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, June 30, 2009


… and the livin’ is, if not easy, at least fun and rewarding. Once again I have left this blog neglected for far too long. The calendar pages are turning so fast I can’t keep up. A brief update, then, on the past few months:

The semester finished in mid-May, in a whirlwind of grading. The day before the students left, we visited Rincon de la Vieja national park, where an active volcano looms over the dry forests of Guanacaste. I took four hours from my grading schedule (by staying up insanely late the night before) to be able to hike the volcano and see the mudpots. I didn’t get all the way to the top of the volcano, only to treeline. That was the interesting part (for me as a botanist, anway; geologists might beg to differ). The forests at the lower edge of the mountain are the typical dry, scrubby, thorny forests of the lowlands in that part of the country. As you go up in elevation, the trees get bigger from the moisture of the clouds trapped by the mountain. Many trees were fruiting in the middle elevations, and I surprised monkeys, parrots, and guans in the foliage. Higher up, truly enormous oaks cover the slopes. They give way to a stunted, wind-warped forest of Clusia with an understory of Geonoma palms, and then to pure Clusia clinging to the slopes with its stubby, succulent stems, and finally to low sedges that give way to bare gray rock. Up near treeline the wind whipped through the branches carrying shreds of fog and a malevolent sulfur odor that could make one imagine the approach to Mordor. The temperature dropped sharply and the rain began. (At that moment, I must admit, I thought of the White Mountains in New Hampshire). The contrast in climate between the sun-baked thorn forest down below and the barren, wind-scoured, foggy approach to the summit was truly startling. I was prepared with a rain jacket and sweater, but I saw a lot of tourists in their shorts and t-shirts on the way up, in for a rude surprise (perhaps it was this that really reminded me of New Hampshire).

After the hike to the summit—almost a run, really; I went as fast as I could to stay ahead of the crowds and be able to see as much as possible—I headed back down to see the mudpots. If you ever have an opportunity to see a volcanic mudpot, take it, even if it means traveling out of your way. Mudpots are fantastic. They occur in places where boiling water and steam bubble up from volcanic vents through muddy soil. Bubbles form slowly in the mud and pop, shooting out spurts of steaming mud with a plopping sound. Words don’t do it justice. I will try to post a video, along with some photos, when I am somewhere with faster internet. A mudpot is a perfect combination of the sublime and the ridiculous, combining funny, gross, and fascinating in proportions that only a five-year-old could truly and rightly appreciate.

Those were the highlights of Rincon de la Vieja; then it was back to grading and the final discussions. When the course ended, I missed the students a lot. What a great group of people to travel and work with. I hope they learned a lot from me. I know I learned a great deal from them.

The week after we finished the course reports and final grades, I went to Nicaragua for a few days with Alex and Steven. We visited Granada and Masaya, and made delicious mojitos with cheap Nicaraguan rum and mint and sugar we bought from a wizened old lady in the covered market in Masaya. It was good to make some new memories of Nicaragua. The only unfortunate thing about the trip was that Alex got food poisoning in San Juan del Sur, and had a very unpleasant bus ride back. She recovered quickly once she got home, though.

The first week of June I attended a meeting that my former advisor organized, with scientists who work on forest regeneration in Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Panama. We talked about future directions in forest succession research, and we came up with a series of papers that we plan to write. I can’t say too much about it now, because it’s very much in the beginning stages, but they have agreed to share data and nominated me to write a paper that could be an important advance in the field, depending on how the analysis comes out. I’m really excited about it. I have a paper in review right now that deals with the same topic, and I’m crossing my fingers that it will be accepted.

Ever since the conference, I’ve been up at Alex’s farm working on a vegetation inventory project. The forest at low elevations here is ridiculously well-studied, but the middle elevations have had much less survey work. Alex is planting a long-term reforestation experiment, and we want to have an idea of the species composition in the surrounding forests so we can compare the reforestation plots to the natural forest in the region over time. The forest here is remarkably diverse—we found 239 species in half a hectare (a little over an acre) at the back of the farm. There are many species I don’t recognize from the lowlands. Given the elevation and the remoteness of the site, it’s quite possible that there may be undescribed species out here. Most of the forests around here have been high-graded, if not clear-cut, so there’s a lot of disturbance, but we’ve also worked in some areas where we find species that are usually indicators of undisturbed forest. One of my favorites is a little palm, generally no more than waist-high, called Reinhardtia gracilis. It has windows in its leaves that make it look like stained glass.

The inventory work is fairly intense. We try to leave for the field by 7 am, and we work until it rains heavily or gets dark, running survey lines into the forest and collecting a sample of each species we find. Generally we can do about 0.1 hectare in a day, though once we managed 0.13 in a particularly nice forest, “nice” meaning relatively level and free of vines. Few forests around here are nice in that respect, though. We have worked on hills so steep that we considered belaying each other with the rope from the collecting poles. Alex and I have a great time in the forest. We have a similar quirky sense of humor, and we’ve cooked up a steady supply of geeky botany jokes and lewd anatomical descriptions of certain plants (have you ever seen the roots of Iriartea deltoidea? You would understand!) to keep each other well entertained.

In other news, I have finally started dating somebody again. His name is Dixon, and he works on the construction crew that is building Alex’s house. He is sweet and gentle and treats me like a princess. And he is certifiably single, or at least he was until we started dating. We don’t have much time to spend together, since he works something like 60 hours a week and I’m in the forest half the time, but we’ve had a great time on the weekends. Last fall I was talking to my stepdad about how to find a good man. “Pick someone who’s sweet on you,” he said. Dixon is definitely sweet on me, and I’m getting very fond of him. We’ll see where it goes.


At 8:20 AM, Blogger Em said...

Thanks for the update on your adventures, Susan. I would love to come and visit you in the tropics, but I don't think that it's in the cards in the near future. We have been getting out to Shenandoah to do some hiking and we spent 10 days in Great Smoky Mountains national Park last month. I've been doing a pretty good job keeping up with my blog, so can check in on us there. Take care!

At 4:04 PM, Blogger stella said...

One of my strongest memories of Costa Rica (as a five or six or seven year old) is I think of a mudpot - but now that I've looked it up on wikipedia I'm not quite sure. I remember a brown pool in the middle of the jungle with big bubbles emerging through mud; I was told it was a spring of some sort and for a long time later I though all rivers somehow began like that, bubbling out of mud slowly. However the wikip examples seem much more grey and ashy and mountaintop-y than I remember so maybe it was something else entirely.

Glad to hear everything's going so well!

At 9:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Susan, what a small world eh? Perhaps we are cousins. I came across your Barefoot Sisters book thru a promotion for your signing at Campmor. Just ordered it via Amazon (sales rank 27,000 -- not bad!) and as an occasional hiker of the AT can't wait to read it. I am author of Canoeing the Delaware River (the "bible" for that adventure, I am told) and Waterfalls of the Mid-
Atlantic States; prosaic guidebooks compared to what I expect to be your more poetic efforts. Also you might know of the nature/poetry books by Katie Letcher Lyle, some with "barefoot" in the title! Perhaps it's an avocation that runs in the family.

I hope this entry finds its way to you, and that we hear back. Have a great day!

Gary Letcher
Ashton, MD


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