corvi (corivax) wrote,

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She is tiny, birdlike, with short spiky black hair, almond-shaped eyes. Her head falls well short of my shoulder, and I am not tall. But she has fingers like cablesteel under lined watersilk, and she checks the purple-anodized carabiners at my waist, a slide and a tap and a pull, like a martial artist stretching her joints, like they're part of her.

"Don't hold the rope. Let the rope hold you - if it breaks, nothing will save you, not strength, not skill, not hope - the only way is to trust the rope."

It's difficult advice.

This is a branch that fell out of a Douglas fir in an old-growth rainforest. Studying moss, her team noticed that some of the older branches, under the moss, had inches of fine grey ash, thistle-soft, similar to, say, what Mount St. Helens blew all over the Northwest in 1981, twenty-four years ago.

So they gathered some up, and sent it to a lab. Was this, indeed, ash from an eruption twenty years ago, preserved hundreds of meters above the ground in the rainforest? Well, yes... except some of it was ash from the 1850 eruption, and maybe some of it earlier, if only more ash could be collected for analysis.

So, of course, we all went back to make a proper study of it.

Rainforests are dark, and hard to photograph. In case you were wondering. Not much light gets to the ground.

He is Tasmanian, with a trace accent I've never heard before. At the campfire each night, he does impossible things with a digeridoo he made himself, a six-foot length of dark-varnished bamboo. Where it cracks, he just adds another layer of varnish, and it's so mirror-bright you can watch the reflections of flames in it, shimmering with the vibrations. He chants into it, somehow, and the words come out deep and distorted, like the language of stones.

He and I collect moss for people to identify back at the lab. We're trying to figure out if more species, or different species, grow up in the trees where they have rich ash for fertilizer. So we mark out plots, and cut through the moss layer with our pocketknives, and just peel up the moss, three inches thick, in meter-wide squares. It's a lot of moss.

Other people look for downed trees to cut "cookies" from - thin cross sections. You can count rings in a branch-slice to see how old the branch is, just like you can do for the whole tree. We don't want to cut off living branches to find out how old they are, so newly dead ones are the next best.

"Ecology is from oikos, home", she says, campfire light caught in her hair, and pine resin on her hands. "Ecology must always remember the space between things, where light is, and wind, like negative space in art." In her office, there are sketches of the spaces between trees, all the thin feathered branchings around leaves, the soaring columns of a cathedral, where the light sings. At the forest floor, in the few places light reaches, it falls like a cloak of honey.

Crossbow! A lovely thing of steel and silk, used to fire rope hundreds of meters into a tree. Gadget lust!

The climbing harness is surprisingly comfortable - fitted straps around waist and thighs. The blue strap is attached to a chest harness - my center of gravity is a bit high for this, and we had to improvise something to keep me stable.

You have two handgrips with cams, called "kumars", attached to the climbing harness at your center of gravity and to eachother. A kumar can slide up or down the rope, but only when there is no weight on it. The bottom kumar has two loops for you to put your feet in. So you stand up on the bottom loops, and all your weight goes onto the bottom kumar. Since there's no weight on the top kumar, you can move it, so you slide it up the rope as far as you can. Then you relax into the rope, hang from the top kumar. Now your weight is off the bottom kumar - pull your legs under you, like seiza in martial arts, and pull the bottom kumar up. Repeat as needed.

Once, at NASA, I got to wear a moon-walk harness suspended from the ceiling by a bunch of springs that held most of your weight - if you tried to walk, you'd push yourself off too hard, and bounce high in the air, come back to the ground slowly. It was supposed to be used for training astronauts to walk on the moon. Tree-climbing was like that - you could leap or jump off the trunk, soar out over the dizzying green infinities, the halls of light and wind, and fall slowly until your feet were against the trunk again, like a ballet in sideways gravity.

It was incredible.

The house of light.
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