How to be a monkey

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Thursday, October 4

I wonder where the howlers go after they’ve spent a few days raising hell outside my window. Their calls grow progressively more distant over subsequent days until they disappear into the jungle. Then the cycle repeats.

A new website, How To Be a Monkey, attempts to answer that question. The site offers an inside look at what monkeys in the wild are up to. I’ve poked around in there and love it, even though my limited bandwidth here makes it slow at times. They’re tracking a group of capuchins here in Costa Rica at the Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve, about 145 miles north of Uvita, near the boarder with Nicaragua. The star is Winslow Homer, a baby monkey that researchers tracked all day on Jan. 24, 2014. They then posted the results in a way that’s both educational and entertaining.

In a story about the project, I was particularly struck by the comments of Susan Perry, an anthropology professor at UCLA, who notes the negative and positive impacts of technology on science education:

This is getting to be true even in Costa Rica, where kids … have some of the most endangered and interesting habitats in the world in their backyard. But they never go in their backyard because they’re looking at the TV or their laptop or their phone … Part of my job as an educator is to try to lure people in to nature. And also get them to understand that even if they don’t want to be bothered to walk outside … that they should at least be able to appreciate what’s out there enough to be the kind of citizen that promotes the conservation of those areas.

I haven’t had access to TV now for two months and I don’t miss it at all. And while I twitch uncontrollably at times because I don’t have the Internet bandwidth I’m accustomed to at home, even that has proven a gift. It’s amazing what you see when you go outside, get quiet and watch.

For the past few days, we’ve had drenching, nightlong rain. No thunder and lightning. Just rain. It abates midmorning before continuing again later in the afternoon, and during that pause, the jungle jumps to life.

A coatimundi. Photo by Clark Anderson, via Wikipedia and creative commons license

The other day I heard an aggressive snorting followed by the squeal of an agouti, who shot past me with his hair standing on end. I jumped up to take a look at what had rattled him and saw a coatimundi — a cousin of the raccoon— stomping around where the rabbit-like agouti normally forages for papaya scraps. Moral of this story: Don’t mess with a coatimundi.

I’ve also been fascinated by the blue flies who harass me as I write. I’ve never seen anything quite like them and haven’t made a specific ID yet, but they’re impossible to kill. They fly up and hover, drone-like, in front of me, but the second I move to swat them they zip off. I’ve yet to hit one despite numerous attempts and strategies. (It’s important to note here that I am not an amateur killer of flies; I’m able to snatch run-of-the-mill U.S. flies with my hand and hurl them to their deaths). It’s almost as if the singularity has occurred, but instead of humans merging with machines, these strange flies have beaten us to it.

I haven’t heard much from the howlers the past few days. I think when it rains like this they pretty much hunker down and ride it out.

Odds and sods

  • I finished Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Loved it. I’ve finally found one of the Russian masters I can relate to, though I intend to start revisiting the others now.
  • I read Henry James’ The Aspern Papers, which was mentioned several times in the fiction writing lectures I’m listening to. The way James crafts his characters is amazing, and the use of an unreliable narrator is subtle and very effective. The ending also fits John Gardner’s criteria for Resolution, where no other action can logically take place. One of the most difficult things in fiction, I think, is the ending. I’ve read so many great books that ran out of steam at the end or seemed contrived. Since I don’t know yet how The Book will end, that’s an ongoing concern I have.
  • Next up, Flannery O’Connor’s short story The River. This is driven because I’ve been listening nonstop to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s 1999 masterpiece Crusades of the Restless Knights. There’s not a bad song on it, and most of them are outstanding. Patty Giffin’s backing vocals are superb, especially on the song “The River Runs Red,” which apparently is based on the O’Connor short story. My obsessions sometimes become microscopic in this way. I just let them run their course. There’s also a wonderful bluegrass waltz on there, “After the Harvest,” that I can’t get out of my head. I think I’m going to quote part of it in The Book. Here are the lyrics (as transcribed by me, so they might be a tad off):

After the Harvest
Always before us
there have been true believers
rising up from
the rank and file drunks
now for a short time
we gather small treasures
and after the harvest
there’s sweet kingdom come

Once we had wings
and could fly over mountains
and in the blue yonder
we had a home
there was a time
we could all walk on water
if we saw a reflection
then we’d sink like a stone

There are these bridges
from the past to the present
there are these bridges
from now until dawn
there are these rivers
that flow on forever
we are like rivers
on our way home