Tropical rainforest is not glamorous. The sanitised, technicolour, televisual view of rainforest that we see in nature documentaries, of whizzing butterflies, flash-dancing birds, and flamboyant flowers, presents only part of the story. Rainforest is dirty, wet, and it smells, of mould and mud, and dead leaves and flowers, and rotting wood. By day it hums and chimes and fizzes with a thousand animal conversations, and green dominates all: colour is as rare as it is welcome. By night those conversations, of insects, frogs, mammals, and birds, increase one hundred-fold. With the night come also the insects (silent or whining) that bite and suck your blood, while above your head in the roof space of your bedroom, bats awaken and chirp and scuttle, flitting out to hunt.
Always, day and night, there is water in the form of rivers, streams, ponds, and pools. And rain; or the threat of rain; or the aftermath of rain. For the four days we have spent in Santa Virginia field station in the Serra do Mar state park it has rained every day, all day, all night. It’s called rainforest for a reason, right?
For the persistent habitué of the rainforest, nothing remains dry for long, clothes and bedding are constantly damp, wood and leather obtains a greyish grape-bloom. It is a difficult environment in which to live and work, particularly for a European used to a particular climate and situation. No, rainforest is not glamorous. But it has a glamor, in the old English sense of casting a spell over those it has charmed into visiting its depths and trying to know its ways. The visitor to tropical rainforest who appreciates its biological richness and functioning is always charmed, and returning to it feels like a return to something very special indeed.
Although I have conducted field work in tropical rainforests in Africa, Australia and other parts of South America, one reason why I have long wished to visit the Atlantic Rainforests of Brazil is that John Tweedie, whose life and career I am researching, wrote frequently in his letters to William Hooker about his love of the forest in South Brazil. And the forest has not disappointed me: it is beautiful and wonderful, even if wet and, because of its altitude of around 1000 metres a.s.l., quite cold.
One of the most spectacular aspects of the Atlantic Rainforest is the sheer abundance and diversity of epiphytic plants, a sub-type of rainforest communities that can only be supported in areas of high rainfall such as this. Over the last couple of days, Andre, Coquinho, Vini and I have hiked a couple of forest trails despite the rain, and orchids and ferns, bromeliads and forest cacti were more abundant than I’ve ever previously seen. These plants are generally thick and complex in form, as they store water internally in leaves and stems, or within tanks formed of overlapping leaf bases. On one short section of trunk, up to waist height, we counted six different orchid species mixed together, and saw at least 20 species along a 3km trail on Sunday. Coquinho has been putting together a checklist of the orchids around the field station and it currently numbers 130 species. Astounding diversity!
As we walked and slid and macheted our way through a 9km trail on Sunday, the ringing calls of male Bare-throated bellbirds (Procnias nudicollis) were resounding through the forest, whilst smaller birds played hide and seek from our binoculars. Still scoring plants for wind and animal pollination, as I previously described, we recorded 75 plant species in flower along the trail, but most of them we encountered only once or twice. Diversity and rarity go together in these plant communities. No wonder Tweedie loved the Atlantic Rainforest; there is always something new to collect and the climate under the trees is cooler than in the open pampas grasslands of Argentina, where he was based. Perhaps the rain made him think of his home in Scotland? It’s called rainforest for a reason, right?