It Makes You Think

On our last field day, the monkeys started alarming and I followed them to a patch of Bromelia pinguin–a large, cactus-like ground-dwelling bromeliad that usually makes our life hell. The plant grows in a whorl of sawblades tipped with hooked spines. They usually grow too close together to pass through, and have a habit of reaching out their long serrated fronds over our paths. They grow to about waist-height, perfect for a little DIY appendectomy should you trip and fall into one.

However, the monkeys were reserving their outrage for what was in the bromeliads: a young boa constrictor, all laid out and resting along a leaf, snug between spines. The monkeys threatened at it for a while, dropped things, tried to impress each other with their courage, shrieked in fear, formed coalitions against the snake, threatened some more, competed for better positions to assert their courage against the snake, made sure the alpha was watching them, tried to manipulate the situation to better their social standing, threatened some more, threatened us for good measure, then got bored and wandered off to eat and fuck each other as they typically do.

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Short tempers, even shorter attention span.

But I, naturally, stayed with the snake. I was impressed it was able to find a comfortable spot without being impaled. I guess a limbless, scaled body was a great advantage to maneuver into a spot where it could avoid predators (birds, cats) and ambush prey trying to do the same.

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Whenever I get this close to BP, I end up looking like a Clive Barker extra.

For an animal, the agency to choose a location for ambush or shelter is strongly selected for. It’s quite simple: animals that choose better spots will eat more and get eaten less. Classic positive reinforcement, as long as those choices are genetically influenced. That’s just basic evolution. But is all of their behavior is simple reinforced patterns? Is there any cognition involved?

Imagine if you were to pick a hiding spot. You would have to take into account your needs, but also try to think as your predator or prey. You’d have to project. You’d have to empathize. You would have to imagine yourself in the mind of another creature, and take into account a whole new suite of needs and capabilities.

Nearby that snake was a river, where we often see iguanas resting on overhanging tree limbs. When they hear us approach, they dive into the water with a terrific crash. Do they know predators aren’t likely to swim after them? Are they choosing specifically to sleep above water? Or have all the iguanas that rested over land simply been eaten already?

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Maybe they like the expression we make when a giant lizard lands with a splash a few meters away. That, too, is positive reinforcement.

Perhaps a greater question is more self-reflective: if we speculate that animals have advanced cognition rather than selected behavior, what then is the difference? Are we demonstrating anything more than seleceted behavior? Is our intelligence really more than a–albeit, vastly complex–pattern of behavior?

This is all getting way more philosophical and speculative than I normally prefer. Really, this whole thing came to me in the heat of a long day, near the end of a long month, while I was more than a little dehydrated. Shoot, it was probably just an excuse to stick around and take more pictures of a large snake. Anything to liven up the day.

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It’s been a slow month.
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Story Creep

Everyone’s experienced it at some point, either first or secondhand–the story that got better with every retelling. Whether it was the increasing size of the fish that was caught. the dwindling time of the race that was run, or the multiplying number of drinks that went down that one night, many of the best stories see their details embellished just a tad every time they’re repeated. You must have heard it before. Or, just as likely, you’ve done it yourself.

For example, yesterday we encountered a collared peccary on one of our trails. It was small and looked rather scrawny, perhaps a juvenile separated from its herd. Usually shy and illusive in this forest, this one let us get within about four or five meters before grunting in surprise and bolting into the forest.

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Pics. Happened.

I’ve got photos and a witness, so that one’s safe. But when you’re alone? Or you have a perfectly good excuse for not taking pictures? Or you’re sure that your audience will never cross paths with your witnesses? Can you say that there isn’t a compelling incentive to make the story just a tad bit more interesting?

This doesn’t have to be malicious. Most embellishments, I believe, aren’t done out of greed or pride. Or even done consciously. All narrators suffer from bias, and it’s all to easy to amend our own memories with each retelling. We come to believe our own exaggerated tales. With a few more tellings, that scrawny little pig I saw may become a fullgrown adult. Instead of five meters, we may have approached to three. Instead of fleeing, it may have charged.

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This iguana will become Godzilla. The waterfall will become Niagara.

I call it “Story Creep.” The tendency for stories to “improve” over time, to get more entertaining, more coherent, more detailed, or more meaningful. And more removed from reality. The best people to attest to this are children who may grow up with family stories retold over every Thanksgiving, Grad students who attend their advisor’s every lecture, and anyone who has to wingman for a friend who uses the same adventure story to pick up dates at a bar.

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You know who you are, and that boulder came nowhere near you.

So why am I mentioning this on a blog known for ridiculous, belief-straining, and hard-to-verify stories? I admit–this is as much a confession as it is an accusation. But it’s not meant to be either. Like many of my stories, it’s meant to be a reflection. I’m being as honest and self-aware as I can. One of the hardest things a storyteller can do is to identify their own biases. Like I said, if I am guilty of Story Creep, I’m probably not as aware of it as someone who has to listen to me tell the same snake story twice. Or the one about that time we cornered an enormous peccary boar who snarled and charged at us, missing by mere inches.

But I try to do better. I rely on a very detailed memory. I take photos and write things down as soon as I can. That is partially the function of this blog. A buffer of sorts against Story Creep. The evidence is immortalized here, empirical and eternal, untainted by bias and embellishment. Also, author-controlled, poorly illustrated, and mostly anonymous. Eh, nobody’s perfect.

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Verification? That’s what the Comments Section is for.

So the other day, when we ambushed that monster peccary, got within tickling distance, and won a game of chicken as it bullrushed us? Happened.

Stupid, Smelly Bugs

This is an acid bug.

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That’s right, buddy. I’m looking at you.

It’s stupid and it smells bad. No, really–it’s a species of stink bug, and its reliance on odorous chemicals for a defense means that it’s a terribly flier. When they can be bothered to lift off, they fly clumsily and noisily, bumping into objects while buzzing and making a godawful racket. This wouldn’t normally be so bad, but they also have a habit of perching chest-high, flying into people’s faces, then panicking and spraying as a defense. It also doesn’t help that monkeys eat them by the fistful for some reason, often sending clouds of them into the air as they forage.

The name is no joke–these aren’t your average stink bugs. The compounds they use are a concentrated acid that will melt cloth and burn skin. I’m seriously not kidding–this is my wrist an our after I failed to notice one had landed there.

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Treatment is about a half-liter of water applied directly to flush the chemical as soon as you smell it. It’s a great excuse to waterboard your friends and make them thank you for it.

The other day, I ended up bruised, burned, and partially melted. Something had taken root under my nails. My feet had gotten wet and the skin was starting to slough off into paste in parts. Between the mosquitoes, chiggers, and black flies, you could probably measure my long-term blood loss Empirically. I still have an entire botanical exhibit worth of twigs and leaves in my hair. I can’t completely tell where the forest ends and my body begins. It’s like I’m being slowly digested.

That’s not just a colorful expression. As we move through the forest, thorny vines catch and claw at our clothes and skin. Rough-surfaced leaves rasp away at our exposed limbs and faces, slowly flaying patches. Some stems or fruit, when broken, release toxic or caustic compounds. Watch bands, backpack straps, shoe laces–these are often the first things to dissolve or crumble away after a few months of solid field time. Skin, at least, can heal when given the chance, but the worst days will leave burns, scrapes, rashes, and scars that will last for some time.

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Or maybe permanently. Seriously, fuck you.

I’m already sharpening my machete in preparation for the end of the month.

Why I’m Not a Cat Person

Yesterday started off slow. We found the monkeys fairly early in the day, and they led us at a surprisingly easy pace along a river, where we were able to follow them from a trail on the other bank. The trail itself was well-groomed–an old service road with only a collapsing barbed wire fence between us and the monkeys. It was almost pleasant.

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But this story involves monkeys. You know it’s not going to end well.

Then they all freaked out. The entire group started barking the alarm they use for terrestrial threats, including snakes and caimans. But I had never heard it done with such excitement–not even when we fond that boa a few months ago. This time the entire group leaped for the trees and started screaming in fear and aggression. This wasn’t just a danger–it was a threat. But what was most unusual was that by following their gaze, I could see that whatever they were alarming at was moving, and moving fast. And when it passed by a gap in the bushes I understood why–it was an ocelot.

Kitty cat! My groggy mind jumped forward several gears. I had never actually seen an ocelot before. Margay, puma, jaguarundi, sure–but this was a first. And it disappeared back into the bushes before I could get a picture. With the monkeys still shitting themselves in terror, I knew it was still close but would vanish soon.

The river was wide but shallow, and my only barrier between me and cat pics was the old barbed wire fence. The posts were too rotten to support any weight, and the wires were too close together to slip through. However, I noticed a nearby rock that I could use as a step to vault over in a single motion, a technique I’d done before. It would be no problem. I was in a hurry.

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Cue hubris.

The rock shifted as soon as I pushed off, when I already had one leg over the fence. My other one didn’t clear. I went down, with no momentum, and no leverage, crotch-first onto rusty barbed wire, with both feet dangling inches above the ground.

I won’t bother describing the pain. Or the thought in the back of my head of what tetanus would do to one’s nether regions. I simply fumbled for a way off my self-induced humiliation. My partner came to my aid. I told him to, “take my hand and pull really hard on the count of three,” whereupon I kicked out and managed to reverse the maneuver that had put me there.

By then, the ocelot had gone. But the monkeys remained in the trees for a while, barking alarms in different directions. They, too, had lost sight of the cat. But my concerns were elsewhere. Upon careful inspection, I was able to determine that the barbs had not broken the skin, or even torn my pants, and that at worst I was being let off with a few microbruises to my groin and ego. Oh, and the skepticism of my friends, since I was never able to get any ocelot photos. But once I described my injury, most of them decided that the story made sense. The chance of a rare cat photo is clearly worth risking genital impalement.

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Don’t give me that look.

 

What Happens at 3am

Forget twilight, midnight, the Witching Hour–the true magic occurs between 3 and 4 in the morning. When it’s technically morning, and yet still undeniably nighttime. It’s that threshold between dreaming and waking, between reality and sleep-deprivation-induced insanity. It’s a time when you know, fundamentally, no civilized being should be conscious, let alone active.

It is also my usual wakeup call. For in order to reach the monkeys before dawn, you see, we must rouse ourselves to action at this unholy hour every field day, roughly two of every three days. And after so much time bumbling around in the dark while my brain gradually climbs the evolutionary ladder from primitive amphibian to–at best–drugged neanderthal, I have made several discoveries. The following is absolutely true about the hour from 3am to 4am:

–Jokes are not funny (“Uh-oh guys, the car’s dead and we can’t go to the field today!”)

–Serious things are (“No, seriously, the car’s dead and we can’t go to the field today.”)

–No matter how well you may have laid out your things the night before, they will have moved in the night. No doubt due to gremlins.

–Rats, roaches, and toads are just as surprised as you are when you encounter them in the kitchen.

–90% of the people you meet on the street are drunk, and have yet to go home from the prior evening. For that matter, so are the drivers, who must be avoided at all costs.

–Every little ache, itch, and twinge in your body is undoubtedly a symptom of some much worse disease and every rational thought in your mind will tell you to go back to bed immediately.

–Stray dogs love to sleep in the middle of the road.

–Your boots still haven’t dried out from that time you fell in the river two days ago.

–That minor scrape on your arm has festered overnight into something that looks leprous. You should definitely go back to bed immediately.

–Your roommates have deliberately strewn their laundry and phone charger cords across the floor to trip you.

–The toilet never works.

–Ants are usually asleep, but can be easily woken up and will be just as grumpy as you when they are.

–The monkeys are never where they’re supposed to be.

–That grogginess isn’t due to lack of sleep, or dehydration, but is most likely Dengue or Zika or flu and you should definitely go back to bed this instant, it just makes sense, oh God why am I awake?

–Coffee is worth its weight in gold, but there is never time to make any (aka Cappuchino’s Paradox).

–If anyone was snoring last night, you are perfectly justified in murdering them, honor-killing style.

–Jokes are still not funny (“Hey, that cough sounds awful. We should stay home today!”)

–Very serious things are hilarious (“Was that a piece of lung?”)

The Towering Inferno

Guanacaste’s Dry Season came fast and sudden, like someone switched off the water overnight. It’s gotten hotter and dustier. Plants have already started to shrivel and the bugs have started to die. The pattern extends throughout the relatively flat and homogeneous region. So I was all the more surprised when a brief, 45-minute drive took us to a familiar and dramatically different environment: Cloud Forest. Courtesy of our small, hometown resident volcano Miravalles.

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Behold.

Miravalles sits to our Northeast, looming over the plains in an aura of clouds, swatting down cold fronts like bothersome flies. Its position and elevation create a localized rainshadow effect, with wet air from the Caribbean caught against its steep slopes and forced to stay put, depositing their vapor in gentle mists. The mountain thus stays green all year, and constantly feeds the surrounding parched land with rivers like a greedy despot.

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Ahh…about those rivers.

The volcano itself, I am told, is inactive. That is, there’s been no activity from the caldera at the summit, which blew itself up along with the upper third of the mountain in some forgotten cataclysmic age. But the surrounding area, from the foothills to the slopes, is a hot zone for thermal vents, with sulfurous water boiling straight from the ground in several places.

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This place is in no way fucking around. Non-Spanish-speakers, here’s a hint: it doesn’t say “WET FLOOR.”

It’s a pretty dramatic area. Ever since Guatemala, it’s been obvious to me how volcanoes lend themselves to nature worship. It’s a literal expression of greater forces beneath our feet, movements of the very bowels of the Earth, unstoppable and endless fonts of heat and energy. I stood by a hole that gurgled and spat diabolical-smelling mud and realized that no amount of human ingenuity would be able to produce the kind of energy that powered this tiny suppurating mudhole. That’s humbling.

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“Look upon my works, ye mighty…”

But it gets better. See, last year Costa Rica suffered one of its worst hurricanes of the century: Tropical Storm Otto. The Eye passed right over Guanacaste, and the rainfall against Miravalles was tremendous. The leached, rocky soil–precariously placed after decades of gentle misting–collapsed into landslides and floods. One scree pile took down an entire swath of forest and landed in a river, causing a freshwater tsunami of a flashflood that continued down into nearby towns below. A local family I spoke to during the visit described a wave of water, silt, and debris 5 meters high that tore a brand new riverbed into their backyard. They were lucky to keep their house.

The scars of the storm are still visible in the forest, with boulders resting out of place amidst trees and trees resting among boulders. Raw rock, unstained and freshly carved, still screams of the force of the storm and its floodwaters. Concrete fragments and twisted rebar testify to the puny attempts of humans who dare to build upon this mountain. A mountain that bleeds heat and shits flashfloods. This is where a natural disaster combined with another natural disaster. Where a volcano mated with a storm. This is where nature said to humanity, “I see your global warming, and I raise you one Apocalypse.”

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We’re not worthy.

Sorry. That got a little out of hand. But you see what I mean? How can you not stand in awe of this kind of thing? Plus, the small, isolated spot supports a beautiful ecosystem, made all the more precious by its fragility in the face of such destruction.

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It also helps that some of the flowers look like alien pineapples.

Back in the Dry Forest in early Dry Season, I can still see Miravalles in the distance, peeking out from its cloudy shroud. I look with reverence and respect. And also wariness. You never can know what the mountain has in store.

You Take It When You Can

Yesterday, I was sitting the in the forest. The morning had been spent chasing monkeys up and down several cliffs until they ran off. It was a hot day, and I was greasy from all the  sweat soaked into my field clothes. I had ants in my boots, mosquitoes hovering by my ear, and chiggers in my navel. There were fresh puma tracks nearby. And I nearly fell asleep.

Why? Because I was tired. Because it had been a long day. We had lost the monkeys and were staking out a site we were pretty sure they would return to. Because my back hurt from carrying my pack. Because I hadn’t gotten much sleep recently and dammit, the sandy ground was kind of comfy.

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That lack of sleep may have something to do with all the ant, mosquito, and chigger bites.

But my point is, I almost fell asleep in an area surrounded by things that would keep most people up all night. Hell, a few years ago I would have thought anyone was out of their mind if they had even a momentary lapse in awareness in the jungle. Biting insects and large predators? You can’t even risk daydreaming. Naptime? Forget about it!

Mostly, it comes down to comfort and perspective. After so many years in fieldwork, and so many hours physically in the field, the forest is just another place. I’ve mentioned before about how it’s all relative–every location and environment has its own risks, perceived or otherwise. I’ve simply gotten used to this one. It’s not that I don’t notice the bugs anymore (especially ants, don’t think that I don’t), it’s just that I consider them differently when prioritizing things like efficiency and comfort.

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Mostly sleep. I cannot emphasize enough how big a factor sleep deprivation is. I thought this mushroom was a turtle.

 

As for the predators, they simply aren’t that big an issue. Not during the day, at least, and not for a fullgrown, healthy human. I’m willing to share my space with large cats with the understanding that they’re more wary of me than I am of them. For the most part, they have no reason to disturb me while I rest. The ones around here don’t consider humans food. And I after a few hours of hiking, I smell far from edible.

I’ve reached the point where I can find a few minutes of sleep just about anywhere. Not that I can maintain it uninterrupted, though. The flip side of all this field time is a whole other issue–I will bolt awake in a near panic at the slightest disturbance, going from coma-like torpor to wide awake, machete-waving fight-or-flight at the drop of a hat. Or the snap of a twig. This means I can cue in to approaching monkeys even while nodding off, but also means that I sometimes scare the piss out of coworkers and roommates.

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My suggestions: stay out of arms’ reach. Doubt me at your peril.

It’s a skill that comes with a tight balance. While I doubt anyone can literally sleep with one eye open, I can generally sleep with both ears perked. Even in the forest. Certainly when I need it. Just be careful if you have to wake me up.