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.

Monday, August 20, 2007

No, I haven't vanished off the face of the earth...

...I have just vanished into a vortex of work that didn’t allow me much time to breathe, let alone write updates for my blog. I feel a bit guilty about this: when I talked to my mother last week, for the first time in about a month, she said, “oh, so you’re still there! From your last blog entry, I wondered whether you’d disappeared into the jungle with Franklin and you’d emerge in ten years’ time with six little children in tow.” Not likely. They would be damn cute kids, though.

We did manage to finish up that last bit of work at the finca before Don José cleared the pasture again. I thought about going back there to take a look, but my student Tommy said, “don’t go; it would hurt your heart.” He’s right, I know. All those little trees gone, trees that I’d marked and watched and measured. (I’d heard that expression from Tommy once before, when I interviewed him for the REU program. He was talking about an environmental club he’d founded on his campus. One of their first actions was to protest the cutting of the big sycamore trees that formed an avenue down the center of the campus. “I just couldn’t watch those trees go down,” he said. “It hurt my heart.” I think it was that admission, and the way he said it, that put him at the top of my list of candidates. I knew he would understand the way I think about the forest; how my heart, too, is tied to trees.)

At the end of July I left the REUs in the capable hands of Johel (Costa Rican bird researcher, salsa dancer extraordinaire), and I headed to Mexico for the annual conference of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. Nearly 800 tropical biologists from across the globe convened in the historic downtown district of Morelia. The talks and workshops were held in early colonial stone buildings, cool even in the heat of the day, with giant chiaroscuro paintings of local dignitaries gazing solemnly over the proceedings. One of the great things about tropical biology is the huge variety of subdisciplines it contains. I saw talks on topics ranging from amphibian declines to tree physiology to the phylogenetic structure of communities. My own talk, dealing with patterns of biomass accumulation and change in species composition during forest succession in northeastern Costa Rica, was fairly well-received. One professor even told me that he thought it was one of the ten best talks at the conference—although he did elaborate that it was my relatively slow and clear delivery, apparently unusual for an American, that made it stand out: Swedish was his native language.

Outside of the official conference events, I spent most of my time hanging out with La Selva friends, especially Erin (aka “La Muñeca), who I hadn’t seen for more than two years, and Dennis (aka Señor Culebra), who finished his fieldwork last December and is now back in Miami writing up. Also present: Julia (practically the only German at La Selva who doesn’t work on bats; great singing voice; if I’d known she would be there I would have brought my guitar!) and four of the five Reinas. Oh dear, I will have to explain the Reina thing at some point... It was wonderful to catch up with so many good friends. The hard thing about field station life is that it’s always transitory, and it seems that just as you get to know someone, one of you has to leave. Researchers come from all over the world to La Selva, and scatter to all over the world afterwards. It was an unexpected gift to have so many field station friends in one place. We wandered about the city trying to determine which café had the best hot chocolate, which was the finest of the local brews, and where you could get the best quesadillas—half a block from our hotel, it turned out: ten pesos, about a dollar, for fresh corn dough, cheese, and toppings. We ate there so often that the bag I brought to the conference still smells like frying quesadillas. At one point we found ourselves in a café across from the cathedral, watching the sun set over the pinkish stone spires, when a band of mariachis came through and serenaded us. I felt like I had stepped into a postcard come to life.

After ATBC, the end of the REU program swallowed me up like a tidal wave. When I’d left, the students were in the midst of fieldwork. When I returned, all of a sudden, there were just three weeks to go. I was inundated with drafts of papers, presentations to look over, requests for last-minute reimbursements, and the backlog of emails from the time I’d been away. I feel like I never really caught up. Undoubtedly there are things still lurking at the bottom of my to-do list from that week.

The REUs put together an impressive slate of presentations and papers, though many of them ended up staying up for several nights in a row in order to get them done. I don’t know where they get the energy—but then, if I think about myself at that age, I would have done exactly the same thing.

Before I knew it, we were loading baggage and equipment boxes onto the giant air-conditioned bus that would take us back to San José. It was raining, fittingly, when we left, and there was a party going on at the comedor to celebrate the Costa Rican Mothers’ Day. I spent my last few minutes on-station as REU Coordinator dancing merengue with Johel in front of the comedor, under a leaky tent festooned with multi-colored crepe paper streamers. Hopefully the REUs have some good memories of their last glimpse of La Selva: the suspension bridge and the trees glittering with rain, and the multicolored crowd on the dance floor.

We spent the last evening of the REU program at Hotel Amistad in San José, and ate our final banquet in the nearby Café Mundo. It was a bittersweet feeling. I remembered picking up the students at the airport ten short weeks ago, when I hardly knew their names. They’d learned and accomplished so much since then, and they’d become a solid group. Arrayed around the long table, we talked and laughed and made uber-geeky science jokes that drew puzzled stares from the tourists across the room. It was hard to believe that we’d all be going our separate ways in the morning.

When the last shuttle pulled away from the curb, taking the last group of students to the airport, I suddenly felt like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks. I wonder if professors feel this way when a course gets over. I don’t think so; I think the feeling stems from the huge amount of personal responsibility attached. All the stress and worry that I hadn’t permitted myself to feel for the last ten weeks, the emotional burden of being in charge of twelve people’s welfare, came crashing down around me. I knew I’d be tired when the program ended, but I hadn’t counted on being quite this tired. I feel like I’m still recovering now, more than a week later. I guess next year I’ll be more prepared for this. Yes, that’s right, next year... on the day of the presentations, my supervisor came down from the main office to visit La Selva and see how everything was going. And to offer me the job in 2008. I talked to my advisor, who agreed that it would be a good experience, and I signed on as the coordinator again. This, of course, was before the ton of bricks hit me. Well, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience, and I’ve certainly learned a lot about teaching and mentoring. Lesson one: prepare for the load of bricks.


At 9:29 PM, Blogger Waterfall said...

Jackrabbit, I'm very glad to hear you haven't vanished off the face of the earth! I got a postcard from Isis and want to write back to her, but I don't think I have her address. Can you e-mail me and let me know how I can reach her? infpeace chez gmail dot com.

Thanks! Love, Waterfall


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