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 21, 2008

LESSER GROUND-CUCKOO
The other day a bird slowly and deliberately walked, not hopped, from a woods' edge and continued across open ground, occasionally stabbing at prey on the ground and gulping them down. With its gray-brown upperparts and cinnamon underparts it looked a bit like a stretched-out version of an American Robin, except that it was larger (10.5 inches instead of 8.5), had a proportionally longer tail, and its slender beak was longer and curved downward. Most striking, however, was its mask. Each eye was surrounded by a patch of pale, powder-blue feathers and this patch was neatly lined in black, with a thin, white line above the whole thing. It was a lovely face, unlike anything seen up north except maybe on certain ducks such as the Green-winged Teal.

I was close enough to see yet another feature: The bird's feet were "zygodactyl": Two toes forward, two backward. That, the slender, curved beak and long tail were enough to say "cuckoo" to me, and the cuckoo section of my field guide quickly revealed that here was a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, MOROCOCCYX ERYTHROPYGUS, distributed from Mexico's central Pacific coast to Costa Rica.

Howell describes the Cuckoo Family as "united by common anatomical features but strikingly diverse in appearance and habits." In most of North America we just have look-alike Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, so the "strikingly diverse" characterization might surprise most Northern birders. Only when you meet the arid Southwest's Roadrunners, and south Florida's Smooth-billed Anis, who also are cuckoos, do you start becoming a believer. In a way, our Lesser Ground-Cuckoo is sort of a bridge between mostly arboreal northern cuckoos and mostly southern roadrunners.

It was something to see how this Lesser Ground-Cuckoo sometimes would freeze during his slow walking and suddenly he'd blend into the parched-brown landscape around him so perfectly that he'd almost disappear, even if you were looking right at him.

*****

ARRIVAL OF THE SULFUR-BELLIED FLYCATCHER
Sulfur-bellied Flycatchers are fairly common, large, heavily striped flycatchers with long, rufous-colored tails. They're even found in the US, in canyons along the Mexican border where Arizona and New Mexico meet. I wouldn't mention my spotting one here except for two things:

First, for us this is a summer bird. In other words, the species winters in South America and comes north to Mexico and Central America during the northern summer. It's interesting to think about why the species migrates, simply changing one disturbed, tropical habitat for another. Is this a case of a migratory impulse evolving back in the Ice Age when it may have made sense, but now is merely a vestigial behavior providing little competitive advantage?

My guess is that this bird is taking advantage of the rainy season's greater abundance and diversity of winged insects. He's in South America during that continent's rainy season, and now has come to this side of the equator for our rainy season, shortly to begin. If this is the case, one wonders why more tropical species don't do it, and how did the species ever discover that when things dried out south of the Equator they were getting rained on to the north?

The second reason I'm glad to mention spotting this bird is that it's the hundredth species on my list of birds seen at 28 de Junio and its reserve. The list is at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/28-birds.htm.

*****

SOAPBERRY
These days a handsome tree growing about 30 feet tall with pinnately compound leaves a bit like those of Pecan trees is fruiting abundantly, and in the old days its golden-brown fruits were highly regarded. See http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080421jb.jpg.

The tree is Soapberry, SAPINDUS SAPONARIA, and you can see from the Latin name that Linnaeus was thinking "soap" when he named the species. "Sap-indus" was his "Indian soap," and saponaria was just more soap. The species gives its name to its whole family, the Soapberry Family, the Sapindaceae, which also includes Litchi Trees, Goldenrain-Trees and Balloon-Vines. Here Soapberry is called Jaboncillo, jabón being "soap," of course. To humans everyplace, this tree simply means "soap." I soaked some fruits a couple of days, squeezed them, and you can see the sudsy results at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080421jc.jpg.

I didn't produce the sudsy water the traditional way, which they tell me is much more effective. The time-honored recipe for making soap from fruits begins with "Dry the fruits until they can't be dried any more, then the señora on her stone metate grinds and grinds until she has pure dust... " Then you use the dust pretty much as if it were laundry detergent.

Despite my half-hearted efforts, the sudsy water I got cut right through greasy, gritty stuff on my hands, and the suds seemed to last longer than equivalently sudsy water produced by commercial detergent. It even left my hands smelling a little fruity.

Since the fruits' seeds are extremely hard I've asked several people if washing clothing with homemade Soapberry powder doesn't leave little flecks of fruit and seedcoat on the clothing. People say that there's no problem, or maybe the question just doesn't register. Flecks on clothing are more of a Northern concern.

Even hanging on the trees, the honey-colored fruits are hard, and their black seeds are even harder. You can shake the fruits and hear seeds knocking around inside them. When any campesino past age 40 or so sees you admiring the tree he's bound to tell you that the black seeds used to be what kids used as canicas, or marbles. You can see several canicas in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080421jd.jpg.

*****

BLOOD-WEEPER
I doubt that anyone uses the name "Blood-weeper" for the shrub abundantly fruiting nowadays and shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080421jd.jpg.

"Blood-weeper" is just the literal translation of the Spanish name, Llorasangre, which indicates that if you wound the shrub it exudes a rusty-red sap. Colored sap from this species isn't surprising since it's a member of the Poppy Family, famous for it brightly colored exudations. The Opium Poppy bleeds a milky sap, Prickly-poppies produce a yellow juice, North America's Bloodroot bleeds orange-red, etc. "Blood-weeper" is in the genus BOCCONIA, but I can only guess which of Chiapas's several Bocconia species it is -- B. frutescens would be a good guess. When I arrived here in January the plant was conspicuously flowering but now its fruits draw your attention.

Belonging to such a notorious family, you might expect that it's an important traditional medicinal palnt, and that's the case. Las Plantas Medicinales de Mexico reports that it's toxic, 5 centigrams capable of killing a dog by causing paralysis of the respiratory and circulatory systems. Traditionally in Mexico its rusty sap has been used against intestinal worms and as a purgative. Its cooked and ground leaves cure ulcers, and the plant's active ingredient, boconina, can be used as an anesthetic.

One morning a man walked past my door carrying a big armload of the plant's leaves, which he planned to cook in a pot. He said he had a cow who'd gotten tangled in barbed wire and he planned to cleanse her wounds with the juice and apply the leaves as a poltice.

*****

PURSLANE IN THE GARDEN
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080421p_.jpg you see a honeybee visiting a yellow blossom of a handsome little plant growing at the edge of my salad-greens patch in the garden. The plant is Purslane, PORTULACA OLERACEA, of the Purslane Family, the Portulacaceae. It's closely related to the Rose-Moss or Rock-Rose of rock-gardens and sidewalk edges. The species is a common weed throughout most of North America, probably originally from Asia.

On the farm back in Kentucky this same species was common in our barnyard and garden, and in the tobacco patch I was always grateful to it because it was so easy to dislodge with a hoe. Just slide the hoe blade beneath the widely spreading branches to the plant's center, where there's a single taproot easy to slice through. Other weeds often root at their stem nodes so you have to pull them out by hand. You can imagine my surprise the first time I came to Mexico back in the 60s and I saw indigenous folks along streets selling green bouquets of our tobacco-patch weed.

The bouquets were for eating, and many people regard the plant as having a good taste. During my entire childhood no one ever told me it was edible, even though Weakely in his Flora of the Carolinas writes that "During the Great Depression, P. oleracea was eaten extensively in the Valley of Virginia as a potherb."

I've eaten it and it isn't bad, maybe a little slimy and fibrous, but it's wholesome tasting and probably nutritious. I'd rather have mustard or collard greens or, probably best, a mixture of the three things.

You can identify Purslane by the way its larger leaves cluster at stem tips, more or less forming a flattish collar or "involucre" beneath the flowers and fruits. Also notice the thick, succulent, pinkish stems. Stems radiate away from its taproot, hugging the soil.

*****

TROPICAL MILKWEED FRUITS SCATTERING SEEDS
The slender pods of our orange-and-yellow-flowered Tropical Milkweeds, ASCLEPIAS CURASSAVICA, are opening now dispersing their seeds. This is a noteworthy event for two reasons.

First, this is our main milkweed species, and thus is the chief host plant for the larvae of Monarch Butterflies, who also are common here, thanks to this milkweed.

Second, milkweed seeds are equipped with fuzzy, white parachutes that are wonderful to see floating on breezes across hot fields and pastures.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080421mw.jpg you can see a plant beside the trail through town, the top pod heavily infested with orangish aphids, a lower pod having just disgorged a number of parachuted seeds now awaiting a breeze to carry them off.

Like most other milkweeds, or members of the genus Asclepias, Tropical Milkweeds produce a dense, white latex from any part when injured.

*****

PASSIONFLOWER VINES FRUITING
In the March 24th Newsletter I wrote about a couple of passionflower species flowering at the time, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/passionf.htm.

The top-pictured species, with its flowers subtended by lacy, much-dissected bracts, now is fruiting in a rather spectacular manner, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080421pf.jpg.

With such a bright, red color, fruits are visible from far away. When you're ready to pick them, however, you wonder about all those sticky-looking glands terminating each bract segment. A human can just ignore them, break open the fruit, and enjoy a sweet treat. An open fruit showing what's to eat is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080421pg.jpg.

The translucent glands are as sticky as they look. If you touch one and then pull your finger away, the substance stretches about ten times the gland's diameter before releasing. I'm guessing that any insect wanting to burrow into a fruit or lay an egg in it might have a hard time negotiating the sticky defense.

*****

CHIFLÓN FALLS
About half an hour up the valley to the west you come to the most developed ecotour destination in our area, Chiflón Falls, or Cascadas El Chiflón, the word chiflón meaning "big whistle." This week the campesino cooperative who developed the site invited us to visit, to help us with our own ecotour plans so that we can become part of an "ecotourism corridor" through Chiapas's Central Valley.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080421ch.jpg you can see the main waterfall, Cascada Velo de Novia, which more or less means Bridal Veil Falls. For scale note people at the lower left.

Geographically the falls represents a spot where water from the rainier Chiapas uplands descends into the arid Central Valley, where a lot of it will be absorbed by vast sugarcane plantings. The chemical-rich remainder will pool awhile in Angostura Lake before flowing into the Grijalva River, which will carry it north through Tabasco, into the Gulf of Mexico. We're much closer to the Pacific than the Gulf of Mexico, but drainage patterns can reflect many realities beyond mere proximity to the ocean.

*****

MYSTERY PICTURE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080421bi.jpg what do you see?

Of course at first glance it looks like nothing more than bird poop on a citrus leaf, but take a closer look, especially at the white, bottom part. Also notice that the item is somewhat segmented. It's a caterpillar camouflaged so that it looks like bird feces!

Part of the genius of the camouflage is that even the white, pasty uric acid typically covering bird poop is represented. Uric acid paste on bird poop is the bird's highly concentrated pee. If human bodies had an ammonia-disposal system as efficient as birds' and reptiles', who convert their waste ammonia to uric acid instead of urea the way mammals do, we'd never have to pee! For more discussion on this matter see http://www.backyardnature.net/birdpee.htm.

*****

BITTER POZOL
Pozol (poh-ZOLL) is one of the most traditional of all indigenous American drinks. The basic recipe is to soak corn kernels overnight in water with a little quicklime in it, then grind the much-swollen and softened kernels to form a moist paste, called masa, stir the masa into water until a thin emulsion is created, maybe add a pinch of salt or sugar, and drink. Even today when backcountry Mexican farmers leave their villages for distant fields often they carry with them a handful of masa so they can make their midday pozol with springwater. Masa for first-class pozol may be flavored with ground-up cacao (chocolate) beans.

In 28 de Junio, pozol appears to be at the center of a certain tension between the old ways and the new ways. Traditionalists stick with pozol but the kids and modern folk insist on Coke and the rest.

In fact, our most dedicated traditionalists go a step further and insist that only a certain kind of pozol is best for you, and best tasting. It's called pozol agria, or bitter pozol.

Bitter pozol is made like the regular kind, except that the resulting masa is allowed to rest for about three days before it's used. During this time microbial action imparts to it a specific taste. The taste is of rancidness, like milk that's been left out a couple of days.

Bitter pozol's presence in the culture is easy to explain: Microbial action on the resting masa makes available certain vitamins and other nutrients not found in regular pozol, or found in much smaller amounts. Somehow once upon a time Maya culture became aware that bitter pozol, despite its awful taste, nourishes the body better than the non-bitter kind. It's an amazing example of a people sensing more than knowing that a less-pleasurable path was better for them than other options, and they chose the less-pleasurable, more sustainable.

The other day I was at Don Andrés' house in Carranza and was offered pozol. He presented me with a sizable plastic bowl of it. It was at ambient temperature and the ground-corn emulsion was reddish because the corn it had been made from was of the traditional blue, almost black, kind. And its bitterness was sharp.

After I'd drunk most of it Andrés placed a large, empty, plastic Coke bottle before me, made in Mexico but bearing the English words "Super Big." "Pozol is better than this stuff, right Jim?"

With kids standing all around waiting for my reply I had a flashback: Back in the 1950s, my family's tobacco fields in Kentucky, hoeing all day in the heat and humidity, sweat, dust, boredom, nothing but tobacco, corn, soybeans, the swamp, little woodlots for as far as the eye could see, and then up at the little general store late in the afternoon if my father felt generous the shear delight of an ice-cold, sparkling, syrupy-sweet 5-cent Coke.

And now today on this dusty, fractured, trashy, overcrowded, cacophonous slope, this rancid-milk pozol being compared to a Super Big Coke... ? It was a moment of truth in that family's cultural conflict and I had to pronounce one way or another.

But, this matter of taste is a tricky thing. For example, have you ever eaten so much rich food that for days you lost your taste for it? Maybe you decided to not eat anything for a long time, and then once you did start nibbling, instead of eating something sweet or creamy maybe you chose something simple, like a carrot stick. Remember how surprisingly good that simple thing tasted, how its straightforward flavor somehow cleansed your palate, gave you a sense of starting over anew, maybe even cleared your mind? Suddenly you were Spartan, you had control of yourself, you had a vision of something better you could be... That carrot stick's simple, wholesome taste was good because it made you feel good.

I think bitter pozol serves the carrot-stick function in traditional indigenous American cultures. It tastes "good" in the sense that people not only recognize its nutritional value but also, at least on a subliminal level, they associate bitter pozol with their own cultural continuity, family cohesion, harmony, and hope.

"Bitter pozol tastes better than Coke," I declared unequivocally.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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