Over 100 degrees for a couple of weeks, things start to cook, including my mind. My potted plumeria has grown fresh leaves in the lurid heat; box turtles and tree frogs, disoriented, are wandering the deck and climbing the glass doors trying to get indoors. They look inside and see me at my computer mining field notes for stories and descriptions to rewrite and put on labels and panels for Drawing the Motmot, the exhibit. Opening October 10 at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History in Norman, Oklahoma. In case you’re thinking of a visit. Which you should consider.
Fitting exhibit themes such as “The Burden of Hugeness: Big Trees and All Their Baggage” and “Embedded With The Army Ants”, some of these notes, to tell you the truth, don’t quite fit into the flow of the show. So in all likelihood they’ll be left off the program. They are, however, a pleasant read, and capture in snapshot bursts the flavor of a tropical field station (Barro Colorado Island, May-June 2005) which is a wonderful thing if you’re sweating in your own house, sans monkeys, sans macaws, sans everything tropical except the heat and humidity.
Barro Colorado Island May 2005
Sat and watched bats flying circles around the buildings. Shiny leather reflective surfaces.
Giant damselfly high in canopy. Long thin abdomen, unearthly looking, clear long wings
Question: does a diverse system increase its diversity by virtue of being diverse? Does visual complexity allow more hiding places and survival? Does increased topology (topography?) give more surfaces for foraging, movement in 3D? Do complex systems tend towards more complexity, and is the opposite true for simpler systems? Or does the complex go toward the simple over time?
Why do birds build different types of nests? Why is a messy bundle of loosely held-together dead leaves and grasses dangling like a paper lantern from a high branch any better than a soft mossy cup in the crotch of a sturdy tree? BCI June 2005
Ran into A—, he was taking the temperature of a huge azteca nest with a thermocouple. He showed me how to instantly stir up the nest by breathing on it.
Cross the creek again and get the strong barnyard smell of a peccary- or is it monkey? Up high is a howler snoozing lengthwise on a branch.
A— with butterfly net, wandering the trails.
Howler clan, females, young, one macho male, hooting at me. Lots of poop.
A—-comes up stairs, i.d.’s fruit as nutmeg, goes off mysteriously into forest “to wander the woods”.
Lovely butterfly sucking birdpoop off leaf.
Kind of a poop-oriented day. L—’s Bambi(lecture) includes a photos of butterflies gathered on poop, and right before dinner his gold crown comes loose and he swallows it. Takes a quart of milk up to his room and downs it with a bowl of Raisin Bran. 6/9
L—- asks me if I’d care to join the lottery on crown recovery 6/10
L—- still hasn’t struck gold. Says watermelon seeds are showing up, though. 6/11
Afternoon clouds massed to the east and turned black on the bottoms; it rained a bit and tonight alates are massing on windowsills and under lights. Overheard a student ask B—- what they were and heard him say, “flying ants”. I expected better of the Ant Lab than “flying ants”.
Field tech with a radio antennae and yellow dry bag comes past me at another trail. Looks dejected, is limping. Does not see me or even look up.
New Zealand New Year Party. Ball court, tiki torches, beer, party hats, noisemakers, music. Women dancing in a circle, men huddled talking, old farts (us) drinking wine and beers and sitting on folding chairs. Twister. Ice block rum shots. 6/15/05
National Geographic arrives, 2 full truckloads of equipment churning up the grade- a mountain of black hardshell cases and duffel bags. BBC gets here, too and brings an equal amount of stuff. 6/16
4:30 pm. It’s suddenly gotten black outside, a storm is coming over the island. Not rain or lightning but the wind is coming up, even scarier. The balsa is writhing with its long limbs, the heliconia’s big banana leaves fold back and reveal the Canal, leaves are flying like birds, there’s a constant roar from the howlers- or is that the wind? Branch falls across the path in front of me as I hurry down to the lab.
6/19 Volunteered to drop ants for BBC, but deep overcast and rumblings put the shoot on hold. I get to chat with the producer, a bright young man who’s last assignment was a shoot of snow leopards in Afghanistan for 8 weeks. He told me about sitting quietly and watching a mother with cubs, two kills, much behavior and close approaches. He was born and raised in Africa to conservationist parents and spent his childhood looking out of a Land Rover.
6/20 Heavy rain here this a.m.; water sluicing down hill paths and unhappy monkeys groaning in the trees, hunkered down under the leaves.
6/21 I’ve been kicked out my cozy canopy tower space by the BBC film crew. They’ve come up here with C—- to film ants falling. C—- just clambered past in his stockinged feet, carrying a log, a length of vine, and a roll of duct tape. They are banging around up there and jouncing the scaffold back and forth. C—- just came down again empty handed, fast as a monkey. There’s a tree nearby I’m trying to draw but it’s just getting too busy up here. I’m going.
Ran into A—- on the ballcourt, walking with his butterfly net. Says it’s better not to stand directly below the BBC; yesterday they dropped a tripod.
6/24 Conversation heard over lunch about a paper in Science on laughing rats:
A: “Apparently the ones with the best sense of humor mated the most. The problem appears to be we haven’t been anthropomorphizing enough.”
B: “What I want to know is, how did he ever come up with the idea of doing this research in the first place?”
A: “Probably a divorce”
Howlers: you’d think they’d never seen rain before.
6/24 D—– teaches me to carve avocado pits into grinning skulls.
Amazon Trip 2008-9
12/17/08 boat trip up the Amazon.
Along the banks: thatched roof houses on stilts, open cone-topped palapas. Either a poor Amazon village or an expensive eco-lodge. Hard to tell from this distance, mid-river.
Dugouts and open longboats propelled by men with leaf-shaped paddles. Out of the 2nd growth a monumental tree rises all hung with oropendola nests; they look like stockings with oranges in the toes.
Water buffalo grazing on the bank.
Some speculation, over the roar of the boat engine, about the Amazon as a speciation barrier.
Floating logs with lined-up terns and one black skimmer; they take flight as we roar by.
The river takes an acre: the Amazon carves into clay banks, undercutting trees and dumping them in the water. A few small trees are still standing on eroding little islands in the river. One tree is waving wildly in the powerful current like it’s signaling for help. How long before it gets carried off and becomes a floating perch for terns and skimmers? Vines are dragging in the water, pulling their tree-hosts out by the roots and dumping them in the river.
The Amazon forest breathes in and out, hot and cool. It has hot flashes, it has moods, it is a menopausal jungle. 1/2/09
I am a salty snack for insects. Everything from sweat bees to butterflies feeding on my perspiration. Even clothes washed and left out to dry are covered with bugs seeking salty residue.
The chainsaw never stops. In this dry weather, the trees can be cut most industriously. The only thing that can save the rainforest is rain. January 2009, Peruvian Amazon