The Forest Classroom

20 Dec

Working in the field is a constant learning experience. I have many roles here (scientist, supervisor, mentor, logistics manager, pharmacist, morale officer, etc.), and each one teaches me different lessons. I’ve learned how to manage my team and keep everyone chipper and motivated despite the (some would say) grueling routine and monotony of our work, week after week. I’ve learned how to (literally) spice up the twice daily rice and beans; the secret is a combination of masala and cinnamon. I’ve learned to speak some Malagasy from Vola: “Zaho mahay miteny Malagasy fa kelikely” means “I only speak a little Malagasy.” And I’ve learned that spending all day under patchy canopy cover in 113 degree Fahrenheit (45 degree Celsius) heat brings on a physical exhaustion like none that I’ve ever experienced.

My greatest teacher at Beza is the forest herself. I’m learning more than I ever imagined about the myriad of plants and their distributions around the forest. We constantly discover newly developed plant parts (like Tamarind flowers) and how the lemurs eat these novel foods. This is especially interesting with fruits as the lemurs often have to peel away the outer shell or skin before consuming them, seeds and all. I’ve begun recognizing individual trees in the middle of nowhere, remembering that a previous group ate some leaves here three weeks ago, but that we arrived at this tree from the other direction. I’m really putting all of the puzzle pieces together and becoming more and more familiar with the intimite details of Beza’s forest every day.

My team and I are not alone in learning from the forest. In late October, a giant group of 25 Malagasy pulled into Beza Mahafaly. This group had come all the way from Tana and were part of a field course at the University of Antananarivo. These students were studying forestry and agronomy and had arrived at the major stop along their three-week field methods course that was touring many of the national parks and reserves of Madagascar. As compared to only one to two days at Tsimanampetsotsa or Berenty reserves, they remained at Beza for nearly a week.

At Beza they learned about how to do phenology transects to measure what plants are in the forest, they learned about the local agrobusiness of mining rock salt by talking to the miners, purifiers, and sellers at every stage of the process, and they spent a day learning about lemur biology and how these unique mammals fit into the ecology of the forest of Beza Mahafaly.

Like many field courses, they had mixed activity days, with some lectures in a makeshift classroom and some hands-on work in the forest each day. The course instructor, Joelisoa (or just Joel), was extremely friendly and considerate to the impact his gargantuan group might have on my continuing work here. We did a good job of sharing the common resources and there were no turf wars to worry about. Joel speaks amazing English and told me about his very interesting past.

Starting as a researcher and professor (like he is currently), Joel slid over to the policy realm when he took a post as the Secretary General of the Madagascar Ministry of the Environment. After a few years at the ministry, he was selected to become the Chief of Staff to the President of Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana. As he shot up to the top of the Malagasy political pyramid, he got to meet Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and had access to see and influence how environmental policies were developing in the government.

Unfortunately, the ride did not last, as the president was ousted from power in a military coup back in 2009, just before my last trip to Madagascar. Having the military turn on them,
Ravalomanana and his close advisors were no longer safe and they had to flee the country. Joel left his family behind and took asylum for a time in Austria and then got a brief position at Cambridge University through an influential lemur researcher.

After a couple years, it was safe enough for Joel to return to Madagascar and he resumed his former role as an educator, conservationist, and researcher. Despite (and maybe because of) all of the drama Joel went through due to the political coup, he insists that he is happy to return to a more reasonable pace of life as an academic, getting to once again spend quality time with his family and focusing on science and education.

Joel asked me if I would be willing to give a research talk to his students while they were at Beza and I quickly agreed. We scheduled my talk for Friday evening, as the capstone to their day learning about lemur biology. Only later did I realize what I had gotten myself into. On paper, I had three days to prepare my talk, but in reality, I only get an hour or two at the end of each day to take care of non research related tasks. These yawn-filled hours would not be a very optimal time to work on my talk, so I would have to find another time to prep.

The following morning, as I was wandering through the forest looking for lemurs, I found the perfect time to outline my presentation. Over the course of the next few days, while the lemurs rested in the late morning and early afternoon, I had the leisure time to draft and refine what I wanted to say to the field school students. I even gave a practice talk to Joach, Vola, and the sleeping maki of yellow group, under the shade of a large kily (tamarind) tree.

On Friday, I left the forest an hour early to have some time to freshen up and go over my talking points one more time. I entered the palapa (the large shade structure in the center of camp that was the field school’s temporary classroom) and saw a couple dozen eager young faces staring back at me. Joel assured me that the students spoke enough English to understand my talk, but kindly requested that I make sure to talk… very… very… slowly. Joel introduced me to the class and away I went.

My talk was going to be a basic explanation of what my research project is, what question I am trying to answer, and the methods I am using to do this. I hadn’t had the time to put together a PowerPoint presentation to provide some visuals, so instead they provided me with one of those giant pads of paper that rest on an easel and a couple of colored permanent markers. As I explained my methods I went through page after page of this huge pad, drawing maps of the forest to show where all of my lemur groups reside, and listing out all if the kinds of data that I collect.

Shortly into the talk, I realized that instead of giving a dry, one-way presentation, I was teaching. I was constantly querying for feedback and asking the students to guess why I had chosen my particular research methods. This experience brought me back fondly to my former days as a teaching assistant at USC. I loved the feeling of getting through to my students as I helped them understand a challenging and foreign topic, and to see that moment of comprehension as they finally get it. I was getting a similar vibe from the more active students at Beza and it was immediately rewarding for me as a teacher.

Before I knew it, I had reached the end of my talk and was then able to field some questions from the students and their teachers. Many of the questions were understandably Madagascar-centric. Why did you decide to do your research in Madagascar and why at Beza? How can you apply your results to conservation efforts in Madagascar? What do you think of the living conditions at Beza with the facilities and the currently high temperatures? I answered all of these and more and, after receiving the thanks of Joel and his students, I walked off satisfied that the students might have learned a little from my research talk.


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