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 28, 2008

POCKET GOPHER?
Both the most exciting and most frustrating event of last week occurred Saturday morning when the firewood wardens brought me a critter they'd just found in one of the invaders' cornfields. You can see a top view at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128ph.jpg.

The much more interesting bottom view is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128pg.jpg.

Look at those cheek pouches! Obviously it's a rodent. I'm guessing that it's a pocket gopher, though I have no experience with such animals. What's frustrating is that here I not only have no browsing access to the Internet, but also no field guides to remind me of the differences between plain gophers and pocket gophers, and what other closely related mammals exist. If you have a mammal field guide and possibly access to literature telling what gopher-type rodents are found down here, I'd love to hear from you. You can write to me at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/writejim.htm.

The fellows spotted the critter hurrying across the ground but upon their approach it stopped and hunkered up, apparently "playing possum" by feigning death and thus maybe causing enemies to lose interest. When the wardens flipped over the animal green, compacted balls of clipped-off leaves fell from the cheek pouches.

For any mammalogist out there needing exact measurements for an identification, in the first picture the length of the finger next to my small finger, from crease with the palm to the tip, is exactly 77 mm, or 3.03 inches. The tail was very short, about 2.5 cm, or an inch. Note the grooved incisors. I'm very interested in knowing if this is another disjunct, ice-age relict, like our Sweetgums and Black Tupelos.

*****

NORTHERN FLICKERS, CHIAPAS VERSION
The chunky, brownish flicker hopping on pine-straw- covered ground outside my window as I type this looks different from the Yellow-shafted Flickers I grew up with in Kentucky, and the Red-shafted Flickers that later I saw out West.

The head-tops, or crowns, of North American flickers are gray to gray-brown, but the crown of the bird outside my window is more reddish, a rich cinnamon color. Moreover, northern flickers are weakly barred across their backs, while the barring on my window bird is much more intense, almost Zebra-like. My window-flicker reminds me of a woman who's spent an hour on her mascara accentuating her most attractive features. What's going on here?

Back in the 60s my old Peterson Field Guide made the flicker situation pretty simple: The East's Yellow- shafted flickers showed yellow in their wings when the flew, the West's Red-shafted ones showed red. But eventually someone reflected on the fact that in the sliver of the country where the two flickers' distributions overlapped they interbred, and flickers flew around displaying orange in their wings. Since two different species aren't supposed to freely hybridize under normal conditions, the Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted forms were "lumped" into one species now called the Northern Flicker, COLAPTES AURATUS.

But, it's much more interesting than that. It turns out that Northern Flickers are fracturing, or evolving, not into two groupings but... at least FIVE, according to Howell! They are:

Each of these groups not only looks a little different from the others but also has its own habitat preferences. Members of the chrysoides group, the "Gilded Flickers," are truly iconoclastic, inhabiting deserts where they nest in big cacti instead of trees.

As the Red-shafted form intergrades with the Yellow- shafted form in North America, in northwestern Mexico Red-shafteds intergrade with the desert Gilded form.

Here south of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec we have only the mexicanoides form, inhabiting uplands from Chiapas to Nicaragua.

What a pleasure thinking about all this stuff as I move around, being witness to new species forming before my eyes!

*****

AMERICAN PAINTED LADY
The other day a particularly fast-moving, jerky-flying butterfly flitted out of a sunny afternoon's hot air and landed in a spot where I sometimes go pee. Butterflies just love that spot and I always feel a certain pleasure when I pee there knowing that maybe some of the salts from my body will just thrill a needful butterfly.

This butterfly looked very familiar. I took its picture and you can see if you recognize it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128vv.jpg.

Mike at the Mariposas Mexicanas website confirmed my suspicion: It was nothing other than the American Painted Lady, VANESSA VIRGINIENSIS, a species I grew up with in Kentucky, was a hermit with in Mississippi, and which you may have encountered anyplace from Central Canada to Cuba and Guatemala.

Actually, there's another very common, wide-ranging butterfly of the same genus, the Painted Lady, so similar that you probably need to compare wing illustrations in a butterfly field guide to tell them apart.

The Yerba Buena area is a good place for both of these butterflies because members of the genus Vanessa are known as Thistle Butterflies, and thistles are common here. American Painted Lady caterpillars specialize in feeding on thistle-related plants I refer to as cudweeds, which are abundant here, and which I talk about next.

*****

CUDWEED THE FAT WOLF
You can see a cudweed on a roadcut near my place at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128gn.jpg.

Cudweeds are plain-looking members of the Composite or Sunflower Family, which means that their many tiny flowers are crammed together into flowerlike heads. One way to recognize cudweeds is by the white, cobwebby hairs mantling their bodies, and by their clumped-together flower heads lacking petal-like ray flowers. In the old days the cudweed species I dealt with were placed into the easy-to-recognize genus Gnaphalium but now Gnaphalium has been broken into smaller genera that only nit-picking taxonomists can appreciate.

No matter where I've traveled on Earth whenever I've seen cudweed -- and species occur practically worldwide -- I've always remembered the first time I came to Yerba Buena 25 or 30 years ago. At that time the clinic was operational and I was invited to participate in my first medical-service trip deep into the mountains to a village served by no roads, no electricity, no stores and certainly no medical attention. Burros carried supplies over narrow, muddy footpaths. It was my first time seeing just how impoverished and bad-off some of these backcountry settlements are.

I was assigned to hold people's heads as the clinic's dyslexic handyman pulled, levered and cut out rotten teeth, even after the Novocain ran out. Student nurses went hut to hut offering what help they could, mainly giving women advice on dealing with their pregnancies, but also counseling on treating tuberculosis, which infected a large portion of the adult population. A goodly number of people -- and not all were old -- were clearly coughing themselves to death.

For any and all respiratory problems, including TB cases, the student nurses prescribed gordolobo, a lobo gordo being a "fat wolf." Gordolobo is the name people here use for the plant I call cudweed. Weedy, overgrazed, eroding pastures surrounding such settlements always produce cudweed in abundance. For all chest ailments just go pick a cudweed bouquet, put it in boiling water, drink the tea, and hope for the best.

Maximino Martínez's Las Plantas Medicinales de México confirms cudweed/gordolobo's use for chest disorders, and expands its use to controlling coughing, and soothing sore throats. He prescribes making teas from the flowers but I've seen people use the whole plants. I've brewed the rather bland, yellowish teas both ways but can't say whether they work or not, since I've never had a cold in cudweed/gordolobo country.

With regard to the name cudweed, I wonder how many Americans these days even know what a cud is? Back on the farm in Kentucky "cud," which rhymes with "good," was a term as commonly used and homey-feeling as "worsh-house" and "fart." A cud is a wad of partially digested plant material brought up from a cow's or othr ruminant's first stomach when there's nothing else around to chew on. The critter stands around blankly staring at barn walls or fence posts as they chew on (ruminate) their cud until it's mashed up enough to swallow again and send to the second stomach. If you don't know about complex three- and four-chambered stomachs you may want to do a word search on "ruminant."

My tobacco-chewing kinfolk also used to carry "cuds" of tobacco in their coverall pockets. Fancier chewers called cuds "quids."

*****

"INDIAN PAINTBRUSHES"
Quotation marks appear around the name because "Indian Paintbrush" is one of those names people give to any and all red-topped wildflowers. Overuse makes the name practically useless. However, I can't think of any other English Name for the red-topped plant nowadays growing weedily and prettily along our roads. You can one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128cj.jpg.

That's a member of the genus Castilleja, of which Breedlove's Flora of Chiapas lists five species for Chiapas. Here "Indian Paintbrushes" are called "Cola de Borregos," or "Sheep-tails." In North America several Castilleja species are favorite wildflowers so in your wildflower book you may want to see if species live in your area. They're worth looking for.

The red items in the picture are not flowers, but rather "bracts," or modified leaves, which arise below each small, barely noticeable flower. The dark-tipped, yellowish-green items that might be flowers are actually just the calyx's two sepals extending above and around the very small, bean-flower-like blossoms. At the bottom of the larger plant you can see dark brown fruits containing many tiny seeds.

During nearly all my wildflower-sniffing career I've accepted that the genus Castilleja belongs in the Figwort or Snapdragon Family, the Scrophulariaceae. However, recent genetic studies have shifted Castilleja to the Broomrape Family, the Orobanchaceae, in which reside such weird, non-green, root-parasitizing plants as Squawroot, Beechdrops and Cancer-root.

At first this reclassification seemed absurd but then it began dawning on me that Castilleja's flowers and fruits are indeed very similar to those of Squawroot and the others, and taxonomy, at least traditionally, has always been predominantly based on features of flowers and fruits. Apparently all these years taxonomists have been so blinded by the fact that Castillejas bear green leaves that they failed to appreciate the similarities of the genus's flowers and fruits with those of the Broomrape Family.

Similarly, until recently taxonomists regarded all members of the Broomrape Family as non-green, non-photosynthesizing root parasites, but now genetic sequencing shows that the family can be regarded as being in a state of transition, evolving from a primitive non-parasitic state to a more complex, completely parasitic one. Castillejas also steal part of their food from the roots of other plants, even as they manufacture part of their food through photosynthesis.

You wildflower connoisseurs may also be surprised that the common wildflowers once placed in the genus Gerardia now have been broken up and shifted to the same Broomrape Family along with Castillejas, and are also semi-parasitic on other plants' roots.

*****

ORCHID PSEUDOBULBS
For the last couple of weeks a sweetly fragrant, pretty little orchid has been blossoming on a tree trunk near my dwelling. You can see what it looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128o1.jpg.

My friend with the Orquídeas de México book seems to have disappeared, so I can only guess that it's an Oncidium, of which Breedlove's "Flora of Chiapas" lists 24 species. Don't forget that the Orchid Family embraces the greatest number of species of any plant family. My old Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants estimates that about 300 Oncidium species exist, all in the New World. If you want to try to identify my neighboring tree species, a flower close-up resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128o3.jpg.

When identifying orchids you're profoundly grateful for any feature that can be easily observed, instead of having to master the Orchid Family's unique and hard-to-decipher anatomy. One of those easy-to-see features is that of "pseudobulbs." Some genera have them and some don't. Oncidium does, and you can see a close-up of the above plant's pseudobulbs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128o2.jpg.

Pseudobulbs, or "false bulbs," are thickened, solid and above-ground stem sections on certain orchids. They're stem material, not root. Sometimes you see clusters of pseudobulbs on a tree trunk, the leaves and flowers having dried up and fallen off. Pseudobulbs' internal tissue is typically like the green, dense, succulent, mucilaginous flesh of an Aloe blade. The pseudobulb's main purpose seems to be to store water and nutrients, though many orchid species survive perfectly well without them.

*****

MONSTERAS
Another plant very common both in the Sweetgum-oak-pine forest I live in and the cloudforest along the ridgetop is the climbing plant with holey leaves shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128mn.jpg.

This is obviously an "aroid," or member of the Arum or Jack-in-the-pulpit Family, the Araceae. This is another huge family in which we find such well-known ornamentals as philodendrons, anthuriums, caladiums, Elephant's Ears, and Taro with its edible tubers. Like the Orchid Family, the Arum Family has many of its own peculiarities, and also here one is happy when an easy-to-see feature can be used in identification.

The climbing plant in the picture is a monstera, genus Monstera. As a group, monsteras are fairly easy to recognize from other aroids. First of all, many aroid genera exude milky sap when they're injured, but monsteras don't.

Also, if you see an aroid climbing a tree and its leaves have naturally occurring holes in them like those in the photo, usually but not always it's a member of the genus Monstera.

A succulent climber with holey leaves that don't exude milky sap when they're torn -- monstera, probably! As usual, to be absolutely sure you'll need flowers and fruits.

Monsteras are tropical American plants with about 30 species in the genus. Breedlove mentions six species for Chiapas.

*****

BUTTERCUP ENCHANTMENT
"Enchantment" doesn't feel like the word I'm needing, but I can't find another one. I'm thinking of a state of mind in which a stimulus evokes an emotional response far more intense that what is rational or to be expected. The enchantment I'm referring to results when something comes along that feels so perfectly in agreement with something inside you that it stuns you, leaves you wordless, mellowed, and changed for a long time, maybe permanently.

Certain melodies act upon me like this -- for example, the first few measures of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, I think it's called. As a child I was enchanted by the green, bubbly worlds of aquaria, and anything having to do with tunnels.

Probably in the year 1967 I took my first botany class at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. I recall one sunny February or March afternoon when I carried my new Gleason & Cronquist Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada down to Bowling Green's main cemetery, sat in the grass leaning against a sun-warmed tombstone, took out my new handlens, and began identifying my first unknown plant by using a technical "key."

The first plant I successfully identified that day was Ranunculus abortivus, a weedy buttercup that -- if it's somewhere like the south side of a tombstone -- blossoms long before the last frost. I've not seen Ranunculus abortivus here, but other buttercups (other species of the genus Ranunculus) are flowering, reminding me of that sunny winter day in Bowling Green many years ago. You can see one outside my door at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128bu.jpg.

At the right in that picture you see a typical buttercup flower about half an inch across. Note that it bears many stamens (the yellow, fingerlike things radiating from the flower's center), and in the center, if you could look with a handlens, you'd see that instead of just one pistil, which most kinds of flower have, there are several. At the left in the picture you see immature fruits developing after the petals have fallen off. A slender, stigma-tipped, pale style tops each green, shiny ovary. One last thing making a buttercup a buttercup, but which doesn't show in the photo, is that each petal bears at its base a tiny cuplike scale where nectar accumulates.

Identifying my first unknown plant using technical features "enchanted" me. The process of systematically working toward a name as my mind was thrust into such details as stamen number, pistil anatomy, and nectar-scale presence left me stunned, even healed a part of my soul that had felt out of balance for a long time. For the first time ever I glimpsed "the geometry of the Universe," and that day I knew that, henceforward, through botany, I'd have an open door to it.

Studying by yourself, you can do the same thing I did that day in Bowling Green, and you can be enchanted and healed the same way I was. This is the very time to start. As this new annual cycle begins you can teach yourself identification techniques, you can start making lists of plants and animals, and you can create a door you can walk through to behold "the geometry of the Universe."

My website at http://www.backyardnature.net was created exactly to help people do this. In the "Tools" section you can read all about identification keys and field guides, magnifying glasses, etc., and other sections can introduce you to whatever corner of Nature you feel most vulnerable to being enchanted by.

Let me know how it all turns out.

*****

POLLEN SUPERFLUITY
In my January 7th Newsletter I showed you how pine pollen gathered atop my drinkwater in the blue tub beneath my duplex-ruin eves. I should have waited until now to show you. You can see the same tub today at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128po.jpg.

What an amazing amount of yellow pollen issues every day from the pines around me! A Black-throated Green Warbler flies into a pine and yellow pollen from dozens of jarred male-flower spikes puffs into the sunlight. Maybe this is why my ear-holes and eyes itch so!

Actually, there's a story behind this pollen superfluity.

For, pines, are conifers (cone-producers), and in the course of evolutionary history conifers evolved approximately 285 million years ago. The first flowering plants came into existence only about 135 million years ago. Therefore, conifers are relatively primitive inventions. One way to think about the pines' superabundance of pollen is that it's produced by a kind of plant that arose long before a more efficient manner of plant-sex was figured out by the flowering plants. Pines are stuck using a wasteful, inefficient shotgun-approach to unite male sex germs in pollen with female sex germs in ovules. This in a time when more recently evolved flowering plants often enlist insects to transfer pollen from male stamens directly to female stigmas, almost with laser-like accuracy.

There's even another story behind that. Why would Nature tolerate such an outdated sex technique? Why doesn't She let the old fogies go extinct, and let the revolutionary young take over?

One answer lies in the question, "What will happen when the orchid's insect pollinator goes extinct for one reason or another?" Obviously, the orchid will go extinct, too.

Behind Mother Nature's obsession with diversity there is always wisdom, whether the human mind can grasp it or not.

Yet another point to notice is this: During the early days of evolution the dominant theme with such robust but sloppy pollen production was "primal urgency," while in modern times the dominant theme has become elegant, efficient refinement, typically involving simplification and fusion of parts.

In the end we see Nature abiding the Middle Path, entertaining both rock-and-roll and crystalline fugues.

*****

SAVORING THE SENSE OF LEAVING
I've decided to leave Yerba Buena. As soon as this newsletter is issued on Monday I'm strapping on my backpack, catching a bus, and the next newsletter will begin at that point.

Knowing that I'm leaving, this week everything around me has brightened, sharpened, quickened with the fact of my pending departure. It's astonishing how quickly one grows accustomed to hearing Tzotzil drifting through the forest, or the Brown-backed Solitaire's bubbling, mellifluous, haunting song accompanying me each dawn as I jog, or finding a new orchid blossoming in a tree next to my dwelling. How I'll miss these things!

I've left Yerba Buena after long stays before, so I know what it's like. In times past, within half an hour of entering the bus I'm already so far downslope that instead of the cool, pine-scented air I've grown used to breathing gushing through bus windows, it's hot, heavy, wet air smelling of diesel, rotting fruit, mud and pig manure. Despite all of Yerba Buena's problems, it's always felt as if I were leaving behind a kind of Shangri-La glimmering high in the sky.

So, consciously I've been savoring these last days. As I walk from town one of the young, free-roaming horses permanently living along the road passes me and apparently just because he feels so good he starts galloping, bucking and kicking out his hind legs. Nothing less than a Universal-Creative-Force chuckle, this! A dirty-faced little Tzotzil kid wearing nothing but a Tweety-Pie T-shirt grins broadly at me from his hut's door and waves, as he always does, and I'll miss that kid. How prettily the clouds tumble over the ridge where the cloudforest is, and how I'd like to be up there right now as cloud-fog billows among big tree trunks, and gleaming dewdrops coalesce on bromeliad blades.

It's too bad we all don't have our senses perpetually sharpened by such a sense of leaving, all the time. For, indeed, we are all leaving, whether we admit it or not. Relative to "eternity," we're all here for a moment less remarkable than an eye-blink. We are all ephemeral, all in passing, everything is slipping away. The potted plant in the window merits our passionate attention and affection right now. And the world beyond that window, even more.

A butterfly flits by, as butterflies have flitted by every day since I've been here, but now each of its wingbeats detonates sparks of being alive right before my very eyes, right there, right now, and when it passes it leaves behind in mid-air a trail of poignant being-gone, good-by and I stand there dumbly looking after it, missing it mightily.

I hold my hand out, leathery red skin, wrinkles, blue veins, brown blotches but the forest beyond is green and wind blows through the boughs, so much life there, so much promise.

Yellow pagodas of male flowers dangle from oaks and pines almost more alive than I can stand.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net