Monday, June 22, 2009

Midnight sun

At some point while the sky morphed from sunset to sunrise on Midsummer night, I realized why this night is so celebrated: the sky never stopped varying in shades of pink of orange, with the sun just dipping below the horizon for an hour or two. It's a view worth its own weekend of traditions...

I was invited to a friend's cottage for the weekend: this is what everyone in Finland does for the weekend: head to a cottage on a lake and hang out in the sauna. And by everyone, I mean EVERYONE: the cities are apparently turned into ghost towns with almost every store, restaurant and hotel emptied. There are standard cottage pleasures: we cooked frequently and ate massive quantities of crepes (cooked them on what I can only describe as an outdoor pan over a cauldron of fire) and potatoes and porridge, went hiking around the lake, and sat on the old rocking chairs and watched the birds. But there are additional Midsummer traditions: in the sauna, we had a vihta: a bunch of birch branches bound together with new twigs with which you thwack yourself. It may sound odd, but it enhances the tingling sensation you get as your skin adjusts from the 15C lake water to the 83C sauna. It also smells heavenly.

More than all that, though, the highlight of the weekend was the dancing. On Friday and Saturday night, we drove about ten or fifteen minutes to the local Dance Hall - a large ballroom on the lake with windows for walls and a wooden patio extending to the water's edge. The bands were excellent and played the whole gamut from foxtrot and waltz to traditional yenka and humppa (which I at least managed to follow, and am quite proud of the fact) - punctuated with a little jive and lindy hop for good measure. The dances started at 9pm, and ended around 2 to 3am. Which meant a new version of jetlag in which waking up at 7am (what? before noon?) seemed rather dreadful this morning.

Fortunately, my hosts warned me about the protocol: you dance two songs (always in the same style) with one partner, and then get taken to the lines. If you want to dance, the women line up along a wall - roughly by age, as do the men. The men then ask the ladies to dance, unless it's the hour of Naisen haku and the ladies do the asking. I had, of course, the additional awkwardness of not speaking Finnish. I was the only foreigner at the dance hall - potentially the only one ever? I found that my line of "Sorry, I don't speak Finnish" in response to my partner's first comment was either a great conversation starter or ender. A few blithely ignored me and continued to speak in Finnish, others in English (with the inevitable question of 'are there dance halls like this in America?'), and one notable one in Spanish (we were both equally amused about our one common language).

Despite my lack of dancing shoes, I managed to dance most of the evening. By about 1am, the floor cleared a little and the bands played a little more of the 50s rock n' roll. There's something particularly endearing about Rock Around the Clock in Finnish - especially when the band has their guitar movements coordinated and choreographed...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Finnish tango on a white night

We are 3 nights from the longest day of the year. I have to admit that I don't understand how the days could get any longer and the nights any shorter: last night I was apparently up all through sunset, night and sunrise. Except that I never noticed it get dark. Hence I didn't even consider asking what time it was, and found myself crawling (in broad daylight) to my room at 2am.

These 'white nights' are celebrated by the long Midsummer weekend in Finland. And to begin the celebrations a little early, the forestry students threw a party last night. By party, I mean full-out dance party. The theme was 1950s - and while I might have expected a few poodle skirts and leather jackets - indeed, several of the girls did have puffy skirts - you must remember that most forestry students are male. And 1950s fashion at Hyytiala apparently involved a lot of plaid, flannel, suspenders and fedoras: yes, the stereotypical 1950s Finnish man was a lumberjack. But it gets even more awesome...

While some American parties might be themed, they rarely take the extreme measure of adapting music and social customs to the evening. This was different. The hall (one of the original 1910ish wood buildings at the field station) was decorated with birches - branches the size of small trees towered on either side of every door. The music was genuine 1950s Finnish dance hall music - lots of accordion and some surprisingly excellent voices. Everyone was given a brief dance lesson - the basics of the waltz, the foxtrot, the Finnish tango (which is nothing like Argentinean tango, and similar to the foxtrot), and a couple of traditional Finnish dances including the humppa (pron. oompah). There is a jump-y dance called the yenka (sp?) that is very tricky and loads of fun. I have yet to master it. I tried hard, though.

Once the dancing began, the gentlemen were beautifully courteous, escorting their partners to and from the dance floor. There was a clear 'men's side' and women's side' of the room - though the unequal gender balance of a forestry research station meant that there were no wallflowers. There were signs held up when dances were "Women's choice" (Naissen Haku).

There was one notable pause between the waltzes and foxtrots in which some hiphop was played, and one of the students did some surprisingly impressive break dancing.

Needless to say, I had a blast - especially when one of my friends, who turns out to be one of the best dancers with whom I've ever had the pleasure of waltzing, reminded me how to jive and taught me the Swedish version of swing dancing. It was slightly surreal to find myself being twirled to Elvis Presley in a 1910 dance hall in the middle of a forest in Finland. Did I mention that I LOVE this country?

And that's just the beginning: no matter what your experiment or job, staying at the field station over Midsummer is culturally unacceptable, so I accepted an invitation to a co-worker's cottage for Midsummer weekend (cottage. lake. sauna. forest. for a change of scenery and all), and have been promised that Friday and Saturday night will be spent at the nearby Dance Hall. Bring on the Finnish tango. And perhaps a little more Elvis...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

an eery sense of deja vu

As I staked out my padded bench, I realized that it was two years and four days since I last found myself sleeping on the benches in Helsinki airport. That time, I was traveling from the Ukraine to Denver. This time, it's a little more straight-forward, and I'm going from Denver to Hyytiala. I was supposed to spend the night in Tampere, but my hotel reservation apparently got cancelled (they realized they didn't have enough space?), and all the other hotels in Helsinki, Tampere and Hammeenliinna (sp?) were booked due to some conferences and a massive Finland-Russia soccer match that apparently result in minor riots and the closing of streets. I know this, because several snoring Russians also ended up sleeping on nearby airport benches.

I can't complain - once again, I got bumped to Business class on the trans-atlantic flight, and in the end I'd actually take that and a night in the airport over the middle seat in Economy class on United with an airport hotel at the other end. Or so I'm telling myself.

Other highlights of the trip included having a nasty cold - that included a mild fever, runny nose, sore throat, headache, mild nausea and general feeling of being unwell - which in my half-awake state I accidentally answered yes to when asked in the Frankfurt airport by the security officials, and was strongly encouraged to go see the doctor to make sure I don't have swine flu. It seemed easier to just go and see the doctor in the airport, so 30 euros later I can conclusively tell any over-anxious airport security and immigration guards that no, I don't have the swine flue. It's just a bad cold. And it's almost gone now. It's amazing what twelve hours of sleep in a real bed will do for you.

But I made it home to Hyytiala, and spent the afternoon in a daze trying to fix a broken instrument. Apparently the PTR-ToF-MS has so much love and affection for me that it threw a petulant fit about two days after I left, and shut down for some mysterious reason. It took me a day and a half to make amends and get it (mostly) working again. Not that I know what the problems were, but if you turn an instrument off and then on again and take it apart and put it back together again enough times, they generally get fed up and start working again - dare I say... cry themselves to sleep and then wake up having forgotten about the argument? or is that too much anthropomorphosizing of machines?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

half-way (almost)

After the hike, the 3 buses, the two airport shuttles, the three planes, the night in an airport hotel, and the taxi ride to Boulder, I made it home. Middle seat and minimal sleep on the flights, but I did get to watch two trashy romantic comedies followed by several hours of paper reviews.

There was mild drama, as my second flight was delayed, and my visa renewal seemed to take forever - and I needed to catch the last flight to Denver. I was the only person in the Immigration office, but it was late at night and their photocopier was broken. This turns out to have been unnecessary, as they mistakenly handed back all the photocopies AND originals of the documents to me (but who am I to argue with grouchy immigration officials: no matter what, they are ALWAYS right). They openly acknowledged that they didn't seem to have the right visa stamp, so wrote a note (!) on my visa. Ah, Homeland Security, you make me feel so much safer.

Friday, June 5, 2009

If only I was on the Amazing Race

It is one of those great ironies that climate scientists fly to - at least, relative to, say, doctors, teachers, lawyers or other non-international business professionals - a large number of domestic and international destinations. I didn't get Star Alliance Gold status for nothing, and I do feel twinges of guilt over my carbon footprint. That said, I have been quite good on public transit so far...

I have a 3.5 day meeting in Boulder, Colorado. From the approximate hour I arrive at home in Boulder to the hour I will stand at the bus stop outside of the university to catch the airport bus, that's 87 hours in Boulder. The travel time to and from my room in Hyytiala is about 79 hours. (This is particularly long because bus schedules mean that I have to stay the night at a Helsinki-Vantaa airport hotel on either end of the trip.)

So far it's been:
- a 30 minute hike (in the pouring rain! but it was actually a very picturesque hike by the lake, and my bags are light, so I didn't mind at all) from the field station to the bus stop
- 3 buses to the airport (one very nice, smiling bus driver who charged me the 'student rate' even though i said i was an adult, one not-so-nice bus driver who took my ticket and wouldn't give it back so have no receipt for reimbursement)
- a night in an airport hotel. I watched Project Runway with Finnish subtitles. Improving my Finnish vocabulary one catty fashion designer at a time.

And now I'm in the Helsinki airport waiting for plane 1 of 3 today. Somehow I leave at 1pm and arrive in Denver at midnight - ah, timezones, you lovely things.

And on a note of nostalgia, the Helsinki airport is filled with the Moomin trolls. These are a Finnish child's story - a sort of Tintin, or Babar family - but Scandinavian, so round trolls. When I was very young, my family lived in Bergen, Norway for a summer, where I discovered these child's books.
Some of my first memories of a foreign country are based around those stories and drawings. I hadn't seen them in decades, but here in the Helsinki airport is a whole store devoted to them. I covet the recently released 3 hard cover books of Moomin comic strips, but they are large and hard cover, and would displace my laptop computer from the backpack.

Well, the odyssey continues, as I hear an announcement for my flight...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hey, it was the weekend.

It was a tough weekend. Sunbathing on the dock (yes mom, I wore sunscreen). Well, I *had* to finish my novel, and why sit inside and waste all that energy for a light, when you could be on the dock using natural sunlight? Swimming in the lake (had to cool down from all that sun). Going for a trip around the lake in the old wooden boat (cultural experience).

Keeping an eye on the baby woodpeckers as they waited noisily for their parent to come and feed them (mmm... regurgitated insects... tasty...).

Occasionally moseying up the hill to check on my instruments.

Field work: it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

First impressions

Were I to broadly generalize from my limited experiences in Hyytiala to the rest of Finland, I might come to certain conclusions.

For example, I might generalize that Finland looks eerily like Northern Ontario: full of lakes and pretty flat (except when I go for a run, and then I find that it becomes an Escher drawing, made entirely of up-hills). I might generalize that the entire country is littered with flux towers and expensive aerosol chemistry equipment (there are THREE aerosol mass specs here right now. Three?? That's more than in the entire country of France). And from the about 100, mostly large, burly & male foresters I've met here at the field station, I might generalize that all Finns are quiet and eat a lot of potatoes. But I have decided that my first impressions and preliminary generalizations from a week and a half of an atmospheric chemistry field campaign might be slightly skewed.

I've been working on the foresters for over a week now, and have found that some of them do indeed talk (relatively speaking). The tree-cutting types, not so much: but the soil scientists and at least one summer researcher from Lapland are a little more willing to practice their English and indulge the crazy American girl (the fact that I don't drink much beer, see lots of vipers and go running every afternoon leads to some interesting generalizations about North Americans). And every person I've gotten to know surprises me in some way. For example, there's a big guy from Kuopio who might fit the Finnish stereotype: he drinks a lot of beer, plays ice hockey, and is the drummer in a heavy metal band (this makes sense: Finland is at least as big a fan of hockey as Canada, and as for Eurovision, just google Lordi). However, he also likes a canned alcoholic grape drink that tastes eerily like a wine cooler (one of the fruitier drinks that I gave up drinking in college. Early in college). We have since developed an excellent relationship: I help him fix his instruments, and he drives me into town to buy cider and chocolate.

There's the resident handy-man, who looked like a standard forester until I spotted him one evening decked out in leather riding a motorcycle. And the station director, who is one of the tallest people I've ever encountered, and, despite his initially intimidating demeanor - carefully constructed to scare incoming forestry students, I think - turns out to also be one of the nicest people I've ever encountered, patiently translating signs and checking in on my instruments.

So my initial generalizations and first impressions of the people at Hyytiala (quiet, beer-drinking, slightly intimidating) were clearly wrong. Except for the potatoes. They do eat an awful lot of potatoes here.

Finnish variants in Parseltongue

I naively thought that leaving the Neotropics for Northern Europe would reduce my rate of serpentine encounters. Silly, silly me.

Yesterday, while I was waiting for the foresters to start burning down the forest (how often do you get to say that?), I looked down from where I was standing, on the boardwalk leading to the instrument shed where my equipment is located. (Boardwalk because this is Finland, which as far as I can tell is one gigantic boreal forest bog, and boardwalks are brilliant approaches to trails in bogs). And right next to the boardwalk was a snake. A very well-camouflaged snake. He (or she, wouldn't want to be gender biased here) looked just like one of the lichen-covered sticks that litter the forest (bog) floor.

This is a Vipera berus: not particularly lethal (though they apparently give a wallopping painful bite, and do kill older people and young children, and people who are allergic to them - not that you'd know that you're allergic to them, because I don't think 'viper bite' is included in the usual retinue of allergy tests?), not particularly aggressive (though he wasn't as scared of me as I would have liked), but surprisingly interested in eddy flux measurements. He coasted all around the base of our flux tower, before I turned away and then lost sight of him.

But not to worry: this afternoon, walking from the main field station to my measurement site, I came about 20cm from stepping on yet ANOTHER viper. This one was juvenile (about 15-20cm), and light brown with black zig-zags down its back.

That's TWO vipers in as many days. Most people around here have never even seen one in years of research. I have decided that the local viper family is just very interested in my experiment (really, who wouldn't be?), and that as long as they keep out of my mass spec, and I stay off of their tails, we'll get along just fine.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Too many potatoes

Last night, I simply intended to take advantage of the never-ending daylight and go for an evening run. In my shorts and sweatshirt (it's surprisingly chilly), I left at about 7pm. I had a goal of 20 minutes. Just as I was walking out the residence hall's main door, I was hailed by a tall Finn dressed in a matching blue running outfit. With my now standard smile-shrug of shoulders-apologetic 'sorry i don't speak Finnish', I started to put my headphones on and stretch for my run. The man had other ideas.

At first I thought he was asking if I needed directions - he was waving a stack of topo maps at me. Then the English became clearer, and I realized that he was part of a larger group of people I had seen at dinner, and that he was asking if I wanted to do an 'orienteering route'. I tried to plead that a.) I hadn't gone orienteering since I was about 12, b.) I didn't have a compass on me, and c.) I was just planning on going for a quick run. My excuses were not acceptable: orienteering was for everyone (age was not an excuse) - apparently it was going to be very fun and I wouldn't need a compass to find the first few markers. And I could run the course, as several people were doing (practice for orienteering competition).

I decided that when in Finland, do as the Finns do - besides, I felt bad turning the map down from such an eager person. Even if I got lost, it doesn't get particularly dark out, and there aren't really any dangerous animals (though there is a viper that lives under the boardwalk at the field site. but it's rarely lethal and less aggressive than it's Costa Rican cousins, so I'm not too worried). The result was a 40 minute run, much laughing at myself, about half of the markers (and I was quizzed at breakfast this morning about how many I had found), and many strange looks from other people taking the course a little more seriously in full-out orienteering gear (cleats, compasses, and bright blue spandex outfits. yes: families were decked out in matching gear. awesome.).

And while the spandex made me laugh, I have to say that the activity was a good excuse to get outside and walk around the lake...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tropical-temperate transitions

36 (?) hours. 9 time zones. 4 airports. 2 airlines. What about that seemed like a good idea?

I only got to my new field site a day and a half later than expected (which gave me a day to sleep and a few hours to explore Helsinki. In particular, the Kiasma - the Museum of Contemporary Art. Which was the trippiest, most messed up 7 euros I've ever spent. Highly recommended for pure... weirdness...).

But, as of Monday morning, I am in Hyytiala, Finland for five weeks. This is a boreal forest (read: bog with pine trees) about three hours north of Helsinki - not too far from the city of Tampere. The Finnish researchers seem to either love it or hate it - typically the foresters love it, and the atmospheric scientists... prefer Helsinki... I came in with mixed feelings (no fresh mango every morning and no morning monkey entertainment. But porridge and a beautiful lake!). The first two days were spent living in my own personal timezone - I think I overshot Finland, and was somehow living in around Malaysia time - fixing instrumentation for which, while I had never seen it before, I am now responsible. It's a long story. But now that the instruments are working (huge thanks to some Finnish scientists I'm working with), I can settle into life. I have a bike reserved, and instructions on how to get to town (walk to the road and take a bus going in THAT direction, accompanied by vague hand-waving).

But last night, after getting everything running, having dinner and sending some emails, I decided to settle into the really important part of Hyytiala:

Hot sauna. Cold lake.

Pura vida.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Building an ark

Two days ago, it rained at La Selva. And I don't mean just a few drops - I mean a deafening roar worthy of building an ark. Loud enough to cause - or at least provide the excuse for - my sleeping through my alarm clock in the morning. So much water that there was some concern that the Stone bridge would be flooded. A true reminder to the rainforest that the several meters of rain it receives in the year doesn't not come from a Vancouver-inspired constant drizzle, but from true tropical rainstorms with large enough drops that even the mosquitoes cannot always avoid.

But the strangest result of the massive rainstorm did not take place on the washed-out roads, the rising river or even in the rainforest where the scent of peccary was so strong. Nor was it the very aggressive, very large (2 meters is a conservative estimate) fer-de-lance (yes, those rumours of them approaching flashlights in a hunting stance is entirely true, and quite possibly one of my scariest experiences of my life. Ever). It was in the La Selva swamp.

There, at around 9pm, we encountered a deafening roar reminiscent of a night club. And indeed, the party would have put Studio64 to shame. It started with one little tree frog on a leaf over the boardwalk. Then we noticed a couple of yellow frogs calling to each other. And as soon as you realize what you're looking for, the swamp is ALIVE. We were surrounded by frogs on the prowl - flirting, looking for mates, and, later in the evening, contemplating their success - or lack thereof. At least, that was our anthropomorphic interpretation...

Ah, swamp love...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A rare sight!

It's been a long time (as in, ~40 years) since there have been scarlet macaws at La Selva. Recent efforts to conserve almond trees may be successful - we had the joy of hearing their call (I get in trouble for calling it a gawdy shriek by the more serious birders) this morning.

Then during a meeting, we saw one in the trees above our residence. Unfortunately, my camera settings were all wrong from this morning's peccary photoshoot, but after much enhancement of the digital image, I managed to catch a glimpse of bright red beauty in the trees before it flew to find its squawking mate.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Frontier reflections

Eight years ago, I came to Las Alturas with the OTS Tropical Biology graduate course. For many reasons, the 8-week field course altered my perspective on life, science, and my sense of self and while every site we visit in this Global Change course gives me pause for reflection, walking up to Las Alturas was particularly nostalgic.

The site doesn't seem like much - essentially, a one-story shack at the edge between a farm and the Amistad Biosphere Preserve - the trans-border park that straddles the Costa Rican and Panamanian border. Many things make this place astounding - the sense of remoteness, the vast expanse of forest stretching to one side, the beauty of the tree ferns scattered along the trails or the kites flying overhead. But when I walked to the station, I was flooded by memories: my first bat netting experience (we found a wrinkle-faced bat - though they're not supposed to be this far south), sleeping outside on the porch, learning how to key plant families and bat species, climbing up the inside of strangler fig trees (that was before I discovered just how many insects live in the tropics, and how many of them bite), and searching the streams for Begoniaceae plants for a field project.

This was my introduction to tropical biology, and my realization that I could be passionate about these forests for the rest of my life. It was special to return to this place - as a course coordinator, and with Deedra, who was one of the coordinators 8 years ago. Las Alturas has changed a lot: a wind storm swept through and blew off the tin roof, smashing flatware and breaking windows. Much of the damage has been fixed, but the site hasn't been used in months? years? There were dead lizards in the sink.

The cows are still near-by, though the grass has grown taller. The trails were too over-grown to walk on, so we took the road. But the mist still floats in the canopy, and when you turn around and look up, the blue mountains still stretch to Panama with white clouds connecting them.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Las Alturas, though, is its story: originally a large farm and logging operation, a wealthy software developer from California bought up the thousands of hectares a few years ago, to create his own preserve. It's a little like a real-life version of Sim-City: he has a town, runs the farms (he's turning them organic, no mean feat in the tropics), created an apiary, and has taken a militant stand against hunting, logging and artifact removal. OTS courses stopped visiting the field station for a while in there, but the owner has recently decided that research is a worthwhile investment, and is now partnering with OTS to rebuild and maintain the field station.

Most interesting to me was the pride taken by the property manager, Francisco. In a story taken from a movie, Francisco was the helicopter pilot who flew this wealthy American (who's name remains elusive, but was apparently scared of flying in the helpicopter at first) over the land when the sale was being considered. Francisco is a true Tico with a love of nature and the old way of life. He described the difficulties with poachers, the attempts to reduce cattle grazing while maintaining the local way of life, and the interest in maintaining vast patches of untouchable forest.

Fernando is one of the last real cowboys - a true frontiersman. And Las Alturas/Amistad is perhaps the last of the untouched frontiers in Central America. I wish him luck.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Observations at Cabina Passilflora

Las Cruces Biological Station, Costa Rica

Two tires exploded. As a result of the first, we watched large crocodiles watching the cattle. As a result of the second, I bought a second-hand turquoise shirt from American Eagle with "Costa Rica" written on it. We mourned a bat that hit the windshield. We paused for an hour in Puntarenas to walk along the beach - admittedly, not the most beautiful beach, but sand and ocean and pre-lunch ice cream nonetheless. I learned about strained relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica - an overabundance of contrived nationalism, a history of US interference and an employment situation reminiscent of illegal Mexican immigrants in the US. I watched the horror of palm plantations fly by the window. I enjoyed the salsa party at the back of the bus. I reflected on a beautiful (Chagas-free, I trust) stay in Palo Verde and laughed at the final game of soccer - aka, mudball - in which we played after a rainstorm beneath a double rainbow and in about six inches of mud, resulting in not only a layer of mud on my skin, but also war paint on my face and an hour of entertainment for everyone involved - spectators included.

The 9-hour trip took 15 hours, and while I normally find long bus drives particularly painful, this one flew by.

Las Cruces is one of the most beautiful sites in Costa Rica. It is right by the Panamanian border, and houses the Wilson Botanical Garden - one of the largest collections of tropical plants in the world. Just as I remembered from 2001, the gardens are permanently hung with mist, and the bromeliaceae are filled with water and frogs. Flowers abound, and palms stand regal. The snake population is of minimal concern, and the food is excellent.

Though, somehow, we all got confused over dinner and my entire table picked up cookies with the entree, dipping them in barbeque sauce and bean juice. And there was only enough for one cookie per person.

Oddly enough, that's the second time I've mixed up the salty and sweet. The first was in the blur of morning in Palo Verde, in which I vainly chose not to wear my glasses, I mistook pancakes for corn tortillas and poured rice, beans and salsa lizano over them. Surprisingly tasty.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Rain in the dry forest

Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica

I have a love-hate relationship with the OTS field station at Palo Verde. Love, because the monkeys play in the trees in front of the comedor, large and beautiful birds constantly fly overhead, and ctenosaurs (pronounced "tinnosaurs", long, iguana-like lizards that prompted the one-word response from our charismatic participant from Trinidad: "tasty". Now that I think about it, she has that response to many creatures we see. As a vegetarian, I remind myself that field courses are as much anthropological experiments as ecological experiences) lie in the sun and scuttle across the metal roofs. The hate part is not the unquenchable heat and negligible humidity, but instead reflects my bias against the insect world: the mosquitoes, the scorpions, the spiders, the pseudoscorpions. You name it, they have it - and worse than just being around, these bite-y creatures have a tendency to crawl into one's boots, clothes and, worst of all, bed. There are mosquito nets over all the beds for a reason.

My paranoia peaked when, just as I'm ready to go to bed, a visiting researcher mentions in passing that he found a 'kissing bug' in my room a few days before. I had forgotten about these critters - they have long snouts, bite you and then defecate in the wound. That part doesn't actually bother me. It's the eventuality of Chagas disease. Wikipedia it if you'd like to stay up at night. Personally, I checked my mosquito net carefully before going to bed. Several times.

So far, no suspicious insects and no suspicious bites. A hike up the limestone cliffs has restored my love of Palo Verde, and the constant entertainment of trying to photograph spider monkeys has kept me laughing all afternoon. The coatimundis are bushy-tailed and fearless, and the tiger herons form regal silhouettes in the trees. I watched cowboys head out on their horses to herd cattle in front of the soccer field around the research station.

It rained last night - the first rain since November. It was enough to keep the plants happy and the forest smelling strongly, but hopefully not enough to engage the mosquitoes. The sight of a flying stork brought me luck, as did, I am sure, the post-lunch session of cleaning Guanacaste tree seeds. A rather messy session - but amusing due to the constant competition for a large pile of seeds, and exciting, due to the prospect of necklaces and ear-rings hand-made by our multi-talented cook - a wizened Costa Rican man, Romelio, who is not only the most unlikely-looking chef, but also the most unlikely-looking jeweller. Last night's chocolate cake with home-made dulce-de-leche icing was fantastic. I am sure that the necklaces will be of a similar caliber.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The nightingale sang. The quetzals did not stay.

Monteverde, Costa Rica.

It has been eight years since I stepped into the shroud of fog that literally encapsulates the upper slopes of Costa Rica's Arenal watershed. Eight years was too long. Monteverde is a magical place - having grown up in a temperate rainforest, the sight of water dripping from every frond, the shades of green that characterize the lush landscape, and the ever-present fog that is blown across the tree canopy seems at least slightly familiar. As is the sight of tourists expecting warm weather, huddled under hastily-bought ponchos, clutching their bird guides and looking longingly at the locals' sensible fleece and unflattering rubber boots.

Tourists come here for the quetzals: charismatic, bright green birds with red bellies (reminiscent of gaudy Christmas decorations, now that I think about it) that eat avocados and other members of the abundant Lauraceae family. I did not see any this trip. I won't start in on that - the lengthy hikes, the obnoxiously early morning birds hikes, the interrogation of (seemingly) EVERY OTHER PARTICIPANT on the course who saw them.

Aside from the quetzals, the Monteverde cloud forest was made famous by Allan Pounds' studies of frog extinctions - the tragic story of the golden toads, the population of which enigmatically (that is to say, without simple explanation) crashed. After a particularly disheartening lecture, we found out that it wasn't only the golden toads - so many other 'harlequin frogs' have likely gone extinct that they stop being numbers of adorable frogs and start turning into more global change statistics. The frog crashes are interesting, though - while they initially seem a simple story of an invasive Chytrid fungus that infects the frogs, rapidly disperses between individuals and species, and kills entire populations in a matter of years, climate change clearly adds a degree of complexity and vulnerability, as does habitat loss, changes in plant dynamics (and thus leaf litter on the forest floor). Putting these components together is non-trivial, and seems to have spawned some interesting and ...animated... scientific discussion among herpetologists.

But enough of the depressing climate science, and on to the hotbed of political scandal into which Monteverde has apparently devolved. Yes - political scandal, corruption, and drama worthy of a soap opera in the hippy / new-agey towns of Monteverde and Santa Elena. To cut a long and convoluted story short, there are several conservation groups that are vying for prime real estate - such competition that two of the major conservation groups (including the main cloud forest reserve group) was locked in a legal battle over a broken promise of land donation. A near decade of legal fees and a pending case in the supreme court was - rumour has it - resolved when the director of one organizaiton sarcastically suggested in an open meeting that instead of asking for the land that was promised to them by the other group, they should instead 'donate all of their land to the allegedly back-peddling organization. This motion was rapidly seconded by a visiting member of the competing organization, voted upon, and actually resulted in the donation (?) of land in the opposite direction than had been originally planned and was under legal dispute. The cases have apparently all been dropped. I have no verification over this story, but it is so bizarre that I actually believe it.

Then add in a fight over stream water rights involving enterprising restaurant owners, some ecologists and a community of activists that was side-lined by political corruption - several respected scientists were accused of 'inciting a riot' during a municipal meeting and locked in YEARS of legal defense, federal Ministers of the Environment made (ahem) suspicious decisions, and all the forms regarding environmental impact assessments involved blatant lies that were conveniently ignored (Does the stream provide habitat to threatened species? Does it provide water to communities downstream?). This place is fascinating.

But perhaps what surprises me the most about this place - other than the splendid beauty of the cloud forest, of course - is the rampant rise in tourism. Supposedly 'eco-tourism'. Which in and of itself is not a bad thing - people who want to conserve the environment and are willing to pay for it must be some of the most positive forces in this country. But when development is unregulated and precious water supplies are being diverted from habitat for the very creatures (the quetzal and the bell-bird) that all the tourists come to see, you have to wonder how much money changed hands in this supposedly so environmentally-oriented country to allow this to happen?

But while I saw an over-abundance of tour groups and an under-abundance of quetzals, I did become enamoured with the wind chime call of the nightingale. An eery sound that echoes through the cloud forest during the day and almost made up for the lack of charismatic wildlife...

I never saw them.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Coatiwhatsits: a raccoon by any other name...

Coatimundis are in the same family as raccoons. And certain familial traits are very apparent. Long snouts. cute tails. Love of garbage-picking. Sly.

Now, we have these large blue plastic garbage cans for paper / plastic / cans / organic compost around La Selva. They seemed quite smart. Right up until this afternoon when I had the pleasure of watching a coatimundi discover how to open them.

As Sam Neill's character said in Jurassic Park... clever girl.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Monkeys like bridges too...

Where else in the world do you walk across a suspension bridge every morning, and have the opportunity to be surrounded by howler monkeys?

This is why I love this place.

babbling bats

So last night I came home from dinner to find a bat in the kitchen. He (or she? though the stubbornness not to listen to me about how to get out suggests not) was flying in rapid circles - small, fast and... wingy... After nearly getting pegged in the head - resulting in a duck-and-run to the hallway that was probably quite amusing to anyone watching from a distance - we opened the door. It was a tough call - let the insects in and the bats out - though considering that the bat was possibly insectivorous, I felt there was a lure for the bat and a deterrent for the insects.

Somewhere in my hiding behind doors and doing my best Navy SEAL impression of getting into rooms and dodging bats flying out of them, the bat finally departed.

Only to make a reappearance in my housemate's room in the middle of the night. I apparently slept through a lot of door opening, jumping and ducking and a final bat departure...

Apparently the young bats have difficulty finding direction. Even more fascinating, apparently baby bats 'babble', much like human infants, as they try to figure out all the calls and echolocation.

An amusing evening, to say the least.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

birds of a feather

Rather shamefacedly, I must admit to having mocked my mother. I believe that she is aware of this fact. We've had words over the disrespect. And I must admit to having extended the mocking to various ecotourists in Costa Rica and a whole host of people who seem to think it's completely reasonable to wake up at ungodly hours of the morning to haul around a massive pair of binoculars and an oversized guide book to look at not-particularly-charismatic and not-particularly-bright creatures with hollow bones and overly-developed (particularly in the morning) voice boxes. And I'm not talking about howler monkeys. While they too have over-developed voice-boxes - which they generally choose to exercise in the middle of the night and early in the morning, I find howlers to be kind of cute and furry and entirely endearing. I'm talking birds. The not particularly bright, feathered things that fly into jet engines and chirp excessively loudly early in the morning.

But now, I must apologize to all the birders in my family for the mocking. (Well, for the mocking about the bird-obsession, at least. The other mockery still stands.) After a little over a week at La Selva, I have been waking up around 5:30am. Voluntarily. I find myself grabbing my camera and wandering out my door and moseying towards the bridge. And, with the aid of my 200mm lens, and feeling reasonably cool for not hauling the Birds of Costa Rica book, I watch birds. I don't worry about names or origins or lists. That part hasn't hit me. Yet. Until yesterday, I was justifying it as 'looking for wildlife' and 'taking photos in the morning light'. I have to admit, though, to a strange pull to the birds.

I'm a colour junky. The toucans are my favourite - the chestnut-mandibled, to be precise. I still haven't got a quality photo of them, but I'm working on it. Then there are the parrots - bright green and... loud... The red-legged honeycreeper (?). The lovely grey tinnamoo. One of the myriad of hummingbirds - that love the nectar from the purple-flowered bush next to the comedor patio.

My best photos, though are of the tree turkeys. Yes, you read it right. Tree turkeys. Much like jungle chickens, they're large, dark bodied, and don't fly particularly gracefully. They go in pairs, though. There's a whole nuclear family on the trail to the River Station - the two adults separate and try to distract you if you get close, but in the middle of them (easy to find because they squawk and fly away in opposite directions. they're a few sandwiches short of a picnic, if you know what I mean.) there's a nest, with a few chicks. Very sweet.

In the forest, they're tricky to photograph. Out in the clearings around the labs, however, they're a little easier. I found this pair when walking with a couple of more serious birders (binoculars, guide books, the whole nine yards). I don't actually remember the species or common names, so for now they're tree turkeys. Identifications and clarifications are welcome.

Not that I'd be interested in the species of the birds or anything. So I'm not a birder. Really.

Friday, April 24, 2009

what's in a name?

So this workshop I'm currently helping out with is all about Long-term changes in the Tropics, and I've been taking the chance to get to know the participants. In particular, we went on a guided natural history walk yesterday. Some groups went about 300m in 3 hours, pausing to look at every bird and every plant along the way. Other groups - namely, the one I joined, took a bit more of a hike, and covered a little over a kilometer of trails - looping from secondary forest into old-growth forest. Of course, 'old-growth forest' here in the tropics isn't untouched, and as Deedra mentioned in her talk on La Selva this morning, there is no such thing as 'virgin rainforest' in the Neotropics. Even here at La Selva, there's a history of selective logging, and human occupation over the last few thousand years. I was intrigued to learn that there are pollen samples suggesting ancient agriculture.

But enough of a digression. Our group for the natural history tour included several people on their first trip to the tropics, and many who had never been to Costa Rica. While the guides are used to dealing with hard-core birders, none of us really knew what a tinnamoo was, let alone the different types of motmots (sp?). (A tinnamoo kind of looks like a small brown/grey turkey, nests on the ground and makes a surprisingly beautiful sound. Unlike the parrots which make a noisy, squawky sound, providing further evidence for my theory that the prettier birds are, the uglier they sound, so it all balances out in the end. (The scarlet macaws being the ultimate example of beauty = gnarly squawkiness). The toucans are in the intermediate range - lovely beaks, but they provide a noisy clacking sound that echoes through the selva. But what would you expect from something that eats Fruit Loops?

While we failed miserably at learning to identify bird calls, despite our guide's best efforts, we did learn quite a lot: Pentaclethera (lovely mimosa-tree with feathery leaves) is actually quite toxic - so nothing eats it. That might seem like a good idea, but if the birds don't eat the seeds, then it's difficult to disperse your offspring - so the large seedpods are apparently designed to crack open at high temperatures.

More traumatizing, I learned that those little strawberry dart frogs with blue legs have apparently been observed to move their eggs around in such a way as to require the entire species being moved to another family. So while I have been calling them Dendrobates ever since my Tropical Biology course in 2001, they now belong to a whole different family. I can't remember which family they now belong to. Still, no matter what they're called, the "I can't believe it's not Dendrobates" remain my favourite amphibians in La Selva. After all, a Dendrobates by any other name looks just as sweet, right?

Friday, April 17, 2009

In the blink of an eyelash...

I've been to Costa Rica many times, and my list of 'creatures to see' has shrunk to very few. While seeing sloths and glass frogs are always at the very top of the list, I have seen (and held) both of those. (Yes, I have a penchant for picking up troptical creatures. Don't ask.) What I had never seen (nor held, but that didn't happen today, tempting as it might have been) was an eyelash viper. But these morning I finally found one - out in the woods of a smaller trail at La Selva, the OTS research station here in the lowland Caribbean. (Correction - one of the OTS guides found one, and showed me... I can't quite claim discovery on this one, as I walked right by him (her?) the first time).

The eyelash viper - Bothreicheis schlegelii - is a thing of beauty. They are surprisingly small - coiled up, it would have fit in the palm of my hand, had I been so inclined. Not to say it wouldn't have packed quite a punch of a bite, if I had gotten too close - one must always be suspicious of eyelashes that long. Besides, they apparently jump. Fortunately, my camera has a long lens. What you can't see in the photos are the inordinately yellow eyes. Quite... striking...

Other highlights of the morning? The families of peccaries, which have apparently exploded in population, possibly due to a decrease in predatory (ie, jaguar and puma) populations in the area. They were snuffling outside my room this morning. I'd like to claim they woke me up, but after minimal sleep yesterday, that honour went to the howlers. And my purposely obnoxious cell phone alarm clock. Not sure which one is scarier. When breakfast ENDS at 7:30, you don't want to sleep in... Then there were the poison dart frogs, who after a long-awaited rain are out in full-force. The toucans, the coatimundi, all lovely.

But really, nothing can beat those eyelashes.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The 2009 Field Expedition

So it's another year, complete with another field trip... I think they're slowly progressing to be more and more insane as the year's go by, but as I'm sitting in Denver International waiting for my flight, I thought it was time to restart this blog so as to keep everyone posted on my whereabouts. So here's the overview: 4 weeks in Costa Rica, coordinating a course on climate change in the tropics for OTS (the Organization for Tropical Studies) - it's a 3-week course, but I'm going down a few days early to prepare (read:...uh... figure out what we're going to do? come up with a talk or two?). It's a field course (so we're traveling around a bit and staying at various field stations), mostly grad students, but a few post-docs, NGO-types and other professionals for variety - with backgrounds in a combination of biology/ecology/economics/conservation/education. Let's leave it at: I think I'll be learning more from the participants than they'll be from me. Then it's pretty much straight to Finland for a field campaign in Hyytiala - "straight" involving a 6-hour layover in DIA - but since that involves not only changing airlines, but also going through US Immigration (because, really, who doesn't want to go through that for a layover), it will be extra-fun.

DIA is not really worth taking a photo to post. It's your pretty standard large hub airport. There's amazingly little open at 11pm. And the baggage storage facilities are excruciatingly expensive (so I checked my little 'Finland' bag - maybe I'll want the extra turtleneck at La Selva?). The one perk of the late-night flight is a non-existent security line.

Rumour has it that there's wireless internet in the San Jose airport - things sure have changed since I was there in 2000, when the bags from ALL the flights were tossed into a pile at the unlabeled baggage claim. So perhaps, as I wait for the bus to La Selva, I will have more excitement to share. Or perhaps, considering the 20 high school kids who just came SCREAMING (quite literally) into the departure gate like a herd of wildebeest, I will just need to vent. One of those two.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Driving for coffee

So it's been almost a year since I last wrote - it's not that I haven't been traveling much (Nova Scotia, Ontario, France, Edinburgh to name a few...). It's just that I haven't felt the overwhelming need to share any stories. My trips were either work-filled, or so busy I couldn't bare a minute in front of the computer (when the choice is having a cappuccino and attempting to read Le Monde in a Parisian cafe or posting on a computer, the choice is obvious). But now I find myself in a 70s-era temporary building that has become a chemistry laboratory - a windowless, poorly air-conditioned and sorely in need of a paint job laboratory, that is - in lovely Riverside, California. Note the sarcasm on lovely. And I desperately, desperately feel the need to vent.

Riverside, California is a kind of fascinating place - in that slowing down by a car accident type of fascinating. It's the far-inland part of the general LA basin. So no ocean next door to clean out the air or provide some respite from the concrete. In its defense, there are some beautiful mountains in the background of Riverside that I can kind of see through the particulate haze - and some smaller, rocky hills behind the University where I'm currently based. But the Riverside haze is interesting... Not just from an atmospheric chemistry perspective - which I won't try explaining here, but it really is legitimately interesting - but from a life style perspective. Cars contribute significantly to the LA area air quality. This isn't an earth-shattering statement to anyone who has traveled around here: you need a car to do ANYTHING.

To me, the worst example of this comes at lunch time. You cannot walk to a sandwich shop or cafe. You have to drive. Let me make this clear: from a research laboratory on a university campus in a large city, you have to DRIVE to get coffee. My recent graduate student self finds this appalling. It's not like we're in an isolated lab several miles from the nearest building, as is the case for, say, the Atmospheric Sciences department at CSU. We're in a city, for crying out loud. I dcided that I needed to go for a walk, so tried to find a coffeeshop. All I got for my pains was a lung filled with dust and car exhaust. Mmmm... Tasty....

The second, highly symoblic example of car culture in SoCal (that's Southern California, and should be said with a slightly deprecating tone of voice by anyone who was lucky enough to have lived in NorCal, like myself) is the fact that the university entrance is actually a highway overpass. Yes, the roads leading to the university have to go under the 60 (which forms the western edge of the university). So the big "University of California Riverside" sign is painted on the overpass. Now, to give credit to the landscape (urbanscape? concretescape?) planners, the overpass is painted a warm dusty brown that matches the hills in the background. But that doesn't escape the fact that it's a highway overpass.

Did I mention that this lab is next to the Plant Pathology greenhouses? That means that the buildings next door are filled with dying tomato plants and citrus trees. Symbolic? Perhaps.

Now, I don't want to give Riverside a completely negative veneer. There are some very, very positive things about this town. Not positive to make me eager for a return (if you hadn't noticed), but positive enough to allow me to find the whole experience amusing. First... smog = beautiful sunsets, so every evening I walk out of the lab, look west, and see a glorious pink sky. Made even more pink by my oversized sunglasses that give me the necessary wannabe-starlet look that you need around here. But really, the sunsets are lovely. Ah, Rayleigh scattering... Next, is the friendliness of the people. While in Boulder it took months for my local coffee shop to learn my name, it took two mornings for the Starbucks lady (yes, Starbucks - I was running late and didn't have time to go anywhere else) to learn my name. Granted, she has managed to add an extra syllable to it somehow, but it's close enough and I appreciate it.

And, perhaps most importantly, the people I'm working with are really very nice and have infinite patience with my crotchety instrument with its electronic guts spilling out into their hallway. (Of course, if we could have moved the instrument into all the dead space in the middle of the lab, then I wouldn't have needed to take up the entire hallway, but apparently that wasn't feasible). The instrument drama of ungrounded wires, loose computer cards and the need to disconnect the keyboard to save data to my hard drive is a story for another day, but suffice it to say that I finally have made everything work well enough that I shouldn't need to come back...