Making a trail through a temperate forest is a simple process: pick a direction, hack away the plants, clear the debris, maybe reroute around some larger trees, and then just keep tramping down the path with booted feet. The vegetation usually learns its lesson, and after a while you have a more-or-less permanent open trail.
Not so in the tropics. Here, the forest either ignores your puny efforts to make any sort of open space, or else laughs in your face. “Is that disturbance I feel? Meet vines that grow year-round.” “Oh, what’s that? You were planning on walking where those bushes just grew up?” “I’m sorry, was that your trail I just dropped a tree on?” Freshly-cut rails disappear practically overnight, trail markers are swallowed up by moss and vines, and any negative space is quickly reclaimed by sun-hungry plants.
But still, our project requires the occasional passage that isn’t pure thorn scrub and wasp nests, so the last day of each month is spent maintaining–or rather, reclaiming–some of our “trails.” With the whole forest to work with, this means that each trail gets attention about once a year, plenty of time to vanish beneath vines, shoots, and debris. Some disappear completely. The coverage is mainly light, but thick and often elastic. Thus, into play comes the trailblazer’s best friend: the machete.
I’ve mentioned before how in a climate like this, nearly every campesino, field researcher, and park personnel carries around one of the large knives at all times. People seem practiced with them, even at a young age. I’ve seen children wielding blades nearly as long as they are, opening coconuts and the like. The things are practically an extension of their arm, and the safety skills are ingrained.
In the hands of a foreigner, a machete becomes–at best–a novelty weapon or–at worst–a toy. It becomes a cool sword; a stage prop. Many’s the time I’ve unthinkingly handed off a machete to a student or tourist, later to turn around and see them swinging it like a swashbuckler. Or trying to actually use it and endangering everyone around them.
Now, I’ve spent enough hours in agriculture or trail maintenance to properly use one, and to know better than to keep it out of the hands of the swordplay-inclined. It really is the best tool for clearing away fast-growing vegetation, and during trail clearing days it serves another more psychological purpose: therapy.
Tail clearing is the one time to–literally–cut loose and release all pent-up frustration, putting it behind the slashes and chops and you brutalize the forest that for the last month has been making your life miserable. It’s a glorious example of constructive destruction–guilt-free, necessary, and utterly cathartic. It’s exercise, psychology, and science rolled into one.
As I cut and hacked, I pictured every monkey that had ever peed on me or fled halfway through a follow. I imagined every ant, mosquito, and wasp that had tormented me as vines and shoots I obliterated. Bushes and shrubs were every ignorant bureaucrat and border agent who had needlessly complicated my work here.
Sap flowed and leaves fell. Stems crashed and bark shriveled. I sweated and grunted. Blisters formed on my hands, simmered, then erupted. My machete became my fury, my revenge, my human technological advantage against the landscape that had made me hurt, itch, sting, fester, and bleed for so long.
God, I needed that.