Peru 2011

Monday, June 13, 2011

No Stinger, No Problem

During our second full day out at the CICRA research station in the rain forest, a few of us went out with Caroline and Dan, her colleague in her research in Amazonia Peru, to the area where they collect data.  Dan walked Joe, Tom, and Caroline, and I around the plot, showing us what has happened since Caroline’s last visit. Dan told us about the various insects he has spotted within the 1 Hectare plot (100 meters by 100 meters).  While doing this, he showed us a hive of Africanized bees (killer bees), different wasp nests, and an enormous bee hive, about 3 feet long by 2 feet tall, with some strange black bees Dan later tells us are from the genus Melipona.  Little did I know that this hive will give me one of the most memorable moments of the trip.

According to Dan, the Hymenopotera (wasps, bees, and ants) guy in our KU group, the bees were stingless so they couldn’t sting us.  I later asked him as to why nature would evolve to lose its defense against predators.  His respose, “I have no idea, it makes no sense to me.”  Naturally we weren’t worried about the nest as much as we should have been.  Next, Caroline became interested with the bees, and started to walk toward the hive.  She announced to us that the bees were all flying around outside of the hive.  I thought to myself that if she isn’t worried I should have no reason to worry as well. I guess Joe and Tom had the same mindset as me.  All of a sudden I felt a pinch followed by another and another.  Only then was it when I saw that we were under attack.

Apparently Dan forgot to mention that even though the bees can’t sting, they still have a form of defense against threats.  They bite.  They bite a lot.  So for the next 10 minutes we were all dealing with little black bees clinging to our skin and clothes biting.  Arms, face, neck, scalp, hands: they were all bitten.  It was comical after the initial shock of the attack, watching the bees that clung to our clothes, and watching everyone else deal with the same problem as me.  The whole situation instantly became hilarious when we realized we were picking bugs out of each other’s hair and off of each other’s backs.  According to Dan’s thinking the bees were just mad because they can’t sting so instead they bite like banshees.

Ever since, I’ve been sure to keep an eye out for all hives from any species.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Gear

One of the things that I forget when getting ready for an expedition is how much I have learned about field research in the past and how much there is to learn if you are new to fieldwork. I'm not just speaking of learning field collection methods or processing insects in our field lab station. When you are going on your first expedition experience, you don't know what gear to bring. What will the weather be like? What shoes are best in the muggy Amazon rain forest? What socks should you bring? What will best carry it all from Kansas to Lima to the field station and back? It is a charming reminder how much we learn from our first expedition even before we walk a trail. These are but a few of the things we are going over in weekly pre-departure meetings.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Monkey Puzzle

We were standing at the top of what looked like a pyramid made of mud blocks, about thirty meters tall, which had a broad, dusty plateau at the top. The half pyramid was located rather incongruously in a wealthy residential district, rather like a dung beetle caught napping in a lingerie drawer. Our tour guide had told us that at the turn of the century, there had been more than two hundred such mounds in Lima, and now fewer than one hundred remained. They had been used as a means of communication with other pyramids – which loomed over the desert landscape -- and religious worship. From our vantage point, we could see sky scrapers, banks, private condos, and (another incongruity) lines of drying laundry. I pointed out a strange looking tree, asking no one in particular what it was. The guide answered that it was a monkey puzzle tree. I thought it was an apt name: the branches were arranged like spokes around a central axis, each frond positioned for optimal sunlight. As I stood looking at the trees, I thought about how odd they looked, and I reached for my sketchbook to whip out a quick drawing before we had to leave. Then one of the biology people on the trip asked the scientific questions: what climate did the tree flourish in? What organisms relied on it? Was it a native plant? At that point, I had a miniature epiphany.

Even though the other student and I were looking at the same object, our different disciplines and interests lead us to have very different experiences with the same tree. We occupied the same world, but that world had a doubleness to it -- they would see the tree as an organism, as part of the complex web of life, as a thing that functions in a certain way to achieve a certain end. On the other hand, as the self-described “art person,” I saw the tree for its appearance – for the shapes and colors and how it was set against the white background of the buildings. As a “literature person,” I saw the tree for what it represented: a symbol of the life that thrives despite pollution, despite being choked by cramped alley ways and concrete and refuse. A thing of beauty tucked into an ugly world, subject to the same hardships as the inhabitants of Lima.

I began thinking about how the scientific mind observes the world in contrast with the humanistic mind. If one sees the world in terms of function and metrics and the physical, and the other sees the world as a complex arrangement symbols and truths that humans create, then what can form a bridge between the two?

The study abroad trip itself provided the answer: communication is the bridge. Though we see the world with two different lenses, we experience the same world. We´re able to touch the leaves and examine the trunk and take photos. We talk about what we see and feel and reaffirm the oneness of physical place.

This may seem like an incredibly obvious point to some of the readers, but others may understand the difficulty I´ve faced in trying to reconcile the aims of science and art. Like many others across the countryside, our university is reassessing how and where it allocates funds. Each discipline feels it must defend itself against budget cuts; unfortunately, the result is often that one discipline tries to downplay the usefulness of the “other” to emphasize its own value.

This is lamentable, in my opinion. We need a variety of voices and perspectives to tackle our problems. As one of the faculty members on this trip said to us many weeks ago (I remember it because I thought it was such an insightful phrasing of the issue), “Science and art are complimentary and equally valid ways of investigating our world.” The monkey puzzle tree is a sadly one-dimensional creature when I look at it from a single perspective – artistic or otherwise.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Form and Function

Lima museum

Lima pyramid

Our trip to Lima went swimmingly, and we arrived at our hostel around midnight last night. We awoke this morning to the call of an unfamiliar bird, chirping and whooping despite bus and car traffic, singing as we ate breakfast in our hostel’s courtyard.

The group’s first visit was to one of over 200 of Lima’s earthen mounds from the 5th or 6th century, most of which have since been destroyed. It was an island of history among the bustle of the city – an appropriate segue from pastoral Kansas.

Our guide’s name is Luis Villacorta, a savvy man with a ready smile. “People have always used mountains to meet God,” he said, pushing his palms together as we stood at the top of the dusty mound, surrounded by skyrise, all of which were taller than the mound. He was talking about the significance of the mound, which had muddily eroded away over time, though only slightly because of Lima’s arid climate. The Andes create a rain shadow over Lima. It almost never rains here.

Lima

Luis then took us to the National Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in which we received a crash course in Peruvian prehistory. But our next stop, Museo Larco, stole today’s show.

Vines and flowers covered the museum’s bright white walls, creating an idyllic environment. It had an extensive garden within. The museum’s collections were strong in pottery and metalworking, and much of the jewelry and figurines within were stunning. “When people died, they wanted to become animals,” said Luis, explaining the designs on gold and silver necklaces made by the Incas. They had images of jaguars, alligators, and countless other animals. “Only after the Spanish arrived did the art show humans dominating animals,” he continued, and my mind immediately went to one of the chief purposes of our trip – to collect and document insects for the purposes of research. We’ll be leaving for the field station on the 7th.

Quipus

Our research will help document an ecosystem that may not last much longer. Peru plans to build (and has already started building) the Trans-Oceanic Highway through the rainforest, imperiling biodiversity like nothing before. A paradox that describes our world: researchers racing to document biodiversity that may soon disappear because of the intractable advance of industry, and yes, science.

An item in the Museo Larco sparked a small conversation about the relationship of art and science, a relationship that this interdisciplinary team has been challenged to confront. The item was a quipu, a kind of abacus made of threads and knots used by the Incas. When laid out, they are beautiful, and not completely unlike a phylogenetic tree. It is interesting how beautiful forms can spring, unintended, from systems designed primarily for function. And the other way around.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Gear

One of the things that I forget when getting ready for an expedition is how much I have learned about field research in the past and how much there is to learn if you are new to fieldwork. I'm not just speaking of learning field collection methods or processing insects in our field lab station. When you are going on your first expedition experience, you don't know what gear to bring. What will the weather be like? What shoes are best in the muggy Amazon rain forest? What socks should you bring? What will best carry it all from Kansas to Lima to the field station and back? It is a charming reminder how much we learn from our first expedition even before we walk a trail. These are but a few of the things we are going over in weekly pre-departure meetings.