Capuchins in the mist

How had I gotten here? Darkness radiated from the windows and pooled in the corners of the low room. What preternatural force had beguiled me out of my sleeping bag? Visions of feather beds and swathes of comforters danced through my head. But they were as fleeting as the buzz from the powdered coffee I found myself stirring. I glanced at the zombies around me and took solace in the company. Becca grimaced as she warmed a concoction of milk and oats on the camp stove and Tom tripped over his socks. Janet floundered beneath her mosquito net and Danielle sat on the edge of her bunk, staring in bleak silence at her toes. Allison remained concealed beneath untold layers of blankets. My breath fogged the air as I cradled the mug of watery Nescafe.

Scalding coffee sloshed onto my red fingertips and my teeth chattered. I gulped the coffee and began sorting through my mind and my belongings. Binoculars? Check. Going in the bag. Camera? Check. Going in the bag. Flashlight? Check. Going in the bag. No wait, I need that to see. Going in the pocket. Nalgene? Check. Going in the bag. Fifty meter measuring tape? That’s already in the bag, what’s it doing in there? I don’t need that today. Or do I? Aw hell. I tossed it on my bunk.

Metal bowls clattered on the wooden makeshift dining/cooking table signaling the arrival of our morning calories. We slathered the oats in guava jam and they were cold before the first bite. I chipped away the last bits of oats and downed my coffee that had turned as bitter and cold as the rest of us.

“Alright lets go,” Becca’s brogue prompted and we sauntered towards the door. Upon opening said door my resolve was further called into question and I realized maybe I had not packed enough layers for this operation. I zipped my jacket up all the way and slung my backpack over my shoulder. The socks I had left outside were frozen solid with sweat from the day before. We all fumbled with our boots in a silent disco of headlamps. And we were off.

The grass crunched underfoot. I flexed my fingers in my pockets. The dark hulks of other cabins and the main farmhouse lurked in the shadows behind frosted rows of manioca and orange trees. It was too early even for Julie the farm dog to come galloping up to greet us as we trudged in silence through the barnyard and over the cattle guard. Ahead of us was the Forest. If the sky had not been overflowing with southern hemisphere stars I might have thought the Forest covered the entire celestial sphere. How had I gotten here?

We had tracked them to the pines last night. That’s where we were heading – the pines. We turned away from the Forest and set out across a dark field. We were shadows amongst shadows. Our breath smoked in the flashlight beams. The pines were situated cater-corner to the main farmhouse across a fallow field – their arrangement as unnatural as their presence. Stars flickered in and out of view between the rows of trees as we approached. I retrieved the camera and binoculars from my backpack before we set off down the narrow surveyors path that provided access to the interior of the plantation.

Nothing looks the same in the dark. Every vine became a snake, branches: talons. Though I had walked the path numerous times before I took each step with deliberation, training my eye up towards the stars. The layer of needles muted my footfalls and suddenly I was alone. Where had the path gone? How had I gotten here?

I parked myself where I stood (no point in getting even more lost, right?) and nestled in amongst the fallen needles as I imagined a cold snake would. I hugged my knees to my chest as a deep purple began to leak into the sky. I waited.

The transition is much more noticeable when the sound of your breath and heartbeat are your only meter for time. The amorphous blobs that obscured the night sky were the first to go, replaced by recognizable loblolly pines. The stars went out one by one, until only Sirius was left amid a navy canvas. A rooster crowed. A dog barked (probably Julie). Birds began to chirr as dawn found the canopy.

If I may venture a hypothetical scenario: suppose, for a moment, you were an arboreal primate. You live amongst the trees in a constant state of gymnastics – where would you want to sleep at night? Think it over. A big tree, right? Perhaps something with nice sturdy limbs or large, sheltering leaves to hide under if it rains (perchance, a Ficus enormis). You’d stay close to the trunk, where it’s safest, and on cold nights you’d want to snuggle together with your other primate buddies to stay warm. Am I wrong? Very.

As I sat, watching the light creep down the pine trunks, another performer joined the rising birdsong. It was a chirp and a trill, but far more emphatic than any bird could muster. They were perched on the ends of the highest branches in the crowns – the capuchins that is. A branch snapped and the chirps tittered with sweet morning laughter. I brandished my binoculars.

Capuchin monkeys prefer to sleep on the very ends of branches, high up and far away from the trunk and each other. This behavior, though seemingly uncomfortable and precarious, stems from a desire to not be eaten. The plantation of pines here at ProCosara, though introduced, were like a featherbed of safe sleeping sites for the capuchin monkeys that call this forest home.

I have seen squirrels in pine trees and I have seen lizards in pine trees. I have seen black bears in pine trees and even porcupines in pine trees. As the first capuchin, its tail gently coiled, crept into view I tacked another animal onto the list of critters I’ve seen in pine trees. I shivered beneath my insufficient layers as another monkey leapt into my field of view. The two crawled up to one another along slender limbs that barely bent under their weight. Their salutations to each other warbled around the soundscape of the morning. The pair was roughly fifty meters away in the canopy, framed by the crowns of other pines. They hopped and swung from branch to branch around the trunk, and cackled when they caught one another. I lifted the binoculars to my eyes to find the lenses thoroughly fogged. I cursed, wiping them clean and returned them to my eyes to a complete absence of monkeys in the canopy.

But I was not dismayed. The moment had been sublime and hopefully Becca still had them in her sights. I yawned. The night had yielded to the sun and the last shadows retreated down the trees to shelter in the understory for the day. I heard the crashes and calls of more capuchins as they awoke. The air was crystalline and cold dew beaded on stinging Urera leaves. Becca would be tracking the capuchins all day. She, and rest of the PLT Primate Team, would be collecting behavioral observations and group dynamics data for her PhD. Beyond the pines was our study site and the capuchins’ playground: ProCosara. Beyond the pines was the Alto Paraná Atlantic Forest.

ProCosara constitutes the southern end of the San Rafael National Park in southeastern Paraguay. It is a private reserve, protecting several hundred hectares of mature (it has never been logged, not even selectively) Alto Paraná Atlantic Forest. It seems ironic, almost, to observe capuchin monkeys in a tract of plantation forest amidst the most threatened forest eco-region on earth. Yes, you read that correctly. Though it once covered over 500,000 square kilometers across southern Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, the Alto Paraná Atlantic Forest (characterized by its deep red soils) has been reduced to less than 5% of its original total cover and less than 2% within Paraguay over the past 50 years.

I conducted a vegetation survey during my stint at ProCosara as a part of my research with Para La Tierra. I identified 70 unique species of plants over six hectares. This did not include the 20 other plant species I had already identified as a part of my research at other study sites. Extrapolating these preliminary results shows that over 75% of the plant species (at least in this meager survey) are unique to Atlantic Forest. This is has been confirmed but on an exponentially larger scale – as many as 20,000 plant species are native to the Alto Paraná Atlantic Forest, with as many as 5,000 being endemic to the eco-region. This region rivals the Amazon in terms of species endemism. Sadly these statistics are lost to the thousands of Paraguayans farming soy for Monsanto, and to most of the world.

But I digress; I do not want this story to devolve into a sermon about deforestation and guilt. Rather I want to share a moment that struck me in a similar manner to bagging a mountain peak – beautiful, serendipitous and wholesome. As I walked the trails of ProCosara that week, named affectionately after various Guarani plants – Chachi, Urutau, Tukā Pakova – I was often starving. Our diet was strict: porridge in the morning and two hardboiled eggs (three if you were sneaky) with bread and salt for lunch. ‘Bet you thought I was going to say ‘struck by the majesty of the place’? Admittedly I was, but the Forest was anything but cliché.

Stout-trunked Balfaurodendrum riedelionun and gnarled Patagonula americana lined the trails, their evergreen canopies providing shelter from the mid-winter sun. Strangling figs, some reaching 30 meters in height, provided cover for epiphytes and lianas in their whimsical trunk structure. Signs along Urutau warned of arboreal pit vipers. Capuchin monkeys frolicked in the canopy. Julie the farm dog followed me through the undergrowth as I searched for the next quadrat to survey. Later that day I found myself seated on a spongy log, somewhere in the thick of the Forest. Julie sat patiently beneath a Megalastrum fern and watched longingly as I peeled my midday ration. The day had warmed to a balmy temperature in the sun but was still cool beneath the trees.

Julie heard them before I did. Her ears perked up and she raised her head expectantly but remained calm as the crashes came into human earshot. I put my finger to my lips, reminding Julie to be quiet as the capuchins, first one, then two, then three, four, five, six – I lost count – bounded through the canopy overhead. One paused to check me out and I smiled back, marking a waypoint on my GPS. I must have passed the ocular assessment and the troop carried on, their chirrups and song tinkling around the cool afternoon. How had I gotten here?




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