Taking a Chance

My relative silence here of late is because I’ve become caught up in a different writing project. For thirty years I’ve had an itch left largely unscratched: although it is among the more prevalent of clichés, ever since a notable high school English class I’ve wanted to write a novel.  And I’ve played around the edges of it from time to time, but there’s always been something to put the brakes on pretty damn quick.  And so it has sat, an unchecked entry on the bucket list.

Twelve years ago, I went through the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program (ALLP), a transformative moment in my career.  I’ve stayed involved with ALLP over the years, and have tried to both preach and practice new forms of science communication and leadership.  Of late, the communication wave seems to be growing rapidly, with one person after another highlighting the importance of culture change, of taking a chance, of being willing to stick your neck out – and rightly pointing out that a community now exists to support those who try.  (E.g. see the COMPASS blog.)

What does paragraph one have to do with paragraph two?  Recently, ALLP put out a survey to its alums, in which (among other things) they asked, essentially:  what are your plans?   I thought about this, then decided it was time to take a new chance.  That by trying to scratch that thirty year itch, maybe I could satisfy a personal desire and take a shot at a scicomm goal that’s a bit off the rails.  A shot that was likely to miss…but that if it hit could have more impact than much of what I’ve done in the past.  So I outlined a novel, one imbued with underlying themes of environmental change and sustainability.  This is not a new idea of course – it’s an old one, and it’s seen a recent resurgence in the “cli-fi” genre.  But it’s rare for a practitioner of the science to try one of these novels (perhaps for good reason…).

What’s below is not from that novel.  Rather, after the initial ramp up, I talked with some people in the business and on their advice decided to start with a different story, one with a lower bar of entry than the one I first outlined, affording a “practice round” for a craft largely new to me.  If it works on its own, great.  But that’s not the only reason for doing it.   Rather, it’s about laying the groundwork for a hopefully more successful attempt down the line.

The other story – excerpt below – is one that’s rattled around my head for a few years.  It’s based loosely on characters that have flowed through my life at a Costa Rican field site where I’ve worked since 1999.   It is not a story about science or sustainability per se; rather, it’s one that builds on a longstanding joke among me and some colleagues that the place always seemed to have a dark undercurrent.  One probably more imagined than real.  The story I’ve now started tries to bring some version of that to life.  But it does feature scientists as main characters, and will have some environmental themes woven through.  That’s purposeful, in that part of my aim here is to try my hand at a different way for me to communicate science.  The novels may fail, but I suspect the practice will have value regardless.

Below is a draft of the first chapter.  I’m posting it here for a couple of reasons.  Above all, whether it sucks or not, I simply want to encourage those of you who have considered taking a chance in science communication, or have largely shelved a long-held creative passion, to go for it – and not be shy about sharing your efforts.  And if you’re a practicing scientist, think about how your creative passions – whatever they may be – can intersect with your science.  Science itself moves forward best when we take chances.  So too will more effective communication of our science.

I’m also just trolling for feedback since this is a new world for me.  For those willing to wade through this post and the chapter below, would you read more? If so, why?  If there’s sufficient interest, I’ll throw up a few more of the chapter drafts (and they are just that, drafts).  And if you hate it, or were bored by it, or think I should just go back to my day job right now please, what didn’t you like? I can take it (years of grant proposal and paper rejections, remember…), so don’t be shy!

Chapter 1

The man stood in the sepulchral light of the forest and pressed the buttons on his wristwatch to pick the next spot. Nine. Nine meters down the hill. He cast about for the machete and found it stabbed six inches deep in the soil next to the amber and corrugated root of a towering zapatero tree.  The root, snaking its way along the soil surface, was still larger than the man’s thigh a good thirty feet from the trunk.  The man rested his angular frame within a fold in the tree’s immense base, his body beginning to ache from the day’s labor, his sodden pants and t-shirt awash in ochre stains as though he had been rolling in mud.  He pulled the machete free and stared idly at it for a moment.  Water dripped from the canopy above, mixing with the soil caked on his hands before creating rivulets of red earth that ran the length of the blade, as though he had wounded the land.

The image unnerved him a little, adding to the vague discomfort he always felt when out here alone.  An only child, the man knew his own company but for the most part he wanted others present.  Growing up in rural Wyoming he chafed at his father’s riding him to git out and do somethin on yer own.  Like his friends he was proficient enough at local rites of passage – he could catch a fish, shoot a deer, make a fire in poor weather – but he found little gratification in doing any of them alone. It was as if the events of his own life did not occur unless they could reflect off those of someone else.

Here, just nine degrees north of the equator, he could never get past a nagging sense of unease when forced to spend a solitary day in the forest.  Disturbing thoughts would occupy his mind, one vividly rendered accident after another. A fer-de-lance burying its fangs in his cheek as leaned over to pick up his pack.  A treefall flattening his body as easily as he dispatched the cockroaches in his cabin.  A slip and fall as he ran the tapeline, the machete disemboweling him, its tip abutting his spine while his blood pooled on the timeworn earth of the trail below. The recurrence of these walking nightmares eroded his self-image of a man who was supposed to be at home in the remote corners of the world.  Around others, he maintained a steady and practiced air of confidence, its fragile foundation admitted only to Caroline shortly after their marriage.  Yet one more way for her to mock him now that they had come undone.

He shook off the morbid thoughts as he buried the machete’s blade beside his sodden pack with Filson McKee scrawled across the faded red nylon.  Filson.  Now nearing forty and still unsure about that name.  The name was conjured up hastily by his mother, his parents having spent no time discussing alternatives given her certainty that she was carrying a girl, his bewildered father of twenty-one largely in denial until all eight purplish pounds of Filson were placed in his calloused hands.  Even then he could not confront the naming decision, offering only weak resistance to the odd name Rebecca McKee seemingly pulled from thin air. Only fifteen years later did Filson learn that his personal etymology traced back to the label of the coat his father had worn to the hospital.

As he slung the pack over his shoulder, a guttural crescendo drifted up from the ravine below.  The howler monkeys again, telling him that the rain was coming back. He picked up the forestry tape and gave it a strong pull in hopes of releasing the clasped end from where it was bound upslope.  No luck. So he set the pack down and began to scramble awkwardly back up the scar of clay he had exposed 20 minutes before. Falling to his knees, he reached a gloved hand for the narrow bole of a sapling vaco while he wedged a boot against another tree whose name he did not know.  He cursed as the boot slipped and he fell again, his shoulder meeting the base of a palm bristling with two-inch spines.  Not for the first time, so he knew the hollow black quills would have broken off and lay embedded and that there was no point trying to extract them now.

Scrabbling back to a semblance of balance he pulled himself upslope, reeling the tape to its recalcitrant endpoint, a simple hitch around the base of a young vaco he had felled with the machete, droplets of milky sap extruding from the fresh cut. The hitch freed, he enjoyed the fleeting reward of a bootride back down the slick clay track.  He tied another loose hitch, this one to the base of a suita palm, and then began the nine meter descent by hacking through a serpentine coil of lianas and an inga likely less than two years old but still above his head. The inga’s leaves were broad and hirsute and harbored the big black ants with the yellow butts.  The ones that when he asked Miguel do they hurt, he smiled and said Oh. Sí.

Passing through the breach and satisfied as always by the feel of the machete’s work he came upon space again wondrously open, one of many secrets of these forests, that absent a fallen tree or the hand of man one could walk below the towering canopy largely unhindered.  But there was something different about the spot where he laid the tape down, the number nine having emerged from the plastic housing.  Here the thin coating of fallen leaves was not as it should be.  There were skidmarks in the soil, argillic hues that were normally hidden beneath a layer of decaying leaves. Water pooled in oxiderich depressions of rent clay, bordered by small mounds of earth that did not match the natural undulations of the landscape. He noted that the seemingly overturned soil resembled the work of leafcutter ants but knew immediately that it was not.

He sat and thought about this for a time.  Chanchos perhaps – the packs of wild pigs that could occasionally make a patch of forest look like someone had dropped a bulldozer in its midst.  Or monkeys come to ground, though he knew he was reaching with that one.  The truth that troubled him was that it looked like he had been there himself but he knew he had not. Had Julia been up here earlier in the week?  One of the graduate students?  Some dark corner of his mind wanted that to be the answer yet he knew how unlikely it was.  They had never worked this side of the ridge, deciding on it only a few days prior, Filson drawing the short straw (in his mind) of having to come out solo while Julia took the students to the park in search of more monkey blood.

He considered going back up the tape and heading off on a new bearing, but to do so would be to tear at the faith upon which his vocation rested. Filson knew his predilection to cut corners when out on his own and tried to buffer bad habits by removing human bias at all costs.  Which of course was not possible but the key was the belief that it was.  What the numbers told you was what you did, what you reported. Take even a small step off this path and the metastasis began, an accrual of rationalization that would consume the truth and spit it back out as something altogether new.  So he removed the heavy soil corer from his pack and placed the cylindrical aperture where the tape dictated it should go.

The corer was of forged steel, weightier even than it appeared, the heft necessary to do its job.  Nearly three feet of it were devoted to a rubber-coated handle the circumference of a baseball bat, into which slid with oiled ease an inch-wide red rod with a terminal and squared off flare, threads on the inside.  The threads connected the core itself, seven by two inches of hollowed steel with its own threaded cap at one end and a machine-beveled portal at the other.  Set the blade, lift the handle, slam it back down and the core would fill with earth.  Yank the handle skyward again and remove a repeatable plug of what was once the molten floor of a long distant sea.  And so he began, finding the first seven inches to be unusually easy, far less than the normal force needed to drive the core’s burnished grey cap level with the forest floor.

Still, to remove the soil he was forced to pair the wrenches yet again, one a crescent on the flange of the cap, the other a swivel wrench of the kind used on oil filters but now hitched tight to the barrel of the core.  Again he cursed the particulars of a tool whose proper use seized the threads with every hammer-blow, and wondered why a different design could not have been wrought but could not think of one himself.  The cap removed, he held the core with the blade up, placed its now uncapped end in a quart-sized ziploc bag and began to free the soil by jamming a screwdriver blade into its midst.  Unlike the preceding dozens now deformed in their own bags and scattered about his pack this one came free immediately, the filled bag conspicuously light.  He thought again about the strangeness of this spot, the low density of the sample confirming his belief that this small allotment somehow did not reflect the jungle in which it lay.  Sealing the bag, he then used a black sharpie to label it.  BS-WS-6-0-20.  Bosque Suital, West Slope.  Transect point six, zero to twenty centimeters.  Then in minor defiance of protocol he added: spot looks fucked up.

He tossed the plastic bag on top of the mud-stained pack and moved on to the next depth increment of the core, twenty to forty centimeters, this one also easier to fill than it should have been, as were the subsequent pair.  Eighty centimeters now unearthed, he had to use two crescent wrenches on the cap and inner rod so that an extension section could be added, allowing him to reach still deeper into the earth below.  The extra rod in place, he guided the core down the fresh borehole until he felt the surety of a horizontal plane encountered.

His hands aching from the repetition of the day’s work and his shoulder now beginning to throb from the palm thorns he brought the hammer down and then winced at an unforeseen resistance. Again he tried, hands slipping on the oozing rubber handle saturated by the return of the rain.  The core had descended perhaps an inch. A rock or more likely a root.  He removed the core to see, but at that depth and in this light he could not.  No matter.  Whatever it was would need to be cut through and then he could move on to the last four points, after which a shower and a cold beer would be waiting, the latter sweating in the tropical heat the moment it was freed from the battered silver icebox behind the bar.

Buoyed by the thought he came down with renewed force, the corer hesitating briefly before dropping to the required mark etched on the extension shaft.  Root, he thought.  Now severed and likely wedged against each side of the core, where it would barricade the soil against the force of the screwdriver and make removing the sample a pain in the ass.  Reversing the direction of force yet again, he began to haul out the core, finding resistance here too.  Another puzzle.  Though driving the core through the earth took considerable force, pulling it back out was typically easy.  This time he had to use the weight of the hammer-shaft in reverse, a clean and jerk maneuver that left him sitting on the ground.  He swore again before searching for the crescent and swivel wrenches and then taking hold of the bladed end of the core and rotating it onto his lab.

The triangular flap of fabric protruding from the soil was unmistakably a piece of a shirt and was a thing he could not explain and yet somewhere inside him he knew the explanation was to come.  He sat for a long time looking at the checkerboard imprint of red and blue still apparent in the torn cotton despite its newer facing of clay.  The same pattern he’d seen on Miguel’s back before he abruptly left without a word to anyone. Or at least that’s how Walter told the tale.

Up and left me without a guide for the park.  Eight tourists, hunnerd-fifty each.  Son of a bitch better not come back.

Filson had stopped being surprised by the turnover of people at the hotel but Miguel’s disappearance did not sit well with him, the gentle guide unfailing for more than three years until their arrival two weeks ago, his absence at the boat ramp a first, his treasured spotting scope and tripod abutting Filson’s field pack in the boathouse.

There was something else just visible above the obelisk of soil and cloth and god knew what else.  It was partly obscured by the fabric and called to mind a whittled segment of wood.  He sat with the corer in his lap, numbed by the sickening pastiche at the end of the core, until he finally fitted the wrenches in place and removed the hammer shaft and cap from the hollow cylinder.  The now uncapped end had only soil visible, yet this gave him no peace and he would not place it in a plastic bag.  Instead he simply took hold of the screwdriver and emptied the contents of the core on the ground before him, where he discovered that though he had never seen such a thing in all of his thirty-nine years he knew at once that besides the shirt fragment there was a cored section of rotting human flesh and a shard of rib bone.   The now empty core fell from his hand and rolled down the hill as he turned to the side and vomited on the machete lying there in the boot-slicked mud.


4 thoughts on “Taking a Chance

  1. Margaret Krebs

    You can’t stop now!!! Great descriptions. Marilyn Stasio, the mystery reviewer in the NYTimes will give this a high rating!


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