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, June 15, 2008

Impressions of Suriname

Diversity. This is the word that comes to mind when I think of Suriname—cultural, linguistic, and biological diversity in a dazzling and bewildering array. Diversity also marked the talks at the ATBC meeting, with nearly 500 scientists from something like 60 countries in attendance. I’ve been feeling kind of blah about science for a while, kind of jaded. I’ve been questioning whether I really want to continue in this field, with its 8% funding rates and cutthroat competition for jobs. After the conference, though, I feel renewed and ready to jump back into the fray.

I flew into Paramaribo at 2 am last Tuesday, after a series of flights and layovers that was just as horrible as I’d feared, including five hours of fitful sleep on a rock-hard, foot-wide bench in the glacially air-conditioned Miami airport. Things got better after that, though. (I have to confess that I didn’t even know how to pronounce the name of the city until the plane was in its final descent and the captain repeated the name of the destination. All this time I’d been saying Para-maREEbo. It’s really Para-MAri-bo, with a lilt that makes it sound like a dance step or some fruity tropical drink. Most of the locals just call it Parbo, which is also the name of the—not great, but effective—local beer.)

The first day in Parbo, I wandered around the marketplace trying to make sense of things, through the fog of jet lag and dehydration. The historic downtown is all two-story wooden buildings, white with painted trim, with raised porches to keep them above the periodic floods. The pungent brown Paramaribo River, rimmed with mudflats at low tide, defines the horizon; the far shore lies indistinct in a humid haze. Along the waterfront, between the cafes selling cheap rotis and fried chicken, there are memorials to the successive waves of immigration in the country: African Maroons (slaves who fought for their freedom and established villages in the forest interior), Hindustanis, Chinese, Indonesians. There’s no memorial for the Dutch colonists, but their influence is everywhere. (I was particularly grateful for the Dutch influence on the cuisine—the best cheese I’ve had in a long time!) The diversity is mirrored in the faces of people on the streets, from people so dark-skinned they almost look indigo blue, to people with golden brown skin and almond-shaped eyes, to people as blond and pale as me. Almost everyone assumed I was Dutch at first, and then effortlessly switched to English when they saw my bafflement. Almost everyone speaks Sranam Tongo (the local creole language), Dutch, and English, and it seems that pretty much everyone knows some French and Spanish as well, at least enough to explain the menu and take orders in a restaurant. According to some of the students I met at the conference, most people in Suriname still maintain the languages and some cultural traditions of their ancestral homelands as well—Chinese, Indonesian, and a number of Indian languages. I’ve never been in a place with such an amazing mosaic of cultures. Being merely bilingual (plus enough French and German to get me into trouble, but not enough to get out of it), I felt rather handicapped.

After a day of recuperation and wandering the city, I met up with a group of other scientists and flew to Ralleighvallen, a remote site at the edge of the country’s largest national park. At the airport, we all crowded onto a cargo scale with our baggage, and the tour director called out people’s names. I just about fell over when he said, “Louise Emmons.” She’s one of the best-known tropical mammalogists, and she’s worked all over the tropics since the seventies, doing groundbreaking work on small mammal diversity and abundances. I’d read her papers and heard about her work for years, but I never thought I’d get to meet her. As it was, we ended up as roommates for a few days on a balcony overlooking a wild river and a tangle of vines. Louise is a magnificent person, down-to-earth, good-humored, and full of amazing stories from so many years in the field. She’s small in stature, but she radiates competence, and her presence can fill a room. It was a real inspiration to spend so much time with her.

Also on the trip was Varun Swamy, a plant systematics classmate of mine from four years ago—we slowed the hikes considerably with our botanizing—and Tana Wood, who managed Proyecto Bosques the year before I did, and a number of young researchers from the U.S., France, Germany, and Belgium; and a young couple from Puerto Rico with a remarkably well-behaved and adorable 7-month-old baby boy. Over beers in the evening, we traded stories from the field, and a group that had been strangers on the flight over ended up like old friends. It was almost like being back on the Appalachian Trail again, with the sense of shared challenges and triumphs.

On the second day we hiked up the Voltzberg, a smooth-sided granite inselberg whose distinctive form graces the Surinamese $10 bill. (A very random aside: I love Surinamese money. Each denomination has a gorgeous scene from nature on the back, and the silhouette of a tropical tree—with the scientific name printed underneath it.) The view from the top of the inselberg was truly one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen: wild tropical forest with no sign of human habitation from horizon to horizon, broken only by the brown loops of the Commewijne River. The forest primeval.

Back at the conference, many of the talks focused on how to conserve and protect tropical diversity in a changing world. The forests of the Guiana Shield Region—stretching across French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia—represent one of the last truly wild tracts of land anywhere on earth, and there is tremendous pressure from logging, mining, and forest conversion for agriculture. Particularly biofuels, ironically enough. In the search for “sustainable” fuels, the Amazon forest is getting destroyed to plant oil palm and soybeans. (Old-growth peat forests in Indonesia are also getting cut down for oil palm plantations, but the soils themselves store so much carbon that cutting the forests produces a huge net release of carbon to the atmosphere that would take hundreds of years to mitigate...) The threats are serious, but there’s a lot of hope, too. Keeping tropical forests intact is one of the best ways to prevent greenhouse gas releases to the atmosphere. The current estimate is that about 30% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is released by the burning of tropical forests. Conserving those forests would be a huge carbon offset, and obviously a great way to conserve biodiversity as well. We need economic incentives to make it happen. You can read more about it at www.mongabay.com, my favorite clearinghouse for breaking news about tropical environment. (Incidentally, the guy who runs the site was at the conference. I met him at a cocktail party. He’s young, smart, articulate, and dedicated—exactly what we need in the field of tropical conservation. I told him to keep up the good work.)

The conference wasn’t all about applied conservation strategies, though. There’s a lot more esoteric research out there. Including mine, I’m afraid. The part of my research that seems to be generating the most interest among the scientists I meet is the most theoretical, least applied thing I’ve done. I’m looking at the phylogenetic structure of communities during succession, i.e., whether the species that colonize a site during forest regeneration are more or less closely related to each other than would be expected by chance. I met a number of leading researchers in the field, and had some really productive discussions.

The conference featured five concurrent sessions of talks running all day, plus poster sessions and plenary lectures. For the most part, I went to every talk I could. My favorite was one about the home ranges of jaguars and pumas in an undisturbed forest in Ecuador. Their ranges are almost entirely confined to the floodplains—exactly where human habitation and disturbance is usually strongest. The authors are planning to trap and track jaguars in more disturbed habitats next, to see whether they are displaced from their optimal habitats when people are present. There was also an amazing camera-trapping study from a remote region of Suriname, where the investigators actually captured jaguars mating on camera. There were some great plant talks, too, including one about floodplain species in the Amazon. Some of these plants can be totally submerged in water, in complete darkness, for three months... and still recover photosynthetic activity. The plants look like they’ve had a bad week—the leaves are a bit yellowish, and dying back at the edges—but they spring right back when light is available again. Truly amazing. It’s kind of like the plant equivalent of the baby in the well.

For most of the conference I went to talks every session. There were so many things I wanted to see, and so many friends of mine giving talks. On Friday afternoon, though, I played hooky. I ran into Deedra (the remarkable La Selva station director) and Liz Losos (the head of OTS), who invited me on a spur-of-the-moment tour to see the river dolphins. We jumped into a van and made our way to the waterfront, where a smiling but laconic boat captain took us out to a secret spot on the wide brown river. We motored for perhaps half an hour, watching rain showers move across the landscape behind us, and then we idled by the edge of a small tide rip and scanned the surface for fins. Dolphins like merengue and Brazilian pop music, it appears. The boat captain put on a scratchy old tape, and all of a sudden groups of dolphins appeared in the water all around us, tumbling over each other and leaping across the very bow of the boat. Groups of perhaps eight or ten surfaced together, showing their gray backs and pink undersides, the exact beguiling color of Bermuda beach sand in those photoshopped resort advertisements. They’re little dolphins, perhaps a meter and a half long, and the way their snouts are shaped they appear to be perpetually smiling. I don’t know whether any of my photos turned out—my camera has such a delay between when I press the button and when it takes the picture that I’m afraid I’ll have nothing but splashes. The memories are glorious, though. I’d never seen that many dolphins at once, and I’d seldom seen such acrobatics from them, either.

The last night of the conference was a banquet and a dance party that lasted until 1 am. It took me about half an hour to get back to my hotel, after bidding farewell to new and old friends, and my shuttle to the airport this morning left at 2:45. I just had time to shower, change, and do some last-minute packing. I slept perhaps a half hour on the shuttle and an hour or so on my first flight. Now as I write this, I’m in the airport in Trinidad, insufficiently caffeinated, and feeling much worse than I ever did after a college all-nighter. Perhaps I’m getting too old for this sort of thing. It’s worth it, though, all worth it. Je ne regrettez-pas rien. We’ll see if I’m singing a different tune tomorrow, when the REU students all arrive!

A post-script: well, I am back in Costa Rica after a nerve-wracking evening in Miami. My plane from Trinidad was delayed on the way out, and then we sat on the tarmac in Miami for over an hour while they pulled someone’s bag off the plane that was sitting at our gate. I watched the hour of my boarding time for the next flight approach and then slip past. Finally they let us out. I ran though customs and immigration, figuring there was a slim chance that my connecting flight had been delayed as well—this being MIA, and American Airlines, it was more than likely... and sure enough, my connection was delayed. I ran across three terminals and got there just as they started boarding. (The only rough spot was that the new boarding time was 9:11—why couldn’t they just say 9:10 or 9:12, for god’s sake?—and when the TSA agent pointed out that the time on my boarding pass had already gone by, and I told her the new time, there was a moment of dead silence in the line around me. Some things you just can’t say at an airport security checkpoint. I wondered for a moment if I would end up in Guantanamo. But she just narrowed her eyes and waved me through.)

Monday, June 02, 2008

Ida y vuelta

So I find myself in Costa Rica again. Leaving Costa Rica again, actually, on my way to Suriname for the ABTC conference for two weeks, and then I’m back here until the end of August. I’m typing this at the airport in Alajuela, with ominous clouds gathering all around. I’ve been here for two weeks, setting up for the REU program, redecorating the house, and trying to get over the idea of being single again. I’ve had a lot of free time—when I made the reservations, back in February, I’d planned to spend a week at the beach with Franklin. Mostly I can manage not to think about it; it’s just on certain nights when the rain lets up and the air gets cold and I turn over in bed, reaching for somebody who’s not there and who never will be again. Or I catch myself listening for footsteps on the stairs outside, or listening for the sound of his motorcycle engine, or remembering—but I don’t want to dwell on this; it’s over.

I am thinking of a novel I read in high school, Huasipungo, about land reforms in Ecuador. The plot is convoluted and tragic, and I don’t remember anything now except the last scene, where a yellow bird flies over the field where the peasants died in their revolt and sings “ya’cabó... ya’cabó...” Ya se acabó, it’s over now. When I think of being single it is mostly a profound weariness that overtakes me. I don’t have the energy for dates and bars and that whole scene; I don’t have the courage right now to risk anything, and I feel old, abandoned. I feel like that yellow bird, a survivor, a voice from the past. I need to start belonging to the present and future again, but I’m not there yet.

I had wanted to wait until I had something good to report before posting to this blog again. I was hoping something large and wonderful would happen, something to offset this horrible betrayal. Of course the world doesn’t work that way. I’m trying to be grateful for little things: the rainy season has started, after a week so dry that the earth was cracking in places; my paper that was recently rejected from Ecology Letters was at least rejected with an invitation to resubmit, though when I’ll find time to rewrite it god only knows. I am in good health. The plague of winged termite queens that infested the house last week seems to have diminished.

Really, there is one major thing that I am thankful for: the kindness of my friends. The people I know at La Selva have been so kind and understanding. Alex took me into town for groceries a few days back, when I was upset about the paper rejection, and the upset-ness of everything else was threatening to spill over. We got back to her house about 9 am, and the rain was pissing down so hard that we had to shout over the din from the tin roof. We sat at her kitchen table drinking tea.

“Alex,” I shouted, “I don’t want to go to the station with this rain. I want to sit here all day, baking fatty, sugary things and eating them.” And that was more or less what we did. The rain kept up all day and into the evening, while we baked banana cake and ginger snaps and made a giant batch of roasted vegetables for dinner. Meanwhile, Alex comforted me and told me crazy stories from her days of working in the mountains of Braulio Carillo. Felix came home from work, dripping wet—he’d been up in the mountains all day, and he reported that the rain was even worse up there—and polished off about a quarter of a banana cake. I don’t know where it goes on his lean frame. Around suppertime, Steven and Marilyn came out from the station (the rain had let up) bringing a bottle of wine, some good bread, and corn chips. Alex invited everybody for supper, making a delicious dish of roasted vegetables, pasta, and cheese sauce. We sat around the table talking and laughing and reminiscing, all these old friends. There was nowhere else on earth I would rather have been at that moment, and at such a time, to think of what (or who) I was missing made as little sense as dreaming of snow in the humid tropics.

And now I’m flying off to Suriname, to present a talk based on the paper that was just rejected. Hopefully the audience will be more accepting (so to speak) than the reviewers. I wish I was more excited about this trip. Part of what is dampening my enthusiasm is my flight schedule: I leave San José at 7:15 tonight, and I get to Paramaribo at midnight tomorrow, after an eight-hour layover in Miami and six hours in Trinidad. Not quite enough, in Miami, to justify shelling out the $200 for an airport hotel room, so I’m hoping for a comfortable corner of the floor.