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

November 26, 2017

*****

A BIG, PRICKLY AUTOMERIS CATERPILLAR
On the rocky forest trail leading into the rancho early one morning I came upon a large, green caterpillar bristling with what looked like stinging hairs. You can see it being held gingerly in my hands at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171126cp.jpg

Sadly, when I turned the caterpillar so I could photograph the head, the head had been smashed, and the caterpillar was dead. I'd thought he'd just been stunned by the morning's chill. Still, I got a shot of patterns along its side, and of the stinging hairs, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171126cq.jpg

The large size, the hair structure and the greenness all reminded me of a caterpillar we've seen at Chichén Itzá, which, with the help of an expert, was identified as possibly Automeris maloneyi. The caterpillar in the above photos surely belongs to the same genus, and the name that volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario came up with fit the bill. Bea says it might be AUTOMERIS METZLI, and I find that that species should be in our area. Its distribution is given as from Mexico through Central America to northern South America.

Despite the species occurring over such a large area, not much more information about it is available. I'm parking the pictures here, hoping that eventually someone studying the genus will be glad to see them, and have documentation that Automeris metzli can be found here in November.

*****

COMPARING NUTRIENTS OF SPINACH, CLIMBING SPINACH, AND CHAYA
Lately I've bragged about my great crop of Climbing, or Malabar, Spinach, as documented at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/basella.htm

I eat several leaves of Climbing Spinach each morning, in my morning breakfast stews, and carry bags of leaves to the hotel in Ek Balam. The leaves look very much like those of spinach -- despite the two plants belonging to different plant families -- but often I've wondered just how Climbing Spinach's nutritional content compares to that of real spinach. And, for that matter, how both compare to Chaya, the bush leaf used like spinach in many traditional Maya dishes, and which we also grow and eat. You can meet Chaya at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/malamujr.htm

Nutrient facts are easily available for spinach and Climbing Spinach, at the NutritionData.Self.Com website. There's a Climbing Spinach's page and a page for regular spinach.

It's harder to find nutritional information on Chaya.

As a vegetarian, it's important for me to ensure that I get enough protein each day. All three crops turn out to contain about the same percentage of protein, with Chaya possibly having a little more.

Spinach often is sited as being an especially good source for iron. It offers about double the amount of iron as Climbing Spinach, but Chaya contains well over twice the iron as Spinach.

Having such poor vision, I also pay special attention to Vitamin A, which not only prevents night blindness but also protects the body against infections. Spinach contains nearly eight times the Vitamin A of both Climbing Spinach and Chaya.

Often I've heard that folate is important. Climbing Spinach provides only about 60% of the folate as regular spinach, and I don't know how Chaya stacks up for folate.

With this brief, random-sample glance at the comparative nutrient contents of these three crops, my first impression is that Climbing Spinach isn't nearly as nutritious as regular spinach, but Chaya usually more or less holds its own with spinach, though in the case of iron Chaya blows spinach away.

*****

MOUNTAINS AROUND TEPOTZLÁN
During mid October when I visited a gardening friend near Tepotzlán, Morelos, in the highlands just south of Mexico City, it was a pleasure to see the area's mountains. The Yucatan is so flat that I get hungry to see mountains. Take a look at the mountain called Tepozteco as seen from downtown Tepotzlán, looking north, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171126tp.jpg

A friend and I climbed Tepozteco to visit an Aztec pyramid atop the mountain, but once we got there the entrance was barred because of instability caused by the recent earthquake. Earthquakes are common occurrences in this area, which lies within the Central Volcanic Belt cutting east/west across Mexico just south of Mexico City. The Belt results from two great tectonic plates grinding against one another, the friction creating rock-melting heat, which sometimes finds release in volcanoes. Major volcanoes occur in a line there inside the Belt. From east to west there's Orizaba, Popocayépetl, Nevado de Toluca, Paricutín, Nevado de Colima, and others. From Tepotzlán, Popocayépetl could be seen on clear days, with considerable smoke rising from its beautiful, snow-covered, symmetrical peak.

In the above picture of Tepozteco you can barely see that the mountain's exposed walls are layered. The layering can be better seen in hills visible from my friend's front yard, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171126tq.jpg

I had assumed that the layers were composed of volcanic ash, the different strata being deposited during volcanic eruptions over long periods of time. However, on the Internet I was lucky to find a document by Héctor Ochoterena F. entitled "Origen y Edad del Tepozteco." The work was undated and it wasn't clear whether it had appeared in a journal, but it can be downloaded for free, in PDF format, from the website of Mexico's main university, UNAM , in the Investigaciones geográficas section.

In that work, Ochoterena's English summary says that Tepozteco's layering "... was formed during the Lower Pliocene by turbulent streams which drained the high valley of Mexico southwards."

So, the layers are not volcanic ash and other ejected igneous material deposited during nearby volcanic eruptions, but rather sediment deposited by streams running off the elevations where volcanic ejecta have accumulated. The ejecta was carried in the streams and deposited downslope, to the south, as sediment. Ochoterena further says that the deposition constituted the middle part of an alluvial fan in some places 500m deep (1640ft) in alluvium.

This deposition of this alluvium in the Tepotzlán area took place during the Lower Pliocene, which Ochoterena places at 11.4 to 12 million years ago. Later, water eroded valleys that cut through the alluvium. Layering in the valleys' walls result from the alluvium having been deposited from different eruptions, under different depositional environments. The view in the upper picture from downtown Tepotzlán is seen from the bottom of one of those valleys.

*****

DEATH OF AN ANT
A Maya worker walking by the hut, just to have something to do, reached over and kinked the brittle stem of a tick trefoil growing at the pit's rim, leaving the plant's top third hooking away from the remaining stem like the blade of a scythe. It was the same stately plant I'd admired as suggesting a pagoda two Newsletters ago. When the worker was gone, I straightened the stem and applied a splint, which worked so well that the next day leaves above the fracture didn't wilt at all. It was as I worked on the splint that I noticed an odd, diffuse, ± globular glowing on the stem, a close-up of which is show at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171126fu.jpg

An ant had chosen that spot in which to die, fungi had invaded the corpse, and eventually fungal fruiting bodies sprouted from the ant's body. At the picture's bottom, a little to the right of the lowest cluster, notice a fruiting body's elegant, star-shaped form -- geometry in a surprising place.

Finding such an interesting saprotrophic relationship at my hut's door was good, but what I enjoyed most was having a fungusy ant remind me that in Nature, again and again and at all levels of reality, there's a dynamic that's pretty to think about.

The dynamic is that at both the beginning and the end of all the Universe's doings there's just one thing. The One Thing at the beginning is the Universal Creative Impulse with its Big Bang, and the One Thing at the end is whatever the Universe and its things are evolving toward. In between there's a great deal of detail. At least, this is how I was thinking as I looked closely at the glowing, fungusy ant. The concept's symmetry and simplicity recommended it.

But, at this point in my ant-fuzz reverie, it seemed that my thinking about the matter had come to the usual end, which is to say that after thinking all that, one tends to ask, "So what? What's the good in it?"

Then during my Wednesday morning computer-battery recharge in Ek Balam, an email drifted in from Nancy in cyberspace, in response to my rhapsody last week about my turmeric crop. She passed along some words from inspirational-book author Macrina Wiederkehr, words like sparks illuminating my turmeric rhizome experience:

Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary. There are burning bushes all around you. Every tree is full of angels. Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb. Life wants to lead you from crumbs to angels, but this can happen only if you are willing to unwrap the ordinary by staying with it long enough to harvest its treasure.

So, between the two singularities framing the messy events of all the Universe's things that have beginnings and ends, there are paths with signposts leading from beginning to end, "if you are willing to unwrap the ordinary by staying with it long enough."

Maybe that's what inspired me about the fuzzy dead ant: The ant's stick-to-it-ness had managed to resolve the ant's life and death not only into the abstract and unknowable end awaiting everything, but also into a glowing unity vividly visible in the physical world, even a unity with details that revealed themselves as inspiringly elegant and geometrical, when one paid attention "long enough."

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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