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.}

May 5, 2008

CACIQUE NEST
In the recent March 24th Newsletter I told you about our Yellow-winged Caciques -- black, grackle-size birds with conspicuous yellow markings. The story is at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/cacique.htm.

Caciques build pendulous nests much like the orioles', to whom they're closely related, but larger and deeper. You can see one about 15 feet up in a Guamuch tree alongside a canal just below the community at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080505cq.jpg.

That nest is about 2 feet long (65 cm). Though this is the only cacique nest in the tree (an Altamira Oriole is building a smaller version on the tree's other side), Howell says that sometimes the species nests in colonies, and might even sling its nest on a roadside wire. It produces 2-4 pale blue eggs sparsely flecked with black and gray. Sometimes the species roosts in the hundreds, he says. The species, endemic to Mexico's Pacific Slope lowlands, is common here.

*****

SOLDIER ANTS WITH BIG MANDIBLES
On my way into the reserve frequently I cross fast- moving lines of larger-than-normal ants. With their lines, they're unlike the army ants I spoke of earlier, who move as dark, broad blotches across the forest floor. That story is archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/army-ant.htm.

The ants I'm talking about now move in straight lines several ants wide. Still, I suspect that they still may be army ants. For one thing, occasionally you'll see a whole grasshopper or caterpillar being carried along. For another, in this species large soldier ants patrol the line boundaries, and those soldiers possess enormous, incurved mandibles, seen at the lower right at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080505aa.jpg.

In that picture the big-mandibled ant is a fully developed soldier, while a less developed one stands guard at the far left, and smaller black workers stream by at the top of the picture.

I'm guessing that these are members of the genus ECITON because soldiers of that genus are famous for bearing very large, incurved mandibles. In some ant genera ants use their huge mandibles to break seeds but in Eciton they're weapons for protecting the colony.

Looking at the soldier at the lower right you can easily imagine applying the critter to a cut in your skin, having her clamp down with one mandible on one side of the wound and the other mandible on the other side, so that the closed mandibles pinch the severed sides together. At that point with your thumbnail you could decapitate the ant, leaving the head serving as a suture. I've had this use described to me, though I've never seen it.

I think I'd rather try closing a wound with my fingers, then apply some strong spider-webs of the kind we can find here, which also are known for holding wounds closed.

*****

HONEYBEES COLLECTING CORN POLLEN
Here on irrigated land crops can be grown year round, so cornfields appear in all stages of development. The other day I passed by one field with tasseling corn and heard a prodigious numbers of honeybees. They were gathering pollen from the corn's male flowers, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/0805052b.jpg.

In that picture notice the yellow gobs of pollen on the bees' hind legs. If you're unsure about what corn tassels are and what kind of flowers you're seeing in that picture, check out the corn-flower anatomy page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_corn.htm.

I had mixed feelings about seeing all those bees. On the one hand it was awe-inspiring to see experience such phenomenal, single-minded activity going on in Nature, but on the other I had to remember a recent visit a government bee-specialist made to the community, to help us produce more honey. I'd asked what the effect was on bee colonies of all the pesticides used here, especially in the sugarcane fields adjacent to the community.

"It's awful," the man said, and then he further volunteered, "It's not just the bees, but everything living. There's a crises all through the sugarcane region because of all the tumors and cancers people are turning up with."

After a moment of silence, stunned by the visitor's candor, I asked if there was a problem with bees in areas like ours producing pesticide-contaminated honey.

"Honey from this area is absolutely pure," he said. "When a bee encounters insecticide, it simply doesn't make it back to the hive."

That day when I saw all the bees gathering pollen from the corn, the odor of freshly applied chemicals hung heavily in the air, stinging my nose and producing a cottony sensation in the back of my mouth. The corn tassled, the bees hummed and all seemed right with the world, but, maybe not...

*****

HERBICIDES INSTEAD OF MACHETES
Across the road from the field of honeybee-visited corn was another cornfield with younger corn. You can see a corn plant growing in that field at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080505cn.jpg.

Notice the dead, crabgrass-like grass around the green corn plant. The grass has been killed by herbicide, apparently not damaging the corn plant at all. When campesinos see this kind of result they can hardly keep from falling into herbicide addiction.

It's also interesting that at the green corn-plant's base you can see a weather-bleached ear of corn and stalks from the last season's corn crop. Since crops are grown year-round here, the old ear of corn may be less than a year old. Here one corn crop is typically planted after another, with no crop rotation. Not only does this place enormous pressure on the soil's nutrient content, but also insect eggs and larvae, and disease organisms from the last rotation, survive in the discarded corn remains until they can attack new corn plants.

So, on the one hand they're practicing techniques guaranteeing future problems with insects and diseases, but on the other they're spending more and more money for chemicals to control those very insects and diseases. If you look at the corn plant you can see that already its blades are tattered from insect attack (as well as the lower leaves showing nutrient deficiencies), so the chemical approach doesn't seem to be working very well.

*****

EARTHWORMS & CUBANS
Cuba's development has had to progress along a path different from what it would have been if not for the US embargo that's been in effect for decades. The embargo restricted the machinery, spare parts, technology and the like that other countries have had access to. One consequence of that is that today Cubans possess knowledge and experience with alternative technologies much needed in poorer parts of the developing world. Cuba now is the leading source of information and expertise with regard to tropical organic farming.

A while back a Cuban technician passed through this area teaching how to obtain high-quality fertilizer from earthworm farms. Now that a bag of urea costs about US $40 here and people simply no longer can afford it, they're desperate for cheap fertilizers. Using earthworm poop has captured people's imaginations. I'm told that Chiapas State Government is supporting the development of earthworm farms here. Already one is in operation down the road in Pujiltik, and a committee has been formed in 28 de Junio to start one here.

I've seen that worm poop is great stuff, high in nitrogen, but I wonder if enough can be generated for the big fields here. When I suggest that farmers return to mingling corn, beans, squash and amaranth greens the way their ancestors did, with nitrogen- fixing bacteria in nodules on bean roots providing the nitrogen, and traditional rotation providing food throughout the year, basically I get blank looks.

I know why: The traditional approach doesn't yield much cash for the money-based economy people have decided they want to participate in.

*****

DAYFLOWERS FLOWERING
In the grassy middle of the trail leading among cornfields smelling of chemicals there was a delicate- looking little wildflower surviving as contentedly as if it were at a forest edge up in Kentucky. It was a dayflower, genus COMMELINA, of the Spiderwort Family. Dayflowers are monocots like grass and lilies, not dicots like roses and asters. You can see flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080505co.jpg.

About 170 dayflower species, or members of the genus Commelina, are recognized. They're all herbs and they're found worldwide. In Chiapas we have maybe ten species.

As you can see in the picture, a distinguishing feature of dayflowers is that they typically bear two large, clawed (on a stem) petals above a collection of stringy, hard-to-interpret items in the blossom's center. Each flower actually has three petals, just that the lower one is much reduced and seldom noticed.

Each flower also bears six stamens, of which only three produce pollen. The other three are staminodia, or sterile, modified stamens. In the picture you can see in the center of each flower some yellow, star-shaped items. Those are the staminodia. I'm guessing that with their bright yellowness they help attract pollinators to the blossoms' centers, and maybe provide something for the pollinators to hold on to as they probe for nectar down below.

Plantas Medicinales de Mexico is effusive about applications of dayflower leaves and stems staunching bleeding, whether from cuts, amputations, or bloody noses or hemorrhoids. Also dayflowers have been used to lessen the sharp pains of childbirth.

*****

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN THE DOG YELPED
Last Wednesday during my campfire breakfast I witnessed the following:

A dog walked by a rooster. The rooster rushed at him, threatening a flogging. Maybe the rooster and that dog had a history. Whatever the deal, the dog yelped in surprise, then growled and the rooster retreated.

On the other side of the house a small pack of dogs heard the first dog's yelp. All the community's dogs had just gone through a typical night of unmerciful barking and howling so just hearing this yelp was enough to set that pack to barking again.

A third pack of dogs a couple of houses away heard both the yelp and subsequent barking, so here was proof that something big was going on. They stampeded down the community's main thoroughfare kicking up dirt with their paws and howling, exactly as they do several times every night, as when an owl hoots or bored dogs in the next community start barking.

The second pack saw the third pack stampeding toward them and decided that they were under attack for no reason at all.

Outraged, they tore into the attackers and pandemonium broke lose with unbelievable gnashing of teeth, snarling and howling.

Eventually everyone limped off looking halfway outraged, halfway pleased with themselves. The fight had been such a normal occurrence that no human in the community seemed to have noticed, except me.

But I sat a long time eating my morning stew and thinking of all the trouble one grouchy rooster can cause.

*****

CEREMONIAL USES OF FRANGIPANI FLOWERS
Last week I introduced you to Frangipanis. That story with nice flower pictures is archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/plumeria.htm.

This Friday morning, even before the sun rose above the eastern ridge, when I descended from sleeping in the reserve I found women tending big, bubbling caldrons of boiling water where sweetcorn in the shuck was being boiled, and later headless chickens and turkeys would be dumped, to make plucking their feathers easier. After jogging and fixing breakfast I returned to the church to find the powerfully sweet fragrance of frangipani flowers emanating through the door. Inside I saw the colorful scene you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080505f1.jpg.

In that picture, below the altar presided over by a large picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, men sit before piles of Frangipani flowers of various colors very carefully constructing floral "wheels" that later will adorn the Cross. The men had picked the flowers from trees around their "city homes" in Venustiano Carranza.

A partially finished "wheel" can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080505f2.jpg.

Each ray of the "wheel" consists of several Frangipani flowers rolled a certain way, and chosen for the color needed in that particular spot. Several times I saw all work stop as the men discussed which flower of the thousands before them was best for the particular section of the particular ray of the particular "wheel" someone happened to be working on. All day the men worked as if time were nothing. All important was that every detail of every piece of work be done as perfectly as possible.

While men worked with the flowers, outside women prepared a genuine feast for later. I thought of offering my help with the flowers but seeing how the division of labor was so strict I feared my offer might be out of place. I was wrong. Don Andrés walked up to me, handed me a big needle and thread, a bucketful of Frangipani flowers, and showed me where I could sit stringing floral ropes. I took my place and an observer managed to get a photo of that, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080505f3.jpg.

In that photo, behind me an old man sits twisting seasoned fiber extracted from local agave plants into twine used to hold the "wheels" and other things together.

You can see the finished altar, finished "wheels" and ropes of Frangipani flowers adorning their Cross, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080505f4.jpg.

*****

HORSE RACES IN THE STREET
I've had such trouble issuing Newsletters from cibers in Pujiltik that now I'm sending them from Venustiana Carranza, which is a little farther away but much larger and with better internet connections. Last Monday right after issuing the Newsletter there a Human Rights Observer from Germany and I were walking down the street toward the microbus meeting spot when two horses galloped lickety-split down the street ridden by young men resplendent in traditional Tzotzil costumes. After those two came another pair, then another, until about 20 racers had run the course. The end of the course happened to lie directly across from us. You can see those who gathered opposite us at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080505rc.jpg.

The race was part of the celebrations going on last week, lasting nine days and ending May 3rd. After the races people congregated near the church and drank atole (roasted corn kernels and cacao finely ground and mixed with water to form a thin emulsion) from ceremonial jícaras, which are spherical, decoratively incised containers made from gourdlike fruits of the Calabash Tree, Crescentia cujete, which I introduced you to in the Yucatan. You can see me admiring one at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/calabash.htm.

Then the races were held again. At the end the best among the racers was chosen. I've seen ceremonies like this in other places, especially the Chiapas highlands and Guatemala, and always wondered how much of them was "real," and how much was staged for tourists. Last Monday it was clear: The German Observer and I were the only tourist-like people in town, and our main job was to stay out of the way. This was pure Tzotzil tradition manifesting itself, meant only for the homefolk. I almost felt obtrusive just being there.

Here at 28 de Junio each afternoon last week special prayer services took place in the little church, many flowers being bought to adorn alters, and many sizable rockets being set off exploding loudly in the sky.

Probably at no other time are differences in mindsets between us outsiders and the local people as apparent as during such celebrations. There's no question in the local people's minds about the need to spend what little money they have on flowers for altars, exploding rockets and feast foods. Visitors tend to envision other uses for the money.

***** *****

LEARNING
Schools around here focus more on memorization than learning the basics. Up in Querétaro when I first began giving computer classes I lost about four-fifths of my students the first day because I started out introducing such basics as what is a file, what is a subdirectory or folder, etc. They wanted to memorize which icons to click and nothing else. When I left, though many people had learned where the Magic-Wand icon is in PhotoShop, most of the reserve's computer users remained as prone to accidentally losing or deleting their work, unable to handle minor program glitches, and as mystified by new programs and task requirements as ever.

The ability for humans to learn has evolved, just like nearly everything else. Memorizing steps in a task is the most primitive form of learning, the first stage in the evolutionary process.

The second stage might be called the holistic stage. One studies the question at hand well enough to get a feeling for how it's related to everything else, and then strives to be able to deal with all the moving parts affecting the matter in question. The computer user who can visualize the hard disk spinning as work in stored in binary code organized in files of various formats in subdirectories or folders, is less likely to lose work than one who only knows where the Save icon is.

Holistic learning applies itself to broader issues, too. For example, when one knows how and why a political movement or religion began, how it's changed over time, and how it expresses itself today in everyday life, often one's opinion changes about whether he or she wants anything further to do with it.

There's a third stage of learning even more exalted, which I aspire to.

That stage is the one recognizing that Nature lucidly teaches appropriate living patterns and even instructs us on daily living issues. I personally am only beginning to hear what Nature says. However, so far I've heard enough to decide that Mother Nature doesn't hide things from us, doesn't lie or mislead us. In Nature, all wisdom is clearly written if only we have the art to decipher it.

Nature teaches with paradigms, or models. Among the paradigms I've been able to glimpse so far are these:

# Wastefulness is not permitted
# Recycling is necessary
# Diversity is sacred
# Biological organisms must have their numbers controlled one way or another
# Resources are to be shared
# Evolution never ends

Someday people will exercise their spirituality by joining in small groups where each person shares insights and understandings recently revealed to them by studying and experiencing Nature. Someday vast bodies of literature will be developed based on the teachings of Nature, with commentaries on how those teachings can be applied to everyday life.

But, that day is far off. Before society begins discussing the subtleties of living naturally, sustainably and with dignity it must first begin honoring the most fundamental and obvious of Nature's paradigms: Waste not; recycle; revere diversity, stop breeding so thoughtlessly; share; evolve...

*****

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