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

October 2, 2016

*****

XOLOITZCUINTLE, MEXICAN HAIRLESS DOG
Among the dogs who excitedly greeted me when I arrived at Rancho Regenesis was one that was probably the ugliest canine -- in conventional thought -- I've ever seen. He was almost completely hairless, and his black skin was rough and hot to the touch. At first I thought he had the mange, but after feeling how hot he was I figured he was sick and the high fever had made his hair fall out. You can him see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161002xl.jpg

After several days his condition hadn't changed, and in fact he didn't seem sick at all. And then it dawned on me: He was a Xoloitzcuintle, a rare, famous dog breed sometimes known as the Mexican Hairless Dog. The name Xoloitzcuintle is from the Nahuatl language spoken by the ancient Aztecs, and still spoken in much of the Mexican highlands. The local Maya use that name, however, suggesting that maybe the breed was introduced here from the Mexican uplands.

Xoloitzcuintles (CHO-lo-eetz-QUEENT-les) have been documented as existing 3000 years ago. The Aztecs and their ancestors believed that Xoloitzcuintles could accompany and guide them to the netherworld when they died, so at human funerals the dogs were ceremoniously killed and buried with their owners. The breed is also famous for being eaten by indigenous people, regularly in the past, but only spottily nowadays. And I've read that in the past Xoloitzcuintles slept with their owners, their high body temperatures providing heat on cold nights, especially for the feet.

Our Xoloitzcuintle -- his name is Chichan Ch'o', meaning Little Rat, because that's what he looked like when he was born -- seems to be of pure stock, because his features match exactly the description given for the breed on the Internet. First, he's not completely hairless, since the breed's hairlessness is programmed on a single gene, and that gene is only partially dominant. Chichan Ch'o', as is typical of the breed, bears sparse hair at the base of his tail, and on the crown of his head, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161002xm.jpg

The Xoloitzcuintle's hairless, wrinkled paws are known to be especially tender and problematical, and it's true that Chicha Ch'o' spends a lot of time licking and chewing between his toe pads, and sometimes seems to find walking unpleasant.

The hot body temperature also is normal, apparently an adaptation for its hairless condition. The breed's normal body temperature is given as 40°C, or 104°F, so if you've felt the forehead of a child with a 104°F fever, you know how it feels to touch Chichan Ch'o', except that dogs don't sweat, so theirs is a dry heat.

The Spanish Wikipedia page for Xoloitzcuintles says that they are intelligent dogs, but Chichan Ch'o' strikes me as a bit dumb. He spends lots of time staring at things, including stone walls. Sometimes as he's looking at a wall or a table his tail alternately droops and vigorously wags, as if he's seeing something interesting. When a female Xoloitzcuintle was brought to him, he got excited, but couldn't figure out what to do. Among the three dogs running free at the Rancho, Chichan Ch'o' is the lowest ranked, the omega dog. But if a breed is developed mainly for being killed at funerals, for keeping the feet warm, and for eating, it doesn't need much intelligence -- just a willingness to go along with whatever happens, and that seems to be Chichan Ch'o''s temperament exactly. He likes to eat bananas, by the way, even just the peelings.

An interesting feature of Xoloitzcuintle genetics is that there are two forms -- the hairless one like Chichan Ch'o', and a hairy one. The hairy condition is recessive. Inheritance of the hairless and hairy states follows classic Mendelian genetics. If hairless (dominant) and hairy (recessive) individuals mate, 50% of the offspring will be hairless and 50% hairy. If two hairless individuals mate, 50% of the offspring will be hairless, 25% hairy, and 25% will die before birth because having only the recessive gene is lethal.

*****

BURRO DIGESTION
When I dump a wheelbarrow of pulled-up weeds for the three burrows to eat I'm always astonished by two things. First, the eagerness with which the burros trot up to eat the weeds, even if they've spent the morning grazing in the woods, and; second, the wholesale manner in which they gobble up the weeds, often taking in long "strings" of them, the leafy tops of one bunch entangling with the woody roots of another bunch, like eating long spaghetti. No effort seems to be made to separate the woody parts from the leafy. Even a species of Croton whose leaves burn my skin when I merely brush against it goes into the mouths without hesitation.

Among ruminants such as cows, sheep and deer, this kind of eating is understandable because ruminants have a pouch-like "rumen" at the base of their esophagus, where partly chewed food can be stored until the ruminant has the time to ruminate -- belch up some of the partly chewed food so it can be chewed much better. When the food is in better shape, it's swallowed again, but now it goes to the stomach where chemical digestion breaks it down further. But, burros as well as horses aren't ruminants -- don't have rumens.

Another part of the mystery is that in ruminants, hard-to-digest food like woody stems and roots collected in the rumen undergoes considerable "predigestion" by the process of fermentation, which is conducted by microbial action. With all the woody matter that burros eat, their digestion must be aided by microbial fermentation, too, but how do they do that without a rumen?

The answer is that the stomachs of burros and horses have a pouch called the cecum connected to the junction of the small and large intestines, and that's where fermentation of hard-to-digest food takes place. A burro's cecum is like a ruminant's rumen, except that it's at the end of the guts, not the beginning. This means that a burro can't burp up a "cud" to chew. In my experience, cows with rumens up front are good burpers, but burros with cecums in the back, are good farters.

Physiologically, the burro gut with its cecum accomplishes the same thing as a ruminant's gut with a rumen. Among ruminants, the stomach with its rumen makes up about 80% of the intestinal tract's capacity, with the colon or large intestine providing only about 13% of capacity. In burros, the stomach with no rumen offers only 14% capacity, while the cecum gives about 80%. This and other interesting info about burro digestion and food is freely available in PDF format at http://www.fao.org/livestock/agap/frg/lrrd/lrrd12/2/agan122.htm

In terms of feeding behavior, one way burros differ from horses is that the burro's muzzle is relatively narrower, though its lips are relatively larger and more manipulable. This means that the burro can be more selective about what goes into the mouth, even if it seems to be taking in everything indiscriminately. Take a look at the burro Trotsky as he eats my weeds at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161002bu.jpg

Notice how Trotsky's lips are actively managing the incoming food, even as his nostrils flair wide, enabling him to monitor the odors of what's being eaten.

Still, knowing all this, I continue to be amazed how such long, woody stems go into the burros. If the burros are biting and grinding the woody stems into small pieces before swallowing, then that explains it. However, I don't see the amount of chewing I think must be needed for such woody material. It would seem that a burro's cecum with its fermenting microbes must do an extraordinary job.

*****

EATING SARAMUYO
The genus Annona embraces several species producing sweet, big-seeded fruits about the size of a baseball and often found growing around people's homes in tropical America. Among the English names used for the species are Custard-apple, Soursop, Sweetsop, Guanabana, Cherimoya, and Sugar-apple.

Around here the Sweetsop or Sugar-apple is known as the Saramuyo. It's Annona squamosa, distinguished from the other species by its fruits consisting of several grown-together, bag-like things, which are the matured pistils of the flower from which the syncarp-type fruit was formed. When this species' fruits mature beyond the stage when they're most edible, the individual bags separate. In other commonly seen species, they stay fused together. Here at the Rancho some Saramuyo fruits are just right for eating, such as the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161002an.jpg

You can see what that fruit looked like when it was broken open at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161002ao.jpg

The flesh's texture is custard-like and sweet, and can be spooned from the fruit's green, bowl-like covering, which doesn't come apart at this stage. The flesh is full of big seeds, however, so eating these requires a lot of spitting. The flavor is so good that I'm surprised that often you see the fruits drying up and falling uneaten from people's trees.

*****

DISCONNECTING
In this new life most efforts take more time and energy than in most of my earlier lives. Using the Internet or buying bananas requires about an hour of biking round-trip to Ek-Balam town. About a third of that time is spent negotiating an alternately very rocky or muddy woodland road. It's hot and humid, so I get drenched in sweat. To buy fancier food such as granola and carrots, a trip to Tizimón is needed, taking over two hours round trip. Here bike tires must be kept underinflated so the tires don't split along their seams, and this causes peddling to be much harder than otherwise.

But, this is fine. A trip to town is like a body-training visit to the gym, except that the trips are free and much more interesting. Putting the body under stress and sweating copiously several times a week is good for me. I feel great afterwards, both physically and mentally.

In fact, intentionally I also do other things "the hard way" and "the slow way." We have a gas stove here I'm invited to use, but I cook my meals over a campfire. I like the daily ceremony of composing a meal, building a fire, then watching and smelling the fire and food as they mature -- white smoke, orange flames, odor of cooking onion, oil sizzling at a flapjack's edge or rainbowing atop a stew. The daily campfire is a sensory experience that enriches me, as do the bike rides to town and back. And, writing these essays in longhand before biking to where there's electricity for the computer is even more of a meditation than before.

Sometimes people ask if the time I'm spending biking, pulling weeds for burro food, and building campfires wouldn't be more enjoyably spent doing something more important. That's a good question because it highlights the question of what's important.

For, when I look at how the rest of the world spends its time, more and more I'm thinking that most of what's being done out there would be better left undone. Typically that's because the activities are environmentally damaging, or serve doctrines, dogmas, or assumptions about reality that are destructive. It's not always like that, of course. Always there are dedicated teachers, genuinely concerned doctors and nurses, those who clean up messes or grow wholesome food, or inspire us with their art or powerful insights. I'd like to be like those folks all the time, but I can't, not all the time.

In fact, in my time and place, it turns out that often the most positive, loving thing I'm able to do, is to disconnect from the world around me -- disconnect from the Dominant Paradigm of mindless consumerism and unsustainable growth -- and do it with such concentrated dedication and intention that it qualifies as an act of guerrilla philosophy, or guerrilla spirituality.

But, disconnecting doesn't mean "doing nothing." Maybe the most engaging feature of disconnecting -- besides the fact that it may be the most positive, loving gesture a person can make toward sustaining Life on Earth, and the human potential for living in dignity -- is that we who do disconnect often end up very busy doing such agreeable tasks as watching the world go by as we bike to town for bananas, or pulling weeds to feed to the burros.

*****

ON THE ROAD THIS WEEK
Once again my visa needs to be renewed and I must make a run to the border. Sometimes it goes quickly and easily but other times not. The next Newsletter may be late.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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