Friday, February 29, 2008

Slippery Soils and Slithery snakes


I have never seen anything like the road between the site and the highway (which goes between Manaus and Caracas). I am looking at it now - a bed of shiny camel-brown clay, etched with streams of clear rainwater flowing down in miniature versions of the Amazon watershed - tributaries flowing to the steep sides of the road cuts. This is everything that is the problem of agriculture in the tropics: soils leached of any nutrients and organic matter, aged and whethered, incapable of absorbing the daily torrential downpours, and yet host to so much life it's mind-blowing. The forest leans in to the road, and a typical drive to the highway involves driving around several tree-falls (fortunately all small enough so far to hack through - if an emergent collapses on the road, we're stuck for days), fast driving through ever-growing pools of water (we are recommended not to open the doors as there have been caiman sightings), and more topography than I imagined in the Amazon. There is a constantly rolling landscape.

On Monday afternoon, there was a 7-foot long bright green snake stretched out on the road between the instrument container and the lodging. When he finally decided to move out of the way and let us pass, he coiled himself into an S-shape and slithered UP the 2-m vertical roadcut, expertly levering himself on the branches of hanging ferns.

We climbed to the top of the K34 tower in the late-afternoon a few days ago to watch the sunset. There had been a pause in the rain, and the forest dripped with water. It's about an hour hike to the tower, and then a few minutes to climb 60m to the top. The view is incredible. A never-ending forest - like being in the middle of the ocean on a boat. Except that instead of the ocean, where most of what you see is fluid with occasional moments of life in the form of fish or whales, here you have 40+ meters of solid life, with occasional gaps of atmosphere in between. Everywhere you look is different shades of green. As the sun set (admittedly, not as spectacular as we had hoped, but it did produce a beautiful quality of light), we saw a huge single scarlet macaw swoop across the top of the canopy, dive between the trees, and rest on the top of a near-by emergent. He was close enough to see the red and blue feathers - and the white of his beak. Through which, for such a colourful and stunning creature, he makes a decidedly horrible squawking racket. (Which seems typical of this ecosystem - the most beautiful creatures sound dreadful, while the plainest brown bird will produce the most distinguished notes). As the temperature dropped, you could see a perfect example of atmospheric phenomena: clouds forming at the tops of trees in the lower valleys of the rolling topography - as the temperature dipped to the right point relative to the humidity.

Once the sun had gone down and the stars had come out, our group of five made our way down the tower and back through the trail - a slightly adrenaline-pumping experience, particularly when you pause and turn your flashlight off and listen to the sounds. An animal is calling out on every frequency you can hear - frogs using empty tree trunks as echo-chambers, birds whistling to prospective mates, insects chirping. And not just every frequency - but from every height in the forest and from every distance. It's like standing in a complete sphere of noise, and it isn't until we were within a few meters of the lodge that we could hear human voices over the din of the forest. Walking in for dinner felt a little like stepping into another world and knowing that you belonged in this one, but didn't want to leave the other...

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