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, October 30, 2010

Part V, the last

After a few hours on the river, we ended up back at Puerto Infierno, which was resolutely not living up to its name. Even the second-growth forest around the docks and the souvenir stand looked full of promise and mystery, and the green shade under the mango trees was delicious. We caught a taxi back to Puerto Maldonado and found a halfway decent hotel, and set out to explore the town.

About half the streets of Puerto Maldonado are paved. The others, in the dry season, throw off a constant fine grit that adheres to everything, kicked up by the constant passage of motorbike taxis. The town is at the confluence of the Tambopata and the Madre de Dios, and John took me down to a park overlooking the two rivers. Blaze-orange pylons, strung with flags like a used car dealership, mark the place where a bridge will soon be built over the Madre de Dios, the last link in the Interoceanic Highway across South America. This bridge will be the floodgate for illegal logging, illegal gold mining, settlements, poaching—the end of wilderness. I had heard about the project, but seeing it first-hand, so close to completion, struck me like a physical blow. It was hard not to see those bridge pylons as gallows. I feel at once so fortunate to have seen this part of the world while it was still wild, and so desperate to do something to keep it that way, and so powerless. People need livelihoods: if it comes to a choice between cutting the last tree and letting my family starve, I know what I’d choose. And who am I to impose my developed-country values on other people who are struggling to survive? But it seems such a desecration to see that forest, that primeval, ageless, self-renewing miracle, give way to gas stations and fast-food restaurants and the craziness of more-more-more that infects our society. I think about that moment of joy, alone in the canoe. That’s what wilderness gives us and no city will ever provide.

One other story that comes back to me now as I write this: the first night at the lodge, when we were exploring the dark forest. So many marvelous creatures came to light, and such diversity; entomologists are good at spotting the small and often startlingly beautiful denizens of the world. John told me about a group of students he had brought to the lodge some years ago. He asked them, “why are there so many different kinds?” This question, in some form, has been asked by scientists and philosophers for centuries, and we still don’t have a good handle on it. But one of the students answered, “porque se puede!” Because it’s possible. As good an answer as any. And as good an answer, I suspect, as we will ever have.

This trip has given me much to think about. Hope and beauty, and the sense of transcending the limits that I imagined around me. And at the same time, the sense that time is running out for the Amazon forest. How is it possible to balance personal happiness in the face of such an impending loss?

This was something that John and I spent a lot of time talking about. He has suffered his shares of slings and arrows, and ended up, I think, the happiest nihilist I’ve ever met. He doesn’t have much hope for humanity in the long run, but in the short run he has a keen appreciation for the wonder of being alive. On the way out to the lake, we stopped to look at the nest of a harpy eagle, now abandoned. He said the female had been seen at the nest calling for a mate for several years without success, and then she vanished. Harpy eagles are hunted here, for no good reason. (One of the guides had told us that a friend of his had killed one, at a logging camp where they were working. He said the bird was the size of a child. He had kept one of the talons, but he lost it somewhere.) John and I started talking about life and love and loss, there in the forest under the empty nest, and to my embarrassment I found myself crying. Thinking about the harpy eagle, the bad decisions in my past. He touched my shoulder. “Life is beautiful,” he said gently. “Look around you.” And it was. And it is.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Part IV: A tapir, almost...

After dinner John, Jon, and I hiked out into the forest to see colpas, mineral-rich areas where all kinds of animals gather to get nutrients that are scarce elsewhere in the forest. The most famous colpas are the clay banks where parrots and macaws gather, usually along rivers, but the flat-ground colpas in the forest are impressive to see as well. As we headed off into the dark forest, the trees around us buzzing with hidden life, I wondered what we would see. The night before, walking near the campsite, we’d found John’s favorite snake, Imantodes (cat-eyed snake), a slender, striped nocturnal snake so tranquilo that it puts up with being handled and photographed. Non-venomous, of course!

The first sign of a nearby colpa was a fine spatter of gray mud over all the leaves on the trail for nearly 100 meters. “Peccaries,” John said, pointing out how the leaf litter was churned up and muddy. These were white-lipped peccaries, larger and reportedly more aggressive than the collared peccaries at La Selva. They move in larger groups, too; up to several hundred. We had smelled them in the forest the day before—a heady, thick rotten-garlic funk even less pleasant than the old-gym-sock odor of the collared peccaries.

The peccary tracks led us to the first colpa, the source of the gray mud spattered over everything. The colpa was an open mud wallow, puddles of soupy gray denuded of vegetation by the constant passage of large mammals. The cloven footprints of peccaries stippled the banks. A hint of their scent still clung to the vegetation, and an overpowering odor of mammal urine rose out of the mud. We spotted footprints of a few species that had passed by after the peccary herd: coatis, something that might have been a medium-sized cat, and the unmistakable three-pronged track of a tapir. The name of the lake, Sachavacayoc, means “place of the tapir” in Quechua (well, a hybrid of Quechua and Spanish; sacha = wild, Quechua; vaca = cow, Spanish; yoc = place, Quechua). I’ve never had the chance to see a tapir in the wild—footprints and scat, yes, but never the beast itself. I had high hopes.

We decided to walk out to the next colpa, further down the trail. John, walking ahead, spotted something in the underbrush. He motioned to me and Jon to follow. Something large went crashing away, and John hissed, “Tapir! Tapir!” I strained my eyes to follow the beam of his headlamp, but it was gone before I could spot it. We heard the noise as it hot-footed up the ridge and out into the night jungle. So I guess I still haven’t seen a tapir in the wild, but I came close.

On the way back to camp, we spotted a lovely little owl perched on a branch above the first colpa. If the small mammals are as partial to the place as the large ones, it must be good hunting.

After eating a few more Brazil nuts for the road, we walked back to the lodge on the riverbank on another glorious day—sunny but with an occasional cool wind out of the understory, and birds and butterflies gloriously alive everywhere. I delayed our start for a while, trying to take a picture of one particularly gorgeous butterfly near the water’s edge, with brilliant blue wings and a maddening tendency to close them in response to my camera shutter. But I finally managed.

The last day that I stayed at the lodge, John had some work to do preparing for the group’s arrival and sorting his insect samples, so I went for a hike by myself. I walked out to Lago Condenado, the old oxbow lake filled in with reeds where we’d almost seen an anaconda. It was late afternoon, and the jungle filled up with a quiet golden light. Monkeys chirped back and forth in the high branches. At the lake, I stepped into the dugout canoe. John had made it look easy to paddle one, but it was anything but. For someone who grew up on the Maine lakes, maneuvering featherweight 17’ Old Towns with a featherweight paddle, this was a new experience. The boat, built out of a single hollowed trunk with the edges shored up with planks, must have outweighed a tapir, and the paddle, solid wood carved out of a thin buttress, probably weighed a good few kilos itself. Clearly, the dip-and-swing method was out. But I had watched John’s technique (and watched him have a good laugh at one of the guides, who didn’t know how to “remar como un peruano,” zigzagging his way across the cocha by switching sides with every few strokes of the paddle). I copied what I could remember: keeping the blade of the paddle in the water always, turning it sideways to move it forward and then turning the flat of the blade to draw water, and making a little outward flick at the end, like a more active J-stroke, to keep the boat moving more or less in the right direction. I wasn’t elegant, but I managed.

Somewhere in the middle of the oxbow lake, watching the sun go down behind the Mauritia palms, I was overcome by a feeling I haven’t had since I stood on Katahdin almost a decade ago: peace, joy, pride in my accomplishments. A deep and abiding contentment. The feeling that whatever has transpired has been worth it, to bring me to this place. The last golden light was touching the reeds at the water’s edge, lending them the fragile, transient, hopeful green the of first new beech leaves unfolding in spring, and the sky overhead was pure and limitless, a color without name. Macaws flew over and hoatzins in the bushes croaked out their prehistoric hosannas. I was in the middle of the Amazon, by myself in a canoe in the middle of an oxbow lake in the wilderness. As long as I live I will remember this.

Early the next morning we had to leave. The Tambopata was flowing blood-red from eroded clay upstream. I tossed my duffle bag into the boat and took one last look back at the lodge. Who knows if I will ever be back. Two weeks earlier, I never would have imagined being there at all. But something has changed in me, this trip. Suddenly I feel again that everything is possible, that the only limits to what I can accomplish are the limits I set for myself.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Part III, in which we meet the giant anaconda

We hiked into the forest to spend two nights at another oxbow lake, miles from anywhere, camping on a thatched-roof platform close to the water. When we arrived, guides from another lodge were just leaving with their group of tourists, and they told us about an enormous anaconda hauled out on the far bank, apparently digesting a large caiman. John and I jumped into a dugout with two Peruvians, Jon and Isaac, to go look for it. We paddled stealthily along the lake margin, under tall stately Mauritia palms. I saw something that looked to be the right color for an anaconda, hauled out on the bank, but my first thought was that it was far too large to be a snake. I could feel my brain undergoing an odd sort of rearrangement then, redefining the mental category “snake.” It reminded me of the first time I saw a giant sequoia in California, when I was 16, driving up a mountain road with my parents. We had come around a bend in the road, and up ahead I could see that the road curved again to go around… something monumental, colossal, columnar, shaggy brown, that my brain slowly expanded the category “tree” to make room for. And so it was for this anaconda, something so far outside my previous experience of snakes as to necessitate that shift.

The part we could see of the anaconda was at least five meters, and its tail trailed off, hidden under palm leaves. It must have eaten recently; a bulge in its body about two meters long and almost as thick as the palm trunk beside it indicated the final resting place of a hapless caiman. Jon and Isaac edged the canoe up beside it so we could take photos. I was nervous about getting too close; I had seen an anaconda about a quarter the size of this one take a nasty chunk out of Franklin in the serpentarium in La Virgen de Sarapiquí. (As my mother later remarked, that snake was a good judge of character.) But this wild anaconda on the bank of an oxbow lake miles from nowhere was more interested in basking and digesting its prey than in taking a chunk out of anybody, and gradually we brought the canoe closer. Eventually I stepped out on the half-submerged palm log that served as a convenient jetty, and got probably closer than was wise in the interest of photography. But you only live once.

At sunset, we went to look for monkeys. John heard them from halfway across the lake: squirrel monkeys, whistling and chattering in the treetops. “A waterfall of monkeys,” he said, and it truly was. Squirrel monkeys travel in troops of several hundred, and they bounced through the canopy one after another just like their namesakes. A troupe of brown capuchins, maybe 30, followed after them. Monkeys are magical to see in the wild; their little faces, so expressive, almost human and yet so alien; their fluid movement through the trees. We watched them climb up into the Mauritia palms to spend the night, going hand-over-hand up the vines like sailors climbing ratlines.

We woke up in the gray light of 5 am, the forest coming alive, and bolted our morning Nescafe. Down to the dock again, and a quick paddle over to the far end of the lake as the sky went from opaque gray to pearly silver-pink. The macaws were just waking up in their treetop nests and heading to the forest for the day. We watched flocks of them go overhead, always in pairs, arguing back and forth in their cackling voices like bickering couples. One pair stayed around their nest in a hole at the top of a palm snag, popping in and out of view, muttering, and preening each other. A light mist rose out of the water, vanishing as the sun came up.

In mid-morning we took a walk through the forest on the far side of the cocha in tierra firme forest, the area above the periodic rainy season floods. On the high terraces, Brazil nut trees spread out their tall and elegant silhouettes above the rest of the forest. They are emergent trees, some of them edging towards 50 m tall (165 ft) and nearly 2 m (6 ft) in diameter. Some of these trees have been estimated at >1000 years old. I always feel reverent in the presence of trees that venerable, especially when they are also lovely to look at. And delicious to eat—we found a few old seed pods on the ground, which John hacked open with his machete to reveal the seeds nested inside. Fresh Brazil nuts are nothing like the ones they sell in stores, roasted and salted within an inch of their lives. Right out of the shell, in the middle of the forest, they taste heavenly, like fresh coconut or sweet corn right out of the garden. We gathered a few to take back with us.

Back at the camping platform, we spent the afternoon in a fruitless attempt to fish for piranhas. Apparently the last group of guides had hidden fishing poles near the camping platform, but they hid them so well that our repeated searches turned up nothing. Well, we found a few poles and a bit of monofilament line, but no hooks. It would have been a matter of two hours, probably, to hike back to the main lodge and get some, but we were feeling lazy and MacGyver-ish in equal parts. Jon found a length of wire somewhere and hammered it into a hook shape with his machete. John cut down some paca, with its hook-like barbs, and I tried to rig up something from one of the smaller branches. We baited our improvised hooks with bits of leftover chicken skin from the previous night’s dinner. The bait vanished in short order when our hooks were dropped into the murky water, but the fish were so stealthy we couldn’t even feel them nibbling. Smart piranhas. We were reduced to a dinner of boiled pasta with no sauce except ketchup, and the sempiternal Nescafe.

Next up: a tapir! or at least its disappearing hind end…

Monday, October 25, 2010

Crazy adventure, part II

So this was how I found myself, after a frantic two days at home writing job applications and a couple days of travel, trundling down the red clay road to Puerto Infierno in the back of a taxi with a Dutch entomologist who I’d known for a little over a week.

Fortunately he turned out to be a nice guy, and the place we visited turned out to be even more beautiful than pictures could convey. The lodge was set back from the bank of the Río Tambopata, a couple hours upstream from Puerto Infierno, a complex of thatched huts set around a soccer field with paths leading back into the forest. Oropendolas and caciques, nesting in the palm trees above the lodge, emblazoned the air with their bizarre warbling songs. Nearby, a few cleared areas (chacras) close to the river held bananas, plantains, carambola (star fruit), pineapple, and other crops. And the forest… on my first trip to Peru we mainly stayed on the river, and I had only a few short walks into the jungle. I also knew nothing about botany at the time. This time, I could really appreciate the diversity of what was around me—one of the richest forests on earth, with ten times as many species in a hectare (c. 300) as in the entire British Isles (33).

Close to the lodge it was mostly secondary forest, dominated by an aggressive species of climbing bamboo in the genus Guadua, locally called paca. “I guess I have a love/hate relationship with paca,” John commented dryly as he hacked through the umpteenth fallen tangle of it with his machete. It would be probably more of a pure hate relationship if he wasn’t studying a genus of flies that happens to breed on the cut stems. I helped him set up Malaise traps in a couple places near where we’d cut up a bunch of paca clearing trails, and he got some good specimens.

Further back from the river, the secondary forest gave way to old-growth lowland tropical forest: giant buttressed trees festooned with vines and lianas; palms and small trees filling in the understory; the muted calls of birds and insects filtering down, blending into one stillness. All the green in the world. It was the end of the dry season and leaves crackled underfoot. As dusk drew on, fireflies lit up the understory with traveling flashes of golden light.

We walked in the forest every day and most nights as well. I realized I’d never spent much time in the forest at night in La Selva—I had always considered it an advantage of working with plants, in fact, that one can study them by daylight. But there is much to be said for the forest by night. We spotted kinkajous, a mouse opossum, many species of frogs, and a few lovely little tree snakes. We saw several species of tarantulas, although, to my lasting regret, the fabled Bolivian blue-leg (the size of a dinner plate, and sounding almost too much like a Harry Potter monster to be believed) never materialized. (Pictured: the also charmingly-named pink-toed tarantula.) Molting katydids, milky pale and alien-looking before their skins hardened, hung from the undersides of leaves. The sounds are different at night, too; more urgent and layered.

On our second day at the station, a cold rain settled in. (It does get cold, surprisingly cold, in this part of the world—air masses moving down off the Andes can bring the temperature down to 6° C; 42° Fahrenheit). We were running low on food, too. The rain apparently made the road to Puerto Infierno impassible—no surprise there—and the planned shipment wouldn’t arrive. Fortunately there was plenty in the chacras. John ventured out to check his Malaise traps and returned with a load of green plantains, avocados, and carambola. Two of the Peruvian guides went fishing in the late afternoon, when the rain let up, but they returned with three tiny fish, the largest about the size of a deck of cards. We made an excellent meal of patacones with guacamole and fresco de carambola. And half a bite of fish.

We hiked out one afternoon to the nearest oxbow lake, mostly filled in with reeds and vegetation. John paddled a dugout canoe through the narrow channel between reed beds. I watched macaws fly over in formation, their elegant long silhouettes contrasting with their raucous, obnoxious calls. Near the channel, hoatzins stalked about the bushes looking and sounding like something out of the Mesozoic. From around one bend we saw a ripple crossing the channel that looked like an anaconda—if it was a caiman, the head would have been visible—but we couldn’t paddle fast enough to get close before it vanished into the reeds.

Coming up next: anaconda!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The latest crazy adventure, part I

The proverbial road to hell is paved with good intentions. The (quite literal) road to Puerto Infierno is not paved at all, except for about 100 meters where it joins the (also unpaved) back streets of Puerto Maldonado; it’s carved out of red Amazon mud between walls of jungle, and must be entirely impassible when the rains come. But perhaps I should explain how I came to know this.

I guess the story really starts back at the beginning of September, when I was at Las Cruces Biological Station with the course. September is generally a slow time for research at Las Cruces. Besides the USAP group and the usual complement of retired bird enthusiasts, the only people at Las Cruces were a pair of German researchers, Alex and Anke, studying wood anatomy. They were wonderful people with infectious good spirits, and their quirky sense of humor exactly matched mine. Every night after dinner, if I didn’t have an evening lecture, I would linger at the table with them exchanging stories and crazy ideas.

One night—I’m not sure how we got started—we were talking about our favorite animal sounds. I made an impression of my all-time favorite, the tree frog Smilisca baudinii, a distinctly un-froglike, flapping, nasal “mep-mep-mep.” They were in stitches, and refused to believe it was a real animal sound until I sent them this link. After that, every time we met they would greet me with “mep-mep-mep!”

Fast-forward to the end of September, one slow Sunday at La Selva Biological Station. A pair of researchers showed up a few minutes after reception closed. Both were tall men, one with a blond ponytail and one with short dark hair. I marked them instantly as entomologists by the obviously well-used butterfly nets tucked into their packs. I was sitting in front of the comedor grading papers, and a few of my students were nearby studying—this was a couple days before midterms.

The blond guy asked a student, “usted trabaja aquí?” But he’d picked the wrong girl, one who didn’t speak a word of Spanish. (Hopefully she does by now; the students are in week 3 of their homestay at the moment!)

I stepped in to introduce myself ask if I could help. This was how I met John, a Dutch entomologist on a year-long sabbatical in South and Central America. The other researcher, Alessio, was an Italian Lepidoptera enthusiast on vacation.

“Oh, are you Susan?” John said. “Then I have a message for you.” And he managed a quite passable imitation of Smilisca baudinii: “mep mep mep…”

I doubled over laughing. It turns out that John had met Alex and Anke while he was traveling in Santa Rosa, and had a great time with them as well. I decided that anyone who got on well with those two would be worth knowing, and so I sat with John and Alessio at dinner. Their company proved entertaining. The next evening I sat with them again. Afterwards, John was uploading photos to facebook, and he showed me some images of the site where he works in southeastern Peru: wild rivers and oxbow lakes, all kinds of wildlife, thatched huts at the edge of the jungle.

“I’d love to go back there,” I said. I was in Peru for three weeks when I was 17, and that trip changed my life in a lot of ways. For one thing, I don’t think I would have hiked the AT if I hadn’t gone. But that is another story.

“Come, then,” he said. “I’d be happy to show you around. You can stay at the lodge for the researcher rate.”

“But when?”

“Next week. I have a group coming in on the 16th, but before that I’ll be at the lodge getting set up. You should come. It would be fun.”

“Next week? That’s crazy! That’s…” I made some calculations. My break would start on the afternoon of the 3rd. I still had three job applications to finish, along with the interminable grading. I tried to put the thought out of my mind, but that night I couldn’t sleep, thinking about the Amazon and that oxbow lake in John’s pictures. I got up early and looked at plane tickets. There’s a direct TACA flight from San Jose to Lima, and there were still a few tickets for a halfway reasonable price.

At breakfast the next morning I marched over to the table where John and Alessio were finishing their coffee. “John, I want to go with you to Peru!” At this point, mind you, I had known him for less than three days. He laughed about as hard as I had at his “mep-mep-mep,” but then he grinned and said, “excellent.”

To be continued...

Wouldn't you go to the Amazon with this guy, if the opportunity arose?