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

August 30, 2015

CORN WITHOUT BEANS
Traditionally the Maya farming system, the "milpa," has consisted of growing corn interspersed with twining bean vines, squash vines, and other plants. A critical feature of the milpa system is that bean vines produce nitrogen for the corn and other non-nitrogen producers. However, most cornfields I see around Yaxunah are just growing corn.

A Maya farmer told me that it's because modern herbicides kill everything except the corn. He said that farmers consider the loss of beans and squash as a fair trade for the drastically diminished amount of labor needed to keep their cornfields "clean" with herbicides.

Though farmers here complain that their corn ears are small relative to how they used to be, and remember that traditionally bean vines were planted with corn, their use of bean-killing herbicides seems only to increase.

*****

SCARECROW
In North America's big cornfields you don't see scarecrows. Down here the Maya with small patches of corn in the forest still use them, as is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150830sc.jpg.

No crows inhabit the Yucatan Peninsula, so in Spanish sometimes scarecrows are called "espantapájaros," or "scarebirds."

You can see that the scarecrow in our picture isn't stuffed with straw but rather the clothing is arrayed on a pole structure. The "man" seems to carry a long pole over his shoulder, but that's a pole stuck in the ground and has a wire dangling from it suspending the scarecrow above the weeds. As the wind blows, the scarecrow menacingly weaves back and forth.

*****

PIICH TREES CLOSING THEIR LEAFLETS
Piich trees, Enterolobium cyclocarpum, are members of the Bean Family, and they're one of the three or four largest and most conspicuous trees of Southern Mexico and Central America. However, there's no good English name for them. "Piich" is Maya, and therefore not much good outside the Yucatan. Sometimes I've seen them called Guanacastes, but that name is more used in Central America. Tour books often label them "Ear Trees," because of their large, ear-shaped legumes. Our Piich page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/piich.htm.

A big Piich towers above my hut here in Yaxunah. Each morning as I enjoy my steaming stew, often I look into the sprawling branches, for often birds perch there, plus it's just a restful view.

During the night, the tiny leaflets of each of the Piich's feathery, twice-compound leaves close upon one another, giving the tree's branches a more airy look. While I'm breakfasting at dawn, when the sun reaches a little above the horizon, the leaflets move apart, making the tree look much denser. A picture showing the tree's "airy" leaves as they are before the sun rises, on the left, and the same leaves about an hour later, on the right, after a little sunlight, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150830pi.jpg.

A close-up of some leaflets folded together for the night, just beginning to "open" at dawn is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150830pj.jpg.

During the dry season the Piich's leaves also "close up," giving the same airy look, and I've always understood that to be their way of cutting down on the evaporation of water from the leaflets' surfaces. However, the leaflets in our above picture closed during a drizzly night, and were wet when the picture was taken.

A good guess is that the dawn opening has to do with the tree's change from respiring during the night (using oxygen) to photosynthesizing (producing oxygen), during the day.

*****

PATCHING A THATCH ROOF
During my years at Hacienda Chichen next to Chichén Itzá ruin we got to see how a traditional Maya thatch-roof house was built. Here at Yaxunah the hut I live in is older and a hole in the thatch was letting in rainwater, so a couple of men came by to repair the hole. I've always wondered how replacing thatch in such a closely constructed roof could be done. A picture illustrating the process is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150830ht.jpg.

Several blades chopped from local Huano Palms, Sabal yapa, were hoisted up by rope. The roof's deteriorated fronds were pulled out, and then one after another new fronds were inserted with their midribs hooked beneath the wooden pole and the foliage put outside to form the new roof's exterior.

A close-up of new fronds in place with their midribs hooked beneath their pole is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207h1.jpg.

*****

PLASTERING THE HUT'S INTERIOR WITH MUD
My hut's wall consists of vertical poles cut from the surrounding forest. Sometimes villagers apply a thick mixture of mud and straw to seal the openings between the poles. This week important visitors were invited to Yaxunah's Community Center to see how traditionally the Maya did certain things, such as roast pig in a pit and make pig cracklings, and one exhibition consisted of applying the mud and straw mixture to a section of my hut's walls.

First several buckets of "red soil" were dumped onto the hut's floor, formed into a low, broad crater, and water was poured into the crater's depression. Then straw was scattered over the dirt, a man entered the depression and with his feet began working the straw into the mud and getting it to the right consistency, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150830hu.jpg.

In this area, two types of soil are recognized by the Maya, both occurring in thin patches and layers atop limestone bedrock. Black soil is good for growing things because it contains organic matter -- though Maya farmers generally don't know about organic matter as such -- while red soil lacks organic matter. Our red soil also lacks sand, and when wet tends to form a runny mud, so the straw gives the mud body so it can be worked with. Also, when the mud dries, without straw it tends to crack and form patches that fall off. Red mud is red because it contains trace amounts of iron, which when combined with oxygen in the air forms iron oxide, or rust.

The straw must be very dry, else it decays in the mud and loses its ability to hold the mud together. In the old day the sap of a certain tree member of the Bean Family -- known as Chukum in Maya, but here that name is applied to two Bean Family species -- is used to add strength.

Once the mud and straw acquire the right texture, handfuls are scooped up, patted back and forth between the hands until no straw tips poke from the mud, and then is literally thrown in place on the pole wall. If it's not thrown hard enough it won't stick, but if it's thrown too hard, much is lost as it sails between the poles. You can see a worker slapping some mud in place at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150830hv.jpg.

Of course mud thrown against a pole splatters. Once I was generously splattered anyway I took off my shoes, entered the crater, and began throwing mud against the wall. It's not an unpleasant job.

For my part, I think I prefer a wall without mud, though back at Hacienda Chichen sometimes during the winter dry season cold fronts, or nortes, passed through, and I would have liked to have the walls mudded then. However, that's only a few nights of each year. The rest of the time it's nice to have a draft through the house, to be able to hear the birds, and to see what's going on outside the hut, through the openings between poles.

*****

THOUGHTS ABOUT GROWING SPIRITUALLY
Ever since I was a teenager I've thought a lot about what it means to be alive on Earth, what I'm supposed to be doing, and how I should be doing it. Very early I lost confidence in society's ability to offer good guidance on these issues. Eventually I decided that Nature could be a guide -- the "Nature as Bible" idea.

So, over the years, from Nature, I've accumulated a hodgepodge of what I think of as insights, and I've tried to live according to them. With my amateur philosopher approach, sometimes I think I've tackled the topic of ethical living the same unsophisticated but possibly serviceable way Grandma Moses handled painting pictures.

For example, one concept developed after many years of blundering toward it was one meant to help myself and others think about the what-am-I-supposed-to-be-doing matter. I call it The Six Miracles of Nature, and it's outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/.

Lately I've been fine-tuning yet another homespun concept, one based on my own life experience as a human -- thus fitting into the "Nature as Bible" context, since I'm part of Nature. Maybe this second concept could be called the "Spiritual Growth Theory." Here are its basics:

We humans begin as babies totally preoccupied with our own wants and needs. As we grow we become aware of, understand, and develop empathy for others -- first our parents, then family, then community, on and on, our spheres of awareness, understanding and empathy -- which eventually I began thinking of as my single sphere of spirituality -- always enlarging into new realms. Enlarging, unless we stop maturing spiritually.

Most people do stop maturing spiritually at this stage, mostly because they become too busy with everyday life. Also, our societies encourage us to stay in this stage. They want us to procreate, and produce and consume goods and services, but they offer little encouragement for us to keep thinking and wondering. Religions provide guidance, but that guidance for the most part strikes me as inadequate.

My own experience is that my continually expanding sphere of spirituality -- having begun in the self-absorbed baby me -- eventually led to an identification with, and empathy for, things well beyond myself, my family, my community, my nation, and even "life on Earth."

In fact, a matured spirituality, I'm beginning to think, might even recognize ugliness, ignorance, hate and destruction -- along with their opposites and everything in between -- as unavoidable parts of the evolving universal system that itself is utterly awe-inspiring, beautiful and "good." The entire trajectory of a matured spirituality, it's starting to look like to me, begins with self, but ends face-to-face with everything outside of self, the One Thing.

Of course. this isn't a new thought for humanity, and I've seen it before in books, but after arriving at it by my own path, I can at least add my thoughts about it in my own words. Also, I think one is entitled to ask, after you've figure it out, so what?

Anyway, here's something important left out of the above discussion: During a person's latter years of spiritual growth, the body and mind deteriorate. Toward the end of the process -- if one is lucky enough to reach the end -- one does well to judge for himself or herself at what point the journey inside the body needs to end. As our bodies and minds degenerate in different ways, and we all have different circumstances and senses of dignity and propriety, each of us must make his or her own decision.

I have begun converting my BackyardNature.Net website into "The People's Backyard Nature Website." Once the website no longer requires my input, I may terminate these Newsletters and go "on the road," aspiring to the final stages of my own spiritual maturation.

*****

STILL NO INTERNET CONNECTION
Our Internet connection at Yaxunah still has failed to materialize, though people keep predicting that it'll be established during the next two weeks -- as they've said for the last month. This Newsletter will be uploaded when either a connection is established, or I manage to hitch a ride to town with a ciber.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Grape Ethics" from the August 10, 2003 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/030810.htm

"Green to Make the Head Swim" from the April 7, 2002 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/020407.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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