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.}

April 7, 2008

RED-EYED VIREO SINGING
Last Tuesday morning, April 1, I heard a sound that brought to mind many happy associations for me. It was the high-pitched, monotonously repeated song of a Red- eyed Vireo. Red-eyed Vireos overwinter in South America's Amazon region and nest in North America. Therefore, here you see them only when they're passing through heading north, from late March through May, then again as they return to the Amazon region, from mid-August to early November.

In my Newsletter of April 27th, 2003, issued back when I hermited in southwestern Mississippi, I reported counting 51 Red-eyed Vireos just in the piney woods around my camp. That week had been "... when forest shadows become deep and dark and honeysuckle perfume insinuated itself into every pore... " I remember that wonderful time and I remember how all those hormone- crazed Red-eyed Vireos absolutely flooded the shadowy forest with their thin, robin-like, perpetually repeated phrases. Maybe in about three weeks our Tuesday bird will find himself following the Mississippi northward, and maybe even will pause near my old hermit trailer near Natchez.

Though several vireo species overwinter here, Bell's Vireo is the only other one that's strictly a spring and fall migrant, or transient, here. Strictly transient wood-warblers include the Blackburnian, Mourning and Canada Warblers.

Red-eyed Vireos like to stay high in trees and that's why many folks who just watch birds around their feeders may have never heard of them. Still, my fieldguide describes Red-eyed Vireos as the most abundant bird in eastern deciduous forests. It's an old guide, though, from back in the 60s, and I wonder how much deforestation in the Amazon and other habitat destruction elsewhere has reduced their numbers. And now that Amazon forests are disappearing at an accelerating rate from illegal tree cutting and much more may be converted to sugarcane fields for biofuels, what's the fate of the Red-eyed Vireo?

How lucky I am to have lived a morning in Mississippi when on a single walk of only two or three hours I counted 51 Red-eyed Vireos, every one of them hungry, excited about going north, and laughably horny!

*****

STRIPED BASILISKS
One of our most common and certainly the most striking of our lizards is the Striped Basilisk, BASILISCUS VITTATUS. Each morning as I pass to and from the reserve a certain 15-inch male suns himself atop the stump of a Guamuch tree next to a peacefully flowing, shaded canal. You can see him atop his stump at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080407bk.jpg.

Basilisks have their own lizard family. There's the Iguana Family, the Anole Family, the Racerunner Family, the Skink Family, etc. They're all "lizards," but important differences separate the families. Basilisks are immediately recognizable because the males, at least, bear amazing crests, casques or helmets atop their heads, plus all basilisks possess extremely long legs and tails. Locally our Striped Basilisks are called "Teleches" but in Tuxtla just to the west they're called "Nacahuas."

By whatever name this species is one of the best-known of all lizards from here to northern South America. That's because it's so often seen running across roads and other open areas. And by running I mean that it rears up on its hind legs, holds its front legs up like arms, and with its chin pointed at the sky it looks more like a cartoon caricature of a running lizard than what we'd expect a real running lizard to look like.

Striped Basilisks nearly always remains close to water. When they need to escape to a far bank they do so by simply by running across the water's surface! This is possible because of well-developed fringes on the sides of their hind toes. Normally the fringes stay folded but when the lizards dash across water they open up, providing the animals' feet with more surface area to press against the water and hold them up. I've heard irreverent gringos call Striped Basilisks "Jesus Lizards" because of their water- walking disposition. Often instead of running atop the water they dive below it. These are truly water- adapted lizards.

Striped Basilisks pay for their popularity, however. Campbell's Amphibians & Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatán & Belize reports that they fall prey to a large variety of animals, especially snakes, and that only about 2% of hatchlings survive for two years.

Striped Basilisks feed mostly on insects but also on fallen fruits.

*****

WASP NEST, BIRD DROPPINGS, & DOCTORING TOADS
Friday Andrés and I were hiking the reserve's perimeter when he pointed out a "panal," a large wasp's nest of the kind I mentioned recently, the one famous for its wasps killing people. Andrés swears that that swarms of that particular kind of wasp will chase you five kilometers and the only way you can escape them is by diving below the water. The wasps, large black ones easily seen from below, strike terror in people's hearts here.

"Therefore all the bird droppings around us," said Andrés.

I didn't follow.

"Birds know to overnight near these panales," he explained. "They know the wasps will protect them."

Well, it was true: The ground all around the base of the tree holding the wasp nest was uncommonly white- spotted with bird doo. I'm not sure about Andrés' explanation, but the droppings were irrefutable.

Andrés revealed a lot to me on that hike. For example, that toads put animals back together once someone has hacked them apart with a machete.

"You cut the snake or whatever to pieces and you leave it on the ground," he said. "Then in the night toads come, they lick and lick the body parts, gradually the parts are shoved together and they fuse, and by dawn the animal is alive again, gets up and goes home. It's as if I cut myself with my machete, my compañeros come and carry me to the clinic in town, and I'm healed. Toads are Nature's doctors, the compañeros of wild animals. The only way you can really kill a snake with a machete is if you cut a thick, solid stake, sharpen it, and drive it through the snake's body, pegging it to the ground. This discourages those toads who come to help in the night... "

*****

A WILD GINGER
In deep shade at the muddy edge of one of our little cascades' carbonate-rimmed pools there's a five-ft- tall herbaceous plant flowering. You can see its 1.5- inch-long flowers arising from a conelike structure at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080407zg.jpg.

The plant and flowers are reminiscent of those found among the closely related cannas, but the species belongs to a completely different family, the Ginger Family, or Zingiberaceae. I think it's in the genus COSTUS. The Ginger Family also is the home of Zingiber officinale, whose pungent rhizomes add such flavor to some of our foods. You can see a broken-open flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080407zh.jpg.

In the center of the above picture you can see a frankfurter-shaped object at the end of a long, slender "stem." The stem is a stamen's filament and the frankfurter is the stamen's pollen-producing anther. The anther's grainy texture is provided by pollen. Unlike the vast majority of other flowers, this blossom just has this single stamen. That, and the fact that the anther is composed of two distinct cells separated by a small open space, are important features qualifying the plant as belonging to the Ginger Family. The closely related Canna and Maranta families produce anthers with only one cell.

Locally the plant is called Caña Cristo, "Christ's Cane." Any thick-stemmed, tall, slender plant is likely to be called a caña, and any plant with uncommonly pretty flowers probably has Cristo, Jesús, María or Virgen names affixed to it, so I almost could have guessed at this plant's local name.

*****

GYNANDROPSIS SPECIOSA
In the Mexican countryside around houses of regular people I can't recall having ever seen a flower garden whose plants were set in straight rows. Here if one day you happen to gain possession of a handful of seeds, a rootstock or a slip, you just put it where it strikes you at the moment to put it, maybe it'll grow and maybe not, who knows, no big deal, but it'll know it's welcome by the frequent watering and hoeing it'll get. That's the way it was with both my grandmas and I think that once it was the same with most North Americans. Rows came later, with houses in rows, with assembly lines, with robotic life.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080407cm.jpg you can see a corner of my neighbor's flower garden. Chickens and baby turkeys scratch around it all day long, an occasional pig wrecks havoc, there's the usual plastic bottles and bags littering the soil and it has no clear boundaries, but what a pleasure just walking by it several times each day, soaking up all that color and informal exuberance!

The white flowers at the left elong to GYNANDROPSIS SPECIOSA. It's a lot like the Giant Spiderflower, Cleome spinosa, often grown in Northern gradens, but look at the flower from it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080407cl.jpg.

In that picture of a teacup-size flower, the yellowish, elongate ovary -- which will develop into a fruit very similar to a mustard fruit -- is at the far left, at the end of a long, straight, stiff stalk referred to technically as a stipe or gynophore. The Giant Spiderflower also has that, but notice in our blossom that the long, spider-leg-like, white filaments join the gynophore a little above where the petals arise. That's enough to throw this plant into a whole different genus.

I just can't find an English name for this plant. It's not much known in English-speaking countries. That makes it even nicer to find it here.

*****

KING CHARLES & THE QUEEN OF INDIA
The other day I met Antonio cutting firewood and he asked if I knew La Reina de India, or Queen of India. I knew he was talking about a plant, but I couldn't guess which plant it was. I figured it must be especially pretty to be graced with such a name.

Down the hill and across a field we went, then proudly he presented the Queen growing on his own land. She's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080407ri.jpg.

It was a spiny, weedy thistle! But when Antonio pointed to the urn-shaped flowering heads I understood the name, for it was pineapple-shaped like turbans I've seen Indian royalty wearing in old pictures.

Then he pointed to the fruiting head in the middle with its involucral bracts pealed back and its seeds ready to unfurl white parachutes, and said, "Here's Rey Carlos," that being King Charles. Instantly the British kind of crown, at least its pointy rim, formed before my eyes.

Thistles are uncommon enough here to be regarded as special. And when you look at them with unprejudiced eyes, actually they do deserve names offering pretty or interesting associations. And have you smelled a thistle's flowers? Their perfume is musky, evocative of deep purple, good enough to close your eyes for as you sniff.

If you need to be reminded of the spininess of certain thistles' leaves, take a look at this plant's leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080407rj.jpg.

*****

CARRYING FIREWOOD
It's easy to get huffed up about habitat destruction by firewood gatherers, especially in a place like this with so much squandered sunlight that could fuel solar ovens. However, even in the US backcountry people are conservative, don't want to change and if you suggest alternatives many will do just the opposite to spite you.

Therefore, when I encountered Antonio gathering firewood from a slope whose soil will wash away when the rainy season begins, I said nothing, actually offered to help get the pile together. I'd rather help him get his firewood home than to sit in a northern house with the thermostat set too high or too low, since the latter is profoundly more destructive to planetary ecology.

You might be interested in seeing how Antonio arranged his pile before lifting it onto his back. You can see stems stacked against a machete with the machete held upright by a pole, and the headband gear used to carry the load with its ropes running below the pile, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080407ay.jpg.

You can see Antonio with the pile on his back and the band around his forehead at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080407az.jpg.

*****

HOT, DRY AFTERNOON WINDS
As I type this at 3 PM on a typical afternoon in the community of 28 de Junio the temperature stands at 97° (36° C). The only sounds are an old hen clucking nervously two houses away, tinny poppings my tin roof makes when it's sunny, and wind up from the valley shaking my roof sheets on their supports. The sky is a shiny silveriness, bluer overhead, almost white at the horizon.

To our north clouds gather around bluish highland peaks. Sometimes by now the peaks are obscured by white rain but today it's just white, billowy thunderheads overhead. There's only been two or three dust-settling showers here since I arrived in January.

April is the hottest, hardest-to-deal-with month. It's the end of the dry season when everything is so brittle and brown that the landscape almost looks dead. Heat builds day after day as the sun's path irresistibly rises higher and higher into the noon sky. Maybe in late April or early May we'll have our first big storm.

"After that first storm, it gets worse," Don Bartolomé assures me, his shirtless, dark-red torso shining with sweat. "After the first 'aguacero' the heat works with the rain's humidity and it gets harder and harder on us. But then the second storm comes, usually a bigger one, and finally things start cooling down."

By July and August, from about ten AM each morning, it'll be so cloudy that the sun won't heat things up so much. In October and November there may be days and days of almost continual rain, and then it'll be cooler. Everything will be green and mud will be smeared everywhere.

I asked Don Bartolomé whether storms come from the north, off the Gulf of Mexico 175 miles away, (280 kms) or from the south, off the Pacific 75 miles away, (120 kms).

"When I was a child, big rains with cool winds came up from the south," he said. "But now nearly all our rains come from the north. Everything has changed. On the average, it's much hotter now, not as many pleasant days as there used to be."

*****

OUR ELECTRICITY GOES OUT
Last Tuesday morning I returned to my casita with a camera full of pictures for this week's Newsletter. When I set up my laptop, however, I found that the electricity was off. We'd been expecting this. The previous week a man had come from the power company to cut the community's line because no one here pays. The man climbed a pole to unhook us but when three fellows from the community began walking toward him with machetes he got into his truck and left. The men had been going to cut sugarcane. Who knows what the lineman thought? Anyway, we continued getting our electricity. At least, until Tuesday morning.

I'm told that around here none of the Zapotista communities pay for electricity and few isolated settlements like ours do. Maybe officials think it's cheaper and nicer to provide free electricity to villages where families may have only a lightbulb, than to deal with a general insurrection because of the high costs of basics. Like so much in this part of the world, things just drift along ambiguously, occasionally reaching a flashpoint that may or may not change something.

One change that came about instantly Tuesday morning was in my own head. Suddenly I saw how my own relevance here depended on a very slender strand of wire strung across the sugarcane fields. I invite you to think about your own vulnerability to weak points in your own necessity-providing infrastructures -- your food-distribution system, financial system, medical establishment, the behavior of elected officials, etc.

Late that afternoon the power flickered back on, so the scare turned out to be a false alarm.

Still, the event got me thinking. For one thing, when I was standing in the middle of the room with my laptop no more than deadweight, it came home to me that what I really needed that day were my big jug of water and the food I'd bought Monday in Pujiltik. It's easy to forget that humans really need food, water and shelter, but that everything else is pretty much luxury.

So, why are we all letting ourselves become so utterly dependent on food-, water- and shelter-providing infrastructures completely beyond our control? It wasn't always like this.

How about this idea? This spring let's each of us plant something and keep it alive until it produces what we want. For, each of us should have a feeling for how soil should look, smell and feel if we want it to grow good crops. Each of us should know how to water plants, assure that they have enough sunlight, and even have an idea about fertilizer basics and how to use sudsy water against aphids. Each of us should be ready to show others how to grow food in case someday a certain line snaps, a certain bridge falls, the grid goes out, or a few selected satellites get shot down.

Moreover, I propose that we place our beds of lettuce and rows of squash where the whole world can see them, maybe along the sidewalk or along the front of the house. We need to poke a thumb in the eye of perverse public opinion that praises manicured, grassy lawns to the exclusion of more diverse and imaginative systems, and even sometimes makes illegal the hanging of washed clothes on outside lines. This spring we can all be guerillas just by planting a few seeds and hanging socks to dry where they're visible from the road.

Info and good links for learning gardening basics are at http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/garden.htm.

Maybe someone will start a discussion at our Google backyard-nature discussion group on "How I'm converting to an edible landscape" at http://groups.google.com/group/backyard-nature/.

*****

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