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, August 20, 2006

Las matas me matan

For anyone who might be interested in visiting La Selva Biological Station, here is a truism to bear in mind: paths with “sendero” in their names are much, much nicer than ones with “lindero.” The linderos are the old borders of the station property, established before the acquisition of various annexes, and as such they cut boldly through the forest in straight lines with no regard for hydrology and topology. Principal among them is the LOC, the Lindero Occidental (“western border”), which now more or less bisects La Selva. It’s among the hilliest and muddiest of La Selva’s trails, which is really saying something. And at the moment I’m establishing two plots which are accessible only by this trail. Why? you might ask. Indeed, I was asking myself the same thing all week. The technical answer has to do with the availability of c. 25 year old secondary forest and nearby, comparable old growth. If I hadn’t been the one to plan the plot locations, though, I probably would be convinced that it’s part of a conspiracy to ruin what’s left of my knee cartilage.

To be fair, the LOC runs through some beautiful country: streams overhung with palms and tree ferns and heavy vines; sharp ridges where you can glimpse monkey troops in the treetops almost beside you. In the old-growth forest, there are trees so large that their flanged buttress roots are easily twice my height. Besides the monkeys, I’ve seen countless birds, a turtle, a hognose viper, and a land crab that looked big enough to make a decent meal. But at the end of the day, I come back aching and weary, covered in mud, and usually soaking wet. The rainy season is upon us.

The plots are for a liana removal experiment. If I want to understand exactly how lianas are affecting the other plants in the forest, it’s not enough to just observe them. I’m planning to remove the lianas from half of each plot, and measure the growth and establishment of other woody plants with and without lianas. Good science, and an excuse to hone my machete skills. So far, I’ve just set out the plots (300+ PVC tubes and untold meters of string arrayed strategically in the forest) and marked seedlings in one of them. No lianas have been cut yet. The thing is, I think the vines have got wind of the fact that I’m planning to get rid of them. I swear, I’ve had more run-ins with unfriendly vines in these plots than anywhere else in the forest. On Friday, I gave Marisol the afternoon off for the Mothers’ Day celebration—a big deal in Costa Rica—so I was working by myself. I ran out of PVC tubing and headed back to the end of the plot where I’d stashed the rest of it. Halfway there, an errant vine snagged my heel and sent me sprawling a full ten meters downhill, where I hit a tree and tumbled a few more meters. It probably would have been hilarious, if there’d been anyone to see it. Fortunately I was unhurt, aside from the spines still embedded in my left hand from the spiny palm I tried to grab on the way past.

When I got back from the field Friday afternoon, later and more bedraggled than usual, Franklin came out of his office (which has a good view of the boot-wash station) to ask what had happened.

“Las matas me matan,” I told him. The plants are killing me.

“Si. Parece que le tiraron al suelo y le pegaron.” Yeah, it looks like they threw you in the dirt and beat you.

I had to laugh. It was pretty damn close to the truth.


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