Saying “see you later, sometime” to the rainforest


I just got back home from a few weeks of fieldwork in the rainforest. Most of the science I’ve done over the years has been based out of a smallish patch of land in Costa Rica: La Selva Biological Station. It’s a special place.

There’s a lot to be said for becoming intimate with just one place, to develop ideas and make discoveries that wouldn’t be made by those just passing through. These locations are often field stations, like Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, or La Selva, or Barro Colorado Island, or Southwestern Research Station. Field stations are not the furnace of graduate training in ecology and evolutionary biology like they used to be, though they are more essential than ever for the future of scientific discovery.

I love La Selva. This is not an infatuation about beauty or sophistication. Other places have struck me with their majesty, like when I rounded a bend to see Mitchell Falls, fed from a forest of seussian cycads kilometers in the distance. High on my list of breathtaking majesty is the miniature canyon of Thingvellir, where continental plates are spreading apart and forsaken settlers invented democracy to weather adversity. Places more beautiful than the rainforest include the colorful and overtly complex otherworld of the Great Barrier Reef, the living formations of Kartchner Caverns and a quiet dew in any grove of redwoods. I’ve made a point to see a bunch of the world, and I’m excited to see a lot more.

Yosemite is my best hope at connecting with religion. The cathedral of Yosemite Valley is filled with humanity. Like tourists in other cathedrals, most visitors aren’t true believers, but that doesn’t inhibit reverence. I can’t help but get weak in the knees each time I approach Yosemite Valley at it resolves in the distance. When I fail to understand the faith of others in a god or a fearmonger, I think of my feelings about Yosemite, and then I can suspend disbelief in the sincerity of others.

The rainforest is more of a wall of green than it is visually stunning. There are no vistas when you’re in the middle of a rainforest. But La Selva is a second home for me. La Selva is that special friend that I don’t see that often because of distance, but when we get together we pick up right where we left off. It’s been maybe a decade since my favorite swamp got a big dose of sunlight, when a gavilán tree fell. Its sculptured aroids were replaced by workmanlike grasses. But I still love that spot. Because it is what it is, because this kind of thing isn’t conditional.

The stream where I’d eat lunch still flows, and gypsy ants are still on the move. When I’m not there, the stream and the ants are still doing their thing. The slightly-downhill spot that’s more slippery than you might imagine still lands people on their butts once in a while. The experimental plantation is now a secondary forest, and so are a couple pastures. The termite nest hovering over the trail has been long gone, and my agouti buddies seem to have moved out of town. But the fruit-eating fish still leap out of the water for your fruit, and the monkeys still get mad at the rain.

When I started working there, I got to know a colony of bullet ants that was just on the edge of the forest. That was everybody’s colony, because they were just right there, five meters in right along the trail. One of the first things I would do on arrival was go to say and hi. They’ve been gone for well over a decade. Then I made friends with another colony, and within the last year, they’re now gone too. I once watched a whole colony of leafcutter ants pick up and move itself about 75 meters. That’s kind of like moving all of the buildings in Manhattan over to New Jersey. That colony is now just a few yawning cavities in the ground.

I’m now doing my most exciting work in the rainforest. Things haven’t slowed down, I’ve ramped things up. The things that I’m learning matter far beyond this little patch of land, and I’m stumbling into new ideas that I hope will make our understanding of the natural world a tiny bit less mysterious. I’m absolutely giddy about the science.

I first pulled into this particular forest on an OTS graduate course, 21 years ago. At the time, I think I was most impressed by its laundry facilities and showers. Since then, the forest and the people have been ever so generous. I can’t go to a scientific meeting without finding an old friend from La Selva. And I can’t go to La Selva without making new friends. I can’t think of a more supportive academic community, which has genuinely transformed the lives of many people in my life. I’ve been doing precisely the research and fieldwork that I’ve been wanting to do.

But if I look 21 years into the future, I don’t think I will have been satisfied if I will have kept doing the same thing. I’d be asking new questions, but in the end, things wouldn’t be that different. I’d have had twice as many students, twice as many papers, twice as many friends, and twice as many good times. (And twice as much time away from my family at home. And twice as many plates of gallo pinto, and twice as many frequent flyer files, and twice as many unwritten manuscripts).

Going to La Selva is like going back home. Of late, heading down there is like going back home to my parents’ house. I haven’t outgrown La Selva. That would be like a dust mite outgrowing Miss Havisham’s Satis House.

In Costa Rica, Colwell described the biology of nectar-feeding mites that live in flowers (using some matrix modeling, naturally). These mites can spend quite a long while in an individual flower. When a hummingbird comes to visit, the mites can hop on the hummingbird to make their way to another flower. When they get to a new flower – perhaps in a new patch quite some distance away – the mites can hop off into a new flower again if they so choose.

I just started sabbatical, so this is as good a time as any to hop a bird. By design, I don’t have many specific plans, other than fulfilling a number of old obligations. I’ve been invited to give a couple talks, and I’ve got a thing or two in mind, and can plan some travel around those, but there are still some huge gaps that I plan to use constructively. Somehow. Doing something new. Whatever that is.

I’m keeping the Proyecto Hormiga project office at La Selva, and I’ll be back with more students and new projects, but this won’t be the main feature. I’m really interested to see how this story turns out.

3 thoughts on “Saying “see you later, sometime” to the rainforest

  1. Great write up of your scientific/career/emotional connection to La Selva

    Will be instructive to observe your thinking/process on this. Looking forward to seeing how things play out for you.

    Good luck on your sabbatical journey!

  2. Such lovely writing here… thank you for bringing these places to life, and for sharing this part of your career–the heart of your career, it seems.

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