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, June 30, 2006

I have only seen this sign deployed a few times. They mean it.
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher


Every morning as I cross the suspension bridge on the way to breakfast, I have a habit of checking the water color where the narrow Quebrada Surá flows into the river. When it’s raining in the mountains but not in the lowlands, the Surá is a clear green thread spilling into the red-brown. When it’s raining here and not in the mountains, the creek brings in billows of red mud to the jade-green river. This morning, the outlet of the Surá was an almost unrecognizable bay in a new coastline of tree crowns. I took an unwise detour back into the woods, and found the little creek flowing backwards with the force of the flood.

The rain started coming down like a fire hose from the sky about 5 AM yesterday, and it hasn’t let up for more than a few minutes since. The river is only a few meters below the suspension bridge, a roiling brown torrent carrying entire trees, and all the forest trails are closed. (With good reason—about 500 meters down the STR, the main bike trail to the back of the property, the water is apparently now chest-deep and swift. Trees are falling left and right.) The low-lying buildings have been evacuated. To get to the station now, you have to take a boat for about 100 meters of the entrance road. I just checked the weather satellite photos, and Costa Rica is the epicenter of a not-inconsiderable storm system moving up the Carribean. I guess we have more of this to look forward to.

Oddly, the atmosphere on-station is relaxed and almost festive. Nobody can really get any work done, since the forest is closed. It reminds me of snow days when I was a kid: a legitimate excuse to sleep in, read a good book, or, in this case, watch the World Cup finals nearly guilt-free. In a day or two when the river goes down, I’ll have to work double shifts to catch up for the lost time. At the moment, though, I’m happy to be on enforced break.

The river today.
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

Before the flood...
(c) 2005 S.G. Letcher

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Saludos de la macha más macha

I'm back at La Selva. It really doesn’t seem like six months have elapsed since I last awoke to the complaints of howler monkeys and breakfasted on rice and beans with hot sauce. Six months of classes, seminars, home cooking, sleet, New England rudeness; and here I am again in the jungle. It’s interesting how when you’re away from a place for a while, you forget the little details. The detail that’s coming back to me now, as the post-prandial metabolic dip sinks in, is that the coffee here tastes like coal tar but somehow contains almost no caffeine. At least, to judge from its lack of effects on my brain. Other details: the sound of rain on layers and layers of leaves, the pungent scent of rotting fruit from the fig trees in the lab clearing. Yesterday at the river, six green macaws winging across the open space in stately slow motion. There are perhaps a hundred pairs of them left on earth.

Many things have changed in my life since the last time I came here. The one change everybody notes is my hairstyle: shorter and blonder than it's been since I was about four years old. “Un nuevo look, Susan,” everyone says to me. “Se ve muy joven.”

“Macha” is the tico slang for a blond, or someone with hair at least verging on blond. Lots of people here go by nicknames based on their physical characteristics—I just learned last week that Gordo (“fat”)’s real name is Eduardo, and I still have no idea what Flaco (“skinny”)’s name is. I hear “macha” a lot while I’m walking down the sidewalk in town; also, unaccountably, “pelo de muñeca” (doll hair). I guess the dolls here must all be blond. On the whole, I prefer Macha. Last summer people at the research station called me “la macha grande,” or “the big blond.” This summer, there are three tall women here with blondish hair, so it’ll have to be something else. My office mate Yimen started calling me Susanita, but I learned that it’s the name of a Mexican cartoon character who is constantly searching for a husband. In revenge, I picked up his field assistant’s nickname for him: El Principesa (Princess). He’s studying the behavior of birds that follow army ant swarms, and his blind apparently bears a more-than-passing resemblance to a canopied princess bed. I think the name Susanita will vanish rapidly. Por ahora, soy “la macha más macha” (I am the blondest blond).

The field work is in full swing: hacking tunnels through young secondary forest, cataloguing the species there. This morning it was raining so hard that a steady stream of water poured off my nose onto the data sheet. Every few minutes I had to dump the water out of my boots. It’s great to be out there, though. There are so many things that most people never get a chance to see. A katydid that looked exactly like a dead leaf, down to the rot-holes along the edges, sat on my shoulder for a few minutes to wait out the rain, and a tiny iridescent green beetle tried to steal a bite of my banana at lunch. For all I know, they could have been species new to science. And it’s great to see the forest coming back. In today’s transect I found four Dipteryx panamensis trees. The species is important for the survival of the green macaw—Dipteryx is their preferred nest site and one of their major food sources—but because of its value as timber, it’s now a rare tree in most of Central America. I’ve found other endangered timber trees, too, though none in today’s site: Minquartia guianensis, or manú, a graceful tree with wood so hard and rot-resistant that I’ve seen 40-yr old logs in abandoned timber yards, looking as though they were cut yesterday. Lecythis ampla, a relative of the Brazil nut, with giant woody pods like ceramic vessels that give it the common name of olla de mono, or monkey pot. Hopefully, by documenting the presence of these species in young forests, I’ll be able to draw attention to the potential of these recovering ecosystems.

As well as field work, I’ve been participating in the local culture. This weekend was the grand finale of Expo Sarapiquí, a big regional festival complete with roller coaster rides, rodeos, greasy fried food, barns full of giant Zebu cattle on display, and the requisite sketchy-looking carnies along the midway. I spent most of my time in the Zona Imperial, a giant tent converted to a dance floor, sponsored by Costa Rica’s cheapest beer. I don’t know whether it was my height, my exotic macha-ness and blue eyes, or the skimpy outfit I was wearing (quite in keeping with the local fashions), but it seemed like half the crowd wanted to dance with me. The rest of them just wanted to buy me beer. It was fun but rather exhausting to be the center of attention. I spent most of Sunday recuperating.

Field station social life tends to be more sedate. There’s a porch at the corner of the Old Laboratory with rocking chairs and a hammock, generally known as the “Rincón de Vagos” (lazy people’s corner) where researchers and staff gather in the evening to drink and talk. The conversations range from the mundane to the highly specialized (are there any phytophagous Reduviids? The consensus, between myself, two herpetologists, and—more to the point—two entomologists: no). It’s a very geeky crowd here, needless to say. I fit right in. In a way, I feel more at home here now than I do in Connecticut. There, I was living alone in a big apartment full of memories. Here, I’m in the midst of the rain forest, with friends and companions from all over the globe, all of us working to discover some tiny part of the balance of nature. There is so much life here. The next six months are going to be a lot of fun.