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, July 30, 2006

Good news

I am reunited at last with my luggage. Thus ends the Great Undergarment Shortage of 2006.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Saturday afternoon with crocodile

What do tropical ecologists do for fun on a Saturday afternoon? Well, if it happens to be a bright and pleasant Saturday like today, with the river low and the thunderheads stacked up but not yet spilling over in the slow hot hour after lunch, tropical ecologists are known to go crocodile hunting.

Dennis, aka Señor Culebra, was our guide on the croc hunting expedition. He’s a herpetologist whose research involves capturing fer-de-lances (the most dangerous snake in Central America, fatalities-wise) and surgically implanting radios into them so he can track their movement patterns in the field. He’s been at La Selva for nearly two years now, enough to warp anybody—though, like the rest of us, I imagine Dennis was somewhat warped even before he got here.

Before last year, crocodiles hadn’t been seen at La Selva since the early 90s. There used to be a tradition of floating down the river on truck inner tubes, from the abandoned house on the Sendero Oriental to the River Station. Well, Dennis and Marcía went floating last summer, on a hot, bright afternoon not unlike today, and they came around a bend in the river next to the place traditionally called Crocodile Beach. Dennis said he heard Marcía shouting something. He looked up just in time to see the rear end of a giant crocodile sliding into the murky water perhaps twenty meters away. They swam like hell for the bank and walked back to the station. Floating has been curtailed considerably since then.

Through some gap in my education, I mistakenly believed that crocodiles were exclusively found in the Old World. But there are actually four crocodilian species in the New World: the giant Orinoco crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius), two smaller Carribean species (C. moreletii and C. rhombifer), and the one that concerns us here, the American crocodile (C. acutus). Found from South America all the way up to Florida, they can grow to more than three meters long (and as Dennis said, indicating the girth with both arms, “too big for me to hug.”)

After lunch this afternoon, Dennis led us (me and a few other students and researchers) across the yard of the family houses at the far edge of the station, over a barbed wire fence, and across a muddy pasture. At the edge of the trees by the river, he halted. “You’ve got to be quiet,” he warned. “He may be a giant three-meter crocodile, but he’s a sissy. If you’re too loud, he’s outta there... Good, no cows on the beach. I think he’s scared of cows, too.” He went ahead, and then looked back with the unmistakable grin of a herpetologist who’s just sighted something large, fierce, and capable of doing him in. He beckoned to us.

I didn’t see it at first. And then, on the far bank, a shape materialized against the contours of gray sand and brown-green water. Scaly, broad, enormous, the exact color of the silt-laden river, he lay on the bank halfway out of the water. I was very happy to be on the opposite side of the river. He was at least three meters long—and quick, too. One of us made a sound, and the crocodile looked up towards us, lurched forward, and vanished beneath the water with barely a ripple.

Sara and I had been planning to go swimming this afternoon (at Playa Zampopa, a good kilometer downriver from crocodile beach). But after our close encounter, and after hearing that the croc had been sighted a few times at Zampopa as well, suddenly the water wasn’t quite so attractive. We contented ourselves with throwing rotten guavas to the machacas, frugivorous fish that are cousins to piranhas. A large school of them near the suspension bridge makes the water boil when you toss down any likely-looking scrap.

So next time you wonder what the tropical ecologists are up to on a Saturday afternoon, you’ll have the answer. Actually, most Saturdays we are engaged in much less pleasant activities, such as data entry or—my job for the rest of this afternoon—cleaning the office. And the lucky few of us, such as myself, who flew American Airlines recently, are also engaged in the task of trying to reach Baggage Services and find out whether our bags are even in the country yet...

Green Lake Park, Kunming.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

This is for my mother, who photographs manhole covers wherever she goes. Hey, some of them are really neat.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Mangos and ducklings at a market in Mengla. H5N1, anybody?
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Rice paddies and a shrine.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Tropical montane rain forest in Xishuangbanna.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

A temple in a mountain village. We found a really cool phasmid (stick insect) on those Heliconia flowers.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Fruit vendors in a Dai village. Some of them don't look too happy to see so many tourists.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Here's one for the plant geeks: Robin photographs Tacca chantrieri, a really weird understory plant in the Taccaceae. New family for both of us. Check out the brown tiger-whisker flower in the middle of the picture.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Market scene in Menglun.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

"Fine spring day person as before, life still appeal shore however." Your guess is as good as mine.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

I always do.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Yes, I really was in China: the entrance to the Bamboo Temple, Kunming.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Friday, July 28, 2006

The far side of the world

Well, I am finally back in Costa Rica after the annual meeting of the ATBC (Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation) in Kunming, China. The local time here is 1:32 pm, but for me it feels like the middle of the night. If there is one word that sums up the experiences of the past week, it would be “overwhelming.” I’m glad I went on this trip, but I’m also glad it will be a good long time before I travel anywhere again.

My China trip began with three days in limbo. I was supposed to fly out on Saturday morning, July 15th, but the flight was canceled and the earliest they could send me out was Tuesday. I went to the airport every morning at quarter past four, just in case. The rest of the day I spent in the weirdly aseptic world of the Hampton Inn Alajuela and Denny’s Restaurant (the only place, sadly, where airline meal vouchers were accepted. I think I had every vegetarian thing on the menu there at least twice.). Aside from the few words of Spanish on the revolving sign for the rental car companies across the street, there was nothing to remind me that I was still in Costa Rica. I did manage to get some work done, at least—I have seldom been in a place with so few distractions.

On Tuesday, I finally managed to leave Costa Rica, only to find that the rest of my flight reservation had not actually been updated as promised. To make a long story short, I had to buy a new ticket from Miami to China, at a cost upwards of $2000. To emphasize the moral of the story, don’t fly American Airlines. (I am attempting to get my money back. I’ll keep you posted.)

Thursday morning—or on what passed for Thursday morning in that part of the world—I arrived in the bewildering bustle of Kunming, China. The echoing open space of the airport terminal was crowded with people and luggage, and vendors selling fruit and mushrooms and bits of unidentifiable dried things in bags. I was the tallest person in the room by several decimeters. The signs around the room were all in Chinese, aside from some haphazard English phrases which my jet-lagged brain found somewhat poetic: BAG RECLAIMAGE and RUBBISH RECEPTACLE and, outside of customs, DONOT STAY HERE LINGERING. Without knowing any Chinese beyond “hello” and “thank you,” I managed to find an ATM, get money, and get a taxi to the hotel.

ATBC was my first international scientific conference. I had hoped to arrive under better circumstances, but I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I just barely had time to splash water onto my face, change into more acceptable clothes, and throw on some makeup to look a little less zombie-like, before I headed to Meeting Room D for the session that my advisor and I were scheduled to co-chair: Plant Diversity and Functioning in Forest Ecosystems. A very fast two hours later, fueled by caffeine and Advil (thanks, Robin!) I was standing at the podium myself to present my research on the diversity and structure of regenerating forests in Costa Rica. My talk was pretty well-received, though a professor later commented to me that I looked “exhausted but determined.” That about summed it up.

The conference passed far too fast. I wish I could have been there for the whole thing—I missed many of the talks I had hoped to see, and I never met some of the people I’d been hoping to get to know. I did get to see a wide range of talks, on everything from the breeding systems of tropical forest trees in southwest China to the importance of cryptic species for conservation. In the evenings, we were treated to lavish banquets. Being a vegetarian, I missed out on some of the more esoteric dining experiences: smoked cow stomach, a soup of tiny fish with their heads still on, and a platter of chicken feet (apparently you bite them off at the knuckles).

One of the greatest surprises of the conference was the chance to re-connect with my friend Simon, whom I hadn’t seen since I graduated from college six years ago. A few days before I left for this trip, a mutual friend emailed us both to let me know that Simon’s living in Kunming and teaching English, and to let him know I was coming (thanks, Emily!). Simon showed up at my talk, looking happier and somehow younger than he had in college. He’s as thoughtful and engaging as ever. Right now he is studying the history of Chinese script, and some of the parallels he’s found between Eastern and Western symbology are truly staggering. He said he’s met a lot of people who, like himself, came to China for a short stint and then found it impossible to leave. I can understand the draw of it: the intellectual challenge of a culture, language, and writing system that seem on the surface so distinct from our own. When I’m presented with a huge amount of consistently organized information that I can’t fathom, my first instinct is to work and work until I do understand it... I guess that’s why I study tropical ecology.

Through Simon, I was able to get a closer look at life in modern China. We took a bus across Kunming to have lunch with his friend Zhou. As the bus sped past throngs of bicyclists and concrete high-rises, I remarked to Simon how nice it was to see parks and grassy open spaces in the city. He made an ambivalent face. “A month ago, these were probably marketplaces. The government is bulldozing the unofficial shops in the name of modernization. The thing is, a lot of these shops were also people’s houses. So now they have no livelihood, and no home.”

I hadn’t seen many homeless people on the streets. “Where do they go?”

“Most of them go back to the country. If they’re lucky, their relatives still have farmland and they can work there. The population of China is still about 70% rural.”

We passed another park with banks of flowers and bright green grass. “It is pretty,” he admitted. “But whenever I find something that seems unequivocally good about Chinese society, I almost always find another side to it.”

Zhou is a woman in her late forties or early fifties, living with her mother and three cats in a small apartment on a side street. Simon had explained on the way over that her father had been imprisoned as a counter-revolutionary, and her family had been ostracized ever since. She makes ends meet by teaching Chinese to foreign students. Zhou brought out strong bitter tea and bowl after bowl of delicious vegetables and tofu, and we shared small talk and travel stories. I wondered what kind of society would marginalize a woman like her—intelligent, perceptive, kind, witty—for something her father had done forty years ago. I wondered what it was, exactly, that he’d done: criticized the government? Refused to rat on a neighbor? Expressed an independent thought? But I didn’t ask. We stayed with safe topics.

After lunch Simon gave Zhou a small package of tea and told her, “I brought you two presents today. I want you to hear Susan play the piano.” I was thrilled, but a little embarrassed—it’s been months (well, nearly two months) since I’ve touched a keyboard. Zhou ushered us into the next room, and I played a few pieces by Chopin and Brahms. At first I stumbled through, but after a few minutes the music worked its familiar and inexplicable magic. I have never felt so clearly that music is a universal language, touching the core of joy and sadness we all carry, as I did in Zhou’s tiny apartment on a side street in Kunming.

In the four days following the ATBC conference, I went on a tour of the Xishuangbanna region of southern Yunnan with a group of scientists. Xishuangbanna (which I finally learned to pronounce on the fourth day there) is a name that sounds like it should mean something lovely and mysterious, like “Land Between the Rivers” or “Jade Mountain.” The actual translation is something like “confederacy of 24 sub-regions.” Bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, southern Yunnan is the only truly tropical region of China. It looks tropical, too, with red laterite soils staining the rivers, and dark overhanging banks of viny forest. There are groves of bananas, papayas, and oranges, but also flat green rice paddies in the valleys and terraced tea plantations on the higher mountains. The fragments of natural forest—few and far between—are stunningly similar to the forests I’ve come to know in the Neotropics. There’s a huge amount of overlap in the families present, and even some genera that occur in both areas. When I think about how long it’s been since these forests were contiguous, it’s really breathtaking.

One of the advertised tourist attractions in Xishuangbanna is the number of minority villages there. Unlike other parts of China, which are almost all Han Chinese, Xishuangbanna has something like 20 different government-recognized ethnic groups. Having thought about it for a while now, I’m still not sure how I feel about minority villages being a tourist attraction. How would I feel if a tour bus pulled up in my back yard and people started taking pictures of my front porch? (Well, to be fair, growing up surrounded by a national park, I did have a fair number of tour buses come through my town. But people were there for the scenery, not for the quaint local culture. I think.) The tours provide local people with a livelihood and provide the tourists—us—with a chance to see what life is like in rural China (the short answer: full of chickens). It was amazing to wander through markets where cell phones and mp3 players were sold next to mounds of pickled vegetables and cages of live ducklings. I felt embarrassed, though, when our tour guide led us through the back streets and started asking people if we could look inside their houses. It seems like such an intrusion. The most uncomfortable part of the trip, for me, was a visit to a theme park dedicated to the various nationalities in the region. It felt like a human zoo, or a freak show: look at these people in their little white hats! Aren’t they cute? And these people are fierce. Watch them eat raw meat... Parts of it were unexpectedly magical: the teenagers from a hill tribe who sang a compelling, discordant song; the unguarded smiles of the old women with heavy silver discs in their extended earlobes. Mostly it was just strange and awkward. I felt handicapped by my inability to communicate, but it seemed like communication was not the point of the enterprise: it was more about titillation than understanding.

Food in the countryside was even more various and surprising than the banquets in Kunming. Chicken soup was a common entrée, with every part of the chicken included. One unfortunate fellow bit down on a chicken head before he realized quite what it was. The soup contained other things, too; one of our traveling companions commented, upon unearthing a lump of grayish meat with fibrous strings attached, “this kidney is clearly mammalian.” Whole fish were a common feature of our meals as well, with their gaping heads watching reproachfully. I did find plenty to eat, though: cabbage, celery, carrots, corn, and a host of unfamiliar vegetables, almost always fried and heavily salted. (One of the professors on the trip was involved in compiling an online atlas of famine food plants. He said the comments on about 80% of them are “found in China. Prepared with oil and salt.”)

Overall, the trip was an amazing experience. The flight back was (thankfully) uneventful, aside from a random security check, an equally random and unexplained first class upgrade, and the nearly inevitable loss of my luggage. It had better arrive soon, because I am down to two pairs of undies...

Back in Costa Rica

Just a quick note for my readers (all 3 of you), to let you know I arrived in Costa Rica yesterday evening after 38 hours of travel. My luggage, unfortunately, did not. I am jet-lagged as all hell and completely out of clean underwear. The mission for today: do laundry and stay awake. My trip to China was phenomenal and overwhelming, and I will post more about it when I get a chance. Hasta luego...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Why I hate flying

It’s not flying I hate so much, actually, it’s the whole process surrounding it: you wait in lines, herded this way and that like cattle, hoping that the flimsy pieces of paper you carry and the giant steel behemoths out the window will be sufficient to get you to your final destination. Well, in this case they weren’t. I was scheduled to fly out at 7:09 this morning, but after I stood in various lines from 5 am to 4 pm, the best they could do was to put me on a flight that leaves Tuesday morning. I’ll arrive (si dios quiere) at 11 am Thursday—only two days into the three-day conference, and a whole four hours before I’m scheduled to give my talk! In the meantime, I’m enjoying the best that the Hampton Inn Alajuela has to offer: a view of the freeway and complimentary meals at Denny’s. At least there is internet here, and an almost-comfortable desk. Being a grad student, I always have work to do. But anybody who’s on Messenger in the next few days and wishes to relieve the tedium, please don’t hesitate.

Soundtrack for a week in the jungle

Monday, 4:38 pm. “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” (John Adams) The back border of La Selva is about 150 meters higher than the area around the labs, and the part of the Sendero Jaguar that’s paved for bikes crunches its way through the better part of that elevation gain in a little over a kilometer. It’s a long, grinding uphill in the morning, and a thrill ride on the way home. Usually when I’m not burdened with much gear, my strategy is to keep a light seat in case I need to bail on the slippery curve where the leaf-cutter ant nest overflows onto the concrete. Monday afternoon I was carrying two enormous garbage bags of plant samples—and the pole cutter. This evil contraption (and it is evil; I have the scars to prove it) is an extendable metal pole that reaches up to about 10 m to cut branches I wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. It collapses down to two meters long, short enough to carry on a bike. If you’re crazy, like me. The best way I’ve found to deal with it is to pass the end through one of my backpack straps, lash the cutter head to the handlebars, and pray. Bailing is out of the question. Well, fortunately some deity must have listened, because the rain had washed away enough of the leaf-cutter nest that the trail was clear, and I got to the bottom of the hill in one piece. Very quickly.

Tuesday, 5:56 am. “Try Not To Breathe” (R.E.M.) My friend Alex, a red-haired British woman who is (not without reason) nicknamed “La Loca,” is a plant physiologist. She’s studying how temperature and drought affect plant metabolism, in a series of complex and delicate experiments that always seem to run from 5 am until well after supper. (She also spent a good part of last summer working at a site that was an 8-hr hike from the nearest road, but that’s another story.) The latest experiment involves very precise carbon dioxide measurements on the leaves of drought-stressed plants. The station being packed to capacity, and all the lab space being spoken for, the only place where La Loca could conduct this experiment was underneath Cabina 1, where I happen to live. So, following her adamant instructions, as I walk downstairs on my way to breakfast every morning, past the table covered with plants, tubing, lights, extension cords, and instruments resembling spare parts from the Death Star, I try not to breathe.

Wednesday, 7:25 am – 4:31 pm. “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (who sings that, anyway?) Yes, in fact, raindrops keep falling on just about every part of me. I am reminded of a day a few years ago, the first summer that I spent at La Selva, when I was way out at the back of the station with Pablo (another grad student in my advisor’s lab). It started to pour. I must have looked kind of glum, because Pablo looked back at me and said, “we’re having a rainforest experience. People pay lots of money for this.” I try to keep those words in mind when I stop for the fourth time to dump my brim-full boots.

Thursday, 8:49 pm. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” (Radiohead) As I was getting my laundry out of the dryer—sap-stained t-shirts, colorful sarongs, four pairs of pants with permanent red mud-stains—I noticed something sinuous and shiny moving across the laundry room floor. At first I thought it was a snake, but the shape and the movement were all wrong. It was blunt-ended and seemingly headless, and moved in more of a spiral undulation than a slither. More than anything else, it looked like a giant blue earthworm. An earthworm—as I looked closer—with teeth. It took a few seconds for my brain to dredge up the word: caecilian. A family of eyeless, legless, subterranean amphibians, apparently common in the Neotropics but rarely seen. They don’t come aboveground very often. Maybe the rain brought it out. Up close, it was gorgeous. The ring-shaped scales circling its body were dark blue and faintly iridescent, shading to a lighter blue at the margin. I was suddenly reminded of a conversation with Steven, a herpetology grad student who’s settling in for a long stay at the station. He was recounting a memorable talk at the last Herp Society meeting: Herps in Space. Apparently a professor had gotten funding to go up in the zero-G airplane (“vomit comet”) with a bunch of different herps to see how they reacted to the absence of gravity. Apparently most of them scrambled around trying to grab something. The caecilians just sat there. (“Yeah, they were pretty chill,” Steven recounted. “I guess gravity is not a big part of their worldview.”) It’s amazing, the variety of creatures we share this planet with.

Friday, 6:05 am... to the tune of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” all together now: A mí me gusta la cafeína (dame más cafeína!), a mí me’ncanta la cafeína (dame más cafeína!)...

Saturday, 7:09 am. “I’ll Fly Away” (traditional; I like Alison Krause’s version). Actually, considering that I don’t have internet access at the moment, by the time I post this I will have flown away already. I’m headed for the ATBC conference (Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation) in Kunming, China. It doesn’t seem quite real yet, even though I’ve just gone over my talk for the umpteenth time, and I’m sitting here writing this in a little hostel right beside the airport in Alajuela, with planes roaring past just overhead. This will be my first international scientific meeting, and I have to say, you can’t get much more international than that. It’s literally on the other side of the world. Thanks to all my funding agencies (UCONN, NSF, and the Ronald Bamford Endowment)!