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.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

November Update

Hard to believe how long it has been since I last found the time to post anything here. Apologies to my loyal readers. And for the rest of you, subscribe to the RSS feed! A miscellany of ideas/updates/memories from the past few months:

1. Professoring. Already I find myself halfway through my second semester as a professor for the OTS undergraduate program. It’s been a bit easier this time—I have all my lectures written, at least, so my days off are actually days off (aside from the usual background workload of a scientist: data analysis, paper writing and revisions, reviews, etc.) I’m also more familiar with the sites we visit, which makes it easier to handle the logistics. The students this semester, once again, are motivated and fun. It’s amazing how fast the past few months have gone by.
Perhaps the biggest news, on a professional level, is that I have an important paper out in Proceedings B, dealing with the phylogenetic structure of communities during succession. Translation: how closely related are the species that occupy a site? How do the patterns of relatedness change as the forest grows back? I found some very interesting patterns, corresponding to a model of forest succession that my advisor adapted for tropical systems. I’m working with a group of collaborators right now to see whether these patterns can be found in other tropical forests during succession. The answer is yes, for two sites so far. I found collaborators willing to share data for a third site, but I’m still waiting to get the files… Anyway, having a paper in Proceedings has raised my profile considerably. I am wondering what to do with my newfound clout. As much as I enjoy the teaching and the amazing places we get to see, there are a few drawbacks to working at OTS (buy me a beer and I will tell you all about it). I am thinking about looking for a more permanent, stable, and rewarding job.

2. Good things about a small country: I went to the movies last week with my friend Claudia, a.k.a Reina Canela, to see a Costa Rican film called Gestación. I recommend it, on the slim chance that it comes to a theater near you. The acting is excellent, and if you have any curiosity about what life is like in Costa Rica this film will answer it. It captures the way people talk, the rhythms of city life, and the little details of people’s daily routines. The opening scene also took place in the same mall as the movie theater, perhaps 100 meters from where we sat, contributing to the eerie verisimilitude.

The best part, though, was when we were waiting outside the theater. The line stretched halfway down the mall, and we were pretty far back. A few spaces ahead of us was a man who looked really familiar. Claudia nudged me. “Do you see the guy next to the woman in green? That’s Ottón Solís.” And so it was—the presidential candidate for the major opposition party in Costa Rica, standing at the back of the line with his popcorn like everybody else. No security detail, no VIP status. A couple people asked him for an autograph or took a photo, but for the most part he was treated just like everybody else. I wonder whether it’s a cultural thing, or whether there is some critical size at which a country becomes insane and starts having to surround its public figures with paranoid gun-toting bodyguards.

3. Independence. I broke up with Dixon. He’s a wonderful person, but we are going in very different directions and the relationship wasn’t giving either of use what we needed..

4. Mexico, and the future of tropical forest research. I am writing this on the plane back from a very successful meeting in Morelia, organized by my former advisor, about future research directions in tropical forest ecosystems. About 60 people from all over the Americas participated, and in the course of three intense days we hashed out research agendas and planned a network of collaborators. It’s an exciting time to be working in tropical ecology. Basically, we’re trying to build a network of people who study reforestation and forest regeneration, to reach a more holistic understanding of the dynamics of human-modified ecosystems in the tropics. (Human-modified ecosystems is Robin’s phrase—credit where credit is due! It gets away from the old paradigm of human-damaged ecosystems, the idea that human impacts are necessarily bad. Again, buy me a beer and I will tell you all about it.) How, where, and why do tropical forests regenerate after disturbance? What are the social, economic, and ecological drivers of forest recovery? How can humans live in balance with tropical forests? We had a series of lively and illuminating discussions. I felt honored to be a part of such a dynamic and high-powered group of people.

The group was almost entirely bilingual. Most presentations were in Spanish with English slides or vice versa, sometimes switching within a sentence (with occasional bits of Portuguese, which I can roughly understand but have no hope of speaking). Having a multilingual crowd generated the best in-joke of the conference: one of the presenters was talking about human drivers of land use change in the tropics, and she said “drivers… No sé como se dice en español…” A voice from the back of the room called out, “choferes!” (drivers in the literal sense, like truck drivers). For the rest of the conference we made many cracks about “choferes humanos.”

After the conference, I stayed with Robin and Rob for a few days in their gorgeous rented townhouse overlooking Morelia. We made forays to nearby towns to see the Day of the Dead celebrations. The traditions are an amazing blend of Catholic symbolism and much older beliefs. In the plazas and all the cemeteries, people set up altars for the recently dead. Bright orange marigolds and purple amaranth are strewn on the ground and arranged in elaborate patterns. The altars bore crucifixes and amulets of saints, but also geometric botanical designs and spirals of the bright flowers. A young girl in Uapan volunteered to explain the symbolism behind one of the altars, which turned out to be for her sixteen-year-old cousin. The highest level had a picture of the girl and a painting of the Virgin Mary, and was covered with an arch of flowers. This represented heaven, and the arch was because she had died a virgin. The middle level was the things that the girl had enjoyed in life—a plate of spicy enchiladas, roses, a romance novel, a guitar, and sugar-crusted pan de muerto. The lowest level was sprinkled with dirt and straw, to symbolize going back to the earth. I didn’t ask how the girl had died. It seems such a wonderful way to celebrate people’s lives and acknowledge the reality of death, rather than sweeping it under the rug as we tend to in the States.

Those orange marigolds—I had seen fields of them from the plane on the way in, and wondered what crop could possibly be that color. I asked a Mexican friend for the name of the flowers: zenpaxuchil. Decidely not a Spanish name; I had to ask him to repeat it a handful of times before I could make any sense of it. It comes from Nahuatl (still widely spoken in parts of Michoacan): zenpa (death) + xochitl (flower). I wonder whether the Mari- in marigold is the Virgin Mary, and whether this is another blending of traditions… in any case, by the time I left Mexico, all those bright gold fields had been harvested and the land was again the color of cornstalks.

5. Future directions. I have been thinking a lot about future directions, especially after the workshop, but in a broader sense than just research directions. I’m getting tired of the provisional feeling of everything in my life right now: a rented house where I stay sometimes less than a week out of each month, a job with no real possibility of advancement, temporary romance. Even most of my good friends here are planning to leave sometime—ticos leaving to do graduate work in the US or Europe, gringos finishing their graduate research and going back to the States. I’m 30 years old and I want to feel like some part of my life, at least, is going somewhere.

I’ve started looking for jobs, although this seems to be a very poor year for academic openings. My ideal post, while I’m dreaming: small liberal arts college in New England. If you know of anything, let me know.


At 8:10 AM, Blogger Em said...

Ah, yes, Google reader allows me to keep up with you and your sporadic posting. :-)

I'm happy you had a wonderful conference experience and I wish you luck in your job search. I'll stay tuned to hear out it's going. I'd love to buy you a beer and talk a little bit more in depth, but I don't think that I will be making it to Costa Rica any time soon. But let me know if you come here (or to D.C. -- that's pretty close).

At 2:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Campmor Retail store always has openings. You won't get rich but you will meet interesting people and all the girls at Campmor always get dates. Just think how hot you would look in a CAMPMOR STAFF shirt.


Roger W

At 11:37 PM, Blogger Richardo said...

Susan - I met you in 2000 (Mahoosics) and I'm just about finished with your first book. FANTASTIC read. It's not in any of the bookstores up here in NH, surprisingly. It should be hopping off the shelves up here, it is SOOOO good. Fun to catch up with your whereabouts now ... you deserve an awesome relationship - good luck.

At 7:35 PM, Anonymous オテモヤン said...

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