JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written at Mayan Beach Garden Inn 20 km north of Mahahual
on the Yucatán Peninsula's eastern coast just north of the
Belize border, in the state of
Quintana Roo, MÉXICO

December 1,  2008

EATING "QUEEN'S ARM"
My work finished at Yokdzonot, I gave the good folks hosting me two weeks notice and they decided to send me off with a special good-by supper. Most Maya dishes prepared for special occasions contain animal flesh or lots of sugar so they did lots of talking before deciding on something just right for me. They chose "Brazo de Reina," or "Queen's Arm." You can see five good friends preparing it the Sunday before I left at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201qa.jpg.

You start out with a big tortilla made of moist ground corn (masa) mixed with Chaya leaf (traditional small tree with edible, highly nutritious leaves I discuss at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/chaya.htm ) topped with hand-ground, toasted squash-seed powder. Atop this sprinkle crumbled hard-boiled egg, then roll it all up inside a banana-leaf package as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201qb.jpg.

The banana-leaf packages are then stacked in a certain way inside a very large kettle, and steamed for an hour over a wood fire. The final dish, topped with hotsauce and tomato sauce is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201qc.jpg.

You can imagine that Queen's Arm is awfully good.

One of my projects while at Yokdzonot was to prepare a triptych showing local attractions. One side is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201y1.jpg.

The other, what you see inside when you unfold it, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201y2.jpg.

Also, I prepared a webpage, currently online at http://www.backyardnature.net/travel/yokdzonot/.

*****

THE MISSING OFFICE
At 9 AM last Monday morning, after bussing out of Yokdzonote well before dawn, I arrived at the office of the Red de Ecoturismo de Yucatán in Mérida for a meeting set up through emails the week before. The office was missing. No desks, no chairs, no computers, no notes on the door, just missing. I was told they'd been gone about a week. Later when I went online no mail was waiting to explain things. The Red de Ecoturismo de Yucatán, who invited me to Mexico and for whom I've stayed in two villages helping develop ecotourism programs, has simply vanished. As of today I still have no idea what has happened.

However, in the same email download in which I found no explanation from the Red, I received a mail from a lady on the Yucatán's eastern coast, not far from the border with Belize. She was inviting me to come down and check things out. Therefore, last Monday, instead of the Red de Ecoturismo assigning me to a new Maya village, I took an overnight bus to Chetumal, then spent Tuesday busing and hitching to the very isolated beachside inn I'm writing to you from now, via a satellite connection in the Reception Room, with a fine view of the Caribbean.

Who knows how long I'll stay here? I expect that at least the next few newsletters will be heavy on tropical beach organisms, and that's OK with me.

I'm at Mayan Beach Garden on the Costa Maya. Their website is at http://www.mayanbeachgarden.com/.

*****

INTO CHIT PALM TERRITORY
In the October 27th Newsletter I told you about the main palm around Yokdzonot, the Huano or Thatch Palm, Sabal yapa. Here in the much rainier, lusher southeast corner of the Yucatan Peninsula I'm not seeing Huanos, but a similar fan-palm-type species is abundant, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201ch.jpg.

In Maya it's called Chit, but in North America often it goes by the name of Florida Thatch Palm. It's THRINAX RADIATA. The Huano piece's picture of my Yokdzonot neighbor Doña Neima sweeping with a broom made of Chit fronds can still be seen oline at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027pr.jpg.

At first glance Chit and Huano fronds are very similar but if you look at the blades closely you'll notice important differences. Huano's frond stem, or petiole, continues up through the middle of the frond's blade, causing the frond to fold downward in the middle, a condition known as being "costapalmate." A picture showing a Huano frond doing this is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027pq.jpg.

You can compare that with a Chit's frond, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201ci.jpg.

Notice how the Chit frond's petiole ends abruptly at the point where the frond segments radiate outward. Even more, at the petiole's connection point in the frond's center, notice that a toothlike growth rises perpendicular to the petiole. That toothlike item is referred to as a hastula. Hastulas occur on the fronds of several palm kinds but in the genus Thrinax hastulas are particularly well developed, and therefore they constitute a good field mark for the Chit.

Chit occurs in the Florida Keys, where it's listed as endangered, as well as throughout the Caribbean, and much of Belize and the Yucatán. In terms of land area occupied (discounting the vast stretches of sea) this is actually a fairly small distribution area. Chits are regarded as threatened in the Yucatán, which might strike you as curious if you see how prolifically Chit seeds germinate beneath standing trees.

To understand why the species is endangered, all you have to do is to look around, away from right beneath the tree. In this area Chit occupies the maybe 200- meter narrow ridge of sand between open water to the east and mangrove swamps to the west. That's also precisely where real-estate signs and scalped, occupied lots also are found. Habitat destruction and its limited distribution endanger Chit, not persnickety habitat requirements and not traditional broom-making by the Maya.

*****

DAMAGE FROM HURRICANE DEAN
Last August Hurricane Dean hit exactly here. That's why the mangrove forest behind the Chit picture linked to above looks such a mess. Another shot of mangrove devastation, taken right across from the hotel, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201hd.jpg.

Though the mangroves have been damaged severely, you can see that they are sprouting and coming back. Wildlife also suffered profoundly, but it's coming back, too. Each morning as I jog the sand road along the beach I see an amazing number of raccoon tracks.

For visitors, the beach experience remains paradisiacal, and I suspect most hardly notice the mess the mangrove is in. Snorkeling is fantastic and beachcombing still is especially good right here.

Wikipedia's page on Hurricane Dean is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Dean.

*****

SEAGRASS/ TURTLEGRASS
I've not done much naturalizing in coastal zones so I'm a green student here, hardly knowing where to begin. On my first day here I decided to figure out what the waves were heaping up on the beach, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201tt.jpg.

My first guess was that it was Kelp, simply because I'd heard of Kelp and knew that it gets heaped up on beaches. As you can see, nearly all the unknown plant is dead and brown, but also there were a few green sprouts in it, one being shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201tu.jpg.

Kelp is an alga, but this plant definitely shows cellular structure of a kind I don't think algae would have. Here I can browse the web so I did just that, searching on the "sea grass." I came up with the site at http://www.seagrasswatch.org/id_seagrass.html -- a whole site dedicated to sea grasses, and with a special page for sea grass identification.

That site seems to be in Australia, where I'd expect different species to occur, but their ID page still enabled me to decide that our beach-heaped plant probably is a member of the genus Thalassia. Scientific literature on the Web refers to vast sea- beds of THALASSIA TESTUDINUM just off the eastern Yucatán shore, and the pictures I find of that species look like mine, so I'm betting that that's what I have, despite having no flowers or fruits. It's certainly a "seagrass," since that's a generic name for various grasslike aquatic species. And it's probably "Turtle Grass," the name often applied to Thalassia testudinum.

There's a wonderful shot showing a sea turtle grazing on Thalassia testudinum at http://www.ceakumal.org/images/turteating.jpg.

That site also touches on Thalassia testudinum's ecological value. I read:

"The grasses develop root systems and rhizomes below the sediment that help to stabilize the sand, enhancing the transparency of the water. The areas of seagrass are particularly important as refuge for small fish and other marine species, serving as feeding and nursery sites for a diversity of fish species, crustaceans, mollusks, manatees and turtles— like the green turtle (Chelonia mydas)... "

I also read that Thalassia testudinum "prairies" are largest and thickest where underground rivers from inland Yucatán release their waters offshore.

What a wonderful plant! I feel as I did the first time I met Big Bluestem Grass, the emblematic grass of North America's great prairie biome.

*****

SEA-BEANS
I'd never heard the term "sea-beans" before but here at Mayan Beach Garden that's a frequently talked-about topic.

Sea-beans are also known as "drift seeds," which more clearly describes what they are -- seeds that wash onto the beach after floating from who-knows-where? The Reception Room at the hotel has a pretty little box with four glass walls filled with assorted sea-beans and other beach-found goodies, which can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201bo.jpg.

Next to the display is a book, Sea-Beans from The Tropics, and if you thumb through that you can get excited about the notion of walking mile after mile of tropical beach looking for seeds from distant, very exotic lands. You can see the book's cover at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201bp.jpg.

If you want to buy the book, please use my Amazon.com link at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/.

Of course as soon as I was on the beach I started looking for sea-beans, and the first one found is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201bn.jpg.

That's the seed of the Tropical Almond, Terminalia catappa, and I'm told it's one of the most commonly encountered sea-beans, so it's no big stuff.

Still, it was a beginning, and I'm hooked on sea- beaning.

*****

SEASHELL IDENTIFICATION
Naturally I also want to identify seashells. You can see my first seashell picture from here at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081201ss.jpg.

To identify that I went to the online "seashell Identification Guide" at http://www.seashells.org/seashells/sanibelseashellident.htm.

There I clicked on "Gastropod seashells," which are univalve shells not hinged or joined together, like the one in the picture.

The closest match on the "Gastropod Seashells" page at http://www.seashells.org/seashells/gastropodseashells.htm was with the Florida Cone, Conus floridanus. I think mine is different -- maybe the same genus but a different species. Probably by going through a search engine's thousands of thumbnail photos of the genus Conus I could identify it. But, right now, still in my student stage, knowing it's probably a Conus is good enough.

*****

DOUBLE RAINBOW
{I'm sleeping in my tent here, on the beach when it's not raining, in a hurricane-demolished house ruin when it is. The other evening during a shower I looked up the beach and saw the double rainbow shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/0812012r.jpg.

Notice that the order of the colors in the two rainbows is opposite. In the outer, weaker rainbow red is on the inside of the arc but in the inner, brighter one red is on the arc's outside.

On the internet of course this is all explained. I read, "What's happening here is that the ray of sunlight bounces twice off the back interior surface of the raindrop before re-emerging into the air. The second reflection inverts the order of the colors – the secondary violet band forms at 54 degrees, the red band at 50.5 degrees – so the secondary rainbow appears above the primary one, with red on the inner edge and violet on the outer."

There's a lot more rainbow talk of this sort at the site where I found this, at http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2279/what-causes-double-rainbows.

*****

CUTTING IT CLOSE
Even for me, having my sponsoring institution disappear, then two hours later receiving an unanticipated new invitation leading to a completely new setting, is cutting it pretty close. This week I've been thinking existentially -- thinking about the art of existence. I live so close to the edge that maybe I have some insights for those who haven't thought much about the matter.

The other day, in an official "editorial reflecting the view of the United States Government," shortwave's Voice of America referred to the present economic situation as a challenge to the US matching anything since the Civil War. Even accounting for hyperbole on the part of a possibly new speech writer, this makes me wonder: Are people in our culture prepared to think in terms of survival?

My opinion is that when things get rough, you need to keep your priorities clear.

The first priority is to deal with any pressing danger. Find shelter, escape, get prepared to defend yourself.

Second, secure a source of potable water.

Third, secure a food source -- first food with calories to fuel your body, then food with protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients your body needs, for maintenance.

Fourth, decide if you want to be part of a community or go it alone. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

But, at this point and points beyond, each person is so different, has such different needs and gifts, that I can no longer generalize.

Right now it's enough just to remember to take care of the first three priorities. You also might be thinking about this:

It's good to know how to garden.

Remember that several layers typically insulate better than one thick layer.

If you have a backpack, a good sleeping bag and a tent, you have some very basic human needs taken care of, plus you enjoy mobility and flexibility that gives you a competitive advantage over others anchored to one place.

In the end, no matter what your condition, nothing ever changes basically with you: You're always an aware, thinking, reflective, feeling human with all the rights and dignity of any living creature the Creator has found it worthy of creating.

*****

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