A Patch of Forest

I am chatting with Eugene a few days before we part to do our fieldwork. He is going back to Kenya and his mountain gorillas, I am going back to Mexico and the cloud forest. We talk about how we came here looking for answers, but we haven’t yet found what is needed. Things we love are being destroyed and we want to help. During our chat we come to the conclusion that the answer is not in books or classrooms, that when we get there we have to ask the place itself, that we need to learn how to listen, to ask the forest and its people.

When I arrive the scenario is worse than I expected, most of Montebello forest has been burnt and logged. Little is left of what I saw just 6 years ago, magnificent tree ferns, liquidambars, pines and strangler figs, carpets of moss and delicate mushrooms, hummingbirds, antshrike birds and toucans. There were generous oaks with their branches full of orchids, ferns and bromeliads that in turn hosted little frogs and beetles. Life upon life upon life…….

Healthy forest before logging

Six years later the cloud forest is mostly gone after a big fire that burnt great portions of forest all around the world due to El Niño and human interference. What does it take to burn a cloud?

I stay in a hut in the middle of the nature reserve. Late afternoon I go for a walk, remembering that I need to ask… I find a pond, not far from there, and I sit on a rock at the shore. There is peace in that sheltered place, away from the path, protected by a thick mass of messy shrub and a steep slope. There is a little hide buzzing with life, even though it is close to humans, but with that slowness that comes at the end of the day.

I ask for help. I want to see things as they are, not as I think they are. I need help to understand. What is it that I am not seeing? Whom am I asking? I don´t know yet. Looking back it was my first ever attempt of praying. I didn´t know then.

A snail kite comes to feed. The only one I ever saw. A female. By the way she moves around I realize it is her pond. She looks at me, I have been sitting for while now. She decides I am not a threat and carries on. She is beautiful and precise. Within minutes she has found her dinner. She looks at me once more and then she flies away to shelter for the night.

It Is getting dark, I start climbing back. The pond has conferred on me some of its calm. I am ready to start.

The next 5 months are a big struggle. I fail to secure a reliable person to help me. They come and go. I need someone with me, to help but also for safety. The area is at the border with Guatemala and there are a lot of people attempting to cross, and also many attempting to abuse the situation. I am constantly alone. During some periods I don’t speak for days, there is no one to speak to. Sometimes I enjoy that, other times the constant inner chatter is unbearable. One day I find myself in the middle of a slope, alone and very angry. It is a beautiful morning, am I mad?

As I walk the area, I find logs and logs of beautiful trees, there are cans of petrol to feed the chainsaw lying next to the bottles of ‘posh´, the local alcoholic sugar cane drink. Men come, cut the trees, sit to rest, they get drunk and leave, and never come back to claim the timber. There are examples of unfinished jobs all over the place. Once the canopy is opened the fire comes. The whole forest has changed, most tree species are gone now, mainly oak and pines remain. Instead of moss and gentle understory the floor is covered with bracken and bramble. My legs and arms are covered with tiny cuts. Now it is very hot and dry, whereas before it was humid and fresh.

I had become a tree hugger, and a mortuary recorder. I measure the diameter of the trees, and the diameter of the stumps. I trap and ring birds, noting their species, weight and sex, busy from dawn to dusk. Yet despite my datasheets, scales and measuring tapes and my other thousand veils, the powerful nature of Life is making its way through: ever present, ever teaching; diverse, generous, interconnected, and above all, conquering; always coming back after destruction, powerful, yet delicate. What is its source?

As I kneel down to measure a hidden stump, I find under some bramble, a beautiful inflorescence, pushing its way up with some flowers already transforming into fruit, red and grey, a strange chequerboard. A tiny insect, with all the possible colours grading from head to tail, fine transparent wings and a very long appendix lands on my finger. I find plants deep green with golden under sides, others silver, or immaculate white. I dream of a dinner by candle light beneath such canopy. I start recognising some plants by their smell, or the multiple shapes of their leaves, depending on whether they are under direct light or various amounts of shade. Life constantly transforming……

Hummingbird (Amazilia cyanocephala)

And the birds, they hardly weigh anything, all feathers and chest. I enjoy showing the little local kids about them. Do you know how the heart of a hummingbird sounds? I put one next to the ear. Their eyes open wide. It is so fast that beats cannot be distinguished. Some birds show a quarrelsome behavior- undeterred by the fact that my hand is bigger than their whole body, they bite me, clench their claws and won´t let go. It makes it harder releasing them from the net, so we are at it for a long time. It makes me wonder, would I fight that hard for my life? For how long? Others use clever sneaky tactics. They are totally still while I am taking them out, but observant, their whole body attentive. A minor change in my grip and off they flutter away. I learn to make them calmer by being calm myself.

By the end of the season, I am physically and emotionally tired, sad from having been recording the destruction of the forest and for hearing stories of poverty and struggle from my neighbours. It seems to mimic what is happening in my family, as my parents have been separated for years and the turmoil is peaking up again.

Oaks teach me a big lesson. I find a stump that has been cut and burnt several times. It used to be a tree of 1.5 m of diameter, it re-sprouted, and it managed to grow to 30 cm wide before it was cut again and burnt, re-sprouted again up to 4 cm, this one had snapped, and here it was again, shooting some leaves out. It won’t cease to try as long as there is some energy left in its roots. It injects me with energy and perhaps some courage. Despite that I am struggling more and more with the ´science´ I am doing, and the value of it, I need to keep going but I am trapped. I am enrolled in a programme with a scholarship and have an agreed schedule with my supervisors. So, in moments of tiredness and despair, I think about my oak, and I put a leaf out.

Forest in the mist

I have been saving the best patch of remaining cloud forest for the last. I have been savouring the treat for weeks. Finally, I come to it. I put my nets out, and start the chore. But the next day the rebellion finally wins. Trapping birds, measuring trees, really? I decide to stop, despite the fact that these can render valuable data since they offer rare instances of ´before´. Instead I just wander around. I just want to be there. I find a nice trunk and sit, observing, enjoying the wet earthy smell. Then I walk trying not to make noise. I find a hummingbird catching mosquitoes, I didn´t know it hunted. It is perched still, with a cloud of mosquitoes above its head, then suddenly goes, flycatcher style. After a while it is not hunting and there are no mosquitoes above its head anymore, they are all above mine! So, I leave it and continue walking. I go up hill and find a cluster of young oaks, with long bunches of hay hanging off their branches, gently moving with the wind. They look like ladies with long wide sleeves. From the high point I can see the landscape rolling below. A sense of dancing spaciousness brings back hope.

As I come down, I find a yellow orchid at eye height, the size of my palm. I perceive the aroma even though I am some meters away. A yellow stripy wasp is also tracking the scent, zigzagging until it finds the highway, within seconds it has approached the flower and enters. My head engages, surely there must be other orchids of the same species at ´smell´ distance. I sniffle around, and sure there are, one on that tree and another one further up. The wind ruffles the canopy and a sunbeam comes shining on one of the orchids, a sharp yellow glow amid the living green. Suddenly all stops, I am there.

Lycaste orchid

The moment is broken by a noisy group of wood creepers. They are gleaning the bromeliads, getting each leaf on their beaks and combing it out, they are constantly communicating with each other. They part and reunite as they move across the forest, a front line not missing out a single plant, an efficient cleaning service. Yet there is something else. Difficult to describe, perhaps I am still influenced by the moment just passed. It seems that the group is part of something else held together and moved by… joy and care? I feel I am part of it. As they move away and silence is regained, a sense of mystery and depth enfolds me, coming from within and around. The forest I have seen today is very different from the fragments I have painstakingly been measuring for months. I still don’t understand, yet this not understanding has a different flavour now.

I walk slowly out of the forest patch. As I step out into the sunlight, the certainty that there is something Higher starts to glow in me.

Beatriz Contreras

Montebello: Only a few trees are left standing in the hills whereas before there was a continuous canopy