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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

How the months are flying. Alex came to lunch yesterday, on her way to Heredia on a hardware store run, and she exclaimed how long my hair has gotten. I realized we hadn’t seen each other since January.

Work continues apace. The last site we visited was Palo Verde, actually quite lovely in the dry season. No jabirus this year, but I did see a pair of scarlet macaws again.

The highlight of recent months was a visit to Panama, at the invitation of my colleague and friend Stefan. We organized a symposium together at ATBC last year. His flight was delayed, and I ended up giving his talk, an overview of the last 40 years of liana research, with less than an hour of advance notice. I think the invitation to Panama may have been an effort to make up for this, in which case the debt is paid in full and then some! Stefan organized a talk for me on Barro Colorado Island, one of the major centers for research in Central America (the other is La Selva). Besides inviting me to speak, he gave me a room in his house in Gamboa, cooked great meals, introduced me to many interesting scientists, and wouldn’t let me pay for a thing.

After a long but uneventful bus ride from San Jose, I wound up in the Panama City bus terminal in the dead of night. (Fortunately I had thought to bring a copy of “The Jungle Books,” which is delightful to re-read after all these years.) The first bus left for Gamboa at 5 am, and by 6 I was sitting at a ramshackle fast-food stand by the soccer field in Gamboa, drinking halfway decent coffee and watching the sun come up over the Panama Canal. Uniformed canal workers were the only other people eating breakfast; they dispatched plates of fried pork, plantains, boiled sweet potatoes, and wads of fried dough called hojaldres. When the coffee kicked in I ordered a couple hojaldres myself, and thus fortified I went in search of a payphone to call Stefan.

Gamboa is not really a town per se; it’s more of a bedroom community, though one with a longer history than most. The place was constructed for canal worker housing in the 1930s, with the lower-class housing down along the canal and the more luxurious houses for high-level canal functionaries up the hill where cool breezes keep the air pleasant. And thus it has remained, more or less, although now the fancy houses on the hill are occupied by staff scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) rather than the upper echelons of the dredging division, and some of the former worker housing has been bulldozed to make way for a gargantuan plant science research facility. There’s no real town center, aside from the soccer field; no market, not even a bar. If it weren’t for canal business and science, Gamboa would vanish from the map. Fortunately, both canal business and science seem to be thriving here.

Stefan’s house is one of the luxurious houses on the hill, with high ceilings and a spacious floor plan. The houses were built of imported redwood, impervious to termites, with copper roofs, hardwood floors, and all the amenities. In the backyard is a small patch of forest including an impressively rugged and large mahogany tree. Stefan showed me a picture of a harpy eagle, released from a reintroduction program, perched in the branches of that mahogany.

The day after I arrived, once I’d had a chance to catch up on sleep, we went out to visit Barro Colorado Island. I’d been hearing stories about the island for years. There’s a bit of a rivalry between La Selva and BCI, to put it mildly, and I was eager to see what the other side consisted of. Well, all I can say is that it’s different—a vastly unsatisfying answer to those who like rivalries, but the only one I can come up with. The lab facilities and housing are a bit more up-to-date, one of the perks of being a line item in the budget rather than depending on grants. The forest is beautiful, and seems easier to work in than La Selva: a more open understory, hardly any venomous snakes, and fewer bala ants. (Apparently they are mainly active at night here, perhaps because it’s a drier forest.) The trail network seems more confusing than La Selva’s, although I only explored a tiny fraction of it. The food—well, it’s a toss-up; the corn fritters one night were great, but the cucumber-based vegetable ragout at lunch rivaled La Selva’s beans and soy chunks/low grade meat (a concoction we used to call “Alpo night”) in sheer inedibility. The social scene at BCI revolves around hard drinking, as it sometimes did at La Selva, although seldom to this extent. Perhaps it’s something about being on an island, there in the middle of the canal with no way to retreat into one’s own space. Stefan spent a lot of time there as a graduate student, but he balks at the thought of spending a night on the island now: “when that boat leaves at 3:40, and you’re not on it, it’s like the end of the world.” La Selva, as insular as it is, at least has a built-in escape valve. You can jump on a bus and be at the beach in three hours, San Jose in an hour and a half, or you can just call a taxi into town and enjoy a pizza or the humid nightlife of Sarapiquí. Something about the atmosphere of a research station, where everyone’s stress commingles, makes the ability to escape a very useful one.

The scientific work at BCI is impressive. I miss being surrounded by a community of researchers, and it was great to be able to discuss science again with all the geeky abandon of graduate students. I learned about ongoing projects in plant-soil feedbacks; the behavior and spatial distribution of capuchin monkeys, tamanduas, and coatis; the molecular ecology of fig wasps; the effects of large mammal exclosures on seed dispersal; the developmental plasticity of tadpoles; the ecophysiology of trees and lianas… the list goes on. I met many potential collaborators on future projects, although I’m not sure I would want to be based at BCI in the long term. A few months on the island would be interesting, though, with the right crowd.

My talk was well received. I managed to pull it together, despite the craziness of Palo Verde and the usual stresses of my all-too-brief days off. Now I just need to get the manuscript finished… which is what I really should be doing now, instead of writing a blog entry!

I am back to work again on Sunday, and hoping I can find a cab driver in this excessively Catholic country who will actually drive me to the office at 6 am on Easter! Next stops: Monteverde and Cabo Blanco, both without internet. My break (April 19-23, I think) will probably be spent going through my inbox.