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.

Friday, October 28, 2005

La cosita más linda

Why would anyone in her right mind wait outside the squat concrete terminal of Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría for six hours? Wind, rain, cold (well, all right, if sixty degrees can be called cold), squalling children, and the somewhat dispirited busking of a lottery ticket vendor: el millonario es usted! Si no juega, no gane. Chances, chances para hoy… But there I stayed, marooned on my barely adequate life raft of a Neal Stephenson novel (Zodiac. Like I said, barely adequate.) And why? Well, my sweet love Matt was coming down for a visit. I got to the airport at 1 PM, just after his plane was supposed to have landed, only to find that the runways were all closed. An aircraft was having some kind of difficulty, the nature of which never became clear, in some strategic location, and it took them four hours to get the runway open. Rumors abounded in the crowd huddled against the terminal wall. The monitors kept showing the same useless information. For a while the suspicion circulated that no more flights would be allowed in until the next morning. This nearly drove me to distraction, since my sweetie was only scheduled to be here for three days in the first place.

At last the runway was cleared and people began to stream through the doors. There he was, my dearest love, sporting a cute little beard that he’d grown to match his passport photo. A great deal of words have been written on the subject of love, and specifically on the topic of seeing one’s beloved after an absence. I won’t add my own paltry metaphors to the mix; there are some things so wonderful that words are inadequate.

Matt’s an exceedingly good sport. I took him out in the jungle to help with a vegetation inventory transect. He took diameter measurements and lugged a garbage bag of plant samples around, only complaining occasionally about the bugs and the rain. He even wore, at my urging, his world-famous “freakish green clown pants.” Well, they’re famous up and down the Appalachian Trail, at least, and they deserve wider renown. More to the point, they’re his lightest, quickest-drying pair of pants; characteristics which are highly useful in the jungle and nearly make up for their utter ridiculousness as apparel.

On the day before he left, Matt and I wandered through the labyrinthine Mercado Central in San José. The market is an entire block of shops and craft stalls under one roof. One end is geared toward the tourist crowd: t-shirts, hammocks, coffee, leather goods, paintings, all manner of knick-knacks. The far side of the market is more for the locals: pyramids of fresh fruits and vegetables, a stinky aisle of fish and meats, bins of animal feed, dark corner booths where wizened old men concoct herbal remedies from roots and bunches of wilted leaves, and a booth selling plastic and styrofoam containers in all sizes.

Matt was looking for a good present for his mother. (Ruthie, if you’re reading this, I won’t spoil the surprise!) The first thing we considered was a little ceramic crocodile. It was a bit cross-eyed, which gave it a certain amount of character. It stood out more for the context than for its ocular peculiarity, though: everything else in that booth was intended for a Christmas creche. Recumbent mules and camels, robed shepherds and wise men, a plethora of smiling babies in cribs and angels suspended from the beams. The nearest shepherd stood mere inches from the crocodile’s jaws.

“I bet your mom would like it,” I said to Matt. “Every creche should should have a crocodile.”

“The thing is,” he said, “it would probably end up in the crib.”

I poked him. “Sacrilege!”

“Well, it would only be taking the place of Yoda.”

You can tell an awful lot about a man from the kind of home he grows up in. It’s a good thing we found each other— what are the chances of two such goofy geeks ever finding true love?

In the end, we decided not to get the crocodile. We got a lovely little (mumble, mumble) from one of the souvenir shops in the front of the market. I chatted with the woman at the counter for a bit while she wrapped up Matt’s purchase. She asked where we were from, and how long we’d been together. The U.S., almost two years. I told her that he was only here for a few days visiting, and how I wished he could stay for longer (with a hug for emphasis, while he stood there, a good sport, trying to navigate the tangled thickets of Spanish).

The woman beamed at us. “Dos jovenes tan enamorados. Es la cosita más linda.” Two young people so in love. It’s the most beautiful thing. And so it is. I miss you, Snookie.

Friday, October 21, 2005

An Honest Mechanic

Adventure of the week: finding a mechanic in Costa Rica. The project car, an ancient Suzuki Samurai that my friend Marcia has nicknamed “the Silver Bullet” for pure irony, needed some work. A lot of work, actually. The passenger’s side door would only open with the key, there was gunk in the carburetor, the steering was iffy, the alignment questionable, the clutch was going, and the gas gauge was long gone.

Bernal, one of my advisor’s field assistants, gave me directions to “Taller Robert.” (For the non-Spanish speakers, taller, pronounced tie-air, is the general word for a workshop. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I even made the connection between “llevo el carro al taller” and “John is taller than Sally.” Strange how the brain gets caught in one language and stays there.)

“You can’t miss it,” he said, which, as in the U.S., is a sure sign of trouble. “It’s in La Guarea, right near William’s house. You know William, right? Oh. Well, it’s after the curve. Not the big curve, the next one. Before that bar where what’s-her-name works. It’s an abandoned church.”

“Una iglesia?”


“Is there a sign?” (rótulo: one of the vocabulary words that stayed with me from Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal).

“Well, no. But everybody knows where Taller Robert is. Oh, I think there’s a boat in the back yard.”

There was indeed a boat in the back, a 30-ft river launch up on blocks for a new paint job, and that was how I found Taller Robert. That, and the pile of car parts. It was indeed an abandoned church, deconsecrated, I presume, though the altar (now a storage space for vacuum pumps and sundry wrenches) still bore the words “beato es Dios cuyo amor cubre toda la tierra.” Robert and his three assistants were busy when I arrived, all lying on flattened pieces of cardboard on the concrete floor and examining the undersides of various vehicles. Robert sprang to his feet and greeted me. It has never ceased to amaze me how Costa Rican men, even working at pretty grubby jobs, always look freshly pomaded and smell of cologne.

We exchanged pleasantries and a few jokes about “Nuestra Señora del Motor Apagado.” Robert drove me back to the station as a test drive, after I’d given him the litany of car problems.

“When do you think it will be ready?” I asked him. I fully expected two or three days, considering the range and magnitude of the issues. But Robert smiled.


Now, this is a word that will give the willies to any gringo who’s spent any time whatsoever in Latin America. Much, much worse than “you can’t miss it.” Mañana could be next week, or it could be never. But lo and behold, I had a message in Recepción the next morning: the car was ready. Beato es Robert!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Mamón chino, la fruta de los dioses

Bess told me I could post these photos as long as I used her title. It had been a very, very long day in the field, but fortunately we had some rambutans left. Mamón chino, they're called here, which translates more or less as "Chinese suckling things." Or maybe it doesn't translate. Anyway, rambutans, mamónes chinos, Nephelium ramboutan-ake, whatever you want to call it, is one of the best fruits around. They're native to Southeast Asia but widely naturalized here in Costa Rica. Their reddish skins, covered with hundreds of rubbery protruberances like a koosh ball, hardly look promising. You have to break them open and suck the sweet inside off the seed. They taste like strawberries and green grapes. I bought these from the gap-toothed man who sells fruit from the back of his pickup along the main street of Puerto Viejo.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Rambutan Process. I.
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

The Rambutan Process. II.
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

The Rambutan Process. III.
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

Is it just me, or do I look like a hobbit?
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

All in a day's work.
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A Day in the Life

The sun is just setting over the thick wall of forest behind the lab, painting the sky briefly purple. Very briefly; twilight at these low latitudes is a momentary affair. On the path below, I can see a few students walking to dinner, their headlamps already casting faint parabolas on the concrete. The high, wavering call of a tinamou floats out of the forest, just audible over the hum of the air conditioner. Today was an unremarkable day at La Selva – but I suppose that many of the things I find unremarkable would seem odd, or at least interesting, to my readers. Hence this post: a day in the life.

I woke up at 6:00 to the grunting calls of howler monkeys in the trees outside my window and the chirps of warblers, tanagers, and hummingbirds. The sun already illuminated the bank of tall trees along the river. Walking to breakfast, I watched a herd of peccaries – like very bristly pigs, with a heavy musk that reeks of old socks and rotten garlic – hoovering fallen breadfruit and guavas near the bridge. A flock of oropendolas, large black birds with yellow tails, gurgled and chortled in the trees by the river. Aside from ravens, I’ve never come across a bird with such a varied and astounding vocal repertoire as the oropendola. They make liquid warbles, chonks and gurgles like bad plumbing, and also a staticky, electrical buzzing sound that one bird book describes as being “like the ripping of fine linen.” Precisely.

Breakfast was coffee, papaya juice, cinnamon rolls, fruit (watermelon and pineapple), and the omnipresent rice and beans. Hardly a meal here goes by without a hearty serving of rice and some legume. The breakfast variety is actually my favorite: a concoction known as gallo pinto (spotted rooster), of rice and beans fried with tiny bits of sweet pepper, onions, and cilantro. A little hot sauce helps it immensely. While I ate, I talked with a group of South African student volunteers who are doing a trail condition survey and a German researcher who works on bats. Never a dull moment—breakfast conversation ranged from the best way to remove botflies (snake venom extractor, hands down), to the worst pick-up lines in several languages (hooray! New useful German phrases!).

At quarter past seven, I stopped in at the office of Proyecto Bosques, where my advisor’s assistants were preparing for a day of work. We have three great Costa Rican field assistants, Jeanette, Juan, and Bernal, who collect most of the data that my advisor uses in her ongoing investigation of forest recovery. As project manager, I’m in charge of making sure that things run smoothly and that all the materials we need for the project are ready on time. I’m also (unofficially) in charge of motivation and morale. It helps on mornings like this, when Juan has the radio tuned to the salsa station and turned up high when I come in. I start dancing. “Discomovil Bosques! Como les va, muchachos? Hoy jueves en Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, por un tiempo limitado, vamos a medir el diámetro de los árboles!…” (in my best imitation of the radio ads for traveling DJs and light shows that swing through the small towns of the Sarapiquí region putting on fiestas).

My assistant Bess and I left for the field a few minutes before eight, biking down the moss-slick concrete of the Sendero Tres Rios (STR). Paving the STR as a bike trail was a matter of contention here at La Selva for years. It has undoubtedly altered the hydrology – swamps have sprung up in formerly dry areas – but it has also made parts of the property available to researchers that would otherwise be inaccessible. Our destination today was one of those areas. I usually work in secondary forest, as I mentioned before, but I also have some study sites in the old growth forest as controls. This particular plot is at the back of the La Selva property, about as far as you can possibly get from the lab clearing. We biked out to the end of the STR, a little over 5k, and then hiked into the forest for about 2k on the Lindero el Peje (LEP). On the La Selva map, one quickly learns, any trail that runs straight is bad news. And trails with the word “lindero” in their names always run straight – these are the old borders of La Selva, before more land was acquired at the margins. Instead of skirting around the hills and following the topography, the straight trails go up and down the hills without any concession to negotiability. The LEP is a prime example. These days, in the rainy season, steep slopes turn into slick, red mudslides, and low-lying areas become boot-sucking mires. The back part of the LEP has another treat: a stream crossing where one has to balance on a rotting, submerged log for about eight feet, and then move fast in the mud on the far side to avoid losing a boot. (I tried to get a photo of Bess recovering her boot from the mud yesterday, but she demurred. Successful stream-crossing photos will be posted soon; stay tuned).

On the way out to LEP, a tamandua crossed the path in front of us. Tamanduas are tropical anteaters, with long funnel-shaped snouts. When startled, as this one was, they stand up to their full height of maybe a meter, rocking back and forth on their hind feet and hissing like a tea-kettle. (In the day it merely looks comical, but I’ve been very freaked out a few times coming across a defensive tamandua in the dark, alone.)

In the forest, we stashed our pack lunches in a tree to keep them out of the way of an army ant column that was marching through the plot. We spent the day marking out plots and putting tags on liana seedlings so I can follow their growth and survivorship over time. Ah, lianas. My favorite kind of plants. Woody vines, for the uninitiated. They depend on other plants for their support, which frees them up to allocate more resources to growth and reproduction. Instead of spending all their carbon to build a thick trunk and get up to the light, like boring old trees, lianas have a host of ways to scramble upwards through the canopy, moving rapidly and exploiting light much more efficiently than self-supporting plants. I like to think of lianas as the predators of the plant world, fast and smart. It’s an incredibly advantageous growth form – there are upwards of 90 plant families that contain at least one liana, and there’s strong evidence for multiple origins of the climbing habit within some families (palms, for instance). For a characteristic to evolve independently that many times, it’s got to be pretty profitable.

I’m trying to think of a way to describe our work. In the dry terms of scientific writing, it sounds pretty straightforward: we established 100 plots of 2x1 m and tagged each liana, tree, or shrub seedling in the study area. This doesn’t begin to capture the challenge of pushing through vegetation and hanging roots, up and down muddy hills, brushing away spider webs and the omnipresent clouds of mosquitos, constantly alert for snakes and stinging ants. But it’s beautiful out there, with the light filtering down through the layers and layers of leaves. The forest smells of sweet decay, with other scents drifting in and out as we walk: raw earth, orchids, dung. Water drips everywhere, even when it’s not actively raining. The sounds: parrots shrieking in the treetops, toucans playing the same two notes over and over like a broken record, water, buzzing insects, the chirp of frogs and invisible crickets overhead.

Bess and I ate sandwiches at 11, set up a few more seedling plots, and then we took a few light measurements. It’s a technique that my advisor pioneered, using the ratio of red:far-red light to estimate the amount of light that comes through the canopy. Since plants use red light for photosynthesis and not far-red light, the ratio is highly correlated with the amount of leaf tissue above the sensor, and thus with the amount of light reaching the forest understory. It’s a great technique, but it requires some expensive, touchy equipment that weighs about 35 lbs—no trivial matter, considering the journey out to the plot—and it also requires the perfect weather conditions: evenly overcast skies, with enough light coming through that the sensor won’t bottom out, but not bright enough that there are strong flecks of patchy sunlight. When Bess and I were doing a lot of light measurements in September, our definition of “good” weather was a cloudy day. There were precious few good days then – the hurricanes sucked up all the moisture from this region, giving us a freakishly dry wet season—but now, thankfully, wet weather seems to be the norm, bringing many “good” days, or at least good afternoons.

We ate our second sandwiches and chips around 3, when it got so dark in the understory that the red sensor began to flash zeros. Then we headed back, up and down the hills, crossing the treacherous stream, biking 5k in a light rain, in time to shower before supper (rice and beans, avocado, cabbage salad, green beans). And in time for me to write this, with a bit of after-dinner time thrown in. There’s music tonight—a gathering of guitars, mandolins, fiddles, and voices, mostly folk and bluegrass. It happens every once in a while, rather spontaneously. If I can manage to keep my eyes open I’ll go strum a few tunes myself. So there you have it, a day in the life.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

This is me, making friends with a giant stick insect.
c. 2005 J.K. Gravier

And Mr. Parrot Snake! What a pleasure!
c. 2005 S. G. Letcher

Hello, Mr. Iguana!
c. 2005 S. G. Letcher

The view during my morning commute.
c. 2005 S. G. Letcher

The view from the bridge.
c. 2005 S. G. Letcher

My home away from home.
c. 2005 S. G. Letcher

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Welcome to my latest distraction

From my office window I can see a wall of green -- trees, vines, strangler figs, bromeliads, ferns -- all competing for the light, struggling their way up to the canopy. Occasionally flocks of green parrots flash through the foliage, cackling and squawking like kids let out of school. Branches of Hamelia patens, festooned with red blossoms, float in the foreground with a flock of lazy butterflies and zipping purple hummingbirds. The other day my mother asked me what was the most amazing thing about being here in the rainforest. I told her that there's so much life here, all of it competing for the strength to live and flourish and seed the earth with future generations. Everything wants to find its path to the light. And there are so many different ways.

This site is mainly intended for family and friends, though it's open to anyone. Those who know me can skip this paragraph; those who don't may find it useful, or at least, I hope, interesting. I grew up on an island off the coast of Maine, in a house with wood heat and cold running water. After high school I took some time off to work and travel, culminating in a three-week trip to Peru where I discovered my fascination with the rain forest and my passion for conservation. I got my B.A. from Carleton College in Minnesota, with a double major in music and biology. And then I started walking. My older sister and I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia and back again. Currently I'm a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, studying tropical ecology. At this very moment, I'm in Costa Rica, ensconced in my office at La Selva Biological Station, where (as usual) a terrific thunderstorm is currently building. Six months of research for my doctorate this year; three down and three to go.

Recent events in my life -- including a close relative's diagnosis with a degenerative disease -- have made me think that it's high time to get better at staying in touch with the people I love. Though I'm not terribly keen on the idea of blogs, it seems that this might be a good way to help people keep tabs on where I am and what I'm up to. I'm a terrible correspondent (except to my sweet love, whom I make it a point to email every day). A friend's blogspot site provided the impetus. So, my blog. I guess I've entered the 21st century at last. Still no cell phone, though!

La Selva is at the confluence of two major rivers here in the Sarapiquí region of Costa Rica. Right now the rivers are running reddish-brown with clay sediments from rains upstream. Between them lies a biological reserve, 1600 hectares of lowland rain forest. Tapirs, jaguars, peccaries, toucans; snakes and scorpions; mosquitoes, chiggers, sand flies. And the wall of green, that seemingly impenetrable mass of vegetation. It's been my work, for the past three years, to try to make some sense of it. At last I've learned enough of the plants that they begin to make recognizable patterns. I can tell the plant families from the shape and patterns of the leaves, or from a drop of sap or the scent of a crushed stem. The genera and species are distinguished by more subtle, idiosyncratic characters: fine hairs along a midvein, the hyaline margin of a leaf, or the texture of a surface. I'm thinking of Maripa nicaraguensis, a liana in the Convolvulaceae, with leaves that have the exact fine granular appearance as the skin on the back of a frog.

Most of La Selva is what's called "primary forest:" never logged, never subject to major (human) disturbances. Personally I don't like the term "primary." I stick with "old-growth." It's all been disturbed, one way or another: floods, hurricanes, treefall gaps. Ancient human cultivation-- a student doing palaeoecological research here, some years back, found corn pollen in swamp sediments several thousand years old. To call old-growth forest "primary" implies that it's unchanging, which is patently false, and it also implies a certain hierarchical relation among types of forest. Be that as it may, the vast majority of people who work in the tropical forests work in old-growth. I work in secondary forests, the fringes of young trees that spring up in abandoned pastures, given time, and knit together the fragments of old-growth that are left. Secondary forests are often unpleasant places to work, full of spiny plants, stinging insects, and venomous snakes. But secondary forests are also vital to our understanding of land cover change in the tropics, which feeds back into our understanding of global climate change. In this weirdly hot, dry year with its spate of devastating hurricanes, I can't help but think that this kind of work is pretty important. It gets me through the hard days.

Lunch time at La Selva, and then to town (the bustling metropolis of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, bus stop, bank, two markets, souvenir shops, and a hardware store) for bike tire patches and maybe some rum. And so begins my blog.