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.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Damn, where did November go?

It seems like just yesterday I was paying my October station fees and packing up for Nicaragua. And today the bill was due again, and shortly I’ll be packing up for winter in the States, a decidedly dicier—and icier—proposition than a vacation on Ometepe. I am a little worried about the temperature change. This week a cold front has dropped the nights down into the upper sixties (shudder), and the first night I hardly got any sleep. I would wake up too cold and put on some more bedding, sleep an hour or so, and wake up cold again. In the morning I ended up very bleary-eyed under two blankets and three sarongs. The towels were next in line.

The highlight of the week has been a visit from Brenda, a longtime family friend who’s been in Costa Rica studying Spanish for the past three weeks. She heard rave reviews of the La Selva Thanksgiving celebration from my parents last year, so she decided to come down and check it out for herself. The feast didn’t disappoint—like last year, it featured tiki torches, fireworks, wine, and an endless parade of tempting dishes. And afterwards, following tradition, a group of us went to the Y Griega (a bar down the road) for dancing and karaoke afterwards. Brenda dances a mean merengue, though she declined to join in for the group sing-along of “Like a Virgin.” We stayed till closing (2 am).

Brenda’s a good sport—as well as dancing to dawn, she came to the field with me, helped enter data, helped cook dinner for Steven’s birthday, and joined in the lewd and ludicrous conversations of the researchers. I hope she enjoyed the visit as much as I enjoyed having her here! Probably the most adventurous part of her stay at La Selva was a floating trip on the Rio Puerto Viejo.

On Saturday afternoon, I was sitting on the back porch of the old lab when Detlev (head of the German bat researchers) came running out of the jungle, quite wet. This in itself was not unusual—wet people coming out of the jungle is a daily fixture of station life. The unusual thing was his attire: nothing but a pair of swim trunks.

“Susan, we’re going floating!” he said. “You’ve got to come!”

“Floating where?” I asked him. Ever since the crocodile sightings of the past summer, floating has been generally restricted to the lower reaches of the river.

“Rafael’s house,” he answered cheerfully. It’s a derelict house with beach access, about 600 meters down the SOR—right in the middle of croc territory. But Detlev told me the Germans had all floated downriver once already, and the crocodile hadn’t put in an appearance. I reluctantly agreed to go. After all, it was Saturday afternoon, and the only thing I had planned was more data entry. I put on my Tevas, bathing suit, and sarong, and headed into the forest. Floating from Rafael’s house involves two activities that I generally avoid at all costs: swimming in croc-infested waters, and going into the forest in sandals. Admittedly, “the forest” here is a concrete trail more than a meter wide—but still, not the smartest thing in the world.

On the way out to Rafael’s house, we ran into Brenda, who had been napping at the River Station.

“Susan, what are you doing in the forest in that get-up?” she said. “I thought you said never to go out without boots, and to always wear long pants and long sleeves.”

I explained what we were up to—crocodile and all.

“Oh,” she said. “Wait for me.” A few minutes later, as the three of us headed into the jungle in our bathing suits and sandals. “I must be crazy,” Brenda said. “But I’ll probably be glad I came. When I look back, most of the things I regret are the things I didn’t do.”

As it turned out, we had a quiet, uneventful float down the Puerto Viejo. The crocodile, if he was around, kept a low profile, and the biggest animal we saw was a toucan. Still, I was highly impressed with Brenda’s sang-froid, and with her attitude. In my life, too, the things I regret are usually the opportunities I miss. Brenda’s safely back in the States now, but I hope I’ll be able to keep her spirit of adventure in mind during the last few weeks of my field season.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Gifts for the whole family

Returning from town yesterday evening, I saw the first Christmas lights hung in the windows of houses in Flaminea. Which reminds me, it’s time to do some shameless self-promotion. You may have noticed a new link on this site: Buy My Books! If you like what you’ve read here, please consider clicking that link. My sister Lucy and I recently published the chronicles of our Appalachian Trail adventures, and for the botany geeks among you, I also have copies of my field guide to plant families at La Selva. Happy reading!

Se�ora de Altagracia: my best Nicaragua photo, I think.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Herbario Fino

After the gritty—and often startlingly beautiful—chaos of Nicaragua, I spent a week in the herbarium at InBio (the Instituto Nacional de la Biodiversidad). The contrast could hardly be more pronounced: I returned not only to the first-world security and orderliness of Costa Rica, but to a climate-controlled, meticulously curated collection of plant specimens. There’s something at once ennobling and humbling about an herbarium; all that effort and knowledge collected in one place. All the extraordinary diversity of the forests here, whittled down to a series of gray metal cabinets holding folders of dried plants mounted on acid-free paper.

Before I left for Nicaragua, I’d brought eight boxes of plants to put into the freezer at InBio for quarantine. (Three or four days in a freezer will kill the fungi and insect pests on fresh specimens that might otherwise damage the rest of the collection.) I had another five boxes, from last year’s work, waiting for me in an Indiana Jones-esque stack of identical cardboard boxes at the back of the herbarium. Fortunately I’d labeled my boxes clearly and drawn a map of their location last year.

Two thousand sixty-one plant specimens in seven days: welcome to Herbariathon 2006. Nearly all of my specimens were identified before I pressed them, either by me or by local plant wizard Orlando Vargas, but I wanted to make sure that all the identifications were up-to-date and consistent. There were also a few wild cards that had stumped Orlando. Marisol and I spent a week stacking and unstacking specimens, comparing them to the herbarium collections, updating the identifications where necessary. We spent probably 8-10 hours a day in the herbarium, wrapped in fleeces against the 60-degree chill. At the end of the day, we retired to the albergue, a building across the street where InBio provides lodging for visiting researchers.

The other residents of the albergue were a group of college students from Spain who were volunteering for the institute as an internship. Their work revolved around a newly created national park on the border with Nicaragua: defining the boundaries with GIS, collating data from biodiversity inventories, and helping to design the trail system. I got to do a lot of cool things in college, but nothing quite that cool.

Also residing in the albergue were a group of parataxonomists. I think I’ve finally discovered what I want to be when I grow up. They spend about half the month in the field, collecting specimens—insects and plants, mainly—and the rest of the time at the institute, cataloguing their finds, identifying them to the family level, and sending them off to specialists who know the species. Billy and Marcos showed me some of the insects they had collected, and some photos from past expeditions: knife-edged ridges, shrouded in mist, rising up out of thick jungle; native villages three days’ hike from the nearest road; waist-high rivers to be forded; jungle camps with a few tents set up in a clearing and a tarp strung up for cooking out of the rain. Unfortunately—for me—these jobs are all held by ticos. The idea behind InBio is capacity-building and job-training for Costa Ricans, by Costa Ricans, in order to understand, conserve, and responsibly use the native biodiversity of the country. It’s worked brilliantly—after only sixteen years of existence, the institute has one of the best plant and insect collections anywhere for this part of the world. They’ve trained a huge number of people. It would be wrong for me, an outsider, a gringo, to come in and take away a potential job for a tico. It doesn’t stop me from dreaming, though... There are so many countries in Latin America where the biodiversity is poorly known. This is a model that could be taken elsewhere, with the right funding, and set to work. I have no talent for administration, but I’ve got a certain amount of botanical knowledge now, and I’ve got a few friends with policy aspirations... maybe I’ll end up being a parataxonomist, or training parataxonomists, in Guyana or somewhere. (Eh, Tsitsi?)

With the help of Fransisco Morales and Nelson Zamora, two of the best botanists in the country, Marisol and I identified the last few specimens on Tuesday afternoon. I stayed behind to finish boxing up my specimens—the bulk of my work for the past three years, neatly contained in eleven cardboard boxes—and take care of a few odds and ends. Wednesday morning I caught the bus back to Puerto Viejo, with a bittersweet post-partum sort of feeling. I have really enjoyed this vegetation inventory project, even when it meant hacking shoulder-wide tunnels through tangled young forests or driving through alarming mud-pits. It’s weird to think that I won’t be hauling that blasted pole cutter around on my bike any more, or stopping by Orlando’s office with a bag full of plant bits. It’s finished.

The thought of being finished with a big chunk of my project is reassuring at one level—yes, I’m really capable of doing what I set out to do; the specimens are all catalogued and all the data updated and awaiting analysis. At another level, it’s terrifying. What next? Graduate school has brought me some of the best years of my life: good friends, exciting work, a steady salary, health insurance. None of that is guaranteed in the upcoming years. I would love to teach, but the job market is highly competitive right now. A few weeks ago a visiting professor told us that a tenure-track plant ecology position had opened up at his institution, and they had 95 applicants. My goal is to find work that’s meaningful, engaging, and has the potential to do some good for the troubled ecosystems of this planet. The more I think about it, there are a lot of possibilities. And one way or another, it’s bound to be interesting.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The adventure begins: waiting for the ferry in San Jorge, with the two volcanoes just visible behind me.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Little house under the volcano.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

A common sight on the roads.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

(No words necessary.)
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Banana plantation with stone walls.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

House, Altagracia: tico turquoise has made inroads into Nicaragua, it appears.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Beautiful guanacaste tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpon) at the water's edge.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Church in Moyogalpa.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

More propaganda.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Posada Cabrera, Altagracia. Not bad for $3 a night, thought the mosquito net came in handy.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Rice fields near Merida-- compare to the photos from China!
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Denizen of Volcan Maderas.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Just like Northeast Harbor back home.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Hasta luego, Ometepe.
(c) 2006 S.G. Letcher

Friday, November 03, 2006

Postcard from Nicaragua

A postcard from Santo Domingo de Heredia, Costa Rica, more accurately, back in the land of internet access. I want to set things down while they are still fresh in my memory. Near the border at Peñas Blancas, the landscape of Nicaragua was indistinguishable from that of Costa Rica: pastures full of gray Zebu cattle, savannas with thorny trees, remnants of forest; volcanoes in the middle distance vanishing into the low cloud ceiling. Almost everything else about the two countries, though, was a stark contrast. The example that comes immediately to mind is the food options at the border. On the Costa Rican side, there’s a cafeteria with shiny linoleum and a buffet behind plate glass. Crossing into Nicaragua, the eateries are three-sided buildings beside the road, thrown together from scrap wood and metal, each one with a small smoky fire out back. They offer fried plantains, rice and beans, the occasional chicken. Lo que hay. Nearly all the food in the Nicaraguan countryside is still prepared over an open fire; a heavy scent of wood smoke still clings to the clothing I brought with me.

Isla de Ometepe is a large island, formed by two volcanoes (one active still, one dormant), in Lago Nicaragua. Lago doesn’t do it justice; it’s more like an inland sea. Check a map, if your Central American geography is as nebulous as mine was until I started working here. There really is a stunning amount of area covered by water in southern Nicaragua.

Ometepe hadn’t changed visibly since my last visit, a little over a year ago. There are still far more cows than vehicles on the main roads. The few vehicles that survive on the island are pretty down-at-the-heels. The buses are all 1980s vintage or earlier, festooned with stickers and religious slogans but otherwise unrenovated. Like the horses and oxen, they’re given just enough care to keep them from keeling over. Breakdowns are common, almost expected. One day I took a trip towards Mérida, on the southern side of the island. The bus broke down twice in less than 4 km: once with a flat tire, easily fixed, and once with a mysterious ailment that was remedied by the conductor pounding on something in the undercarriage with a large rock. I walked on the way back, and it was faster.

Mechanical difficulties are not limited to the terrestrial realm: on my last visit to Ometepe, the ferry’s motor refused to start when I was leaving the island. It was the first boat, 5:30 AM. Men clambered down to the engine room in the dark and banged on various things, but to no avail. Dawn came up over the volcano, purple fading into blue, and the stars winked out. Then a bus, one of the much-beleaguered horde, backed down the dock. I wasn’t sure quite what was going on until the boatmen opened the bus’s engine compartment and took out the battery. A few minutes later the ferry’s motor started, with a burst of black smoke from the tailpipe.

Last year, I spent most of my time in a hammock with a fat and thoroughly unedifying novel. This year I explored a little more of the island, visiting some of the beaches and hiking up the side of Volcán Maderas for a breathtaking view of the lake and the other volcano (Concepción). In the valleys, nearly all the arable land is taken up with rice fields and banana plantations. Up on the slopes of the volcanoes, they grow corn and beans. The climate is mild, and the volcanic soil is rich enough for two crops a year. It would seem like paradise, except for the flies. I guess it’s a logical consequence of living somewhere where the vast majority of transportation is by horse or oxcart, but there are a damn lot of flies. Islanders have a habit, which I quickly picked up, of putting a napkin over the mouth of your beer bottle as soon as it comes to the table.

It’s hard to adequately describe a Nicaraguan vacation. Certain images, then: the shadowed understory of banana plantations, with the starchy and unwholesome scent of organophosphate pesticides. Stone walls, so incongruously like New England’s but built of porous basalt, enclosing the plantations and neighboring fields of sugar cane. Dawn spreading like an oil slick over Lago Nicaragua, with thunderheads already building. Black volcanic beach pebbles; a thin line of yellow primrose petals at the water’s edge. Plumeria is blooming all over the island: branches like blunt instruments and such fragile flowers. I kept one pressed between the pages of a book. It’s still faintly fragrant.

The most notable thing about this year’s trip was the political propaganda posted everywhere. Nicaragua is coming up on a much-contested presidential election. Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader from 1985-1990, is running again. The country is divided, to say the least. I almost wrote “violently divided,” but the violence so far has been, thankfully, kept to a minimum. In the Sunday paper, I found an interview with Ortega. He felt confident of victory. On the same page there were interviews with the leaders of two opposition parties. Both promised that, when elected, one of their first acts in office would be to incarcerate Ortega.

The propaganda mainly takes the form of garishly colored posters, slathered across all the walls in town. Each party has its own bright colors: hot pink and green for the Frente Nacional de Liberación Sandinista, red for the Alianza de Liberación Nacional, carnation pink for the Movimiento para la Renovación de Sandinismo. (Their candidate, Mundo Jarquín, had by far the best slogan: vota por el feo que quiere una Nicaragua linda. Vote for the ugly guy who wants a beautiful Nicaragua. I have to admit, based on his picture, that “el feo” is not an unwarranted description.) As well as posters, the campaigns organized impromptu parades with brass bands, drums, and homemade fireworks. A truck with giant speakers mounted on top would follow close behind, blaring party slogans. This was all well and good, except that for three nights in a row, parades passed through Altagracia at something like three in the morning. I had to wonder if the parades were actually organized by the parties they advertised, or by rivals hoping to smear their image: vote for ALN, the party that wakes you up repeatedly in the middle of the night!

The most interesting campaign strategy I came across was the hiring of discomoviles. A discomovil is a fixture of Central American society: a roving truck that brings strobe lights and giant speakers to set up in any convenient open space. Voila, instant party. Well, one night in Altagracia both the FSLN and the ALN had the bright idea of hiring discomoviles. At the same time. The banks of speakers, three meters high and nearly as wide as the road, were set up facing each other, barely four blocks apart. And when I say blocks, these were Nicaraguan town blocks of maybe three or four houses. Maybe 200 meters total. The beats bounced off each other, recombining into bizarre variants of Latin music never heard before or since. John Cage would have loved it. Between blocks of merengue, salsa, cumbia, and reggaetón, the DJs subjected the crowd to a few pithy sentences of propaganda from their respective parties. If the DJ talked for too long, the crowd would begin to gravitate toward the other speakers. I mostly hung around the Sandinista end of things. Not for any political reason—personally, I really hope that somebody can keep Ortega out of office—but the music was marginally better.

Of the elections in my own country, I will give the same response I generally give these days when asked about my love life: sin comentarios. No comment. There are more than enough blogs that deal with sex and politics.