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Me and the moon August 13, 2017

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It feels like my Saturday began and ended with the moon. Really, it began with howler monkeys and ended with my mom’s cat, but the moon still bookended my trip home. After a completely unnecessary 4 AM howler monkey wake-up call, I decided I might as well do something I’ve always wanted to do: hike up to La Roca to watch the sun rise. When I started off at 4:50, the three-quarter moon was still bright in the sky, which meant that I could do almost the whole walk without my headlamp.

Once I got up on the ridge leading to the overlook, I could see the first glimmer of sunrise,

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but it took until I reached the base of the rock for me to see leaves as green, rather than the odd blueish gray you know must be green because the only things that color are the plants. I think this means I saw my vision transition from rod to cones cells between one moment and the next, but I’m hardly an expert.

On the rock, sunrise was glorious:

The light and rising mist quickly hid the setting moon, and I didn’t see it again until 11:30 that night, when it was rising, huge and yellow, over the airport in St. Louis.


A menagerie of monsters August 12, 2017

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IMG_20170701_140950One of the things everyone loves about old maps is the monsters they filled into the undiscovered corners.  One of mine is that I’m not a very good guest correspondent.  It turns out I’m quite bad at sitting down to write down my memories.

I think it’s not surprising that the world outside was beautiful.  For a layman, the variety of crazy caterpillars.  The howler monkeys walking across three trees just to smack someone upside the head before falling asleep (I would do that if I were a howler monkey, I’m afraid).  Nor the feel of the human company.  All wonderful, open people, but a sort of agatha christie setting, in which there’s nowhere to go and no one to come visit, and so the same people just are themselves in scene after unaccompanied scene.

But, I think everyone’s favorite part of travelling is the unexpected.  Like this guy, who won’t move for thirty minutes (as I expect of an iguana), and then launches himself off the dock, flying off into the marshland to eat every hyacinth in sight.  And then, nap again.

But another wonderful part of traveling, at least as a young man, is just having to let go.  Take this guy: pretty cute, but then his owner caught my eye, and said “hey kid, what are you doing?”  And when I told him some humbug about going on a guided tour of Monteverde, he told me to drop absolutely everything and drive four hours north to climb an inactive volcano.

This is my language.  The form of my imagination.  Inquisitive dogs, importunate strangers, big lakes, volcanoes.  Total failure to foresee what the next day will bring.

So I drove off, of course.  Gave a ride to a passing hitchhiker, a butterfly-trinket salesman and an evangelical preacher.  We talked about the imported chinese butterflies (“costa ricans”, he informed me with devout charity, “are lazy, and never make anything”), and how he got along with Catholics (right idea, wrong execution).  I asked him how to make sense of the Hindu woman I live with, with her paintings of animal-headed gods.  He smiled, and explained to me that understood that “some of those hindu women are damned fine.”

“My middle aged landlady, thank you.”

He got quiet and, far from his stated destination, asked me to leave him by the side of the road.


There were of course, also, the obligatory giants, their grey cloaks loose about their shoulders.

But, it seems somehow insincere to leave out a couple of more straightforward monsters.  A nighttime stroll in Monteverde showed these guys.  Somehow, I’d taken “plants are photosynthetic” and “leafcutter ants eat plants”, put two and two together, and decided the ants must cease their business in the dark.  Something captures my imagination about these guys, ceaselessly going about their business, while I grow weary and rest.

And so they bore off a smattering of my cares.  Sins of the world I can nor pardon, nor carry, nor lift.  Parochial concerns, and the kind of status transactions Keith Johnstone would love.IMG_20170705_202354

Of course, no wayfarer’s aide would be complete without its monsters.IMG_20170706_165437

But, the far reach of this journey was, as the poet said, to continue new adventures at home.IMG_20170711_195125

Almost there August 10, 2017

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It’s my second-to-last night here, and it feels like things are under control. **cross my fingers, knock on wood, and all the rest** But I have a sincere expectation that I’m not going to be up until midnight tomorrow night packing everything up. And a couple of days ago, I even had the time to hike all the way up the longest trail in the park and take in the view:

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The egg is in the nest! August 6, 2017

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A pair of tiger herons, possibly the same ones as last year, have again built a nest in the big tree right next to the lab. Despite the proximity, it’s hard to keep an eye on what’s happening, both because you can’t look down into the nest and because it’s usually backlit against the sky. But when I stood directly underneath the nest this afternoon, I could see an egg inside. (Think about that for a moment.) I can’t really say that tiger herons are crummy nest builders, because this works for them, but they seem to like brutalist architecture.

Or arrivals August 3, 2017

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Almost every prediction I made on Sunday turned out to be wrong, which is exceptional even for me. Right after the undergrads left on Monday, two women from Belgium arrived and stayed the night before moving on to another national park. Tuesday, a PhD student planning to study epiphytic bromeliads showed up to scout Palo Verde for potential research subjects. On the weather front, it’s gone back to being dry. The mud did get packed down, but the mosquitoes seem to have decided that the remaining water has become suitably stagnant and are out in force.

Equally unexpected were the two chicks that the female curassow brought by the comedor at breakfast on Tuesday…I didn’t even know that curassows had chicks at this time of year. I didn’t have my camera, and the chicks looked unremarkable—like brown goslings without the webbed feet and pointier beaks—but it was the most exciting animal sighting I’ve had this week.

Departures July 30, 2017

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I only have 13 days left, and it really feels like the field season is coming to a close. My field assistant left Saturday morning, and the three students who’ve been working on their undergraduate thesis projects are leaving tomorrow. After that, the only researchers here will be me and the graduate student studying iguanas, and I don’t think we’re expecting any tourists. I thought the rain had left to give us our typical dry spell, but it’s come back with a vengeance. I hope it will at least pack down the mud near the wetland. Maybe it’ll even cut down on the mosquitoes. Here’s hoping!

Visits to the boardwalk July 27, 2017

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July 27, 2017

Although a large part of Palo Verde is wetland, I don’t spend much time looking at it, simply because it’s difficult to find caterpillars there when it’s actually wet. Which is a shame, since it’s probably the most obvious beauty of the park:

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It’s also a great place to see lots of birds. One is the northern jacana, which is a goofy-looking wading bird that lives on top of the aquatic plants. A couple of days ago, someone told me that they’d seen baby jacanas near the boardwalk that goes into the wetland, so my field assistant and I took a quick break in our work to look for them. We wound up seeing a different group of two adults and three babies:

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(Sorry, not the best photo. To find all five, start with the brown and yellow adult in the center. There are two brown and white chicks to the left, and another to the right. The darker brown bird to the right of that chick is the bent-over second adult.)

This grouping is actually rather odd, since male jacanas are the ones who take care of the chicks. Either two father/chick groups were hanging out together, or another adult was hanging out with one father/chick group. Unfortunately, male and female jacanas look very similar, so I have no idea what was going on.

Then this afternoon, I went out to retrieve my dropped head lamp and made another stop at the boardwalk. I saw a single jacana and chick in another spot, along with an anhinga, a bare-throated tiger heron, and a bunch of black-crowned night herons collecting sticks for nests.

Guest post, delayed July 25, 2017

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While I collect time in which to think fluently, a little preemptive Pasternak mockery:
Now the front is flooded with correspondents and journalists. They record their ‘observations’ and gems of popular wisdom, they visit the wounded and construct new theories about the people’s soul.  It’s a new version of Dahl and just as bogus -linguistic graphomania, verbal incontinence.  That’s one type- and then there’s the other: clipped speech, ‘sketches and short scenes’, skepticism and misanthropy.  I read a piece like that the other day: ‘A gray day, like yesterday.  Rain since morning, slush.  I look out of the window and see the road.  Prisoners in an endless line.  Wounded.  A gun is firing.  It fires today as yesterday, tomorrow as today and every day and every hour’.  Isn’t that subtle and witty!   But what has he got against the gun?  How odd to expect variety from a gun!  Why doesn’t he look at himself, shooting off the same sentences, commas, lists of facts day in, day out, keeping up his barrage of journalistic philanthropy as nimble as the jumping of a flea?  Why can’t he get it into his head that it’s for him to stop repeating himself -not for the gun- that you can never say something meaningful by accumulating absurdities in your notebook, that facts don’t exist until man puts into them something of his own, a bit of free human genius- of myth.

Mini-lechuzas! July 23, 2017

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July 20, 2017

There are two general words for ‘owl’ in Spanish: búho and lechuza. As best as I can work out, búhos generally have ear tufts (think of a horned owl) while lechuzas generally don’t (think of a barn owl). At any rate, we saw two little owls of the lechuza variety today:

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They turn out to have the disproportionately long English name of “ferruginous pygmy owl” and the slightly shorter Costa Rican common name of mochuelo. But since they’re the only pygmy owls at Palo Verde, I’ll probably just keep calling them mini-lechuzas. 🙂

Mérida, part 3 July 20, 2017

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I found my most interesting souvenir at a little convenience store shop in the Mérida airport. It’s a Spanish book of Mayan legends for kids, with pictures. That means it’s right at my reading level. Oddly, given the audience, most of the stories seem to be of the ‘star-crossed lovers’ variety, and the illustrations of human hearts (some of them were very star-crossed lovers) are all disturbingly lifelike.

But one of the stories, “Maquech”, is really interesting, because it explains yet another mystery for me. In the story, a princess is betrothed to a neighboring king. She happily accepts the betrothal, since the king’s a good and respected man, at least until she falls instantly in love with a warrior bringing war trophies to her father’s palace. Appropriately for this situation, the warrior’s main attractions seem to be that he’s young and handsome. He reciprocates, they meet in secret, they are found out, and the warrior is sentenced to be sacrificed. The princess begs her father for the warrior’s life, and he agrees, as long as she marries her betrothed. There’s also a second catch: the king has the warrior transformed into a large flightless beetle (called a maquech in Mayan) before giving him to the princess. She outfits the beetle in gold and jewels, including a gold chain so that they can never be separated. (No one seems to have asked the warrior whether he would have preferred death to spending the rest of his life as an insect accessory.)

The mystery the story solves is this:


When I got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History a few years ago, there were drawers of these jewel-encrusted beetles. I was told that the beetles had been confiscated from people coming into the US from Mexico, but no one could tell me why people had been wearing live, decorated beetles. Now I know.


Larrocha, Sventlana. 2015. Leyendas Mayas. Editorial Dante: Mérida, México. 80 pages.