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.

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.


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