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

August 13, 2017

VINE SNAKE BESIDE THE HUT
Glancing up from reading my Kindle, I saw a very slender, grayish tail disappearing behind a board. When I went looking for it, nothing was found, but several minutes later, because I kept scanning the Guazuma ulmifolia tree at the porch's edge, finally I saw him, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170813vs.jpg

He was a little snake, maybe two feet long, and one frequently encountered here -- the Brown Vine Snake, OXYBELIS AENEUS. Our page for him, with some nice pictures, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/vinesnak.htm

This was the first time I'd been able to watch one as he hunted for prey, however.

So, what I saw was the snake draped over several Guazuma ulmifolia leaves and branches, with his front end curled more securely around a larger branch, and the head dangling, nose-down, as shown in the picture. After about five minutes he lengthened the dangling front, and began holding his head a little upward, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170813vt.jpg

About a foot below the tilted head grew several leaves. My impression was that the snake awaited prey that might land on those leaves.

About 15 minutes after the snake began dangling, when a gnat-size insect briefly hovered between the leaves and the snake's head, the snake repositioned his head as if to improve his striking ability. However, the insect wandered away with no attack. I was surprised that the snake showed interest in such small prey.

It was breezy that day and the boughs on which the snake lay moved about. The snake tried to keep his head at the same point in space, even a his body swayed back and forth.

The snake stayed in place for 45 minutes without ever catching anything, and then the afternoon rain came, and he slithered away.

*****

BUTTERFLY SOPPING DRIED SWEAT
The other day a Malachite Butterfly landed on my hairy arm, extended his proboscis to my salty skin, and I took the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170813mc.jpg

My skin was salty because I'd been sweating, and the sweat had dried. Probably numerous other minerals and chemical compounds were there, too. Many butterflies are known to crave salt and minerals, for their nectar diets are relatively deficient in them.

One thing nicely shown in the picture is the wetness at the proboscis's base. That's not sweat, but rather it was squirted there from the proboscis's tip. The wetness causes the salt and mineral crystals on my skin to dissolve, so they can be taken up in solution through the proboscis.

*****

CASEARIA FRUITING
This week as I was climbing our new cement water tower I looked into the forest canopy and saw the interesting visual composition shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170813cp.jpg

Not many trees line their leaves up so neatly along their branches, alternating them and keeping them in one plane. And look at the orange, cherry-like fruit at the top right. A cluster of several such fruits shows something unusual about their arrangement, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170813ct.jpg

A cherry, for instance, bears beneath it a slender, pliable stem known as a pedicel, but here the fruit appears to arise from gnarly wood. I'm unsure what anatomists would say about this, but the appearance is distinctive. A broken open fruit showed what appeared to be three potential seeds, each in its own carpel, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170813cs.jpg

At first I couldn't place this species, but then something about the leaves encouraged me to hold the leaf against the sun and look closely with my handlens, and I saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170813cr.jpg

Several plant families are capable of producing those pale or "pellucid" dots, especially the Citrus and Myrtle Families, but those elongated pellucid lines appearing with the dots is something special. When I see them, I think of the tropical Flacourtia Family, the Flacourtiaceae. And remembering that, I realized that I've already described this tree in its flowering state, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/casearia.htm

It's CASEARIA CORYMBOSA, and now we know what that species' small, warty flowers develop into.

*****

CLIMBING SPINACH
A while back on a visit with Jerry at his Neem farm southwest of Mérida, I was given a couple of small, potted sprouts of what Jerry called Climbing Spinach. I had no idea what it was botanically, but it looked exactly like what Spinach should look like if it were a vine. I planted the slips and now they have produced remarkably fast-growing runners over six feet long (2m), a small portion shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170813bs.jpg

It's unusual to find a garden crop not already planted by the Maya, that can withstand our rainy season's overabundance of diseases and plant-eating insects. Our Climbing Spinach is a little bug-eaten, but at least it's surviving and producing plenty of harvest, which is very noteworthy and encouraging.

But, what is this plant? Its leaves are so Spinach-like that at first I sought it in the Spinach/Amaranth Family, but nothing turned up there. As a last resort I did the very un-botanist thing of searching on the Internet under the key words "climbing spinach," which I'd assumed was just a made-up name, but there it was:

It's BASELLA ALBA, a member of the little-heard-of Basella Family, embracing 19 or so mostly tropical American species. Our Basella alba not only is sometimes known as Climbing Spinach but also as Vine Spinach, Creeping Spinach, Red Vine Spinach, Malabar Spinach, Malabar Nightshade, Buffalo Spinach and Ceylon Spinach. It's native to southeastern Asia and thereabouts, plus it's escaped in various tropical countries.

Its similarity to Spinach is mostly incidental, though on the Phylogenetic Tree of Life the Basella and Amaranth Families reside in the general vicinity of one another. The Basella Family is closer to the Purslane/Portulaca Family, which also produces crisply succulent, often edible leaves.

Actually, in the woods at Chichén Itzá our hut was surrounded by high-twining vines which turned out to be one of the Basella Family's other 18 species. That was Anredera vesicaria, whose page showing a fast-growing, slender vine with leaves somewhat like our Climbing Spinach, appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/anredera.htm

That species is a true vine, but I find that Climbing Spinach would rather scramble about the ground, growing over things, and displays very little tendency to twine about.

I'm experimenting with rooting stem sections of our vine, for this species is worth cultivating on a larger scale. I hope to show results of this effort in a later Newsletter.

*****

FERMENTED MASA UPDATE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/pozol-ag.htm we meet "sour pozol," pozol agria, a fermented drink that years ago in backwoods Chiapas I learned to drink. It's made from fermented masa, the moist paste made of ground softened corn or maize kernels, from which traditional Mexican tortillas are made. Fermentation of the masa makes the paste more nutritious, and the drink made from dissolving the paste in water introduces useful bacteria into the digestive tract. The drink tastes a little like buttermilk. Traditionally the Maya and other indigenous groups in the Americas drank sour pozol, but today few people do, sugary soft-drinks taking their place.

Nowadays I'm no longer drinking sour pozol because I've learned a new way to use the fermented masa, one that agrees with me even more than making it into a drink.

My favorite breakfast is a bowl of granola with fruit. Years ago in Germany I learned to add something called quark to the granola. Quark is something I've only seen in Germany, but there it comes in many tastes and is found in every food market. It's like yogurt, but with a cheesy taste. Once I got to liking it on my granola, when I was in the US where quark wasn't available, I bought buttermilk as a granola-topping substitute. Down here where neither buttermilk nor quark are handy, I've discovered that by adding a dollop of fermented masa atop the granola, then with a spoon agitating the masa until it forms an emulsion, the result is just as good as with quark and buttermilk.

If you live near a tortillaría, buy 1.5kg of masa, which will do one person for a week. It's sold in a plastic bag. As soon as you're home, put that bag inside another plastic bag and/or a sealed container, to keep fruit flies from laying eggs in it, and let it set at room temperature for a week. During that week, eat the fermented masa produced the previous week.

It may be psychological, but I do feel better when I'm consuming fermented masa in one form or another every day.

*****

FABRE'S THE LIFE OF THE SPIDER
I've been rereading J. Henri Fabre's classic The Life of the Spider, first published 1913, and accessible for free at http://www.efabre.net/fabre/electronictexts/the-life-spider

Throughout the book Fabre expresses his astonishment at how consistently spiders display complex and sophisticated behavior, yet are grotesquely dumb.

For example, a spider constructs an ingenious egg sac, attaches it to spinnerets at her rear end, and sets about dragging the sac after her for what may be months as she searches for prey and passes into and out of her burrow innumerable times, until the sac hatches. One is amazed at her dedication to the sac. Yet, snip the silken threads holding the sac in place, remove the sac, and offer the mother a piece of cork of the sac's size, and the mother eagerly attaches the cork, and continues her career of dragging it about. Another spider of a different species forms an egg sac, but in the process is disturbed, misses her nest as she lays here eggs, but when time comes to cover the nest, the poor creature can't look at her empty nest and understand that there's no sense to continuing her work; She finishes every last detail, wasting considerable time and energy.

Fabre's stories reminded me how I felt years ago when I learned that if a Song Sparrow is prevented from hearing the song of its species during all of its upbringing, it will nonetheless grow up to sing in a way that most birders would say is a little rough, but recognizably a Song Sparrow song. Similarly, when a female Canvasback duck is about a year old and builds her first nest, that nest is exactly like all other Canvasback nests, even if she has been kept in isolation, and couldn't have learned Canvasback nest-building design from another duck.

Learning this, I had to wonder: If information encoded in DNA can put a specific song, and a specific kind of nest, into a little bird, then what can such information encoded in my own DNA be doing to me?

For decades I wondered about that, and as my learning and experience increased I realized that less and less of my own behavior, thinking and feeling was free of dispositions rooted in programming encoded in my DNA. Nowadays, if I had to say how much of my everyday behavior is completely free of my genetic programming, I'd say that it's less than 0.1% -- that 99.9% of my behavior springs from programming in my genes.

During the years of thinking about the issue, however, I've never been able to explain why it was even worth thinking about the matter. After all, even if humans and all other living things are just robots obeying programming in our genes, what good does knowing about it do us? Our experience as humans on Earth will continue as always, plus there's not much we can do about the situation, anyway.

But, this week, thanks to Fabre nudging me to think on the matter once again with his spider stories, I've ended up glimpsing an answer to the above question of "Why even think about it?"

It's because, once you settle on a number like 99.9%, the next step is to wonder about the remaining 0.1% -- that tiny part of my being that still seems to me to be completely independent of my DNA's programming.

And this week as I've done that, I've been surprised to recognize this: That an important reason I persist in believing that at least a little of "me" is something beyond programming, is because of something first experienced many years ago when I was studying meditation.

During meditation, when I and many others go deep inside ourselves, we find something that, though indescribable, could be cartoonized as a glowing presence with undefined borders, suspended in nothingness. It's just a profound is-ness.

The more I think about it, the more it seems that this glowing presence within must be the same in everyone who has found it -- not just identical, but the very same presence -- because it's our attachment point, a kind of umbilicus, with the One Thing spoken of in recent Newsletters.

On this side of the radiant is-ness, there's a Universe of birth and death, predator and prey, male and female, and all the programmed rest, including 99.9% of human being, thinking and feeling. However, that remaining 0.1% of our doing, thinking and feeling is that part of us transcending everyday life, the part inspired by the One Thing glowing within each of us.

That insight achieved, the spiritual task becomes to learn to identify that inspired 0.1% of our lives and to nurture it, maybe to the point of expanding it to 0.2%.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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