Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Texas Mountain Laurel

The cave’s protruding edge allowed only starlight from the east to illuminate his painted face. Dyes of red and yellow masked his cheeks with singular zig-zag streaks of charcoal carefully drawn on both sides of his nose. He sat now without moving on the buffalo hide staring into the mesquite fire. The residue of pulverized mescal beans was smeared around his lips and hands as water flowed below him between the steep canyon banks of the river.

The Texas Mountain Laurel tree, also known as Mescal Bean and scientifically as Sophora secundiflora is indigenous to the Trans-Pecos. Its beans may have been used as ceremonial sacrament by paleo Indians for thousands of years.

The Mescal Bean is an evergreen shrub with waxy leaves that prefers limestone soil. Like many plants growing in limestone, they are slow growing but can reach heights of 20 feet. Lavender flowers are produced in spring and have a grape aroma. The beans are mature when they reach a red-lacquer and come in kiwi-colored fuzzy pods.

Archeologists from the University of Texas excavated a site near Langtry in the 1960’s.Bones from a now extinct species of Bison, spear points known as Folsom projectiles and residues of Texas Mountain Laurel beans were found. Using radio metric carbon dating, the scientists estimate these items were in use 12,000 years ago by some of North America’s earliest humans.

The recovery of Sophora secundiflora, a nitrogen fixing legume, in the context of these items along with rock paintings suggest the beans were used as a phyto-chemical religious enhancer. Secondary compounds found in the beans include cytistine, an alkaloid related to nicotine and known to cause visions, convulsive fits as well as respiratory failure.

Ceremonial use of the mescal bean by these early American aborigines seems to have come to an end about 1000 AD which may coincide with the transition of the people from hunter-gather to farmers or may suggest a replacement plant was found.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dragon and Damsel Flies

The sidewinder slithered down the steep dune. Clouds of sand whipped in the air. Bye and bye a sheet of plywood came tumbling out of the sky. It struck the snake severing it in half. Melbourne watched from the lee side of the hill as the snake momentarily paused, each half wiggling. Then a blue dragonfly came and hovered over the snake until the wiggling became unison and the two halves joined. Melbourne scratched his head. “Texas Joiner Snake,” he said. Joachim nodded. “Yep, with help from the snake doctor.”

Dragonflies and Damsel flies are insects from the order Odonata. Characterized by two pairs of transparent wings, six legs and an elongated body these predators diet includes mosquitoes and their larvae, flies, bees, ants, wasps and occasionally butterflies. Dragonflies are some of the fastest insects in the world and an Australian dragonfly, the Southern Giant Darner has been clocked at 60 MPH.

Both dragonflies and damsel flies have multifaceted eyes, but the damsel’s are separated. THe damsel also holds its wings, when at rest, parallel with the body whereas the dragon’s wings are perpendicular. The largest damsel fly, the Forest Giant in South America has a wing span of 7.5 inches.

There are over 250 species of damsel and dragon flies in Texas. The Common Blue Damsel fly is common in the Trans-Pecos and can usually be found in spring and summer near tanks, cienagas and rivers. These insects undergo a three stage metamorphosis; egg, nymph and adult. The nymph or larvae stage is an aquatic being.

In some places of the world, dragon and damsel flies are eaten. For example in Indonesia, they are caught on poles made sticky with glue and then fried in oil. In China and Japan they are used in medicine and in the southern USA they are known as snake doctors, watching over all serpents and nursing them when they get sick.