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.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

'Tis the Season

‘Tis the season... As the rain pours down outside, making a gauzy gray screen between my windows and the nearby wall of forest, it’s hard to remember that December is half gone. The only reminders are the strings of Christmas lights on all the houses in Puerto Viejo, and the neon Santa in the window of the bar down the road. Otherwise, life continues apace: the forest in its myriad colors of green, everything scrambling for the light; peccaries scrounging for fallen fruit in the lab clearing; the river swelling and shrinking with the rains upstream. It’s hard to believe that in just two days I’ll be leaving La Selva, and in a scant few more I fly back to Connecticut. Today I’m braving the AC without a fleece on in order to prepare myself for the rigors of the temperate zone.

It’s been nearly a month since I managed to post anything here. Finishing my fieldwork and data entry took priority over everything—even sleep. The other day Bess came to find me when I wasn’t at supper. I’d fallen asleep at the keyboard in the middle of data entry and typed 400 pages of Ls with my nose. At least I didn’t drool on the keyboard! Now at last my final seedling is tagged, my final plant specimen is boxed up, and the final page of data is safely on my computer and backed up in three places. I should be packing, but there’s only so much packing that I can take before my brain rebels. I’d rather be writing this, and so I am.

Thanksgiving is long past. The La Selva Thanksgiving feast deserves mention, though—ticos sure know how to celebrate, even imported holidays. Apparently it’s been a tradition here for many years, since a large fraction of the scientists here are from the U.S. Each year it gets slightly grander. This year’s feast far exceeded the rumors I’d heard. On the night of the 24th, the path to the comedor was marked with more tiki torches than I’d ever seen assembled in one place. Under the torchlight, there were tables groaning under the weight of roasted turkeys, potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, corn, fresh bread, various extravagantly garnished salads, cold cuts, and cheeses. There was even cranberry sauce, flown in from who knows where, and a local approximation of pumpkin pie. During the dinner, Eduardo (the head security guard) and his assistants lit fireworks down in the parking lot. Through the light rain and torch smoke, roman candles left glowing streaks of red and green in the air, and showers of crinkling sparks rained down, winking out just before they touched the ground. Afterwards a bunch of the young researchers instituted a new tradition: Thankey-oke. Like karaoke (well, technically, it is karaoke), but on Thanksgiving. We certainly weren’t as accomplished at entertaining as the La Selva staff, but at one point we did get everybody in the bar on their feet, dancing and singing along to “Satisfaction.”

The Thanksgiving feast was only a prelude to the La Selva Christmas celebration, an annual fete that a co-worker described as “the wildest office party you’ll ever hope to see.” Buses carried all of us, researchers, field assistants, and office workers, to Los Portones, a bar/restaurant several kilometers down the road in Chilamate. The party was out behind the restaurant in a building that resembled a converted aircraft hangar—but with a bar, a sound system loud enough to shake the roof beams of the building next door, and a pool. The evening began with a buffet dinner, not quite as elegant as the La Selva feast, but at Los Portones we also got three drinks on the house. I’d planned to limit myself to those three, but, well, people kept buying me beer and it seemed bad form to refuse it. Then somebody brought out a noxious but eminently drinkable formulation of guaro (the local white lightning), sugar, and fruit. The alcohol and the pounding rhythm of reggaeton made the whole building, not just the crowd on the dance floor, seem to pulsate. Suffice it to say that by the end of the evening (this being about 3:30 am) I was dancing in the pool. In the next few days, after people’s hangovers cleared up and the station got voluble again, a few people called me “sirena” (mermaid).

So yes, it’s been a happy holiday season, though decidedly unconventional. The best part of it, though, was that my mom and stepdad David were able to visit. They’re so full of life and wonder. Their presence was just the inspiration I needed when my work hit some stumbling blocks. They spent two weeks down here, managing to catch both fiestas, and helping me out enormously with my research. I thought that perhaps they’d spend a few days in the field and then head out to more touristy parts of the country. But bless their hearts, they worked for the entire two weeks. And it wasn’t the most pleasant work, either, by far— we were setting up four 5x100 m plots to measure seedling and sapling growth in young forest. It can hardly be called forest, at this point— more like a dense tangle of ferns, vines, and the occasional tree or shrub resilient enough to poke up through it. The word “jungle” comes from the Sanskrit jangala, meaning a wasteland or an uncultivated land. Young secondary forests fit the definition very nicely. Old-growth forests are surprisingly easy to walk through, but here we literally had to hack our way through with a machete just to get from place to place. There are not many people who work in areas like this, and with good reason. In the open ferny areas, the heat is intense. In the more forested parts, it seems that every other plant has spines, urticating hairs, or some other way to make one’s life miserable. Young secondary forests are also full of snakes, scorpions, and all manner of biting and stinging things. My mother and I both got stung on the finger by trap-jawed ants (genus Odontomachus), here called flacas (meaning “skinny”). It hurt like blazes all afternoon, though not as much as a bala sting, and then it itched for three days. David and Bess escaped from this fate, but Bess got a mysterious rash on her arms and David got a splinter so large that I had to pull it out with the needle-nosed pliers on my pocketknife.

In the midst of this uninviting habitat, I’m trying to measure the effects of lianas on tree and shrub seedlings. First we set up our plots, then we hacked the lianas out of half the area, and then we tagged and measured all the seedlings and saplings. Much, much, much easier said than done. After the first day out there, we all came back dripping with sweat and the dregs of sunscreen and bug repellent (both only marginally effective), and covered in mud. Fern spores, from the head-high stands of Nephrolepis, clung to our skin like fine brown dust. And we’d only laid out a quarter of the plots. I thought my mom and David would call it quits after a day like that. In fact, I was just about ready to call it quits myself. But their gentle encouragement was enough to get me back out there the next day. Working with them was always a joy—where I saw nothing but obstacles to get through, they would see the beauty of the light on the fern fronds, or the wings of a hovering dragonfly over the swamp. Without their help and their enthusiasm, I have no idea how I would have finished all my fieldwork on time.

My parents got the full La Selva experience: rice and beans, mud, rain, sun, swimming at Playa Zampopa (no crocodiles in evidence at the moment), mosquitoes, birdwatching, beer at the rocking chairs. There was even a large spider in their bathroom one night, and a snake (small boa constrictor, but still) discovered under a couch upon which they had recently been sitting.

As well as the fieldwork, my mom and David joined in the celebrations. They sang the first song at Thankey-oke— “Cecilia.” I remembered how, as a kid, I used to squirm with mortal embarassment whenever my mom started singing that song. What could be more humiliating than hearing your own oblivious mother, in the produce section of the supermarket picking out onions, loudly singing “...making love in the afternoon with Cecilia...”? But at Thankey-oke, she just made me proud. On the way back from the bar that night, Mahmoud said, “Susan, your parents are so awesome!” Everybody in the car agreed— especially me.

A few weeks ago Bess and I were talking about haircuts. She quoted an adage of her father’s: the difference between a bad haircut and a good one is about three weeks. I guess the difference between mortifying parents and awesome ones is about ten years. I’m so glad that I’ve gotten to know them as friends as well as role models, and I’m so thankful for all their help.

Well, it’s about to time close down my computer and finish packing the office. It occurs to me that this may be the last time I sit at this window, watching the raindrops stain the painted tin roof a darker green. Little colorful finches are hopping around in the Hamelia tree eating the purple berries, and a flock of parrots is devouring cacao pods in the forest across the walkway. I’ll be back here in June (si dios quiere, as they say here), but who knows where my office space will be next year. I’ve done a lot of writing and thinking in this little corner of La Selva, and I’ve gotten rather attached to it.

In a few days I’ll be back in the land of snow and ice, speaking nothing but English on a daily basis, wearing six layers of clothing just to step outside and shovel the driveway. Weird. I’ll keep posting occasionally to this site, though probably not as regularly as I have in the past few months. To all my readers— friends, family, and those who’ve just stumbled across my ramblings (welcome!)— I wish you a happy, healthy, and stress-free holiday season, inasmuch as such a thing is possible. Take good care.


At 1:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hola y bienvenidos a la zona tempuatura! it is 12degrees F. at mid-day and blowing a stiff 25 knots out of the northwest, and you know what that means!

muchias gracias para tu!!


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