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

December 11, 2016

*****

PLYMOUTH ROCKS AT THE RANCHO
At the rancho we're getting plenty of oranges these days, despite the woodpeckers having destroyed most of the fruits before they could ripen. I eat my share, about once a week entering the spacious chicken pen where numerous orange, lime, lemon and grapefruit trees provide the shade, and pick all I want. While I'm there, the chickens gather around watching me sideways, and in fact sometimes I do knock over a rock with bugs beneath it, or accidentally shake a katydid from a tree, which to a hen is a banquet.

It's easy to forget just how handsome well fed, free-roaming chickens can be. There's a dignity about them that -- if you pay attention and keep your mind open -- transcends our human-focused stereotypes. Just look at the pretty and self-possessed couple shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161211ck.jpg

The rooster is at his prime, with a large, bright-red comb, loosely drooping wattles, and shiny ear-lobes, which can be admired in the close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161211cl.jpg

The hen is too young for her red parts to be fully developed, but still she displays a composure worthy of an old hen who has seen it all. Her portrait is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161211cm.jpg

There's a world of chicken races and it can be hard to distinguish between similar ones, but this seems to be the Plymouth Rock, a breed developed in the US and first seen in Massachusetts during the 1800s. During much of the early 20th century it was the most popular chicken breed in the US, being considered a "dual-purpose breed," raised both for its meat and brown eggs. Plymouth Rocks are easy to manage, good sitters, and resistant to the cold. Nowadays Plymouth Rocks are less seen than before because of industrial chicken farming, which has different requirements for its unfortunate, mass-produced, caged ones.

Several breeds show the black-and-white mottling, but Plymouth Rocks are distinguished by their single combs with five points, the white feathers being truly white and not gray or dingy, and by feathers of the same color aligning so that they form distinct rows or bars, instead of being sprinkled about haphazardly. In the US, seven Plymouth Rock color varieties are recognized

*****

CHERRY TOMATOES
Few things are more pleasing to look at than ripe, red tomatoes on the vine, ready to be plucked. Here in the Yucatan it's hard to find a really good tomato. In frutarías, normally the only tomato cultivar available is the rubbery, oblong Roma, bred less for taste than for easy shipping and long shelf life. I think most Mexicans have never tasted a good tomato, one like homeowners up north often grow in their backyards.

Down here, especially during the rainy season, the problem is that the air and soil are so full of disease-causing fungal spores that tomato plants growing outdoors develop leaf diseases and die before a good crop is produced. The Roma cultivar seems a little more resistant, but the only kind of tomato that actually thrives here the way they do up North is the little cherry tomato, of which a congenial little cluster of very tasty little fruits is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161211tt.jpg

A thumbnail-size cherry tomato flower with its five fused-together stamens in true tomato-flower fashion forming a cylinder around the female parts is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161211tu.jpg

A healthy, compound cherry tomato leaf, prettily back-lighted by morning sunlight flooding into the garden, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161211tv.jpg

In a way, it's surprising that tomato plants have such a hard time here, since tomatoes are known to have been cultivated by the Aztecs of upland central Mexico as early as 700 AD. The word "tomato" is from the Aztec word tomatl. Probably the wild species from which tomatoes were developed was native to the Andes. It produced pea-sized fruits growing in clusters like grapes, somewhat like our cherry tomatoes. Maybe that's why cherry tomatoes do better here -- their genes haven't been so scrambled by human intervention that they've lost their natural resistances. Cherry Tomatoes are considered a variety of tomato, SOLANUM LYCOPERSICUM var. CERASIFORME.

When I was kid on the farm in Kentucky we didn't know about cherry tomatoes. When I went to the university I began noticing them turning up in salads and I figured that they were just one more thing that folks in rural areas didn't know about, but which people in the city had been enjoying all along. Now I read that, though cherry tomatoes have been around in one way or another for centuries, its commercialization and popularization didn't get underway until the 1970s, and didn't become a popular feature in Western meals until the 1980s.

*****

GAIA ON THE ROAD TO TEMOZÓN
The little family stores in Ek Balam and Santa Rita don't carry such exotic foods as granola and carrots, so sometimes I need to bike to the much larger town of Temozón about six kms south of the rancho. The first kilometer or so takes me down a deeply shaded dirt trail through woods. This week the path is crunchy with curled, dried-up leaves fallen because the dry season has begun. It smells and feels like similar woodland trails up north at the end of a hot, dry summer.

The trail abruptly connects with the main highway between Valladolid to the south and Río Lagartos on the coast to the north. The highway's glaring openness and rush of double-trailer trucks, buses and local traffic, all loud and all in a hurry, come as a shock after being at the rancho. But, out on the highway peddling south, I remember that the open road also is good -- the broad sky with its expressive clouds, the wind and ever-changing scenery.

The dry season began about a month early this year, so herbs and grasses along the road are yellowing and starting to look puckery. The northern Yucatan always is arid, for it extends into that belt of aridness that wraps around globe at about 30°N, in which are found the deserts of northern Mexico, northern Africa, the Middle East, Mongolia and other places. This arid zone is a product of the Hadley Cell -- hot, moist air at the Equator rising and dumping its water, then later descending at 30° N and S as dry air. If you travel from one end of this road to another you can watch the transition, in terms of trees being taller and less scrubby on the southern end. Our Hadley Cell page goes into the details at http://www.backyardnature.net//q/hadley.htm

Somehow thinking about the Hadley Cell and my place in it today makes me especially glad to be puffing out carbon dioxide that will be used during photosynthesis by weeds along the road to make carbohydrate for their own bodies. My CO2 goes into them, and their oxygen photosynthesis-byproduct is sent back to become part of me. The farther south I go the more clearly I see myself as part of all this.

In fact, I'm glorying in the fact that sunlight-energy stored among atomic bonds in the carbohydrate of the granola I ate this morning right now powers up my brain to the point that I can see vividly that I am some kind of... song. I am a song that not only spews out CO2 but also sweat and heat, and now look how all these byproducts of life majestically waft into the wind streaming around me, wind headed north today in some kind of sub-pattern of the Hadley Cell.

Thinking like this makes me feel like part of something big, but the same thoughts remind me how tiny I am in the scheme of things.

Actually, long ago I figured out that "I" am hardly anything at all, just some kind of ephemeral, ad hoc perception given to imagining this world of weedy roadsides and grinning dogs on no other grounds than stimuli conducted to a brain-computer. The stimuli are caused by the effects of force fields of my own atoms and molecules interacting with force fields of atoms and molecules of other things. These atoms and molecules of both myself and the world around me are exquisitely configured, somehow having been aligned and mingled into sub-universes that interrelate in awareness-generating patterns. It's all so beautiful and mysterious that there's a basis for spirituality there.

So, the spirit moving me as I peddle into the wind here on the road to Temozón inspires me to say this: That today -- despite my evanescence and unimportance -- I claim to be nothing less than a scintilla of Gaia/the-Earth-as-One-Living-Thing, and that what there is of me rejoices in being one of a near infinite number of clouds of atoms and molecules configured to thrive on the Universe's poetic and well meaning illusions, and to contribute to those illusions, as I'm doing right now.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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