Field Life is for the Birds (and the termites, and the frogs…)

Cameron RuttField Work, Research, Science1 Comment

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One of the five field camps in which I have stayed at the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP). The living room/kitchen is on the left, while the single (shared) bedroom is on the right.

Living afield in the Amazon is a bit like journeying back in time. Yes, we have electricity, at least when the camp generator is running (or, for that matter, simply operational…I’ve now spent two weeks without). Much more importantly, though, these generators operate a pump that pulls water up from a stream to a large freshwater tank that sits elevated about the camp; this explains why all of the camps are necessarily situated in close proximity to permanent streams. The combination of gravity and all of that water pressure are enough to supply camps with “running water.” This in turn means that we can flush toilets, wash dishes in the sink, and even take showers (I’ve already taken more showers in the field than I have during at least one recent year of my life… Sad but true.).

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Camp free time activities include such riveting extra-curriculars as “cleaning.” Here, my mateiro, Jairo, gets to work clearing camp of debris from a old treefall that nearly crushed the above “bedroom” structure.

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This is about as exciting as life gets in a field camp. This bonfire is the final step of all that camp cleaning…but things took a turn for the worse during the night as the fires filled the camp with smoke and had to be monitored almost continuously (lest the camp or the forest, for that matter, catch fire). Needless to say, neither of us slept well that night.

Our refrigeration system, if you can even call it that, is a bit suspect: a large polystyrene cooler filled with a giant bag of ice (that has surprising stamina in the relentless Amazonian heat). We’ve only run out of cooling capacities once – not too shabby, all things considered. On the other hand, my own internal cooling system has undergone routine and systematic failures, but this is a whole ‘nother story. Wash has to be done by hand, which means that not a single article of my clothing has seen a washing machine for >6 months. But I’ve got to admit, in a somewhat smug, self-satisfied way, that I don’t think my clothes have overly suffered from this lack of proper hygiene. Some even appear, dare I say it: “clean.” But perhaps I, of all people, cannot really say whether something actually smells “fresh” or not.

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I’ve already registered a solid 100 nights in this here hammock, which is complete with a built-in mosquito net. Most likely, I have >100 more nights to go!

Since arriving in Brazil in June, the only real bed I’ve slept in was on a boat for a handful of oh-so-sweet nights, which I’m not entirely sure qualifies as a “real” bed. Comparatively, I’ve now spent exactly 100 nights sleeping in a hammock; although this may at first sound like tropical relaxation at its quintessence, it does lose what luster it once (may have) had, especially when you find yourself sardined between a bunch of other cocoons housing snorers or light sleepers. The morning alarm rolls around way-too-early – especially for a non-morning person like myself – sometime between 3:30 and 4:45 a.m. Man, it sucks when 4:45 qualifies as “sleeping in.” I’ve even gotten into this nasty habit of naturally waking up at this time during weekends in the city; my previous self would have thought this unspeakable. But then, when you utterly run out of things to do by 7:00 or 7:30 p.m., about an hour after it has gotten dark, you find that you’ve passed the midpoint of your night’s sleep sometime before midnight. I’ve even woken up to use the bathroom “during the middle of the night,” only to discover it was 9:45 p.m.! Wow is that disappointing.

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Everything just seems a bit more impressive in the tropics, with both smaller and larger extremes of what we’ve become accustomed to. Here’s a particularly large cockroach, although these aren’t the guys that eat/soil our food or set up shop in our dish-rack.

We are, however, not the only animals that frequent our campsites. I’ve awoken in the night and nearly stepped on a snake ten feet from my hammock and unwittingly crushed lines of termites (which then angrily embed themselves into your foot or flip-flop) – both providing an unwanted burst of nighttime adrenaline. Diurnal lines of termites meander across the floor of our wooden structures, which must primarily be constructed of wood originally from the 80’s; this in itself is rather disconcerting. A camp comedy bit could begin with “You know it’s the dry season when…” Such answers include discovering a pair of frogs having sex in the toilet tank, flushing the toilet only to find frog eggs streaming out with the “clean” water, or having a frog staring up at you longingly from its small pond at the bottom of the bowl (all of which have happened on separate occasions). From what I gather, that timeless classic of a ‘frog in the toilet bowl’ has historically produced a bit more camp drama, when, for instance, someone unknowingly seals the frog’s exit during an otherwise routine nocturnal rest stop! I’ll leave the rest to your imagination… And although I continue to sleep through it, my mateiro (field assistant) has heard the early morning grunts of a jaguar roaming in the vicinity of our camps. I have, however, seen alligators in both of our puny camp streams, which are narrow enough at places that I can easily leap across. I had initially assumed this must surely be a misunderstanding, but one of our friendly camp gators is at least four feet long!

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Here’s one of our friendly camp alligators, although this is a rather small example (here seen parked right next to where we pull water for drinking). There is just something unsettling about the idea of alligators inhabiting small forest streams.

Anything that you do repeatedly and for long enough can, rather quickly, become the new normal and life in a Amazonian field camp is no different. What felt so commonplace only a few short days ago, suddenly seems rather extreme as I sit here at my wintry home in Pennsylvania (more than 3000 miles (5000 km) away) wearing jeans and a sweatshirt (more than a week since my last good sweat!), eating normal home-cooked food, and sleeping on a comfortable mattress in a private, furnished bedroom. But with seven months of fieldwork still to go, I best not get too comfortable…