JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written about 20kms (12mi) southwest of
Chichén Itzá Ruins, in
Yaxunah, Yucatán, MÉXICO

August 2, 2015

GETTING A FEELING FOR YAXUNAH (YAH-shoo-NAH)
The precise moment the latest wandering ended was Saturday morning, July 25th, when anthropologist Grace Bastrophé took me to Yaxunah's comisario -- the "mayor" -- and after reporting to him that other important members of the Town Council and of the Community Center's Board of Advisers already had agreed to it, asked if it was alright with him if I lived for a period of time in a hut in the Community Center. The comisario graciously consented and made a little speech about how he appreciated all the good things that Grace and other outsiders have done for Yaxunah in the past.

Yaxunah -- sometimes spelled Yaxuná, but the Maya living here prefer the spelling Yaxunah since the final h is part of their language, though when they say it I can't hear it -- is a little Maya town about 45 minutes southwest of where I used to live at Chichén Itzá ruins in central Yucatán state. It's a small town with about 800 people, and it's more traditionally Maya than many towns closer to main roads or the coast.

At dawn someone at the Municipal building makes announcements over a loudspeaker, heard all over town. A meeting about children's diseases at 9AM; Family such-and-such has killed a pig and you can buy what you want at their home. For the family butchering and selling the pig parts, it's a big day, everyone specializing in a part of the operation, all carried out beneath the trees, with chickens and turkeys pecking up whatever scraps land on the ground.

At midday, dogs sleep in the middle of streets, and seldom have to move. People are so polite and friendly that you notice it. Middle-aged and older women wear traditional white dresses, or huipeles, colorfully embroidered around the collar and at the bottom. The tortilla shop with its old, greasy, squeaking tortilla baker occupies a thatch-roofed hut that opens its doors at noon instead of dawn as in most places, and most of the business is from women who arrive with dishpans of hominy -- normally balanced atop their heads -- to be ground into pasty masa, from which they'll pat out their own tortillas at home.

Grace the anthropologist, who took me to see the comisario, and whose studies of the town have been published in scientific journals, describes Yaxunah as "pristine," meaning that many Maya traditions here are intact. Grace feels close to the town's people and in gratitude for their assisting in her research, with many others, has contributed greatly to the Yaxunah Community Center. The Center features a museum of Maya culture, a botanical garden with plants important to the Maya, and buildings for classes and activities. Local people are at ease when they visit, and much of the time there are activities and programs for kids. Computers are available for students, and usually there's wi-fi Internet, though right now it's down, and that's why my Newsletters are late. There's no bus service between Yuaxunah and Pisté to the north.

Nowadays a group of anthropology students and their teacher are visiting from the US. You can see a class on Maya stingless bees being conducted in the Center's big Presentation Hut at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150802ce.jpg.

I'm fascinated by the anthropological field techniques being taught. A map of Yaxunah drawn up by the students is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150802mp.jpg.

In the map, each square is one of Yaxunah's "manzanas," or "blocks," with each house marked in. Homes chosen at random are visited and "informants" living there are asked about their use of medicinal plants. Statistical methods are used to determine how consistent the replies are from one household to another. Plants are collected for identification and to serve as future reference material. Student Kel from North Carolina is shown pressing plants just collected during a walk about town at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150802pr.jpg.

I'm to help develop a Nature Center and to encourage outsiders to visit not only for the Center's usual programs but also for "walks through town with the naturalist," and to participate in frequent "nature study workshops." My services are free, but the Center will charge small fees. The Center more than compensates for my lack of income by providing me a thatch-roofed, pole-walled hut in which to live. It's similar to the one I occupied those years at Chichén Itzá, except that this one has a cement floor, and fewer tourists poking their heads through the door to see what's going on. Already I've experienced a typical rainy-season afternoon storm, sitting in the darkened hut watching water dribble off the eaves' thatch tips, as lightning flashed between wall poles, and it felt as if I'd returned home.

How remarkable that now twice in my life I've ended up living in traditional Maya huts.

*****

PSYCHIC ORIENTATION
I haven't figured out yet what it'll be like living here. For one thing, by now I've identified and written about most of the Yucatán's conspicuous, easy-to-meet plants and animals. I think the Newsletter's format now must change, but I'm not sure how that will be done.

Right now I can only say that there's a spirit about this place worth experiencing and commenting on.

As you enter the Community Center, on the wall of the main building to the left, there's a spectacular mural, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150802mu.jpg.

A close-up of part of the mural is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150802mv.jpg.

The mural was painted by Nubia Monserrat Alvarez López, with help from Adrián Cob Soberanias and Gabriel Antonio del Castillo Cantero. The mural's motif's, and the face of the individual in the detail, couldn't be more Maya.

Our area is undergoing a drought and the cornfields are suffering. I had a meal with a group including a local man who seemed to want to contribute to the conversation but had nothing to say other than what was really on his mind. He said, "I know it's wrong. I know we shouldn't do it. But when I visit my cornfield in the morning and see how the leaves twist and droop, I don't know of anything else to do. We're going to have a rain ceremony, a cha'a chak, though I know it's wrong... "

"Hay que hacer algo," I said. "One has to do something," and he seemed to appreciate that.

I didn't ask him why he thought it might be wrong or bad to conduct a rain ceremony, which later was accompanied by little boys sitting around an altar croaking like frogs, and shamans directing themselves toward the Earth's four directions. I didn't ask him because there's a long history of people looking like me telling the Maya that features of their culture are bad or at least useless.

"Hay que hacer algo," I'd said, and maybe that was the truth, even though I hadn't thought of the words as more than my own effort to fill an awkward silence.

I'm so new in this world that it's hard to say what meanings things, events and words here have. We just have to see how all this develops.

*****

A FURROWED WOOD-TURTLE'S PLASTRON
The Newsletter's new format won't be so different that I fail to report on discoveries when they come along. For example, in my first week at Yaxunah some kids told me about land turtles living around a pool in the garden. As soon as I showed interest they found one wedged in a dark hole where two rocks came together and brought it to me. It was a Furrowed Wood-Turtle, whose characteristic red head-markings you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150802tt.jpg.

We've already met this handsome species, as you can see on its page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/woodturt.htm.

Back then we were unable to get a shot of the scale configuration on the turtle's lower shell, or plastron, often needed during turtle identification, but this time we got a good picture, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150802tu.jpg.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Reflections on Being Poisoned" from the August 24, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/060824.htm

"Preclassic, Classic & Postclassic" from the February 12, 2012 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/120212.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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