Saturday, December 27, 2008

Boxing Day

Yeah, I know it was yesterday. But I like the name of the holiday. This time last year, I was in Edinburgh wandering around doing not much. Felt like I wanted to be in a boxing match. This year, my Dad lit a commerce fire in the driveway to dispatch our christmas detritus accumulated over the holiday. To purge the year properly, you ought to jump over a fire like this one around the winter solstice - which is, incidentally, why we celebrate the nativity in the middle of the winter, and not when it actually might have happened. Chalk another one up to paganism, and keep the Pantheon in Xmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Midair, Even.

What's available just out your back door is usually astonishing. Here is Laura's bug collection, gotten mostly right here in Sewanee. Great, you say, bugs. Or you might think ''dang, that is one sweet Coleopteran...round.'' But bugs are people too. Why would I say that? Because one of the insects below practices full-on prostitution. Let me explain.

The Mecopterans (aka Scorpionflies, Hanging Flies) are not true flies, but have a highly derived club scene. These things are weird enough to be of their own order, the Mecoptera (long-winged things). You have to be long-winged to pull off what they do. The male Hanging Fly stakes out a branch and waits for unsuspecting passers-by of eatable size. Using four of his six available legs, he snatches, say, a loitering gnat or mosquito. His other two legs are meanwhile employed, sliging him about under a gravity perch while he dispatches the victim like a nightmare axe-murder trapeze artist.

Now, with those long wings he sets out with the dangling corpse prize and searches out a she-Mecopteran. He presents her with this flaccid exoskeleton full of gifted bug meat, and if she is congruently goth in attitude, she will accept the advance, taking hold of half the carcass as a prelude to hooking up. They unite and fly about towing between them what scientists call, no joke, the 'Nuptial Gift.' But get this: those same scientists have demonstrated that the heft of said gift is directly proportional to the time these bugs spend in each other's embrace. The larger the Nuptial Gift, the more sustained the copulation, the better chance the female gets properly inoculated with the man-Mecopteran's bug sperm.

So the duration of this flying Ménage-à-trois is determined entirely by the size of the dude's hunting trophy. Sound familiar? And this happens in midair. For real.

International expedition planning is on my mind right now. But the right attitude for exploring ridiculous things is the right attitude anywhere.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Substances Collide

Back through things I don't always remember seeing - the collision of energy sandwiching the surface of the earth makes all shapes. Barrier islands from tides, karst pinnacles from old up and down seas now getting water pulses from the rain, radiation from the sun, traffic from millions of fascinating little lives. The Tsingy de Bemaraha, Mahajanga Madagascar.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cumberland Island

The sea is always coming and going. Twice a day the tide goes in and out. Every few million years, the coastlines are shifted miles in and out. If you've ever seen a monthly tide chart, or a line graph of transgressions and regressions through geologic time, the images are strikingly similar. One of the great convergences of these two periodic ocean pulses are Georgia Barrier Islands. Long-term sea-level changes make barrier islands possible while Oceans get bigger. The moon-coupled short-term tide ebb and flow make the salt marsh possible. The salt marsh makes Captain D's possible.

The picture here shows the result of tide pulses acting on sediments every day between the islands and the land, away from waves. This is what it looks like at low altitude from a small plane full of friends. A whole load of marine organisms uses this cushy zone for raising tender young that grow up to be your tender fish sticks and popcorn shrimp. Sam eats shrimp and blue crab. He also thinks barrier islands and marsh are good offspring-raising grounds for humans.

That's why we know about things like tide and have the sense to ask about historic sea level at the largest scales. Because there are some people who are willing to be in, and become part of, a place. To watch its rhythms, to appreciate its beauty and its part of the story. By lightly populating the right spots on Earth with watchful people, and connecting them to a network of askers and listeners, we can almost hear the planet breathe. Tide charts begin to look like EKGs, seasons wiggle the toes, sunrises and sunsets blink and see.

It's a big rock. Somebody's gotta watch it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

to Fly.

a new reconstruction of Quetzalcoatlus northropi. here.

I'm reliving a sort of pterosaur kick I went on while gliding in Eichstätt and thinking about the evolution of flight.  Bats, birds, and pterosaurs.  A thoughtful friend just gave me a wooden Pteranodon blown up from one of those small wooden kits - only its wingspan is about a meter and a half as it hangs now in the Green House.  It reminds me of the massive Quetzalcoatlus cast hanging in Willibaldsburg Castle.  One of the most striking things about a Quetzalcoatlus skeleton, after you get over its absurd size, is the proportions of the neck vertebrae.  This drawing doesn't show it, but it's a particularly good juxtaposition.  I will tell you why.  Giraffes have long necks, but like all other mammals, they have only seven neck vertebrae.  You have seven neck vertebrae.  Great blue herons and flamingoes and snakes and turtles have long necks, but they have an unpredictable number of vertebrae.  That's because they stay relatively the same size, and just stack up a few more when their necks need to be longer.  Not so with Pterosaurs.  All pterosaurs have just nine neck vertebrae.  That means that they are each like two feet long - like a giraffe's neck, it is built by extending the size of a fixed number of verts.

Friday, October 24, 2008


My appreciation to everyone who came to see photos on Tuesday night - thanks for listening.  And thanks to those supporting sometimes out of sight.  And thanks to the Potters for that outrageous wild afterparty.  
More soon.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pilgrim Photo Show

I'll be showing photos of and talking about last year's travel on Tuesday 21 October at 7pm in the Gailor basement. The photo above was taken at just this time of year in 2007 under the Hunter's Moon in Bavaria. The Fagus sylvatica beeches beneath the glider wings aren't in the shot, but those flaming colors remind me of what we have coming here in Sewanee.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Please don't say it.

Saturday morning was all about chopping ropes. There's an inborn sickening twitch that even mildly vertically-experienced people feel when a knife gets too close to a climbing rope. Nine millimeter static line, fat supple dynamic rope, measuring, slicing, burning. When you pull the blade through the tape and the sheath, twinning the core in a razor nanosecond, like butter, some part of your stomach's memory hits your feet in anticipation of the wooshing fall that such lifeline vandalism would surely cause if you were hanging from it.

Sounds kind of like the McCain healthcare plan.

We were actually splitting long sections of rope in Stephen's yard and cauterizing the ends with a coleman. He needed an assortment of shorter sections for rigging the two caves we attempted this weekend.

Somewhere 500 feet beneath contented P-trail hikers, there is a certain hole in the ground, which we shall refer to as ''the-hole-which-must-not-be-named.'' It's an amazing thin twisting underground creek with pots and bowls in sandy limestone, in the dark. Most bends are a squeeze, most squeezes require bending. And that funny limestone is sharp. The water has been down, thanks to drought, but that only makes a bad thing a little less bad.

The entrance is a gap in the roof of an overhang, boobytrapped below with a pit of sharp rocks. You can get halfway there by skirting the rim around the trap, but you're still 15 feet below where you want/don't want to be. Formerly waterfall, now chilly trickle. Stephen and the legendary Marion Smith last made it in there on the back of a log ramp propped strategically above the nether. This log is now 14 years old and very soggy. "Here, put all your weight on this," said he.

The whole thing came crashing down in two pieces. One wumped its waterlogged mass onto my chest for a rock-dork-tree sandwich, and the other tried to kick Stephen into the hole by whacking him just north of the coccyx. Miraculously, no one suffered even a ruptured spleen. We decided to stick-clip the aging bolt and prolong the inevitable.

We gained the antechamber of the cave, and Stephen rigged it while I dragged more rope and a bag to the second major obstacle. "When we pass this crawl, there have been more people on the surface of the moon than in the room at the end," he said.

Remember that part in the Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins crawls 8 miles through a half-full sewer pipe towing a bag tied to his shoe, stopping to wretch every ten feet? Like that.

Mercy descended, and the room at the end was tall, and dry, but cold. The next bit of passage we meant to rig required a relatively easy 35-foot free climb. I got most of the way up and realized that if I plummeted shivering the last 25 feet, my body would never leave 'the-hole-which-must-not-be-named' - and lost my nerve. In shame, we left the ropes there for a try on a luckier day.

Too bad we left the hooks there too, because that's exactly what Stephen needed on his waterfall the next day. After rigging the first few bits of a different cave, he started the climb a slick mostly dry waterfall, about 50 feet. Cams and aiders, lassos, and a hand-belay got him about 10 feet off the deck. He was hanging out over another pit of sharp rocks, this time slightly cushioned by a thin pool of water. He called in the artillery, der Boschammer Annihilator. Limestone was drill perforated, and a bolt hanger inserted. This got him another 6 feet higher to where he could possibly reach a mantle.

He had been on there for about half an hour, and suddenly mumbled something impatient and started climbing fast above his anchor, flat out going for it. From where I was, he looked like a scared lemur in a red jumpsuit. A few hero hoists later he was on top, miraculously. I saw a headlamp peek back down to the coil of ropes where I was standing with the now useless belay line I had trimmed the day before. The static rope came down for me to follow.

We shot some funny pictures, and installed a new anchor making that leery waterfall into child's play for whomever wanted to tempt el Diablo next. I asked him what he was thinking when he finally sprinted for the top. Well, he was hanging there, scared of the last leg of the climb, dithering, overthinking, and finally told himself that if he died, at least 'she-who-must-not-be-named' would never be his president. The odds seemed good, so he went for it.

For years, I've been trying to get onto my dad's health insurance* policy. He says his policy is 'don't get hurt.' That might not work for very much longer. On Wednesday, we're going back to 'the-hole-which-must-not-be-named' so I can climb the rest of it. It worked for Stephen, so I might as well try thinking of 'she-who-must-not-be-named.' The cave's name is, seriously, "The Most Horrible Thing Ever." Her name is "Sarah Palin." Oh well. If I die, at least she won't ever be my president.

*we don't have any.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Strait-crossing Errands

Humans tend to be journey-oriented. Most of our stories center around journeys, real and figurative. When we consider what has been done by people in the past, on scales we can't imagine, judging journeys of length makes less and less sense. But there's no way to get around the fact that the trend your grandparents started by walking uphill both ways to school in the snow is still continuous with the huge patterns of prehistoric human migration, and our wussy drives to the piggly wiggly now. What's more hardcore - riding a motorcycle from Oregon, or hauling a conastoga wagon to it? There's nowhere to go but down from here.

My point, such as it is, comes with a small Mongolian retrospective triggered by a cave we went into last weekend. Behind the crew destroying and replacing the impenetrable cave gate at Devilstep in the Sequatchie Valley, there is Native American art of a kind I've never seen. Eastern woodlands indians, more than a thousand years ago, made these images. They created shapes in the glow of flaming cane bundles. We got in with light-emitting diodes powered by metal ion canisters. Someday someone will say 'dang, they went underground with just a headlamp.' It wasn't the smoke of accidental blowtorch bat barbecue that made the cave gnarly.

In Mongolia, I went on an extended horse trip alone with a small compliment of gear. I didn't cover a whole lot of ground, but it was a solid journey in my book. Even though Mongolia was incredibly vast and foreign, there was something comfortable about it. Maybe it was because I was hardly ever more than a day's ride from anyone's yurt, and that yurt would be guaranteed to have food and hospitality. The land of the Mongols is lived on, and has been for longer than anyone can remember. You can't find grass that hasn't been grazed by someone's domestic animal. It is wild, but it is near.

Those same people who had known Asia for thousands of years are the same people who wandered into North America. The same line of people wandered into Devilstep cave and made art. North America was new. North America is wild. People have only been on this continent for 15,000 years, maximum. Those people aren't talking, and our line has only been here the scarce part of 500.

Why is that significant? It means that even if it is home, and if it is covered by roads, we are farther from this continent, more susceptible to this wilderness than to any other, with the exception of South America. But I haven't really been there, so I can't comment. Sure, we've mapped this place. But if you want to measure journeys, you'll have to go farther back in time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sponge of Stone

John Benson says that we shouldn't be drinking water because it does such destructive things to rocks. That water is caustic and violent, scary stuff to pour down the gullet. It digs deep holes, melts away vast spidery caverns of rock, and drips to dripping drip drip for echoes. TAG stands for Tennessee/alabama/georgia, but usually means the fun-to-play-on rocks of the Cumberland Plateau. You could draw a line around it, but it would be ragged, coved, creeked, bluffed, and a thousand miles long in each and every secret nook. It's a scrumptious eroded crusty sediment cake iced with solid sand. Beneath the sandstone, Karst means strange, strange land on both sides of the surface.

You can boulder, sport or otherwise climb the massive hanging brittle sandstone that caps the flat-top mountain that three states share. Or you can be a caver and let the rock swallow you whole, alive, with nothing to guarantee a return to light from the belly of the mountain. The mountain is everywhere, when you're inside it, it is the land.

As part of a photo project, Benson, Alvarez and I went to Green's Well in Alabama. Legend has it that this was the first place a rappelling rack was ever used in a cave. There is ample reason for bringing a rope and a rack to a sheer stone tube that falls 220ish feet to a dark and puddly nether. This is how the cave starts. With no warning. Just a few hundred feet of air where good solid ground used to be. And no light.

We brought the light though - Stephen, anyway did. There are an undisclosed number of 50s-era magnesium flashbulbs tucked away at the Alvarez estate. We blew through about 100 of them yesterday. This is because the light guns for these photos make the bulb emit all its pent photons in a kamikaze flame of glory for a tiny instant followed by complete self-destruction. Cocked. Fire! blast, gloves, glowing cooldown glass, reload. You don't want to trip one of these without meaning to. That is, before your eyes are tightly shut and your hand is over your face. Consequences include temporary blindness. Eyes are one of those things you want to be using when you're 130 feet off the deck, where managing your rope and hardware is a matter of survival.

We hauled out of the pit after some great, but potentially flawed (thanks to me) frames. At the top, there were a few pounds of fried chicken. And a crispy, delicious day it was.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


So I'm here sippin on a bottle of Kumbucha (what?) in a supremely premeditated natural foods store. I've been in North America now officially for one month. The first two weeks of that were spent with good friend Cameron Kuhlman torching fossil fuels all across the highline between Oregon and Michigan (photo), and down to the goodol' Southeast. Which is where I am right now, in absolute awe of the fact that there is any civilization on this planet that could carefully plant so many nice patches of grass and not remember to let any animals eat it. In fact, we pay close to four bucks a gallon to push some machine around and make the tops of the plants go away instead of making delicious meat for free. It's the little things that reveal our fundamental insanity as a nation.

However, I did sing a lot of patriotic songs and had a lot of I-heart-George-washington-and-kentucky-convenience-store-twang moments to make up for it. Today on a trail run in the Pisgah National Forest, Natasha found an Eastern Box Turtle that was probably hungry for wild muscadine grapes. None of us should forget that those kinds of things only happen in a small patch of the world around this one set of mountains on one of the American continents - and that's special.

Monday, July 14, 2008


I was away. Bought a horse up here, and went on a camping trip and somehow kept him from being stolen or eaten by wolves. All is well - will be in America in an amazingly short time. Much to tell, but I have a few days of waiting for planes to maybe tell it properly. Check back.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Headed up to Lake Khovskol for a little while. Have fishing on my mind. It's Baikal's little brother, pretty close. Here's an article about the big one for your edification, thanks to undinecerelia.

Getting into this ex-russian jeepy van thing that I covet very much. If I could just get those knobby tires on the bus, I think they could put me on the next plane to mars. Anyway, a dude named Mooschovood or something like that is renting out the whole backseat to my companions and I. Right on.

here's a photo that isn't mine.

Might be out of touch for a couple weeks.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Been in Mongolia now for three-ish days. The train was pretty much a reading teadrinking W`odka version of Survivor in a box on wheels with fifteen minute breaks and boiling styrofoam noodles with filmstrips for windows. In all, pretty enjoyable. Baikal waves had piled up mounds of ice on the shore of the Lake while I watched from the coffee car passing over bridges, creeks, boulders running down from snows on high.

Mongolia happened one morning when I woke up after a six-hour Russian border customs operation that was sort of funny. I opened my eyes in my bunk and there were triangles of brown pointing up above vast plains and a blanket of mystery mist. The diesel Mongol rail horde belched diesel and screamed on south through the pass and I made the capitol at 7am. Got invited home to stay with my Russian-Mongol car mate who introduced me to his family and get us out to all the standard places around town that a disoriented post-european might like to go before he gets his steppe legs.

View Larger Map

No pictures now, rumors of camera viruses transmitted when digital congress is allowed between suspect terminals and image devices have me spooked. Hit the Natural History Museum this morning, and met up with the Legendary Kara and Ed yesterday, en route through. I've joined a loose confrerie of people at a bunkhouse with designs to descend upon another tectonic mere and camp some.

Cyrillic slowly becoming intelligible. Hurrah!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Транссибирская магистраль

I'm ready to go finally, and I have all the little pieces of paper and government permission I need to do so. First I'm going to Düsseldorf, then Moscow, and then UlaanBaatar. I'm tired of flying, and there's this train that goes from Moscow to the Pacific Ocean, or China, or Kamchatka, or pretty much anywhere else in that general handwaving direction East. So I'm taking a 100-hour rail ride to Mongolia. Here's a rough sketch of the route.

View Larger Map

I have some books and some tea, and they give away free hot water on the train. What a great deal. I've ditched most of my useless stuff, but have acquired another batch to replace it. Music: check. Books: check. Dry fruit stash: check.

A quick note on the substrate -
I'm going to pass Lake Baikal on day 3 or so. This lake is about 2000 miles from India. It's the deepest lake on the planet, contains 3% of the world's fresh water, and has its own coral, giant amphipods, and seals. It's the crustal equivalent of a barfight, in this case caused by the huge whallop of the Indian subcontinent uppercutting Asia. The Himalaya pile up, the desert comes behind them, and if you go far enough away, there's a big stretchy crack. Rivers flow into this thing from zillions of miles around. Just one of the things outside the window.

For kicks, here's some of my reading material:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Wolf Totem
The Children of Húrin
Into the Wild

And here's a better map than mine
My end dot isn't on the line, but it's there.

I leave Moscow on Tuesday.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Wandern Schwarzwald

Hey, we went to the woods this weekend. The weather was really good. Eliza G und me took a train down to the Schluchsee, big lake in Baden-Württemburg, then we walked back home. Great camping next to a tiny lake - see below.

View Larger Map

Here's more photodocumentation of springtime in our fair village, and the WanderGENAU.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Unserer Ausflügs -

My record ain't so good here, but I've been busy. I'll get you the info, but for now, check this cat's photos

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Moldy Oldies

We hiked 30k into the peripheral zone of Ranomafana National Park through burnt stubble and rice paddies to set up tents in the dark next to a tumbling river hooting primates overhead and waited for the rice to boil. Breakfast on smoked zebu and condensed milk. I found that I was supposed to be in charge of 2 Malagasy botanists and a local guy. The mission was to establish 12 tree plots and measure every living fruiting thing in them over 5 centimeters in width. Twelve hundred hectares of me bossing people around in French. There is no map of this area, so I'm sort of making one up as I go along while Andrea and Reychell observe the sordid family lives of Varecia variegata. There's a fine line between following and chasing.

My favorite lemur so far is Propithecus edwardsii. I saw them one morning sitting up in the Natojabo tree through the mist, letting big bright pink fruits fall down to me and whistling like Velociraptors. They just ricochet from tree to tree, like a big sooty arboreal version of the Tigger.

Lerouah is the son of the king of Mangevo, by whose blessing we are here. He is full of laughter, and his head is a map of the forest. His ancestors are buried here, under orchid rocks and in the roots of giant trees. In the dry dust above one of the graves sheltered by a giant boulder, we found hundreds of tiny ant lion pits. The Malagasy know the dusty funnels are lethal traps. It's cruel and entertaining sport to lure an ant into one. They are the Myrmeliontidae, a primitive insect order with poison-pincered larvae. These are the unappetizing lions in the dust who never defecate, but have slowly growing abdomens until they finally metamorphose and fly off as giant lacewings. They literally leave all the crap behind. The Malagasy have not made the connection between this dirt monster and and the nocturnal dragonfly, but it is the ghosts who are in charge by proxy.

We follow lemurs and measure trees by day, rain, rain rain.
They say that only 2% of the sun's rays reach the forest floor in the rainforest. I can add that that would be the case on a really good day. Plus my tent and everything I was foolish enough to bring with me is under a tarp lashed to various bits of wood. To start with, my guitar is moldy. Everything made of cotton is moldy, my camera crapped out, my dictaphone crapped out, my flute is moldy, the box that my guitar strings came in grew fuzz an inch long, ants made a nest under this small green army satchel which I suspended a meter off the ground on sticks, my white shirt is now green, my brunton case, leather belt, pipe case, boots, and hair all are scenes of a widening culture of microorganisms with state-level societies, and pretty much anything not made of oil or encased duly in petroleum derivatives is steadily decomposing. It's absolutely amazing. I'm sandwiched between several layers of plastic and foam, and the down in my sleeping bag is the only remotely organic thing I own that seems to be surviving well. I'm very glad I brought that thing, because about half the nights out there, I can see my breath for chill even though humidity is at about 200%. I've adopted an amphibious lifestyle, along with just about everything else out there, and it feels incongrously awesome to be so insanely dry at this remarkable moment.

There are more frogs than leaves in that place, and more roaches than frogs, and more leeches than lemurs. Leeches are basically necromanced brown boogers with inchworm grandmothers, vampiric tendencies and razorblade lips. I have things that look like zits, but are really leechpox caused by the merciless and automaton laughable way that they scoot up your pantslegs and hack feeding holes into your flesh so that these little dots with red instead of whitehead centers form after the little gluttons have dropped off. They're robotic and ironically unkillable until they've inhaled enough of your precious blood to be poppable with the toe of a boot, at which time they have done their damage and are hilariously rolling themselves away with their prehensile sucker tails without a clue where they're going or where the hell they are because you picked them up somewhere on the trail 2 k away.
But three out of three vazaha researchers agree, they beat the junk outta mosquitoes, ticks, flies, fleas, gnats, chiggers or anything else that you might be tempted to equate them to, because they don't fly, don't buzz, are slow, don't carry diseases, don't pass tight spots in your clothes to invade inappropriate zones, and are generally nowhere near as sinister and infuriating as other blood parasites. They're just freaking creepy. I mean, it's one thing to be slurped on by an invertebrate with an exoskeleton and the sophistication to fly, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let some spineless eyeless sucker-butt gooball drink my blood and get away with it as if it had any other talent besides sheer pathetic persistence. It's a pain when they bite your neck/face/waist/earlobes though, because it's generally uncomfortable, bloody, and weird when they infest your raincoat. I've taken to trying to sever them with fingernails since I lost my knife. One of the malagasy dudes keeps a squirtbottle of precious rum with which to chastise them, the other guys have lollipops packed with salt that seem to do the trick. If you look closely at some patches of forest, you can see leeches fishing with their faces firmly suckered to a leaf and their tails stretched out like rubber bands flapping around in the air just knowing that maybe there's a chance that something will brush past to attach a grappling hook to, and so assuage their burning thirst for the nectar of life, the sick little twits.

We live with other cool animals too. The Fossa belongs, like all the other native carnivorous mammals on this island, to the family Viverridae. The mysterious Cryptoprocta ferox lies somewhere in the predatory nexus between cougar and mongoose. The souped-up weasel may as well be a cat when it plays a peckish Sere Kahn to the lemur's helpless Mowgli. The species pushes its act to the point of having independently evolved retractable self-sharpening claws, all the better to chase you with my dear. It is known to eat lemurs feetfirst, or eviscerate them and woof the foie gras before casually leaving the rest to the flies.
Preying on primates is not to be taken lightly, and the village folks seem to concur. There is a well-engrained and probably baseless fear of the Fossa. It is rumored to kill chickens just with its pestilential breath. Chicken-munching is definitely one of its favorite dry season pastimes, which would admittedly raise an appreciable unholy midnight racket around town.

This savage appetite stops at nothing smaller than oxen, and extends to the libidinous as well. As one researcher put it ''they'll go at it on every daylit branch out there growling and carrying on, and they don't care who watches.'' Our forest camp is guarded while we're away not by one, but two coup-coup weilding Malagasy. This is not for actual security reasons, but so that the brave souls may have the refuge of comraderie in terror while warding off the marauding beast. Fossa are a good 1.5 meters long, and only half of that is tail. Given luck enough to be approached by the thing on the ground, you'd miss it if you looked anywhere above your knees. Organisms exceeding the weight class of a Jack Russel terrier should probably be safe.
For my part, I haven't seen one outside zoo photos (yet). But after personally witnessing the speed at which the average lemur teleports himself through the forest, the thought of a four-footed toothy something that routinely runs them down in the trees is enough to mildy influence the imagination, even of one so utterly ensconced in scientific aarogance as I. The Fossa have alien eyes - unsettling even in pictures. I was thinking of the Cryptoproct before bed one night when a small stick fell and thwapped my flimsy tent in the dark. I nearly wet myself. At least the Giant Fossa is...sadly...extinct.

We got all the plots mostly done for the first round. We go back to them and check for new fruit in two weeks. It started to rain in earnest. The botanists left on Monday, which was the day Tropical Cyclone Ivan made landfall. It was a force 4, but we didn't know any of this. All we were sure of was that the trees were swaying and bending and falling an awful lot, and it was mostly impossible to sleep because of the deafening downpour of sticks and branches all around. We recorded something like a half meter of rain at the kitchen.
The cute little stream we use for drinking, clotheswashing and bathing swelled to a monstrous chocolate torrent. It was an ironic situation - water water everywhere, but not a drop to wash up in.

We passed the time entering data from the fieldbooks, all of them that weren't accidentally scortched anyway. We were beginning to run out of food, and our biweekly caravan of porters carrying bags of grub was now a week late. When the satphone finally got a few seconds parlance through the clouds, we got an old message from the research station telling us to get out. We figured we were going to give it a shot whenever the weather cleared enough anyway.
The first sunny day was friday, and we passed all kinds of flooded rice paddies and squelchier than usual mud and partially wrecked bamboo and banana leaf houses. Folks seemed to have weathered it ok in general though. Every river we crossed looked only recently calmed. When we were 5k or so from the road, we met that cadre of late porters under the sun bearing all kinds of amazing things like canned milk and carrots. They also had a note from the field station telling us that the road had been blocked by no less than 14 landslides, and that the Ranomafana town had been flooded.

We got to the Namorana and walked through the 20 vertical feet of messed up riverbank down to the still rapid brown water we had waded weeks before. Here we were extorted by a river man in a dugout canoe. He made several trips and demonstrated his ability to do 6 or so in a row without losing any cargo. We heard later that two days before, another canoe had been lost in the channel, the bodies of its occupants found downstream.
Eventually we got to the research station and got news of the botanists who had made it out just the day before. Apparently, they had been trapped between two rising rivers and taken shelter in an abandoned hut with no light or food for three days. Armand is sitting next to me now, and seems to be happy about it.

For the last few days, we've been recharging and watching the weather before we go back in on Monday. The river is still louder than normal, but its gorge is still as beautiful as ever. It's too bad the swinging bridge a kilometer up the trail was destroyed, because it leads into the best part of the park for night hikes under the full moon of the last few evenings. I found pieces of steel struts and cables while combing some of the high rocks down in the valley the other day. The sun is out, and folks are getting on with it, some local guys are taking advantage of reduced traffic by riding rickety wooden brakeless contraptions down the steep twisting road between stints of mud-shoveling. I'm happily drying out my various articles and person in the sunshine, watching puffy clouds and rainbows, thinking about chameleons and developmental plasticity in evolutionary biology making pterygotes of secondarily apterous Phasmids.

We're headed back in on Monday, and out again on the 19th.
Then it's on to the Tsingy Limestone Extravaganza.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

I Madigaskara

Made Antanarivo last night at 2 am or similar. I have to say the change in atmosphere between the world's fourth biggest island and Ile-de-France is a bit staggering. From Edinburgh, I stopped through in Paris to enjoy dinner with Mme Tarnay, alias LvCandler. There was rain in Europe, and even though this is the alleged cyclone season in the Austral parts, all I can detect is an immensely pleasant air of passing showers and unstoppable giant twittering moths with a background of heady dripping and chirping from plant leaves and benign arthropods.

The Visa-getting process in this place is about as efficient as the following:

Even so, this bit of tropical urban subAfrica feels about right after several months of quiet creeping winter. Soon I'll be on the way to Centre ValBio to begin the whole process of establishing a long term base camp deep in the forest where they keep all the weird primates you could ever want somewhere among the chameleons and frogs with rugged team captain HM Andrea Baden.

Have a picture of Tana. I insist.