JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written in the community of 28 de Junio and issued from a ciber in
Venustiano Carranza, Chiapas, MÉXICO
{at about 800 meters in elevation, ± LAT 16° 18'N, LONG -92° 28'W.}

February 25, 2008

A DAZED KESTREL
Tuesday I walked into my dwelling to find an American Kestrel, FALCO SPARVERIUS, on the floor, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080225kl.jpg.

I could guess what the story was: One of the men in the community had found the bird half dead in his field and brought him to me. Recalling the dead magpie-jay of a couple of weeks ago, the dead chicken and the dead dog that'd been found that very Tuesday morning, and how also that morning as most mornings men had marched from town wearing spray tanks on their backs, I could also guess what the falcon's problem was. Right now through my back door I see men walking across their fields below waving applicator nozzles back and forth over the ground like magic wands as they spray their chemicals. The men wear bandanas across their noses, but my own nose stings from hundreds of feet away.

After about an hour the falcon clambered atop a bag of corn, then heavily flew onto a wire where he perched with his eyes closed all during a visit of some journalists who came to interview me. A couple of hours later he exited my door on a downward trajectory. I hadn't the spirit to go see if he'd reached someplace decent.

People here seem surprised when I tell them that I grew up calling the little falcons Sparrow Hawks, because they prey on small birds. They're lizard eaters, people here insist, and it's true that when a House Gecko ran up my wall my dazed visitor seemed to perk up, but not enough to go snatch a meal.

American Kestrels are distributed from northern Alaska to Panama. Here they're permanent residents but in the Yucatan and Chiapas's northern Gulf lowlands they're only winter visitors. Howell refers to a "tropicalis group" resident from Oaxaca to central Honduras, which includes our area.

*****

CENZONTLE THE TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRD
This week for an hour or two each morning a mockingbird sang somewhere in the scrub behind my dwelling. What a pleasure hearing his easy-going discourses, each phrase repeated three or four times. He didn't sing as loudly and with such urgency as he'll sing later when the rainy season begins. The impression is that this is warming-up singing, practice for later when he'll sing hard, all day long, day after day.

Though his calling seems identical to what I grew up hearing in Kentucky, here the mockingbird species we have is the Tropical Mockingbird, MIMUS GILVUS, not the Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, which is North America's mocker. The Northern Mockingbird reaches as far south as Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but then on this side of the Isthmus Tropical Mockingbirds take over. There's a tiny bit of overlap in their distributions at the Isthmus, and even some hybridization.

You can visualize the most notable differences between the two species if you remember that when the Northern Mockingbird flies away large patches of white flash in its wings. Our Tropical Mockingbirds lack those white wing-patches. If I were taxonomy king of the world I'm not sure I'd keep the two species separate based on such modest differences. However, Howell maintains the two species apart in his masterpiece, and I'm not about to argue with him. Some experts do lump them, though.

Tropical Mockingbirds are distributed as far south as Honduras, plus there're found here and there in the Caribbean. Many Mexicans keep them in little cages on their patios where they do sing gloriously, but look dirty, haggard and profoundly unhappy.

Mexicans call both species Cenzontle. That name looks like a Nahuatl word to me, Nahuatl being spoken by the ancient Aztecs. "Cenzontle" is such a pretty word that it makes our "bird-who-mocks" name seem rather uninspired by comparison. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if it turned out that in Nahuatl "Cenzontle" means something like "bird-who-mocks."

*****

OLEANDERS FLOWERING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080225ol.jpg you can see the oleanders, NERIUM OLEANDER, flowering outside my door these days. When I read what my little Golden Nature Guide Exotic Plants has to say about the species I'm not surprised that it refers to oleanders as "the most popular ornamental of all warm areas."

Nothing is more typical here in Mexico than for a town's streets and parks to be planted with thousands of white-, pink- and red-flowering oleander varieties. Oleanders are even favored in such semitropical and non-tropical places as California, deep Texas, and on coastal islands of the US Carolinas, where their salt tolerance also is appreciated. The only thing detracting from the oleander's excellence as an ornamental shrub is that all parts of the plant are highly poisonous.

It's hard to interpret flower anatomy on the plants outside my door because they're double-flowered horticultural monstrosities, as I suppose most garden oleanders are nowadays. In double-flowered varieties, typically the plant breeder has caused stamens or other flower parts to abnormally develop into colorful petals, in much the same way that sometimes on a chicken's leg feathers arise where scales should be.

Wild oleanders in their Mediterranean homeland bear flowers with funnel-shaped corollas, and each flower's throat is set with five frilly teeth. They're neat, elegant blossoms with each flower-part reflecting the wisdom of eons of evolution and answering to particular needs of specific local pollinators.

But flowers on the bushes outside my door answer to nothing but the human appetite for ever-larger splashes of gaudiness everywhere all the time. My double-flowered oleanders look uncannily like double-flowered begonias, double-flowered camellias, double- flowered buttercups, double-flowered roses, and all the other double-flowered varieties they've come up with.

*****

EATING CLIMBING MILKWEED
Especially now during the dry season when many trees are leafless often you see asymmetrically ovate fruits the size of grapefruits dangling from slender, dried- up, leafless vine stems tangled in the outer branches of trees ten or fifteen feet off the ground. In a few weeks these pods will open and release into the wind dozens of flat, lentil-size seeds equipped with fuzzy, white parachutes. If you're familiar with milkweed pods you can visualize the whole process because the pods I'm talking about are produced by members of the Milkweed Family. I call the vines Climbing Milkweeds for lack of a better name. I suspect they're either in or close to the genus Cynanchium.

I've read that young milkweed shoots can be cooked and eaten. Actually I've tried them, but found the leaves too bitter and fuzzy to fool with. I'm a bit hesitant to eat anything in the Milkweed Family because the white latex they produce so abundantly when injured contains powerful chemicals, alkaloids I suppose.

Therefore I was intrigued the other day when a local farmer pointed out a "Climbing Milkweed" fruit pod dangling from a tree and said that they weren't bad to eat. The farmer and his collected pod can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080225cm.jpg.

Collecting some pods was a messy process because they issue white, very sticky latex from the merest injury. The latex turns black on your hands and your fingers get gummy.

Per instructions, the next morning I roasted the pod in my campfire's embers as my breakfast stew happily bubbled away. The pod's thin skin charred black but the interior remained white, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080225cn.jpg.

Inside the pod I found two things to eat. First were the seeds, which in the pictures are the brown, scaly things packed atop one another. The seeds' future fuzz parachutes will arise from the white, slender items lying horizontally to the right of the seeds. The future fuzz was too hard and stiff to consider eating. The seeds didn't have much taste at all, only a slight bitterness, but they left a certain fungusy, not unpleasant aftertaste. I'll bet they provided some protein, though.

Most of the pod's eating is offered by the white, spongy material surrounding the seed/parachute chamber, and you can see that there's plenty of that. This material definitely tasted fungusy, and even had the texture of a mature mushroom cap.

Actually, it wasn't bad. I can imagine that with a little salt, pepper and maybe some butter -- preparing it as you might a good mushroom -- it could be quite good.

However, I like how parachuted milkweed seeds launch from their pods, and I like seeing the milkweeds' unusual, very pretty flowers with special adaptations for their sophisticated pollination system, so I'd rather just let the vines be, and forego any modest meal of fungusy-tasting pod goo.

*****

A THUNDERING EARTHQUAKE
Paty in Connecticut writes asking if I felt the strong earthquake she'd heard that hit Chiapas a couple of weeks ago.

I didn't feel it because it came at the end of my dawn jog when I was still running. However, when I entered the house at the jog's end to find the tin roof rumbling like an unbalanced washing machine during its spin cycle I knew instantly that we had a quake. I stepped outside and the whole landscape was rumbling as if a very large waterfall lay nearby.

Everyone else I spoke to reported similar experiences -- seeing or hearing the quake's effects, but not feeling it. Lucio, a human-rights observer from Italy, saw the dangling light-bulb in his room swinging. Elsewhere a cabinet door opened on its own.

*****

LOCAL GEOLOGY
I've not said much about local geology because I don't understand it. Before I came here I read that many experts find it hard to interpret, too, about the only thing everyone agreeing on being that it's very complex, mostly limestone, and that the rocks range from extremely old to very recent in age.

A trench has been dug right through the middle of the community in anticipation of laying a pipeline, so a good bit of bedrock has been piled near my dwelling. It's amazingly fossiliferous, and the fossils strike me as very recent -- maybe from the Pleistocene (Ice Age) or even more recent.

Some rock is fairly well consolidated with typical mollusk fossils, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080225g1.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080225g2.jpg you can see rock that's almost entirely composed of cemented-together fossil plant-stems, mollusks and pebblelike things. Sometimes the plant-stems were sizable, leaving tunnels upon decomposition, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080225g3.jpg. With a handlens you can see imprints of neatly aligned plant-cells lining the tunnels' walls.

I'm visualizing the last two rock-types as having been formed when our very carbonate-rich water flooded through a swamp occupying the flat terrace on which presently the community is perched. Today you can find exposed living tree roots at the edges of canals encased in 1/8-inch thick layers of carbonate, so it's easy to imagine marsh plants in the recent past quickly becoming coated with carbonate and getting cemented together. Maybe there was a big flood upslope, or maybe a river changed its course, momentarily running across our terrace.

If anyone out there has more insight into the process I'd like to hear from them. You can write to me at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/writejim.htm.

*****

THE FURROWER
The community is experimenting with different crops and garden plants to see what grows well here. This week I planted some of the seeds I've been carrying since leaving Mississippi about a year and a half ago.

The first sowing was of a package of mixed salad ingredients -- lettuce, spinach, chicory, beets, and more. Usually I just work up the ground very well, broadcast the seeds atop it, rake them in, tamp the ground lightly, water, and wait. This time Eliezer was helping and before I knew what was happening he was creating little trenches to sow the seeds in. He was using an apparatus I'd never seen before, but which he regarded as necessary as the soil itself. He called it a "surcador," or "furrower." You can see Eliezer using it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080225su.jpg.

It's a forked stick, one side of the fork meant to be run down the last-made furrow while the other side gouges out a new furrow. On the fork making the new furrow there's a projection, the "plough," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080225sv.jpg.

You can see that the soil here looks rich and easy to work. The most unusual feature of it is its high carbonate content. When a moist, black clod dries out it develops a white carbonate crust where water evaporates, and if left in the air and sun for a few days it'll harden into what is functionally a rock. To the right of Eliezer's cap in the first picture you can see such rocky clods tossed against the wire fence, just too hard to break up with a hoe.

*****

WHAT I'M LOOKING LIKE THESE DAYS
One of the attractions of this place I hadn't counted on is the presence of the international human rights observers permanently stationed here, with a new team coming in every two weeks. They bring in new books I can borrow, provide interesting conversation, are helpful on projects, and so far there's always been a German speaker unable to speak Spanish well, and this has resurrected a good bit of my own German.

One of the German-speaking volunteers was 69-year-old Walter Winkler from Switzerland. He's a photographer with a great camera and he photographed me a lot. The other day during a community meeting he snapped a picture which he gave to me to share with you. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080225me.jpg.

*****

THREE PERFECT POLES
This week I bought a metal pot so I could return to preparing breakfast stews like the ones I enjoyed at Yerba Buena. My new pot has a wire handle across the top so it can be suspended above a fire. More than once I've lost breakfast stews when one of the three supporting blocks somehow was disturbed.

So one afternoon I was wandering around outside looking for something to hang my new pot from when Don Bartolomé came over wondering what I needed. He invited me go with him when it cooled off later in the afternoon, and he'd machete me three poles so I could fix a tripod.

The Don arrived when he said he would, his machete blade so sharp that as we walked along the trail wayward weeds and the tips of tree branches leaning too close to us just seemed to fall off with nothing but a hint of intention from the blade. We passed so many potential campfire poles that I decided the Don wanted to show me something beyond good pole territory.

But Don Bartolomé didn't want to show me anything. He was just waiting for perfect poles. He wanted a certain tree species with a straight stem without a flaw. He found what he wanted where several youngish stems stretched toward a hole in the canopy, each stem keeping the others hemmed in, and therefore growing straight.

Once we had three perfect poles back at my place I began wandering around looking for lose wire but the Don said he had wire he'd been saving for a project just like this one. He got his wire and then set about twisting it a certain way to increase its strength. The tripod turned out much larger and more stable than I'd imagined it could be. It'd taken a lot longer than I'd figured, too, but somehow time hadn't mattered once the Don had established our moment by moment, measured purposefulness.

It'd been like attending a Wagnerian opera, each drawn-out moment so rich in detail you didn't mind the hours slipping by. As afternoon slipped into early evening all the flowing changes of place and time merged with the materializing tripod. Melodies and motifs of sundown, emerging stars, upstarting frog croaks and igniting fireflies all got worked into wood and wire by the old Indian's brown hands, his toothless smile and the neat hook at the bottom of the dangling wire becoming one agreeable thing.

The next morning my onion-alapeño-carrot-snapbean-pumpkin-cabbage-soy protein-cornmeal-oatmeal stew turned out as well as my tripod, and I sat a long time thinking about what it all meant. You can see my thinking spot and the new pot-hanging tripod at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080225tp.jpg.

I decided that, with regard to the Don, the impressive thing had been that here had been a person who began a project knowing exactly what he wanted and how he intended to see it through. He'd already decided that the project somehow was a worthy one, that of helping a neighbor, so he intended to take his time and do a good job.

One way of summing up the current line of thought is to say that the Don has patterned his behavior on a paradigm expressed throughout Nature, with which the Don is very intimate. That paradigm is "Work slowly but well, and only on meaningful tasks, like lichens breaking down a rock, like a corn crop emerging from single germinating corn grains, like evolution blossoming people up from an amino-acid soup."

With regard to my breakfast stew the impressive thing is that maybe anything tastes great if it has a lot of onions and hot pepper in it, and your body is in good shape and you're not tense or upset about things, and it's a pretty day and you're surrounded by nice folks in an interesting place.

So, maybe this week's advice is this: Start with onion and hot pepper, and work step by step toward the rest, like Don Bartolomé would do it.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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