JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Rancho Regenesis
in the woods near Ek Balam Ruins north of Valladolid in
Yucatán, MÉXICO

September 25, 2016

*****

MOTHER-IN-LAW-TOUNGUE FENCES
I like to do physical labor each morning so one of my projects at Rancho Regenesis is to transfer Mother-in-law Tongues from a spot where there's too many, to the bases of chicken-wire fences surrounding the chicken pen. Once the plants sprout new shoots and grow together, they'll help keep out chicken-stealing critters like weasels. Mother-in-law Tongues are succulent, fibrous, chest-high, agave-like plants native to southern Africa but up North grown in pots, and down here often they escape and grow out of control. Our Mother-in-law Tongue page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mo-in-lw.htm

In areas like ours with naked limestone poking through very thin soil, Mother-in-law Tongue can form impenetrable, uninterrupted communities the size of a house and larger. You can see a small bunch at the Rancho at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160925ml.jpg

The plants issue finger-thick, horizontal rhizomes that creep over the bare rock while themselves producing tough, intricately branching networks of secondary roots. In such shallow soil you can lift up large mats of plants fused together by their interwoven rootlets, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160925mm.jpg

The roots' orangish color is striking. I've read about other species with orangish roots in which the orangish element consisted of mycorrhiza -- a kind of fungus living symbiotically with the roots, often helping the host plant with its nutrition. I'm unsure if that's happening here, but it's a good guess.

The soil here is too thin to bury the chicken wire in, so the wire's flaring-out bottom is simply covered with shoveled-on dirt and gravel. The Mother-in-law Tongues are rooted as well as they can be in this same dirt. After the plants' roots and the chicken wire all grow together, they should form a good barrier. You can see newly rooted plants at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160925mn.jpg

Once each plant develops a few new sprouts, the openings between plants will close up. You can judge for yourself the effectiveness of the resulting above-ground barrier by looking at a spot where they've already grown together, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160925mo.jpg

*****

ALOYSIA FRAGRANCE
I was wondering why some very rangy looking bushes about 10ft tall (3m) were planted in a conspicuous spot near the hut's back patio where people tend to gather. This week the shrubs, which bear rough, wrinkly leaves like those of sage, issued abundant, narrow spikes of tiny, white, verbena-type flowers, and now I know: The flowers are very fragrant.

Moreover, once the flowers emerged, I realized that I'd seen this species before, not planted as here, but growing wild in dry, open areas of hot southwestern Texas. Back then we identified it as what the ranchers in that area called Whitebrush. It was ALOYSIA GRATISSIMA, a member of the Verbena Family. On the day I first met it in Texas, a strong, hot wind made the plants gyrate and twist like angry animals, and I was fortunate enough to approach them from downwind. I wrote, "As I drew near, before I could see any detail of flower or leaf, the bush's fragrance, dizzying and vanilla-like, engulfed me." You can see our Whitebrush page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/aloysia.htm

Our rancho Whitebrush's flower spikes and leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160925aa.jpg

The spikes are shown closer up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160925ab.jpg

A look at an individual flower is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160925ac.jpg

In Texas, Whitebrush often forms vast, scrubby populations. Though those thickets provide wonderful protective cover for wildlife, when horses eat Whitebrush's herbage they develop a rickets-like disease, and ranchers aren't particularly fond of it. The species grows in much of Mexico's arid lands, though I've not noticed it before in the Yucatan's forests.

In late afternoon, maybe after a rain and when the air is calm, the fragrance of these shrubs is almost overwhelming. Back in Texas I thought the odor was like vanilla, but here the aroma strikes me more like freshly mowed hay drowned in rich honey. Butterflies, especially the big yellow-green and black Malachites, frequently visit the bushes throughout the day.

*****

BUYING BANANAS IN EK BALAM
Ek Balam is too small to have a regular fruit store, or a regular store with a good fruit section. When I asked where I might buy bananas I was directed down a dead-end lane and told to enter the house with a blue pickup truck out front. The house was a typical cinderblock residence with a door so low I had to duck to enter.

I entered a small, spotlessly clean room in the center of which sat a posh, overstuffed sofa facing the largest flat-screen wall-TV I've seen. A blanket covered the room's other door, which opened into a relatively dark residence cluttered with cardboard boxes, beds, a table, chairs and people. The TV room seemed to be a kind of dazzling altar open for public display and use.

Part of one wall of the TV room was equipped with homemade shelves. Usually when I go there there's about a dozen past-prime bananas, some tomatoes, onions, garlic and potatoes, plus several shelves of tinned processed foods, sweets and crackers, and a small scales for weighing the fruit. With no table or counter, making the purchase is awkward. You end up with plastic bags of fruit dangling from your wrists, or having to put things on the floor, as you get your money together. They're not used to gringos there.

The TV always is on always showing music videos, the videos' story lines always featuring young Mexicans doing boy-girl things, and the music is Mexican, with lots of guitars and accordions. No video segment lasts longer than five to ten seconds, and the themes range from syrupy romantic to soft porn. The kids are tall, slender and pale, unlike any Mexicans seen in these parts. Action segments are mingled with shots of guitar-strumming singers, views of cactus deserts, rocky coastlines, impossibly bulky bulls, erupting volcanoes and the like, with a few quirky animations thrown in here and there, such as a Mexican sobrero suddenly materializing over a real bull's head, hanging in mid air with quivering brim, as the scene switches to a shot of a young lady ripping off her blouse. In this little Maya town somehow it's painful to see all this, but those who enter as I get my bananas together can't seem to take their eyes off the screen.

It only takes two or three visits to Ek Balam to feel like you know everyone in town. Much of the population is Seventh Day Adventist, so Saturdays are the town's off-days. Adventists are hard on drunkenness, so the town isn't tawdry and desperate feeling like many small villages of Mexico's indigenous people. The town offers lodging and camping for the few tourists who wander so far off the usual tourist route, but there's not many of those, and mostly they stay at Lee's Genesis. Lee hires local folks to work both at Genesis and the Rancho, but you just wonder where the town gets the rest of its money -- how it exists at all -- how people get by day after day.

As I pedal away with my bananas, a mental image forms of modest amounts of Ek Balam's money being earned with great difficulty and sacrifice here and there, gathering at the store, the cyber, the house where I buy bananas, and when the money works all its way up the town's economic pyramid it manifests as... glitzy soft porn music-videos featuring bulls with quivering sombrero brims.

*****

GOOD OR BAD
If your frame of mind is that pain is bad and pleasure is good, then "good and bad" is a concept easy to deal with. When your world becomes more complex than that, if you believe in a religion where sacred Scripture spells out what's good and bad, that can be helpful to some, but the main religions were created hundreds or thousands of years ago, so they don't adequately address the most important of modern problems, such as human overpopulation, gross consumption of non-renewable resources, planetary pollution, etc. The more complex the situation, the harder it is to get a fix on what's good and what's bad.

To have some sense of good and bad at an existential level -- where I'm thinking about the whole notion of continuing to exist or not -- I've cobbled together several "thinking contexts" that help me.

One of these thinking contexts is based on aesthetics. Nature has imparted to me a feeling for what's pretty and what's ugly, so when a certain way of being strikes me as "pretty," that's "good."

Another thinking context relates to whether a certain way of being seems harmonious with what appears to be the evolution of all things in the Universe. For example, the Universe seems to be evolving toward ever greater diversity and ever more sophisticated forms of interdependency among parts, so if something in a lifestyle threatens diversity or seeks to isolate things from their contexts, that's "bad."

A third thinking context is based on my history of having begun life as a grossly fat kid ignorant about nutrition and the value of exercise, and suffering the consequences. I'm acutely aware that if your body is in bad shape, it's hard to develop spiritually and emotionally. Therefore, for me, if something causes my body to weaken or to not function as well as it could, that's "bad."

"Cobbling together" thinking contexts for judging good and bad isn't as slipshod an approach as it might seem. From what I've seen of life's higher-order questions -- the existential ones, for example -- they just can't be talked about and thought about in everyday terms and with everyday thought processes. The great teachers always find a way to bend brains out of their usual patterns when higher-order thinking needs to be done. Jesus got points across by speaking in parables. The Buddha didn't send us his words at all, but made sure we understood the importance of compassion for all living things, and left us with the brain twisting notion that "less can be more."

My above three "thinking contexts" help me judge good and bad on an existential level because they cause my mind to shift gears so that I can see things in broader contexts. Is what I'm doing here at Rancho Regenesis "pretty?" Does our permaculture orientation respect diversity and sophisticated interconnections? Is life here "healthy?"

So far, thinking along these lines, I feel good about having moved here.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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