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

October 4, 2015

T'EEL KOOX, A MEXICAN POKE
During my weeks at Yaxunah I've seen plenty of plants and animals I've not written about before, but which I haven't mentioned here because without Internet I can't identify them with certainty or read what interesting information the world has collected about them.

However, this week along the weedy roadside to Kancabzonot a plant turned up that, although I've not seen before, was very familiar. Maybe you can see why at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151004ph.jpg.

With those thick, succulent stems turning reddish at their tips, the leaf shape, and especially with the slender spike of flowers bearing immature blossoms at the top, open ones at the middle, and immature fruits at the base, it couldn't be anything but what North Americans call the Pokeweed, genus Phytolacca. Though the stems and leaves look practically identical to the North's Pokeweed, the flowering spikes are different. A closer look at a spike is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151004pi.jpg.

A flower close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151004pj.jpg.

In that picture you see traits making this a Phytolacca flower: 6-33 stamens in two series; ovary almost spherical, and; ovary topped with 5-16 styles. One feature separating this species' flowers from those of North America's Pokeweed is that it's flushed with rosy purple color. North America's Pokeweed flowers are pure white. By the way, the whitish items we assume to be petals are actually petal-like sepals forming the calyx.

Yaxunah's Community Center library has a handful of books dealing generally with the Yucatan's plants, so I thought they might mention a Phytollaca species occurring here. They mentioned three, which made things difficult. Judging only by how commonly the three species are reported, I'm guessing that this is the most common one, Phytolacca icosandra, known in Maya as T'eel Koox. A book says that T'eel Koox's roots and immature fruits are useful for washing clothing.

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YAXUNAH'S MASK CARVERS
I've mentioned what a loud town Yaxunah is, with its overabundance of yelping dogs, people with blasting sound systems, and loudspeakers on poles announcing fried chicken for sale in the hut below the speaker. The town has its agreeable sounds, too. After the afternoon rain when little kids play in puddles, their laughter and squeals in the suddenly cool air are good to hear. Every day around noon I look forward to hearing the tortillaría-hut's big, dark, rusty and squeaking tortilla machine with its fearfully roaring gas burners starts up, sending scorched tortillas down a wire conveyor belt to a señora in a flowery huipil at the end, who stacks them neatly on a white towel. I buy half a kilo hot tortillas every day, paying 6.5 pesos, or less than 50¢ US, for a little over a pound.

Another nice sound heard through the day is that of methodical tap-tap-tapping on wood, coming from all directions. A fairly large percentage of Yaxunah's men carve wooden masks for sale to tourists. I'm putting together material to attract tourists to Yaxunah so, thinking that certain visitors might be interested in visiting a woodcarver to see how the masks are made, this week I set out to meet some carvers, and take pictures.

It wasn't hard to find a carver. As I stepped from Yaxunah's Community Center entrance a little girl I'd talked to before approached and asked where I was going. When she learned that I was looking for a mask carver she said that her father carved masks, so she took me directly to her home, just a stone's throw away. There I found Don Ignacio working in late afternoon sunlight flooding through his hut's door, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151004mk.jpg.

A close-up of him gouging away wood is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151004mm.jpg.

Ignacio's wife inside the hut was painting the masks. Some unfinished ones lined up against the hut's wall, illuminated by sunlight streaming through the door, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151004mn.jpg

The nextdoor neighbor also carved masks and had some unfinished ones leaning against the base of his hut, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151004ml.jpg.

Ignacio said that he used Chakah wood, what English speakers sometimes call Gumbo-limbo, Bursera simaruba. That fast-growing species is abundant in this area, almost a weed tree, known to have relatively soft wood, so carving it makes sense. You can see that its wood is white. Our Gumbo-limbo page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/gumbo.htm.

Ignacio said he'd be glad to show visitors his whole mask-making procedure, for a small fee, for the half hour or so he'd need for describing the process would take him away from his usual work. My impression is that once all the tools and paint are paid for, the masks are transported to a tourist zone, and the salesman takes his commission, the woodcarvers don't receive much for their work. I think that most of them also have their cornfields to tend to, and take other jobs on the side. Woodcarving just provides a little extra income.

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THE MAYA WÁAY
A while back I wrote about a man telling me that from time to time a brujo, or male witch, in the form of a gigantic, white dog passed through town. The brujo did nothing bad but, still, people get upset when it happens.

Now I'm learning that a brujo in the form of a dog is more specifically known as a wáay peek, a wáay being a person who can change into an animal, and a wáay peek being a wáay who specifically chooses to be a dog. Many wáays become cats, and a minority of others become goats, bats, or the like.

Moreover, now I understand that in general there's a hierarchy of Maya witch-type people. At the bottom are yerbaleros, who heal common ailments with herbs. Next up are the jmeen, sometimes written x-men, who cure more esoteric ailments, such as those caused by vientos malos, or "bad winds," and ojo malo, or "evil eye."

At the top are the wáays, who apparently don't heal anything, in fact usually don't do much except freak people out, the way the big, white dog does in Yaxunah -- though there are stories of wáay peeks who do such mischief as steal food off people's tables, or even crawl up onto beds of pretty girls and lick them all over.

The word wáay is pronounced like the English "why," except that the vowel sound is a more emphasized and drawn out.

*****

SEASONS & LANDSCAPES
Up north, October was my favorite month. After a long summer on the Kentucky farm, October's gathering crispness was like iced-tea brought to workers in an old-time tobacco field, the coldness a pure delight amid all that sweat and shimmering heat.

Down here, October is thought of as the hurricane month, and the peak month of the rainy season. By now nights have cooled so you don't just lie sweating until dawn, as has been the case since March or so, but most days continue to be powerfully hot. By 9 or 10 AM, white, summery cumulus clouds form in the blue sky, and they grow in size and number until sometime in the afternoon when on one or more horizons, vast, darkly slate-blue bruises form in the sky, thunder starts rumbling in from that direction, and chances are that that's where the afternoon's rain will come from.

I like thinking about the special features of specific landscapes and their seasons, and how they make me feel. The process of savoring seasonal landscapes is like the traditional Japanese ceremony of "Listening to Incense," during which you identify several discreet incense fragrances and combination of fragrances, and relate them to specific events in ancient Japanese history and mythology. Except that meditating on a landscape during a given season is a more profound, richer experience.

Lately on my Kindle I've been reading Sigrid Undset's expansive, lovely and historically accurate novel "Kristin Lavransdater," about a family in medieval Norway during the early and mid 1300s. The novel is rich in evocative seasonal descriptions of Norwegian landscapes. For instance, she writes,

"Thin tendrils of water shone on the mountain slopes, which were shrouded in a blue mist day after day. The heat steamed and trembled over the land; the spears of grain hid the soil in the fields almost completely, and the grass in the meadows grew deep and shimmered like silk when the wind blew across it. There was a sweet scent over the groves and hills, and as soon as the sun went down, a strong, fresh, sharp fragrance of sap and young plants streamed forth; the earth seemed to heave a great sigh languorous and refreshed."

The book lapses into such imagery so often that it's clear that the author does so with a purpose, and I think her reason goes far beyond merely painting pleasing mental images. Undset was born in 1882, so she was writing for people who probably carried within themselves powerful feelings which they associated with similar natural landscapes and seasons that they themselves had experienced. By reminding her readers of those landscapes and seasons, Undset tapped into the feelings, let them set the mood for the book's upcoming events. It's the same way that in operas background melodies intensify feelings, and add richness of texture to what's happening on stage. Instead of using melodies, Undset evokes blue mist on mountain slopes and shimmering meadows.

Moreover, after thinking about the matter awhile, it seems to me that natural seasonal landscapes do more than impress us with their moods. They speak to us of fundamental patterns in Nature, suggesting to us how we can live happy, healthy and sustainable lives.

For example, October landscapes up north, coming as they do every year, can be like aphorisms repeated to a child, reminding us that a long summer of work naturally ends with gorgeous bounty. Deep-forest scenes are audiovisual presentations on the theme that when many different kinds of things cooperate for the community's good, the result can be overwhelmingly beautiful. Pastoral and rural scenes are commentaries on how simple labor done in harmony with the land's basic ecological laws can lead to peaceful, wholesome, sustainable lives. Seascapes and mountaintop views are lessons on how one's perspective is free to range between things up close busy with details, and the infinite far-way where truths remain unstated, yet one knows they're there, and can be meditated on.

Every landscape in a given season is a revelation.

*****

STILL NO INTERNET CONNECTION
Our Internet connection at Yaxunah still has failed to materialize, and I'm no longer expecting it to. If this Newsletter is posted on time, it's because I've taken a taxi to Pisté to visit a ciber.

Being unable to do the tourist-attracting work via the Internet I was supposed to do, I'm looking for a new base.

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FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Weekend Drunks" from the September 22, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080922.htm

"Why Bother with Butterflies" from the June 26, 2005 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/050626.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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