Back in the cool high elevations of Wayqecha late last night. We get up early to get to the field for a long day of data collection.
Things are buzzing in the Wayqecha plot and the field lab - a constant stream of branches and leaves being sampled, scanned and weighed.
Then a few of us journey up to the Acjanaco plot, a new plot at tree line installed just a few months ago, and, at 3500 m, the highest plot in our global network. It is a surprisingly gorgeous forest: full of tall trees clad in thick sphagnum mosses, steep gullies and cliffs. The canopy is rather open, allowing great views over the valleys and billowing clouds. Again the quality of the team's plot installation is exceptional. I real can just point to a place on a map and say “I'd like a plot there” and this team will deliver.
The walk through the forests is gorgeous. We are woken by the roar of red howler monkeys, and in our walk in the lush tall forest we glimpse black weasel-like tayras, a tapir and peccaries. The paths are laced with the busy flapping green trails of leafcutter ants, and the dance of butterflies, most notably the giant iridescent blue flash of the morpho butterfly.
The plots have been installed by Walter and his team with incredible expertise, precision and competency. Every measurement is perfectly set up, and the whole plot takes about 12 days from zero to complete installation.
Just beyond the higher plot there is a mirador (viewpoint), which gazes out over lowland Amazonia. When we first get there the scene is immersed in clouds, but gradually they disperse to reveal a mesmerising vista. The scene is carpeted with lush green lowland Amazonian forest, at a closeness where you can see the texturie and details of tree crowns. To the right sparkles the River Alto Madre de Dois, winding its way to become the mighty Madre de Dios (Mother of God) in the distances. To the left are the rolling hills and vast protected expanses of Manu National Park. In my mind's eye I see this forest stretching east, almost unbroken, for thousands of miles across the continent until it reaches the Atlantic near Belem. We sit and ponder at the rim of Amazonia and its still wild, vast and magnificent expanses.
In the afternoon we start our journey back to the highlands. The first few hours are a wonderful meander up the shallow rapids of the Alto Madre de Dios and warm blue skies, with the cloud-shrouded hills beckoning beyond. I soak up the humid enveloping warmth, savouring it on my skin in advance of the cool of the high mountains only a few hours away.
Today a few of us (William, Walter, Norma, journey down from the high cloud forest, down the Kosnipata valley past the cloud-decked slopes of San Pedro, and on into the wet heat of the Amazon lowlands. We are going to inspect the new plots that Walter has set up, at elevations of 600 m and 850 m, in the Pantiacolla front range of the Andes, the last serious topography before the vast expanses of lowland Amazonia.
The last few hours are by boat from the dock at Atalaya to the Pantiacolla lodge, a lovely lazy boat ride through gentle rapids and large pebble beaches, backed with the magnificent forested slopes of the Pantiacolla range. It is such sudden transformation of mood from the cool slopes and ever shifting slopes to the big skies of Amazonia, with towering cumulus and spiralling vultures, and a welcome all-embracing warmth.
Our project has a name. GEM-TRAIT or RAINFOR-TRAIT did not roll off the tongue well. We pondered a good name for a while. Now we have an answer. It is GEM-CHAMBASA. The acronym is not fully finalised (especially the CH) but for now it is CHallenging Attempt to Measure Biotic Attributes along the Slope of the Andes. The students love it - it is local slang for “a lot of work”. It may not work well for presentations to Ministries in Lima, but it has a great sound and the whole team loves it.
Some alternative words for the CH include “Comprehensive and Hopeful” and “Completely Hopeless”… I guess time will tell…
The first day of real data collection, in the Wayqecha plot. The whole team is out there. It was wonderful to see the whole collection team in motion: the climbers collecting the branches, Allie measuring tree structure and crown diameters, Katie's team sorting leaves for chemical analysis, Lisa's team working on photosynthesis, Chris's team on leaf spectra, then other carefully labelling and running the samples to the lab, where others analyse for herbivory, scan leaves and dry for weighing. An amazing operation. The start is slow and clunky, but there is time to get this into a well-oiled operation. It is wonderful to see all this activity, all stemming from a single grant.
The leadership from the project post docs (Lisa and Norma) is wonderful and essential. But the only way this incredible project is at all feasible is through the army of hard working, enthusiastic Cusco students. They are just incredible in their enthusiasm and motivation, and also lovely company. This project couldn't begin to exist without them.
At Wayqecha several of our team are already in place, and we are holding a two-day course on plant traits (led by Sandra Diaz) which over thirty Peruvian students are attending. These students will be working closely with us over the next six months, and it is excellent that they are getting this broad scientific overview right at the start.
The field station is a fantastic flurry of activity and equipment preparation, as we iron out working patterns and who will work with who, test up equipment, assign students and general ramp up logistics. There are inevitable stresses and concerns: permits that are not yet ready, challenges with export, generators that need servicing and repair. What we are going to do is so ambitious in scale and involves so many moving parts.
Through all this activity, we sit perched on the edge of awe-inspiring and ever-shifting beauty, and the valley reminds us of of the mysteries we are exploring, and gradually, piece-by-piece, are beginning to understand.
Early morning taxi through the fog to Lima airport. My adventures to Peru seem to always start like this. Today is when the big action begins, as our large team assembles in the field and will be there in various forms for six monhs. It will be chaos, but I am confident it will be surmountable chaos. And it will be an astonishing achievement.
Under the bright skies of Cusco I meet up at our project house with several members of our team: Greg Goldsmith from Berkeley, Ben Blonder from Arizona, Greg Asner and Robin Martin from Stanford and Chris Doughty from Oxford, along with many of our Peruvian team including Walter. After the inevitable delays we head out on the spectacular drive across the mountains to the Wayqecha field station, near the treeline of the Andes where the cloud forest meets the puna grasslands.
I have done this journey many times but for this first time I find this windy journey quite nausea-inducing: perhaps a combination of just arriving at high elevation, a poor vehicle and a jerky driver.
But the final arrival into the whispering clouds and lush green forests of the Kosnipata valley is as spectacular as ever.
A quite wonderful day in Lima. The familiarly dreary early morning fog lifts into a beautiful sunny day. This is not quite the usual winter fog season (I usually come in July to Peru).
I spend the day at the PUCP (Pontificad Universidad La Catolica) in the company of Eric Cosio and Norma Salinas, as we discuss plans for the forthcoming campaign and our collaboration in general.
I give a seminar in the university about our Andes work, which is quite well received. Eric is very welcoming and very supportive - the university helps immensely in getting our equipment through customs and also in advancing us cash while our money transfers from Oxford come through. Things would be so much tougher without such strong and proactive local support.
Lima is not the most charming of cities overall but it has its magical spots, and its food is fantastic. We have lunch in the Museo Larcomar among ancient Peruvian erotic art. The new lab space for our project is right next to an old Inca road. And dinner is in an excellent restaurant in the grounds of an old pre-Inca sacred huaca. There I have possible the best cerviche I have ever tasted, a powerful yet subtle fusion of fish, spices, herbs and lemon in perfect combination. They say that Lima is now the gastronomic capital of South America and I can believe it.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University