I wake up and walk to Adolfo’s house. We begin sampling soil and vegetation in our restoration experiment comparing restoration inspired by the traditional ecological knowledge expressed in the Lacandon agroforestry system to government-managed restoration and a control (passive restoration; no active management). Sampling is a laborious process. Adolfo and I can power through about 5 plots in a day, which means that we will have to work for 3 days to finish the soil sampling alone. The vegetation sampling should go a bit faster…hopefully. We work through the heat of the day. Adolfo quickly sweats through his shirt and is covered in a patina of soil specks and seeds. Entering the plots is difficult enough. The vegetation has regrown rapidly in only 2 years. The saying goes that you can stick an umbrella in the ground and expect it to grow into a tree if you return next year. We try to minimize the disturbance to the plot, but quite frankly, it would be impossible to move through the underbrush without the aid of Adolfo’s hacking machete. Thorns rip at my shirt. Once they slice through that, only my skin remains. Finding the sampling points adds another layer of difficulty. Adolfo and I established 4 points, marked with quarter inch PVC pipe stuck into the ground, which allow us to take repeated measurements in the same sites year after year. However the regrowth quickly swallows them up and it becomes a game of find the needle in the 20×30 meter thicket.
It’s worth mentioning that rainforest and jungle, though synonymous in common parlance, are actually distinct ecosystem types. Walking through rainforest is actually quite easy. The dense, multi-strata canopy shades out much of the undergrowth. Early explorers noted the cathedral-like feeling they had walking through the dark understory amidst giant columnar trees holding up the vaulted ceiling. Jungle, however, is disturbed rainforest regrowth. It is a jumble of plants all trying to out-compete the others, creating an impenetrable green wall. If intact rainforest is a cathedral, jungle is a bar fight.
Amazingly, Adolfo seems to remember where nearly all the points are. Finding some requires the assistance of the GPS, but we manage to find all of them. Transporting the equipment to the sample site is also difficult. The most cumbersome piece of equipment is a 1x1m square with a grid of string at 10cm intervals. This net is a sampling quadrat, which allows us to estimate the percentage of ground cover occupied by plants, soil, and organic matter. A nice idea, but not entirely pragmatic in this ecosystem given that the cord gets snagged on every vine and twig en route. I pull it like a reticent donkey toward the sample point and toss it on the ground. All that cursing and effort for a single metric. Then I bring the soil corer, the root penetrometer, and the soil sampling bags. Repeat 4 times per plot, 15 plots in total.
The mosquitoes make it even worse. The Spaniards didn’t want anything to do with the Lacandon rainforest. It was a hot, muggy place that didn’t have any gold, nor could its soils support their agriculture. I am sure the bugs also had something to do with their decision to get the hell out of Dodge. They swarm every part of my body, probing desperately for a blood meal. They are one amongst many. Biting flies also buzz around, greedily rubbing their hands together before taking a bite. Gnats chomp down ravenously on any exposed flesh. The ants also bite, though they to defend themselves rather than for a blood meal. This difference in intent makes little difference to the recipient, however. I slap my thigh. My palm is covered in blood. Five mosquitoes stick to my pant leg. Five more take their place. It is a lesson in futility. At a certain point you are resigned to your fate and you don’t bother swatting any more. The energy that is wasted in slapping or shooing is more than the discomfort that comes either way. Rather than relief, your sole focus becomes revenge. You take your blood meal. I will take your life. It is a war of attrition. You wait patiently, letting them drink their fill until you can move your hand and…slap! One down….99 bottles…There is no end. You can only look forward to a return to the cabins where there are fewer (but not an insignificant number of) insects so that you can scratch your welts until they bleed. The biting insects are bad enough as I move around doing sampling. They are torturous when I need to stand in one place to conduct a bird point count. My hands are completely covered in red bites that ooze with pus. It takes all my discipline to not rip at them with my fingernails. My legs are no better, because my thick pants cannot stop their piercing proboscis. Adolfo has an interesting manner of dealing with biting flies. He grabs them as they settle in for a bite and carefully plucks each leg off, one by one, and lets the fly go. It is left to live out the rest of its short life but unable to land or bother anyone else. It’s a fine line between justice and torture.
Given the prodigious number of biting insects one can encounter in the rainforest and my intimate experiences with them, here is a brief guide to what one can expect:
- Mosquitoes: Everyone’s favorite. Exceedingly common. Expect swarms of hundreds and nearly an equal number of bites. Any exposed flesh will be covered in red dots, which recede after a few days. Itchiness is rather ephemeral, fortunately; probably because their proboscis are actually fairly sharp and puncture the skin rather than tear it.
- Chiggers: I feel your pain. Having had them twice, I can say that these are the worst in terms of itchiness. They generally bite in large numbers near the armpits, waistline, and behind legs. If you suddenly develop a belt of red itchy dots, you stumbled upon a chigger infestation. Fortunately, their mouth parts are pretty weak and contrary to popular belief, they do not burrow into your skin, so one can remove them by washing. Unfortunately, their bites will itch terribly for at least a week and the welts will not subside for two.
- Flies: Painful. The bigger, the badder. These guys lack the surgical proboscis of mosquitoes. Instead, they literally bite you, removing a chunk of flesh. Fortunately, they tend not to itch, but they do become very red and hurt tremendously mid-bite. The bot fly deserves special mention. This insect injects its eggs into your flesh. The larvae hatch and develop in a cavity in your flesh until they are ready to metamorphosis into a fly of its own. I have never yet had the pleasure of being a host of a bot fly larvae, but if I did, I would name him Bartolo. He would be my son. I would show him the world…
- No see ‘ums: Tend to bite and lap up the blood that pools at the surface of the skin, leaving a pale raised bump and a dot of dried blood at the center. They get their name from the fact that they are so tiny, which makes the painfulness of their initial bite and the itchiness afterwards all the more surprising.
- Ants: Come in all shapes and sizes. Voracious when on the hunt. Their bites are made all the worse by the fact that they generally come in groups because you’ve disturbed a colony. Don’t be disturbed if you see a naked person furiously in the jungle slapping themselves in the nuts. This unfortunate soul is not insane. He has stumbled upon an ant colony, which have decided to defend themselves by invading the individuals’ nether regions. I’ve been there. Once they’re in your clothes, you have to pull them off by hand, as scratching or hitting yourself will not halt their wrathful advance. On this trip, I was able to maintain some propriety, but I still felt their bite. This one was different. It was as though somebody punctured my calf with a hot needle. I am not exaggerating when I say that I almost collapsed as the pain spread throughout my leg. I clutched at my pants and rolled them up, exposing a large black ant clutching at my skin, a red welt forming instantaneously. I ripped off the body, but his head remained affixed, so I pried that off separately. The pain subsided a few minutes later and was replaced with a tingling numbness, which only subsided fully several days after the bite.
- Caterpillars: These don’t bite, but can still cause great discomfort. The fuzzy ones leave little spiny urticating hairs if you brush up against them, which can cause redness and significant swelling for days.
I hate the concept of dehydration. I can almost personally guarantee that you are not dehydrated if you work in an air conditioned office building. However, I can attest to the fact that it can be a real problem. Sweat dripped from the tip of my nose and blotched the sampling forms. My back was soaked and my shirt stuck to my skin, allowing the mosquitoes almost direct access to the flesh thereunder. My piss was a brilliant pumpkin orange despite downing two liters. I stumbled around and my pace slowed. I tried joking to Adolfo, but the words didn’t make sense. I had the umbles (stumble, mumble, grumble). Fortunately, we only had one more plot to sample. I needed to suck it up (can one suck up dehydration?) for one more hour. Unfortunately, the last plot was the milpa and the sun was just past its zenith. The rows of corn did little to help shade me.
This was my life for three days. I woke up at 6, was in the field by 7, and worked until about 6pm. The one respite was the swimming hole. The cool waters were like the balm of Gilead for my itchy legs and sweat salt-encrusted arms. I washed the dirt and leaf litter out of my hair and soaked to cool my baking body. Add in a cold beer after a hard day of work and it was almost all worth it. It was enough to make me weep to think that I had to wake up and do it all again tomorrow. But then I reminded myself of how fleeing this moment is. I may curse the bugs, the heat, and the hard work, but I will yearn for it come December.