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

March 31, 2008

MOTTLED OWL SNARLING
The most common owl here, abundant and calling throughout much of the night and day with monotonous and easily imitated whistled beeps, is the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. The next-common owl, heard most nights but rarely seen, is the Mottled Owl, STRIX VIRGATA.

The first night I slept in the reserve one swooped over our little medicinal plant garden and landed in an acacia right above me, its black silhouette clearly visible against the night sky through my tent's transparent top-webbing. I identified it mostly through the process of elimination. It was too large to be one of the screech-owls or pygmy-owls, wasn't large enough to a horned owl, plus it lacked "horns" or ear-tufts.

And then my visitor hooted. There were five deep, resonant hoots like the North's Barred Owl's, with whom it's closely related, but then came a truly toe-curling call described by Howell as a wailing scream but which to me sounded like the kind of snarl a wild, prowling feline might make.

The next day, referring to Howell's distribution maps and taking into consideration the owl's size, earless silhouette, habitat, and its unforgettable snarl, I decided it was a Mottled Owl. The species is described as common in a wide variety of tropical habitats from Mexico to northern Argentina.

My guess is that the snarl evolved back when big cats roamed the land. If an owl could make itself sound like a prowling cat, sometimes it might unnerve a critter who'd bolt from his hiding place, enabling the owl to swoop and catch it. It's similar to our northern Bluejays who occasionally emit snarls imitating circling hawks. Maybe you've seen that call clear a bird-feeding area of all birds, enabling the Bluejays to swoop down and have the place all to themselves.

*****

TAILLESS-WHIPSCORPION EXOSKELETON
One of the hardest parts of preparing for a long trip living out of a backpack is deciding which books to take. When I began my current wandering in October, 2006, one book I brought with me was the little Golden Nature Guide A Guide to Spiders and Their Kin, published in 1968. It qualified because it was small, and down here you're always meeting arthropods you can't classify. This week I was glad to have the little book when among some rocks I found what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080331wh.jpg.

That's not the animal itself, but rather the creature's abandoned exoskeleton, or "skin," the main body being about an inch long. Arthropods are encased in stiff exoskeletons so, as they grow, periodically their old exoskeletons split, the animals emerge from them, and then hide in safe places until their new, larger, but temporarily soft exoskeletons harden. If you look closely at the picture you can see how the body's broad, roundish central part (its carapace) has split along its sides and front, then hinged upward like the lid of a tin can, with the hinge at the back. The animal crawled out of its old exoskeleton through this opening.

The creature's spiny, front "arms" look a lot like a scorpion's, but scorpions bear long, slender, segmented tails with stingers at their ends. This animal has no tail. It's some other kind of "spider kin," as the Golden Guide phrases it.

Near the scorpion order in my little book lie the pseudoscorpion, windscorpion, whipscorpion and tailess whipscorpion orders. I mention the order groupings to make it easier to visualize how closely related the groupings are. Among birds, for instance, we speak of the woodpecker order, the penguin order and the passerine or songbird order. Among arthropod orders there's a similar relationship.

It turns out that the mystery exoskeleton is that of a tailless whipscorpion, described by my little Guide as native to tropical America, Africa and Asia, and hot, humid parts of the US South. Tailless whipscorpions hide under bark or stones and when disturbed scurry sideways like a crab.

Members of the tailless whipscorpion order are distinguished by their first pair of legs being long and whiplike. Unfortunately, the whiplike legs were too fragile to survive my transport, though a slender fragment of one leg is stuck to other legs at the right in the picture.

*****

ARMY ANTS AT DUSK
Wednesday night as I sought my sleeping spot in the reserve I came upon a black, seething mass of army ants. I've told about army ants before, but then I had no camera. Now you can see what I saw that night at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080331aa.jpg.

What's missing in the picture is the movement. The whole mass of ants, which was about the size of a large kitchen table, constantly changed its shape like an amoeba and consisted of several ant streams, some streams flowing in directions contrary to the others. Here and there black knots of ants coagulated and melted away in just seconds, and I figured that these represented "false alarms," something having triggered an attack, but then there was nothing. Though individual ants moved fast, the movement of the whole ant mass was slow, at that time seeming indecisive about which way to go. To get the picture I held the camera as far away from my body as I could, but still a few soldiers on the perimeter climbed my legs and bit.

Basically the idea behind army ants is that as a colony moves across the landscape it stirs up small animals, especially insects, a few of whom always escape in the wrong direction and then the ants quickly dismember them. I've read that army ants have been known to consume animals as large as goats but the largest animal I've ever seen them tear apart was a grasshopper, which disappeared chillingly fast.

In the picture you can see at least two ant sizes. Note how the larger ants usually appear at stream edges. It looks like they're keeping the smaller ants from wandering away from their streams, but who knows?

The site at http://www.insecta-inspecta.com/ants/army/ says that when army ants rest, or "bivouac," they form tunnel-and chamber-containing nests out of nothing but their own bodies. They do this by fastening onto one another with their mandibles (jaws) and claws. The site also says that army ants, though possessing simple eyes, are blind.

*****

PAPER WASP NESTS
You see lots of paper wasp nests here, such as the one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324hh.jpg.

Not only are such nests commonly seen but also there's a good variety of types, each type being produced by a particular wasp species. Some nests are spherical, others very long, and some quite small. There's one that's just a flat sheet stuck to a tree trunk, with the cells exposed, and these are famed as the most aggressive stingers, sometimes killing people who wander too close.

There's always a discussion as to whether such nests are built by bees or wasps. Structures such as the one in the picture consisting of papery cells surrounded by a leathery paper covering are made by wasps. That's not saying much, though, because the world of wasps is enormous, embracing several wasp families. Species in some families build mud nests but members of the vast Paper or Vespid Wasp Family mostly build nests of plant fiber chewed until it forms paper. Yellowjackets and hornets are members of the Paper Wasp Family. I provide a nice breakdown of the most common wasp types, and a detailed look at one paper-wasp's lifecycle, at http://www.backyardnature.net/wasps.htm.

Each time I see a hornet-type nest I remember how frequently I used to see them as a kid in Kentucky back in the 50s and 60s, but now they're very rare. I've always assumed it was pesticides that did them in, but here we live in a soup of agricultural chemicals. Here the chemicals are new on the scene, however, so maybe in a few years Chiapas's big paper-wasp nests also will disappear.

*****

UP BIG-CROSS HILL
Maybe you remember last week's picture of the natural carbonate pool-rims just below the community, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324dk.jpg.

In that picture's background there's a hill or mountain I've always assumed to be of volcanic origin but until I visited it this week I wasn't sure. This week, as I ascended the hill, I looked at the first freshly exposed rock surface I could find with my handlens and there they were: sandgrain-size crystals of quartz and mica, but no calcite. This rock started out as molten magma, not marly sludge at the bottom of an ocean. In this landscape with almost entirely sedimentary limestone bedrock, I was climbing an old volcano composed of igneous rock.

Locally the hill is called Cerro de Cruz Grande, or Big-Cross Hill. The town of Venustiano Carranza occupies its lower, southern ridge. I was ascending it because most of the families of 28 de Junio come from Venustiana Carranza, some consider it a sacred hill, and they want it featured on their website. So last Monday Don Andrés, a member of the community, guided three international human rights observers and me to the top.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080331a1.jpg you can see one of the four altars encountered as you ascend the slope.The faithful pause at these altars and burn incense while they pray for divine intervention in their lives.

The incense they make on the spot from resin issuing from machete wounds on the trunks of trees growing nearyb. The trees are called Incenso or Copal, and are members of the genus Bursura of the Bursera Family. A resin-oozing trunk beside an altar is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080331a2.jpg.

Where incense has been burned in a natural niche among boulders beside an alter, people have left offerings appropriate for their petitions, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080331a3.jpg.

In than picture someone has left an ear of corn, asking for a good harvest. Another left a plastic bag holding ballpoint pens, hoping for an education, or good grades. There were bags of squash seeds, of beans, chili peppers, of weaving yarn and other items whose presence I can't begin to explain.

Toward the top it became cooler and a fine forest of widely spaced oak trees appeared. Don Andrés explained that people didn't cut firewood there because the hill is sacred.

At the peak we came upon the main altar, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080331a4.jpg.

It looks wintry in the picture because we're still in the dry season and most trees are leafless, to cut down on water loss from leaves.

Don Andrés wanted to continue to another peak about 20 minutes to the north, joined to ours by a sagging ridge. Since a car was waiting for us below I suggested that we'd already seen enough. However, Andrés insisted that the next peak was too special to ignore and that something important was going on there, so we went on. Midway the connecting ridge he stopped at a certain stone and said, "Beyond this stone no pregnant woman can pass, because the strength of the peak we are about to climb is so great that it would cause the baby to abort."

The second peak was pitted with holes dug by people looking for jewels.

"The ancients buried their dead here," Don Andrés explained. "Their jewels were buried with them. Sometimes in the night if you come here beams of light shoot out of the ground where treasures are hidden, but only certain people can see them, the ones the ancients are willing to give their riches to."

At the very top we were shown the incised rock slab at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080331a5.jpg.

"We found this here," Don Andrés said, pointing not far away. "The lines on it were full of mud and we could hardly make them out, so we cleaned them and chiseled them deeper, but we don't what it means."

I was asked to interpret it.

Years ago I studied Maya iconography a little so after awhile I had some ideas. Immediately below the cross at the top is what I regard as a Quetzal headdress, the Quetzal being a sacred bird of the Maya, whose resplendent feathers only the royalty and high priests could wear. Below the Quetzal headdress I think the wavy lines represent water running away from the hill. Thus the hill wears the headdress. Since only those close to the Deity can wear such a headdress, I thought I understood:

"The stone says, 'This hill is sacred,'" I said.

Andrés was enormously pleased. And I was pleased, too, thinking that if the community knows how sacred the hill is, maybe they'll hold off a little longer cutting its wonderful oaks for firewood.

*****

VIEW FROM THE TOP
You may be interested in seeing the view toward 28 de Junio from the peak, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080331ju.jpg.

I'm in the blue-haze zone. Here you see the landscape at its driest, at the end of the dry season. Notice how trees who have retained their leaves largely grow along waterways. Most of the lone-standing green trees are strangler figs.

In about a month the whole area should be turning green fast.

*****

PIÑUELAS FRUITING
In the transition zone between weedy, hacked-over scrub down below and open oak forest higher up a conspicuous member of the Bromelia Family appeared. You may remember the abundandant bromeliads gracing tree limbs at Yerba Buena in the Chiapas uplands. The species encountered on Cerro de Cruz Grande differed from those species both by being terrestrial and by growing much larger. You can see ours at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080331pn.jpg.

This is Piñuela (pee-nyoo-EH-la), BROMELIA PINGUIN. In the picture Andrés is holding in his hand the thing that makes the plant famous in these parts: Some tasty fruits. You can see a close-up of the fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080331po.jpg.

Piñuelas were common in the scrub back in the Yucatan and I always wanted to sample a fruit but never got to. I thought my failure to find a fruit was because I always left the Yucatan before the fruits ripened but now I suspect it was because I didn't know you had to dig down into the leafy debris gathered in the plant's center, as shown in the first photo. Andrés knew exactly where to thrust his hand into the clutter, though, and came up with fruits his first try.

Before anything is done with the fruits you need to thoroughly brush or wipe off the rusty-brown, very thin, sharp hairs visible in the fruit picture mantling both ends of the fruits. If a hair lodges in your lips or tongue it stings for a long time. The fruits are a little like small bananas, in the sense that you must peel off the tough covering to get at the sweet interior. Piñuelas can be cooked in campfire embers but they're also good raw. Andrés warns to not eat more than one, though, because if you do you'll develop burn-blisters, same as if you eat too much pineapple.

In fact, Piñuelas are closely related to Pineapple plants. Both are in the Bromelia Family and both are among the small minority of terrestrial bromeliads. The Piñuela fruit tastes a bit like pineapple, but contains hard seeds.

*****

WOOL-GATHERER GALL AS MEDICINE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080331wg.jpg you can see a fuzzy gall on an oak stem near the top of Big-Cross Hill. This gall is very similar to one often seen on oak stems during the spring in eastern North American forests. North America's gall is known as the Wool-sower Gall and is produced by a wasp of the family Cynipidae, so I'm guessing that the same is true of our gall.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/gallwool.jpg you can see a Wool-sower Gall I photographed in northern Mississippi. More information on galls in general is at http://www.backyardnature.net/galls.htm.

Andrés told us that people here seek out these galls when they have a baby whose tongue and lips are covered with blisters. The gall is smeared with sugar and then daubed over the baby's blistered mouthparts.

*****

WORSHIPING ROCKS?
At the altar where I photographed the objects in plastic bags I asked Don Andrés to whom people made their requests: "Jesus, The Virgin, The Creator, the rocks themselves... ?" -- because Don Andrés had just described people praying to "las santas piedras," "the sacred rocks."

"The rocks," he said without skipping a beat.

An observer from Sweden, unable to believe his ears, wanted clarification.

"What about God?" the Swede asked. "Don't you pray to God?"

"Wellllll... " replied Don Andrés a bit confused, "It's the same thing, right?"

I don't really think our conversation can be distilled to a content acceptable to a modern, Western mind. We insist on knowing whether Don Andrés and his people ask favors from a pile of rocks, from a spiritual entity beyond, or something in between. I think people here are perfectly content not sorting it all out, and maybe find the notion of dissecting their beliefs unnerving, unpleasant, and sacrilegious.

Myself, I used to be quite clear about the evolution of human spirituality. The first humans started out with a natural curiosity about where they came from and what it all means. Religions arose spontaneously providing supposed answers, some more convincing than others. Priesthoods arose to administer and perpetuate the religious systems, the religions evolved in all directions to the point of absurdity, and today a few people are beginning to see the outlines of humanity's next step in spirituality, which will be the understanding that the Universe's spiritual content is most evident in the workings of the Universe itself, which on Earth we refer to as Nature. Or something else?

In the past I visualized the above-outlined evolution of understanding as a kind of linear progression, but now hardly anything seems linear to me; all is cyclical or like a three-dimensional web, maybe not even open to being framed in words and human thoughts.

But, I wonder: Did "It's the same thing, right?" reflect a relict animistic belief from back when primitive people began humanity's march toward spiritual understanding? Or on Big Cross Hill were we hearing a kind of revelation crystallized after eons of mostly subconscious communal spiritual evolution after which it's come to be understood that... "the Universe's spiritual content is most evident in the workings of the Universe itself, which on Earth we refer to as Nature"?

Andrés' thoughts are those he was taught as a child. However, I'm open to the idea that in pre-Columbian times Tzotzil-speaking people in these mountains and many other indigenous cultures throughout the world may have come to the same conclusion about the Creation and the Creator that I have, after my own long evolution of thought.

By which I mean to say that if one feels compelled to enter into communion with the Creator in a conversational manner, addressing a rock is as good a way as any.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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