grow. You can see what I have so far at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/butter01.htm.

*****

DON JESÚS'S BLUE CORDUROY BAG
Several local men are employed at Yerba Buena establishing a blackberry plantation. Each afternoon they come to my dwelling, an abandoned ruin of a former duplex, to store their tools overnight. The other day as they were going home I saw that one of them, Don Jesús (pronounced heh-SOOS) carried a blue corduroy bag absolutely stuffed with plants he'd picked for taking home. You can the Don and his stuffed bag at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224dj.jpg.  

The thick-stemmed plant on the left is one of the horsetails, genus EQUISETUM. Horsetails are spore- producing "fern allies," considered to be very primitive plants. During the Mississippian Period over 300,000,000 years ago horsetails were dominant land plants. Later gymnosperms arose and largely displaced the Earth's forests of giant horsetails.

Lots of cultures have traditionally used horsetails for cleaning their dishes because horsetail stems contain so much silica that they're abrasive. Horsetail stems can be used as scouring pads, and that's exactly the use Don Jesús had in mind for those in his bag.

A close-up of one of Don Jesús's horsetails is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224eq.jpg.

A close-up of the other plant in the Don's bag is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224dk.jpg.

These plants are sometimes called Leaf-flowers. They're in the genus PHYLLANTHUS. In the old days Phyllanthus was placed in the Euphorbia Family but recent genetic studies indicate that it's such an unusual genus that it deserves its own family, the newly constituted Leaf- flower Family, or Phyllanthaceae.

One unusual thing about leaf-flowers is that their leaves line up opposite one another along the stem and in the same plane, causing the leafy stem to look like a Black Locust's pinnately compound leaf. In the picture you can see that the plant's ultimate sections are leafy stems instead of pinnately compound leaves, however, because flowers arise at the base of each leaf. Flowers never occur at the base of compound leaf leaflets. When leaves line up opposite one another in the same plane they're said to be two-ranked, or "distichous." The effect can be pretty, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224ph.jpg.

Our leaf-flower species is common on the moist, semi- shaded floors of woods. Twelve Phyllanthus species are listed for Chiapas, but Phyllanthuses range from being fragile-looking herbs like this one to fair-sized trees. You may recall my telling about the Yucatan's Grosellas, which are small trees producing acidy fruits. That species is often known as Phyllanthus acidus.

Phyllanthus caroliniensis commonly occurs in much of the US Southeast and is known to extend southward all the way to Argentina. I wouldn't be surprised if Don Jesús's plants are that species. You can read about P. caroliniensis and see fine pictures of its flowers at http://www.missouriplants.com/Greenalt/Phyllanthus_caroliniensis_page.html.

Don Jesús called his Phyllanthus "Quiebrapiedra," which means "break-rock." He claims it'll break up kidney stones.

*****

NONI FRUITS
The other day a crate of unusual-looking fruits turned up at the fruit market in town. I recognized them as Noni fruits. The Noni shrub, sometimes called Indian Mulberry, is MORINDA CITRIFOLIA, a member of the Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae, and is native to Southeast Asia and Australia. I first met the plant in the Yucatan when a neighboring plantation owner put out a field of Noni because she'd heard that it was the next big money-maker. In Mérida I've seen street vendors selling Noni drinks, the ads describing Noni juice as a health drink endowed with miraculous healing properties. I've heard people say that it was useful in combating AIDS, but I've heard of no proof of this.

This week when I bought a fruit to photograph the store owner looked surprised and asked me what I was going to do with it. He'd bought a bunch of them and now couldn't sell them. You can see my Noni photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224nn.jpg.

The fruit looks delicious enough, almost like a small pineapple, but my first thought upon taking a bite was that it was like chewing a mildewed washrag. It tasted like one of those creamy French cheeses about which you can't decide whether the raunchy taste is somehow sophisticated, or you've simply gotten some rotten cheese.

I suspect that the same way that good cooking can convert a nasty taste into a heavenly flavor, Noni's flavor could be turned into something good, too. However, I'm afraid my fruit seller is going to be stuck with his crate of Nonis.

Hawaii's "Noni Website" at http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/noni/botany.asp says that traditionally the fruit was eaten raw or cooked, but only as a famine food. In the old days its bark was used to produce a red pigment and its roots a yellow pigment used in dying. A fetid oil extracted from the fruit was worked into the hair to kill lice and the ripe fruit itself was employed as a poultice. A poultice is something spread on cloth and applied to sores or other lesions. Juice from the fruit was also used as a remedy for tuberculosis.

*****

TREE RINGS
Yerba Buena's owners continue to cut trees from dawn to dusk, every day except Saturday, which is the Adventist Sabbath. Atop a hill above my dwelling I pass a stump every couple of days. All around the stump lie bromeliads, orchids, lichens, mosses and ferns who once formed a generous arboreal garden above.

When the trunk was on the ground men chainsawed its very end to even the cut. The sawed-off part lying next to the stump, displaying over 70 annual rings, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224cx.jpg.

This tree had been a seedling during World War II. Because atoms are such tiny things and there's so many of them, I'll bet that in this trunk there'd been at least a few atoms of carbon exhaled in carbon dioxide by Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler and Mussolini. The tree photosynthesized their exhaled carbon dioxide into carbohydrate which later was incorporated into the trunk's cellulose and lignin.

At about one o'clock from the center of the trunk's concentric rings you can see that when the tree was about ten years old it was seriously injured, then for the next sixty years it bore a scar. When the tree was killed it still showed its old injury, which manifested itself as a vertical crack in its trunk. Not far away stands another tree who's been hurt the same way ours was back during the 1940s and you can see that at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224cw.jpg.

It looks to me as if the wound shown above was caused when they dragged out our 70-year-old tree's body. In fact, I'll bet that our 70-year-old's wound was caused by yet another tree before it, maybe one who'd lived during the Civil War and bore in it carbon atoms from Abraham Lincoln's breath, as it also was being dragged away by loggers. The height of the scar is about right. Therefore, trees are like humans in that great personal tragedies echo down the generations.

You can see our tree's stump, now white-topped with dried pine resin that's bled across its surface, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224cy.jpg.

The saddest thing, though, is what's shown in the picture I took while standing atop the stump, photographing what was exactly above me. That's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224cz.jpg.

Where once a diverse, arboreal ecosystem of bromeliads, orchids, lichens, mosses and ferns sheltered untold numbers of invertebrates, where moist shadows nurtured fungal hyphae and one-celled protozoa at the base of an intricate food pyramid with birds, squirrels and other higher animals at the top... now there's just one more big hole among many, so very many.

Once this forest was transitioning toward super-humid cloudforest but now it's a forest full of holes, a drafty, drying-out forest where bromeliads, orchids, lichens, mosses and ferns will just have to wait until the sheltering canopy closes again to hold in the moisture they need, but who knows if that'll ever happen at all?

*****

GIRDLING
While we're on the matter of killing trees we might as well consider girdling, which is one of the firewood gatherers' tools. People find a young tree, girdle it, let it stand until it dries out, then fell the tree when its wood is seasoned and ready for burning. You can see a typically girdled young oak at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224gd.jpg.

To understand why girdling kills a tree you have to remember tree-trunk anatomy. In a tree's trunk the only living part is the cambium layer, which is a cell-thick layer of cells inside the trunk. The cambium layer produces dead bark on the outside and dead wood on the inside. If you put a freshly cut tree trunk on a table and somehow made all dead parts of the trunk disappear, you'd ee before you a ghostly translucent, cellophane-like cylinder of cambium cells.

A girdled tree, then, has had all its living part above severed from its living part below.

Actually, the girdled trunk in the picture isn't perfectly girdled. You can see that in some places in the zone between the bark and the wood there are ridges of interior bark of considerable width remaining. This means that the living cambium layer hasn't been severed there, that bridges exist between the trunk's root-side and tree-side cambium layers. And, indeed, the young oak actually looked in pretty good shape, and may survive as its cambium heals and grows.

By the way, the situation with the cambium layer also explains why bumping lawnmowers into the trunks of young trees is so destructive. A lawnmower's front lip squashing or slicing a horizontal zone of cambium is just like girdling one side of the trunk. Three or four good bumps from different angles and you can kill a young tree.

*****

DOÑA HILARIA
The first day I walked into Yerba Buena last October Doña Hilaria was standing with a kid talking to Inés and I could tell from Doña Hilaria's wide-eyed look that she wasn't used to seeing tall, balding, bespectacled, white-bearded gringos wearing backpacks. For her part, she was wearing a pretty, very colorful traditional blouse, and as soon as I heard her thick Tzotzil accent and her Tzotzil manner if speaking, which is more choppy than Spanish and more high-pitched and tonal than English, I knew she was the real thing, down-home Tzotzil.

She often comes to do housework for Inés or ask if she can gather firewood, and she always passes right outside my window waving and smiling. She habitually travels with a Tzotzil companion, usually a kid, apparently it being unacceptable for a Tzotzil lady to wander around alone. Despite her attention to this detail I'm told that she's not fully integrated into the local Tzotzil community. For one thing, she's not married, which is almost unheard of. I suspect the main reason, however, is that she's unusually smart.

She's the only Tzotzil speaker I've run into so far who understands that a language has a grammatical construction. When I asked her if I was right translating "my house," "your house" and "his house" as "jna," "ana" and "sna," though I'm sure no one has ever broached the matter of grammar with her, in a flash she grasped the concept and was ready to contribute "jnatic," "anaic," and "snaic," which mean "our house", "you-all's house," and "their house." "Jna" is pronounced "ha-NAH" and "snaic" is "sna-EEK."

The other day Iván asked her if in town it was possible to buy chocolate-flavored pozol, which is a soft, moist mass of ground corn and cacao beans which you dissolve into water, add a sweetener, and drink. Yes, she said, and the next day she brought a hunk big enough for both Iván and me. When I dissolved the pozole into my next morning's hot water I could taste the smoke that'd filled the house in which the corn-mass had been ground and mixed with ground cacao. It was exactly the taste of the odor of every chimneyless indigenous hut. Sipping the resulting pozol I could almost hear the roosters crowing, the dogs barking and the babies crying.

Most Tzotzil speakers are hesitant to have their picture taken but last Tuesday when Doña Hilaria and her boy escort came across me in the woods photographing butterflies she showed such curiosity about my camera that I asked if she'd like for me to take their picture so she could see herself on my laptop. She liked the idea and the resulting photo is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224dh.jpg.

*****

CLOUDS IN THE VALLEY
Most mornings nowadays when I jog at dawn a cloud layer fills the valley below me, to the west, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071224fg.jpg.

Often as I run I remember how fogs and clouds have imprinted their moods on many other mornings of my life. For example, this time last year in Querétaro's Jalpan Valley, each morning thick clouds clogged up the valley so that sunlight bathed the highlands all around while we on the valley floor spent our mornings in chilly somberness beneath a dark, low-overcast sky. Back in the Yucatan often my breakfast campfires took place in thick fog as Turquoise-browed Motmots owhh-owhh-owhhed melancholically from niches among the hurricane-ravaged ruins.

So, this year once again I have a valley that clogs up with clouds, as back in Jalpan, but this time I'm above the clouds. As soon as the sun pops over the eastern ridge the sky grows painfully blue and the sunlight shows itself as crystalline and pure. On chilly mornings it's quite enough to just sit in the sunlight warming and looking around!

Here, sometimes as I run, feasting my eyes on the cloud-clogged valley below, I wonder how many people have been born, lived all their lives, and died in that valley, leaving this Earth convinced that mornings are typically cold and dreary, and that warmth and cheery light are strictly half-day phenomena?

The same question can be applied to people who have always lived just one kind of life above, below or inside metaphorical clouds. Often as I run I remember all the times in my own life when I myself almost got stranded below, above or inside clouds.

All this leads to the thought that, in the end, we can choose where we want to live with regard to our valley's cloud-level. Moreover, to me it's clear that the vast, vast majority of us do need to relocate. Especially for the sake of Life on Earth we need to move from consumption-focused habits to simpler, more sustainable lifestyles.

I began my "New Year" on the Winter Solstice last Saturday, the 22nd. As I write this I am still imbued with an exciting sense of starting over yet again.

During this upcoming new year, I tell myself, I shall be even simpler than last year. I shall aspire to being the least materialistic of all people I know. I want to be like water seeping into the Earth. Now that I've lived below the cloud, inside the cloud and above the cloud, I aspire to be the cloud itself, to dissipate as the sun rises over the eastern ridge.

I'm not intimating that I'm about to leave this world. Remember that water seeping into the Earth enlivens land downslope; clouds dissipating into thin air charge that air with life-giving moisture.

When one withdraws from the physical world of needs and wants, one blossoms into another world entirely.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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