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.