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.}

April 28, 2008

MUSCOVY DUCKS
The other day one of our International Human Rights Observers came to me wide-eyed reporting a ducklike bird noodling along the banks of an irrigation canal. Because the bird took flight when spooked he assumed it was wild, though he'd never seen a duck quite like that one.

It was a Muscovy Duck, CARINA MOSCHATA, native to Mexico south to Argentina, and though it's native here it's not on my list of the community's 100 bird species because I judge our local Muscovies to be at least partly domesticated. Truly wild birds are black with white wing patches while ours have more white. Some of our Muscovies do fly very gracefully and are practically wild, while others stay penned behind low fences, waddling among the chickens. On the farm back in Kentucky we used to have Muscovies, which we called Whispering Ducks because male Muscovies can only hiss, though females can utter low quacks.

Back in the 70s when I accompanied Maya-ruin-visiting tourists on boat trips up and down the Usumacinta River between Guatemala and northern Chiapas I used to see black, fast-flying Muscovies who undoubtedly were wild stock. I've not returned there since the area was thickly settled and deforested by Guatemalan refugees and transplanted Mexicans, so I don't know if truly wild Muscovies still grace the Usumacinta -- along with Scarlet Macaws who even then were disappearing fast.

Maybe a reader who has been on the Usumacinta lately can tell me.

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CEDRO
One of the most important trees of humid, tropical forests from Mexico to South America, in rainy areas growing up to a hundred feet high (30 meters), is the Cedro, sometimes known in English as Spanish-Cedar. It's CEDRELA ODORATA of the Mahogany Family, the Meliaceae. Despite the big trees being leafless at this time they're still conspicuous on the landscape because of abundant fruits dangling at the ends of branches. The fruits split into star-shaped capsules and release papery, winged seeds, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080428cd.jpg.

A close-up of some split-open fruits is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080428ce.jpg.

The word "cedro" means "cedar," but the Cedros here aren't similar to or related to the North's cedars, which are evergreen gymnosperms. The cedar connection probably comes about because Cedros's wood is similar to that of our northern cedars, being reddish and emitting a sharp, resiny odor.

Cedros have disappeared from large parts of tropical America because their wood is so prized, and often exported. The species shares many characteristics with closely related Mahogany. Both trees produce capsular fruits with winged seeds, both produce clusters of numerous, small flowers, and both bear pinnately compound leaves looking somewhat like northern ash leaves. Mahogany leaves are evergreen, however, while Cedros lose their leaves during the dry season. Up North the best-known member of the Mahogany Family is the Chinaberry Tree, introduced from Asia.

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FRANGIPANIS
A common but spectacularly flowering small tree gracing many yards and streets in this area is the fragrantly blossomed Frangipani, genus PLUMERIA, flowers shown emerging from thick, fleshy branches at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080428fp.jpg.

Several frangipani species are found in the wild from Mexico and the West Indies to northern South America. Some species produce several flower-color variations. One variety especially favored in this area bears white flowers with yellow centers.

Late this week a celebration began that will end on May 3rd, when believers will climb Yalem Chem Hill above Venustiano Carranza and pray for rain. At 28 de Junio's little church they adorned the blue, wooden cross with garlands of frangipani blossoms of the white-with-yellow-center kind, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080428fq.jpg.

Frangipanis are members of the Dogbane Family, the Apocynaceae, in which we also find mandevillas, oleanders and periwinkles. Plants in that family typically exude milky sap when wounded, and that's the case with frangipanis which "bleed" white latex copiously. Plantas Medicinales de Mexico reports that the white sap has been used to cure wounds and venereal diseases and to deal with tooth problems, but warns that it makes a "drastic and dangerous purgative."

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EATING BLACK NIGHTSHADE
At some point many years ago a certain book taught me to call SOLANUM NIGRUM "Deadly Black Nightshade." Because of that name, during most of my life I've regarded S. nigrum as poisonous and when I picked Lambs-quarters, for example, as a potherb, I'd make sure that no S. nigrum got into my pot by mistake. You can see some S. nigrum growing next to my casita here at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080428sn.jpg.

When I learned that Potato and Eggplant also are members of the genus Solanum, and that nowadays even Tomato plants are placed in the genus, I began wondering about S. nigrum's poisonous qualities. Of course it's true that green potato tubers are poisonous and that tomatoes used to be regarded as deadly, too, so the genus Solanum's aura of being possibly dangerous was never completely dispelled. Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants says that unripe fruits and leaves may be poisonous, but all my Mexican books agree that tender young shoots are edible.

In fact, people here, who call the plant Hierba Mora, regularly eat S. nigrum's tender shoots as a potherb, and I've begun throwing a few shoot-tips into my morning stews, too. There's not much taste to them, except a little bitterness, but when you're feeling the need for green, leafy vegetables, they're fine.

Solanum is one of the largest of all plant genera, holding about 1700 species, so it's good to be able to identify the genus in the field. Here's how to recognize the genus Solanum:

# flowers are somewhat like a tomato's
# 5 stamens grow together around the style
# anthers release pollen through holes at the top
# fruit is pulpy and not opening along sutures, and holds several to many seeds (technically it's a "berry," same as tomatoes are berries)

*****

PESTICIDES & SONGBIRDS
In reference to my earlier remarks about heavy pesticide use here killing birds and other creatures, Fritzie & John in New York sent me an article from the March 30th edition of the New York Times. It said that migratory songbirds like Bobolinks, Barn Swallows and Eastern Kingbirds are suffering population declines, and that heavy use of pesticides is suspected as a prime cause.

"A single application of a highly toxic pesticide to a field can kill seven to 25 songbirds per acre," the piece says. "About half the birds that researchers capture after such spraying are found to suffer from severely depressed neurological function."

Since the 1980s pesticide use has increased fivefold in Latin America.

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MUSTARD MORNINGS
In the reserve each morning as soon as it's light enough to see the ground I pack my tent or mosquito net into the backpack, hike downslope about ten minutes, enter the organic garden, and pick greens for my breakfast campfire-stew. You can see some greens at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080428mu.jpg.

Those are curly-leaf mustard leaves, which provide a nice sharp tang to the stew, as if my generous portions of onion and jalapeño don't make it tangy enough.

Even more than for their taste and vitamins, I think that each morning I look most forward to the mustard leaves' sheer lush greenness. I love how the chilly dew gathered on the leaves during the night wets my hands as I snip one leaf after another, love the feeling of those frilled margins against my skin, and somehow all the generous greenness sets an agreeable tone for my whole day.

At the edge of the soccer field I deposit my backpack and big bouquet of greenness and run for half an hour as the blue sky brightens. Though I don't consult a clock, somehow nearly always my last lap around the soccer field ends exactly as the Sun peeks over the eastern ridge.

Then beneath the deep blue sky and with the deep green bouquet in my arms I set forth toward my next ceremony, that of fixing breakfast over a campfire.

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FIVE HAIKUS FROM LAST WEDNESDAY

Breakfast campfire stew,
Swallows swooping all around:
They like silent smoke.

His ears being scratched,
Donkey's loose-hung lower lip
Trembles without words.

Afternoon whirlwinds
Can scatter scrub-hung laundry
Like thoughts when it's hot.

Woop-woop-woop-woop-woop
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Woop-woop-woop-woop-woop

Before the Moonrise,
Shimmering cricket chimes with
Thunderless lightning.

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THE RAINY SEASON APPROACHES
Nowadays during most late afternoons storms build over the highlands to our north, then as night falls there's a lot of thunder and lightning but usually no rain. Last Tuesday, however, a storm built right above us and we got the best rain for months, about a quarter of an inch.

It was a windy storm, too. Tin roofs blew off three homes in the village just below us. One sheet of tin severed the electrical wire serving both that community and us, so from Tuesday until Saturday we had no electricity in 28 de Junio.

On Friday a delegation of men from the community went to the power company asking for repairs but since no one pays for their electricity here the company declined help. Then the men went to a "pirate" who knew how to hook things up, and he restored power for everyone.

As the rains return and storms become frequent I remind readers that sometimes I may have to skip issuing a Newsletter. Also, if you don't receive your copy by mail, check out the archives, for spam filters are refusing more and more of my Newsletters. The archives are at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.

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ANTS
In the reserve I sleep in different spots. When it looks like it won't rain I just sleep on a plastic sheet beneath a mosquito net. One night this week, as soon as it got dark and too late to change spots, I realized that I'd spread my plastic sheet atop an ant's nest. How many times that night did I awaken with ants crawling in my ears and nostrils, or crawling across my eyes? By dawn I felt as if ants lived inside me, always moving listlessly, irrepressible.

Then for breakfast ants were in my bags of oatmeal, cornmeal, lentils, even in my salt, and they busily burrowed into my bananas. They can chew right through plastic bags, and we don't have decent-size jars to store things in, so here we just learn to live with ants. My breakfast stews always have a few ants in them but that morning a veritable black scum of ants floated on the soup's surface. That day, I thought a lot on the topic of "ants."

It seems to me that all very complex, well functioning systems are structured more or less the same, with Nature offering the prime structural paradigm. And ants are a perfect example of a certain impulse common to all such systems. If we consider the very complex world of human social behavior, for example, we might say that ant colonies are analogous to human communist societies while top predators such as the wolf are like our top capitalists.

Notice how the individual worker ant's freedom and identity have been sacrificed for the sake of the communistic community, but also see how the wolf has blood on his paws. But see, too, how ants carry away their share of the wolf's kill, even as they interrupt the wolf's sleep biting his private parts. And then see how with a single paw the wolf wipes out thousands of ant lives, yet plenty of ants remain, and more and more are coming right now...

Doesn't this ant/wolf relationship offer an outline of all past human social history?

Is it better to be antlike or tigerlike? Nature teaches that both manners of being and many, many more as well are needed in a healthy ecosystem.

Sometimes I think that, after intelligence and imagination, the greatest gift Nature has granted the human species is the irrepressible diversity of predispositions humans are born with. As every forest type has its top predators and ants, in every large, back-to-Earth commune kids appear spontaneously with passions for guns and soldiering, and in every large army camp other kids grow up deeply touched by poesy and wildflowers.

Humanity's rainbow of personality types is a gorgeous ecosystem all by itself. A healthy, sustainable society is one that finds appropriate niches for all its members, so that everyone feels needed and appreciated.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim