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 31, 2007

INTO THE CLOUDFOREST
Early this week a message came that more papers had been signed and that now I could enter the reserve. I'd received assurances like that before so I paid no attention. But then the invaders began dismantling their cabins, so maybe it was true. On Christmas Day, unwilling to take a chance that I'd be barred from entry again, before it was fully light I entered the reserve, which for so many years has been forcibly occupied by militant members of the campesino organization CIOAC.

The reserve occupies a mountain's west-facing slope. High up a broad band of cornfields cuts from one side to the other, as can be seen in a photo taken from a street in Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan last Thursday, near where I upload this Newsletter from a "ciber," at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071231p2.jpg.

When I reached those cornfields sunlight was just beginning to flood into the valley. I paused awhile catching my breath, gazing down on Pueblo Nuevo and the mountains beyond, seeing what you can also see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071231pn.jpg.

You can visualize this Newsletter as coming to you from a tiny, dark room next to a small, open-walled stationery shop on a narrow but busy street a little left of center in the picture.

Until entering the cloudforest on Christmas Day I hadn't been sure that enough intact forest remained to bother creating a nature reserve around it. Now I've decided that what's left after years of plunder is worth the effort to save, but just barely, and that only if down below the reserve's owner stops cutting trees pretty soon. In the cloudforest nearly all the accessible dwarf palms, orchids, bromeliads, Spanish Moss, Ground Cedar and other such cloudforest specialty plants that can adorn an altar or grow prettily in someone's garden have been looted.

Still, the remains of a cloudforest are there. It's like a mausoleum after a funeral, when all the flowers have been taken away. The fragrance and memories linger but most of what's left is just floors, walls and ceiling -- ground, tree trunks and naked lower branches. Seeing what had happened to the forest, and remembering how it was 20 years ago, I couldn't keep from thinking that this was a foreshadowing of the world we're bequeathing our children, a sepulchral world with floors, walls and ceilings, but bereft of soul.

*****

CHRISTMAS IS HARD ON ECOSYSTEMS
Just one or two days before me, someone had pillaged what holiday-colored plants they could. Suffering most was a species of bromeliad who through the eons had evolved exquisite adaptations for chilly, super-humid cloudforest conditions, but whose evolution hadn't reckoned with hunan hankerings for red and green decorations for Virgin of Guadalupe altars. This poor bromeliad produced an inflorescence of red bracts emerging from a nest of green blades, and that red and green combination at this season caused its extinction everywhere except on tree limbs higher than a man with a pole could reach. You can see one in my hand, discarded because its blades weren't green enough, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071231br.jpg.

Do you remember those tall Cannas with brilliant crimson blossoms shining so prettily in a little cove on my first trip into the reserve, the ones still shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071210he.jpg?

Someone had chopped them all down, surely for the red flowers. And they'd chopped the whole plants at the bases instead of just taking the flowers, and they'd even macheted the non-flowering shoots, as if they couldn't even stand the idea of something pretty maybe emerging there in the future.

One special plant I've only seen here on the most humid, cloudforest ridge tops was the Ground Cedar, a ground-running, spore-producing "fern ally" of the genus Lycopodium. It's a very primitive plant and finding one in the wild is always a pleasure. They should have covered the ground there, but were absent. During days leading up to Christmas, however, I found them as "Christmas specials" in the market. You can see some in the door of a frutaría, or fruit store, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071231ly.jpg.

During days leading up to Christmas, all along the main highway leading into town people were offering waist- high bags stuffed with Spanish Moss for sale. Spanish Moss also is favored for decorating altars and Virgin pictures.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

A point to be made, however, is that the ecosystem damage done here and similar places by poor folks pillaging their local forest is nothing compared to the destruction caused by the North's unrestrained consumption at this season. How many millions of trees had to be clearcut just for the wrapping paper and boxes littering livingroom floors on Christmas morning in the North?

Somehow I prefer being here, where at least the forces at work have faces, and people end up living in the landscapes they themselves destroyed.

*****

TREE FERNS GALORE
Maybe the most striking feature of the cloudflorest not yet obliterated is the presence of many tree ferns twenty feet high and higher. These are real ferns, reproducing by spores and with fronds unfurling as coiled-up fiddleheads. You can see a typical shot of one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071231al.jpg.

If someday the reserve develops as far as distributing literature with a logo, I think a tree-fern logo might be appropriate.

*****

THE BIRDS OF CHRISTMAS DAY
A tradition of this Newsletter is that on Christmas Day I list the birds that happen to be part of my life that day. Therefore, last Tuesday on my way up to the cloudforest and back I jotted down what I saw, and below I present the birds in the order they were seen. This wasn't really a birding hike, so these are just species I couldn't miss.

Since I began climbing before sunrise the first species were just heard, not seen, as they contributed to a diffuse, slow-pace "morning chorus," beginning when there was just enough light to see that the trees were green and the full moon dominated the western sky.

1) BROWN-BACKED SOLITAIRE, accelerating musical jumble
2) RUFOUS-COLLARED THRUSH, nasal robin warning calls
3) MOUNTAIN TROGON, monotonous kyow-kyow-kyow
4) BLUE-THROATED MOTMOT, a low "double-hoot," oot-oot
5) GRAY SILKY, ±5 in treetops with nasal k-liks
6) GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE, at clinic squeaking & popping
7) WHITE-CROWNED PARROT, ±10 screeching above treetops
8) CANYON WREN, descending series of sharp whistles
9) BLACK-HEADED SISKIN, ±5 in treetops, nasal teu

All the above were heard in oak-pine forest on the way up to the reserve as the morning grew lighter, revealing a splendidly blue, cloudless sky. In the reserve, climbing steeply through more oak-pine and then crossing the top belt of cornfields I identify nothing new. Inside the cloudforest I identify:

10) GOLDEN-BROWED WARBLER, like a Yellowthroat, but with chestnut cheeks and crown, foraging in underbrush

The Golden-browed Warbler is the only species identified in the cloudforest, where I saw several foraging alone. Inside the cloudforest it was so cool (52° F, 11° C) and humid that my binoculars and glasses misted terribly. Also the light was so intense and shadows so stark that what few other birds I saw showed up as mere silhouettes. It was frustrating, but dreamlike, causing me feel as if I were being toyed with by light and vapor. My hands got so cold I couldn't use my fingers properly and that sharpened the sensation that I was out of control, drifting in an ethereal world bent on showing me how illusory things truly are.

The following were seen as I descended back into warmer air and softer lifht, passing across the upper cornfield and coming to the oak-pine woods edge. By now wind had begun shaking tree limbs, making it even harder to spot birds.

11) ACORN WOODPECKER, ±5 with noisy rattling calls from treetops at wood's edge
12) TUFTED FLYCATCHER, 2 conspicuously flying in and out of trees catching insects over cornfield
13) BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLER, foraging at wood's edge
14) NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW, one soaring over upper cornfield, landing in dead tree, nervously gawking around as if unfamiliar with this area
15) GREEN JAY, noisily complaining from shadowy brush
16) WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD, at red salvias
17) WILSON'S WARBLER, foraging at wood's edge
18) BAND-BACKED WREN, gruff, rollicking she-eh eh-eh-eh from shadowy brush at woods edge
19) ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK, silent female watching me from woods edge, not moving at all
20) CINNAMON-BELLIED FLOWERPIERCER among red salvias
21) SUMMER TANAGER giving same pik-u-ruk call heard in North America during the summer
22) AZURE-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD working red salvias

The above list holds fewer migrants from North America than I'd expected -- the Black-throated Green Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Summer Tanager. A couple of months ago trees were full of migrant Townsend's Warblers so their absence now surprises me. However, Wilson's Warblers were abundant then and even more so now. Over half the time if something was moving in brush or lower trees it proved to be a Wilson's.

What could have been the star of the list got away. Entering the cloudforest zone but in a disturbed area with grass over my head and stunted trees, two large, unseen birds flushed from nearby treetops. They were so large and clumsy-sounding that they were surely turkey- like Cracids -- very possibly Great Curassows or Horned Guans, which the local hunters swear are present, or maybe Highland Guans, also called Black Penelopinas, which also should be here.

*****

LEAFMINER ART
In the oak-pine zone below the cloudforest many broad leaves of oak saplings were ornamented with leafminer tunnels. Leafminers are the larval stages of certain insects that burrow through leaves, staying between the leaf blades' upper and lower epidermal cells. Often you can see that where the burrowing began -- where the egg hatched and the wormlike larva began eating -- the tunnel is narrow, but as the larva keeps eating it grows and the tunnel consequently enlarges. When the larva finally stops eating, emerges from the tunnel and metamorphoses, often you can see the hole left by the emerged larva.

On Christmas day I found an oak leaf with all the above evidences, and even more, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071231lm.jpg.

I can't be sure that the moth at the end of the tunnel is the adult of the larval leafminer who made the tunnel, but I think it is. One point to keep in mind is that Lepidopterids (butterflies and moths) undergo complete metamorphosis, so when the leafmining larva emerged probably it first metamorphosed into a quiescent pupa, or resting stage, before emerging as the moth.

*****

SEEING BEYOND NOSTALGIA'S PIG
On Christmas Day as I descended from the cloudforest I paused in the upper cornfield to warm in the sunlight and enjoy the view.What caught my eye wasn't in the distance, however, but rather right next to me as I sat on the ground. What I saw was sunlight filtering through a cornstalk's fading leaf-blade, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071231co.jpg.

If I were to paint an abstract picture portraying "who I am," I can't imagine producing anything saying it better than that picture. The elemental greens, blues and browns of the Earth and sky, the simple lines, the intense and substantial shadow amidst a rainbow of greens glowing so effervescently that they're more yellow than green, all executed by a somehow sad but very beautiful, dying cornstalk. For me, at that moment in the cornfield on Christmas Day, suddenly I was a kid back in rural Kentucky long ago, all of a sudden with roots again, and those roots were lusty and deep.

When one is exiled from his country and culture, whether for politics or ethical principles, at any time of the day or night, from the most unlikely places, nostalgia is likely to stab from nowhere, leaving you stunned and senseless, gawking at the most innocent-seeming of things.

So, as I descended to Yerba Buena, I thought about the mighty force of nostalgia, and what I decided about it made me worry. For, soul-bending, inescapable nostalgia is the very engine of tradition, and it turns out that many of our favorite traditions are venomous to Life on Earth. By "venomous" I mean that if most humans on Earth practiced them, the resulting pollution, monoculture land-use, carbon spewed into the air, etc., would wreck the living Earth-ecosystem.

People down here traditionally adorn their Virgin of Guadalupe altars with red and green plants, so nostalgia sent legions of Christmas-spirited folks out ravaging the ecosystem. One of the greatest dangers to Life on Earth well may be that humans prove defenseless in the face of deep-seated nostalgia.

But, to save Life on Earth, right now humanity absolutely must begin dealing with its nostalgic impulses, and abandon its unsustainable traditions.

On an individual basis, one thing this means is that we must learn to judge the effects on the ecosystem of our own behavior. Seeing the Christmas ham on the table, we must learn to see also the large amount of grain the pig had to eat to amass his flesh. We must see all the monocultured land used to grow that pig's grain, and all the pesticides that seeped into rivers to keep that grain bug free. We must see the carbon spewed into the air by diesel-powered engines transporting the grain and we must see how our paying to have that pig killed and dismembered so we could eat his flesh profoundly desensitizes us to other living things, making it even more unlikely that we'll even care whether the rest of the biosphere survives or not.

But, seeing beyond the pig is only part of the answer to how Life on Earth might be saved.

Seeing, then we must react rationally and lovingly, and trade those of our traditions that kill the Earth, for traditions more life-confirming, such as welcoming the New Annual Cycle at the Solstice, welcoming spring's returning migrant birds, and welcoming the first Dogwood blossoms.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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