Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

There are no passives in nature:

A walk in a  rainforest

The following is based on a bat survey in a forest bordering Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica.

After a time my body sweat becomes indistinguishable from the humidity of the great forest. My rubber boots sink deep into the brown, squishing, sucking mud which at times seemed to want to swallow me into the forest’s digestive system. The tree roots of the Sangrillo trees spread over the forest floor like giant fingers and toes, gripping the earth, absorbing its nutrients. They stand in imposing silence, vigilant; bulky and tall, ecosystems within ecosystems.

To most people trees are simply trees generic. They grow in our gardens, fields and along city streets unnameable and often unnoticed. They are, however, personalities with a story to tell and are known to other trees with whom they communicate, cooperate and compete. They are a home, resting place, shelter, feeding station and social venue for other life forms. They hold the soil with its trillions of microorganisms in place. Many have medicinal properties. The Sangrillo tree for instance contains an astringent resin which can heal wounds. The Aztecs and Maya used its bark to make codices, a type of manuscript, and the Maya considered the tree, which is widespread throughout swampy coastal forests in Central and South America, as a link between Earth and Heaven.

Amongst the crowded, dense intensity of green growth, decaying trees, leaves, fruits and nuts one occasionally sees brilliant, radiant colours in the form of flowers. This afternoon, in the midst of the gloom of a prolonged heavy downpour, I saw a yellow flower as bright as a summer sun in the crown of a palm and a flaming red ribbed flower shaped like a miniature walking stick.

All the while there was the rhythmic drum-beat of the rain on the leaves, a mind-penetrating liquid sound that one comes to swim in. I stood still; listened, smelt, inhaled and visually absorbed the multi-dimensional drama of forest life.

When the rain ceased for short intervals the sound of birds and insects resumed. We came across a hawk, unfussed by our presence, emitting a continual chwirk to its companion somewhere unseen. Our eyes followed a family of 10 spider-monkeys as they climbed in single-file ever higher on the upper-most branches of one of the tallest trees in sight. They would have had a magnificent view of the forest, albeit one that would have a different meaning for them than it would for their human cousins.

Cobwebs, if not seen, can become entangled in one’s hair and spread like sticky thread across one’s face. Even when wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat, ants, mosquitoes and other insects inevitably find some part of the body to bite. There are butterflies, dragon flies and frogs as small as your thumb nail. One such frog, common in this forest, is the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog whose main source of food are ants. At one point I came across an insect on the forest floor the very colour of the brown leaf it had concealed itself on. Its limbs looked like delicate twigs. I learned that it is locally called a gladiator and kills its prey by using its long limbs to trap them in a snapping spring-release like fashion.

If you ever venture into mature native woodland, which sadly is rare in Ireland, stand still, breathe deeply, look around, notice the multiple forms of vegetation, the immensity of the entanglement whose symbiotic relationships are mostly invisible to unaided human senses. Be mindful that you are in the midst of an evolutionary process too complex and dramatic to fully grasp. Reflect, in your transient moment, your nano-eternity, that you are in the woodland, be it for good or ill, as a participant.

There are no bystanders in nature, no audience, no passives. In nature we are all participants. Even when dead, we are in nature, an integral part of the billions of years old wondrous science of life. Given this we should take care of it. One way we can do this is by planting trees, the right one in the right place. Or pay an organization like the Woodland Trust to plant one, or two, or more on your behalf. Planting trees is one way of being a good ancestor.

After three hours in the forest we were back at the biological station in need of a shower and a complete change of clothes.