JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Temporarily issued from "Cyber El Profe" in Pantepec, Chiapas, MÉXICO

March 8, 2005

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POVERTY, TOUGH PEOPLE & FORESTS
A very old, toothless, white-haired, barefoot Indian woman with a body the size of a 12-year old gringo child staggered up the road carrying a load of firewood I could not have managed. Her burden was held in place by a flat strap across her forehead. The woman veered to the side of the road and dropped her load onto a rock. With a hopeless look on her face she rested a long time, then tried to lift her cargo again. She couldn´t. She rested more and tried more. After several attempts she got it lifted, and continued up the road, a pained grimace etched into her face.

Each morning several boys and men pass our hut climbing upslope to where they cut trees. The smaller tree parts they split or chop into sections, and carry downslope on their backs, or on homemade wheelbarrows with wobbly, wooden wheels. The tree trunks they cut into very straight and well formed planks using chainsaws where the trees fall. These boards are also carried out on people´s backs. The trail is so steep and rugged that I feel lucky to have suffered only one serious fall on it.

These people, mostly Zoque-Indian stock, are tougher than most of us can imagine and they endure discomfort, pain, disease and the humiliation of poverty with dignity and good humour.

It is also true that their tree-felling is destroying the ability of this land to support life. Most slopes, all the way to the top, are now weedy pastures, tangles of weeds or ragged secondary forest quickly being converted to pastures, or weeds. Small patches of decent forest survive only in the most inaccessible spots. A 25-year-old man told me how beautiful it was here, and how many wild animals there had been when he was a kid. A major ecological and human disaster is developing in these mountains.

As if it had not been said again and again, here is what is needed:

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YODELLING & BROWN-BACKED SOLITAIRES
In this mountaintop landscape I understand the urge to yodel. For one thing, the pine- scented, chilly, moist air makes you feel so good that you just need to yodel, crow like a rooster, jump around, or something. For another, certain sounds resonate or harmonize with these slopes and peaks in a way that is almost magical. A good hoot purifies itself in the air, then hangs shimmering and echoing. I think a full- fledged yodel might cause the ground to tremble.

There´s a bird here whose song has evolved to take full advantage of this landscape´s acoustics. Rather plain-looking and closely related to the thrushes (remember the Wood Thrush´s haunting, fluty call.) it´s called the Brown-backed Solitaire. My old Peterson fieldguide describes its call as suggesting the "cranking up of an old- time motor car; it starts off with wenk, wenk, then catches and takes off at a fast pace with flutelike notes, etc."

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CLOUD PLAYING
On Friday Vladimir and I hiked to the ridge high above our hut. The view was so transfixing, so ever-changing, that we spent about six hours there before feeling like moving back downslope. Vlad is Swiss by nationality and felt very much at home.

We had learned to expect clouds to build up in the valley and to curl around certain peaks, and we knew that by around noon they´d start pouring over the ridge we perched on, and that happened. Suddenly a great bank of whiteness would slosh over our ridge, gush downslope, and it would seem that the whole valley below soon would be filled with fog and mist. However, soon the cloud-avalanche would dissipate, blue sky would break overhead. and then another cloud mass would come fogging around us.

From a distance the clouds look cottony and fluffy but inside there´s nothing cozy about them. Cold water droplets coalesce on leg hairs and beard, and the wind suddenly gets chilly and kinky. If you stand gawking at silhouettes and fog- curdles too long you end up a cold, wet mess.

That day, however, we managed to stay just below most of the clouds. We played with them. Or, maybe they were playing with us.

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SWEETGUM & PINE-NEEDLE BATHS
A firewood cutter dropped by our hut so I asked him which plants had special uses. The main trees around us were Sweetgums and pines, so he told me what his people did with Sweetgum leaves and pine needles: They put them in boiling water (one or the other, not mixed together) then when the water cooled to body temperature they bathed in it.

The young man smelled of woodsmoke and old sweat, for he had worked a long day cutting and carrying firewood. However, I knew that when he went to town he´d be cleaner than I usually am. And, just think: Sometimes when he goes, he smells freshly of Sweetgum or pine.

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OVERWINTERING MONARCH BUTTERFLIES
I´ve seen many Monarch Butterflies here, often visiting the red-and-orange-flowered milkweed ASCLEPIAS CURASSAVICA, commonly found blossoming now in pastures and along roadsides.

I mention this because I only recall seeing reference to Monarchs overwintering in the highlands of central Mexico, not here in the south far from the Monarch reserves. The lowlands of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec lie between here and the central Mexican highlands.

I would like to think that many Monarchs overwinter in places other than the Monarch reserves I have visited in central Mexico, because those reserves, like the forests here, are being gnawed away by firewood gatherers and cattle farmers.

Am I seeing something new or unreported with regard to overwintering Monarch Butterflies? I´d like to hear from anyone who knows.

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CAMPFIRE PLANTAINS
Pantepec´s stores are small, dark and unimpressive - pretty heavy on crackers, sodas and the basics such as dried black beans and sugar. However, usually they do offer a good variety of oranges. So far I´ve had about five kinds. They are usually warty, greenish, and often bear dark blotches, yet they taste far superior to what´s available up north. I like being among people who judge an orange for its taste, not its looks.

Despite the big banana plantations in the lowlands just downslope from us, bananas are hard to find here at this time. Instead each store has a few black-and- yellow-skinned plantains. Plantains look like bananas, except that usually they are larger, more pointed at their ends, and have a relatively firm, almost waxy texture. They´re meant to be fried or roasted, not eaten raw. Usually I don´t bother with campfires and end up eating them raw. They taste OK raw, but they make you fart, which is no fun when you spend your nights in a sleeping bag.

Vladimir likes his hot coffee so he´s been building campfires, and I´ve taken to placing my plantains atop his remaining campfire embers. First the skin splits and a little foam bubbles out. Before long you hear squeaky little sizzling sounds, and finally you smell the wholesome roasted odour that to any mammalian nose declares "It´s done!" Usually it takes 15 or so minutes.

I´ve eaten plantain fried in skillets and they provided more or less a novelty taste FI could take or leave. However, our plantains roasted over embers remaining from burning small pine twigs and cones are heavenly. Maybe the hint of pine resin is what sets their flavour off.

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AN OLD FELLOW´S MEDICINAL PLANTS
When an old fellow we met along the road learned of our interest in medicinal plants he invited us to drop by Sunday afternoon so he could show us a few things. Around his house grew a number of useful plants - guava trees whose young leaves were used for brewing a tea employed against dysentery, oak trees whose bark provided an infusion for ulcers, and others.

I´ve learned that a good "curandero" is one who knows how to combine plants for synergistic effects. The old man knew a few such combinations. For example, for all kinds of bodily pains he prescribed mixing oak bark, artemesia, a local species of waxmyrtle and leaves of a red- flowered salvia, boiling them in water, then pouring the hot brew onto a cloth and applying it to the hurting part, taking care not to burn the patient.

He had a smilar concoction made of plants I couldn´t identify, used to cure "susto," or fright. The kind of fright he was talking about was the fear of the unknown, or lingering, irrational fears - "the kind most people have at one time or another," as he said.

The old man said he used these cures when there was no money for medicine. I started to ask why, if the cures were so good, Western Medicine was used at all. However, then I thought better of it, and said nothing.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers

Jim Conrad

Visit Jim's Backyard Nature site at www.backyardnature.net

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