This is the first in a special series of three guest blog posts by my friend, mentor and collaborator the tropical palaeoecologist and biogeographer Prof. Mark Bush (Florida Institute of Technology).
We are often told that you “cannot go back”, meaning that a place that provided wonderful memories will disappoint when revisited. Putting this into current conservation-speak we don’t like to be reminded that our baselines are shifting. Recently I had a chance to revisit a part of Ecuadorean Amazonia I had not been to for 30 years. I was a bit hesitant to go. Would I be disappointed or could the experience live up to my recollection?
In 1988, I went on a lengthy field season in Ecuador. We were searching for a glacial-age record that could test the refugial hypothesis of Amazonian speciation. Some lakes that lay in Ecuadorian Amazonia showed promise as they appeared to be a long way from major river channels, and only connected by their outlets into the Cuyabeno River. Would these lakes hold glacial-aged records? Would they show a history of rainforest or savanna during the last ice age?
We started from the frontier town of Lago Agrio, which was rough in every way, dirty, and somewhere we couldn’t wait to leave. Driving to the end of the road and then picking up motorized canoes we were, by nightfall, able to get to the first tourist/research lodge to be established in what is now the Cuyabeno Faunistic Reserve. The trip there was basically uneventful, but a quick tour of the lake in our motorized dugout revealed a substantial inflowing river that had been hidden by cloud on the aerial imagery. We had been hoping for a headwater system, not an essentially riverine lake. Nevertheless, we cored the middle of the lake. The coring was tough as the river was washing clays into the system and these settled to form stiff, sticky, gray sediments. After one or two meters of coring, hammering was essential to get any penetration, but getting the core back out was the real challenge. The inflatable boats were sinking as we strained upward on the coring rig, but still we couldn’t break the device free from the clay. We tried everything: we clamped the boats to the coring rig when they were fully flooded, then bailed the boats out, hoping the added buoyancy would break the corer free. It didn’t. So we refilled the boats, re-clamped, bailed, and then all jumped out. Still nothing. In the end we resorted to the nuclear option, which is to hammer upward on the drill rig. The modified Livingstone coring rig we were using was designed to be hammered downward, but hammering upward can seriously damage the drill string. Nevertheless, it worked. Darkness was closing over us by the time we managed to free the rig, but already we knew that the core wasn’t the glacial-age record we had been hoping for. Faces in camp that evening were pretty glum. As the old axiom goes, we defined insanity by repeating the procedure in the next lake in the chain and, unsurprisingly, got the same outcome – another young core.
We resolved to move on and try another target system, Laguna Zancudococha. Our hosts and guides were members of the Siona nation, and their Hako (Chief) was a vibrant 82-year old called Victoriano. There was a long discussion deciding whether we could go to Zancudococha as it was their ‘origin’ lake and therefore sacred. Eventually, it was decided that we could go. The journey would take at least two days and although Victoriano knew the way, none of the others had been there before.
To be continued…