JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written in Sabacché and issued from a
ciber in nearby Tecoh, Yucatán, MÉXICO

August 18, 2008

TO SABACCHÉ
Monday morning after issuing the last Newsletter I backpacked up Mérida's historic Paseo de Montejo to the offices of the Yucatan Ecotourism Network (Red de Ecoturismo de Yucatán A.C.), hopped into a car, and soon we were heading southeast of Mérida. Mérida is growing fast and urban sprawl is bad but the sprawl transitions suddenly into dense, spiny scrub ten to fifteen feet tall. The very pronounced dry season here keeps forests from growing much taller, even though now, during the wet season, there's more than enough rain to support much taller, Mississippi-type forests.

The last ten miles or so of road was asphalt about 1.5 lanes wide. Land here is flat but with modest risings, yet the highway curves crazily and you wonder why there are so many zigzags. As we approached our destination, -- the tiny Maya town of Sabacché (sah- bock-CHE) -- the road straightened out. You can see the road slicing through scrub just outside town at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080818s1.jpg.

It's easy to imagine the thorny woods in the picture as "virgin." However, inside it you'll find innumerable interconnecting stone walls about chest high built of neatly stacked, irregular, white, limestone rocks. Half a century ago nearly all the land here was dedicated to growing henequen, or sisal. Inside the scrub often you find equally spaced, old Henequen plants still surviving with no obvious problems despite being overtopped and shaded by trees. Henequen plants are members of the genus Agave, similar to the Magueys we saw so frequently in arid upland Mexico.

Sabacché is home to maybe 20 Maya families. Some houses are constructed of cinderblocks, others of irregular limestone rocks held in place with lots of cement, and others have walls of rough, vertical, wooden poles. Some roofs are cement, some of thatch, and some of thatch covered with tarpaper.

Most people in Sabacché speak Maya in their homes, though everyone speaks at least some Spanish, and many speak excellent Spanish, though with a Maya accent. When I spoke with the Ecotourism Committee Friday Doña Martha, the President, translated my Spanish to Maya. Most people here are functionally illiterate, though some read and write well. From the very first I could see that people here are about the most friendly, gracious folks I've ever met.

Within moments after my arrival a community meeting was called so we could all meet one another. The women in their below-the-knees, white, prettily embroidered gowns spoke among themselves, then offered that each day I could eat in one of their homes, taking turns among them. I thanked them but explained about my morning campfires and how I nibble throughout the day, but said that I hope to visit all of them for a bowl of pozole from time to time.

After the meeting I was shown to my house, which is a small cinderblock one with a cement roof rather like the one I had in 28 de Junio, but this time instead of sharing floor space with the community's corn crop I'm with ecotourism paraphernalia -- boxed-up tents, snorkeling gear, lifejackets, a two-way radio and such.

*****

SCENES FROM SABACCHÉ
"That's where the big landowner lives," Letti the ecotourism expert from Mérida told me as we entered town, passing a well maintained, red, stuccoed-stone wall trimmed in white and with a fancy archway for entry. You can see the archway and wall at the end of the street leading to the CONASUPO store at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080818s2.jpg.

It's impossible to choose a representative photo of Sabacché because it's too small for trends to develop, and too randomly arranged for any "view down Main Street." You can see a shot of town center, where men gather each afternoon to talk and take a few swigs, with a thatch-roofed house beyond the motorbike at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080818s4.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080818s3.jpg you see an abandoned, ruined home, of which there are several in town. Sometimes as I walk around I feel as if I'm in a surreal painting by Dali, the abandoned house, for instance, being a shocking visual essay about the relationship of desperation and hope, desperation in the ruin, hope in the luxuriant, healthy looking, ever encroaching weeds.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080818s5.jpg you see where I live -- the cinderblock structure on the left with an Anona tree before it. The thatch-roofed house to the right belongs to Doña Martha of the Ecotourism Committee.

As at 28 de Junio, half-starved dogs such as the one in the road before my casita are omnipresent. Doña Martha showed me how to put poles against the doors when I leave to keep stray dogs from entering. On my first day I had to be gone about three minutes to buy matches across the road and I felt sure that on such a blistering late afternoon when the whole town was just emerging from a long siesta it would be sufficient to simply pull the door shut, without the stick. While I was away a dog entered and carried away my package of Maseca, or finely ground cornmeal. By the way, don't worry about that dog lying in the middle of the road. From midmorning to mid afternoon hours can pass without a single vehicle passing.

The smokestack at the right in the picture is typical of many dotting the landscape in this part of the Yucatán. It's all that's left of an old henequen mill that once extracted fiber from plants grown in vast plantations here, from horizon to horizon. At the peak of henequen production, before synthetic fiber supplanted henequen fiber, the population of Mérida briefly boasted the highest percentage of millionaires of any other city in the world, I've read.

You might be interested in learning more about how henequen fiber is still used in weaving at http://www.mexicanmercados.com/crafts/henequen.htm.

*****

SABACCHÉ'S FIRST 20 BIRDS
It's become a tradition with me to list the first birds seen at any new location, the idea being that a place's bird population says as much about it as anything. Therefore, here's my first birdlist from Sabacché, with species listed in the order they were seen or heard:

1) YUCATAN (BLACK-THROATED) BOBWHITE, at dawn calling from out in the scrub "bob-WHITE!" to my ears exactly like the call of the Northern Bobwhite. In Chiapas we saw that the Northern Bobwhite's distribution extends all the way into Guatemala, manifesting itself along the way as several very different-looking but intergrading subspecies. Our Yucatan Bobwhite looks more like the Northern Bobwhite than some of the Northern's own subspecies. However, the Yucatan appears to be genetically isolated, with no intergrading subspecies connecting it to the Northern's distribution area, so usually but not always it's regarded as a distinct species.

2) PLAIN CHACHALACA, several brown, turkey-like birds raucously, screechingly, gruffly and rhythmically calling at dawn from out in the scrub.

3) GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE, several in the village's street trees loudly screeching in early morning.

4) TURQUOISE-BROWED MOTMOT in shadows at edge of town occasionally erupting with a hollow, slightly nasal, ringing OWHH!

5) BRONZED (RED-EYED) COWBIRD, five on light wires at edge of town.

6) GROOVE-BILLED ANI, several black, grackle-size, clumsy looking birds with large, curve-topped beaks in bushes next to weedy pasture.

7) NORTHERN CARDINAL, a mottled juvenile male preening on a snag; several heard calling out in the scrub.

8) ALTAMIRA ORIOLE, four in a loose flock, one preening brightly in morning sunlight on a dead snag.

9) GRAY-CROWNED YELLOWTHROAT skulking in a brush pile.

10) TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRD, silent but common, looking and singing like the Northern but when it flies it lacks the Northern's conspicuous white wing patches.

11) RIDGWAY'S ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW, often lumped with the Northern Rough-Winged, about ten swooping down a gravel trail through the scrub.

12) GREAT KISKADEE, noisily calling KI KE-REEH among village trees.

13) BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER, gnat-catching on dead snag.

14) ROSE-THROATED BECARD foraging at mid level in shadowy scrub.

15) OLIVE SPARROW chasing bug across trail.

16) CAVE SWALLOW, four soaring above a cenote entrance.

17) RUDDY GROUND-DOVE, drinking from water pooled in a cavity on the forest floor.

18) TURKEY VULTURE, three sailing over town at midday.

19) BLACK VULTURE, about twenty sailing over town at midday.

20) COMMON GROUND-DOVE, a pair pecking in the middle of a gravely trail through the scrub.

*****

ANONA/ SWEETSOP
If you were with me in Chiapas you may recall the sweet Anona fruit, sometimes called Cherimoya in English, I enjoyed so much. Beside my front door here an Anona tree stands heavy with delicious fruits, but this Anona isn't the same species I introduced you to in Chiapas. The Chiapas Anona is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/anona.htm.

A fruit from the tree outside my door here is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080818an.jpg.

Our Chiapas Anona was Annona cherimola, but the one outside my door is ANNONA SQUAMOSA, in English sometimes referred to as Sweetsop or Sugar-Apple. The most obvious difference between the fruits is that the Chiapas fruits' bumps aren't as distinct and well developed as those on the Yucatan fruits. In fact, when one of the fruits outside my door passes its peak of ripeness, turns brown and starts drying out, the bumps separate from one another and the fruit falls apart.

Anona fruits are "syncarps," which means that each fruit is derived from a single flower with two or more pistils, which partially fuse together as the pistils mature. Flowers containing several pistils traditionally have been regarded as being "primitive" -- as having evolved before flowers with only one pistil, which is the case with most flowers today.

People in Sabacché call the tree outside my door Sarmullo and Tzermuy, and I wouldn't be surprised if in Mexico another 50 names could be found for it. Whatever it's called, the Annona squamosa outside my door bears fruits that are sweet and messy, and which gum up my beard so nicely that during a good eating session I draw honeybees.

*****

TAMARINDS FLOWERING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tamarind.htm I've introduced you to hard-shelled Tamarind fruits, from which people all over Mexico like to make a sweet-acidy cold drink. Despite Tamarinds being native to the Old World tropics, in Sabacché big Tamarind trees are among the favorite shade trees. During the winter dry season I'll bet men in the shady loafing area shown above spend endless hours standing around chewing the acidy fruit-pulp.

Nowadays in Sabacché's Tamarind trees you can find a few fruits already as long as five inches and covered with a brittle, brown shells, but mostly here in the rainy season the Tamarinds are flowering. I'd never looked closely at a Tamarind flower, so when I saw the blossoms here I knew I was going to have some fun, seeing what new things Tamarind flowers might do.

I wasn't disappointed, either. Tamarinds, TAMARINDUS INDICA, belonging to that subgroup of the enormous Bean Family which produces "papilionaceous" or butterfly-like flowers, produce flowers unlike any other papilionaceous blossoms I've ever seen. There's an inch-broad blossom in a few-flowered raceme at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080818tm.jpg.

Notice that the open flower on the right appears to have petals of two colors and textures -- one pure white and waxy textured, the other pale yellow with pink veins and papery with frilly margins. The pure white, waxy ones are actually petal-like sepals, or elongate lobes of the calyx tube. Only the papery, yellowish, pink-veined items are petals.

But, this flower appears to bear only three petals, while any decent papilionaceous Bean-Family flower ought to have five. It's true, the Tamarind flower's lower two petals are reduced to bristles hidden at the stamen tube's base.

Orthodox papilionaceous Bean-Family flowers should have ten stamens, too, but in the photo we see only three. They're the matchstick-like things at the bottom, right of the flower in the picture. The oval, yellow things are the anthers, which will split open to release pollen, and the greenish stems they're attached to are the filaments. Anthers and filaments together are regarded as stamens.

A couple of Newsletters back I showed you Amorpha fruitosa growing in Mississippi River mud across from Natchez, and you might remember that that plant also produced very curious papilionaceous Bean-Family flowers, because its flowers had only ONE petal. Such anomalies aren't as common as my recent Newsletters make them seem -- but they're common enough for us to know to look closely at any new flower, even when we think we can guess what it'll be like.

If your memory needs to be jolted about what normal papilionaceous Bean-Family flowers are all about, go to http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_beans.htm.

*****

REMOVING BAD WINDS WITH SIPCHÉ
Word got around quickly that I am pleased to know the value of local plants so when Don Vicente came down a trail deep in the scrub carrying a load of firewood and found me photographing a flower, he immediately put down his load and began pulling up plants around us to explain their uses. There was a pungent mint for stomach ache, another aromatic herb for washing babies, and then he stepped into the woods, snapped a branch from a ten-ft-high, flowerless bush with brittle, slender outer branches, and opposite, simple leaves, and began telling me about it. You can see Don Vicente with his plant at this point in our talk at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080818si.jpg.

The plant was Sipché, which I'm supposing to be Bunchosia swartziana, of the mostly tropical Malpighia Family.

"You're walking through the forest and get into a bad wind, a malo viento," Don Vicente explained, stiffening his spine and his face going taut to suggest the dread consequences of encountering a bad wind. "You go to the shaman, the healer, and he removes the bad wind with a branch of Sipché."

[Later Doña Martha told me that bad winds stir at 6AM, noon, 6PM and midnight, and that they're left behind by the passage of alux (ah-LOOSH), or gnomes, who live in sinkholes, or cenotes. Bad winds give you headaches, make you tired and unable to think well. Alux aren't really bad, but they can be very mischievous and troublemaking. You just have to know how to deal with them.]

Don Vicente showed me how the Sipché branch was used, with a lot of shaking back and forth and working up and down the whole body, like using a feather duster.

What fascinated me was the way the Don lumped infirmities of the body with those of the mind. The manner in which he phrased his thoughts showed that to him, at least with regard to threatening situations, no clear boundary separated the biological and the magical worlds.

Maya culture is thousands of years old, and it emerged from even older cultures. Despite setbacks such as the arrival of Europeans with their superior warring technologies and diseases, through the ages the Maya have clearly developed effective, sustainable traditions.

When a basic assumption in their world view is that the everyday physical world is not to be regarded as separate from the spiritual and magical worlds, maybe this is an insight that we in our own world need to consider.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim