JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued for the last time from the valley of the Dry Frio River on the
southern slope of the Edwards Plateau, northern
Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, USA

October 12, 2014

LEAVING TEXAS
This has been my last week in Texas. I thank my host for the generous invitation that brought me here, and for the opportunity, for two years, to barter physical labor in exchange for a nice place to stay. The visit has been pleasurable and productive.

Also this has been the last week in which I could claim to be 66 years old.

You might imagine, then, that during such pleasant, early-fall days and nights, which convey a certain meditative feeling even when I'm not leaving and not turning 67, I've gone about my chores taking stock, trying to see things in perspective, and coming to terms with another year having passed.

Being in such an autumnal/starting-over mood, I've decided to use the describing-and-analyzing approach usually employed in this Newsletter to examine what I feel to be the most important insights my intimacy with Nature has granted over the years.

*****

ON BEING A 67-YEAR OLD NATURALIST
Since beginning this Newsletter in June, 2001, each week I've taken notes on plants and animals, digested what I'd learned, and passed on my observations. This routine has had its effects.

For one thing, it's deeply sensitized me to Nature's diversity. Probably anyone exposed as I have been to so many fascinating and beautiful organisms while paying particular attention to their value to the biosphere, their mutual relationships, their evolutionary histories, the meaning of it all... is bound to be transfixed and transformed by the experience.

And there already we touch upon a potentially controversial point. For, many people think that a good naturalist focuses on biology, but keeps quiet about his or her opinions on possible meanings. "Meanings of things" fall in the realm of philosophers and theologians.

However, at age 67 I find that ever since I began paying attention to Nature, Nature has been teaching me as surely as if I'd been sitting on a log listening to a surpassingly good and generous teacher. Now that I'm older, it's natural to want to pass on what I've learned. In fact, the transfer of insight from Nature to me has been so spontaneous, robust and it has felt so "natural," that my guess is that maybe I've experienced the workings of a genuine law of Nature.

That law would state that any mental being in the Universe who's been granted considerable intimacy with things like orchids, migrating warblers, metamorphosing beetles, spiraling microbes in drops of water, plum blossom fragrance wafting across fields... and who has experienced such natural feelings as the power of the sexual drive, the various kinds of love, transcendent forms of art, the intellectual buzz of glimpsing the vastness and complexity of things, and who has eaten hot, fresh cornbread right off the campfire skillet topped with a juicy slice of homegrown tomato... can't avoid feelings of awe and reverence for whatever it is that made it all, and keeps it going.

I like to think of this possible law of Nature as a component of the mystical machinery that nudges along the Universe's evolution toward hosting organisms capable of ever more sophisticated mental and spiritual states.

So, there, I've just spilt my beans. I've just used words and concepts that among average people brand me as a crackpot.

But, let me explain how I came to this insight, by telling you about "The Six Miracles of Nature."

*****

THE SIX MIRACLES OF NATURE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/ the Six Miracles are listed as:

There's something instead of nothing.

  1. From its beginning, the Universe started evolving.
  2. Life arose.
  3. Life evolved.
  4. Some living things became capable of complex instinctual behavior.
  5. Instinctual behavior blossomed into consciousness, along with the ability to be inspired, have a sense of aesthetics, to contramand the dictates of our genes, to grow spiritually, and to exhibit other particularly human traits.

To me, the most important feature of the above is this: That, except for the First Miracle, each Miracle arose from a preceding one, like footsteps along a path. The Six Miracles reveal a direction the evolving Universe is taking. Things have gone from one Big Bang to a Universe filled with innumerable entities; from simple Bang to the complex world around us; from dead star dust and gases to us living things thinking these thoughts and feeling these feelings about what we're glimpsing...

There was a bang, and now here we are thinking and feeling about the whole matter. It's as if whatever is creating this Universe -- the Creator, we can call Her -- "wants" us to be so awe-struck that we can't avoid thinking about what's going on, and having profound feelings about it.

This begs the question: Think and feel "what?"

*****

TEACHINGS OF THE SIX MIRACLES
I can't comment on what we're supposed to "feel," other than to say that I expect there to be a bit of "spiritual exultation" in it, whatever that means.

And even suggesting to anyone what to "think" is fraught with awkwardness.

However, in terms of my own thinking I can report that over the years I've gradually come to recognize the existence of certain patterns that appear again and again at all levels of Nature. Moreover, when finally I recognized those patterns, it felt as if I'd stumbled onto something profoundly important. Though during those years I was mainly just satisfying my curiosity, and hunger for beautiful things -- with hardly any spiritual motives in mind -- maybe at least subconsciously I was saying this to myself: that if the Creator created things with these patterns in them, it's because that's the way She wants things done. And if that's so, then a good guess would be that I, personally, might do well to harmonize my own behavior with those patterns.

In other words, over the years I have come to recognize "Nature as Bible." Plants and animals are parables. You get to know a lot of them, and you feel like you've tapped into a beautiful, endlessly satisfying source of wisdom and inspiration. Here's a tiny example of how it's worked:

The Universe's evolution as experienced here on Earth has been, in general, toward every greater diversity. That's one clearly observable, Nature-permeating pattern. Similarly, the Earth's biosphere recycles natural resources at every level, never wasting anything. That's another.

Seeing this, then, over the years it became clear to me that Nature "teaches" that we humans should revere diversity, and recycle our resources.

Other teachings are to be considered, too, and I yearn for the day when gatherings of people hungering for higher states of spirituality meet expressly to meditate on Nature's teachings -- to look for patterns, figure out what they mean, and support one another in the effort to harmonize with them.

Figuring out what the teachings are, and how to harmonize one's behavior with them, isn't as easy as it sounds. For example, in Nature, parasites display some of the most complex and ingenious of all adaptations. Does that "teach" that it's OK for people to get all they can from society's social networks with as little effort on their part as possible? To figure that out, you have to define terms, declare priorities, and make many other mental efforts. But, what a pleasure it would be to engage in such a query, and what an enlightened society it might lead to if the lesson were properly identified, and put to use.

Lately I've posted online a little novel addressing some of these issues. It's very unlike anything else I've written and it's not for younger readers. It's about an old naturalist living in southwestern Texas, whose mind reacts in funny ways when thinking about these matters. The book is called "Gaiacoyote," and can be downloaded at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/books/#gaiacoyote

*****

LIVING WITH SIX-MIRACLE INSIGHTS
With regard to the rest of the world's living things, is it ethical to use an air conditioner when you could open a window or simply take off heavy clothing? In reference to your own beliefs, is it morally acceptable to buy overly packaged processed food when other items with similar or better nutrition are handy?

Once we begin questioning our own everyday activities, many of humankind's most cherished and convenient thought patterns start looking a little shaky.

But, we humans are programmed with predispositions for going along with our tribe and not rocking the boat. Therefore, on the average, we're more likely to keep doing what we've always done, and what our neighbors do, than to change to new ways.

So, why has the Creator created us so that, on the one hand, we're able to use minds fine-tuned through millions of years of evolution to envisage new attitudes toward modern challenges, yet that same evolution has programmed us to conservatively keep believing and doing what people always have believed and done?

Maybe, to the Creator, it's not really so important that humans on Earth continue evolving to higher states. For millions of years an observer in outer space, upon witnessing the enormous diversity of dinosaurs -- some apparently even having developed warm-bloodedness -- would have guessed that eventually Earth's dominant thinker would be reptilian. But, then something happened, maybe a comet hitting the Earth. Whatever it was, it killed off the big dinosaurs, and that enabled descendants of a few shrew-like proto-mammals to evolve toward future mammalian, big-time thinkers -- us.

Maybe humankind's mammalian effort to become the Earth's ultimate thinker and feeler will fail, and millions of years in the future the descendants of cockroaches will rediscover Einstein's Theory.

But, right now the Sixth Miracle -- the one enabling us to think for ourselves, contramand the dictates of our genes, seek higher levels of spirituality -- is flickering into existence. This has never happened in all the history of Life on Earth. Maybe humanity, having been granted these new gifts, can avoid the dinosaur outcome.

*****

THE SIX-MIRACLE WORLD
Here's my fantasy of a world in which humans revere diversity, and religiously practice recycling:

When a child is born, the community will go on high alert, eager to determine what gifts the child brings with him or her. By gifts I mean aptitudes, special interests, natural inclinations, and whatever special differences the child displays from most others. Once the first indications of these special gifts are known, then all resources possible will be deployed to enable the child to develop along his or her most natural path.

Adults, inculcated from birth with the urge to protect the Earth and serve the human community, will work at what they like best. This system is possible because Nature arranges human diversity so that any group of village size automatically contains people genetically predisposed to want to fill the necessary niches: the teachers, the farmers, the soldiers, the technicians, the merchants, the nurses, the artists, and the good proportion of people who are happy doing whatever task is offered them, as long as they are respected for their work.

To satisfy the natural human craving for familiar rites and celebrations, there'll be many celebrations of such important events as the Winter Solstice heralding the beginning of the new annual natural cycle. Holidays will be held rejoicing that we can experience so many kinds of love, and events will be designed to help people understand the responsibilities accompanying the gifts of loving, and being loved. People will be honored for their work to keep the biosphere healthy and/or the human community advancing toward ever more sophisticated thinking and feeling.

Egoism and self promotion will be regarded as sins, as will mental and physical laziness.

In the Six-Miracle World, universally accepted "facts" will be regarded as sacred, and scientists will be priests, their discoveries regarded as sacraments.

However, there'll also be a general recognition that human perception is a shifty thing very dependent on how a person's two brain hemispheres communicate with one another, on what one's hormone levels are, on the electrolyte status of one's bodily fluids, on how the brain's circuitry was wired in the first place... and it'll also be recognized that some people are hardwired to interpret information one way, while others are hardwired to interpret it just the opposite. That seems to be way Mother Nature wants it, so even if it can be frustrating, it's a sacred situation.

So, in the end, in Sixth Miracle communities, not much will be agreed on with absolute certainty. The idea will be for each individual to struggle honestly toward enlightened behavior, even when an agreed-on path seems forever evasive.

In the end, the Universe and humanity all remain as mysterious as when the first human with a big brain began looking around and wondering about it all.

And have I mentioned that to me at age 67 it seems that the Creator -- at least when regarded from Earth by a human not too damaged or overwrought by life's vicissitudes -- seems to have a sense of humor?

But, maybe that's a theme to develop if I manage to reach age 68.

*****

GOOD-BYE MORNING GLORY
When I decided to leave here I checked out my camping gear. For two years before coming here my tent in its bag had hung by a wire from a pole across my hut's ceiling in the Yucatan. Now the tent smelled of woodsmoke, and mice who'd descended wire had eaten their way through the bag and tent. Therefore, I bought a new tent, and test-camped in it last weekend. You can see it without its rain fly, at dusk, on the very tip top of the hill on which Juniper House stands, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/141012tt.jpg.

It's a fine tent, and I slept profoundly through the full-moon night. The next morning I broke camp before the sun rose above the hills to the east, but when already enough light shone to see my way. With the new tent in my backpack I stepped off the massive layer of Cretaceous Edwards Limestone capping the hill and suddenly found myself beside a blue morning-glory flower glowing with more ethereal light than seemed possible for such a still-dark morning. You can see the blossom next to its five-lobed leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/141012ip.jpg.

Though I'd not seen this species here during my two-year stay, I thought I knew who it was, for back in Mississippi such a blue-flowered morning-glory with three- and five-lobed leaves put on real shows when entangled in fences and twining over roadside bushes. But other morning-glory species also can produce blue flowers and deeply lobed leaves, so I checked more features.

First, notice the long, slender sepals, or calyx lobes, from which the corolla arose, paying special attention to how long hairs at the calyx base and on the flower stem, or pedicel, face backward. That important field mark is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/141012ir.jpg.

Also the blue flower's throat is white, not dark, and the pollen-filled anthers cluster close to a three-parted, biscuit-shaped stigma, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/141012iq.jpg

It's the Ivy-leaf Morning-glory, IPOMOEA HEDERACEA, native to South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, and occurring extensively as a weed in eastern North America, and the southern parts of the western US. In the US, genetic sequencing suggests that the species was introduced fairly late in its evolutionary history, though it's been here long enough to be listed as native by most experts.

In our area there's a commonly occurring, very similar species, the Purple Morning-glory, which we've profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/purpurea.htm.

The Purple's presence is worth mentioning because the two species are so closely related that cross pollination can occur when they're near one another.

A 2008 paper by Robin Ann Smith and Mark Rausher in The American Naturalist reports that the Ivy-leaf's seeds produced through cross pollination with Purple Morning-glories are sterile. However, the Ivy-leaf's pollen doesn't germinate on the Purple's stigmas and so the Purple's seeds don't become sterile. In terms of competition for resources, this cross-pollination situation affords a big advantage for the Purple.

However, our Ivy-leaf Morning-glory defends itself with something called "character displacement." When Ivy-leafs occur along with Purple Morning-glories, the Ivy-leaf's flowers tend to produce stamens whose anthers tightly cluster around the stigma, exactly as our last picture shows. Presumably this reduces the possibility of cross-pollination with Purple Morning-glories, plus the nearness of the anthers possibly increases self-pollination. Self pollination isn't as desirable as being pollinated by another plant of the same species, but it's better than having one's seeds killed by cross-pollination.

When Ivy-leaf Morning-glories occur alone, flowers are produced with anthers more loosely gathered around the stigma.

Well, this is a wonderful way to end my naturalizing days in Texas: Such a very pretty flower, completely unexpected, and with such a fascinating story.

It's been a good stay here, and I'm glad to have this flower as a symbol for my last days in Texas.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Savoring the Sense of Leaving" from the January 28, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080128.htm

"Shaman without Portfolio" from the April 1, 2012 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/120401.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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