Emotions in Motion

By Tiger Schenkman

Each year, a select group of students from the Zoo Magnet School and the student volunteer program are chosen for the Duttenhaver Animal Conservation Field Study Team. The group assists field researchers engaged in conservation projects around the world that are part of the EarthWatch Institute. These opportunities to experience scientific fieldwork firsthand, made possible thanks to support from Linda Duttenhaver, inspire many of the student participants to pursue future studies and careers in science and conservation.

In recent years, scientists working in Coto Brus have noticed something unique. Local landowners have begun planting fruiting trees on their properties—although the specific reasons for this are not yet clear. Scientists hypothesize that these trees hold the secret to improving the resilience of forest ecosystems and restoring the continuity of Costa Rica’s tropical forests, which benefits both people and wildlife. As part of this study, this year’s Earthwatch team worked directly with researchers to study the ecological benefits of fruiting trees, and the motivations of the tree-planters themselves.

Having returned home from Costa Rica about a week ago, I’m still having a difficult time trying to sit down and collect my thoughts. I’m so full of all this gratitude, pride, and residual excitement that I’m desperate to express, but when I look back on our trip, I don’t see it as one big story that I could easily recount in an article. Our trip was so eventful and overwhelming that it feels more like I experienced a million different stories. But I don’t want this to feel like a barrage of anecdotes with no real connection, so I’ve decided that the only way I can effectively communicate this experience’s impact on me is to go through some of the emotions I felt most strongly while on this trip, why I felt them, and what I learned from them.

Although it didn’t happen often, I definitely experienced embarrassment a few times on this trip. I am not the most balanced person, and even with really good hiking boots, it’s impossible to climb down a mountain made of mud without tripping occasionally. That doesn’t make it any less mortifying, though, when you face plant straight into a pile of mud on your first day in the field. Getting embarrassed every time I fall is a habit I was forced to break after about three days, and in that time I learned that: 1) If you’re not used to walking through mud, falling in the rainforest is inevitable, and you might as well lean into it, and 2) No one will even notice you when you fall because they are far too busy focusing on staying upright to pass judgment on anyone else.

Luckily, the emotion I felt most frequently on this trip was joy. Some moments of joy were bigger than others, like when on the penultimate day of our trip we finally saw a group of monkeys in the forest. This was my first time ever seeing monkeys outside of a zoo, and I think I screamed. There were small pockets of joy in every moment of this trip too, things like a cold shower after a particularly hot day spent sweating in the field, enjoying the best brownie of my life in the commissary, and that one scene in the “Islands” episode of Planet Earth where you think that baby lizard is going to get eaten by snakes but he actually escapes. Almost every joyful moment, whether big or small, was spent with my peers, which is why I feel so much love for them now, and always will.

The only sadness I felt during this trip was at the very end, while saying goodbye to the research station and all the people we befriended there. During our week at Las Cruces Biological Station, we were too busy to think about anything other than what was right in front of us. Because of this, our seven days there went by in the blink of an eye, and on the morning of our final day, I realized I wasn’t ready to leave. There were things I still wanted to do, and more importantly, people I wasn’t done spending time with. Though it still makes me a little sad to know that I’ll never be able to recreate the perfect cocktail of embarrassment, joy, excitement, fear, and more that made this trip so wonderful, I also understand that that’s what makes it so unique. Our trip was, in every sense of the word, a once in a lifetime experience, and I am endlessly grateful for that.

In the first couple days at Las Cruces Biological Station, it was definitely a difficult and tiring adjustment, as we got up around 5 a.m. every day to spend long hours doing meticulous observations on different farms in the area. But it was all worth it once I spotted my first yellow-throated toucan and Cherrie’s tanager. More and more I looked forward to observation time in the mornings, and even when no birds showed, I began to appreciate the simplicity of being in nature and the peace of mind it gave me. In the other half of the day, we uploaded all our collected data from the morning. Although this task was not the most enjoyable, it was equally important to observation and was a crucial part of our research.