Archive for the ‘travel and field work’ Category

The Sons of Scientists

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

I once interviewed a prominent ecologist for my doctoral research, whose partner told me, “You know, these [prominent ecologists], they all have really strong mothers, influential women that encouraged them to explore nature.” I liked this theory, though I didn’t have much proof to support it, so I thought better of mentioning it in my dissertation.

I bring this story up today only because I want to completely disavow any sort of similar claim that you may or may not imagine I am making with my title. In fact, once I realized that this was the post that I was writing, I was slightly embarrassed. You see, by pure chance, I have researched the work of a lot of scientists with sons.

The first was Carroll Williams, an insect physiologist whose work I ran across early in my doctoral career. In leading his lab at Harvard in the 1950s, he solved a small scientific mystery, a sort of biochemical whodunit. Whole generations of his insect subjects were mysteriously dying. They grew and grew, but never developed into mature adults, remaining outsized juveniles, unable to reproduce.

Williams (left) isolating the newly discovered "natural insecticide" from a slurry of paper towel.

His sleuthing led him finally to the paper towels he used to line their petri-dish homes. But when he wrote to the manufacturer to ask for the makeup of the towels, the answer he received was simply this: “paper pulp.” Not one to be disheartened, Williams hypothesized that the trees used to make the pulp must produce chemicals that acted as hormone mimics, disrupting the development of his insect subjects—compounds that had likely evolved in response to insect feeding, as a form of “natural insecticide.” He even managed to isolate this substance and verify that it was responsible for the death of his experimental insects.

Williams’ fascination with “natural insecticides” was shared by the coevolutionary theorists at the core of my Ph.D. research, so when I learned that the Harvard University Archives held his collected papers, I was pretty excited to get a look at them. Typically, I seek out a scientist’s children when it proves impossible to locate the scientist’s papers in any archive, in the hopes that their family has stashed away boxes of letters and research notebooks in a nice dry attic somewhere. But in this case, while Williams’ papers were already conveniently deposited in an archive, I needed special familial permission to gain access to them. Luckily, I had the internet to help with own my sleuthing, and I tracked down one of Williams’ sons, Roger, who kindly sent Harvard notice that I could see his father’s papers.

Another scientist whose son I have contacted is Gottfried S. Fraenkel—again, an insect physiologist and a near contemporary of Williams. Fraenkel was far more interested in insect nutrition than in hormones, however. In fact, it was his interest in nutrition that brought me into contact with his son, Gideon, who has had a career as an organic chemist himself. I was revising a paper about Fraenkel the senior, starting with his work in the UK in the ‘30s and ‘40s on the molecules of nutrition. Later Fraenkel moved to the US, where he began to hypothesize about the evolution of insect feeding choices. But in 1946, a couple of years before he left the UK, Fraenkel contributed to a Fabian Society tract on agriculture, arguing vehemently against the capitalist conspiracy to foist white bread on an unsuspecting public. Using his favorite research subject, the confused flour beetle, Fraenkel had demonstrated that refined grain was nutritionally deficient. Even more significantly, he found that refortifying the bread with the nutrients removed in processing still produced a nutritionally inferior product—a very nice story in light of growing scientific consensus that vitamin supplementation may be fairly worthless (or worse!).

In other words, Fraenkel suggested—back in the 1940s—a fairly holistic concept which has seemed increasingly convincing in recent years: nutrients are healthful in the context of food, but a disembodied molecule (even when added back in to food) is of dubious value. The reductionist reliance on nutrients has not attracted a ton of media attention, though Michael Pollan wrote a nice piece on this topic some years ago (and I loved the molecular banana cover image for this piece!). Expect more coverage now, however; just today, NPR has rounded up recent research on the value of vitamins, which is well worth checking out.

But back to the sons of scientists! When I first wrote the paper on Fraenkel, I did not realize that he was instrumental in naming brown bread the National Loaf of Great Britain. In other words, there was a UK-government mandated insistence on whole wheat as early as the 1940s! (Yet, my kid’s nursery today serves white toast to preschoolers who otherwise would not even know that such an abomination exists…) And I only learned about this thanks to Gideon Fraenkel, who actually wrote a letter to the New York Times on the subject.

One son of an scientist, I am chagrined to admit, may have been unhappy with how I portrayed his father. Warm and welcoming when I was viewing his father’s correspondence, I never heard from him again after sending him a draft of the paper that examined some of his father’s work. This is certainly the biggest danger in interacting directly with a subject’s children; they naturally want to see their parent’s work only celebrated.

Don Eyles Sr. in Malaysia with the family's pet gibbon, Wah Too. Image courtesy of Don Eyles Jr.

Most recently, when I traveled to Boston for the 2013 History of Science Society meeting, I was lucky enough to meet with the son of one of my current subjects. Don Eyles was a parasitologist working for the NIH in 1960 when he was accidentally infected with a malaria parasite that had been isolated from a Malaysian (or, rather, Malayan, at the time) macaque. Though the infection of humans with monkey malaria had, in truth, been known for decades, malariologists regarded the possibility as so remote that used little caution with the monkey malarias, even when working with heavily infected mosquitoes. Eyles was one of the first to learn that this was a mistake: What seemed like a meaningless mosquito bite while running an experiment became, for him, a case of malaria. And thus ensued three years of intensive NIH-funded lab and field research on a variety of monkey malarias and their mosquito vectors.

Admittedly, when I started searching for the children of Don Eyles, I immediately saw that his son—his namesake, in fact—lives in Boston. Eyles Jr. is an interesting person in his own right, having worked as programmer on the moon mission.  The BBC referred to him as a “Beatnik” who put men on the moon.  And here Eyles has written a paper about technical problems on the mission.

Meeting with him last month, I enjoyed my requisite Bostonian lobster lunch and gratefully received the gift of historical treasures from him.  He lent me a very cool 1966 New York Times Magazine with a cover article on his father’s malaria research project. And he gave me a copy of the memoir of his fascinating mother, Mary Stipe Eyles, who was herself trained as a scientist and taught high school biology for many years. His mother and his two younger siblings were with Don Eyles Sr. when he tragically died of a heart attack in 1963, just as the family was about to return to the US from Malaysia.

Don Eyles Jr. at our seafood lunch meeting.


Don Eyles Jr. (who even, by the way, attended my talk at the conference!) promises to put me in touch with his sister, one of the above-mentioned younger siblings, who lived in Malaysia with her family while her father pursued local monkey malarias. Check out photos of the family here.

I may finally have my chance to talk to the daughter of a scientist! And I have no doubt that she will be just as helpful and insightful as the very kind scientists’ sons who have kindly assisted me in the past!

A day in the life of a field mycologist.

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

My husband is always pestering me, “Hey, you’re a historian of science—why don’t you study the history of mycology?” Or, “You want to write about science, right? The study of mushrooms is pretty cool, why don’t you write about mushrooms?”

Well, alright. After all, these elusive, mysterious fungal reproductive organs brought us here to Borneo, it seems only fair that I finally write something about them.

There you are, then, that’s something about mushrooms: A mushroom is the reproductive structure, also called the fruit body, of a fungus. Most fungi that you or I would recognize are, like plants, multicellular organisms with stiff outer cell walls—that’s the part that’s hard for our bodies to digest when we eat uncooked vegetables or mushrooms. Like all multicellular organisms, the work of living is divided up between different cells. Most of the “body” of a fungus exists where we cannot see it. That is the mycelium, a filamentous structure that grows underground or through a decaying log—wherever the fungus resides. It absorbs nutrients, exchanges gases, and expands the fungus’ territory; it’s in charge of all the stuff of daily life. But when a mushroom appears aboveground, it’s time for reproduction.

This is why mushrooms are so important to mycologists. Like a lot of other organisms on this planet, reproductive systems provide a lot of clues about the identity of an organism, how it’s related to other organisms, and its evolutionary history. One of the really wonderful (some would even say seductive) things about biology and evolutionary theory is its intuitive appeal, and this concept is no exception! If evolution is a matter of survival and reproduction over thousands of generations, then it makes a lot of sense that many biological questions and problems would revolve around understanding how cells and organisms produce the next generation. For example, if you have ever taken a course in botany, you know that basic plant identification begins with the reproductive organs, the flowers: the number of petals and the arrangement of the pistils and stamens, which are the flower’s sex organs, these are the keys to identifying flowering plants.

Another level of “identification” is the attempt to understand what a species is. This is a knotty issue, both philosophically and practically, but an inability to interbreed is used by many as a basic criterion for separate species. If two organisms cannot mix their genes to produce viable offspring, for whatever reason—it could be physical, behavioral, or genetic—they belong to two different species. You get the picture: sex is biologically important, thus biologists are often focused on reproductive organs.

In a practical, day-to-day sense, then, my husband spends a lot of time looking at fungal sex organs. And what does he see? In order to show you, I am going to take you for a walk in the muddy wellies of a field mycologist.

Here we are in Borneo, exploring a tropical rainforest. We are on the opposite side of the biological universe from the boreal forest of northern Minnesota, where my husband Bryn grew up. So how does Bryn know where to look for mushrooms? In a sense, the answer is: he looks everywhere. It’s true, and anyone who knows him will confirm it, he never stops looking! However, like any mycologist, my husband usually has some sense of where to head first…

As you walk through the rainforest, remember that mushrooms do not live in isolation. While much is made of the work that fungi do in decomposing dead forest debris (and certainly they are amongst the most important decomposers in the forest), a lot of fungi are not decomposers. Instead, many fungi live in symbiosis with plants, called a mycorrhizal association. To put this symbiosis in perspective: If all of the fungal partners in this marriage were to file for divorce tomorrow, almost all of the forested land in the temperate Northern Hemisphere would be treeless. Luckily, however, a complex exchange of nutrients and water makes this partnership sustaining and beneficial for both sides. Thus, the first thing Bryn looks for is a type of forest. Wherever we go, he has already learned as much as he can about the kind of trees we will find, and he knows which ones are most likely to have the kind of symbiosis with mushrooms that he is looking for. Here in Gunung Mulu National Park, we are seeking lowland tropical rainforest giants: the dipterocarps. This is a group of trees that are especially abundant and diverse in Asia—and especially here in Borneo.

Of course, because these trees are gargantuan, there’s an added difficulty: you can’t see the leaves, they are too high up! And many of the leaves in the tropical forest look very similar, so they are difficult to identify anyway. As Bryn has said, to be a mycologist in the tropics, you practically have to be a botanist as well—and, indeed, he spends a lot of time trying to identify trees and detect patterns of association between trees and mushrooms.

For your purposes, though, just start by looking for some very big tree buttresses, those huge wedge-shaped roots that tropical trees use to prop themselves up because they are so shallowly rooted. Yep, that means you have to go off the trail, so watch out for pit vipers and toxic, furry urticating caterpillars! Poke around in the crevices between these buttresses and you’re bound to turn up something.

Can you spot the mycologist? This is an especially impressive example of a buttress! This photo was taken on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Some mushrooms can be identified morphologically, that is, by examining their appearance, whether with the naked eye or under a microscope. There are all sorts of features that turn both the beautiful and the boring of the fungal world into recognizable species. Where you or I just see cap and stem and gills, Bryn makes fine distinctions. There’s an overall sense of the form of the mushroom that it takes years to develop.



Mycena. Like almost all of the mushrooms collected on this trip to Borneo, the species is thus far unidentified..


Before I went for a walk (or many walks, that is) in the woods with a mycologist, I wasn’t really aware of the sculptural quality of mushrooms. Now I have an appreciation for the beauty of their overall shapes and textures. But Bryn’s brain is like a code reader. From a distance he can judge if that tiny little thing on the log is a Marasmius or Mycena, based on the shape of the pileus (the cap), the width and bow of the stipe (the stem), and other general impressions that he probably cannot even articulate—the tacit knowledge that the scientist gains from years of direct experience.





The top of these Pluteus is beyond rugulous--those are some deep wrinkles.


Take a closer look now. Is the surface of the pileus velutinous (velvety) or glabrous (smooth)? Is it rugulose (wrinkled), pitted, or cracked? Better yet, it could be glutinous and covered in slime.

A glutinous Cortinarius.













Tylopilus nigerrimus. Note the reticulation on the stipe.


Does the stipe have any interesting features, like a finely netted reticulation or patchy raised “scabers”? You might break a little piece of the pileus off with your fingernail and try to peel the top surface off—whether it peels easily is yet another field character.









This is the one mushroom photo not taken in Borneo in the past 3 weeks. This was taken (like the buttress photo) on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica and it is (I think...I can't remember for sure and Bryn is now asleep, so I can't check) Boletus vermiculosis. I include it to illustrate the bluing color-change reaction on the pores.


Look under the pileus, and if there are gills, make a small slice through them with your knife: Does a white, yellow, red, or blue latex ooze out? Does it change color once the air oxidizes it? Keep an eye for color changes on the flesh of the mushroom as well. Is the pileus or stipe bruised where you have held the mushroom? Bluing reactions can be especially impressive, as you can see below.










Hydnum. A choice edible in this toothed genus is Hydnym repandum (this could be my wonky spelling of the species name, again, Bryn is sleeping...), known commonly as the sweet-tooth mushroom or the hedgehog mushroom.


Or perhaps it looks like a sponge, like you see on the left. Microscopically, the underside of the pileus is one of the most important parts of the mushroom, because this is where the reproductive cells are located. The sponge you see (look—a well-fed beetle larva just crawled out of one of the pores!) is made up of thousands of little tubes, packed in together. Like the gills, these tubes exist solely as the means to spread the mushroom’s spores. You may see a tint of color on the gills or pores here that hint at the color of the spores, which can be a very important character. The spores themselves can be extremely beautiful, but you won’t get a really good look at them until you are back in the lab with your microscope.

Leccinum, with a great view of the pores (or tubes) under the pileus.
















Mushrooms may also identified using chemical characters. Some chemical tests must be done in the lab with droppers full of reagents that turn different mushrooms different colors; but there are plenty of chemical characters that can be tested right here in the field. The nose knows—and Bryn has an impressive nose, in both form and function! Does the mushroom smell raphanoid (like a radish or watermelon rind)? Or perhaps it smells like camphor or almonds or even like rotting flesh? Some mushrooms must be tasted to be understood, so beware the mycologist that hands you a tiny piece of fungus to taste in the field. It’s unlikely that he is trying to poison you, but he might be giving you a chunk of an acrid Lactarius that tastes as if you are chewing some especially hot peppercorns!

As you have learned, workaday mycology begins outside, in direct contact with the natural world. The attention that you paid to the forest around you and the detailed observations that you have made of the very fine Tylopilus that you found will pay off in dividends in the future. First, there is a cumulative benefit to be gained from today’s time in the forest. This is the practice of natural history: You draw continually from the knowledge that you’ve gained in past experiences in nature and in your study of others’ work, and you synthesize that knowledge with your immediate experience of the world around you today.

But what’s next for today? Fortunately, Bryn’s ready with a snappy mycological aphorisms for just this kind of occasion: Flash it, Smash it, and Dry it.

Tylopilus nigerrimus again.

“Flash it” is probably obvious: You must photograph your mushroom both before and after you collect it.  Get a nice picture in the field, showing the substrate on which it was growing, and later take a more artificial photo against a neutral background, to record color and scale, and morphological details.


“Smash it” is Bryn’s method of DNA collection.  Once upon a time we carried tiny little plastic tubes with preservative liquids into the field, into which we would plunge a fragment of each mushroom’s gills or pores.  Now the very same reproductive tissue gets smashed into a fancy kind of paper that preserves the DNA in a much more convenient form. Bryn has even made a very informative video of this method.

That last step, “Dry it,” kind of ruins the rhyme, but there’s no way around it, you can’t change what happens in a food dehydrator.  Before that lovely Tylopilus nigerrimus starts to deliquesce, better dry it out as soon as possible.

Now that you have flashed, smashed, and dried your mushroom, you’re ready to take your impressive knowledge of that mushroom’s natural history into the laboratory. Scientists who work with DNA may be derided as “gene jockeys”  when they have a myopic focus on DNA, at the expense of seeing the whole organism.  But you are already well on your way to becoming a natural historian and I know you won’t lose sight of that whole living mushroom and its associated tree when you finally get a peek at its DNA.

Making tracks in the wilderness

Monday, March 7th, 2011

In the sparkling new visitor’s center here at Gunung Mulu National Park in Borneo, an introductory film runs all day long, describing the unique limestone formations of the park, a million bats leaving the Deer Cave each night, the forest types and fauna of the park, and its recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Gunung Mulu, it intones, was a “trackless wilderness” before the park was formed in 1974.   And for the purposes of the tourist industry, that was indeed the case.  But for the local indigenous people, the settled Berawan who hunted in the area and the nomadic Penan, for whom Mulu was home, the “wilderness” was constrained even back then by paths.

I have been trying to picture these people subsisting in the forest around us and I still find, even after two weeks here, that my imagination is circumscribed by the civilized constructions that make the setting for the daily stuff of our lives here; eating in a café, sleeping in a climate-controlled room, walking on boardwalks.  I am aided by books written by previous visitors to this part of Sarawak, scientists who have provided photographs of Penan and Berawan as they were when this park was formed, almost four decades ago.  These give me a feeling of connection to them, for their faces are recognizable—they are certainly the ancestors of the people who work in the park today.

An elderly Penan woman with stretched earlobes plays a bamboo instrument at the craft market at Batu Bungon.

The shape of a jawline or brow reminds me of a park guide, the stretched earlobes that were once very common here remind me of an elderly craftswoman we met at a nearby market.  The photos show men in loincloths with tubes at their waist holding arrows for their blow-guns.  The women and girls wear sarongs, often only from the waist down, and I can’t help but imagine looking down to find a terrestrial leech (in addition to the rather large human leech that I already sustain!) on my breast.

The young Penan and Berawan who work in the park today, for all their facial resemblance to these grainy photographs, wear tight sloganed t-shirts and skinny jeans, and play badly aging club mixes on the café soundsystem when the park director isn’t paying attention.  Despite this discordance with our romanticized touristic notions of indigenous life, we have been granted a few chances to see the lingering influences of their cultural roots.

These chances have almost all come at a remove from the intense management of the park headquarters.  In order to find mushrooms, Bryn and his colleagues here have organized a number of trips to the outlying park “camps.”  These are rustic structures, placed at critical junctures along the main hiking trails, some of which were built in 1977 and 1978, during an extensive Royal Geographical Society expedition to the newly formed park.  Most have no potable water or any real facilities to speak of: they are platform with roofs, completed by cookstoves run on butane that must be hiked in to the camp.  To carry the cans of butane, as well as everything else you need to survive for your time at camp, you hire porters.  The porters that we met ranged in age from 19 to 39, but there were certainly older ones that we passed—or rather, that passed us—on the trails.

Porters distribute the weight, packing kiwa before the researchers head up the summit trail.

These tough men (for they are all men) carry cases of Tiger beer, kilos of rice and noodles, tins of sardines and tuna, bottles of drinking water, and cans of butane all on their backs.  And often enough, below their feet, they wear nothing!  Where this tourist employs all the ergonomic technology that I can muster to protect my tender muscles and tendons from a burden, carrying a pack fitted out with 20 different adjustable straps, contoured, breathable straps and back padding, and a waist belt molded to fit the particular shape of my very own hips, a porter carries a woven rucksack, called a kiwa (also known as a selabit or kiba or kibi, in various other local dialects), that is virtually identical to the ones his ancestors carried many generations ago: two shoulder straps of flat, woven rattan; an absolutely flat, stiffly woven back plate; and loosely woven netting on the sides, which is then laced together with more plant fiber, to accommodate loads of myriad shapes and sizes.  At one point on the trail, our entomologist friend Chris Darling needed a break from his own ergonomic hiking pack.  Naturally, the porter could not bear to carry this carefully engineered abomination of a backpack, and crammed it instead into his kiwa and carried on as before.

off the raised plank walkway, a real tropical rainforest trail awaits...

It is thus that we stand aside, shamed if we thought we were really tough, and are passed, sometimes in two directions, by rapidly moving, nearly naked, barefoot guys with 20-30 kilos strapped to their backs.  Off the beaten path—that is, off the raised wooden path, really—the trails are generally quite muddy.  They may also be rocky and steep, though the steep ones usually have the benefit of rooted stairs, the natural flights that form when rain and footfall repeatedly wear away the soil on a forested slope.

While the baby and I cannot really visit any of the more rudimentary camps, we had the pleasure of joining the scientists on a slightly tamer trek to Camp 5, a place that is more accessible, than the other camps.  A boat ride reduces the walking distance to 8 km.  Sleeping mats make for much more comfortable nights.  And the value of a small staff that keeps plenty of water boiled for drinking is self-evident.

The boat ride was one of the highlights for me and for the baby, who gets excited every time he sees a longboat or hears—and then mimics!—an engine buzz by the headquarters, just below the café.  Along the river, you see the scattered settlements of locals, for whom the river is life.  This seems like an obvious statement, for all humans tend to concentrate themselves near water.  But in a lowland tropical rainforest, the river is more than just an efficient means of transport—it is the connection to world beyond walking distance.  And walking distance means something different here, even for those accustomed to the rainforest; humans need trails, and to blaze a trail here in the era before chainsaws would have been both challenging and dangerous.

Which brings me back to that trackless wilderness.  Even today indigenous Borneans impress in their ability to negotiate the rainforest.  But by its very existence, this cultural heritage, of familiarity with and experience in the wilderness, belies the notion of the wilderness itself, now or 40 years ago.  When the researchers for the Royal Geographical Society expedition arrived here in 1977, it was a matter of hours before they found the remains of their first Penan settlement, clearly abandoned only days before their arrival.  Soon enough, exploring the nearby forest, they began to suspect that some of the forest was secondary growth.  In other words, parts of the forest had already been farmed and then abandoned, left for the forest to reclaim.  The head of this expedition recounts how he and a companion toiled, breaking a trail into a part of the forest they believed had never been visited by humans.  They broke through dense vegetation into a clearing with a stream, only to find two young Penan children splashing unconcernedly in the water—children they knew, in fact, because their family had settled near the researchers’ longhouse.

So, for all my previous pondering of “apartness” from nature and “immersion” in nature, I must admit, I do not really know what even I mean myself by “nature.”   The wilderness is full of mysterious, hidden lives, including those of humans; and even without raised wooden walkways, it is also full of tracks.  We humans perambulate, packing our babies and belongings up in woven rucksacks, moving from place to place, following food and opportunity.  And making tracks in the wilderness that lead home means that the wilderness has been, in a literal sense, domesticated.


Holding nature at bay in the tourists’ 10%

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

For the past week, my husband and one-year-old son have been on the island of Borneo, exploring Gunung Mulu National Park. “Gunung” means “mountain” in Malay, thus the park is anchored by Mount Mulu. Mulu’s presence above us is felt more than it is seen; it’s no volcanic Mount Hood or Rainier. Instead, it’s a low, forested shrug of sandstone, a holdout in the midst of the softer limestone, which has acquiesced around it, surrendering to the persuasions of rain and air and sunlight (and then more rain) in the millennia since the seafloor was elevated, forming Borneo.

This is Sarawak, one of the Malaysian states of Borneo, a region most noteworthy (to me, at least!) for its importance in the work of Alfred Russel Wallace, the Victorian naturalist who is remembered as the co-originator (with Darwin, of course) of the theory of natural selection. Perhaps this is one reason why my very first impression of this place is that it has been tamed, even manicured. For me, Sarawak is the setting for an evolutionary drama, a touchstone for the notion of the “entangled bank” itself. But from where I sit, Mulu’s wildness seems constrained or, more accurately, excluded: barred from the air-conditioned bungalows and raised boardwalk trails, from a set of constructed human spaces carefully designed to allow the visitor to view nature without getting her feet muddy.

exploring the canopy walkway with the babe

But already I have to qualify the gross generalizations I made above. Of course I am sitting in relatively artificial luxury. After all, we are now traveling with a toddler, and my husband Bryn and I have made some concessions in order to feel comfortable taking him to Borneo. Nobody forced us to choose the air-conditioned bungalow over the open-air hostel or even the longhouse room with a ceiling fan. And nobody is preventing us from hiking many kilometers out into the park to find a spelunking adventure in one of the many remote limestone caves. In fact, Bryn just returned from a trek to an outpost of the park’s trail system, a day’s hike away, where he collected mushrooms while the baby and I chilled down here at headquarters. Yes, nature may be found unfiltered here if you are willing to get a little muddy. The truth about me right now? I don’t mind avoiding the mud.

But my basic observation remains true; only a fragment of Gunung Mulu National Park is accessible to tourists, and that part, even at its most raw, is highly managed. Undoubtedly this management serves to protect the entire park, including the uncharted wilderness area that constitutes the other 90% of Mulu. Funneling people smoothly through the tourists’ 10% protects the entirety. Raised walkways prevent people from striking off into the forest, damaging wildlife and possibly themselves in the process. And the very existence of wilderness can be supported—financially and socially—if the park is otherwise self-sustaining. Tellingly, the government of Sarawak has hired a private firm to manage the 10%. Recent construction in the area of the headquarters, where most of park’s lodging is concentrated, attests to a desire to make the park more like a resort. Take the spacious, air-conditioned, verandaed bungalow where we are currently staying: housekeeping visits us every day and makes our beds and replaces the complimentary coffee. Water from the Sungai Melinau (Melinau River) is treated and, according to one park official, 4-5 hours per day are spent making sure that it’s potable. After all, he told me, “sick people are bad for business.” So, indeed, nature here has become a business—and perhaps for good reason.

two paths was concrete, the other, boardwalk.

However, the management philosophy of Gunung Mulu dates back much farther than the construction of this bungalow or the multiplication of food options in the new open-air dining room overlooking the Melinau. If you have ever hiked in the lowland tropical rainforest of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica or crossed a river in the cloudforest at Reserva Los Cedros in the Ecuadorian highlands, the first thing that will drop your jaw is the kilometer upon kilometer of paved, boardwalked, and stair-spangled trails through the forest and over and through the limestone cliff-faces.

Bryn, who has worked elsewhere in Malaysia and in Vietnam, says that the trail system reflects a Southeast Asian style of park management. It’s interesting to put Mulu in that regional context, but what about the history of this particular park? In the mid-70s, Mulu was an almost complete wilderness, peopled only by scattered populations of Penan, a nomadic indigenous people. Today, there’s an airport, a resort, and a fancy new park headquarters complex with an extensive system of boardwalks. The location and design of all of these constructions are explained in part by the simple desire to capitalize on people’s interest in the park, especially the very cool bat caves, which provide the central tourist attraction. But simple calculations of profit do not explain the effort that has gone into building and maintenance.

standing water just below our feet.

Take the trail system. Raised boardwalks are in some places necessary, because parts of the forest are often flooded, making accessibility as issue. (Let’s not question the necessity of crossing the flooded forest for the moment.) An even more interesting accessibility issue: wheelchairs! I seriously doubt that this is what the park management had in mind when they started constructing boardwalks, but we have seen a gentleman in a wheelchair enjoying the park since we arrived.

Apart from raising the visitor above standing pools of water, however, quite a bit of the trails are low boardwalk or even concrete. As far as I can see, this serves at least two purposes. First, it channels visitors through a particular part of the park, making us loath to explore the forest for ourselves, thus reducing our potential damage to organisms in the park through carelessness. The very surface of the trails, while requiring maintenance and even apparently cleaning (Groups of people walk through the forest with brooms, sweeping fallen leaves off the trail—no joke! More extremely, another visiting researcher claims they even powerwash the trails.), is not subject to erosion, and is more resistant to the impact of hiking boots tromping through the forest in that heavy touristic way.

The second purpose this trail system serves is to hold nature at bay, to protect us from its dangers, both real and imagined. No question, I dread the day I look down at my baby and see a terrestrial leech stuck to his ankle. Keep those suckers far away from me. And as for imagined dangers, these are perhaps the most serious! Look, I know that wild pigs really should be the least of my concerns when I am walking through the Amazon basin. Heck, I would have been lucky to see wild pigs. But I will reveal right now that I spent an inordinate time in the Amazon snuffling the air quite dramatically anytime I detected a tiny whiff of animal odor, already searching in panic for a tree to climb. And when I see pictures of the bearded pig present in this park? Well, I am very glad to be elevated above the trail.

Even when I am not elevated above the forest, I sense an obvious apartness that is absent when my hiking boots touch soil. It bothers me intensely to miss out on the sensory immersion that I have come to expect from a walk through a tropical rainforest. Nevertheless, as I travel now with a one-year old on my back, and especially when I let him practice his own slightly wobbly walk, I have to admit that I don’t always mind feeling a bit apart.

Have I traded in experiencing nature for merely viewing it?

An example of how much irony you can pack into a story that ends with an iron padlock (plus a pun).

Monday, March 9th, 2009

When Bryn finally got the collection and export permits, it all happened so fast.  One minute we were eating our huevos fritos in Orosi, and the next, driving back to San Jose.  After some navigational hijinks (Was it Calle 11 y Avenida 1 or was it Calle 1 y Avenida 11? It’s the latter, by the way, just in case you are ever searching for the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energia. But since nobody living San Jose even knows what the streets are named, good luck to you.), we had the permits in hand.  After two months of lead time and four days in Costa Rica just wandering the countryside and waiting for these permits, it was like this: We walked into a nondescript office building, were basically handed a few sheets of paper and Bryn’s “Pasaporte Scientifico,” and we walked out 5 minutes later, slightly stunned.

Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo la Muerte

Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo de la Muerte

Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo la Muerte

Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo de la Muerte

The following day we finally entered Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo de la Muerte.  This park, which remains relatively wet even during the dry season, is the entire reason that we stayed in Orosi.  But this was our first visit to Tapantí.  There was simply no reason to even enter the park before we had the collection permiso (especially considering the $10 per gringo entrance fee—it’s less than $1.50 for Costa Ricans).  After so much anticipation, our first day in Tapantí was anticlimactic.  OK, it was far worse than anticlimactic.  Yes, we did seek out the lluvia, but did we ask for it to pour on us the entire day?  And the miserable rain-drenched hiking really just added insult to injury:  We only made 7 collections the entire day.

Now, we know rain and mud.  Hiking at Los Cedros in the Ecuadorian highlands during the rainy season pretty much requires a complete daily hose-down.  My rubber boots are still full of this persistent dust, the remains of mud built up over the course of weeks, which sifted into the crevices of all my belongings.  But at Los Cedros I wore rain pants and wellies and a vinyl poncho. At Tapantí, in contrast, thanks to the concerted efforts of quick-dry field pants, my otherwise lovely Asolos, and an aging rainjacket, I became more thoroughly saturated with water than ever before in my life.  Somehow we pushed past the limits of Gore-Tex-lined hiking boots until our feet came to resemble ungodly crosses between a mud-puppy and a naked mole rat.

Under these conditions, the most interesting trail also became the most treacherous. El Sendero Natural Arboles Caidos, or the Natural Trail of the Fallen Trees, had two attractions for us.  Many of the trails at Tapantí have been constructed for bird watchers and casual hikers.  They are relatively flat and short and lead to a lookout or small river.  By contrast, the fallen tree trail climbs steeply up into the forest, getting closer, we hoped to those elusive oak trees.  And, for people who hate to backtrack (us), hiking (driving, canoeing, any kind of transportation) in a loop is totally ideal.

El Sendero Natural Arboles Caidos, Tapantí

Did I mention that the trail climbed steeply, however?  Let’s say, actually, that while you, the hiker, are climbing steeply, most of the trail is actually exiting the forest in the opposite direction, in a sizable stream that mounts a pretty decent catarata at times.  Conclusion: Naming a trail for its fallen trees is actually an effective way to abdicate responsibility for trail maintenance.  A hiker expects erosion and tangles of brush on a trail named for destruction, right?

Calostoma cinnabarina

Calostoma cinnabarina

All in all, however, we did make one very nice find. A totally bizarre bolete (Yes–this is good!  A mycorrhizal fungus!), Calostoma cinnabarina (often called the “gelatinous stalked puffball”), which looks as if it is covered in slimy tomato seeds.  However, by Bryn’s calculations, which weigh the cost of a research trip against the number of collections made, this bolete ought to be covered in 24-karat gold leaf, not tomato-seedy slime.


So, what next?  We decided to enter the park from the other end, at a biological station called La Esperanza, where the elevation is considerably higher.  This entrance, which Roy Halling showed Bryn some years ago, is unsigned at the Inter-American highway and lies at the end of a pretty nondescript, rough country road running through an extremely tiny town full of very friendly people (and at least one very cute little cow).


Fortunately, my husband has a photographic memory when it comes to the location of mushrooms, as well as an internal compass to beat the band.  I’m not giving too much of the story away when I reveal that, in addition to these fine qualities, he also appears to have some surprising and extremely useful skills that involve the artful combination of a padlock and bobby pin.

Driving into the park on this gorgeous morning, we happened to pass a Ministerio de Ambiente y Energia truck driving in the opposite direction.  Myself, I took this as a promising sign that we were moving in the right direction.


When we arrived at the entrance, however, it became clear that the truck also represented the departure of the ranger.  No, we did not break into the park.  Luckily for us, the ranger had left the gates wide open, so we simply drove up the road to a large grove of alder, where we started our mushroom search.  Over the course of the morning, we worked our way back down the road, enjoying a really beautiful sunny day below the aforementioned oaks.

Just after lunch, however, we were near the station again, so we decided to go chat with the ranger.  This was the moment that we discovered ourselves to be locked into Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo de la Muerte.

For days we had been trying to gain entry and now, well, it appeared that we weren’t going to be leaving it anytime soon.

It was 2pm, so we had about 4 hours till sunset.  It looked like we would be hiking out of the park, so I wanted to make sure that we got a jump on the darkness, just in case it proved to be a struggle to contact someone who could also get our car out.  Bryn had other ideas.

We’ve been here before.  I have a lot of faith in my husband, in many respects, but as a lock-pick, he has never displayed much talent.  But when he said: “Do you have anything I could use to pick this padlock?” I just dug out a bobby pin and shut my mouth.  It was an opportunity to lay in the sun for a little while and gear up for the long hike back to the Inter-American.

Not five minutes later, however, there was a loud clang.  He truly did pick that lock.dscn0508

Art or luck?  More likely that double-layered luck again—the fortuitous convergence of some preparation and that telling “Made in China” stamp on the lock’s iron backside.  In any case, we proved to the bureaucratic administration of Costa Rica’s natural resources that we won’t be kept out of the park—and we sure as heck will not be kept in either.

Yep, we showed ‘em.  Even if neither of us quite had the vocabulary en Español to explain the lock-picking story to the ranger when he reappeared later that day.

On really striking out and (sometimes) striking el oro

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

About luck. The notion has been irritating me for the past few days. I’ve always been interested in how chance operates in my own life. Like most people, I usually construct a nice satisfying retrospective narrative about my life. But chance has always played an unsettling starring role, throwing a wrench in the aesthetics of that erstwhile smooth story arc—you know, the one where I make wise conscious decisions and directly control the events of my own existence?

My sense of the importance of chance has only been heightened in my dissertation research, in observing its importance in the lives of pretty prominent scientists. This is not just the historian’s impartial eye, observing how life deals different hands to different players. This is the witness borne by those players themselves! Renowned biologists—known for their brilliance and not, typically, for their humility—have repeatedly credited chance with the paths of their careers. Paul Ehrlich. Dan Janzen. These guys have taken unusual and sometimes unpopular stances on ecological issues—in other words, they give the impression of deliberately charting their own courses. And yet, Janzen loves the words “serendipity” and “serendipitous,” and applies them liberally to the story of his own career.

Of course, when Janzen speaks of “serendipitously” stumbling upon an ant acacia while roving across Costa Rica in the early 1960s, he is not talking about pure chance. He is talking about the convergence of luck and preparation; the effect of a particular experience upon a mind primed with just the right kind of knowledge and previous experiences. The true luck is almost always in the timing of that critical experience.

Like Janzen, we’ve been doing some roving across the Costa Rican landscape, hoping for such a lucky convergence. We have no concrete information directing our mushroom search at the moment; only a knowledge of the general rainfall patterns for the season and a sense of where oak trees might be found.

Walking along a forest trail during the dry season might remind you of autumn in North America. Deciduous trees lose their leaves here just as they do in the temperate zone—it just happens to be during the “summer,” the drier and sunnier time of year. According to the Costa Rican bird Bible, Skutch and Stiles’  Birds of Costa Rica, it was the Spanish that declared the dry season summer, arriving with their memories of a hot and dry verano and cool and wet invierno.

If you’re lucky enough to have made it to an oak-dominated forest, however, you might still look up and see a truly regal canopy above your head. These oaks are closely related to the evergreen live oaks of the Southern U.S. And while “regal” might seem a cliché, under the circumstances, it’s spot-on. The oaks we have seen here are hundreds of years old, many feet in diameter, and verdantly populated with mosses, lichens, and bromeliads. There’s something so vital about the silhouette of an oak tree. The leaves burst so densely from the awkward joints of its branches. Its body looks haphazardly assembled and, at the same time, absolutely coherent. Coherence is a concept, but I would even say that an oak tree is cohesive, in a purely physical sense, as if it is gathering its deep green pigmentation along with moisture and light and a body of cool air, directly from the air around it. When each branch supports a dozen bromeliads, and their bright fuchsia and maroon and yellow-green leaves glowing translucently from above, this sense of pure organic gravity, of substance and sustenance, is intensified.

Rhapsodies over the beauty of oak trees, however, do not a successful collecting trip make! Oak trees are also mycorrhizal symbionts, living in intimate collusion with fungi, whose hair-like mycelia connect with their roots underground, sharing nutrients and minerals in an exchange that sustains both tree and fungus. Finding an oak means finding its fungal symbionts, which, if we’re lucky, have fruited above ground, producing those reproductive organs that my dear husband so desperately seeks: mushrooms.

This is where serendipity comes in. There are thousands of acres of forest reserve and national park in Costa Rica. Most of this is completely inaccessible, or else only moderately accessible, especially for people that need to collect mushrooms, photograph them immaculately, in situ and against a gray background with an herbarium collection number, take DNA samples (because this is, after all, part of a DNA barcoding project), and then dry them completely in a food dehydrator. So, via various points of entry, public, private, and otherwise (meaning, we’re not quite sure who owns the land or the road by which we reach it), we try to get at this inaccessible core of forest.

For our purposes then, these roads and trails are essentially random cuts in the forest. We can steer ourselves toward higher altitudes, where oaks and other mycorrhizal tree species are more common, or toward the rainiest provinces, but the decisions made decades ago to build a trail along this ridgeline or blast a switchback for the road into that hillside, may or may not take us precisely where the mushrooms just happen to be fruiting today. As much we have prepared for this trip, there will always be the discomfiting suspicion that somewhere—maybe even just a measly kilometer to the east or the south—the mother lode of mushrooms is elbowing its way up through soil and detritus, where we will never find it.

Anyway, that’s how it feels today. Fieldwork, especially when the task is opportunistic collecting in an attempt to document fungal diversity in the region, can sometimes boil down completely to luck. And luck is not with us in other ways, as well. We are three days into this collecting trip and have yet to see the collection and export permits for the mushrooms we are supposed to be collecting. Bryn started the process of applying for these permits more than two months ago, at the moment he knew that his teaching trip would be extended into a collecting trip. Unfortunately however, the term “process” implies that there is a straightforward method for obtaining such permisos. In reality, successfully scoring a permit turns mostly upon finding a reliable contact on the ground, a contact who also has a functional working relationship with the relevant bureaucratic body. It’s not entirely clear what went wrong, but it seems to be a little bit of a failure in both aspects (maybe more heavily the former than the later, I might add).

In any case, we have not yet been able to collect in Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo de la Muerte, as we do not have the relevant permits. So, we are reduced to making even more random forays into the landscape, in hopes of finding mushrooms on land where park rangers are not likely to be breathing down our necks. This morning, over weak coffee (Costa Rica is a coffee-producing nation that reserves its most drinkable beans for export and tends to disappoint the palate with weak and bitter brews in person.), Bryn identified a small “protection zone” called Cuenca Rio Tuis, perhaps a couple of hours drive from our hotel in the small village of Orosi. It seemed a little far away, but also unlikely to be heavily monitored, and according to our topographical map, it reaches a peak elevation of 1963 meters and may even have oaks.

It was a lovely drive, on a fantastically sunny day, over mountainside roads that rapidly drop and fall while they and around Lake Cachí. Everywhere that we drove, a brief wave or a “Buenas!” out the window of our car transformed that standard hard-edged impersonal glance you turn toward a strange car into smiles—people are incredibly nice to strange gringos blowing unexpectedly through their tiny little hamlets.

coffee plantation

At first, at the higher elevations, we drove through coffee plantations. Coffee is Costa Rica’s grano de oro, “grain of gold,” which brought prosperity to this nation named “rich coast.” Workers alongside the road were spraying the beans with a pesticide. These workers are, reportedly, mostly Nicaraguans, since Costa Ricans are no longer willing to lower themselves to earning something like $1/bushel for picking el grano de oro. The shade-grown varieties actually appear to receive a good deal of sunlight, especially since many of the scattered trees planted to give them shade are deciduous, with only bare branches remaining, which cast crooked shadows (if not actual shade) over the coffee. Other plots are stocked with imported eucalyptus, trees that at least retain their leaves during the dry season.

dscn0249Halfway through the drive we made delicious tomate, aguacate, y queso fresco sandwiches for ourselves at the roadside. At lower elevations we began to see the sugarcane fields, where men with machetes hacked away at their stalks. Near the end of the day we passed a plant where trucks full of sugarcane stalks pulled in for processing. The men trailed down the roads slowly in the wake of the trucks, looking exhausted, machetes still in hand, while a smoggy burnt-caramel smoke filled the Orosi valley.sugarcane truck

Finally we reached our little forest reserve. Or…..we’re pretty sure that we did. After all, most of the roads are not signed and the GPS is often little help in finding our position on what seems to be a pretty imperfect map (it’s missing an entire huge lake?!). Driving into the reserve on the potholed dirt road through increasingly tiny villages (where people seemed even friendlier, in inverse proportion to the size of their towns), we started to get excited about the wooded hills that we could see ahead. When a road winds around so much, you really just have to keep faith that eventually you will reach that mirage of forest on the horizon.

abandoned houseWe passed a couple of abandoned house, one with half-collapsed porticoes and arches and windows that still contained shards of glass. We’ve tried to decipher graffiti from the side of the building, but it’s hard to read from my passing photograph: Aqui es solamente / No se aqui que / porque aqui.” Bryn says I’m wasting my time trying to read this nonsense, like a bathroom wall in the basement of some bar in Toronto. It’s something like: “Here is only / I don’t know here what / why here.” Indeed.

Anyway, eventually, we had to turn on the 4-wheel drive to cross a little river with steep embankments on either side and a little catarata (waterfall) in the center. But we never got much higher, and we never got much closer to that elusive deep core of forest. We drove as far as we could on the road, to a place where the mud was ridged so deeply in a sharp turn that we couldn’t imagine the car handling both challenges simultaneously. So we did a little bit on foot. And it was disappointing mycologically.

But for me, with the mud on my boots, and the humidity that layered my face in sweat the moment I started to climb the steep trail along the hillside, and my first glimpse of something as common as a bird-of-paradise flower—all of these started to melt that icy nucleus of Torontonian slush and snow at my center. Running my hand along a mossy boulder, I had a tempting moment of synesthesia, and I was certain that I could taste the deep green in the blade of a bromeliad just above my head. So, although we struck out mycological today, I feel finally that I have really arrived in Costa Rica, and I’m excited to try our luck again tomorrow.sunset drive back to Orosi

Striking out! or The Daunting Unknown of a Foreign Language

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

view from the Hotel CactsWhen I walked into my San Jose hotel today, it was with a totally overblown sense of pride. I had just, amazingly, completed…the simplest task. I had gotten myself from the airport to a downtown hotel, completely alone, speaking only en Español. A first sentence to the cabbie, “Sabe donde está el Hotel Cacts?” Then, later, as we were driving, “Como se dice ‘el metro’ en Costa Rica? I thought that I remembered that Costa Rican taxi meters have their own affectionate nickname. And was rewarded with the answer: “La María.”

This may not be the most impressive conversation that you’ve ever heard in Spanish, but it was a major coup for me. I am fluent in one language alone—and you are reading it. Purportedly, I have reading proficiency in both French and German. My graduate transcript attests to this far-fetched notion with a nice round pair of “A”s. In reality, if ever I were faced with a German or French text that I actually needed to, ahem, understand, well, there is no doubt that I would have to hire a translator.

I am not proud of this. In fact, I am so deeply embarrassed about it, that it actively conflicts with my ability to rectify the situation. On my flight from Toronto to San Jose, I had a layover in San Salvador. On the first leg of my trip, I sat next to an El Salvadoran ex-pat, living in Ottawa, who told me how impressed he is with people from the United States, with how “aggressively” they pursue foreign languages, unashamed of the flaws in their grammar or accent. We’re so different from Latin Americans, he told me, who are too cautious about making mistakes, crippling their ability to practice using another language.

Let’s just set aside how surprising this generalization is, how much it completely contradicts what I would otherwise have assumed to be an almost global opinion on Americans’ xenophobic ignorance of other languages and cultures. Upon accepting this extremely flattering take on American aggression, I immediately had to confess to this very sweet (and very fluent en Inglés, I should note) man that I, an otherwise aggressive American (to say the least, my Canadian friends might assert) am deeply, painfully diffident in this respect.

Given that background, you can probably see why I am so absurdly proud of my grade-school-worthy conversation with a taxi driver. It seemed like a pretty solid start to my two weeks in Costa Rica, so I decided to reward myself with una cerveza. When in Costa Rica, drink like a Tica, so now I am sitting on the hotel’s rooftop patio, drinking a bottle of Imperial, waiting for my husband Bryn’s arrival.

For the previous week, Bryn has been one of the instructors of a tropical ecology field course, leading a group of University of Toronto undergraduates around Costa Rica in what has been, for most of them, a first exposure to hot tropical rainforests and frigid cloudforests. From what I’ve heard so far, these students have been extremely lucky. They have seen a sloth, crocodiles, quetzals, an eyelash viper, a mother humpback whale nursing its baby, and much, much more.

Already I know that I am never going to get quite this lucky during my two weeks in Costa Rica. After the students leave, Bryn and I are heading off to collect mushrooms. Yeah, it’s a mycological collecting trip during the dry season. It’s a little strange, since mushrooms thrive in wet conditions. But sometimes field biologists must take what they can get. The course created an opportunity (read: plane ticket to Central America) that simply could not be refused, despite the lack of rain.

And, after all, even in the dry season, rainforests and cloudforests can hardly be parched. The Eastern slopes of central Costa Rica, descending from the Talamanca mountains down to the sea, meet gusts of warm, wet Caribbean air during the dry season, making the East the wettest side of the country at the moment. So we are heading to Tapantí-Macizo National Park, a place that receives something like 800 cm of rain annually. Only about 80 cm of that impressive total fall during the months of February and March. But—with luck—it will be just enough!

looking south over San Jose