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.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Beware of the Asymptotes

Yesterday marked day seven of straight fieldwork with no breaks. For a few days I’ve been pulling double shifts—measuring diameters with the Bosques crew in the morning and doing my own work in the afternoon. For the past few days, Bess has been out of town with her parents. I’ve devoted the time to a side project I’m doing with my friend Kelly, studying mycorrhizae (the interactions of plant roots and fungi in the soil). Kelly’s going to do the boring part, staining the roots and inspecting them under a microscope for fungus, and I get to do the fun part, collecting roots. Fun, if you like mud.

I went with a very low-tech approach to sampling. In the field, I carried a notebook and pencil, some garbage bags, a sturdy digging stick (yay for Stone Age technology!), and my special innovation: a stash of plastic sandwich bags, each of which contained a scrap of flagging tape with a number written on it. I would locate a seedling of a species on our list that was small enough that I could trace the roots and be sure I was getting the right ones, but not so small that I’d kill it by taking a few roots. I’d dig around the base, extract a few roots, stash them in one of the baggies, wipe the mud off my hands, write the number and species in my notebook, take a leaf sample to press, swat some mosquitoes, and repeat.

At first, sampling was easy. Almost every plant of the right size that I came across was a species I didn’t have yet. With time, though, it became harder and harder to find the ones I was looking for: everything I came across was already in the bag. It’s like baseball cards, or those movie trading cards that were popular when I was a kid. My little sister must have had eight or nine copies of “Robin gets the worst of it” (i.e., Kevin Costner meets the beam end of a quarterstaff) before she ever got that one of Maid Marian. It’s an inevitable consequence of finite biodiversity (or trading card diversity, I suppose). Except in a theoretical, infinitely diverse ecosystem where each individual is a different species (θ→∞, for you Hubbell fans out there!), you’re going to start coming across the same ones again and again, and it takes a lot more time and effort to find anything new. If you plot the number of species you find vs. the number of individuals you encounter, the curve levels off eventually. In mathematical terms, you approach an asymptote.

And that was where I found myself yesterday afternoon, hunting through the underbrush in search of the elusive Strychnos panamensis and Rourea glabra. I only needed one more sample of each to complete my planned collections for the day. There are a lot of plants that look similar from a distance, but disappoint on closer inspection. As the afternoon wore on, I accumulated mosquitoes rather than new species. A thick, humming cloud of the little bloodsuckers followed my every move, despite repeated applications of bug dope and the formidable mud layer I had built up on all my exposed skin from repeated attempts to swat them.

In an effort to stay sane, I thought about species accumulation curves (the generally accepted name for the plot of species vs. individuals). I know it’s not a great strategy for maintaining sanity, but hey, it’s what I had. I started wondering what other things follow the same kind of curve. There are so many repeated patterns in nature that correspond to elegant mathematical descriptions—the logarithmic spirals of snails, fern fiddleheads, and certain vine tendrils; the fractal patterns of shorelines and leaf veins; the endless applications of the Fibonnaci series. I’m not a good enough mathematician to really understand them; just good enough to puzzle over them, smile, and turn back to my little logistic regressions.

I started wondering if you could plot an idea accumulation curve, tracing the ideas that have really shaped human history. Agriculture, the city-state, writing. Penicillin, air travel, fast food. It seems that it’s getting harder and harder to come up with an idea that’s actually novel. When I was about fourteen, I kept a notebook of all the truly original ideas I came across or formulated, but I gave it up when I realized that the notebook was filling very, very slowly, and nothing in it was invented by me. Standing in a muddy peccary trail and peering into a dense thicket of spiny palms, I wondered where we are on the idea accumulation curve. Are we nearing the asymptote, where everything will be derivative of everything else? And the truly novel ideas of the recent past—TV, weapons of mass destruction, genetic engineering—are moving us in a direction that doesn’t seem very positive.

I’ve just been re-reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s stunning novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about an orphan of the World Trade Center attacks. September 11th wasn’t a new idea at all, though the enormity of it certainly made it seem like one at the time, at least to most Americans I know. It was a blending of some ideas of the recent past (airplanes, skyscrapers) with some of the oldest ideas: fear and hate, which have been with us since before we came down out of the trees, and divinely ordained righteousness; an idea that, more than any other, makes the little hairs on my neck stand straight up. September 11th was a derivative idea, an idea for the asymptote. In my darker moments I wonder whether the human brain is such an evolutionary advantage as we often seem to believe. We have such enormous potential and so little foresight.

I also thought, along the same lines, about how much easier it is to have a lasting impact by destroying rather than creating. No one remembers the names of the thousands of workers who built the World Trade Center, girder by girder, floor by floor. The names of Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden are household words. When I was younger I used to think that I wanted to be one of those people who makes a splash in the world. But looking back through history, the people we remember are most often the destroyers rather than the builders. We remember the generals and not the farmers, not the mothers. I would so much rather be a part of the undistinguished masses, weaving my little part in the scrambled tapestry we call civilization than one of those egregious few who rips a hole in the fabric.

People sometimes ask me what I think about when I’m out in the field alone all day. Usually nothing; I can go for hours with the pleasant background mind-numbness of I wonder what’s for lunch… any snakes behind that log?... I bet that root’s slippery… any ants on that leaf?...do I need to go to town tomorrow to replenish my chocolate stash?.. any snakes behind that log? Yesterday I managed to maintain a few other lines of thought, a small and not unpleasing anomaly. But between that, looking for those last few plants, and the usual vigilance for snakes, stinging ants, scorpions, etc., I didn’t notice the howler monkeys’ warnings until too late. Howler vocabulary is rather limited: “aroo-gah-roo-gah-roo-gah!” at 90 decibels just about covers it. To really get what they’re saying, you have to pay attention to the context. Two or three monkeys exchanging howls across several kilometers means, “this is my territory and stay the hell out!” But if they all get going at once, not pausing to wait for answers, it means, “va a llover.” And llover it did, so intensely that I was soaked to the skin in about 30 seconds and sloshing in my boots before I could even get back to my bike. And I never did find those last two plants. Shows what you get for thinking.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

How to Talk Like a Tico

Rather than waxing eloquent about the sound of rain, the ubiquity of geckos, or the tendency of all things to mildew, this week I will wax didactic.

Why are Costa Ricans called ticos? (At first I thought the term was so unbearably cute that I refused to use it on principle. But everybody here uses it here, so much so that it became impossible to avoid.) I learned that it comes from a peculiarity in the dialect. Most Spanish speakers frequently use the diminutive to indicate the smallness or cuteness of something, so that, e.g., chica (“small”) becomes chiquita (“tiny”). Particularly small or cute things are indicated with a double diminutive, e.g. chiquitita (“itsy-bitsy”). In Costa Rica, the double diminutive is rendered chiquitica. The closest I can come to rendering the sense of it into English would be “nice and,” as in “the water is nice and cool.” (“El agua está fresquitica.”)

In practice, I’ve only heard the “-tico” from the older generation, and only way out in the countryside. City dwellers speak a more globalized Spanish. (The disappearance of “-tico” reminds me in a way of the vanishing “deah” on the coast of Maine. That’s “dear,” for the non-Mainers out there. When I was young it was not at all uncommon to hear “that be all, deah?” at the hardware store or “more coffee, deah?” at the diner. These days it seems to be the province of blue-haired ladies.) Be that as it may, the “-tico” example only scratches the surface of the idiosyncrasies of Costa Rican Spanish.

Another peculiarity of Costa Rican Spanish—and it may be just this region, but I think it is more general—is an odd habit of putting a “sh” sound at the end of words that end in R, and exaggerating the R. For example, the common term of endearment mi amor (my love) becomes mi amorrsh, or the common phrase va a llover (it’s going to rain) becomes va a lloverrsh.

A Colombian friend complained, only half in jest, that Costa Ricans are impoverishing the Spanish language. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s true that there are a great number of words here that refer to broad categories. For instance, any plant can be called a mata, and any animal can be called a bicho (the word carries none of the raunchy connotations that it apparently bears in Puerto Rico). Any small object, especially a part of a mechanical apparatus, can be called a chunche. Anything bad or unpleasant is feo (literally “ugly”), and anything good, delicious, or pleasant is rico (literally “rich”). This afternoon a friend of mine, one of the field workers, was reminiscing about afternoons spent on the river. “¡Que rico es pescar!” he said. How rich it is to fish. Learning these five words—mata, bicho, chunche, feo and rico—will put you well on the road to talking like a tico.

Though much of Costa Rican slang seems designed to streamline the vocabulary, the dialect here is full of metaphor and metonymies. Mosquitoes, as in much of Latin America, are called zancudos (“long-legged ones”). A catfish is a barbudo (“bearded one.”) Some of the expressions are delightful—I recently learned that the accepted term for the valve on a bike wheel is el gusano (literally “worm” or “caterpillar”).

No discussion of Costa Rican Spanish would be complete without the epithet of choice: hue puta, short for hijo de puta (“S.O.B.”). In the speech of the younger generation, it appears with great frequency: “¡Hue puta más feo! Va a lloverrsh.”

And no discussion of hue puta would be complete without the word that nearly always follows it: mae. Roughly equivalent to dude, it’s a word you’d never hear from anyone over thirty. The derivation is rather uncertain, but from the way it’s used and the pronunciation I would hazard a guess that it came from the surfers’ “man!” (One odd feature of mae is that women almost never say it. I get some dispensation, being a foreign woman, but I’ve had people look askance at me for saying it.)

“Mae, estaba en el bosque buscando matas y un bicho me picó.”

“¡Hue puta, mae!”

Then there’s the catch-all expression: pura vida (“pure life”). It is appropriate to every situation. There is even a bath soap, commonly found in hotels in San José, of the Pura Vida brand.

“How are you?”

“¡Pura vida!”


“¡Pura vida!”

“Do you mind if I smoke?”

“¡Pura vida!”

“What’s your opinion on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff?”

“¡Pura vida!”

The best use of pura vida, hands down, came from a guy named Rigo. He’s the greatest field assistant at La Selva—tireless, cheerful, smart, and super-accurate with a crossbow (for getting leaf samples out of tall trees, not repelling barbarians, but if I ever have to repel barbarians I hope I’ll have Rigo at my side). He goes out into the field all day with nothing but a Coke bottle full of coffee and a pack of cigarettes, and he does the work of three people. I could go on and on with Rigo stories… He and Kelly were way out at the back of La Selva this summer collecting plants when a terrific thunderstorm rolled in. A lightning bolt hit a tree perhaps a hundred meters away from them. Kelly said she crouched down in a ball and whimpered, but Rigo danced around in the rain yelling, “¡pura vida!” Pure life indeed. Beats the alternative.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Something Fun

It’s good to count some herpetologists among your friends—far better, at any rate, than counting them among your enemies! At lunch today, Dennis said to me and Maike, “hey, I’ve got something fun back at the lab. You should come take a look.”

We exchanged glances. Here at La Selva, “something fun” can be anything from a giant harlequin beetle to an unidentified scrap of dead animal. (There’s one of those preserved in ethanol on a shelf in the new lab. It’s been there for months now, and there is still no consensus on whether it’s a nose or a sphincter.)

“I found it out by the swamp,” he said, to pique our curiosity. “It really stank up my backpack on the way home.”

“Dead or alive?” Maike asked him.

He flashed the Dennis Smile, the one that has gotten him the nickname “Ojos Dulces.”

“You’ll just have to come and see.”

Well, a picture is worth a thousand words. I still have no idea how he got the thing into his backpack.

Herpetologist and friend.
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

Distinguished-looking fellow, isn't he?
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

Llega la lluvia

Station fees—the cost of living, eating, and working here—are highly reduced in the months of September, October, and November. Oddly enough, so is the number of people on the station. Well, in the past few weeks I’ve had an opportunity to find out why. It’s the rainy season. It is one thing to have an intellectual grasp of that statement— yes, this is the rainforest, it rains here—and it is quite another thing to wake up to the sound of rain beating on a metal roof and fall asleep to the same sound; to work in the rain, day in and day out, seeing your skin go colorless and pruned from so much water; to watch the river turn from a placid green stream to a raging mud-colored torrent carrying small trees and the occasional dead cow. (OK, I didn’t actually see the dead cow, but I have it on good authority that there was one!) The past two days, Bess and I couldn’t even go to the field because the river was threatening to overflow its banks. The site where we work is pretty far uphill, so it wouldn’t have been underwater, but the STR runs very close to the river in places and we easily could have been stranded out at the back of the station by floodwaters. Not to mention that sketchy little creek crossing at the back of the LEP, which was well over our boots the last time we did it, and is probably a river crossing by now…

Among the various unpleasantnesses of the rainy season, there’s the propensity of fungus to sprout everywhere. I noticed that the varnish on the walls of my cabina is not nearly as glossy as it once was. I had thought it was a trick of the washed-out, rainy light, but a few nights ago I realized that parts of the walls looked fuzzy by the light if my headlamp. Through a handlens (which, like any good botany geek, I keep handy at all times), the fuzz revealed itself to be composed of cute little fungal fruiting bodies. I never knew that fungus could subsist on varnish. You learn something every day, I guess! And the walls are not the only thing that molds— I have already mentioned the Reverse Freckle Fungus. One friend has also contracted the Freckle Fungus as well; unfortunately they are not canceling each other out.

Despite the rain, the small and hardy group of researchers still at the station manages to find ways to stay entertained. As we came back from dinner last night, huddled under our umbrellas, we paused at the end of the bridge to check the water level in the river. There are three depth gauges on the bank: one graduated in meters (now underwater), one in feet (a relic from the non-metric days, also underwater), and one, further up the bank, that’s merely painted green, yellow, and then red.

“Oh dear,” Ellen said—Ellen, the diminutive, soft-spoken, unfailingly polite German bat researcher. “Now the water is on the Shit Stick!”

Indeed, the river was about a meter below the yellow zone on the pole that most of us call the “oh-shit stick” (though I think I might start using Ellen’s appelation). The flood crested somewhere in the middle of the yellow, late last night. People staying in the River Station were roused from their beds a few minutes before midnight and relocated to the tourist cabins on the far side of the river.

This morning dawned like a small miracle, almost sunny. Apparently the tropical depression that has hung around the lower part of Central America this week like a drippy white scarf is finally beginning to dissipate. Of course, today Bess is out of town, meeting her boyfriend at the airport. So here I am, entering data and doing office work on the first decent day in weeks. On Monday, when Bess is due back, another low-grade storm system is also expected. C’est la vie.

I wrote to Matt to complain about the rain. “Demasiada lluvia!” I told him. “Lluvia too,” he wrote back.

A small postscript to the fleidermausscheißegesammelnung: with some trepidation, I told Maike about the growl in the bushes. She laughed long and hard. “Oh, that! That scared me too, a few times. You know what it is? Traffic!”

I was skeptical, but sure enough, the bat house is right across the river from a curve in the highway and a reduced speed zone. In the daytime, it was perfectly obvious that the “growl” was the jake brakes of occasional banana trucks. Had I but known!

Friday, November 04, 2005


It’s been a quiet week at La Selva. The rainy season has finally arrived, bringing three straight days of drizzle with intermittent downpours. Even fresh from the dryer, all my clothes have a faint mildew odor. My boots I won’t describe.

Bess is is Nicaragua to get a visa extension— it’s less of a hassle to travel out of the country for the required three days than it is to visit the proper offices in San José. She and Maike (the other member of the La Selva Bauhaus tribute band) wanted to go together, so I promised to help with Maike’s data collection while they were away.

Collection of what? you might ask. Well, something that not many people would be interested in collecting. Not to put to fine a point on it, bat shit. There is a German research team that has been studying a colony of bats (Saccopteryx bilineata) for many years. They have long-term records on the genetics and behavior of this particular colony, and they are using the droppings to study the annual cycle of hormone levels. Someone has to go out at twilight every day, after the bats have left their perches, and collect their crap in Eppendorf tubes. Yesterday evening that person happened to be me.

At half past five, as the shadows thickened under the canopy, I biked down the wide concrete trail. Following Maike’s instructions, I found a muddy side trail about 800 meters out. It led to a clearing with a dilapidated, Blair-Witch-style sort of abandoned house, prominently marked with “Keep Out” signs in three languages. Four, if you count the overpowering odor of cat pee that emanated from the inside room.

Before Maike left, she’d warned me that there were signs of some large cat— puma or jaguar, probably— hanging out around the bat house. At the time, I’d thought, cool! I’d love to see a big cat in the wild. As I stood there in the gathering dark, armed with nothing but forceps and a fanny pack full of Eppendorf tubes, it suddenly seemed less cool. Very far from cool, in fact. OK, I told myself. Maike does this every day. Be a big girl.

A quick peek showed that the rooms were empty, except for a few spiders. I took a deep breath, for several reasons, and stepped into the bat house. Aside from the cat pee smell (and the annoying tendency of the samples to stick to the forceps) it really wasn’t all that bad. I moved a stepladder around, labeling Eppendorf tubes and collecting bat dung, reflecting that I was probably one of a very small number of people in the world engaged in such a task at that moment.

And then, as I perched on the top rung of the ladder to get a sample from the rafters, I heard something in the bushes outside. A cough? A growl? I froze. Whatever it was, I didn’t hear it again. Just the rain dripping off the roof, the frogs and night birds and insects in the trees. (Matt said one of the things that struck him about the rainforest was how much it sounded like it’s supposed to. It’s true, there’s an element of authenticity in all those “jungle noises” you hear in the movies. Weird hoots and buzzings and warbles.)

I decided that if there was anything out there, it would be best to make my presence known. As I labeled the rest of the tubes and picked up the bat pellets from the far wall of the room, I sang the first thing that came to mind— “Babylon is Fallen,” which for some odd reason was a family campfire favorite. Between lines of the song, I kept up a running commentary:

Hail the day so long expected (get in there, little bat poop!)

Hail the year of full release

Zion’s walls are now erected (oh, no, you don’t! Come back here!)

and her watchmen publish peace…

At this point I was almost entirely certain that I was the only person in the world, all six-point-something billion of us, collecting bat shit and singing “Babylon is Fallen.” That thought was oddly comforting, and it kept me up there on the ladder. My handwriting on those samples, though, is pretty darn shaky.

There are a number of reasons that I study plants. Yesterday evening I was reminded of a few more. They’re out during the day, they don’t poop, and they’re not likely to try to eat you while your back is turned.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Drippy Halloween

Halloween in the jungle. What could be better? Halloween in the jungle with homemade brownies and mixed drinks, that's what. Since the actual holiday fell on a Monday, nominally a work day for most of us, we celebrated on Saturday night. Maike and Bess (armed with the world's ugliest cocktail dress) decided to go as the British post-punk sensations Bauhaus. I think the bat ornament had something to do with their decision (see the guy on the far right, or Maike's duct-tape rendition thereof). Maike is a research assistant for a German professor who's studying bat behavior.

As for me—well, it was five minutes before the party was supposed to start, and I still had no idea how to put a costume together. As I walked from the dining hall back to my cabina, I mulled over my usual costumes of the past: from age six to ten, a cat, in a black leotard, a headband with ears, and a tail my mother made out of yarn. No leotard, no ears, no tail. Thereafter, when I felt like dressing up, a gypsy, in layers of multi-colored skirts and lots of costume jewelry. On one memorable occasion, Darth Maul. OK, I have to admit, Star Wars has been kind of a theme. Last year, in another desperation costume, I went as Pricess Leia—my hair was long enough to do the earmuff style, so all I needed was some clunky jewelry and a little white dress. (When I was very young, five or so, and all the neighborhood kids played Star Wars, I always wanted to be the princess. But that role went to my older sister Lucy, much prettier and better suited to being a princess, while I was relegated to the part of R2-D2. I probably did a decent job at it, trundling around after all the older kids and complaining.) But this Halloween—a new haircut precluded the Princess Leia fallback plan…

Three minutes before the party was supposed to get going, as I walked up the path to my cabina, several interesting things caught my eye. The first was a newly unfolded leaf of Carludovica sulcata (Cyclanthaceae, for the plant geeks among my readers; check it out at the La Selva Digital Flora page). Its four-part leaf was folded with tiny ridges like a fan, and it made a striking design in the light of my headlamp. The second thing that caught my eye was a giant leaf of Philodendron radiatum (Araceae) that had been chewed by leaf cutter ants (Atta sp.; last Latin name for a while, I promise), leaving only the veins. The wheels in my head began turning. In about ten minutes, using nothing more than a sarong, several hair ties, my headlamp, and two leaves, I transformed myself into Queen Amidala. It would have been better with a bit of face paint, but for a last-minute costume it really wasn't bad. The only unfortunate thing is that the philodendron leaf dripped its sap all over the back of my neck, and a slight rash is developing. (At first I thought it was the dreaded Reverse Freckle Fungus, some kind of skin fungus which has struck several of my compatriots as the rainy season kicks into high gear, producing pale spots on the neck and shoulders. But this rash seems to be going away on its own.)

On Halloween proper, Bess and I celebrated in true La Selva style—lugging all our gear into the field, getting poured on for hours, and sliding back down the muddy trail towards rice and beans, showers, and bed.

I'm going to start calling the water cooler R2.
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

Bauhaus rocks La Selva.
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

Monkeys on the bridge!
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

Ready for his close-up.
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

Prince Charming, in the jungle, with the freakish green clown pants.
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher