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

February 6, 2012

GRACKLE CACOPHONY
A cacophony is a loud, harsh or strident noise, so that's exactly the right word to describe the early-morning and late-evening callings of Great-tailed Grackles. If at early morning or late evening you've ever been in a Mexican or Central American park, probably you've heard their screeching, clacking chatter and whistles, and not forgotten it.

Last Sunday morning beside the garbage dump just south of Pisté I was a little late to hear the grackle chorus there at full cry, but there was enough to hint at a full-blown grackle cacophony. If you can view YouTube videos, you can hear what I heard at http://youtu.be/0slUvJrNPnk 

*****

ANOTHER "BAD WOMAN"
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/malamujr.htm I've already introduced you to the wonderplant Chaya, which produces edible leaves high in protein content along with lots of vitamins and minerals, and which is an important planted shrub around most traditional Maya homes. Chaya is the domesticated form of a common native bush or small tree found here throughout the forest, and known in Spanish as Mala Mujer, or "Bad Woman."

The plant is "bad" because it abundantly bears many stiff, sharp, stinging hairs of the kind Northern nettles have, except much larger and more painful to make contact with. I don't know why the name givers made it a woman instead of a man, for it seems to me that men are more likely to be prickly than women.

Whatever the gender issues, it took me awhile to realize that in our local forest there were two, not one, very closely related species of "Mala Mujer" that most people, including the Maya I know, don't differentiate. You can see how very similar they are by comparing the leaves and flowers of the Mala Mujer we've already seen, at the top of page linked to above, with a similar shot of our second species shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120206mm.jpg.

The species we've already looked at, which includes both the wild, very spiny Mala Mujer and its almost-spineless, edible domesticated form, is Cnidoscolus aconitifolius. Our second species it took me a while to recognize is CNIDOSCOLUS SOUZAE, which is endemic just to the Yucatan Peninsula.

My impression is that Cnidoscolus souzae is even a little spinier than the Wild Chaya one. You can see the stinging spines on a young bush's stem at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120206mo.jpg.

Once you know the secret, it's easy to distinguish the two species. Unlike with most closely related species, the difference is vegetative, not with flowers or fruits. The secret field mark is that the glands atop each leaf's petiole at the point of attachment with the blade are very different. First you might want to look at the glands atop a Wild Chaya's petiole at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801co.jpg.

Now look at the same gland location on a C. souzae at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120206mp.jpg.

One wonders why the wisdom of evolution chose to provide two very similar species with such different glands. A good guess is that the glands must be extraordinarily important to the plants, or at least were at some point in their evolutionary history. Since the leaves are so highly edible, another good guess is that the glands, like the stinging hairs, protect against away leaf-eating animals. Usually such glands either repel with disagreeable chemicals, or attract ants who bite grazing herbivores.

The free, online, Spanish-language Biblioteca Digital de La Medicina Tradicional Mexicana says that to relieve rheumatism you should rub the leaves or beat the stems of this species on rheumatic joints. Since both leaves and stems are heavily armored with stinging hairs, this is similar to having honeybees sting affected joints. I've seen the Maya collecting bees for that.

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BOAT LILY
As with Chaya, two variations are commonly known of the monocotyledonous Boat Lily, TRADESCANTIA SPATHACEAE. We've already examined one form with its long, pliable, green leaves, found in such habitats as the moist, rocky bottoms of cenotes and on deeply shaded, moldering, unexcavated Maya ruins, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/boatlily.jpg.

The Boat Lily's other variation is so different from what's shown there that it's hard to believe it's the same species. This other variation is much more widely occurring and better known than the green-leaved form. You can see its purple-bottomed leaves on a colony growing wild on a weedy, limestone outcrop in Pisté at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120206bl.jpg.

Up North this variation with purple-bottomed leaves is marketed under many names, including Moses-in-a-Boat, Moses-in-the-Bulrushes, Men-in-a-Boat, Oysterplant and Boatplant, and it's often grown indoors in pots. It's a frost-intolerant member of the Spiderwort Family, the Commelinaceae. The species is native to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and has escaped from cultivation in much of the world's tropics, including in Florida and Louisiana, where sometimes it creates such a dense groundcover that it prevents seeds of native plants from germinating on the forest floor.

You can understand why some of the English names mention a boat and passengers when you see how its flowers are subtended by modified leaves, or bracts, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120206bm.jpg.

A close-up of two flowers, each with three white petals and six stamens, the stamens' stems, or filaments, overgrown with tangles of long, soft hairs is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120206bn.jpg.

Various cultures have used the plant's watery juice cosmetically. The juice irritates skin, reddening it, so people wanting their cheeks to shine with a rosy glow daub them Boat-Lily juice.

In the old days Tradescantia spathacea was known as Rhoeo discolor.

*****

MANSOA VINE
Occasionally you see a woody vine, or liana, dangling from roadside trees bearing opposite, trifoliate leaves and seven-inch long (18cm), cigar-shaped fruit capsules with woody, exceedingly warty husks, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120206ma.jpg.

A closer look at a fruit is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120206mb.jpg.

When you meet a liana with opposite, compound leaves and woody, elongated capsules, the first plant family to come to mind should be the Trumpet Creeper or Bignonia Family, the Bignoniaceae. Our vine is a member of that family, though it's in a genus I've never heard of. It's MANSOA VERRUCIFERA, apparently lacking a generally accepted English name, so I think of it just as Mansoa Vine. It seems to be spottily but widely distributed from Mexico through Central America into central South America.

I read that it bears rosy-colored flowers with corollas up to 3.2 inches long (8.1cm) and that the fruits can be nearly twice as long as the one shown in my hand. The flattish seeds bear membranous wings on both ends.

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CIRROCUMULUS LACUNOSUS CLOUDS
On most days here for the last couple of weeks we've been receiving showers and sometimes even good rains, which is very unusual for this time of year. When our landscape should be crispy dry with drought and the color of cured hay, it's greening as if it were the rainy season, which shouldn't begin until late May or so. Also, Sara on the coast writes of unusually large amounts of Sargasso seaweed piling up on beaches.

Therefore, I wasn't surprised the other day to see a cloud formation I've rarely noticed, the one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120206cl.jpg.

The top of the picture is occupied with fairly normal altostratus/altocumulus formations, but at the bottom such honeycombed parts are seldom seen.

Especially at the lower left the clouds' wispy streaking denotes high clouds containing ice crystals, thus classifying them as cirrus. In general each cloud body is somewhat puffy, of the cumulus type, so you put the two types together and you get cirrocumulus. The World Meteorological Organization says that when cirrocumulus clouds are pockmarked with large, clear holes you have a special variety of cloud -- not a species in this case -- known as CIRROCUMULUS LACUNOSUS, "lacunae" being a technical term for cavities, holes or gaps in something.

These clouds developed in advance of a rain-bringing warm front arriving from the southeast.

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DEWDROP
We are what our senses, thoughts and feelings reveal to us we are. It's good to reflect on the matter because with regard to at least the physical senses it's easy to see that we ignore most sensations. Not only do our minds most of the time blot out the little itch above our eyebrow and most other less pressing stimuli, but also we profoundly limit our sensual bouquets by habitually ignoring all but what we routinely need to notice.

It has to be like that if we are to survive, else we'd be so distracted we couldn't get anything done. However, if our senses help us define who we are, by narrowing the scope of our sensual experiences, we limit ourselves.

Maybe the main way we inhibit our sensory world is by paying attention only to what's relevant to something our size. How many of us spend whole days without looking at the sky, or exploring beneath grassblades? You know how the spirit expands with a mountaintop view. The same kind of perspective-readjustment comes when focusing on tiny things near at hand.

For example, consider the dewdrop on a tomato leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120206dd.jpg.

The droplet is cold, smooth and spherical, gathering within itself sunlight in two places, presenting the world behind it upside-down. The leaf is hairy, its sharp hairs bent as by wind, its surface bumpy and veiny, and then there's the leaf's translucent greenness bespeaking magical photosynthetic workings, carbon dioxide and water conjured by sunlight into oxygen, carbohydrate and reconstituted water.

So, three themes -- the droplet, the craggy leaf, the magic of photosynthesis -- each conveying a certain feeling and message, and inside us these gifts mingle and interact like melodies in a friendly tune.

Here's a liberating thought: Having taken into ourselves the dewdrop's visual song, how easy it is to shift our eyes just a little, to where there's something else entirely, a whole other universe of states of being to reflect and feed upon, to experience, to be enlarged and refined by... just by turning our heads.

But the most promising part is this: Here we've just been playing with what we can see, dealing with one aspect of the "senses" part of our soul-defining triad senses/thoughts/feelings.

The same sort of focusing-and-shifting exercise done here with a dewdrop can be applied to thoughts and feelings, and to other soul-defining domains of experience we haven't mentioned, and maybe don't even know about.

*****

PUP WITH A WAGGING TAIL
On the little road south of Pisté more Black Vultures than usual circled above the Municipal Garbage Dump. They also congregated on the paved road where an animal had been run over the previous night. Just bones and tufts of hair were left now.

Somebody had left a little brown pup there. He stood among the vultures looking at the carrion as I biked down the road, and when he saw me he started walking toward me. He was in pretty bad shape. His ribs stuck out, patches of fur were missing, and his nose was dry and cracking. But, behind him, his tail stood straight up, wagging, and he was smiling, too.

Maybe as a defense against the moment, in that soft morning's benevolent sunshine, I went spiritual. I mean, my mind leapt into that realm of abstraction where this thing that is my own presence and awareness instead of identifying with the things of this world claim membership with the evolving Universe where everything, including the pup and me, is part of reality's generous blossoming of life and more life, and ever more exquisitely refined sensibilities, and more and more soaring, intensely passionate feelings and empathies.

Thinking like that, you might predict that my "feelings and empathies" would oblige me to scoop up the pup and begin taking care of him. Instead, here's what happened:

I thought: We humans are programmed to have nurturing feelings before a babyish smile or a pup's wagging tail. Centuries of selective breeding by humans have created dog-pups programmed to smile and wag their tails when human attention is needed. If this pup is successful in enticing me with his smile and wagging tail to feed and care for him, he'll survive and pass on genes to future dog generations so that, on the average, the evolving dog species will become a little more smiley and tail-waggy.

And, that PROCESS of distilling ever more cheering dog-smiles and ever-more endearing tail wags from the misery and ugliness of raw, disordered space and time with carrion along its highways surely is beautiful, for it's clearly what the Creator "wants," for it's the way things "are." And, it seems to be true that this and other outrages to our senses generally or always turn out to be features of the dance between the Universe's dark, negative Yin with radiant, positive Yang. Just that at this precise moment in the dance Yang's back is to us, while partner Yin stares over the shoulder straight into our faces.

Thinking like this didn't offer guidance about what to do with the pup, but it did put things in a context beyond just man-meets-dog. And from that perspective it seemed that non-action, non-participation, at the least might not be an unforgivable stance.

Also, there was the matter that I'm not into procuring dog food which has flesh in it of other animals I'd rather not pay to have killed and converted into dog food. And if I'd take the pup to someone else in town, it'd just end up mangy and starving like the rest. In my way of thinking, ecological laws and "living with dignity" trump the primal impulse to produce ever more numerous living things.

Down the road, the pup left among the vultures, sunlight and wind, on and on, the road was long, lonely, and beautiful.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim