Monday, August 4, 2014

Thoughts from the field...

Here's a post from a field crew member, Kenji Tomari, about field work in the Marianas: 

Hiking through the forest, warily stepping on jagged and precarious karst stones that conspire your downfall, we enter an extrinsic realm apart from the peri-urban landscape we emerged from. As a botanist you might experience encounters with forests and wildlands differently from the casual flaneur that explores nature on a whim. We imagine mosaics and patches of varying habitats; and the paths we cut through them excite our senses and imaginings. We take special notice of disturbed habitats impacted by human action with particular acuity--segregating what we see in these disturbances from what we suspect are more native assemblages in our transitory mental notes. These near daily excursions into the tropical dry forests here are eminently engaging as an off-islander, where we encounter differing aggregates of plant species and unfamiliar flora constantly.

On different islands out here, or even in proximate yet differing forest sites on the same island, a journey through it yields extraordinary diversity both within, as well as between sites. This is personally one of the most satisfying experiences of my time here in the Marianas. Typically, after a morning of data collection through observing what bird species eat what types of fruit, I continue my observations, yet in a haphazard and qualitative manner--or, in other words, stumbling around and exploring areas new to me! We want to decipher the habits, trends, and tendencies of these birds so we can get a better idea of their role in reproducing the trees in the numbers we see and in their peculiar configurations. It's important to always find new fruiting trees to observe and explore different patches to get a broad sampling of this variegated jungle. I traipse and tumble, leap and hop over small boulders, and slip sometimes on damp slopes. Frankly, I need gloves to get through these hikes as I climb over surfaces that seemingly slice through your skin with pernicious schadenfreude. The point to underscore here is that these forests contain layers and layers of distinctions and peculiarities that have consequential impacts on biodiversity, and I hike and clamber to get some sense of it!

Once past the ostensible grove of coconuts, a few steps in at this one site yields a sweet aroma emanating from the decaying breadfruit. A myriad of fruit flies swell over this carcass, yet its' perfume doesn't readily drift to your nostrils; the air is so still it's as if you have to first cross through a spheric forcefield containing this concentrated breadfruit bouquet in order to discover the otherwise hidden fruit rotting away. Its' odiferous presence instantly constructs a sense of this place, and informs you that breadfruit trees must reign above. The characterization of this place continues as you gather a mental list of what plant species reside in the vicinity, giving you some idea of one assemblage, one configuration of the plant community here. This is my typical mode as I explore: what's here and with what?

One day, tired of the relentless mosquitos and my unfamiliarity with this new field site, I decided to scale the sloping cliff that bounded the site on one side. I slowly ascended, inspecting each promising tree for fruit, but finding little of merit. After some time, I found  a relatively flat area next to a large tree, a fish-kill tree, with little understory growth. From below the tree's dense canopy and fern covered branches, you can look out past the patchy leaves of neighboring trees where small vistas open up here and there; you get glimpses of the ocean from here, and the forest canopy along the base of the hill. A cool, and notably mosquito-less breeze would gently roll through this spot. Here, I found a fig tree with bountiful fruits. It helped demystify some confusion we had been having about the fig species. Later, I descended, going down a different route; I was in a rush, but I managed to get down safely. I did, consequently, have my first encounter with the notorious boonie bees: ubiquitous wasps that form small nests under leaves, typically hidden from view. I felt a sting on my arm with some discomfort, and I was confused at first what had caused such an unpleasant sensation. Then, I got lost for a bit. Eventually though, I found my way back to the car, crawling out from some thick understory. My colleagues gave me an inquisitive look, as if to say, why the hell did you come from over there?!

Although this small adventure was no epic saga, it was just one among a great many. Hiking off the beaten path and encountering the forest with a particular lens exposes you to new curiosities that others might not incidentally notice. It instills something of a child-like wonder in your thought process and brings you a sense of significance for this forest, this particular assemblage. These moments are what make fieldwork so worthwhile.