West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Giving light

Today I am thankful for the darkness, the relative darkness, of this day. The gathering low clouds and muggy stillness of the air set today apart from that other September day now thirteen years ago, which (where I was, on a mountainside in Maine) was crisp and flawlessly blue. In the shadow of this date I am thinking of anniversaries. When the planet comes back to same place in space, or at least the same position relative to the sun, how we feel the return in our bones. The emotional cargo that attached to these temperatures, these daylengths, also comes rushing back.

This coming year will be freighted with heavy anniversaries for me: the sudden death of Peter Ohring, colleague and friend, last November. The (write it!) suicide of my aunt in May. The tragic accident that took my college friend Nadia Seiler in August, two weeks before she would have been married. I’ve been thinking about how, as we get older, the calendar fills up with these disappearances, dark spaces in the Earth’s orbit that tug at us like phantom limb pain as we pass.

At the end of Nadia’s memorial service last weekend, there was a slide show of her brief and amazing life, and the music that her family chose to go with it was from her senior recital at Carleton. She played the cello and I accompanied her on piano. When I heard the music start I could picture those long afternoons in the practice rooms, laughing with Nadia and worrying about small things that are now long forgotten. I can picture the cover of the sheet music but I have no idea what it was called. It was a deceptively simple melody, with such a depth of sadness. I don’t know how we captured that, at those ages, 21 or 22, when all the great wordless sorrows still lay ahead of us. Maybe those dark spaces are in us always, and we only notice when the events of life bring them to the surface.

But this metaphor of dark = loss = sadness is too facile. Darkness is necessary for light to be perceptible. It’s the darkness between the stars that shows us the nature of our finite universe. In these moments when the dark surfaces, we must be most aware of the light in our lives and our ability to give light to others. Hope is most necessary when it seems least justified.

As an educator, I try to give light. I want to build a world with more understanding, more compassion; a world where everyone can feel valued and empowered, while understanding the consequences of their actions and taking responsibility. The root of the word “educate” comes from the Latin educare, meaning “to lead forth.” I want to be a beacon, lighting up a pathway towards a better world. Maybe I fall short of this. Well, of course I fall short. But the ideal is powerfully important.

La utopía – Eduardo Galeando

Ella está en el horizonte.

Me acerco dos pasos,

ella se aleja dos pasos más.

Camino diez pasos

y el horizonte se corre

diez pasos más allá.

Por mucho que yo camine

nunca la voy a alcanzar.

¿Para qué sirve la utopía?

Sirve para eso:

para caminar.

Utopia (my not-very-polished translation)

It’s on the horizon.

I take two steps forward,

and it retreats two steps.

I take ten more steps

and the horizon goes on

ten steps further.

I could walk forever

and never reach it.

What’s it good for, then, this utopia?

It’s for this: for walking.

Y seguimos caminando hacia el horizonte, un paso a la vez, iluminando el camino de los demás.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Today I’ve been upstaged by a rain shower and several species of charismatic mesofauna. I’m back in one of my favorite places in the world, La Selva Biological Station, setting up projects and giving workshops to some of the visiting student groups. Right now the sky over the lab clearing is turning the opaque gray of an overcast jungle sunset, and the vine-festooned branches across the lab clearing are becoming indistinct as the light draws out of the clouds. My office in the newly remodeled Old Lab still smells mainly of fresh paint and varnish, but with overtones of Sarapiquí fungus and wet wood already sneaking in.

Last week my student Tyler and I finished up the plant surveys at Finca Los Nacientes. The incipient forest there has already formed a canopy in many places, and the early successional species are beginning to die out. Solanum jamaicense, a particularly nasty little viny tomato-like plant covered with hooked spines, seems to be dying particularly fast. I’m happy to see it go; pulling the remnants of those thorns out of my legs before they got infected was one of my least favorite parts of the field season last year. Not many new species this year, but the few that did come in are mainly forest species, real trees that could live for decades or centuries instead of the scrappy, weedy, bird-dispersed Melastomataceae that dominate right now. I wish the spiny ferns would also die. My hands are crisscrossed with scabs from battling through head-high banks of spiny ferns. Even less pleasant, there’s still something in the plots that I’m allergic to. Last year I had a massive histamine reaction, partly because I was still recovering from pretty serious poison ivy, and I had to take a double course of prednisone to finally get rid of the full-body hives. This year I was able to keep the itching down to a dull roar by taking antihistamines, but the drawback was the slowed-down, underwater feeling from the drugs. Loratidine is supposed to be the least soporific of the over-the-counter antihistamines, but it still left me feeling drugged. It is very discouraging to try to work in the field in that state—my body could only go about 75% as fast as my brain wanted to. But we still got it done. It’s even more discouraging, I discovered, to try to conduct advanced data analysis and format figures in R while under the influence of something like that.

In the few days after we finished the plant surveys, Alex and I worked on data analysis and figures for our upcoming talks at ATBC (Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation)—more on that later—Tyler got to spend some time with Felix taking care of the farm and seeing the countryside. They fed the horses, harvested yuca, milked the cows, and made fresh cheese. On Sunday afternoon, a hot humid day buzzing with cicadas, they went to the river for a swim. Tyler’s Spanish was virtually nonexistent when he arrived, but he’s picking it up fast. After Felix dropped us off at La Selva, Tyler told me, “Felix is one of the nicest, most patient people I’ve ever met.” Definitely. I am fortunate to have such good friends.

I’ve been very busy in the past two days getting my students set up with the project that will consume the rest of the summer. Tyler and Angie, another Purchase undergrad, will be revisiting a data set from 1986/7, measuring lianas associated with the trees that the TREES project has been following for the past 30 years. This will be the first liana survey to directly compare individual crown occupancy by lianas over such a long time scale. We’ll measure the lianas on the surviving trees from that year’s survey, and we’ll also compare the data to a cohort of trees of the same species that are the same size now as those trees were in 1987. The fieldwork is non-trivial; there’s going to be a lot of tromping through the forest and peering up into the canopy. Tyler and Angie are getting more practice at how to do this safely, paying attention to their surroundings as they go and avoiding the many hazards of tropical fieldwork. Yesterday we located some of the trees and began the survey. It’ll be slow at first, but I’m confident in their abilities to work efficiently and safely. It’s good to see them working together to solve problems and communicating well.

In between fieldwork with my students, I’ve been giving talks and workshops for visiting student groups. Hence the bit about being upstaged by rain and charismatic species. This afternoon I talked with a group of Native American students about plant strategies and what plants do to survive. I love field teaching in the rainforest more than just about anything else. We got maybe 100 m into the forest, but in that distance I found more than an hour’s worth of things to talk about: cauliflorous fruits, iridescent leaves in the understory, lianas, hemiepiphytes, delayed greening, avian and mammalian seed dispersal, secondary compounds… I almost called it off in the first few minutes when the clouds that had been lurking all day decided to open up and dump on us just as we left. Trying to shout loudly enough to communicate over a tropical downpour is a losing proposition. But the weather cleared up after a few minutes, and I’m glad we stuck with it. The forest offered up all kinds of surprises, the best being a cask-headed lizard (Corytophanes cristatus) fixing us with its baleful reptilian glare. Its mottled green and brown colors were so fresh that it must have just shed its old skin. The students gathered around close to ask questions, enthralled by the forest and its denizens. There’s nothing quite like teaching under those conditions. It’s like improvising music: a partnership, an ever-evolving conversation.

Later I gave a scientific writing workshop for the REUs (Research Experience for Undergraduates). A funny story about REUs—the La Selva researchers often use the acronym, rey-oo, to refer to these guys, but the word is suspiciously close to the Spanish “reo”—convict. In 2007 when I was directing the program, I told a tico friend that I was in charge of the twelve REUs doing research at La Selva.

“Doce reos en el bosque? Y se portan bien?” Twelve convicts in the forest? And do they behave themselves?

Music night is starting in a few minutes, so I’d better wrap this up. More soon, and pictures!

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Back in the jungle

The storm has moved on, leaving the air thick with humidity and the trees dripping. A few parrots are squabbling over fruit in the high branches. About an hour ago the dark clouds came rumbling down from the Cordillera Volcanica Central trailing streamers of rain, and a few flashes of lightning close by convinced me to unplug the computer and take a break from preparing data sheets for the upcoming field surveys. As you might have guessed, I’m back in the jungle, specifically at Finca Los Nacientes in San Ramón de La Virgen, Sarapiquí, Costa Rica.

The biggest change since the last time I visited the farm was the arrival of baby Isabel. She is a remarkably sweet and calm four-month-old with a spiky cap of red hair just like Alex’s and deep brown eyes sparkling with curiosity like Felix’s. Life at the farm continues in a similar rhythm: rising with the dawn, a breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), fried plantains, eggs, and coffee; long days in the field; a second round of coffee and some cake when the storms roll in mid-afternoon; dinner and an early bedtime. Felix’s cousin Yerlin looks after the baby during the day so Alex can get some work done. I’ve heard that a baby’s rate of vocabulary acquisition depends on how many words she hears in her early years, and if that’s the case Isabel will probably be off the charts: Yerlin is a talker.

Yesterday morning Alex and I went to the forest for a few hours to take leaf longevity measurements. For the last three years, she and Felix have marked the emerging leaves of new seedlings with little plastic tags when they emerge, and she revisits them every month to measure the leaf life span. It’s basic science, but with an eventual applied goal—the more we know about how these species behave in different conditions, the better we can plan for reforestation.

It was a hot morning after a night of rain. The red earth of the hillside steamed where slashes of sunlight came down through the canopy, and the thick odor of rotting leaves surrounded us. Being back in the forest always puts my senses on full alert: snakes? ants? scorpions? Nearly a decade ago now, during my first semester in graduate school, I visited the American Museum of Natural History with my systematics class right after three months in the jungle. There was an exhibit of live butterflies inside a climate-controlled tent. I remember that the minute I walked in and felt that air, 85 degrees F and 95% humidity, full of the humid smell of decaying vegetation, all of a sudden I was fully aware of where my hands and feet were and what was around me: snakes? ants? scorpions? It’s not paranoia; it’s more like a sharpened awareness that makes me feel fully alive and present.

Between two sets of plots yesterday, Alex and I paused at the trail junction for water and some oatmeal raisin cookies. Filthy, muddy, sweaty, swatting mosquitoes, we started chatting about biostatistics. There may have been other people in the world at that very moment sitting in the rainforest talking about model selection and the Akaike Information Criterion, but probably not many. And probably very few of them were as happy as I was. It’s good to be back.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Night Before Christmas, hiker style

Every year around this time, I think about Christmas 2000. My older sister and I were hiking the Appalachian Trail, holed up in a shelter in Virginia on a cold Christmas night. I wrote this little ditty to cheer us up. Still works, most of the time. Enjoy.


'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the shelter

the rodents were running about, helter-skelter.

Our foodbags were hung on mouse-hangers with care

in hopes that the buggers could not get up there

and Isis and I, in our polypro caps,

had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap

when up on the roof there arose such a clatter

I jumped from my bag to see what was the matter,

and what to my wondering eyes should appear

but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer,

and Santa was there, too, just four inches tall!

"Good gracious," I blurted, "how'd you get so small?

St. Nick shed a tear-- it was sad to behold--

and gathered his courage, and solemnly told

how a bunch of mad scientists, early that day,

had caught him and his reindeer in their Shrinking Ray.

"So now," Santa moaned with an audible sniff,

"it's obvious I can't deliver my gifts,

unless someone helps me out, me and my deer.

And now you know, jackrabbit. That's why I'm here.

I've heard hikers are an ingenious lot,

who jury-rig pack frames and straps and whatnot..."

"Don't fret, Santa!" I said. "It happens that I

have a science degree, too! I'll give it a try."

And I used all the cells in my brain to devise

some method to bring Santa Claus back to size...


"Eureka!" I cried, and I built a machine

the likes of which on earth has never been seen.

Some pieces of foil in Ziplocs, well-sealed,

I used to correct for the magnetic field.

The neutron-colliding reactor I strove

to assemble with Shoe-goo and parts from my stove.

My trusty white Photon provided the beam

that would re-enlarge Santa and his reindeer team...


SHAZAM! The Enlarging Ray worked like a charm,

and Santa and team were restored without harm.

"A miracle! How can I thank you?" he said.

"You could slack me to Springer on that reindeer sled..."

So if you see reindeer aloft in the sky

weeks after Christmas, well, now you know why!

And thus ends my rhyme, which I hope people like--

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good hike!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

“This is what I call a clean break,” Kyosa said. Behind him, members of the taekwondo club were setting up cinderblock stanchions in preparation. “Meditate on the things you want to clean out of your life and put them into the concrete. When it shatters, you clean all that away and you go forward lighter.”

Rachel and Kevin and I, the testing candidates, were sitting in folding chairs at one edge of the dojang. Two rows of spectators sat against the wall by the door, and facing us across the floor was the testing board, all 4th degree masters or higher, seated behind a low table. We were three hours into the test already, our white uniforms streaked with sweat from demonstrating kicks, blocks, strikes, and coordinated sets of movements.
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

For Phyllis, October 2012

The way that water holds the shape

of a hull for a moment after the ship passes,

then falls inward to embrace


the absence.The light of afternoon in the grasses,

the lull of crickets slowed by time and cold.

You saw the world as it was, the fastest


shutter speed, the oldest joke in the book. When he told

me you were gone, dear soul, sailing out beyond

reckoning,beyond any anchor-hold—


how the day dimmed. A greatness gone. I could shout

after you over that blue-black shivering expanse

and nothing, not even an echo, would return. About


five years ago, in your sunroom, I had the chance

to ask how you first met. You told me

of a hike in the White Mountains, the intense


brittle solidity of the cold. And on one ridge you could see

snowflakes appearing all around you, out of the air,

"just popping into existence from the clear air, suddenly..."


Everything you loved about this world, it's still there,

only you've moved beyond it. Fog banks stand

there past the outer islands. In the sunroom, your chair


is empty, the light comes down. Your hands

on the tiller, this water underneath the hull, memory.

Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?


Ici, ici, ici.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Of snow on green branches

Last Saturday snow fell thick and sudden across the Northeast, and here (Pleasantville, NY) the fall up to this point had been so mild that most of the trees still had their leaves. Still green, many of them. So the snow that came down, so early in the season, hit hard. Bernd Heinrich has a wonderful essay on the material strength of trees in his book “The Trees in My Forest,” and he points out that unlike human structures, which are generally over-engineered for any stress that might befall them, trees strike a delicate balance between their investment in durability and their investment in growth. They engineer for the normal stresses, not for the extremes. And the strain of wet snow on top of fully expanded leaves is outside their normal purview. Limbs came down everywhere, smashing power lines and cars and roofs.

The day before the storm, I gave a lecture on climate change to my intro class. One of the things I mentioned was the intensification of precipitation. More heat in the atmosphere means more energy for evaporation, leading to heavier rainfalls and more intense snowfall. I hadn’t seen the forecast when I put the lecture together. Something about this snowfall did feel strange; the way it came down so heavy and swift, and the green branches bearing the weight. The world is changing. Every day I feel the urgency of communicating this truth, and fighting the causes.

This afternoon I was out in my yard—my very own yard, in my very own house; mortgaged to the hilt but mine on paper—cleaning up the limbs that had fallen from the big oak trees out back. I had a 12” bow saw. I prefer a bigger saw, but this one came with the house, and I still haven’t had the time to get to the hardware store for a better one. I’m usually at the office late, since I am teaching two new courses and a new lab this fall. I estimate that I spend 30-40 hours a week in prep time, above and beyond the time devoted to meetings, office hours, research, and actual teaching. It is exhausting and amazing. I love my students, with their multi-colored wild hair and their artists’ sense of the world as a canvas. I love my colleagues. I love the fact that everyone I’ve met on campus, in every job, is a genuinely kind human being dedicated to the school and to making things work. It may be too early to tell, but I really feel like I belong here. Enough that I bought a house. A little tiny suburban house with a backyard full of trees and a little lake down the block, ten miles from campus and about an hour up the Metro North from Grand Central. Come visit. But you might want to wait until I have furniture.

So yes, I was out in the backyard of my suburban home sawing branches with this little bow saw, when a branch under pressure snapped back hard and hit the guard over the handle. If that little bit of steel hadn’t been there, it would have done a number on my knuckles. As it was, the butt end of the branch dinged against the guard and brought my attention squarely back to what I was doing. It got me thinking about tools and design. The best-designed tools are those that do their jobs so well we don’t notice them. The saw fits well under my hand, it balances well, it cuts through the gnarled old branches; it protects me. I got to thinking about myself as a tool, honed and shaped by 24 years of education and now almost three years of experience to teach the scientists and policy-makers of the future. Can I hold up under the unaccustomed pressure? Can I do the right thing, say the right thing, to make a difference for my students? Can I reach enough people to make a difference for the world? Yes. Undoubtedly yes. And that answer, ringing through my mind, gives me the confidence to face the coming winter and finish out the term. I am doing what I was born to do. (Also I have met someone wonderful. More shortly, when time permits.)