better than the Eiffel Tower
Friday, February 4 2005
setting: Sacha Lodge, Amazonia, Ecuador
I knew I was on the mend this morning because finally I'd lost my sore throat. How long had I had it? More than a week. That's a long time for a pain that you experience every single time you swallow.
After breakfast Richard and Ernesto took us on a very long hike through the nearby rain forest. Mostly what we saw were plants and trees, many of them spectacular. There's something about the complexity restrained by mathematical regularity that gave many of these strange plants a fake, manufactured look. Most striking were the massive trees with their thin root buttresses forming walls and corners that, had you not noticed the trees they were attached to, could almost be mistaken for the ruins of buildings. Then there were the palms with their stabilizing stilt root systems. Their newest stilts, destined for but not reaching the ground, looked exactly like circumcized penises. But they were so long and there were so many of them that they were almost nightmarish. Adding to their perverse Hieronymous Boschness was the fact that as they aged they developed tiny thorns down the lengths of their shafts.
Many of the plants had medicinal uses, at least according to Ernesto. Some plants were cures for sore throats and others handled the poisonous snake bites. One plant was supposedly a contraceptive, though it was hard to see how Ernesto could know for sure considering the fact that somewhere in Ecuador he had twelve children. Most of the others in our group nodded appreciatively as Ernesto told us about the various medical benefits of the plants. Gretchen in particular would latch on to some presciption and (in Spanish) tell me that it was exactly what I'd needed for one of my recent symptoms. But I remained skeptical, an attitude justified by some of Ernesto's later prescriptions. Many of his treatments involved simply fanning the leaves over various body parts, but my knowledge of biology won't permit me to suspend my disbelief quite that far.
We didn't see too many animals. In terms of vertebrates, there were a few birds (most of which we heard but did not see). Then there was a poison dart frog, the kind having the toxins used by natives to kill monkeys.
I was actually more interested in the ants. While Richard was talking at length about something else, a large big-headed black ant (nearly an inch in length) climbed about five feet up a tree and then milled around pointlessly. She was fearsome, with powerful mouthparts and a few specks of bright colors that seemed to communicate a warning. Seeing the ant, Richard interrupted what he was saying to warn us about it. The ant was, he said, a "Conga Ant," and very dangerous. If it should bite you, he said, you'd experience a horrible pain and be in bed for a day or two with swollen glands. Later I learned that the Conga Ant is considered to be the most dangerous insect in the world. They're a primitive ant that live in small (thousand member) colonies, and the workers do their hunting and gathering as individuals, fanning out into the rain forest.
Later we also encountered a marching colony of army ants. I'd grown up with the myth that when army ants are coming through there's no possible escape and all life forms in their path (including humans) are doomed. But this isn't true. The ants come through and do eat whatever they can mob and subdue. But if you're wearing rubber boots (as we were) there's no danger whatsoever. Their path is concentrated in a few streams only an inch wide, though individuals fan out somewhat from there, covering a width of fifty or a hundred feet. It turns out that there's a whole roving ecosystem that travels like Grateful Dead fans wherever the army ants go. These include antbirds (which we could see but not hear) that prey on insects and spiders flushed by the ants.
Ernesto spoke exclusively in Spanish, and it was Richard's job to translate. Since Gretchen and I could sort of follow along as Ernesto spoke, Richard's translations provided us an excellent opportunity to test our comprehension skills. Since the native guide (Ernesto) had a great deal of knowledge, on some level all Richard needed to do was serve as a translator. One could understand then why it was possible for the naturalist guides to show up at Sacha and immediately begin leading tours. Until they learned more, their job was to convert Spanish into English.
But in truth Richard provided a lot more than Ernesto was capable of providing. His knowledge of the interrelations of the rain forest ecosystem were deep and nuanced. I don't know if this was the result of intensive personal studies since moving to the Amazon or his education as a wildlife biologist. But in any case he had exactly the kind of information I wanted. I really didn't care about the medical uses for the plants. I wanted know how they had come to be the way they were. I wanted to know what other forest entities they cooperated with as well as the ones with which they struggled.
Richard had a lot to say on this subject. Take, as just one example, the relationship between the Strangler Fig and the big trees it uses as structural hosts for its purely structural form of parasitism. A bird craps out some seeds high in a tree and the little fig seedlings begin life as epiphytes, as an ancestral form must have been at one time. As the seedling develops the necessary resources, it sends down a root that hopefully reaches the forest floor. Once it achieves a connection to the ground, the fig as all it needs to begin its parasitism in ernest; it has light from the canopy and nutrients from the floor. So it sends down more roots, this time along the trunk of its host. Over time it completely engulfs the host and it dies, eventually rotting away and leaving the fig with a hollow core. The fig could, if it was so inclined, fill that core back in. But no, it leaves itself hollow so bats will take up residence, drop guano, and fertilize its roots. Its parasitism creates more habitat diversity than the trees it replaces. This complex interaction, as well as its interaction with the tiny wasps necessary to pollinate its seeds, is why the Strangler Fig is considered a "keystone species."
There are equally-fascinating ecological relationships developed over the æons of struggle and cooperation in the rain forest. Take for example the Cecropia tree, which maintains chambers in its trunk for Azteca ants to set up residence and even feeds them a special sweet sap. In return the ants defend the tree against insect attack and, very importantly, epiphytes and vines such as Strangler Figs. This relationship probably took a very long time to develop and it existed without difficulties for many thousands or perhaps millions of years. But more recently, evolutionarily speaking, a new creature has emerged capable of hacking into and exploiting this system. It's some sort of moth larva that eats the leaves of the Cecropia and secretes a sweet nectar that the ants enjoy eating, and so the ants permit the larva to graze on the leaves without harassment or competition.
In addition to the wonders of the purely biological world were the peculiar physical realities of the rain forest. The forest near Sacha Lodge is less than 800 feet above sea level. You can get an idea of what a gentle slope the Amazon has from the fact that water from its westernmost reaches drops only about a thousand feet over the course of 2000 miles. That's an average slope of six inches per mile. In some places, of course, there are local undulations in the topography resulting in noticeable slopes, and we encountered some such places in the forest near the lodge. Occasionally the slope disappeared beneath swampy flatlands across which Sacha employees had built boardwalks. It was logical to assume that these swamplands were like others we'd known in our home countries, but they weren't. The little puddles on either side of the walkway were not a trivial one or two feet deep. In a flamboyant display of precisely how deep these puddles actually are, Richard grabbed the top of a stick protruding from the muck, and, in a series of jerks, pulled it out. It was nearly twenty feet long! We were amazed. Then Richard explained how the water could possibly be so deep. We were in a blackwater bog, a water-filled dip in the topography. Because of the dense accumulations of organic matter and complicated root networks, there is virtually no soil or non-organic sediment available to wash into the bog. So it has filled instead with leaves and branches. As they broke down they turned the water black and acidic. But how, I wanted to know, was it possible for trees to be growing so close to such a deep puddle? What accounted for such locally steep topography? According to Richard, the trees I was looking at weren't actually rooted in soil. Instead they were rooted in floating mats of vegetation.
Our walk took us around the lake and dumped us out on the boardwalk we'd hiked on yesterday on our way inland from the Napo. At this point Ernesto distributed snacks and water from a pouch he'd been carrying. Then we made our way to canoes for another crossing of the lake back to the lodge. On our way we came upon a squawking group of Hoatzins, a primitive cuckoo-like bird. Hoatzens are the only birds that routinely develop claws on their wings, though they lose them as they become adults. My brother, who is fascinated by weird creatures (particularly those with traits suggesting they might be evolution's missing links) was always going on about "hoh-tsins" when I was kid. He only knew about them from books, but according to Richard their name is pronounced "hoh-ah-tsin."
Back at the lodge, I was in desperate need of some sit down time, so I didn't go with the others when they went to see Sacha Lodge's mariposio, or butterfly farm. Gretchen was really struck by the place and eventually made me go see it. So I went, neglecting to put my shoes on and walking briefly barefoot through the rain forest. Near the actual mariposio itself, Gretchen pointed out a solitary Conga Ant wandering around on the boardwalk so I'd avoid stepping on it.
The mariposio is a series of fenced gardens rooved with netting. Several species of native butterflies are raised from egg up through caterpillar to pupa to adult, and the adults are sold throughout the world to collectors (where they end up on pins) or weddings. I hadn't really thought about how ephemeral butterflies are; none of these species live more than two months as adults. They're basically animal flowers and are used for a similar purpose. I couldn't understand Gretchen's enthusiasm for the place; it actually struck me as a somewhat depressing reminder of mortality. Nonetheless I took some pictures and marveled at one species' pupa one of the employees showed us. They looked like little ingots of solid gold. They're actually kind of tacky, something I don't normally say about things found in nature. Come to think of it, there are a number of flowers in the rain forest that are tacky as well. And, Jesus Christ, what about toucans?
During breakfast and before and after lunch we had a chance to meet Sophie, a big-headed black chicken-like bird from the forest who now wanders the boardwalks and buildings of Sacha Lodge, thinking herself human. I can't remember what kind of bird she was, though her name evidently comes from her genus, Sophia. Sophie's story is that she was hatched in a local village from eggs taken from the forest. Having never met another of her own, she imprinted on local villagers and ended up being dumped at Sacha Lodge. Lacking forest survival skills, she now depends on handouts. Sophie was unusually friendly for a bird, responding favorably to having her head and neck scratched.
In the late afternoon Richard and Eduardo took our group to a 160 foot metal observation tower erected deep in the forest so we could ascend to the canopy and look for birds and perhaps monkeys. The tower proved far more impressive than I expected. For one thing, it was actually three separate 160 foot towers, connected to one another in a straight line with two lengths of suspension bridge. Looking at this massive structures, it was difficult to imagine how their parts had been backpacked into this remote location and then put together. Massive concrete foundations had to be mixed and poured since there's no bedrock to anchor structures upon. And while much of the metal work was simply bolted together, some of it looked like it must have been welded too. I was actually a little more impressed with these towers than I had been with the Eiffel Tower. How hard can it be to build a skeletal steel building in a major world city?
At the main observation deck on the middle tower we joined another tour group that had brought a 60x telescope. Using this, we were able to clearly watch wild toucans in distant trees. Richard also showed me how to use my camera to take photographs through the telescope, something I had assumed to be impossible. I later learned that the young woman leading the other group on the tower was Richard's girlfriend. Among the Spanish-speaking guides and employees there is a strict male-only policy, a requirement (so we were told) of the local culture. Evidently such a policy doesn't extend to the more educated English-speaking guides and employees.
Over dinner we had a fun chat with the two British women in our group. They're both substitute teachers and this allows them plenty of time for travel. For a time the conversation lingered on the subject of strange (and strangely-named) British foods such as "spotted dick." Gretchen appeared to be angling for the women to disown and condemn their nation's sorry cuisine, but they didn't take the bait. No matter how odd the food, they both claimed to like it.
It was more fun when our conversation turned to gossip, something at which these women unexpectedly excelled. It was amazing that we already had dirt on people after just over 24 hours, but somehow we did. The British ladies had been especially embarrassed and irritation by a loud pair of other Brits on the observation tower earlier today. Mind you, we couldn't really understand the level of their irritation, but it was fun to talk trash about them anyway. As for us, Gretchen and I preferred busting on our own countrymen, the couple from Cleveland who had flown into Coca with us. Though we'd barely seen them since dinner yesterday, everything about them bothered us. We especially hated how the woman had said she had decided to come to Ecuador because Europe was too expensive. We also felt compassion for the guides who had to lead her husband with his constant complaining, bad knee, and worse jokes through the jungle. Gretchen and I had taken to calling him "Mr. Rodilla" (rodilla meaning knee in Spanish).
In comparison to Sacha Lodge's other diners, those seated around our table were looking rather of scruffy, particularly me (I'd yet to change my clothes from two days ago). At other tables, though, people had dressed up, put on jewelery and makeup, and were acting like they were at some sort of fancy restaurant. It didn't make much sense since we'd just spent all day slogging through mud in our "wellies," but evidently there are those who come to Sacha Lodge more to hang out at the bar and socialize with other socialites than to hear about nasty little bugs and plants. The two activities are so completely different that I had to wonder how many of those people were enjoying their stay (considering that the planned activities had nothing to do with the drinking at the bar). Even I, someone who enjoys nature and explanations about the interrelationships in an ecosystem, had found the morning walk to be maybe an hour too long. But what about the fifty-something woman in a glamourous gown wearing stiletto heels and drinking a filthy martini?
Richard (left) and Ernesto, our guides.
The nightmarish growing stilts of a "penis palm."
An interesting plant in the forest.
A poison dart frog held by Richard.
Buttresses on a big tree.
Sophie the Sacha Lodge mascot.
Butterflies and flowers at the mariposio.
Butterflies and pupæ at the mariposio.
Looking up a massive tree from below.
Gretchen on the tower.
The forest canopy as viewed from the tower.
Sunset approaches over the rain forest, viewed from the tower.
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