We sit next to each other at the lab bench, each wearing gloves and holding tweezers. She sorts through the ziploc bags of soil, discarding any roots she finds, while I clean dirt out of cups of roots.

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Get back on the bike

Three days after we’d arrived at the station, the graduate student I’m working for asked me, “Do you know how to bike?”

“Yes,” I said, and then tried to remember the last time I’d ridden on a bike. “Well, it’s been a while.”

We rented our bikes from the station, and they looked old and fairly beat up, but seemed to be in working order. The bikes were also one-size-fits-all, which of course meant that they were too big for me. After a first attempt where I struggled to reach the pedals, we were able to lower the seat slightly, so that with only a little extra effort, I could make it move decently well.

The next day, we took our bikes out into the field, and although it took me a few false starts, I managed to follow her out into the forest. With each turn, the bike squealed and groaned, the sounds of rusty gears resonating though the frame. I told her that the noise was a good thing, as this way she would know if I fell off, because she wouldn’t be able to hear me behind her.

Years ago, when I’d first started biking down the sidewalk, I had always been worried about the short brick fence that separated our yard from our neighbor’s. I would stare so hard at the fence trying not to hit it that I’d end up aiming straight at it. My parents convinced me that the best way to avoid hitting the fence was in fact to not look at it, so I spent many rides thinking don’t look at the fence, don’t look at the fence, don’t look… and coming close to running into it anyway.

On our way to the field site, we biked across bridges–don’t hit the rails, don’t look at the rails–past hanging branches and vines–don’t hit the tree, don’t look at the tree–and around tight curves–don’t fall off the side of the trail, don’t look off the trail. I wobbled and flinched and multiple times barely managed to stay upright. When the trail turned uphill, my bike began to protest even more loudly, expressing the pain my poor muscles were feeling as I urged legs and bike to go just a bit faster.

Getting on the bike the next day, I quickly realized that I was painfully sore. The muscles in my legs were not complaining too much, but my bottom felt bruised and raw. I wondered if it was possible to get saddle sores from biking. For the next two days, I did everything I could to shift around while we were biking, to stand up slightly when I wasn’t pedaling, and to hide the fact that the short, beautiful ride was causing me so much pain.

When we arrived at the site on the fourth day of field work, she stood and looked ruefully at me.

“This bike really hurts my butt,” she said.

I almost sighed in relief. “I thought it was just me.”

We realized that it had something to do with the shape of the bicycle seats, which seemed to be made for men. But with only a month of fieldwork to do, we decided that trying to buy replacement women’s seats wouldn’t be worth the time and expense.

As we got further into the fieldwork, the biking also got more intense. Now instead of needing to keep only myself upright and moving forward, I had to bike with a pack full of gear, carrying a stick (to check bushes for snakes) across my handlebars. Her job was even harder: she biked carrying our soil corer, a long metal pole with a handle on one end and an open drill-like twist on the other. The packs, stick, and corer added extra off-center weight to a task that already felt like a balancing act. Getting back on the bike after eight hours of field work was a high demand on tired muscles, and each day arriving back at the lab, I would stumble off my bike and drop my pack on the ground, standing still for a full minute before feeling capable of moving again.

A week later, I carried the corer. I managed to get to and from the field site with no major mishaps, and only a few close calls, which I considered fantastic success of courage, ability, and luck.

I was hoping to end this story right there, with me stepping off in front of the lab, triumphantly tossing the corer to the ground, and standing next to my bike glowing as if I’d just finished a marathon. How wonderful it would be to just bask in that small success, to let you celebrate my safe arrival with me. But somehow ending the story there seems slightly dishonest.

You see, I carried the corer again three days later. We’d had a long day of field work after a short night of sleep, and I decided as we walked down the end of the trail that she looked even more tired than I felt. Confident in my newly developed biking-while-carrying-dangerous-object abilities, I insisted that she let me take the corer on the ride back.

You know that saying about pride and falls? Sometimes it can be quite literal. Having set out enthusiastically with corer balanced across my handlebars, I made it only a couple minutes’ ride down the trail before I hit the edge of the corer on a fat vine. It was one of those spectacular falls, where the bike went one way and I went the other way, and I don’t even know where the corer went other than that it thankfully didn’t land on me. I bruised my hip, scraped up my knee, and imbedded a fair mass of broken leaves and twigs into the skin on my arm. When we picked up my poor bike, it refused to move, and it took us ten minutes to shift the front brake back into its proper place.

I remember falling off a horse once during a summer lesson, how it really annoyed me that the instructor spent so much time trying to convince me that I really did need to get back on the horse, because if she’d just stop talking I would already be back on, thank you. There was no question in my mind that the same thing applied to bikes, so I stubbornly insisted on picking up the corer and getting back on, which I’m sure dismayed my poor graduate student greatly, and I biked with that corer all the way back to the lab.

The rain crashes down around us, drowning out music and conversation. Flashes of lightning sear through the clouds overhead, but even the thunder cannot be heard over the pounding of the rain.

Because it rains in the rainforest

The rain splashes its way into my dreams, tapping and plucking at my consciousness as I wake. What sounds like a downpour on our room’s tin roof often fades to a small trickle when we leave the cabina, but today it is heavy enough to keep our umbrellas open on the way to breakfast.

As we eat our eggs and watermelon, we poll other researchers’ opinions on the weather.

“Do you think it will stop?” I ask Mike, who studies the behavior of social birds.

“Of course it will stop,” he says cheerily. “Sometime.”

“I don’t think it will rain all day,” shrugs Megan, who works on spiders. “It doesn’t have that smell of a heavy rain day, you know? How you can just smell it? And the wind isn’t really blowing.”

Sure enough, in the twenty minutes it takes us to finish breakfast, the rain has stopped completely, and there’s even a chunk of blue sky hovering over the river. Feeling triumphant, we head over to the lab and pack our gear. But as we are about to head outside, the rain once again starts falling fairly heavily. Heavy rain means waterlogged soil, which is tricky to walk on and makes taking soil and root samples quite difficult; we put our bags down and try to get some lab work done.

After prepping and weighing collecting jars and putting together plenty of plastic mesh cores, I’ve finished all the useful work I know how to do, and it’s still raining. I can imagine the weather mocking us for being foolish enough to schedule our field work in so tightly that we deeply regret losing a day. But I’d rather think of it as being a kind of tough-love compassion, as if the rain knows just how tired and worn down we’re getting, and is insisting that we take at least a few hours off. With this weather, there’s really nothing else to do.

For the first time since I’ve arrived in Costa Rica, I had trouble waking up this morning. Having spent nearly eight hours in the field yesterday, my body was not ready to bounce out of bed at 6:05. But I came here to do fieldwork, so I got up and got going.

We went to the field with two of La Selva’s staff to act as guides. While we can now identify saplings of our nine species when looking closely at them, it would have taken us quite a while to find all of the two hundred fifty trees we need. Leo and Willie helped us find the saplings quickly, and also kept an eye out for snakes.

For each tree that we or our guides found, we needed to mark its location on the GPS, flag it with bright orange tape, label it with an aluminum dog tag, and record its position in a notebook. By our third full day of work, we had streamlined our system as best as we could, but there were still some challenges. Some of the trees were just a few meters off the trail, but we’ve found others a fair ways back in the forest, and reaching them has required climbing down logs and pushing through giant palm leaves. Long roots, spiked vines, and the threat of snakes sometimes has made finding safe footing a mini adventure in each step.

In the next gap, fully lit by sun, stood our final Pentaclethra macroloba. As with all the rest, we tagged, flagged, marked, and recorded it. “Pentaclethra is finish!” My graduate student called out to our guides. Our search continued to be quite productive, and one by one, we checked the final trees off our list. By the time we headed back to the station, only three species remained unfinished.

We emerged from the forest a little after two, walking slowly to avoid staggering. We washed our boots, unpacked our gear, took a shower, and were luxuriously clean by three.

“I actually feel really awake now,” my graduate student said. I agreed–the bit of rest and cold shower woke me up considerably. We planned on heading out to the lab, and I sat down briefly on my bed to stretch out my ankle.

I was woken up about an hour later by the wonderful sounds and smells of a rainstorm passing through; she slept even longer.

Lessons in Trees

Our first step in a research project that will study over two hundred fifty individual trees from nine different species was learning how to identify tropical trees. Initially, I expected this to be a fairly simple task. After all, I know plenty of trees native to the west coast, and there are even more species whose names I don’t know but which I can easily recognize. So when the graduate student I’m working with handed me a packet of information and photos to study, I felt fairly confident.

That confidence fled as I looked through the packet. On first glance there seemed to be two types of trees: tall with big leaves and tall with small leaves. They were all too-bright-for-my-camera green, and all about the same shape.
“How do you tell these apart?” I gaped, trying to sound like I was suavely asking for a few pointers rather than admitting that I was completely lost. Fortunately, my graduate student claimed she was as unsure as I was, but she said not to worry, as one of the La Selva staff would probably help us on our first day in the field. I stared at the leaves and Latin names for about fifteen more minutes, and put the packet away feeling no wiser.

At eight o’clock on Friday morning, we met Orlando Vargas, La Selva’s botany expert, who had very kindly made time in his busy schedule to introduce us to the forest. Sitting on the porch, he looked completely comfortable in rubber boots, trail pants, and a t-shirt with an image of a snake. When he introduced himself, a friendly smile lit up the strong lines of his face.

He asked us if we knew how to bike.

“Yes, but I’m a little rusty,” I said. I haven’t gone biking in years.

He told us that when he isn’t doing research or working in the office, he likes to go mountain biking; he mentioned competing in national competitions. “But we will go slow.” In fact, Orlando did set an easy pace that even I could keep without much trouble.

He did the same when teaching us about the trees. Orlando can do more than name every plant in the forest–he can describe their habitats, growth patterns, and insect relationships. He points out the trees and shows us distinctive markers such as the shape of the stems, the feel of the leaves, and even the smell of the sap. As we walk, he also gives us tips on where to find the trees. “The forest changes every meter,” Orlando says, and with his guidance separating individual trees from expanses of green, we can see how just how true that is.

The Waiting Game

I am really, really bad at waiting. I don’t think of myself as a generally impatient person: years teaching children has taught me a decent degree of patience, which I’ve found to be really important. But just sitting and waiting for things to happen, to get started, to get going, drives me crazy.

Maybe you’ve already guessed: yes, we’ve been doing a fair bit of waiting. Waiting for all the materials to be collected, waiting for someone to teach us how to identify saplings, waiting for the permit to come in–all very legitimate reasons, but the result is that, despite the looming amount of work the project requires, our first couple days here have been quite slow. Fantastically, amazingly wonderful, but slow.

I’ve spent a lot of time doing little things in the office, like labeling tools with orange tape or setting up my blog, and some time exploring the area. I pester my grad student with questions all the time–I’m sure I would be driving her crazy if she was any less awesomely nice–and spend time trying to get to know other researches and staff so I can bug them with even more questions.

Tomorrow morning, though, with an early start at 7:30, we go out to search for saplings. Tomorrow morning, it’s time for field work.