Saturday, March 30, 2013

Time travel


I woke early.  I packed the tent and readied my pack in darkness.  Breakfast was at 0500.  Leftover ravitoto from the night before—hand ground manioc leaves and rice.  The gear to be carried by porters was laid out in a line in the central plaza—about 15 sacks and baskets and bundles, and the chicken cage.  The chief read the porters’ names one by one from a sheet of paper.  When a person was called he came forward and picked up the next bundle in the row.  Other villagers gathered around to watch and laugh when someone got stuck with a particularly awkward load.  The porters waited to see who would get stuck with the chickens.  Eventually the chickens were up, and the chief called a young teenage boy.  Everyone laughed, including him, as he walked over and tried to work out the best way to carry them.
“No one ever wants the chickens,” Brian laughed.
We also bought a pig in the village.  Two porters carried it hanging by its feet from a pole.
Around 0530 we started our hike up to the nearby Galoka Massif.  We descended the village mound into the surrounding rice paddies and marshes.  Ten minutes into the walk, as I waded through a pasture flooded shin deep, word passed from the rear that the boy with the chickens was delayed.  The cage had broken open and the chickens run off.  We laughed and continued on.
The path alternated between water and sand, occasionally transitioning to packed red clay as it rose to cross mounds and ridges covered in swidden agriculture.  About an hour out we stopped at a small mound with two huts surrounded by a rice paddy.  This farmhouse was the last outpost before our ascent.  Between us and the foot of the Galoka chain to the east lay only a few hundred meters of flooded paddy.
We waded through the paddy and across a mud-walled irrigation ditch, crossed a slow sandy river, and began our ascent up the side of the nearest ridge.  It was planted mostly in banana, and parts of it had been burned to clear the undergrowth.  The path became steep and zigzagged up the slope among the bananas and soot.  At the top we turned to the left and followed the ridge line toward the peak, entering denser swidden agriculture with more species and the occasional saw-toothed Pandanus.  A mud-walled aqueduct carried a fast stream of water around the side of the mountain and down to the paddies below.  We turned into it and waded upstream a few hundred meters, following it as it curved around the side of the mountain.  When we reached another ridge we broke off to the right and crossed a grassy expanse of recently cleared and burned forest.
Earthen aqueducts guide water through dense swidden agriculture down to the paddies below.
In our ascent from the rice paddy at the last farmhouse to this grassy area and beyond to the forest on Galoka, we traveled backwards in time.  We were seeing firsthand the dynamic nature of human land use.  By hiking from the lowlands with total conversion to human use—farmhouses, villages and swidden crops on the high ground, pastures and rice in the lowlands—up to the old growth forest on the summit, we passed in reverse through the stages of land conversion from natural to human use.  Like all land between Galoka and the Mozambique Channel, the path of our march was once all forest, and was at various times converted to agriculture.  Tavy, the local term for slash and burn swidden agriculture, involves the clearing of forest by cutting and burning, followed by planting a mixture of crops.  Older fields are maintained by crop rotation, natural succession and burning.  I have described the end product—a network of villages surrounded by patches of cropland in various stages of succession and rotation.  The grassy area we walked through now was in an early stage of the process—forest cleared and stumps burned away, but new crops not yet grown.

A light green fuzz of swidden agriculture covers the ridges and valleys westward to the Mozambique Channel.
We crossed the grassy area and ascended another ridge—this one covered in stumps and fallen trunks.  This was an even earlier stage of tavy.  The forest had been cut, and burned at least once, but too much wood remained for planting.  We picked our way among the fire blackened stumps and over the logs, following the ridgeline up toward the peak.  Galoka’s steep peak covered in dark green old growth loomed ahead.  Behind us the vista showed mile after mile of ridges and lowlands covered in agriculture and villages, and the dark narrow spine of the Galoka-Kalabenono chain extended southward to our right.  A dark green ribbon of old growth ran along the top of the mountains.  But patches of light green tavy reached up the sides of the mountain chain like fingers, and occasionally even crossed the ridge top, fragmenting the once continuous belt of forest into discrete blocks.
Tavy climbs higher every year.  When a clearing crests the divide, it cuts the belt of forest into small patches.
At the top of the ridge line we rested on the edge of the forest at a thatch hut used by field workers.  We rested an hour while Brian scouted ahead for a good campsite within the old growth.  When we started again we ascended the slope through a forest filled with cut trees.  This was the earliest stage of tavy—trees were being felled, but there were still some standing and the plot was not yet ready for burning.  We wound our way up and around the mountainside to a steep bouldery creek flowing through open tavy.  At the creek we turned and headed straight up, climbing the rocks and small waterfalls.  Soon we crossed the hard border between the open sunny tavy and the dense dark old growth—an ominous wall where tall straight trees of the ancient forest towered over a hot grassy field.
Different stages of land conversion reveal a landscape's history.  Older light green tavy with tall crop plants like bananas, palms and coffee, covers the lower slopes.  The middle slopes have recently been cleared but do not yet contain crops.  Stark borders of tall trees mark the edges of dark green virgin forest on the steepest and highest slopes.
We set up camp 50 m or so in from the edge.  Sun streamed in from the west past the ancient trunks—a rare sight indeed in a tropical rainforest, normally the darkest above ground habitat on Earth.  A giant sandstone boulder overlooked our camp.  Its overhang formed a shelter where we tied the chickens and pig.  We set up our tents and the porters left, except the three we hired as cooks.  We arranged a kitchen/lab area covered by a tarp, and set to work collecting leaf litter for our Winkler traps. Winklers are hanging devices that use gravity to draw litter arthropods into containers of alcohol.  They have to run for 48 hours or so, so it pays to get them loaded early.  A torrential rain soaked us as we worked.  At 1700, after the rain broke, we officially marked our entry into the forest.
Finding a place to pitch a tent was difficult in the steep rocky forest.  I fit my tent into this little spot.
One supply I failed to mention was a small bottle of rum, which Brian now produced.  In Madagascar it is customary to initiate a stay in a forest with a Fomba.  Although the details of the ceremony vary, it generally involves crouching and looking at the ground at the base of a tree, and praying to the ancestors, acknowledging that you are entering the forest and expressing gratitude for the things you will take.  Our cooks chose the time and place and one performed the ceremony.  We concluded by passing around a small cup of rum.  Our time travel was complete.  We had arrived in the virgin forest of Galoka.

Friday, March 22, 2013

New guy

I last left you in Tana at the start of our trip.  Let me introduce the expedition members and our mission.  Brian was expedition leader.  Christian, a regular member of these trips, was a fellow researcher.  Then there were Brian’s three permanent team members—J.J., Chrislain and Clive.  Later we picked up a 7th member, Fidel, another of Brian’s long time local contacts.  Brian aimed to explore an unprotected fragment of primary forest in the Sambirano region of northwest Madagascar, as part of his effort to document what animal species live in the country and where.  An urgent task, as the fragment is being cleared for farmland.  Into this experienced and close knit group of people with a serious mission I tried to integrate myself—a clumsy young kid, new to Madagascar who spoke neither Malagasy nor French (at least not well), and who knew none of the group rituals or routines.

Being the new guy on the team is never easy, but I’ve dealt with these things before.  On my second tour in Iraq in 2007 I was assigned as a linguist to a five man team.  The other guys were from the same unit, had trained together, suffered together, and knew their vehicle and gear as well as each other’s eccentricities.  I was from a different unit altogether, hadn’t known any of the guys before, and didn’t know the vehicle or the gear…  What I did have was experience in Iraq and a rare ability to speak Arabic.  Though I like to think I was useful, at first I felt unable to do anything right and it took several weeks to gain real acceptance.

Similarly, I felt out of place at first in Madagascar.  The camp languages were French and Malagasy, and I was the only person who didn’t speak at least one of those fluently.  Most tasks were completed with little or no communication anyway, it being unnecessary after years of work together.  So things would happen around me while I struggled merely to understand.  I was often baffled as the camp pace would switch from waiting to rapid action in an instant, leaving me scrambling to catch up.  But everyone tried to include me and made devoted attempts at communication.  Out of place though I was, I felt welcome.

Call me strange, but this is the sort of challenge I relish.  Opportunities for this kind of self-improvement don’t happy every day.  I threw myself into the task of re-learning French, and a few Malagasy phrases as well.  I found myself understanding more and more of the camp dialogue as the trip progressed.  By the time I left Madagascar I was doing all my daily transactions and conversations in French, much to my surprise and satisfaction.

We left Tana and I spent a couple days bouncing across hundreds of kilometers of hot dusty farmland in the back of our truck.  On the second day we stopped in Ambanja to buy supplies.  The Malagasies split up and scoured the market, telling me to pretend I didn’t know them.  If local vendors found out they were buying supplies for foreigners, prices would skyrocket.  So I explored the marketplace until they came back with a couple weeks’ worth of food—endless piles of rice, small branches with dangling red chilis, bananas and avocados, sacks of carrots and potatoes, cucumbers, beans, dried shrimp and fish, salted beef, and a mesh cage of ten live chickens.

The four of us in the back had a cramped and bumpy time of our two days' driving.

We loaded the food and chickens on the roof and drove on.  We pulled the truck into a small roadside village, and our real adventure began.  Brian and J.J. negotiated with the chief, a small shop owner, for porters to carry our food and gear 7 km to the next village inland.  Leaving the truck in care of the villagers, we set off on foot through rice paddies, flooded pastures and swidden agriculture.  I take pride in never falling out of a hump, and I kept up today, but some of the porters put me to shame.  A teenage girl, barefoot with a skirt, and balancing a 45 lb basket on her head with no hands, kept pace with me, a 28 year old former Marine with boots and a nice pack.  As if I hadn’t been humbled enough already…



I spent most of our first hike walking behind J.J. to pace myself.

After a couple hours we arrived at the final village.  A red clay path led up out of a marsh onto a high mound with several hundred wood and thatch huts.  We dropped our gear in the central plaza—a packed clay plot surrounded by huts, a small wooden schoolhouse, and slopes planted in bamboo, bananas and other crops.  I poured the sand from my wet boots and rinsed off in a shallow creek at the base of the village mound.  As a villager cooked us dinner from our stocks, and Brian and J.J. negotiated porters, guides, cooks and access to the forest, I set up my tent in the plaza.


The villagers kindly let us pitch our tents in the central plaza, in preparation for our hike to the mountains in the background.


It was a rough beginning—a new team, strange languages, new sights and smells, endless hours of winding roads, and a dehydrated hike in the equatorial sun through marshes and farmland.  But my tent was familiar.  It had been with me in many countries and I’d lived in it for days on end.  After all that was new and challenging, setting up my tent was welcome routine.  Finally, here was something I knew how to do, something I could do correctly and quickly.  Setting up my tent was my Arabic.  After dinner in the schoolhouse, I settled down to sleep with my tent door open.  It was thundering and raining lightly.  Flocks of children approached and peered in to watch me sleep.  Occasionally they’d giggle.  I’d like to think they laughed because they'd never seen a bearded white man, and not just because I’m funny with my shirt off, but who am I kidding?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Intro to Madagascar


I should explain.  In February I went on a research trip to Madagascar.  I had been invited to join one of Dr. Brian Fisher's legendary expeditions—a rare and valuable opportunity.  My main goal was to observe Brian, to learn how he does his exploration and conservation work.  International conservation is my intended career, and this would be a chance to get informal training from one of the field’s great explorers.  Also joining the expedition would be Dr. Christian Peeters, a world expert on queen biology—the subject of some of my current work.  At the same time, I would conduct my own graduate research.  All in all a promising adventure.  I spent a month in the country and prepared in the field a series of notes, which I will post here as if they happen in real time.

Isolated from all other landmasses, Madagascar is either a large island or a small continent, depending on which arbitrary definition you use.  Because of this isolation, most species found naturally on Madagascar live nowhere else on earth, including every lemur species.  The first humans to reach Madagascar came from Indonesia around 2,000 years ago, followed by East Africans, Arab traders, and Europeans.  The mind blowing result is a population only 500 miles from Africa, but speaking an Austronesian language like Hawaiians or Easter Islanders over 10,000 miles to the East.  Since that first human occupation, almost all Madagascar’s natural vegetation has been converted to agricultural land, with its surviving species now restricted to small isolated fragments.  High species diversity and endemism coupled with extreme habitat loss qualify Madagascar as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.  These contrasts—African and Asian cultures, massive deforestation with pockets of rich and unique wildlife—make Madagascar a challenging, puzzling and endlessly rewarding place to visit.

How could I resist the opportunity to do some exploring of my own before the expedition proper?  I had but one initial mission—get to the Madagascar Biodiversity Center in Antananarivo to meet up with the rest of the team.  But I arrived a few days early and immediately headed away from the capital, to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park.  This wasn’t a particularly difficult trip—the real adventures come later—but served as an introduction to some of Madagascar’s fascinating natural heritage.

I found two guys, Nest and Julian, willing to drive me the 3 hours to the park, and pick me up a few days later.  A local guide named Solo spent a few days with me exploring the two mid-altitude rainforest fragments that comprise Andasibe-Mantadia.  Here are just a few of the Malagasy specialties I got to experience in those first days in the country.


The male giraffe-necked Weevil, Trachelophorus giraffa, uses his amazing “neck” to roll Dichaetanthera cordifolia leaves into nests for the female to lay eggs.


Mournful calls of the Indri, Indri indri, fill the air every morning in the forest at Andasibe, and contribute to a somewhat haunting atmosphere.



Parson’s chameleon, Calumma parsonii, is a contender for the title of world’s largest chameleon.


Mantellas like this Mantella madagascariensis are a family of brightly colored toxic frogs endemic to Madagascar.


Malagasy rainforests are filled with many brightly colored species of giant millipedes that forage in the leaf litter.

After several days acquainting myself with Malagasy wildlife I returned to Tana, prepared for the real adventures to come.  Do you know that feeling you get when you arrive in a place with human life, where it is obvious that people actually LIVE here?  It’s a feeling I rarely have in US cities, with some exceptions.  Life is everywhere in Tana.  The city is a dense network of hills with vertical rock faces and low lying rice paddies and marshes, stitched together with steep messy cobbled brick and stone roads.  Open spaces are packed with pedestrians, who pick their way among the stones and puddles and sewers, and slowly meander out of the way of decades old Peugeots and Renaults.  Human- and ox-drawn carts creak by on wobbly wooden wheels, loaded with bundles of fuel wood or sacks of food.  Occasionally a bright new Japanese pickup truck or Hummer, belonging to Tana’s rich, pushes its way through the masses.  Dead animals hang from butcher windows, and fruit and vegetable stands cluster in side alleys.  Everywhere street vendors peddle mofo (fried snacks), or packages of biscuits and bottled water.  Such scenes can be overwhelming and even terrifying to someone from the US who encounters a living city for the first time.  But I feel a sense of comfort when visiting a place like this after a time in the sterile US.  It almost feels like a homecoming.

Armed with vague directions to the Madagascar Biodiversity Center, I found my way to the Parc Botanique et Zoologique in the neighborhood of Tsimbizaza.  A park guard escorted me through the rather sad zoo, past small concrete and wire cages occupied by birds and a crocodile, around a lake filled with roosting great egrets and black-crowned night herons, to a roundabout back entrance to Brian’s MBC compound.  I walked straight toward a brick wall, where at the last minute a narrow weedy trail through a garden opened up to the left behind a tree.  I turned onto the trail and followed it, with a tall fence to my right and a steep slope down to my left, around a wall to a metal gate.  There I was greeted with a smile of recognition by J.J. (pronounced Zhee-Zhee; they also speak French here, after all), who interrupted his washing of a big white Land Cruiser to come shake my hand.  J.J. is one of the Malagasy team members whom I had met in Uganda in 2012, the same place I met most of the other expedition members.  Brian and Christian were not to arrive from Europe until the following night.

As I went to my room on the top floor and looked out at the compound from the balcony, a familiar but long-forgotten sensation crept over me.  It took a while to recognize.  The Malagasy team members—J.J., Chrislain and Clive—busied themselves cleaning the truck and arranging and packing gear.  Equipment was laid out and inspected, machetes counted, supplies put in rice sacks and weighed, spare tires and other gear strapped to our truck.  A busy hum of preparation and expectation permeated the compound.  This was no lab or scientific institution.  It couldn’t be.  This was a barracks or a motor pool or one of any characterless concrete squad bays found on any Marine base right before a deployment.  For my first time in science I was part of a pre-deployment work up, something I didn’t know was possible.  The expedition had begun.