Wednesday, 30 Aug 2000

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica

A beautiful star
ry sky appeared last night after the storms passed, but this morning was cloudy and a bit chilly. The wind was whipping over the mountain, carrying the clouds with it. To me, clouds coming over the mountain and then disappearing as they descend to lower altitude look very much like waves breaking on the beach, only in slow motion.

I spent most of this morning in the forest with Sr. Rodrigo Solano (Rigo), a Costa Rican (or Tico) who has worked in Monteverde as Nalini’s project manager for over 12 years. I have only known Rigo for a little more than a year, but he is like a brother to me. Before I tell you about my trip to the forest with him, I’m going to skip to the events of this afternoon …

Me and my moto.

Most people use motorcycles or horses to get around in rural Costa Rica. I have never been especially comfortable on either, so I have been bouncing around Monteverde (and sweating a lot!) on my mountain bike for the past year. For various reasons, Nalini, Rigo, and I have started working in some forests that are 20 km or more away from the Reserve. A mountain bike just doesn’t do the trick anymore. So, Rigo volunteered his personal time on the weekends and afternoons to help me find a suitable motorcycle (a.k.a. moto) — mainly so I can efficiently travel from research site to research site, but also to make my life 100 times easier. I have no problem speaking Spanish all day long, but negotiating the purchase of a moto is well beyond my abilities. Enter Rigo. What a trooper! He is so patient with me sometimes, it makes my heart swell.

Anyway, I spent this afternoon talking with a lawyer and the registered owner of the moto that I wanted to purchase. Thanks largely to coaching from Rigo, the transaction was a success, and I am now a happy camper. Rigo and I have a habit of going for long bicycle rides together every Saturday, and I still plan to ride my bike up to the Reserve a few times each week (it is more than three km, all uphill), but having this moto adds a whole new dimension to my life. For example, I can now go see the Arenal Volcano (an active volcano 50 km from here) and other local points of interest whenever I want to, without having to rely on Rigo to get me to such places.

I think there is an important message in this story of how I bought my moto. Consider the situation: I am just a gringo studying insects in Rigo’s country. The data I collect benefit relatively few people, and I feel like I have very little to give back. (This problem has plagued me incessantly for the many years I have been working as a biologist in Central America, and I hope to someday find a creative and useful solution that does not involve money.) Although most Ticos I have met have treated me kindly, this has not always been the case. Many gringos come here to exploit the people or their resources, so negative attitudes are justified in my opinion. No matter where I end up in life, I hope I will always remember and appreciate what Rigo did for me today and earlier this week. I am sure he had to put some national pride aside in his efforts to help me, and I now wonder how many gringos would do the same for a Tico visiting the U.S. Based on the typically arrogant and demanding North Americans who visit Monteverde as tourists, I suspect the number, sadly, is very few.

On to a lighter topic: my morning in the forest with Rigo at the Monteverde Reserve. We started hiking on the research forest trail around 7:15 with a bunch of wooden stakes on our shoulders. The stakes will be used to support a series of 30 buckets, each one meter above the ground. We use the buckets to catch (and ultimately measure) the amount of leaf litter that falls from the canopy in different forest types. Knowing that I would be writing to you later today, I kept my eyes wide open during our hike and tried to see the forest in the same way that I did the first time I entered it. This was not as easy as I thought it would be, but I think I can paint at least the beginnings of a feeble picture.

First off, everything is green. This is a very lush forest, and mosses cover everything, so the greenness can be overwhelming at first. It is much like letting your eyes adjust to darkness, but it takes a little longer. After an hour or so of looking around, it becomes easier to see the incredible diversity of shades of green, as well as the diversity of leaf shapes and plant growth forms that exist in this forest.

Philodendron, a common “house” plant in tropical forests.

Plants that are common in U.S. homes grow wild here. Dieffenbachia (mostly in the lowlands), Philodendron, Anthurium, Monstera, passion flower, Bird-of-paradise, Peperomia, a great variety of ferns, and many other “house” plants are always within arm’s reach from the trail. In this forest, the plant families Gesneriaceae (gentian relatives), Solanaceae (nightshade relatives, like tomatoes), and Rubiaceae (coffee relatives) are especially common in the understory. If you look a little closer, you see that many plants have galls (abnormal growths caused by insects or mites that live within plant tissues) and scars from the egg-laying activities of cicadas. Also, many of the leaves you see have holes in them — a good indicator of how important herbivory is in tropical forests. However, there are some plant species with 90 percent or more of their leaves undamaged by insects. These plants probably have one (if not several) chemicals in their tissues that are distasteful to insects and other plant-feeders.

About 100 meters down the trail, I smelled something strong and musky very similar to human body odor. This was the scent of collared peccaries — hairy pig relatives that travel in groups through this and many other tropical forests. We did not see the peccaries, but the scent was a clear indication that a group of them had spent the night nearby.

As we walked along, I heard the various calls of slaty-breasted wood wrens coming from the surrounding vegetation. These are the most common understory birds in the Monteverde forest, and they make two general types of sounds. The first is a pleasant, fluty sing-song melody typical of wrens, and the second (for aggressive situations) is a repeated harsh rasping sound. I also heard one of my favorite calls — that of the slaty-backed nightingale thrush. This is a five-note call that goes up and then down in pitch. It sounds more like it is coming from a synthesizer than from an animal, with the last note very much resembling microphone feedback. Of course, the somewhat spooky roar of howler monkeys could also be heard coming from a distant part of the forest.

At one point along the trail, Rigo dropped his bundle of stakes (these things are heavy and the terrain is rough), and picked a small white flower up from the ground. He gave it a quick smell, handed it to me, pointed at one of the trees above us, and rattled off its scientific name and family name as if he used it in conversation every day. The flower smelled great, but the really impressive thing is that Rigo can identify virtually everything he sees in the forest. This is true of many Costa Ricans I have met, most of whom (like Rigo) have no more than a high school education. How many of your friends with higher degrees can identify the species in their region? Maybe I am just quirky, but I think there is something fundamentally important, and noble (for lack of a better word), in being able to recognize the diversity of life in your surroundings. I could go on forever about this topic, but it is getting late, and I guess I would only be preaching to the choir anyway.

Rigo and I will be working in the same section of forest again tomorrow. I’ll keep my eyes open for you …