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 18, 2008

ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER
Each day at 10 AM Eliezar comes studying typing on my computer. While he's at work I sit in my door writing and looking around. Next to my door, in a spiny, Senna-like shrub absolutely glowing with abundant, yellow, bee-buzzed, Bean-Family flowers and sheltering a little Inca Dove on her nest of two white eggs, each morning an Orange-crowned Warbler comes foraging hard for tiny arthropods.

It took awhile to be sure of this warbler's identity. In the best of times Orange-crowned Warblers are probably the most drab-looking of all wood-warblers. It's the only warbler I know whose best fieldmark is the absence of all decent fieldmarks.

With its form, unceasing nervous energy, sharp and slender beak, my morning visitor is definitely a warbler, but beyond that there's nothing but hints of vague streaking on the breast, the rest being all grayish, brownish nondescriptness. During spring migration sometimes you can see a small, orangish crown-patch, but you can't depend on it. I've seen it once or twice in Mississippi, just before the birds headed north. The species spends its summers in western Canada, Alaska and the western US.

The interesting thing is that I've never seen my Orange-crowned Warbler in the yellow-flowered tree any other time than when Eliezer is studying. The bird isn't there during my campfire breakfast at dawn, though other species come and go, nor is it there in the afternoons. My Orange-crowned Warbler is like me, keeping to a regular, predictable schedule.

However, I'm sure that before long, also like me, one morning he'll simply not be there, and won't ever return. I've seen such behavior in lots of overwintering warblers down here: For awhile they make routine rounds like clockwork, the same every day, but then they vanish, and I assume that they have simply switched to regular routines someplace else.

*****

WOOD-WARBLERS OVERWINTERING IN THE CENTRAL VALLEY
By "wood-warblers" I mean members of the Wood-warbler Subfamily, the Parulinae, of the newly enlarged Emberizid Family, the Emberizidae. By "Central Valley" I'm referring to the hot, arid valley or depression slicing all the way through the Chiapas Highlands, the place where I find myself now.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/birds-cd.htm these migrant warblers are listed as likely to be found overwintering in the valley:

  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Worm-eating Warbler
  • Yellow-breasted Chat
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Kentucky Warbler
  • MacGillivray's Warbler
  • Northern Parula
  • Ovenbird
  • Louisiana Waterthrush
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • American Redstart
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Nashville Warbler
  • Wilson's Warbler
  • Of the above species I've spotted about half. Yet other warbler species occur here permanently, or only when they migrate between wintering grounds farther south than Chiapas, to breeding grounds farther north.

    I'm mentioning these warblers mainly to whet your appetite. Migration will soon begin so this is a good time start reviewing field marks and birdsong recordings.

    *****

    "BRASIL"
    The spiny, yellow-flowered tree sheltering the Inca Dove nest is known locally as Brasil. It's a native species adapted to an arid climate and calcareous soil, which is exactly what we have. Brasil is HAEMATOXYLUM BRASILETTO, a member of the Bean Family. You can see flowers and leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080218hz.jpg.

    Brasil's flowers are a little tricky to interpret because their calyx lobes, or sepals, are large and yellow like the petals, or "petaloid." Brasil's leaves are pinnately compound -- once-divided, featherlike, and usually composed of only two or three pairs of oval leaflets whose tips are typically blunt or even notched. When such leaves are matched with the unusual trunk, typically bearing vertical depressions looking like old wounds, you know you have a Brasil. The trunk is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080218hy.jpg.

    Brasil belongs to the same genus as the famous Logwood, HAEMATOXYLUM CAMPECHIANUM, found on the coasts of the Yucatan, Belize and elsewhere. Belize owes its nationhood to Logwood, for the British set up settlements there, largely of Black slaves, to harvest Logwood for the production of blue dye. The color "navy blue" has its roots in Belizean Logwood, and so does the Creole-English spoken in Belize.

    Friends here tell me that Brasil wood also produces a dye, a red one. I boiled some twigs in a pan of water and didn't see any being formed. I suspect that to get dye you have to chop out large hunks of mature trunk- wood, but I'm not willing to hurt the tree just to see that for myself.

    *****

    "COYOL," THE VERY SPINY PALM
    At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080218ab.jpg you see one of the more unusual trees in our landscape, a palm looking like an upside-down feather duster and bearing more spines than would seem necessary. It's ACROCOMIA MEXICANA, called Coyol here.

    At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080218ac.jpg you can see just how spiny the palm is, where my hand can hardly find a place among the trunk's many long and short spines jutting out at odd angles. In the picture's center the thing looking like a bird nest is the natural fiber often produced at the bases of palm fronds. You may remember the neater-looking fiber mats at the bases of Coconut Palm fronds examined back in the Yucatan, a picture of which still resides online at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/cocofibr.jpg

    I've often wondered why a palm would go to such extremes of spininess. Half the spine density would seem enough to keep nearly any animal away. If I had to guess I'd say that the extreme spininess helps the palm create its own microhabitat. Especially now masses of leaves from dry-season-deciduous trees are collecting in the palms' crowns and between frond- petioles and trunks. Spiders, especially those constructing large funnel-webs with tunnels at one side, anchor their webs among the spines, gathering even more leaves and debris. These loose conglomerations attract insects who attract birds, lizards and more spiders, and then come things that eat birds, lizards and spiders.

    Maybe the benefit of all this to the Coyol in that the decaying leaves, spider-discarded invertebrate carcasses and bird doo concentrate phosphorus and other precious nutrients around the palm.

    *****

    MAKING RAMÓN COFFEE
    Last week I mentioned the wonderful fruits of our Ramón trees, BROSIMUM ALICASTRUM, of the Fig Family. This week Eliezer and I made coffee of them.

    At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080218r5.jpg you can see Eliezer pouring Ramón fruits into a pan over a fire blazing on a traditional Maya, elevated fireplace of the kind I modeled my firplace after when I was a hermit back in Mississippi.

    At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080218r6.jpg Eliezer is grinding the toasted fruits into a fine powder. Finger-long strips of cinnamon bark also were ground with the fruits. As soon as the powder's rich fragrance reached our noses we began suspecting we had something good.

    After boiling the powder mix for several minutes we ceremoniously poured the whole family sweetened cups of brew, and... it was delicious. People who'd eaten boiled Ramón fruits all their life and seen untold millions of brown Ramón fruits lying unharvested along trails through the forest simply couldn't believe such a tasty drink could be made from them. Old men shook their heads and grinned, and little kids wanted more.

    Now we have to learn how to streamline the process so that the price people are willing to pay for a cup of Ramón coffee makes it worthwhile for someone to pick the fruits off the ground, dry and parch them, grind them into fine powder, package the powder, and finally market and sell it.

    *****

    DUTCHMANS-PIPE FOR AN UPSET STOMACH
    People in 28 de Junio take their drinking water from a black, plastic tube running from a spring upslope all the way through town. It's been found that stomachs of the international human-rights observers stationed here tend to revolt if they drink this water instead of purified bottled water. I wasn't sure what to do. After so many years of traveling in the tropics my stomach usually endures anything thrown at it so I thought maybe I could get by drinking it.

    After three days of drinking the piped spring-water I developed an upset stomach, a mild diarrhea and a complete loss of appetite. It wasn't like any reaction I'd ever experienced to water or food contamination so I'm still unsure whether it was the water that caused my problems. A flu-like thing has been going around in the highlands so maybe I had that.

    When my friend Antonio heard that my stomach was upset, about half an hour later he thumped on my door and there he stood holding some goodies, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080218du.jpg.

    On the left is a semi-woody vine issuing new, green, leafy stems. On the right is the vine's remarkable fruit. It took me awhile to realize that this plant is what Northerners often call Dutchmans-Pipe, sometimes also called Birthwort or Pelican-Flower. It's a member of the genus ARISTOLOCHIA, of the Dutchmans-Pipe or Birthwort Family, the Aristolochiaceae. Aristolochia flowers are eerily beautiful things, often purple to lurid greenish-yellow, frequently carrion-scented, and configured into a U-shaped tube flaring at the end, like a saxophone or Dutchman's pipe.

    Antonio called the plant Guaco and my Plantas Medicinales de México dedicates more pages to Guaco than almost anything else. Traditionally the plant seems to have been used mainly for snakebite, but also it's famous for calming upset stomachs.

    "Break the stem into sections about finger length, add a few green leaves, boil them in about a quart of water, drink the tea, and you'll feel better," Antonio said, and at dusk I built a campfire and did just that.

    The next morning my diarrhea was gone, I felt OK, but still had no appetite. On the fourth day I was eating normally. I really can't say if the treatment helped or whether the sickness passed on its own, but the next time I get an upset stomach I'm going looking for Guaco.

    *****

    ARISTOLOCHIA FRUIT
    The brown item Antonio is holding is worth taking a closer look at. You can see a close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080218dv.jpg.

    Typical of other Aristolochia fruits, this fruit started out as an inferior ovary with six cells. The ovary matured into an oblong-cylindric capsule holding rows of seeds stacked atop one another. As the mature capsule dried it expanded, the walls of the six cells transformed into comblike fringes along the solid outer parts, and the stacks of seeds inside the fruit tumbled into a loose pile. The final creation is like an intricate Chinese lantern half filled with loose seeds, each seed bearing thin, paper-like wings.

    The other day I saw such a fruit high in a Black Sopote tree. A brilliantly orange, black and white Altamira Oriole flew to the fruit, dipped his beak inside it and rummaged among the loose seeds. What a pretty sight!

    The Aristolochia Family is closely related to the Buckwheat Family. Botanists among you may recognize the similarity of the winged seeds inside the Aristolochia capsule with, say, those of the Buckwheat Family's sorrel or dock, genus Rumex.

    *****

    BLACK RIBBONS FROM THE SKY
    Every now and then, especially very early in the morning, black ribbons start falling, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080218br.jpg.

    These are the remains of carbonized leaves of sugarcane plants in fields recently undergoing controlled burns to remove the plants' leaves and, more importantly, make the sugar in the remaining stems easier to extract. I'm not sure how recent "recent" is, since often when I look around during a black-ribbon shower there's no smoke anywhere. The ribbons must have risen far away or a good time previously, for now they're falling from a completely clear sky. That was the case when I took the above picture. There was simply no indication anywhere that a field had been scorched.

    *****

    AT 2:30 PM
    At 2:30 PM back at highland Yerba Buena you wanted to be outside warming in any sunbeam making it to the forest floor. Sometimes during a 24-hour cycle that was the only time you really felt warm. It was delicious if you had time then to just lie back in the pine straw and warm like an old hound on the porch.

    Here at 2:30 PM the heat and afternoon glare daze the landscape and everything in it. Nothing moves. At that dangling hour I don't feel guilty of laziness when I go lie inside my mosquito net beneath the window where I sleep at night, for, taking a nap -- a siesta -- in that heavy heat and that mind-bending glare is an act of self-defense, an aestivation natural and obligatory.

    I awaken maybe half an hour later utterly relaxed and cool. Sometimes I remain there awhile gazing up through the peacefully sagging roof of my mosquito net as hot, dry air gushes through the window billowing the curtain against my net. One afternoon this week my camera lay nearby so I reached over and snapped what's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080218mq.jpg.

    The picture didn't capture the moment's perpetual movement -- the curtain billowing and the folds of the net yielding to the billows. Despite the motion, beneath the net everything is silent except the metallic popping of the hot tin roof, and maybe a cackling hen. In the old days I'd have heard the caressing sound of curtain fabric brushing against the mosquito net but now my ravaged ears can't hear such soft sounds. The wind-gushing and curtain-billowing is all a dumb-show, a pantomime of a summer breeze in February.

    Yet somehow I do hear harsh chill pooled in raw- looking concrete blocks beside me. I'm alert to visual harmonics of the net folds' overlapping cross- patternings, and my whole body does wind-chime in the blessed breeze across bare chest and legs.

    *****

    "IT'S THE SIGN... "
    When Antonio noticed my interest in the Aristolochia fruit he said "It's the sign... "

    He meant that when one is looking for this medicine the strange fruit is the thing to be searching for. Find the fruit and the vine and leaves are attached to it.

    I don't think it would have occurred to many people with a Western or scientific orientation to think of an integral part of a plant as being its "sign." Only when you enter the dominant mindset here, in which humanity occupies a kind of garden where plants are endowed with important, maybe life-saving, maybe even magical features, does the use of the term "sign" begin feeling right. Nature is here generously helping us if only we bother to look for signs.

    Attending the "sign" concept is the implied notion that something is out there signing to us and that that something, recognizing our needs, thinks us worth being communicated with. These assumptions go without saying in a society comfortable with the notion that a sometimes harsh but ultimately benevolent Father in Heaven watches over and controls everything.

    In this light, modern Western thought patterns and belief systems can seem a little arid. Do people like myself lose something by not believing that a Benevolent Hidden Hand takes care of us every day, even to the point of "signing" to us when we need stomach medicine?

    In abandoning such beliefs we do lose something. It's the same thing we lose when we stop believing in the Easter Bunny. We lose a soft, glowing feeling we've always loved. However, by outgrowing the Easter Bunny we enlarge as humans and become more effective dealing with everyday realities. On a mystical level, when we relate to fact instead of fiction we more meaningfully harmonize with the evolving workings of the Universal Creative Force, and therefore honor that Force with our self-denial. (I remember how hard it was to give up the Easter Bunny!)

    Is there really need to abandon traditional, highly comforting, innocent-feeling, Hidden-Hand-Protecting- Us belief systems, even when we suspect they may root in pure illusion?

    In this world where we ourselves, at an accelerating rate and when it may already be too late, are destroying our own vital life-support systems (our rainforests, oceans, groundwater and air) -- and when established religions and political systems are failing to provide adequate guidance -- the answer is yes.

    When one assumes that the Paternal Hidden Hand is watching over us, valuing us so highly that we know we'll be saved if we make a misstep, we're much less likely to make the drastic changes in our lifestyles we need to, to save ourselves, and all Life on Earth.

    *****

    Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

    Jim

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