We’ve returned to Cloudbridge and it’s life life life life life life life, like usual. Definitely going to miss this place with all its variety of animals, plants, and fungi. Trying to describe any of it is an exercise in art itself and my hat goes off to any systematics and taxonomic scientist. Every day there is a new find followed by a whole load of searching to nail it down. Lou and I decided to take a morning stroll at 3am to Vulture’s Rock, an outcrop halfway up an East-facing slope. As the sun started to rise, Uran, the tallest mountain in view, lit up like an ancient temple with a glistening gem a rest on top. It was an hour or more before the sun made its way over the Chirripo-trail ridgeline and down the slope to strike us. On the way down we spotted ferns that looked like unraveling slippers out of Alice in wonderland, angel-wing shaped fungus fruiting all over a dead-standing tree, and a vibrantly-coloured and scaled lizard hiding amongst the over-grown grass, giving us enough of a glimpse before skittering off into safety.
Life doesn’t appear to understand the distinction between inside and outside. An experience the visitors here find out all too easily at night when crickets jump over your skin as you work at the computer; where sparrow-sized moths fly at your face; and in the case of the office, where a spider claimed the underside of the desk as her maternity ward.
It has been refreshing to sit on the other side of the classroom now that I have returned to university, wondering about as a student instead of guiding wonderers as a teacher. However, the cornerstones of teaching that I learned in English Language Teaching of context, purpose, collaboration, and authenticity are all absent in lectures. This has been frustrating and a struggle to say the least. Fortunately, the professors of the Ecology department at Otago compensate for this by being forerunners in the world for advocating research as a means of learning. This is where I feel those cornerstones have been catered for and is definitely one of the reasons we have been able to make this journey, for without those skills we would surely be making progress like a moth to a lamp. Throughout the last two years, Otago has led us on a path towards self-motivated research, directing us towards measurable questions, assessing data validity, and cautiously inferring answers from results.
One of the angles that our professor Robert Poulin emphasised in an early ecology lecture was the difference between environmental activism and quantifiable ecology. These are not mutually exclusive but let’s tease them out, anyway. German troops occupied Norway during WWII and killed half the 95,000 reindeer population. By 1960 the population had doubled from its diminished population and recovered to 90,000. The Persian Gulf oil spill resulting from conflict in 1991 accumulated 6 to 8 million barrels of oil out at sea. Birds lose insulating properties of their plumage leading to hypothermia as well as ingestion of oil causing numerous internal dysfunctions, organ damage, and sometimes death from poisoning. Yet many species did not suffer at all, some suffered between 10 – 30 % population reductions, and none came close to extinction. We could campaign about the environmental abuses of these, but to an ecologist that does not make much sense.
What appears on the surface to be a minor difference turns out to be a profound alternative perspective. Severity of impact is one of the key distinctions between the two views. Many ecologists like to use the sick patient as an analogy for the systems researched in the field. Disturbances like the above could be seen as fevers that leave patients bed-stricken for days or weeks. Heavily impacted and urbanized landscapes are the severely sick systems, the life-threatening illnesses that can potentially disable the patient permanently, situations that need understanding of natural systems in order to provide remedies.
Oil spills in the gulf can kill a few thousand birds in a year but dredging marshes and filling in mangroves with cement and landfill permanently remove habitat for decades. Sometimes the irrecoverable disasters are the gradual accumulations and seemingly mundane business as usual. The bleaching of coral reefs have a rebound and recovery time (albeit with limitations) but dumping contaminated waste and filling in coral reefs are disturbances that lead to permanent destruction.
Cloudbridge has been a role model and facilitator of this quantitative research. Encompassing both natural (old growth) and heavily impacted (regeneration and planted) sites, Cloudbridge has a unique ability to study these hand in hand. Cloudbridge arose out of the encroachment of local farmers being pushed further and further up the mountain passes to find grazing land for their livestock and provide sustenance for their families. What they found, instead, were poor soils that constrained most of them in poverty. Once Cloudbridge was bought and established, the initial regeneration technique was to let nature do its thing. However, from the accumulated knowledge of the nearly century-old discipline of ecology at the time, researchers starting manipulating the inputs to alter the direction the forest system was heading.
All this does not entail a return to a natural forest. In fact, from the scientists perspective, this does not make any sense; as ecologist Markus Eichhorn writes, “by definition we can’t make something natural nor should we aspire to do so. Whether an island is occupied by native endemics or filled with the alien species introduced by man, it only becomes natural as soon as we pack our bags and set sail.” Natural does not mean the return of biodiversity, nor of healthy systems, natural simply means left to its human-less state.
During the beginning of the year at Cloudbridge, two groups of high school students come down for a week each to design and implement a study over a few days. The insights, motivation, curiosity, and inquisitiveness of this bunch encourages the instructors to try and keep up and push them further. Linda has a great break-down of the 2-week stint on the Cloudbridge blog.