JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

Written in the community of 28 de Junio and issued from a ciber in
San Francisco Pujiltic, Chiapas, MÉXICO
{I'm at about 800 meters in elevation, ± LAT 16° 18'N,  LONG -92° 28'W.}

February 4, 2008

MOVING 55 MILES SOUTHEAST
Last Monday morning immediately after issuing the Newsletter I strapped on my backpack, took the blue suitcase in hand, and flagged down a bus. Leaving Yerba Buena wasn't exactly like I described in the previous Newsletter because in past years I've always left by descending the Gulf Slope to the Tabasco lowlands. This time I headed south, not north.

By late afternoon I was sitting in the park in San Cristóbal de Las Casas watching tourists and nibbling tostados. I see so few gringo-type persons that I'm always astonished how succulent, pale, cool and reserved they look. That night I slept in a hotel room for the first time in many years, a perfectly good one with access to a hot shower, for $5 US.

Tuesday morning friends conducted me first eastward toward Guatemala, passing through mountains with fields whitened from the night's heavy frost. Just before Amatengango del Valle we turned south and began descending into the great Central Depression of Chiapas. Growing warmer each minute of descent, soon we entered sugarcane-growing country, as the view of a cane-laden truck through the smudgy windshield shows at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204su.jpg.

Roads deteriorated until finally a dirt/gravel trail brought us into the community named 28 de Junio, meaning "June 28th," at ± LAT 16° 18'N, LONG -92° 28'. I'm near the top of the first "e" in the word "Depression" in my Chiapas-physiography map at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/physiog.htm.

I'm only about 88 crow-flying kms southeast of Yerba Buena (55 miles) but here I'm at about 800 meters (2600 ft) in elevation, less than half as high as Yerba Buena's 1740 meters, so it's much hotter here, getting into the 90's each afternoon (low 30s Celsius). I'm in a valley between mountain ranges, so it's arid, being in rain shadows for weather fronts coming off both the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. Non-agricultural vegetation is mostly low, spiny forest similar to that of the Jalpan Valley back in Querétaro, though not quite as dry, and with many extra species with Pacific-Coast and Central American affinities.

The idea here is for me to help the community develop an ecotourism program and teach certain classes. In return they give me a cinderblock house all to myself surrounded by similar houses. I am writing to you from here: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204hr.jpg.

Here's the view through my front door showing the house across the street and the hill beyond: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204fd.jpg.

The community stores corn in a room of my house, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204cr.jpg.

Here are the kids outside my door as I type this: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204kd.jpg.

I'm back to sleeping beneath a mosquito net at night, which I've not done since Hacienda San Juan in the Yucatan. Geckos crawl on my walls again. I miss many things about Yerba Buena, but not the perpetual chill.

This area is a bit unstable politically. Two official international human-rights observers always stay in the community, a different pair arriving each fifteen days. Right now we have one from Austria and another from Oregon. That's all I intend to say about local politics and recent history from here on out, and you who know this area can congratulate me for showing at least that much sense.

*****

FIRST FIFTEEN CENTRAL DEPRESSION BIRDS
To give you a feeling for the common birds here, here's the list of the first ones I jot down as I randomly encounter them while exploring my new location, beginning with a good one:

1) WHITE-TAILED KITE, atop a leafless Cedro tree full of noisy Red-winged Blackbirds
2) RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS
, hundreds of them but very few showing red wing-patches, only one uttering the pretty kong-ka-ree call
3) WHITE-WINGED DOVE
, abundant, cooing all day long
4) INCA DOVE
, abundant on dusty roads and cornfields
5) TURKEY VULTURE
, common, circling all day
6) SOCIAL FLYCATCHER
, several shrilly and monotonously repeating tcheea, tcheea, tcheea all morning long
7) FERRUGINOUS PYGMY-OWL
, monotonously calling with a pulsating whistle about three whistles a second, easily imitated
8) HOUSE SPARROW
, several around houses
9) WESTERN KINGBIRD
, silent on electrical wire
10) PLAIN CHACHALACA
, flock raucously calling at dawn
11) GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER
, gorging marble-size figs in a dense, compact, leathery-leafed tree
12) CLAY-COLORED THRUSH (Robin)
, doing same
13) WHITE-THROATED MAGPIE-JAY
, four sailing in like Chinese kites to eat figs with the above
14) BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER
, buzzing, foraging tiny insects in feathery-leafed acacia
15) CATTLE EGRET
, among and atop grazing cattle

The only migrant winter-resident in the list is the Western Kingbird.

The most uncommon species is the first one sighted, the White-tailed Kite, ELANUS LEUCURUS MAJUSCULUS which, though rare in most places, is extensively distributed from southern Texas (disjunctly in California) to Nicaragua. It specializes in open country with scattered trees, just likehere. In the big Cedro tree the mostly white kite with black wing- patches posed like a silent, unmoving king above the swarming, noisy Red-winged Blackbird hoards below him.

Definitely the most gorgeous bird in the list is the White-throated Magpie-Jay, whose Latin name CALOCITTA FORMOSA says that it's a beautiful bird twice, in the roots "calo" and "formosa." A magpie-jay is just a glorified jay. This species is up to 22 inches long (56 cm) and glides through hot morning air with breath-taking grace. The very long tail is one thing worth seeing, but the most spectacular feature is the long, upside-down teardrop of a feather crowning the head like a cocky French cavalier's ostrich plume. The species is distributed along the Pacific Coast and a bit inland in places from southern Mexico to Costa Rica. I can't browse to find you a picture to link to, but maybe you'll look up the name using a search engine.

You might enjoy reading my report, accompanied by a drawing, resulting from my encounter with a Black- throated Magpie-Jay, either a close species or a subspecies of our White-throated, in 1996, up north on the Pacific slope in the state of Chihuahua, at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexbirds/05temori.htm. Scroll to about the middle of the long page.

*****

PIGEON-TOED IN THE DUST
Yerba Buena's cold nights and clouds boiling over the ridge just above are long gone. Now the thing to deal with is a bearing-down dry season's uncompromising heat and fire-hazard dryness.

Here there's no hint of temperate-zone, ice-age relict species. The pine-scented air is replaced by the odor of dust and the various manures of a tiny, struggling, backcountry settlement. Brown-backed Solitaires with their ethereal, bubbling, avalanching songs are replaced by roosters crowing in the morning and hens cackling after their midday laying, punctuated by pig- squeals, goat baaing, and homey-sounding House Sparrow chirps.

In late afternoon when the sun sinks low enough for it to feel a little cooler but the thermometer still reads 92°F (33.3°C), when Red-winged Blackbirds swarm across already-picked cornfields, rising into dusk's red-tinged air when you get too close, you see Inca Dove tracks wandering across the road's dust, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204pt.jpg.

Inca Doves are abundant here, always cooing whur-pu, whur-pu, and more than once when I've passed beneath a low-hanging branch a mother Inca Dove has exploded from her invisible nest so close that she ruffled the wispy fuzz atop my mostly bald head. When Inca Doves flush from the road they flash brightly rusty-red, or rufous, primaries and whirr their wings distinctively. If you don't know what an Inca Dove looks like, imagine a regular Mourning Dove, which is about 11 inches long, reduce its size to some 8.5 inches, square its long tail a bit, stain its primaries rufous, abundantly ornament it with a conspicuous, dark scaling pattern, and you pretty much have an Inca Dove. The scaling effect is so unusual that you may want to search for a picture.

Several species of small, ground-loving doves are referred to as ground-doves, and the Inca Dove is one of them. Closely related Common Ground-Doves are common here, too. They're also scaled, but not on the back, and they have much shorter tails than Inca Doves.

Did you know that the Pigeon/Dove Family is unique among birds in being able to drink by sucking up water? Birds typically fill their beaks, then raise their heads so that the water trickles down their throats.

*****

A DELINQUENT COW
Some of you may have lived such sheltered lives that you don't even know that in every herd -- unless it's one of those where each cow is practically a genetic clone of the others -- there's always at least one or two cows who habitually break through fences or at least poke their heads into places they shouldn't. Down here cattle herds by no means look like they're cloned. Some of our cows have character and get into their share of mischief.

You can see one such cow, as scrawny and ornery looking as a cow can look, and see what happened to it, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204yo.jpg.

When I was a kid in Kentucky I often saw felonious cattle dealt with like this, with a forked tree-branch hung around their necks. Most cattle so attired can't pass through a hole in a fence, though some still can. Basically such forked tree-branches limit the personal expression of a cow, and that's what the owner wants.

I guess that in the end most ranchers prefer docile, dumbed-down, uninventive cows because an animal doesn't really have to be charismatic when all you want to do with it is to kill it and eat it, or sell it.

However, something about the whole new system of farming inbred idiots rubs me the wrong way. I feel bad when I see how passive and spiritless today's northern herds look. I wish I could do or say something to stir them to rebellion, and make the world's semen-collectors and forked-tree-branch whittlers wish they'd never heard of a cow.

And the same for hamburger eaters.

*****

CARBONATE-RICH STREAMS
The main agricultural crop here is sugarcane. Several men in the 28 de Junio community leave before sunup each morning to go work in the cane fields, cutting it with machetes and loading it. It's a hard, hot and dirty job, especially because sugarcane fields are usually scorched with a controlled burn, to make the sugar in the plants' stems easier to extract, and this leaves the cane stems black with charcoal, which blackens the men. Laborers are paid by the amount of cane they cut and load. A typical salary for a hard- working man is about $12 US per day, which is better than in some places.

I've seen lots of sugarcane cultivation in the world but this is the first time I've seen large fields of it grown on hillsides, sometimes on fairly steep slopes. Sugarcane requires enormous amounts of water, so one secret to sugarcane-growing success here is that we have abundant water issuing from the chilly, relatively rainy highlands to our north.

Outcropping rock here is limestone, which chemically is calcium carbonate. The water in our many streams contains uncommonly high levels of dissolved calcium carbonate. People washing their hair in this water end up with hilariously frizzy hair. If they drink it habitually they're prone to developing kidney stones. Wherever the rushing water flows it leaves its calcium carbonate imprint.

For example, take a look at the bank of the stream I visit each morning after my run, to wash off the sweat: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204cn.jpg.

Notice how the bank seems to be coated with cement cement. Basically, it is, but that cement has been deposited naturally by the stream itself. Water has dissolved limestone upstream and now is redepositing it, cementing rocks together and forming a concrete streambed for itself.

The scenic highlight of this community is about a fifteen minute walk upstream where carbonate-rich water has formed terraced pools, each pool contained within its own concrete-rimmed receptacle, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204cc.jpg.

*****

PICKING PUMPKIN SEEDS
Thursday morning I was wandering through the fields when I came upon Don José sitting amidst a big pile of pumpkin-squash, scraping seeds into buckets. I write "pumpkin-squash" because Northerners think of pumpkins as being the orange Halloween things, and squash as soft-fleshed items such as yellow crook-necks or zucchini, but the Don was working with in-between things.

Actually there's no good line between pumpkins and squash. They're all members of the genus Cucurbita. Morevover, the single species Cucurbita pepo produces such intergrading things as Halloween pumpkins, yellow summer crooknecks, scalloped or pattypan squashes and even egg gourds.

The Don had planted his pumpkins traditional-style in the cornfield beside us, and surely he'd planted bean vines there, too. I asked him if I could help scoop seeds from his pumpkins awhile, and he seemed pleased with the idea. You can see what the job was like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204pj.jpg.

It was messy work but not at all unpleasant. On that hot, sunny morning we sat in the cool shade of a big tree heavy with fragrant flowers, its frilly leavesw rustling as a nice breeze blew off the field next to us and birds called from everyplace. We chatted about different animals we'd known and of course we touched a little on politics. An hour passed like fifteen minutes. The pleasing view before me as I worked is http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204pk.jpg.

Don José explained that he sells his seeds to a company in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, which dries them, fries them in oil, and then sells them for people to munch on. Nearly all of the pumpkins themselves he feeds to his cows, a dozen of which patiently waited just across the fence from us, chewing their cuds. Of course people here eat the pumpkins, too, but there's just so many pumpkins that no one can eat them all.

*****

WHAT PUMPKIN SEEDS TEACH
The most colorful spot in this tiny community of gray, cinderblock homes dispersed among sun-bleached, drying-up weeds is the little Catholic church, lit mostly with multicolored Christmas lights. Some homes still have up Christmas lights up. In this community where many people need basic medical attention and more varied diets, but just can't afford it, and electricity is expensive, these perpetually lit lights can seem an extravagance.

I think I understand what's behind them, though.

The main reason is that people here are just glad to see bright lights and to entertain a sense of otherworldliness. They crave something completely different from the everyday world of weedy landscape, deteriorated roads, bare cinderblock walls, the endlessly blue, empty sky, the same chores, the same people, day after day, year after year.

Normal people hunger after sensory stimulation, even if it's nothing more than blinking colored lights. This is the root cause of recreational drug use, for loud music, self-destructive behavior, and often, I believe, even wars. People and whole societies can get stuck in such boring, unfulfilling routines that even getting sick or having your city bombed sounds better than continuing the same unending, meaningless, boring existence.

People seem to pass through three stages with regard to "stimulation."

First, there's the child constantly discovering new things, many of which hurt or threaten. For them, life often is too stimulating. You've seen how normal children long for security and predictable routines.

The second stage comes when the child's goal of attaining security and routines is accomplished. Most adults fail to see that beyond a certain point continuing to obsessively strive for security and routines leads to a life so void of stimulation that it's drab, uninteresting and unfulfilling.

The third stage is when the soul aches for the stimulation it's been denied. This is a dangerous state, for our society supports us only as long as we live the lie that secure routines represent the height of civility. Basic guidance provided is to participate in religions, sports and excessive consumption. Some of us can't relate to these things, however.

With regard to the human need for stimulation, there's a fourth stage that becomes available to those who receive enlightened guidance, or are smart enough to figure things out for themselves.

That stage consists of following the Middle Path between the colorless world of security and routines, and the self-destructive world of excessive stimulation-seeking. For me, The Middle Path became clear only when I simplified my life (too much background noise and clutter deadens the senses), and began living closer to Nature.

Think spending a week or two beneath a big tree picking seeds from pumpkins, then maybe the next week shelling corn and grinding it to make the next year's cornmeal. The jobs themselves can be rather tedious, but they don't last long enough to defeat the spirit, plus the workplace is congenial, and the tasks themselves are meaningful.

But, look: The Middle Path beneath the pumpkin tree is precisely the same as that which earlier I described as "the everyday world of weedy landscape, deteriorated roads, bare cinderblock walls, the endlessly blue, empty sky, the same chores, the same people, day after day, year after year."

Finding the Middle Path is both a journey of the mind and spirit, and a physical passage largely consisting of leaving things behind. For some it's mostly mental, for others mostly physical.

The sensory-rich but sustainable Middle Path is hard to find and stay on, but my sometimes successful, sometimes failing experience has been that it's worth the effort.

*****

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