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.}

January 7, 2008

FALL, SPRING, SUMMER... ?
A Northerner with firm ideas about each of the four seasons will find the current season here confusing. For example, passing by a little woodland pool below my dwelling, you'll see red, yellow, orange and brown autumn leaves floating atop inky water, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080107al.jpg.

Those are mostly Sweetgum, Blackgum and Poison Ivy leaves and leaflets, exactly as you might see in an eastern North American forest in September or October. The forest floor as well is littered with dry, crunchy, autumny leaves. Especially this week as Coldwave #18 blew over the ridge bringing frost to Chiapas's higher elevations it smelled, felt and often looked like a northern fall with winter in the makings.

But, some of the oaks who have lost nearly all their leaves are issuing catkins of male flowers, and our pines are absolutely flooding the area with pollen, exactly as if it were spring. If you want a really springy feeling, just look at the peach blossoms at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080107pb.jpg.

Actually, peach trees have been blossoming sporadically for the last couple of months, but they're reaching a flowering peak right now. How pretty is a leafless peach tree in full bloom, with the blue sky behind pink blossoms emerging from gnarly, black limbs. In the forest, several trees are lustily issuing shoots from recently burst buds just as if it's been decided that the last killing frost had passed, though that kind of thinking doesn't work here.

Then atop all that, there are still plenty of summery things around, such as the 2½-inch broad morning-glory flower shown glowing so warmly beneath the blue sky at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080107ip.jpg.

So, which of the four seasons is it? Of course this is a wrong-headed question from the beginning. Our season is simply our season, expressing itself in its own perfectly correct manner. If the forest seems to ask which season it is, it's nothing less than the Zen master inquiring about the sound of one hand clapping.

Moreover, as with Zen, the wisdom of the season lies less in any right answer than in the recognition that we ourselves can expand beyond the usual manner of thinking and feeling.

*****

IN A MORNING-GLORY'S THROAT
The last picture's morning-glory blossom bears looking into, not only because it's pleasing to do so but because there's something interesting inside, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080107iq.jpg.

There, down in the sunlight-charged blossom throat, you see two very different things. Notice that the object on the left is held a little apart from the other items. That's because what's on the left is an almost- spherical stigma atop a slender style, which are parts of the female pistil. If you'd follow the style deeper into the flower you'd see that it arises atop the ovary, which later will mature into a seed-bearing fruit. At the stigma and style's right you see five male stamens with their oblong, pollen-encrusted anthers clumped together.

None of this is unusual. About the only halfway special thing about morning-glory flowers is that their corollas, instead of consisting of distinct petals, are funnel- to bell-shaped.

Still, whenever I meet a new member of the Morning-Glory Family, the Convolvulaceae, there's one special thing I always check for down in the blossom's throat: I look to see what shape the stigma is.

For, in the Morning Glory Family the two largest, most commonly encountered genera are look-alike CONVOLVULUS, often called bindweeds or dwarf morning-glories, and IPOMOEA, the true morning-glories, of which the Sweet Potato is one. The nice thing is that if you're unsure whether you have a Convolvulus or an Ipomoea just remember that the stigmas of Convolvuluses are oblong to long and slender, while the stigmas of Ipomoeas approach being spherical. They're "globose," like a globe.

The stigma in our picture's flower is fairly globose, so it's an Ipomoea. Breedlove's Flora of Chiapas lists 53 Ipomoea species for Chiapas and I have no way of knowing which species graces my picture.

*****

MALE PINE FLOWERS
As I said, pines are flooding the area with pollen. It's easy to see where the pollen originates, for the green boughs of each mature pine are now ornamented with yellow bunches of male flowers, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080107pf.jpg.

The male flower structures in the picture will lengthen until they're like dangling worms, then once their pollen is shed they'll fall off and litter the ground. During my hermit days in southwestern Mississippi the Loblolly Pines' abundant "worms" fell in March, and that was something I always looked forward to.

Since angiosperms are known as flowering plants, and pines are gymnosperms, the question arises as to whether the pine's male flowers really are flowers.

Back in college I learned that a flower is "An axis (stem from which other things arise) bearing one or more pistils, or one or more stamens, or both." Using that definition we see that our gymnosperm-pine's clusters of stamens really are flowers.

The big difference between angiosperms and gymnosperms is that in gymnosperms no ovary wall surrounds the ovules, which later mature into seeds. In the pine's budlike female flower, the ovules are "nakedly" exposed on tiny bracts or modified leaves. In angiosperms, ovules are protected within ovary walls. Think of peas in a pod. Once the peas were ovules, and the pod was an ovary wall.

Remember that flower terms are defined at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm.

While you have the above pine flowers on your screen you should notice the young pine needles emerging from their brownish, semitransparent sheathes at the branch tip. These sheathes protect tender new needles rather as leafy stipules protect emerging leaves of deciduous trees.

By the way, can you guess what you're seeing at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080107pp.jpg?

That's a view into my blue-plastic, rainwater-catching tub, which besides some rainwater has caught a bleached Sweetgum leaf, a pine needle and a whole bunch of pine pollen.

*****

SPARROWS OF UPLAND CHIAPAS
North American birders know that sparrows can be lots of fun because some species can be tricky to identify, some are very secretive, some are migratory, some are restricted to very narrow habitats and some are of limited distribution. In a typical state like Kentucky about 17 sparrow species can be looked for.

By "sparrow" I mean members of certain genera of the Emberizid subfamily of the big Emberizid Family -- which does NOT include House Sparrows or English Sparrows, which are actually weaver finches belonging to an entirely different Old-World family.

Actually, when you view the Emberizid Family in its entirety you see that it's not always perfectly clear what's a sparrow and what's not. Mexico's Juncos, grassquits, brushfinches, seedfinches, seedeaters and ground-sparrows come awfully close to being sparrows.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/birds-ch.htm I list eight just-plain sparrows for upland Chiapas:

PERMANENT RESIDENT THROUGHOUT UPLANDS:

1) Rusty Sparrow
2) Rufous-collard (Andean) Sparrow

PERMANENT RESIDENT, UPPER SLOPES OF CENTRAL DEPRESSION:

3) Botteri's Sparrow
4) Olive Sparrow

PERMANENT RESIDENT ON GULF SLOPE:

5) Chipping Sparrow

MIGRANT, WINTER VISITOR THROUGHOUT:

6) Grasshopper Sparrow
7) Lincoln's Sparrow

At Yerba Buena the main sparrow is the Rusty, haunting weeds in the abandoned garden down below, which now is being converted to blackberry monoculture. This species specializes in scrubby second growth and forest edges, and is distributed from northern Mexico to Costa Rica. It's a big species, 17cm long compared to the Song Sparrow's 14 cm. It looks a little like a female House Sparrow, and the juveniles with their heavily streaked breasts can look like Song Sparrows.

At woody edges of the invaders' cornfields often you see loose flocks of chink-calling Rufous-collard or Andean Sparrows wandering from place to place. They're distributed from southern Mexico to Tierra del Fuego and the white, black-bordered throats and rusty collar of the male make it a handsome, easy-to-identify bird.

Earlier, overwintering Lincoln's Sparrows lived in the abandoned garden down below but blackberry activities seem to have driven them off.

*****

A MONGREL HEN
I'll bet you've never seen a chicken like the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080107mh.jpg.

Inés's critters are a motley lot, paying little attention to racial purity when they mate, so you see strains of this and that walking about in dog, cat, turkey, chicken, whatever.

In 2006's December 11 Newsletter archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061211.htm. I told you about Mexico's featherless-necked chickens which, I wrote, "may be a race sometimes called 'Naked Necks,' first developed in Hungary, then refined in Germany, and now popular in some tropical countries, especially the Far East. They are known as hardy, vigorous birds who are good layers, producing brown eggs, their main weakness being an intolerance to cold."

Here you see lots of Naked Necks, especially in indigenous communities. The hen in the picture is part Naked Neck, but not all. You know she's not a pure-bred Naked Neck because her neck is too feathery, especially the front part.

When I was a kid my family raised chickens so we could sell their eggs. One spring we ordered "novelty breed" eggs from the back of a farm magazine. The eggs arrived in our mailbox, we incubated them, got nice little chicks, and when they grew up they had fluffy-topped heads just like the hen in the picture. Sometimes we'd just look at those chickens and laugh our heads off. Well, those were simpler times.

So, the hen in the picture is part Naked Neck, and part of that breed my family got such a laugh out of back in the 1950s.

*****

A TUB OF HOT WATER
This week Coldwave #18 brought freezing temperatures to Mexico City and Chiapas's higher elevations. Beginning Tuesday afternoon and lasting until Thursday afternoon it rained between seven and eight inches (18-20cm). The coldest it got at Yerba Buena was 42°F (5.5°C). Number 18 was considered unusual not only because it reached this far south but also because it was accompanied by high winds -- 75 mph (120 kmh) on the coast.

Friends write to me about similar polar blasts descending into North America and Europe. Often people experiencing such cold fronts express doubt as to whether the Earth really is undergoing global warming. When I hear this I want to tell how my mother on the farm back in Kentucky used to heat clothes-washing water in a big washtub atop our cast-iron, coal-burning stove.

I liked to play in the water as it warmed. One day it occurred to me to determine at how many levels in the warming water I could detect differences in temperature with my outspread hand held parallel with the tub's bottom. My hypothesis was that water near the tub's bottom would be very hot while water at the surface would still be cool, and that I'd be able to feel a smooth gradient from hot bottom to cool top.

That wasn't the case at all. Once the water had heated a while, water at mid level felt almost as hot as that near the bottom. Moreover, often one side of my outspread hand felt hot while the other side felt cool. As the water heated more I uderstood why as convection currents became visible. Circulating convection currents were transferring hot water at the tub's bottom higher up, as well as cold surface water deeper, and convection current begat convection current so that any given water molecule passing from current to current might travel from the tub's bottom to its top, and back to the bottom again.

That's what's happening now with the global climate. More and more heat is being added to a closed system -- the Earth -- causing atmospheric convection currents to grow more and more robust. This causes hot equatorial air to penetrate deeper and deeper into temperate zones, and cold polar air to travel farther and farther toward the equator. The end result will be the same as resulted with my mother's washtub: A dangerously hot container.

An insidious part of this story is that more and more people are growing up lacking elemental experiences with Nature and reality such as those I had with my mother's washtub. The problem is that such real-life experiences are needed to fully grasp the current dangers to Life on Earth. In Germany I had a friend who'd grown up in such a protective, academic environment that one day when she was asked to prepare her first boiled egg it became apparent that she'd never been sufficiently impressed with how liquids splatter to know that dropping the an from several inches above the boiling water was unwise. And she had a Ph.D. at that time...

Therefore: Let kids play in the muck and go to old- fashioned summer camps to learn canoeing, campfire building, birdnest making, frog-stalking etc. Let them get at least a little sweaty, dirty, smelly, bruised, scratched, and roughed up, and I do hope that sometime during every kid's childhood he or she will be exposed to at least one big tub of heating-up water.

*****

NAFTA TORTILLAS
On January 1 the prices of many basic foods here were raised significantly. Corn, milk, sugar, flour -- everything costs more now, and prices have been rising at an accelerating rate for a long time. Despite my eating eight kilos of bananas every week (17.6 pounds) because they're cheap calories my gut can digest, my food costs here are higher than in the US where I can buy bulk cornmeal, flour, cooking oil and such at big supermarkets. Here items such as dental floss and vitamin pills cost several times what they do in the US.

And yet, the minimum wage here is less than five dollars a day. Men doing heavy labor from dawn to late afternoon tell me that typical pay begins at seven dollars a day and, if they work hard and come to work regularly, they can hope to get eight dollars. People try to land coffee-picking jobs downslope because during peak season they can make 100 pesos, or ten dollars a day.

Also on January 1 a new feature of NAFTA went into effect permitting corn, sugar and other basic commodities to flow into Mexico from the US and Canada much easier than before. Protests erupted all over Mexico, including here in Chiapas, for everyone knows that this means even higher prices for essential foods. Here's why higher prices will result:

Now that corn, sugar and the rest flow freely across NAFTA borders, these items effectively form enormous commodity pools to be drawn from by consumers throughout the NAFTA trade zone. Whoever offers the most money will be sold the pooled commodity, thus effectively setting the commodity's price from northern Canada to here. With oil we've seen that if, for example, a pipeline is blown up in Nigeria, the price of crude in Texas rises. Now that same mechanism functions for corn, sugar and the rest in the NAFTA zone.

Already the corn equivalent of a blown-up pipeline in Nigeria is happening: Developed countries changing to ethanol-based fuels are causing the price of all grain used to make ethanol rise dramatically. With the new NAFTA rules, car-driving North Americans are placed in direct competition for NAFTA-pooled corn with Mexicans who need that corn to eat. Since North Americans have the money, they'll set the corn's price.

Moreover, with the developed countries' unquenchable thirst for biofuels, already the process has begun of converting millions of acres of tropical rainforest to monoculture palm-oil plantations, and soon millions of acres of life-nurturing North American "marginal land" will be converted to Switchgrass monoculture.

Sitting down here watching the price of tortillas skyrocket, one wishes that more people in the North would think in terms of mass transit, biking and walking.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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

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