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Chocolate Milk Rivers

April 2, 2023

March was the rainiest month in the reserve’s recorded history; a relatively short history that only dates back until about 2010, but a decade’s worth of days where the monthly rain total never amounted to more than 740 millimeters. The giant tree that stands out against a landscape of smaller trees on the ridge in front of the house passed behind and in front of many clouds carrying water that ran down the mountains, turning the Rio Nambillo into Nesquik chocolate milk. Trails flooded, trees fell, land slid, and we got tired of the rain.

In the rainforest, the rain erases. Water inundates already narrow trails, smoothing the ground into uniform standing pools of water. Understory plants soak up the rain and crowd into trails, turning brown mud into thirty shades of green. Branches already heavy with the weight of bromeliads become heavier and break, leaving the trail spattered with vines, moss and epiphytes. Yet, in the in-between moments, when a night passes without rain, the footsteps of our neighbors are allowed to remain. It is on these mornings that we wake to mountain lion tracks around the cabin.

For Christmas this year, my sister gave me Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. In the story, when Tayo is in one of his most dire moments a mountain lion comes to him. He has fallen off his horse, exhausted from searching for the spotted cattle that were taken from his family years ago– cattle that his now-passed uncle, spent the remaining part of their family’s money on. Paralyzed by fatigue, Tayo collapses under a tree near a hole he had cut in the barbwire fence of the Texans who had the cattle. He awakes in the night to a mountain lion entering the grove in front of him “moving like mountain clouds with the wind, changing substance and color in rhythm with the contours of the mountain peaks: dark as lava rock, and suddenly as bright as a field of snow.” The mountain lion makes eye contact with Tayo and moves onward to the southeast. Tayo awakes in the morning to the Texans, trying to take him to the police for trespassing; but within minutes they notice the lion tracks and leave Tayo be, heading southeast to hunt the lion. A snowstorm follows suit, covering any tracks that remained with a heavy snowpack.

The constant influx of clouds and precipitation at the reserve is a lot like how Silko describes the mountain lion: “relentless motion” as it’s “greatest beauty”. Just as the lion transfigures shape with every step, the rain transforms the forest—erasing trails, falling trees, and feeding the ever-hungry understory.

Midway through the month, Logan hurt his foot, and I took over our shared responsibilities for the week. This meant, I had to go up to the Andean Cock of the Rock lek alone—something that requires walking up the ridge in the just-before-dawn darkness on the same trail where we often see the mountain lion on our camera. For many people, this may sound like a simple task; but, I am very afraid of the dark. I passed the night before dreaming again and again of encountering the lion, waking up nearly every hour. When five o’clock came I sat in the early morning stillness alone drinking my black tea and thinking of Tayo. At 5:30 I took what courage I had and walked out into the darkness.

It was the foggiest morning I have yet to see; there was so much precipitation in the air, the drops clung to the rays of my headlamp, obfuscating the light into a hazy curtain I couldn’t quite see through. An enormous spider dangled at the entrance to the trail, ominously wriggling its legs and spinning slowly from its descending web. I willed myself to not read it as a sign. Around the next curve sat two bats on a branch staring back at me. I could not will myself to not read it as a sign. I thought again of Tayo and did not turn around.

Halfway through my ascent to the lek I rose above the fog. The sun was beginning to paint the sky to the east, and a deep shade of pink bled over the ridge-line. The early dawn light crept above the canopy and I didn’t feel scared anymore. Despite my many dreams, I did not see the mountain lion that morning– but maybe if I had her eyes “would have caught twin reflections of the moon”, just like in Ceremony.

March marched on and so did the rain. Many of the trails became rivers and as the earth gave way to water the Olive Finch migrated up from his riverside tree to sing to us from the below the house. A familiar friend from our favorite swimming hole became our neighbor, sharing his song with us every morning over breakfast. The Olive Finch is a beautiful olive-colored bird with a slate-gray face and throat. He wears a striking maroon streak on top of his head and is frequently found near riversides or dark ravines. On a rainy day, he blends in with the muted greens of the understory, but his high-pitched melody pierces over even the loudest of torrents. The Olive-Finch is found only in the cloud forests of the Andes and is near-threatened. During our short time here, he has become one of our favorite birds.

When the sun finally came out, Logan ran out the door to eat his breakfast in the only ray of sunshine that touched the porch. Toast, eggs, potatoes, and a very much needed serving of vitamin D. 

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