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 08, 2010

A word for the day

There’s a word that keeps rising up to the top of my mind: palimpsest. The word in itself is kind of ugly, one of those forlorn orphans slumped in the corners of GRE review sessions along with pulchritude and concupiscence, but the meaning is poetic enough. I’d been thinking of the word for weeks, and one morning it showed up in my email inbox as the Merriam-Webster word of the day, and I knew that I would have to write this.

A palimpsest, literally, was a piece of parchment that was scraped down so that something new could be written on the surface, but traces of the old writing often remained. In so many of the landscapes I pass through, I have this sense of intersecting layers, but none more so than La Selva. Each time I visit there, the past wells up underneath the present. I remember my first experience there, when I was nineteen and so desperate to prove myself. On my first foray off the trail, less than ten meters into the forest, I put my hand up to brush away a clump of vines, only to find them covered in angry army ants. I swatted them off frantically and stepped back, just in time to see something large and dark slither past my boot. I took a few deep breaths and thought to myself, I will not be intimidated! and I continued the transect, though I was half-convinced that I wouldn’t survive the day. I think, in a large part, it was that stubbornness that brought me back. Stubbornness and curiosity. The challenge of finding a meaningful pattern in that wall of green.

I remember the exact curve of the trail where I flew off my bicycle, losing control on a slippery turn, and took a nasty chunk off the heel of my right hand when I flung that arm out, automatically, to break the impact of my fall. Self-defense moves that protect you on a gym floor aren’t as good at twenty miles an hour. I remember lying there on the pavement looking up through the leaves, under the waves of cicada sound, and thinking how unusual it was to just lie back and look up at the trees. All the canopies fit together so neatly. I stayed there a little while, dazed, before I could summon the energy to look at my hand. The scar’s still there; it’s one among many this place has given me.

I remember standing on the bridge one night, with the almost-full moon and a few stars just visible through the mist rising off the river. The water was a little above the banks, and I could hear it lapping at the bases of trees. It must have been November or December 2006; the Zygia longifolia along the river banks was filling the air with a dense scent of roses. I remember the feeling in my chest, tight and uncertain and at the same time overjoyed. I was in love. And there, as much as I would like to keep him out of this narrative, was Franklin. We were holding hands and looking downstream, and talking about possible futures. I could barely see his face in that light, but I could tell he was smiling.

After everything, I came back to La Selva. I had a work contract, after all, and I had loved the place before I loved him. I was somehow comforted by how little had changed, how the forest continued green and rapacious and all-encompassing, the vines longer each day and the leaf cutter ants making new trails, the dead leaves and fallen trees sinking back into the red earth so fast.

I took the job with OTS anyway, even though one of my major reasons for it was gone. I wish I could say it has been everything I hoped for. (This is not the place to elaborate. Like I said, buy me a beer.) Each year I come back to La Selva as a professor, guiding student projects and trying to keep people safe out there. Each year there are fewer people I know, and I feel less of a right to sit down at the long-term researcher table and trade stories with the veterans. I build new layers of memories: here’s where, when I was trying to teach how to recognize Fabaceae, I was upstaged by a pair of iguanas chasing each other through the trees at the edge of the river until both of them fell in the water. Here’s where a student of mine, walking in sandals in the dark the day after the safety lecture, nearly stepped on a fer-de-lance.

On my latest return to La Selva, I was working as a translator, logistics coordinator, and professor for a non-OTS group. My old friend Dennis, he of the radio-tracked fer-de-lances and famous chocolate chip cookies, is now a professor in Connecticut. I helped him organize an introductory tropical ecology course for non-majors. We spent ten days touring the country, visiting volcanos, dry forest, cloud forest, La Selva, and the beach. (Officially, according to OTS, I was on vacation.) For most of the students, it was their first trip out of the US. It was great to see this country through their eyes. They were fascinated with things I tend to take for granted, like leaf cutter ants and Morpho butterflies. It was wonderful to catch up with Dennis again, and we worked awfully well together. We enjoyed it, the students enjoyed it, and by their questions it was evident that they were learning and experiencing a lot of new things.

There was only one moment of the trip that was difficult. From La Selva, we took a side trip to La Virgen. Dennis said, “hey, we could stop by the serpentarium! I know the guys who run it.” I do, too, but the last time I saw them I arrived there on the back of Franklin’s motorcycle. For all I knew he was still there.

I protested quietly: “I’d rather not; my ex-boyfriend used to work there and he still might be around. I’d rather not see him.” But I didn’t specify which ex, and the students were enthusiastic about seeing the snakes—we’d seen a few species in the field, but none of the giant venomous ones that Dennis loves. And then I thought, why not? It’s been time enough. In the first few months after I got the email from Franklin’s wife, I wondered what I would do if I ever saw him again. Would I attack him? Would I fall back into his arms? Or would I have the strength to just walk away? I thought of all the things that I would say to him, before I finally realized that there is no way to salvage anything out of this, and nothing, nothing at all to say.

We got out of the bus and went into the entrance of the serpentarium. Dennis talked to the owner’s wife, who was taking tickets, and we headed into the maze of glass-fronted cages. It was just like I remembered, the snakes coiled like jeweled necklaces around branches or hiding under rocks. They didn’t move much; the afternoon heat was pressing down.

I heard the owner’s voice in the doorway: “Dennis, here’s a friend of yours.” Franklin was there, maybe two meters away. I looked at him and I felt—nothing. I didn’t even find him attractive. I had to say something for the sake of politeness, so I said, “como está?” The formal usted form of the verb came to my lips without thought.

“Bien,” he said. “Mas o menos.” Good, more or less. And that was it. I continued on through the displays, talking to the students and the owner’s son as though nothing had happened.

After we dropped the students off, Dennis said, “I had no idea he was working there. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have gone.”

“It’s OK,” I said. And to my surprise, it really was. I felt better, having seen him and realized that I truly don’t care anymore. Later, when I thought about it, I was more angry than anything else: that was the person I wasted two years of my life mourning for? Why? He’s just a guy, not terribly bright or brave or even attractive, who works in a snake zoo in Sarapiquí.

For so long, he was my excuse for all the things in my life that have not gone as planned. Once I had thought that I’d have a stable job and a family by the time I turned 30; instead, at age 31, I find myself with no romantic prospects and working a job that keeps me jumping from place to place too much to have much hope of a social life. But I can’t blame Franklin for all this, or even OTS. I try not to place too much blame on myself. If there is one thing I have learned in life, it is that the universe is vaster and less kind than we like to imagine.


At 7:56 PM, Blogger Rachel said...

vast and unkind, but we must love it for its brokenness.

I am glad you are well, Susan.

At 10:02 PM, Blogger Susan said...

Well spoken, Rachel. And thank you.


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