Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stink Gourd

“Ti-ah pi-ah” which means in Kiowa, “Ready to go ready to die,” is the preamble of the Gourd Dance. The men form an inner circle and the women an outer circle. They shake painted gourds and the Pow-Wow begins.

The Kiowa Gourd Dance was outlawed by the federal government in 1899. By the 1930’s it was only a memory but later the Kiowa tribe began to practice again and today along with the abundance of wild gourd, the Gourd Dance is back.

Although there are many varieties of gourd, the Wild Gourd also known as Stink Gourd or Buffalo Gourd abounds in the Trans-Pecos. A member of the cucumber family and related to pumpkin, squash and melons, the stink gourd emits a strong smell when its leaves or vines are crushed. Some have likened the smell to strong body odor with a touch of garlic.

A yellow orange 5-lobed bell flower blooms from June to August adding an amber palette to the triangular gray-green leaves and hairy trailing perennial vines. Underground a taproot finds nourishment from the soil and produces green-striped baseball size fruit that eventually season to a pale yellow-crème. The gourd fruit is poisonous to humans and toxicity varies by season. The plants also absorb pesticides and herbicides and therefore should never be eaten.

Gourd art involves painting the dried gourd shells. Pointillism is a common gourd painting technique. Gourd decoration by pyrography or the use of hot tips to burn designs into gourds has been practiced for hundreds of years in Africa, Asia and by Native Americans.

Along with being an object of art and the principle instrument in the Gourd Dance, medicinally the Stink Gourd has been used by Native Americans in tea to speed labor at childbirth, crushed leaves mixed with saliva as a poultice for headaches and the peeled dried root to induce vomiting and as a laxative.

Checkered Garter Snake

The sun burned now across the Rim Country. Sanchez lay quiet. His partner walked back from the tree line to the flat hard dirt near the smoldering fire. “Ponga la pie,” his partner said. He thought to kick his feet, but saw they had not moved since daybreak. “Wake up Sanchez,” Nothing. “You’re either dead or there’s a snake in your bag.” He noticed a slight movement from Sanchez’s covered toes. “You’re not dead.” He waited then pushed the brim of his hat up, took the pistol from his holster and in one quick movement grabbed the sleeping bag and pulled. He shot once, twice, three times at the snake slithering across the earth then realized it was only a garter. Sanchez sighed.

Garter snakes, named after their resemblance to garter belts, are the most widely distributed reptiles in North America with a range from Nicaragua to Alaska. There are many species of garters but the Checkered Garter Snake is most common in the Trans Pecos. They are easily recognized by their long yellow back stripe, fainter side stripes and symmetry of black blotches.

Garters are carnivorous and eat a wide variety of any animal they can subdue including slugs, toads, rodents, leeches and lizards.

Garters are gregarious and hang out in cool dark communal dens during brumation. They communicate through hormone transport also known as pheromones, odors which activate behaviors such as reproduction.

Males are known to emit both male and female pheromones during mating season. Intense mating rituals include snake balls that can have as many as one hundred males and one female wrapped into a Medusa-like orb.

Garters emit a musky smell when alarmed and recent discoveries suggest they produce a mild neurotoxin known as three finger poison. Unlike pit vipers, the secreting gland and the rear fangs lack an efficient delivery system. A garter snake bite rarely causes pain or inflammation.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Bois d'arc

The yellow wooded bow was pulled half its length back and with the arrow centered the deft hand released the string propelling a shaven flint rocket through the air catching the rabbit almost instantly below the soft puffy head in the hard heat of the Solitario in west Texas.

The Bois D’arc tree also knows as the Osage Orange or the Horse Apple, because of the softball size chartreuse fruit that horses, cows and squirrels love, grows gnarly and strong throughout the Trans-Pecos region. Perhaps its first use among humans came among the Native Americans who found its strong yet pliable limbs excellent for bow making. French traders first encountered the weapon in the middle Mississippi Valley and gave the wood of the arc its name. A trading post in the nearby mountains was known by Frenchmen as Aux Arc, which later transmogrified into English as Ozark.

Years before the invention of barbed wire, Bois d’arc trees were used as fences as they grew thorny and thick and were described as horse high, bull strong and hog tight. By 1850 Kansas was said to have more than 50,000 miles of Bois d’arc hedges.

Researchers at Texas A&M University have recently isolated high concentrations of antioxidants in the Isoflavones found in the Bois d’arc fruit. Antioxidants may help against heart disease, cancer, ease menopause and improve bone health. The particular isoflavone found in both the soybean and the horse apple are believed to protect neurons in the brains of Alzheimer patients from the toxic effects of amyloid beta peptide which may be the triggering agent for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Soybeans contain less than one tenth of one percent of the isoflavone compound, while the Bois d’arc fruit contains nearly 10 per cent.

To date, the precise chemistry of why the isoflavone protects neurons against the peptide agents of Alzheimer’s and how the bois d’arc fruit evolved to produce such hi quantities of isoflavones is unknown.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Texas and the Gray Wolf

The man moved across the rock floored porch and pulled the door open. The spring stretched and screeched and he took a step in, then back out, as his spurs jiggled. He spit across the porch, then walked back inside. The merchant behind the counter of the Castelon Trading Post studied the man, his leather hat and the drool of tobacco running down his unshaven chin.

“Paying two bits for Mexican grays,” the Merchant said.

“Good, I got a 110 on old Jack out there,” the trapper replied, as he nodded toward the burro tied outside at the post.

One of the last sightings of a Gray Wolf in Texas was near Castelon in the Big Bend National Park in 1971. The gray wolf also known as lobo or Mexican Wolf are the largest sub-species of the wolf family.

Their extermination in the continental United States was considered a victory by those who saw the animal as a threat to livestock.

Heavy trapping in the southwest in the first half of the 20th century kept the wolves population in check but the animal's innate ability to find dead things made them vulnerable to an even more efficient form of lupidide - strychnine poisoning. The heavy use in the 1960’s of this deadly crystalline alkaloid sprinkled on carcasses was the final blow to this once thriving species.

Their population exploded in the second half of the 19th century as the hunting of buffalo by European immigrants left thousands of carcasses to rot on the Great Plains.

The gray wolf has 42 teeth, an almost four inch square paw print with teardrop toes and generally weighs 85-100 lbs with large jaws. The force of their biting pressure has been measured at 1800 psi.

Wolves have the greatest range of any large mammal. Their heritage is pre-historic and tales of this animal can be found in Russia, China, Peru, India and all of Europe. The first domesticated dogs came from wolves.

In 1996 Canadian wolves were released into the Yellowstone National Park as part of the Environmental Protection Act 10J rule which finances the reintroduction of endangered species.
Today they can also be found in the White Mountain area of Arizona and western New Mexico and one was recently found north of El Paso, dead on the side of a highway.