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Return to the Rainforest (Part 3)

Red Poison Dart Frog
Red Poison Dart Frog

The flora and fauna is definitely interesting and pulls me away from the work we are doing here. And we are working – I promise!

And what exactly is the work we are doing?

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Soil Samples from field sites.

In a nutshell our team of 3 science teachers (Alex Melendez, Marty Buehler, Jaime Miriam), 2 scientists (Ann Russell, John Moore) one lab manager (Greg Selby), and myself are here to learn about the soil food web.

This means riding bicycles through the forest to research plots that have existed for years and have been used by Dr. Ann Russell of Iowa State University.  Soil samples are taken at these plots and brought back to the lab.

 

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Marty preps soil samples.

A few days of sample preparation is done and then there are a few days of wait time for the soil fauna to be extracted, using different techniques. We then look at what has been extracted under a microscope and can determine what lives there.  We are looking specifically at Arthropods, Protozoa, Bacteria, and Fungi.

Flor sets up the Berlese Funnels for arthropod extraction.
Flor sets up the Berlese Funnels for arthropod extraction.

For those familiar with my Ten Days On The Tundra blog a couple of years back, this is an extension of that project.  Once we have data collected in the rainforest, we will have this information from the tropics, shortgrass steppe, and arctic tundra.

 

For more photos, see below!

 

 

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Arthropods have been extracted and are ready to be looked at under the microscope.

Set up complete for Protozoa extraction!
Set up complete for Protozoa extraction!

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Creating the nematode extraction slides.

Alex reads arthropod samples.
Alex reads arthropod samples.

Return to the Rainforest (Part 2)

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A Brown Throated Three-toed Sloth stretches out to bathe in the rain

It is the rainy season in Costa Rica, there is no mistaking that!  Each morning I wake up to rainfall.  Or so I thought…I have discovered that what I am actually hearing is the water on the leaves from the night’s rain storms, dripping to the ground. But then it rains again by 7:00am.

Rainforest leaves are generally large, with pointy tips where a water drop rolls down the leaf to the tip and then drips off. When there is a heavy downpour, I run for cover beneath a tree because the number of drops that will hit me is significantly fewer than if I were out in the open. Hooray for large leaves!

It rains nearly all day and all night.  There are different intensities of rain, from a mere mist to a sprinkle, to a steady stream, to heavy downpours and everything in between.  When it rains, you experience all intensities, in a seemingly random order. Often there is a lot of thunder and lightening.

Sarapiqui River - high water
Sarapiqui River – high water

The Sarapiqui River next to my cabina rises and falls depending on where the rain has fallen (upstream or at La Selva). In a 10 hour period, the river rose a good 8 feet, but about 12 hours later it was back down where it had previously been. Flash flooding is not to be taken lightly here!

Pools of water form above ground, creating ephemeral ponds waiting for a chance to seep down through the soil. The birds take cover in the trees but continue to call, the insects go quiet, and the monkeys sit tight on their branches and continue to howl as thunder rolls around above.  I take my rain gear on and off half a dozen times a day, as I try to maneuver the drops between the dining hall, lab, and cabina.
10 minutes of sunshine lights up the forest and brightens our moods, and then the rain returns.

Return to the Rainforest (Part 1)

Arrival in San Jose, Costa Rica July 20, 2014
Arrival in San Jose, Costa Rica July 20, 2014

Time has been flying by for me this year. There is so much happening in my work life, my home life, my student life, and in my life with Colin that I am having a hard time keeping up with any of it. I am busy all of the time and have lost all motivation and energy to do the things I love like write, hike, bird watch, run, bike ride, and go on fun trips exploring new places and things. I have developed anxiety, and seemingly chronic pain in my neck, back and hips that my massage therapist says are a result of constant stress and tension. None of this is good for me at all.

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View from Gran Casa Universitaria in San Jose.

So here I lie, at 7:00pm on a skinny mattress with a small lumpy pillow in a concrete room with a wall of screen windows and a fan. In 95% humidity. The river is just meters away and the muddy water has drowned its banks because of rainfall over the past 3 weeks. Crocodiles live in the river and I am non-to-keen about walking out the door and into their jaws tonight. Fortunately, there are screens on these windows, because I do not care to sleep curled up with the multitude of large insects I can hear out there in the dark.

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Driving down the north side of the mountains toward Puerto Veijo, Heredia.

My colleagues are all sweating themselves to sleep down the path in another cabina. When we arrived at La Selva this morning and found out I was not rooming with them, I panicked, for like 6 hours. Clearly something is not right about that and this is not my typical reaction to being alone. But actually, it has become typical for me. I just hadn’t realized it until today when I travelled from chaotic San Jose up over the twisty mountains and then down into the lowlands and rainforest, where life suddenly took on a drastically slower pace…and this is exactly why I need to be alone in a simple room with the rainforest threatening to come get me.

Photo Gallery below (WordPress is acting up – sorry!)

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A stop along the road for fresh coconut water – YUM!

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Heading down in elevation to the lowland wet lands.

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IMG_0584 Top: More fruits at the fruit stand. Bottom: Self portrait upon arrival at La Selva.

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La Selva Biological Station. We have to cross this river each day to get meals.

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My cabina, #5

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Iguana silhouette. This guy was about 120 feet up in a tree.

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Chestnut-mandible Toucan. 2 males were trying to attract a female and they succeeded!

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Pecary next to my cabin. They travel in small groups and while wild, they walk past you without so much as a glance.

Return to the Rainforest

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In 2008, my aunt and uncle invited me on a trip to the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. It was an experience that changed my view of Central America and had me combing information on how to return to Costa Rica as soon as possible. That trip was followed immediately by a trip with then-colleagues to a rainforest in Mexico. Then life got more complicated as I went to graduate school and got a job in science education immediately after. It has been 6 long years, and I am FINALLY returning to the place I did not want to leave just over a handful of years ago. I will be journaling about my experience over the coming 3 weeks while in Costa Rica. I am so excited to be writing and sharing with you again!       – Amanda

Inspiration Block

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This past weekend I went to see the Banff Mountain Film Festival’s World Tour for the 13th year.  It reminded me of sitting in the old theatre in Bozeman, MT where I was relatively new to the outdoor sports world.  I felt like I was among strangers but at the same time felt I was among friends.  There was a near electric feeling in the air, one of positive energy and good vibes. I felt like I had found my place and my people!

I was most intrigued by Ndizotheka – It is Possible, a film about a 30 year-old guy who had accomplished his dream by this age and was feeling like he had nothing to look forward to.  His everyday life seemed dull, he was becoming somewhat depressed, and he didn’t know what to do with his life.  One night he had a dream that he was flying kites with children in Africa, and that he met someone who he then taught how to fly via parasail.  Phenomenally, he flew to Africa and taught kids how to make and fly kites, and as he was doing so, met a young man whose dream was to learn how to fly.  And so went the next 6 weeks of his life.

I can relate to this man. By the age of 34 I too had accomplished my dreams and I had everything I had ever wanted.  My life was full of the things I worked for and had dreamed of.  I was blissfully happy.  I hiked and went bird-watching, snowshoed and traveled, went running and to classes I was interested in.  I had great friends and loved my job.  And then at age 35, it all started to feel boring and uninteresting. I wanted to do new things, go new places, have experiences unlike anything I had experienced before. But what haven’t I done that I want to do still?

I started to feel stuck, and that is where I have remained for almost a year.  In the past year I have set goals for myself and I have achieved those goals without much challenge so yes, that is fantastic and feels great. But I think I need a new goal, one that is a big challenge and I am not sure what that is. I keep looking for an opportunity that will change me, that will make me grow.  So I am searching for ideas and inspiration…perhaps I just need to pay attention to what I am dreaming about at night.

Note:  This is not a normal The Outside Within post, rather a personal commentary on the state of my life at present which is blocking me from writing new posts.  Feel free to make suggestions!

Impacting me to the Core: Ice

A glacier carves out a valley near Seward, AK.
A glacier carves out a valley near Seward, AK.

As I looked down from 30,000 feet upon a massive river of ice seeming to rest between two mountain ranges, I was overcome by an emotion I had yet to experience in my 35 years on this Earth. Never had I felt such a pull toward something before. It was as if gravity was literally tugging on me. I could actually feel a sensation as if real weights were strapped to my feet and at the same time pulling at my soul. During the minute I was able to look down at the miles of slow-flowing glacier, observing a period in time where nature itself is sculpting the landscape, I felt locked in time. It was me and the ice and this internal yet physical draw. Nothing else existed.

Holgate Glacier near Seward, AK.
Holgate Glacier near Seward, AK.

James Balog, a Boulder-based photographer, was the first to bring my attention to ice. Roughly 4 months prior he had spoken at the University where I work and I had gone to see if I could learn something about taking pictures from this master photographer of animals and ecosystems. Watching his still images become real before my eyes, and hearing about his most recent project, the Extreme Ice Survey, I had never been so emotionally drawn to, nor did I know it was possible to be consumed by, images. I left in a daze and continued to be both haunted and stimulated by the photos for days and weeks and then months.

Glacier advancing toward the ocean near Seward, AK.
Glacier advancing toward the ocean near Seward, AK.

Prior to July 2012, I had never witnessed anything so powerful that it brought tears to my eyes, as seeing glaciers face-to- face did. The experience dug at my core and shook me to a state of complete awareness. It brought all of the knowledge I have gained through my outdoor experiences, my education, and my work in environmental science together. As I felt the cold air flowing off Holgate Glacier, heard the cracking and popping of ice on the move, and watched massive flakes of ice fall into the ocean, it all came together for me, and I fully understood this system that we are part of, called planet Earth. It is a system that is ever-changing, causing its own changes and changing as a result of the forced changes created by its inhabitants. Looking at glaciers, I knew my place within the system, I felt connected to the system, and I knew that I, one little human just 5 foot 3 inches tall, have a major impact on it.

Glacial calving occurred where the "dent" in the ice is seen. Holgate Glacier.
Glacial calving occurred where the “dent” in the ice is seen. Holgate Glacier.

So what does one do with this knowledge? I impact everything around me, living and non-living. Every living and non-living thing around me impacts my life. How am I impacting it? Is my impact positive or negative, and who or what determines this? Ask questions. Pay attention. Be a healthy part of the system. Those are my current answers to these questions, which will change over time, just like the current landscape being carved by glaciers that will melt away leaving new territory to be explored as it too erodes away and changes form.

Glacier retreating into the Pacific Ocean near Seward, AK.
Glacier retreating into the Pacific Ocean near Seward, AK.

I highly recommend watching the 2012 film, Chasing Ice, which features James Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey. To learn more about climate science, visit http://www.green.colostate.edu/climate-center.aspx and for information on why glaciers matter, visit http://earthvisiontrust.org/eis/?page_id=76. Link to the Extreme Ice Survey: http://extremeicesurvey.org/.

 

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Bear Glacier, one of Alaska’a largest, retreats into the Pacific Ocean.

The Happy Hydrophilic

Victory Bog in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Many of my childhood days were spent playing in a small, murky pond down the hill from our house where throughout spring and into summer, I would watch the frog eggs change into tadpoles, eventually becoming the very same frogs that dove into the mud much faster than the speed of my hands reaching out to grab them.  I spent hours upon hours tromping through the swampy ground that was my parent’s property, following small streams through the wetland, loving the squishy feeling beneath my feet and sucking sounds of my shoes as I sunk up to my ankles in blackish mud.

My favorite water adventure was on a school field trip where we visited a bog in northeastern Vermont and I saw for the first time massive amounts of the clearest water I’d ever seen flowing between tussocks of vegetation.  It was my parents’ swamp on steroids!  Twenty-three year later I still dream of that place alive with an array of water-loving grasses and sedges, the cool water weaving it’s way among them in search of somewhere else to go.

Cranberry leaves in fall at a bog near Saratoga, NY. Photo by saratogawoodswaters.blogspot.com.

I currently live in a part of the country where water is not so plentiful, and I embrace every rain drop and snowflake that falls from this big blue sky above me.  I find myself drawn to the banks of rivers where I explore the shores for signs of beaver or muskrat, turn over rocks in search of segmented little invertebrates, and check deep pools for fish that disappear as my shadow falls on the water above them.  I listen to the water washing across and around rocks, transporting soil to another place; I watch ducks and fallen leaves hitching a ride on the flow, headed downstream on a journey to an unknown place; I feel the gentle breeze and cool air on my skin, cooling and calming me.

I need water, not just to satisfy my senses and refresh my mind, but to live.  Your body is literally made up of nearly 80% water, which could be one explanation for the draw to it.  Water is so important to proper body function that the Institute of Medicine determined that an adequate intake for men is roughly 13 cups a day, and for women is about 9 cups a day (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/water/NU00283).

Crab on beach in the Netherlands. Photo from http://www.travel.nationalgeographic.com.

I used to believe (perhaps a bit naively) that my attraction to water is because my astrological sign is Cancer, represented by the crab.  Daydreaming that I was a crab crawling around on the bottom of the ocean floor in search of treasures, I would kick up sand, turn over shells, and pick apart mats of seaweed.  I longed to be carried away by a current, to pop up out of the water to discover that I was at a new and exciting place, where I would crawl up the beach to check out my unfamiliar surroundings.  Maybe my affinity to water is due in part to this but I suspect the biological piece is slightly greater.

Growing with the Garden (1)

Early in the morning as I sip at the coffee warming my hands, I wonder what the day is going to bring me and I come up with a list in my head of things that I should be doing on a Sunday. Usually this involves cleaning the house, the car, my closet that is overflowing with clothes (I swear they are trying to escape by making it across the room and out the door), or it’s grocery shopping and doing laundry.  Every weekend I think about these things but I never actually do any of them on Sunday, and that is because there is a better option.

The flower garden?” you might ask in a tone indicating that I am the lamest person you know.  Seriously, who goes to hang out in a flower garden every weekend?

That would be me.  After coffee I grab my camera and head about a mile from my home to one of my favorite places in all of the world.  I walk, because that is part of the experience.  This time is used to clear my head, physically move my body, and work on my observation skills.

This place is no small scale operation.  The garden is 2.9 acres and has 20,000 square feet of planting space (http://www.flowertrials.colostate.edu/history.php). It is also an experimental garden where flowering plants are grown to see how well they survive our climate of extremes.  One can spend many hours wandering through here, and even longer if stopping to photograph as I do.

In this garden, I observe many things.  In the early morning I watch insects barely moving until their bodies warm enough to fly from flower to flower.  I see frost lining petals and highlighting the veins of leaves, creating artwork that is not created by man.  I see the beginning of life as plants grow up, producing perfect and imperfect flowers which become fruit and seeds that drop to the ground or get carried away.   I see the end of life when the plants have no more to give, wilting, drying up, and decomposing into new soil.

In the garden I observe people who have come to observe, to connect, and to enjoy the beauty of the garden.  There are couples young and old holding hands, moms and their daughters with a photographer taking senior pictures, brides and grooms with their party who have chosen here, among the great bursts of color, as the setting of the biggest day of their lives.  Intimate moments happen in this garden.

As I wander slowly through the wood-chipped paths and crouch between rows of plants, I am searching for moments in time to capture that will give the opportunity to connect not only myself, but to those who view my photos, to the phenomenal life of and among plants.  My mission is to show the viewer the wonder and beauty of plants, to give you the experience of appreciation and connectedness to living things.  After all, plants are one of the most important things on this planet, and without them, neither you or I would be.

Fire Frenzy! (part 2 of 2)

The High Park Fire burn area is one of the most fascinating places I have been to!  While I was very fortunate to see the forest fire in action, the fire as we know it burned out of control for about a month and was finally 100% contained in early September.  It was captivating to watch entire trees torch up from base to meristem (the very top point of growth for those non-plant nerds) and to witness flames consuming the dead and fallen leaf litter that had accumulated on top of the soil for many years.  This all happened relatively quickly.  Fire is this crazy thing that ignites, runs like crazy, and dies out.  It’s “life” is actually very short.

But what about the actual life that returns to an area that is burned?  Doesn’t that take a long time to come back?  And just how long is a long time?

Here are my observations to help answer that question.

2.5 months post-fire. Moderately burned area meaning the grasses, litter, and most of the tree burned. Note all of the grasses and forbs growing.

2.5 months post-fire. Moderately burned area.  Everything on the ground and trunks of the trees burned. These trees are not likely to survive.

2.5 months post-fire. Moderate burn area. Paintbrush thriving in nutrient rich soil among grass species that have come in fairly dense.

3 months post-burn. Moderate burn area. Mullein and sedge are abundant and throughout this burn site.

3 months post-fire. Severely burned slope. Note lack of green (vegetation).

3 months post-burn. Severely burned area where everything burned. Note the spotty vegetation (a forb) growing here.

3 months post-burn. Severely burned area. Forbs are growing next to rocks and fallen burned trees, likely because water collects here.

3 months post-burn. Severely burned area. Sedges have grown from seed.

As you can see from the photos I have taken at various sites within the greater burn area, seeds do not take long to respond and send up shoots.  This is of course dependent on water availability, sunlight, and nutrients.  It is also dependent on how severe the burn was and how deep it impacted the soil and the seeds within it.

It is absolutely breath-taking to wander through a recently burned area and see the changes that are taking place.  I am surprised at how quickly plants and animals have returned to something that from a quick glance with the human eye appears to have nothing to offer.  It is a lesson in pausing to look more closely to observe what is happening around us.  Change constantly happens, always affecting something or someone.  And that is a pretty powerful and phenomenal thing!

Fire Frenzy! (Part 1 of 2)

Three months ago, my quiet little town of 140,000 people woke to a plume of smoke rising above the hills, catching the wind to Wyoming and Nebraska.  The High Park Fire exploded that day, and the next, and the next, burning the foothills forest northwest of my town and throughout the beloved Cache La Poudre Canyon, taking with it nearly 300 homes located within the these areas.

Now maybe most people feel fear, anxiety, or sadness when an uncontrolled wildfire rips through an area, particularly when their home is at risk of being lost.  I can only imagine how my friend who lives in one of the evacuated areas was feeling those 2 weeks that he was waiting to hear if he would have a home to go back to; how do you quickly accept the fact that you may lose the house you have bought and the land you have worked on for so many years at any moment?

But, if you know me or have read my blogs, you know that I am not most people.

If only I could share with you the adrenaline rush that I experienced when I first saw the smoke plume that Saturday morning!  It was as if a spark had been lit beneath me and I became extremely restless and anxious. Not in a stressful way but in a hyper-excited, curious way where for 2 weeks I obsessively thought about the fire, watched the fire, and talked about the fire.  I was practically dancing around with joy, informing all who would listen that regeneration was going to be allowed to finally occur and is this not THE MOST exciting thing that has happened to the local ecosystem in years??!!  How INCREDIBLE that we are able to witness an event such as this in our lifetimes!!  I could not get close enough to it, I could not stop photographing it, I could not wait to get near it to watch its power, see the magnitude, and experience its ability to change the landscape as we have known it.

Please enjoy the photos that I have taken to capture this grand event.  Photos that are close to the fire were taken on the north edge of the Cache La Poudre Canyon less than 1 mile away, just south of where the fire jumped the canyon from south to north side at Steven’s Gulch.  The other photos were taken either from a friends’ house 2 miles away from the fire or somewhere between 5-30 miles away.  Please do not pilfer the photos, as I prefer that you just share my blog page with those whom you would like to see them.