So You Don’t Want to Be a Naturalist Anymore

So you’ve decided to change careers. The life of a naturalist just isn’t for you. Maybe you’re tired of being constantly bug-bitten and mammal-mauled. Maybe the apocalyptic scale of climate change has you despairing for environmental work. Maybe you’d like to for once in your life make some actual money.

I’m not giving up my dream just yet. But as a naturalist who has, at times, had to support my career with jobs outside my field, I thought I’d offer this self-help guide to readjusting back into normal, civilized, adult life. Here goes.

I know it sounds crazy, but there exists a job without ants.

Rewrite Your Resume

If you have a science background, you’ve been taught to prepare your resume/CV a certain way. To just pack that baby with every study, research project, lab activity, and field gig you were remotely a part of, and describe each one with as technical of wording as possible. Extra points for being as taxonomically specific as possible. Double points for including Latin words that barely qualify as English.

Well now you’re applying for a normal job and guess what? Not only does no-one give a crap about that, they will barely understand it. Some poor recruiting manager doesn’t want to have to scan through a list of “research experiences” involving animals they’ve never heard of. Especially if the work was unpaid and, let’s be honest, it was unpaid wasn’t it?

For example, I recently applied to an ordinary job for the season. I edited down my Research section greatly, and changed things like “conducted a species assemblage of amphibians across a geographic gradient” to “Studied frogs in the jungle.” Much more palatable. “Comparison of interspecific sexual and territorial behavior of damselfies” became “Made horny bugs fight each other. For science.” And anything involving the collection of feces…yeah, I removed that entirely. That sure made the document shorter.

Man, not even spellcheck knows what a damselfly is

Change Your Appearance

Did you know there are other colors for clothing besides green, brown, grey, and other drab earth tones? Did you know that some people buy clothing with appearance in mind, not function? That there are other factors to take into account other than a fabric’s ability to resist mold, scratches, and animal blood?

Strange as it seems, you may find yourself in a job where your appearance matters. You may be expected to meet something called “professional standards” of dress, grooming, and general hygiene. You will not be allowed to wear clothes that are stained or torn, even if they function just fine. You will be expected to shave and cut your hair, despite your protests that it will all grow back anyway.

It’s rough, but think of it as an adaptation. Civil camouflage. Clothes shopping is just gathering materials. Now go out and get yourself a makeover. Get dressed. Wear perfume. Put on makeup. Cut your hair. Do your nails. Take a bath, you dirty hippy.

Stop Telling Stories, Seriously Just Shut Up Because No One Believes You

Another personal anecdote: a while back on a construction gig, a coworker noticed the scars on my hand. He asked where they came from. I told him, “monkeys.” That guy never spoke to me again.

Yes, a monkey. And I still see his face in my dreams…

It’s a naturalist thing. Fieldwork talk. Research station stories. We all do it, all trying to share and impress and one-up. We talk about the places we’ve been. The adventures we’ve had. The animals we’ve seen, studied, or fought. The tales border on the ludicrous and push the limits of believability because that’s the point.

But back here in the real world? That junk is straight out of animal planet. Fantasy that belongs on television. Best case: people will think you’re full of shit. Worse case: they will think you’re insane. Most likely: a bit of both. So learn from my mistakes, mistakes I keep making over and over wherever I go, and curb that kind of behavior.

Bottom line: what happens in the jungle stays in the jungle. Or at least let it out carefully, gradually, bit by bit over time.

Also, maybe don’t talk about snakes so much. Can’t hurt.

All Part of the Job

Hey, I just found a way to recover a bunch of photos from an old memory card that I thought was broken! This was from about a year and a half ago, when I was in Costa Rica working at that rescue center. Ok, so it’s mostly more pictures of bugs and snakes, but…enjoy, I guess?

Are you at all surprised?

Man, I’m really reaching for content here. No, that’s not true. I got plenty more photos and a million more stories on backlog that I could use to regularly keep this blog active. So why the dry spells?

It’s just that this started as a kind of release. A side project, something completely different. I would spend most of my days outside, wandering in the forest, taking photos and screaming obscenities at wildlife, then come back to hop on the internet for a quick minute. It was the one place where I could say everything I couldn’t say on tours, or to students, and this was OK because it was mostly anonymous. I would pour out my thoughts, unfiltered and unedited, dump some photos, jot down some snark, and hit post with minimal effort. It was my one little corner of my life associated with technology and social media, and I was Ok with that.

But I went legit this year. Started a business. Established an online presence. Designed my own website with a professional work email. Even put my face on social media–friends and consultants convinced me to get a Facebook and Instagram page. I drew the line at TikTok, though. And YouTube, for now. I will consider OnlyFans, however.

“Subscribe to watch me catch snakes. For Premium members, I’ll do it without that hat.”

And that took work. Time, money, and a whole lot of mental energy. I’m a private person, and putting all this together, keeping it active and relevant, is exhausting. But it’s my job now, so I get it done without too much griping. But now this kind of thing feels like work. This blog feels like work. So it’s less fun, less of the release it used to be.

The blogging, that is. Catching snakes will always be fun.

So, will I continue Pura Vida Stories?

The answer is yes. Absolutely yes.

Because remember what I said earlier, about this being everything I can’t say on tours? My need to do that is go exponential if I ever start guiding fulltime. I’m absolutely going to need that release, that anonymous corner of my life where I can spill all. I won’t be talking about clients, or betraying anyone’s trust, but I’m sure to rack up more crazy stories worth telling and hopefully get more photos that are due wordy explanations. More wildlife encounters. And I will never escape ants.

So I’m going to keep this up, and try to keep it compartmentalized. Separate from my professional life. As anonymous as I can. So if you know who I am, please keep this in mind for posting comments or sharing. God help me if clients find this before a trip.

God help them, too.

Guys I Saw a Puma

Guys, I saw a puma.

Pics. It happened.

A real life freaking puma. A mountain lion in the jungle. A cougar. A catamount. Puma concolor, color and all. I saw it. Me.

Ok, let me rein it in and start from the beginning: this was down in the Osa Peninsula, back at one of my old haunts. On a stretch of public trail that follows the coastline from Drake Bay to Corcovado. I was killing time, strolling along, trying to get eyes on some howler monkeys nearby. When I happened to look down and to my right.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. Until I nearly walked into it.

Kitty cat! Right there! Right freaking there! Just lying out with its ears three, maybe four meters away. Didn’t make a sound. Hardly moved. Just stared at me while I stared back. All brown and slinky and furry and–

Alright this happened months ago so I thought I’d calmed down enough to write about it legibly. Apparently not. Anyway, there had been puma tracks and photos from the camera traps nearby, but no one had seen one so clearly during broad daylight. Large cats are notoriously illusive and skittish, and people are lucky to get a glimpse as they disappear back into the brush. But this was lying right by a public trail, not even a hundred meters from the station. I wasn’t sneaking or anything. I didn’t even have a good camera ready.

But I saw it! And photographed it! Oh, the sweet vindication! After all those months in Monteverde, prowling around with camera at the ready. All those hours staking out watering holes and game trails, smearing myself with mud. And listening with utter frustration when some tourists saw one in the middle of the day from their car. I earned this, dammit! Earned this!

I still can’t believe it. I was in shock. Not out of fear for my life–since puma attacks in Costa Rica are rare–but that it would bolt and leave me with no proof. After all, who would believe me? So I tried to keep calm, and coolly reached for my phone. Snapped a few photos, and a few closeups with a crappy zoom lens.

Yeah, give ’em your good side, you goddamn gorgeous beast.

And OK, my mind did melt a little. I said something inane, as if had just stepped on a stranger’s foot: “Whoa, sorry, my bad,” only it came out, “Whoop. Shmeerie. Marbles.” But purely out of excitement. Then I remembered that I was, after all, facing down a predator and I backed away, never turning round, and took a little video as it disappeared from view.

I got back to the station with my heart hammering and silently handed my phone to the first person I saw, a member of the staff. He looked at the photo and at my face, which must have been ash-white even under a sunburn. He asked when this was taken. “Just now,” I said. His jaw dropped.

Pumas in Central America are slightly smaller and redder than those in the North, I’ve noticed. They also have slightly different habits, probably due to the fact that they eat smaller prey. This one, I think, was a juvenile that was staking out a game trail frequented by curassow, peccary, and agouti. It probably didn’t mean to get so close to humans, but clearly wasn’t too concerned. After all, it didn’t growl or flee right away. In fact, it broke eye contact and looked away while I was still there. Quite the casual move for a predator.

So yeah, I saw a puma. Cross that one off the life list. I saw a puma and didn’t even try. Just out here in my bad jungle self, trompin around and shootin cats like it ain’t no thing.

I saw a puma.

Sense-less

I’ve talked before about how smell is an important often overlooked sense, but even more so in the jungle. Between the blooming flowers, ripening fruit, decomposing organic matter, and sweating human bodies, the experience just isn’t the same without it.

Which means that most of my stories and photos lack a certain essential element. A particular context. So to remedy that, I’m going to provide the next set of photos with instructions on how to fully experience them, nasally. And I’ve gone through my last trip’s album to pick out ones that are especially memorable.

Note that I did not say “pleasant”

The Rainforests of Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast–what remains of them–are one of the few places left to see White-lipped peccary, a kind of wild pig. Known as “javelina” in the Southern US, here they are called “Saino” and used to run in herds of up to a hundred. Now, due to habitat loss and overhunting, there are few left and they are very skittish. The best way to see them is to track them, following your nose until you get close enough to hear the clacking of their tusks. Or stake out one of their mud wallows, as I did.

To fully experience a peccary trail, wear the same shorts to the gym every day for a week. Then, stick them in a bucket, add a couple dozen bad eggs, pour in a gallon of gasoline, and let that sit for about a month. Then uncover and inhale deeply. That, my friends, is what peccaries smell like.

Reminds me of freshman year.

Millipedes are a common sight in the Tropics, and they can get rather large. Don’t worry–they’re harmless. It’s only centipedes that sting. Millipedes just eat decaying organic matter and when threatened, curl into a ball and release a distinct smell.

Millipedes smell like almonds. Seriously, just like almonds. Just like an amaretto latte in some species. The reason is cyanide: almonds contain trace amounts of cyanide, which is what millipedes release as a defense. Oh, did I say they were harmless? I meant they’re harmless to touch. Yeah, don’t eat them. Because, y’know, cyanide.

And wash your hands too.

Finally, something that is not native to Costa Rica, but has been naturalized and now flourishes: ylang-ylang. This fragrant tree releases its scent mainly at night to attract nocturnal pollinators. In many parts of the world, including its original home of Southeast Asia, it is made into fancy perfumes and used for aromatherapy.

Ylang-ylang smells wonderful. There is no way to fully describe the sensation of sitting below a ylang-ylang tree in full bloom, or to properly explain the associated feelings of enchantment, decadence, and pure joy. It’s just too rich. It feels almost wrong, somehow, or self-indulgent. It’s a guilty pleasure. It should be a sin to smell something this good. To experience this, to go to a fancy perfume store, find the most expensive bottle, and just smash that sucker on the floor. The resulting smell, as well as the perversely gleeful guilt at your transgression, just might suffice. Next, eat a chocolate chip cookie. Now you’re getting it.

You deserve it.

Smell ya later.

Just Saying No

Dear tourists and travelers, bankers and border agents, friends and strangers, Facebook ads and Amazon algorithms, TSA, DEA, and oh what the hell, the FBI:

I am not a drug dealer.

I know this looks bad. That my travel history is rather suspicious and my passport stamps cover a good portion of Latin America. That I have a certain look: I’m a white dude with long hair and a short beard, and I dress like Macklemore made a baby with Che Guevara. While the Marlboro man watched.

You try chasing monkeys through the jungle for a living. See if it doesn’t turn your wardrobe into “Tropical hobo ranger.”

But hear me out: I swear that I’m not a drug dealer. Honest. I don’t even smoke weed.

Yes, I just started a business based in Washington State. With plans to operate in Costa Rica. And yes, that business is named after a plant. But I chose “Liana” because it sounds friendly and is easily parsed in both Spanish and English. But a liana is just a woody vine.

“A psychotropic vine?” “No! God dammit!”

Seriously, I’m not a drug dealer.

So to those afore mentioned officials, please stop judging me and throwing my suspicious looks. And to all my would-be clients, travel companions, hostel hippies and general gringos, I will say this once:

I. Will not. Sell you weed.

So please stop asking.

Preparations

I’m so unprepared for the jungle right now.

I’ve fallen out of the habit of checking my shoes before putting them on. I haven’t practiced Spanish outside of Duolingo and cursing at livestock. My tolerance for heat and insects is at an all-time low. And I didn’t so much give myself a farmer’s tan as I turned myself into a human croissant–browned on the edges, pasty white in the center, and flaky all over. My ears? Toasted almonds, for the sake of the metaphor.

And I go back to Costa Rica in a little over two weeks.

I need a real-life training montage

This whole thing came about because of the pandemic. I mean, I’ve had the dream of running my own tours for some time now. I even worked with a friend who shared that dream, and we joked about one day working a tour business together. But it wasn’t until I was back in Washington during Winter, cold and wet, eating a lot of bacon and kale that I realized that I wasn’t going to get a better opportunity to actually make this thing a reality. So I called up that aforementioned friend and said something along the lines of:

“Hey, we haven’t spoken in like four years. I’m quitting my job and going back to the jungle. Want to come?”

Only it came out more like: “Hello friend, I know it’s been a while, but remember that business idea we once shared? I’ll fly you to Costa Rica if you’re still interested,” because I’ve learned to talk like a normal person.

She responded with, “Are you nuts? Who quits their job during a pandemic? And where the hell have you been, I thought you were eaten by monkeys?”

“Or bitten by a snake. Or a spider. Point is, how are you still alive?”

Only it came out more like: “What an interesting idea. I have other commitments now, but maybe I can come along on this trip as a consultant.”

It’s good to have friends who understand you. Anyway, cut to about six months later, here I am with an LLC, plane tickets, travel plans, and a fresh COVID vaccine, and still I feel utterly unprepared. It’s not just the physiological or the linguistic failings–it’s the mental ones. I’ve changed and adapted to a temperate climate. I’m throwing myself back into a tropical one.

Studying up on my old tropical science textbooks has helped. So has going through my photos and field journals. Shoot, just re-reading these very blog posts from five years ago has helped me get back in the mindset of a tropical naturalist. Especially since considering I started this blog under similar circumstances, after I had just quit a job in the US to run away to the jungle.

Wow, was this really five years ago? Time flies when you’re having a really, really good time.

I like to think I have a slightly better plan now, at least.

The Curse

As a funny man once said, “I’m not superstitious, but I’m a little stitious.” I’m a skeptic with an open mind. Black cats don’t bother me unless they’re clawing at my leg for attention. I don’t carry good luck charms unless I think they look cool and I would probably carry them anyway. I don’t believe in astrology unless I’m trying to get laid. After all, I’m a scientist at heart, trained to think rationally and act pragmatically.

But I have to admit, after significant observation and data analysis, that I am under some kind of curse: Animal trouble follows me wherever I go.

And for once, I’m not just talking about the ants.

No, this is not due to my line of work. Even among biologists, my number of violent, dramatic, or otherwise unusual animal encounters is an outlier. For almost every job I’ve held. In nearly every place I lived.

My first longterm Costa Rica gig, who had the army ants infest his cabin, and his alone? This guy. That forestry job in Puerto Rico? We were told that invasive mongoose were a shy and rarely encountered species, and not a realistic threat even though they occasionally carried rabies. Yet who got bitten by a rabid mongoose, right outside the dorms, no less? Read my post about that. And the monkey house? Sure, we all had our share of monkey attacks, and monkeys throwing things at us, and monkeys peeing on us, but who had a opossum crawl across his face and fuck-no-o’clock in the morning while sleeping in his own goddam bed?

I have a post about that too, of course.

It sure seems like this is a pattern. Houses where I live see an uptick of pest activity when I move in. Farms where I work get more wildlife trouble. And the animal rescue center? Oh, sweet lord. The staff commented that he’d never seen so many snakes in so little time. Monkeys raided the kitchen. The mosquitos were unusually bad. An dang ocelot moved in and started harassing the sanctuary animals.

I’m forced to confront the “why” and seek solutions. Is this karmic justice for my past as a tracker and hunter? Or my past as a wildlife biologist? Or against my general antagonistic attitude to animals who disrespect me? Have I offended some self-righteous nature god?

Ok, so, yeah, I have spent a lot of time terrorizing animals in the name of science.

Either way, I should probably come with a warning label. After all, some of the places I’ve worked (zoos, large animals farms, vet clinics come to mind), the stakes were rather high concerning potential animal trouble. I suppose I should be thankful things weren’t worse. But regardless, I might want to cool it and seek some kind of understanding with the animal kingdom in general to prevent further catastrophe.

No joke, someone once tried an exorcism after the 3rd or 4th snake incident.

I’m going to be running a legitimate guiding outfit soon. I can’t have my past coming back to haunt me in the form of rampaging wildlife and other such close-encounters. Actually, that might be a selling point. I’ll think on this.

You Might Be a Wildlife Biologist (or a Farmer) If…

(I thought I’d elaborate on the similarities between the two jobs, using my least favorite joke template)

…when you look at an animal, you’re picturing it dead and cut open.

…all your clothes are stained, but you can’t remember from which animal and from which fluid.

…you work with animals and then immediately eat lunch without washing your hands because sweat and dirt are just as good as soap.

…your best scars are teeth marks.

And you are proud of every one. Maybe a little too proud.

…you shop at thrift stores because you feel too guilty to ruin new clothes.

…when you think about sex, at least some part of your mind is thinking about breeding inherited traits.

…you always carry a knife because of course you do, and why is everyone so bothered by this?

…you have been literally deeper in shit than anyone else, and it no longer bothers you.

…you’re better with animals than you are with people, even if you don’t like said animals.

Especially if you don’t like said animals.

…your fashion palette consists of earthtones, various greens, grey, dark grey, Realtree, and occasionally faded denim.

…if you own a car, it smells like your work.

…you have a very, very complicated love-hate relationship with the weather.

…you will casually tell people you caught X horrible disease from an animal and not notice their confused, horrified expressions.

Yeah, the goats gave me herpes again. Wait, where are you all going?

…your feet are a crime scene.

…in your dreams, you fight animals.

…in your nightmares, you have a desk job.

…if you have an intern, they are disposable.

Actually, having been an intern, I can say this probably applies to most jobs.

…you have heard and/or seen your coworkers peeing. Often not five meters away from where you’re working.

…you have a vastly different perception of the word “organic” than the rest of the world.

…you get to wear a great hat.

Costa Rica in My Mind

I’ve got Costa Rica on the brain.

I leave in July. Flights are booked, reservations made. Precautions taken. Prayers sent. There’s not much else for me to do now but double check itinerary, brush up on my Spanish, and continue to take all necessary COVID precautions while hoping the rest of the world can do the same. After all, if things don’t improve, pandemic/vaccine-wise, then I’m pulling the plug cancelling the trip. No sense taking undue risk.

A-hem.

But this is an important trip for me. Not just because I’m so jungle-starved that I’m starting to have sloth flashbacks, but because this is, in fact, a business trip. A site inspection. A test-run. It just happens to be in a beautiful tropical country that ranks among my favorite places in the world. No, it’s not a vacation. It’ll be work. Shut up.

But four more months!? I’m starting to lose it over here. I can practically feel the sunshine. Taste the mangoes. Hear the frogs and macaws.

Smell the monkeys.

But also because I’m really reaching for blog content these days. And photos of farm animals just ain’t cutting it. Yeah, there’s been a good amount of wildlife here, from chicken-stealing eagles in the fields to chicken-playing deer crossing the roads, but I miss cool. The colorful. The weird. The jungle. Hell, I even miss the damn bugs.

Ooh, I’m going to regret saying that, aren’t I?

So in between everything else I’ll try to throw up another flashback story or two to keep active. After all, writing a memoir seems like less and less of a reality these days so I might as well dig into some of those stories for content. Dig through my old journals and photo archives for lost gems. Maybe generate enough hate for one more rant about ants.

Ok, definitely going to regret saying that.

Destinations

This past year has been weird. When I try to think about what has changed in my life over the last 12 months, I’m stunned by the comparison. Most days, I come home sweaty, my hair tangled with vegetation, and caked with a mixture of dirt and animal feces. Ok, so that much hasn’t changed much from where I was a year ago. But I have relocated thousands of miles, switched from wrangling wild animals to wrangling domestic ones, and generally wear more layers of clothing. And my rice and beans intake has dropped dramatically.

I also still wake up to the sounds of large birds. Like this turkey, right outside my bathroom window. It watched me while I peed. Power move, turkey.

So life’s not bad. But while I do miss pre-pandemic life, bars and cafes and hugs an all that, what’s really got me down is the fact that this isn’t what I planned to do with my life. My career wasn’t exactly derailed, but it sure was put on pause. Agriculture is fine–you’d be hard-pressed to find more honest, wholesome work–but unless you plan on settling down on your own farm one day there isn’t a lot of upward mobility. And dammit, Washington ain’t Costa Rica.

Chief difference: fewer monkeys, more newts.

But I have hope now, because with the development of vaccines and the predicted state of the world, I have allowed myself some hope. I’ve bought plane tickets. Yes, I am going back to Costa Rica.

Cue obligatory jungle noises.

I’ve taken that dream I had of running my own tour operation and finally, finally, started taking the first steps to making it a reality. That guided trip I led a few years back for that family before quitting the Monkeyverse? That will serve as the template for future tours: personalized, responsible, budget trips around the country focusing on lesser-known, quieter, and more rustic locales. Hikes, kayaking, farm tours–all options. Wildlife emphasized. Night hikes a specialty.

I will find you a snake. That is guaranteed.

See, the idea is to take advantage of what is sure to be a travel boom post-pandemic, when borders are open and people are once again able to cram themselves into packed airplane cabins and breath each others’ air with minimal complaint. This next trip will be a sort of site-inspection, and I plan to hit up some of my old haunts to see who’s still running and able to host guests. Granted, this is all dependent on IF the pandemic improves and IF travel is safe and IF I can survive the next several months without getting kicked by a horse or trampled by a pig or whatever. But with some luck and a whole lot of self-education on how to start a business, I plan to start operations by Summer 2022.

At the very least, I have something to look forward to. A goal, a horizon, a dawn of a new day. A destination to move toward. And I hope you all have your own, too.