Posts Tagged ‘Chris Darling’

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.

 

On the Osa

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

This is compressed due to the amount of catching up that needed to happen, but that’s probably preferable to reading about every blister and chigger I encountered. So here it goes:

Corcovado Eco Lodge is inland and to the south of Drake Bay on the Pacific side of the Osa Peninsula. The lodge is officially part of the hamlet of Los Planes, which consists of a handful of rural dwellings and various forms of agriculture (cattle, mahogany, pineapple). There is some tourist development here, especially in Drake Bay, which is sort of a beach bum town though it looked to me like it wasn’t much of a destination anymore. The lodge is owned and operated by a Canadian-Costa Rican couple — the Canadian woman lives in Toronto and has a few kids, while the Costa Rican man lives at the lodge. The property was smallish, but manicured and had all of the typical tropical flora you expect to see, and some you don’t. Cashews were abundant again (btw, they can induce a bad rash like poison ivy, as they are also in the same family and produce the same noxious oils).

Our first casualty of the trip got sick when we arrived, but this didn’t seem too serious. The bunkhouse supported the students in some pretty basic quarters, including tents for some of the men. We had cabins that were connected to each other by wooden walkways suspended over a small depression in the land and nestled in forest, which had a Swiss Family Robinson feel. Chris and I shared a cabin while Christina and Peter had their own individual cabins. I slept in the top bunk while Chris got the matrimonio, or double bed. It was hot and fairly humid and a cold shower felt unbelievably refreshing. We all crashed a little early after the exhausting travel day.

The next morning we learned that two students had been sick, one having been up all night vomiting. Our plan was to hike in the morning to a river in Corcovado park, which Chris had been to before and leads to a small waterfall. Because the trail entrance was a short distance away and would require walking in full tropical sun, we decided to get a ride from the lodge. But they took us somewhere else, only Chris couldn’t say anything until we got there (because he was in the back of a truck). We were dropped off at the Los Planes ranger station and were able to get a ranger to help us find a path to the river. We started hiking slowly, looking and explaining. After a few hours and1.3 kilometers, we stopped for a breather. Chris wasn’t sure we should continue on because he didn’t know where the trail led and was becoming suspicious that it didn’t lead to the river at all. That’s when Chris got sick on the trail.

We set the students loose to “observe something” for 30 minutes (as convenient as that sounds, this was a premeditated exercise to get them to think for themselves instead of just looking to us to explain things, and the timing coincided well). During the exercise, I went looking for fungus-farming ant nests that are built on the undersides of largel eaves (palms, heliconias) and I found one! I kept it in a vial that I still have–they should be fine so long as they have oxygen, water, and their fungus to eat. One of the students also spotted an eyelash pitviper hanging out on a large leaf next to the trail and I got some great photos of it–from a healthy distance.

This could go on and on if I let it, so I’ll sum up the next few days here. Illness has bounced around slowly.  Chris was pretty sick the next evening and now Peter (the other prof) is currently sick, but recovering. I’ve lucked out, as have most people actually, but I live in fear of contracting whatever it is. We did some night hikes, some batnetting, some insect lighting, all with moderate success. The weather is extremely dry here, normal for this time of year, but this is an abnormally dry year. This seems to have reduced the insect diversity and there are almost no fungi (but there are some, surprisingly). On our night hike we saw three snakes: a venomous hog-nosed viper, the infamous fer-de-lance, and a snake-eating mussurana. The mussurana actually eats fer-de-lance and is immune to viper venom. I have good pictures of all of them. As for birds, toucans have been fairly common and a mot-mot slunk around the garden every morning. I saw a nice trogon in the forest and we also discovered that a slaty-tailed trogon was nesting in a termite nest right next to our cabin.  We hadn’t noticed it for three days! The insects were amazing, including some incredible red-striped white aphids with Crematogaster ants tending them in exchange for honeydew.

The day before we left we took an hour-long boat ride to Isla del Caño, a national park about 20 km off the mainland in the Pacific.  Between the lodge and the beach we saw a three-toed sloth, which was a harbinger for an amazing day of wildlife viewing. During the boat ride we saw a yellow-bellied sea snake (wow!), an extremely venomous elapid related to coral snakes and cobras, soon after followed by a mother humpback whale nursing her infant! It was an incredible and unexpected sight. Only a few minutes after the whale sighting we saw a swordfish leaping out of the water. I have photos of all of these.

Finally we landed on Isla del Caño to do some marine ecology (a.k.a. snorkeling) and beach-bumming. Our snorkeling adventure included a run-in with the coast guard, who gave our captain a ticket for improper paperwork and no insurance, and a face-mask fiasco, but we eventually saw a green sea turtle and many fish. My favorite sighting was watching for several minutes a snake eel swim with two fish chaperones (sorry, I don’t know what kind) that were either waiting for the right time to take down the eel or (more likely) steal its food. We also witnessed some dolphins chasing a school of flying fish and a frigate bird swooping down to snatch the flying fish when they leaped into the air.  What a sight! Other birds of interest here were brown boobies and a black mangrove hawk (that apparently swooped down and grabbed a sandwich presented to it by our lodge manager).

Now that we are at the Osa Biodiversity Center, it reminds me of how special a place the Osa is. The area around the Corcovado Eco Lodge was heavily disturbed and degenerated, which cast a disappointing light on the already dismal accommodations (unpotable water, scorpions, bad food). Here we have eco-consciousness (100% sustainable architecture and solar power) and high standards of accommodation (satellite internet, comfortable beds with mosquito netting, UV-sterilized water throughout the campus, open-air showers) coupled with a refined sense of nature and biology.  In fact, this station, run by Friends of the Osa, is closely connected to Adrian Forsyth, a conservationist and author of the well-known and excellent book Tropical Nature. I didn’t know this before now, but it turns out Chris Darling, the main instructor for this course, is an old friend of Adrian’s. In any case, this is the Tiputini of the Osa.

Here scarlet macaws and toucans are as common as crows. Last night we saw another fer-de-lance in a pond near our cabins. Today the students were set loose to come up with an independent while we had our first free time to pursue our own interests. Chris baited euglossine bees (males visit orchids to collect floral fragrances used in attracting female mates) and dung beetles (I provided the bait), Peter slept off his night of food-poisoning-like symptoms, and I went looking for fungus-farming ant nests. I was unsuccessful, but I did play with some ant lions by attempting to feed them ants (they aren’t very adept at capturing large leaf-cutter workers), saw a stunning bare-throated tiger heron and white ibises, and happened on a tree in fruit that had attracted a troop of spider monkeys, a troop of white-faced capuchins, and a marauding group of coatimundis. The coatimundis came within six feet of me before they realized I was there, and obviously couldn’t see me.  I also saw an aggregated group of hairy caterpillars with a huge pile of moldy frass below them. I collected the moldy frass and we returned to where I found them tonight only to find that they had left (probably to go feed). On our way back we saw amazing, huge caterpillars on heliconia leaves, which we have figured out are morphos caterpillars.

So far the sighting that tops the list this trip so far was when Petersaw a mountain lion with a tinamou in its mouth this afternoon. It’s like we’re living in a PBS nature documentary.

The dryness here is really impressive and I much prefer the rainy season. Snakes seem to be a lot more abundant and we’ve now seen three fer-de-lance (but then again, the number of pairs of eyes on the trail is also a lot more abundant). We sleep from 10 to 6 and I’m already looking forward to the strong coffee, guanabana juice, and the possibility of a jaguar or a harpy eagle sighting in the morning. Considering what we’ve seen this trip, I wouldn’t really be surprised if we saw both.

Darwin’s dirty little secret

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

An otherwise inspired tribute to natural history buries the fossils of Darwin’s theological ancestry and misses its chance to challenge Intelligent Design.

10-pound bill

When “Darwin: The Evolution Revolution” first opened at New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 2005, creationist critics were among its first visitors.  Reviews on Intelligent Design blogs found the show “biased” and “dogmatic,” and, even worse, burning with a “Darwinian fundamentalist” zeal.

What gives?  Thousands of visitors have already enjoyed this exhibit in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Toronto.  It’s currently on display at the Natural History Museum in London, as Britain gears up for the 200th anniversary celebration of Darwin’s birthday on the 12th of February.  Will hordes of visitors look back on the exhibit and remember what a hard time those doctrinaire Darwinians gave God?

I doubt it.  In fact, Intelligent Design will be the last thing on visitors’ minds as they reflect back on “Darwin.”  And frankly, I think that’s a shame.  If an exhibit about Darwin’s legacy is not the perfect place for biologists to face the Intelligent Design movement, then where will they do so?

This exhibit promises to unpack the wild and woolly head of one Charles Robert Darwin and, to a large extent, it delivers.  We meet Darwin in his privileged early-19th-century childhood, where he picked up the compulsive habit that would haunt him his entire life: Collecting the flotsam and jetsam of the English countryside when he should have been studying, making him a “scapegrace” according to his physician father.   But Darwin turned his disgrace into a virtue, learning to “look closely” at all of nature, mastering the ultimate “simple tools” of an authentic biologist, his own eyes.

These two themes of the exhibit, “Looking Closely” and “Simple Tools,” are put to elegant use, connecting visitors with the lived experiences of Darwin.  We peer through Darwin’s magnifying glass and stand in a replica of the study where he wrote the great tomes of his adulthood.  The exhibit shares iconic Darwinian stories, like his mad questing for beetles, which drove him once to “collect” a beetle in his mouth, for want of a free hand.  The beetle spewed an acrid repellant, an effective way to avoid being eaten, whether by a hungry bird or a desperate naturalist.  Paired with historical artifacts—in this case, beetles collected by Darwin himself—these stories bring him to life and reveal an intimate contact with nature, cultivated from childhood onward.

When I caught the exhibit last year at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, I had a chance to speak with its local curator, entomologist Chris Darling, who shares more than just a passion for insects with Darwin.  As a child, he too spent a lot of time outdoors, laying the experiential foundation for his life as a biologist.  According to Dr. Darling, an urgent concern addressed by the exhibit is “the demise of the naturalist,” the disappearance of biologists who concentrate as intensely as Darwin (who spent nearly a decade becoming the world’s expert on barnacles) while maintaining a broad base of knowledge and experience, observing and cross-referencing information from diverse sources.

And the exhibit certainly samples from many of these diverse sources, bringing home the enormity of Darwin’s accomplishment. That is, the synthesis of such a swarm of biological and textual information that most people would simply give up and go home.  In this exhibit you may catch African spurred tortoises mating, touch a replica of the giant extinct armadillo fossil that Darwin found in South America, and witness moments of startling insight, recorded in Darwin’s own hand, in an original research notebook.

Visitors to the ROM on opening day were dazzled by the dual quality of breadth and depth on display.  “How could you not be impressed by a man who acquired so much scientific knowledge during his life?” commented a young woman, an American tourist who proudly informed me of her Christian faith.  Another visitor, an aging Torontonian schoolteacher, struck by Darwin’s wealthy background, saw the exhibit as a demonstration of what can be accomplished by specialist scientists when they have sufficient resources to delve deeply into a topic. Natural history museums worldwide should applaud this exhibit for the case it makes in support of “Darwinian” science: Visitors see the value of collection and careful observation, and the ever-expanding catalogue of life that is the backbone of modern biology.

By contrast, the molecular tools that many of today’s evolutionary biologists use in their daily work merit no more than a cameo.  For this omission we can hardly blame the creators of the exhibit.  After all, “Darwin” is already packed with artifacts and ideas, and its creation must have been an excruciating surgery, where the organs excised seemed just as vital and vibrant as what remained.  Pride of place is rightly given to the specimens, tools, and documents of a Victorian naturalist.  Yet, despite the success of this central theme, the curators’ scalpels went astray when they carved away the history of Darwin’s theological education. What seemed like a vestigial organ to them—a useless bit left over from our ancient ancestors, like your appendix or coccyx—was more like Darwin’s carotid artery, the wellspring of some of his most important observations.

At the risk of sounding a lot like those complaining creationists, I protest: there wasn’t enough Intelligent Design in the exhibit!  And I’m not talking about bringing in the masterminds behind the Big Valley Creation Science Museum in Alberta to give “Darwin” a facelift.  Instead, I’m talking about the very heart of Darwin’s scientific training at Cambridge, natural theology, which took his love of “looking closely” at organisms and turned it into a scientific skill.

Instead, Darwin’s deepest scientific insights seem to arise de novo.  In its effort to depict Darwin as a revolutionary, the exhibit text implies that he was the first person to critically examine similarities between different species.  In “The World Before Darwin,” we are told that all species were considered “unconnected and unrelated.” The text asks, “Why didn’t more people grasp that similarities in skeletal structures—so clearly visible—were a clue that species are related?”

Why?  Because the best comparative anatomists of the day, Darwin’s own mentors and colleagues, saw the shared skeletal structures of different species, known as homologies, as evidence of God’s design, his master plan for the living world.  Darwin was able to challenge this view only because he had assimilated its lessons so fully.

When the young Darwin looked closely at the world, he saw those homologies just as clearly as his colleagues did, as evidence of design.  But like other good observers of his day, Darwin began to see the flaws in this approach.  If God were so intelligent, why would he give a bat’s wing, a human’s hand, and a whale’s flipper the same skeletal structure?  Didn’t he have the basic engineering chops to devise specialized designs, better suited to the job that each type of limb does?

As Darwin learned more about anatomy, collecting animals both extinct and extant, he came to see homology as evidence for evolution.  And he had no trouble convincing his colleagues, also students of natural theology, of the same. Today, homology still stands as one of the most vivid demonstrations of our evolutionary heritage.  Our human hands share a skeletal structure with a bat’s wings and a whale’s flipper because we all share an ancestor in the distant past.

Because of the visual power of homology, the exhibit relies on it as evidence for evolution more than once, making the absence of natural theology that much more regrettable.  In leaving out this part of Darwin’s story, the creators didn’t ditch a pesky detail only a historian could love.  They missed an opportunity to explain the early prehistory of Intelligent Design, which is basically, “Been there, done that.”

How can we explain this oversight?  It may be, as ROM CEO William Thorsell commented at a media preview, that “Darwin is still too hot to handle.”  After all, “even in Canada,” it was impossible to find corporate sponsorship to support the exhibit until nearly a week after its opening.  In seeing the controversial content on their hands, perhaps the exhibit’s creators decided that Darwin’s training in 19th-century “Intelligent Design” was better left unmentioned.

In portraying his religious sentiments as nearly nonexistent, they sanitized the exhibit of Darwin’s dirty little secret, his theological education. We learn that Darwin, who was trained as a clergyman at Cambridge, brought a swanky engraved German Bible on his five-year voyage around the world, along with his more practical pistol and “peacemaker” club.  Anyone who has studied Darwin’s letters could tell you that he was, in his own words, “a very poor German scholar,” an insight that confirms what is implied by this display case: the Bible was just an accoutrement of travel, perhaps more effective as a weapon than as a source of inspiration.

And how do today’s biologists deal with God?  In answer, a human-sized video screen simulates conversation with a number of prestigious biologists, a valiant attempt to create some kind of dialogue. But the conversation is one-sided. And guess who’s talking?  God-fearing head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins (not an evolutionary biologist), blandly assures us that faith and science are “complementary.” A nattily dressed engineering student described the video as “interesting” but hardly enlightening.  “It still leaves a lot of questions for me.  I don’t think I understand anything more about the controversy.”

Nearby, a biology textbook is displayed, branded with the kind of disclaimer sticker disseminated by the Intelligent Design movement, claiming that evolution is “only a theory.”  Another video tries to answer this challenge: scientists stand again in a featureless room, talking at the visitor, explaining that a “theory” in science is not merely a guess, but a critical “framework” within which facts are understood.

But these videos are all just talk.  Visitors have been told time and again, before they even arrived at the “Darwin” exhibit, that science is dynamic, self-correcting, allowing its most treasured principles to be toppled in the face of solid evidence.

Ironically, the story of natural theology, so carefully avoided in this exhibit, is a real-life account of just how such foundational concepts in science may be challenged. Though it is neither biased nor fundamentalist, as creationists claim, in overlooking the “Intelligent Design” in Darwin’s own intellectual history, this exhibit misses an authentic demonstration of the ideals it professes.  Worse, it sidesteps a meaningful discussion of Intelligent Design and why—as science—it just doesn’t cut it.