JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: issued from Ek Balam, Yucatán, MÉXICO

July 26, 2015

BENEATH A CAPULÍN
In later times when I recall the current wandering, one of my most vivid memories will be of time spent below a certain Capulín tree, a MUNTINGIA CALABURA, in an empty, weedy lot in the Casitas subdivision of Mahahual on the Yucatan Peninsula's southeastern coast. Casitas is where people live who work in Mahahual's tourist zone. On my way to Mahahual the previous week, some buses had been so cold with air conditioning that I developed a head cold. For a couple of days I lay in my tent in a kind of fevered mental fog, gazing up through the tent's screen top into the tree's intricate network of branches.

Several tree species with cherry-like fruits are called Capulines, so I slipped into the habit of speaking to my tree using the name Muntingia, a name pretty enough, and exotic enough, to grace such an excellent tree. We've already met Muntingia, back in 2008, in Chiapas in southernmost Mexico, and you can see its leaves, flowers and fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/capulin.htm.

A nice breeze always blew off the Caribbean about a kilometer away, so the Muntingia's branches made a never-ending, always changing display of crisscrossing twigs, and quivering leaves. Alternately brilliantly sunlit and darkly shadowed, the leaves and branches created a kind of green fantasia somehow the opposite of, and ministering to, my sweaty malaise.

The tree, about the size of a northern orchard's apple tree, bore both white flowers and pea-sized, red fruits that looked like little cherries. The fruits were sweet and pleasant to taste, the seeds small and soft, so a more congenial little fruit can hardly be imagined. I ate them by the handfuls, when I felt like it.

Birds liked the fruits, especially yellow-and-black Hooded Orioles. A certain Hooded Oriole family visited throughout the days, the fledglings drooping and quivering their wings, piteously begging to be fed, calling with their harsh, adolescent voices -- even though they were perfectly capable of feeding themselves, and sometimes did when the parent wasn't quick enough. When the family got above my tent, I'd yell and thump the ceiling to scare them away, but still after a few days they managed to speckle my tent with poop pretty effectively.

Red fruits littered the ground, sometimes even bouncing off my tent in the middle of the night when the wind hardly stirred. A species of very tiny, fast-moving ant craved the fruits' sweetness, but after many ants had swarmed over a fruit all day, most of the fruit still remained because the ants could take so little.

Leafcutter ants were much larger and made more of an impact, for they gathered every white flower petal that settled to the ground, and carried them, one petal per ant, in slow-moving lines, the petals carried above the ants' heads, past my tent. It was soothing to watch the perpetual little caravan, and good to think of an ant species so fastidious in its taste and needs that with a whole world of rampant green vegetation available it would choose only a certain tree's flower petals, and obsessively gather them home every day. Who knows what essence they aimed to distill from the petals in their subterranean compost dungeons, where a fungus would grow atop the compost, and then the ants would eat the fungus?

The tree itself possessed a central trunk, but it was fairly slender and not much different from trunks of numerous other smaller shoots of the same species all around. It was more Muntingia thicket than one tree growing alone, and I never figured out whether there was just one tree with many shoots sprouting from its roots, or many saplings arising beneath a parent tree.

The Muntingia seemed to make a special effort to hold its stiff, fairly straight and slender branches more or less horizontally, so that the branches made comfortable walkways easy for birds to move along as they went from fruit to fruit. Seen from below, this intersecting system of branches formed a kind of systematic gridwork against the sky. I lay below, wondering if this unusual manner of being for limbs really came about for the mere convenience of fruit-eating birds, and I thought that if that were the case then it was a pretty thing -- that a tree's form could express a bird's desire.

A sick old gringo in a tent beneath a Muntingia tree on a tropical shore where ants continually carried flower petals past the tent's door... That's what I was for awhile this last week, and these are the most vivid memories that will come to mind when in the future I remember this current wandering.

*****

WANDERING
On Saturday, July 25th, I picked up my books, computer and other items I couldn't carry easily during the current wandering, and left Río Lagartos for the last time. I have a new home, which you'll learn about in future Newsletters.

This new place is very isolated. Currently it has no Internet connection and there's no bus service to the nearest town. However, within two or three weeks Internet should become available. Between now and then I may be unable to issue the Newsletters that I'll continue to write. I'll just issue them in a batch when/if the connection is made. Today's location at Ek Balam is just a stop in transit.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.