JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort
adjoining Chichén Itzá Ruins in
YUCATÁN, MÉXICO

October 3, 2010

ARMY ANT VIDEO, & HONEYBEES
All week a battalion of army ants has circulated in the area and it hasn't been easy on my ankles. Usually I don't realize I've wandered into their seething black currents moving across the ground until they've started biting, and then they hold on until they're picked off. We've met army ants here often enough, so you can see pictures of them and read about them at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/armyant.htm.

What's new this time is that I remembered that my dandy little digital camera has video capabilities, so this week I filmed a battalion as it streamed across a portion of ground. Theoretically you can see that at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4-QEvtG81I.

Luis, who produces the milpa or traditional cornfield, told me what he watched some, too. A broad wave of them crossed his milpa one morning, climbed two or three big Piich trees and found nothing, but then high up another Piich they found a cavity holding a colony of Africanized Bees -- "Killer Bees," as the media call them. The ants immediately set about cutting the bees to pieces.

"They'd walk up to a bee and with their big jaws cut it right across its midsection," he said, shaking his head as if he couldn't believe it. "The bees' parts fell to the ground where other ants were waiting to carry them away. Beneath the tree it was like a dry rain falling, but it was pieces of honeybees. Those ants wiped out the whole colony, then ate the honey, left, and didn't come back."

*****

VISITOR INSIDE THE MOSQUITO NET
Tuesday night, not long after dozing off a couple of hours after sundown, I was awakened inside the mosquito net by puffs of air, now on my cheek, now my arm, now my foot. One summer night back when I was hermitting in the south-Mississippi woods I'd awakened to the same thing, and that had turned out to be a bat inside my net. In fact, once I got my little penlight shining I found a brownish, oval lump the size of an egg clinging to the inside of the mosquito net's walls. I got my camera, took a picture, removed the critter, and went back to sleep, wondering how bats get inside my mosquito net.

The next day, what a surprise to see the picture once it was on my laptop's screen. You can see it also at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101003ck.jpg.

Not a bat. With spiny legs like that and such long, slender antennae above, it had to be an insect. And with a rounded "hood" -- the pronotum -- covering its head like that, it had to be a cockroach.

But where were its wings, and why was the lower half of its body segmented not at all like a cockroach's, and what was all that white stuff covering its body?

It took me awhile to figure out that it lacked wings and the lower half of its body, or abdomen, was segmented because this is an immature stage on which the wings haven't yet developed, and all cockroach abdomens are segmented, just that on adults the wings cover the abdomen so you can't see the segments.

Also I figure the body is white and flaky because this immature, late-instar stage is about to molt, so the old exterior skeleton, or exoskeleton, is pulling away from the new exoskeleton forming below it -- which when the old one is shed will expand and show bright colors. Where air enters between the old and new exoskeletons, a pale interstice forms.

I'm guessing that this is the True Death's Head Cockroach, BLABERUS CRANIIFER, the striking adult of which we've already seen and dedicated a page to at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/deadhead.htm.

But, This wingless immature cockroach can't fly, so what about the puffs of air that had awakened me? I'm guessing that the puffs were indeed caused by a bat, just one outside the tent instead of inside, maybe trying to get at the cockroach the bat's sonar detected on the net.

Just as when that bat back in Mississippi really did get inside the net, it all seems pretty unusual -- except to my Maya friends. To them it's just the kind of thing those mischievous, gnomelike Aluxob would do, especially since we've not yet gotten around to dedicating the hut properly, with prayers and offerings of atole at the hut's four sides.

*****

MEXICAN ELDER
As I biked down a backstreet in Pisté a familiar form greeted me from across the six-ft concrete wall shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101003sm.jpg.

Anyone halfway familiar with the flora of North America or Europe will recognize this robust woody bush with basketball-size, flattish to round-topped, heads of small, white flowers, and similar-sized drooping clusters of blackish, pea-sized fruits, and pinnately compound, opposite leaves, as a kind of elder, or genus Sambucus, of the Honeysuckle Family, the Caprifoliaceae. A closer view of both a flowering head and a fruiting head is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101003sn.jpg.

However, the species in the picture is clearly different from any of the common elder species of both North America and Europe. For one thing, it's larger than the American species. Also, several of the other species produce red fruits instead of black, and of the black-fruited species the fruits of some are coated with a silvery sheen, or glaucousness, while our fruits are plain black. Also, this species' leaves are sometimes twice compound -- something seen in few other elder species -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101003so.jpg.

At this point I'm supposed to reveal the name, but that's tricky because the taxonomy of the genus Sambucus is a real mess. A year ago in Oregon's Siskiyou Mountains we looked at western North America's Blue Elderberry. Of that species' technical name I wrote:

California's Jepson Manual calls it Sambucus mexicana but the USDA lists it as Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea, and Wikipedia's expert claims that it's Sambucus cerulea."

So you see that "Sambucus mexicana" is the name the well respected Jepson Manual calls the Californian species. But "SAMBUCUS MEXICANA" is the very name most often used for our present elder bush, though it's clearly a different species. For one thing, different from ours, the California species' black fruits are coated with silvery glaucescence, as shown on their page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/blue-eld.htm.

So, until an expert comes along telling us what's right, I'm calling our California Blue Elder Sambucus cerulea, and our Pisté garden species Sambucus mexicana, the Mexican Elder.

Sambucus mexicana is native to the Mexican uplands, where its Spanish name is Sauco, but not to the Yucatan. Here it's strictly planted as a garden species. Its fruits are edible.

*****

WILD JÍCAMA
Along the weedy roadside south of Pisté I came upon numerous foot-high racemes of bluish-white flowers emerging from a sprawling mass of leafy vines, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101003ji.jpg.

The blossoms were fairly distinctive, clearly being "papilionaceous" flowers, or "butterfly-like" flowers of the Bean Family, with ¾-inch long (20 mm) petals all about the same length, and brown, fleshy calyxes. A side view showing the bluish-based wings is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101003jj.jpg.

A view from above showing the flowers' very broad top petals, or standards, subtended by two yellowish calyx lobes fused to form single, broad, notched lobes is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101003jk.jpg.

I felt like I'd seen such flowers before but certainly the vines' trifoliate leaves with very deeply lobed leaflets didn't ring a bell at all. They're seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101003jl.jpg.

I had to key out the flowers before I realized that this was none other than the Jícama, PACHYRRHIZUS EROSUS, sometimes called Yam Bean, growing right now in the Hacienda's milpa, or traditional cornfield. Its vines, which can reach 30 feet long (9 m) arise from foot-thick (30 cm), starchy tubers that are famously edible and important to the Maya and many other cultures across the world's tropics. But the Jícama leaves I'm used to don't have such deeply lobed leaflets.

Jícama is native to Mexico, so I wasn't too surprised to find it growing wild here. However, the Maya name "Chicam" is reckoned to be a corruption of the Nahuatl name "Jicama," suggesting the theory that the plant was introduced to the Yucatán's Maya by upland Mexican people, Nahuatl being the language of the Aztecs who formerly occupied the area of Mexico City.

All above-ground parts of Jícama, including flowers, pods and seeds, contain rotenone, a chemical much used as an organic insecticide.

In the much outdated and incomplete Flora of the Yucatan, Paul Standley designates such Jícamas as ours with deeply lobed leaflets as Pachyrhizus palmatilobus, but it seems that later authors lumped this variation with the more cosmopolitan P. erosus.

*****

NEW ATOLE & RAIN-PROVOKING WOMAN
Today, Sunday, I have two invitations to visit the homes of Maya friends who are celebrating their "Day of The New Atole." Atole (ah-TOH-leh) is a cherished, traditional, indigenous, corn-based drink found all across Mexico, drunk on many occasions. Sometimes it's sweetened and flavored so that it's really delicious, and pretty caloric.

What's special about today is that fresh sweetcorn is available to make it from. In fact, the Day of New Atole isn't a fixed date. The celebration takes place when a family's milpa, or traditional cornfield, begins producing sweetcorn.

"This is one of the most anticipated days of the year," my friend Bibiano tells me. "Everyone has just been waiting, so now we'll pick the very sweetest, most tender ears of corn, then cut off grind the kernels to form the moist paste called masa. We'll knead the masa real well, then dissolve it while mixing in water until it forms a smooth emulsion. Then we'll cook it until it's just perfect."

The ceremony of the New Atole varies from family to family. Normally the New Atole is so sweet naturally and tastes so good that nothing is added. It's just sweetcorn and water. Often there's no ceremony associated with it, but Luis of the milpa tells me what his family is doing today:

"When the atole is ready we'll fill 13 jícaras (traditional bowls made from round, gourdlike fruits of the Calabash Tree) and carry them to the milpa, where we'll evenly place the jícaras all around. Beside each jícara we'll leave two of the largest, most perfect ears from the milpa. You'll have a jícara then two ears, another jícara and two ears, and so forth. We'll wait may half an hour so the Alux can feast, and then we ourselves will drink the New Atole, and eat the sweetcorn."

People think of this celebration as marking the moment of the year when afternoon rains slowly begin petering out, the air becomes drier, and overall it starts growing cooler. The rainy season begins to end as the dry season begins to begin. In fact, right on cue, most of this week has been dry, and one morning it was so cool that I had to put on a sweatshirt. It was 72° F (22° C).

Even up north the first coolish days of late summer always put me in a certain mood. With cooler, drier weather, suddenly it feels as if I've been half asleep or maybe drugged during all that hot, muggy weather -- getting my work done, but kind of dead-headed and spiritless.

For example, a friend lent me a novel by Alice Walker in which someone said, "She was the kind of woman to provoke rain."

The idea delighted me and I laughed over it a lot. When it had been so hot and muggy, I doubt I'd have noticed such a pleasing turn of words.

But, now that things are loosening up, not only did the words tickle me but also I've been wondering how I've been around all these decades, in so many countries and cultures, and even still in my life there's no woman who'd provoke rain.

Of course, I'd assumed that any woman who could bring on rain would be a joy to be with, a force of Nature to behold, and a tiger to love. But then maybe the writer meant that she was just so depressing that the sky clouded over wherever she went.

Whatever was meant, even wondering what kind of woman would provoke rain has been a pleasure this week, after this long season of heat and mud. And what a shame that up North we have no celebration like that of the New Atole with which to inaugurate this subtle but profound shift of events and perceptions occurring all around us right now, and that nowadays so few women can provoke rain.

*****

PLATO AND THIS NEWSLETTER
Regularly during my life, usually around my birthday, I've done this: Ask myself WHY I'm doing what I'm doing, and whether what I'm doing fits the idea I have of myself. Sometimes the exercise provides the kick I need to stop doing something that may feel good in the short term but produces disagreeable long-term effects -- like eating too much. Other times it reminds me that some of the things I may dislike doing, in the end, provide good long-term results, so I need to keep doing them but quit feeling sorry for myself -- like jogging every morning.

I spend a lot of time on the Newsletter, so this week I reflected on why I do that. After thinking about it awhile I've reaffirmed to myself that producing it fits perfectly into my overall world view. It's fun to do and others seem to enjoy it as well, but to me the most important reason is that somehow I feel that publishing the Newsletter, by encouraging me to keep paying attention to Nature week after week, helps me advance spiritually. And maybe it helps others, too.

For, I'm convinced that Nature as a model reveals to us all the strategies we need for living happy, healthy, creative and sustainable lives. It offers deeply flowing currents of inspiration and love that we can tap into just by recognizing them, and harmonizing our own lives with them. To the extent that the Newsletter encourages us in this process, it helps us advance spiritually.

Plato says it with more elegant words. In his Phaedrus he describes the path to the "heaven which is above the heavens" where there abides "... the colorless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to mind, the pilot of the soul." I believe that the path he is talking about is the same path we tread when we consciously seek to know and experience Nature in all Her dimensions. Plato further writes:

"The divine intelligence, being nurtured upon mind and pure knowledge, and the intelligence of every soul which is capable of receiving the food proper to it, rejoices at beholding reality, and once more gazing upon truth, is replenished and made glad... "

I do believe that Plato in some teeny, secret way was referring to our little Newsletter.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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