Saturday, June 23, 2007

Beetles, monkeys and birds

Last night I woke up at 3:30 in the morning, itching my arm. The darkness was deep as velvet. But as my eyes adjusted, I looked out the screen across from my bed and saw a light show – a flashing display of lightening bugs. Robin told me there are tyrophorous bugs as big as his thumb, with two lights on back and one on the front. He said catching one would provide enough light to read a book by. And the natives cut off the head and thorax and make a necklace from them that glows for an hour.

After turning on the light, I checked on my three companions – the moth, the spider, and the toad. All had moved and were now in unknown areas of my room. I noticed a bug bite on my wrist. So I got up, put on a long-sleeve shirt, rubbed some bug spray onto my hands and wrists, and went back to sleep.

In the morning, I had breakfast with Robin and Sonya in their modest 3-room house. Then Robin offered to take me on a 15-minute walk to spot a particular bird. I agreed. It ended up being a two hour hike, complete with education on how beetles lay eggs, develop and mature, how the forest is affected by slash and burn agriculture and how the birds are affected by wind.

He showed me a tree with a dual name – the Palo Devil’s Stick or the Palo Saint’s Stick – depending on whether it’s being recognized for the stinging ants that live inside the branch, or for the arthritic help these ant bites can provide. He brought me right up to the bird, a heliconia. According to Robin, it’s the cutest bird in the jungle. When we heard howler monkeys, a loud roar like a powerful wind, we walked off the path to track them. Although we could hear them nearby, we failed to find them. But we did come across a group of squirrel monkeys moving across the branches. That was my first monkey sighting in Bolivia.

I enjoyed walking through the forest, listening to Robin attract birds with his pygmy owl calls, and watching bright butterflies flutter around us. I also enjoyed Robin’s evident passion for the land, the animals, the birds and the bugs. He is a cynical, negative person, with almost every other sentence coming out as a complaint. But those alternating sentences were full of interesting facts and stories. In two days, I learned enough to imagine the story of his unique life – the moves from country to country, the relationships that didn’t last, the jobs that didn’t last, the consuming passion for the land and animals, and eventually, a focus on a subject that took him out of the conflict zone - beetles.

In the afternoon, after a nice siesta, I went to the top of the observation tower, where I could hear howler monkeys, making a noise like cows. I felt the warmth of the sun, the light breeze rippling against my skin. As I looked out across the greenness extending in all directions, I listened to the rustling of leaves and the cooing of birds. I really felt out in and one with nature. Looking out over the patterns of light and shadow made by sun and clouds, it was as though I stood on top of a big, green, wild world.

Later, I sat with Robin and Sonya on their overlook, to watch the birds come back. We peeled and ate mandarin oranges as we waited for their arrival. Robin pointed out the pretty green white eyed parakeet. As dusk fell, Sonya showed me the progress two beetles were making in chopping off branches.

The beetles were dull dark, colors. I could barely see them against the branches. I had imagined brilliant sparkling, Amazonian insects. Those black things seemed to me a rather boring way to spend one’s concentration. But later that evening, he showed me his collection, which contained a wider variety of sizes and colors. In just about every collection box, several of the species were highlighted yellow, an indication that it was a new species he’d found. While the bugs he’s focused on now, the Hemilophi tribe, aren’t very pretty, they are unique in that they make two cuts in a branch before dropping to the ground, extra work that isn’t explained. According to Robin, he’s the first to discover this species and this habit.

I spent my evening reading a draft of a book Robin wrote about his life and battles in Bolivia – against the exporters of endangered animals, against the indigenous squatters, against his colleagues and bosses, against his romantic liaisons.

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