Demons of The Forest. Owners of Trees

„And they climbed up to the top of the tree. But the tree begun to grow larger. It swelled in size. Thus when they wanted to come back down, One Batz and One Huen couldn’t climb down from the top of the tree.

Thus they went up into the tops of the trees there in the small mountains and the great mountains. They went out into the forests, howling and chattering loudly in the branches of the trees.“

-Popol Vuh

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You will hear them.

When the day and the night and the night and the day start to blend and the light becomes enchanted and purple, they begin to howl. They begin to cry, and to moan, and to roar, and to scream. You will hear, even when you are still miles away, the most heartbreaking cries, the most ominous moans, the most arrogant roars, the most melancholic screams. What wounded  animals -or demons – could be, you will ask yourself, capable of such violent sadness?

Only a few miles southwest of the town of El Estor a river enters Lake Izabal. El Rio Polochic, the biggest tributary to the biggest lake in Guatemala forks in a few smaller channels before reaching the lake to create a basin, vast and remote, of intimate hidden bays surrounded by flat swampy shores where dense grasses, bushes, and trees form an impenetrable green mass. The abundance of tropical vegetation is hysterical.

Fata Morgana, Friendship, and Blizzard anchored near Bocas de Polochic.

Fata Morgana, Friendship, and Blizzard anchored near Bocas de Polochic.

The three boats drop anchor in a little protected bay. Here every day is blessedly the same. There are no other people. Nothing moves. A place entirely devoid of civilization. This is one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. The waters of the delta are kingdom of fish, otters, manatees, and crocodiles. Its shores are home to coyotes, jaguars, sloths, and giant anteaters. The skies are patrolled by over 250 species of birds, among which herons, egrets, toucans, and parrots.

 A channel of Rio Polochic

A channel of Rio Polochic

But while all those creatures try, at all cost, to make themselves as elusive as possible: hiding hushed beneath the waters, behind the grasses and bushes, there are those who announce themselves from the top of the trees as „the seers upon the face of the earth“. At the break of day and just before the night falls, their screams knife the forest penetrating your chest to chill your blood. You might think, as i did, these are the voices of some huge ghostly creatures, abandoned, hurting beyond hope. Or you might think, as i did, they are fierce and mean, messengers of Satan, and are probably devouring somebody right now. Such are their howls: deep and sinister as if coming from hell. The howls of the Black Howler Monkeys of Guatemala.

Black Howler MOnkey

Black Howler Monkey

We would hear them at dawn and at dusk, never got quite used to their unholy cries. Later, I would miss them. The first evening of silence I kept listening for their violent moans, in vain. When we sailed away after three days, just a few miles south, to a place where indigenous Mayan people live on the shores of the lake, there were no more howler monkeys. They don’t share their territory with people. And their voices didn’t travel to this place.

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The first time we went upriver by dinghies and floated back downriver with the motors off, we saw them far in the distance. It was a last chance kind-of-thing before darkness fell and swallowed their shapes. We saw them, a group of about 10-12 up in the tree without leaves. Silhouettes sleeping upon the branches. Then the night came. And the enigma: How ware these creatures, not larger than dogs, capable of such loud screams?

A group of Howler Monkeys

A group of Howler Monkeys

„Howlers are New World monkeys found in tropical Central and South America. They are aptly named for their cacophonous cries. When a number of howlers let loose their lungs in concert, often at dawn or dusk, the din can be heard up to three miles (five kilometers) away. Male monkeys have large throats and specialized, shell-like vocal chambers that help to turn up the volume on their distinctive call. The noise sends a clear message to other monkeys: This territory is already occupied by a troop. These vocal primates are the biggest of all the New World monkeys. Unlike Old World monkeys, howlers and other New World species have wide, side-opening nostrils and no pads on their rumps. Howlers also boast a prehensile tail. They can use this tail as an extra arm to grip or even hang from branches—no Old World monkeys have such a tail. A gripping tail is particularly helpful to howler monkeys because they rarely descend to the ground. They prefer to stay aloft, munching on the leaves that make up most of their diet.“ (National Geographic)

Howler Monkeys chilling.

Howler Monkeys chilling.

The next day, we saw them again. We went kayaking for five hours upriver and floated back downriver with the gentle current, and a couple of howlers were chilling just above our heads, in a big tree. We looked at them, and they looked at us. To me, this first close encounter with the wild animals was like some sort of a miracle.

They looked annoyed by us, watching us with mistrust and disapproval. We were trespassing. One kept chewing leaves, stuffing them in his mouth with a very slow motion, returning my stare, telling me: „Move on, can’t you see I am trying to eat here in peace. This is my private branch. How would you feel if I came to your window to stare at you while you are having supper?“

Black Howler Monkeys eating leaves.

Black Howler Monkeys eating leaves.

He looked sad, mean, and ugly, I thought. His teeth yellow and crooked, his fur black, full of lice. His tale long and thick holding the branch like a dark tentacle. His mouth, incapable even of the slightest smile, endowed him with a bitter melancholic expression. But what impressed me the most were his eyes: wet, deep, full of secrets. His eyes were the eyes of someone who remembers the times, forever lost, when he was a prince. When he and his twin-brother were punished in a cruel act of revenge and banished to live in the tops of the trees, in the small mountains and the great mountains, never to return to the world of men.

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Turtle Nest Expedition

 

 

 

Loggerhead Key is a tiny island in Dry Tortugas, across from Garden Key where Fort Jefferson is. A tall lighthouse, three times the height of a regular one, was erected here in the 19th century, about the same time as Fort Jefferson was being built.

Pier and Lighthouse, Loggerhead Key, Florida

Pier and Lighthouse, Loggerhead Key, Florida

 

There are not organized tours here, and so the island, its white sandy beaches, and the coral reefs around it are undisturbed by people most of the time. The only way to come here is by boat.

Driftwood on a white sandy beach, Loggerhead Key

Driftwood on a white sandy beach, Loggerhead Key

 

July 22, Monday

We drop anchor very carefully on a sandy bottom patch, making sure there are no coral heads beneath. Ivo and I take the kayak to check out the lighthouse and explore the place. Viktor and Maya stay on the boat to play video games…

Fata Morgana anchored off Loggerhead Key

Fata Morgana anchored off Loggerhead Key

 

On the island we stumble upon Mark and Suzy, Marine Biology Students doing an internship and a group of scientists studying the sea turtles.

Suzy

Suzy

Kristen Hart, a research ecologist, and her crew have just arrived to monitor some of the turtle nests on the beach.

They accept our offer to help with the turtle nest expedition. (Our help consists in caring a huge beach umbrella and holding it above the excavating researchers, taking pictures, and asking too many questions.)

Excavating a recently hatched turtle nest

Excavating a recently hatched turtle nest

 

In the next couple of hours, under the hot tropical sun, Kristen and her crew excavate turtle nests marked by a pole indicating a recent hatching.

Kristen Hart holding unhatched turtle eggs

Kristen Hart holding unhatched turtle eggs

They count the eggshells, mark the nest GPS positions, take samples from the unhatched eggs by opening them and collecting the smelly rotten yolks in a jar.

An unhatched baby turtle

An unhatched baby turtle

 

The nests contain exactly one hundred yellowish eggshells each, of which a few unhatched eggs in various stages of development, and couple of baby turtle body parts, meaning that most of the baby turtles successfully hatched and made it to the ocean sometime in the past couple of days.

We are so grateful to be part of this expedition… It is an amazing learning experience; we only regret that the kids didn’t come. We learn about the green turtles and the loggerhead turtles, their habitat, behavior, and reproduction first hand.

We spend the evening and a night of a full moon on the boat watching the light of the lonely lighthouse lazily circling around us. Tonight, enormous creatures will emerge slowly from the warm dark waters of the ocean hauling their heavy shells across the sands to find a familiar spot. A place where many many years ago they awoke buried among their one hundred brothers and sisters and with much effort their journey begun. At this spot, they will remember, their old mother came, many many years ago, and gently covered with sand one hundred round eggs, her most treasured possession. They will remember, yes, and they will do as she did. Tonight.

Full moon over the lighthouse

Full moon over the lighthouse

 

The next morning we go back to the island, this time with Maya and Viktor, to investigate the sands of the beach for new nests. Another short expedition.

Suzy leads us along the beach

Suzy leads us along the beach

 

Suzy leads us along the southeast beach showing us fresh turtle tracks and nests, explaining the difference between the green turtle and the loggerhead nesting behavior. I am glad the kids are interested and participate. This is an example of how they learn valuable lessons outside school, thanks to traveling. A natural history, ecology, and biology lesson they will never forget.

A recent turtle nest and tracks from the night before. The eggs are under the little hill.

A recent turtle nest and tracks from the night before. The eggs are under the little hill.

 

They learn that green turtles and loggerheads have different patterns of walking on the sand and making their nests. That they dig sometimes a few nests before choosing where to lay their eggs. That they do this in the dark of the night to avoid being discovered and bothered by birds and predators. That they lay a hundred eggs or more, of which over 90% hatch successfully, but only a small fraction of the baby turtles make it to adulthood. The rest become easy prey for marine predators. That, if they make it, they can live to be hundreds of years old. That people hunt them in the past for they were an easy pray and had delicious meat until their numbers diminished dramatically. That today hunting and killing a sea turtle is a crime. That pollution, oil spills, and destruction of their habitat continues even now to endanger them. And that there are now programs and individuals out there who care about them and try to preserve them.

 

You can read more about the sea turtles of Dry Tortugas and the research and conservation efforts of scientists like Kristen Hart in Implementing the Dry Tortugas National Park Research Natural Area Science Plan: The 5-Year Report 2012.

 

 

 

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The Shrimp Who Became a Shark

June 27, 2013 Key West, Florida

I wake up one morning to find a small transparent shrimp on the steps of our boat. Looks like a suicide.

Next day Ivo finds another one. And another one the day after. A dead shrimp becomes a part of our morning routine. We wake up, we make coffee, and we collect the inevitable shrimp.

The first (or second) dead shrimp

The first (or second) dead shrimp

There must be a shrimp kingdom beneath our boat, Fata Morgana. The shrimp king, a fat orange fellow with long antennas, probably had concluded, after a restless night full of hallucinations, that Fata Morgana is a powerful shrimp goddess. One who’s anger and might could annihilate in a minute the entire shrimp population for no particular reason. “Therefore, he had announced to all, sacrifice is needed to appease the powerful goddess hovering above our shrimp kingdom”.

I take the little carcass and gently place it on a hook on one of the fishing poles. I don’t have to cast far. I just drop the hook with the shrimp directly beneath the boat. Two minutes later I catch a small fish. With this little fish as bait Ivo pulls out a bigger one.

Mira with fishes

Mira with fishes

And with the bigger fish we catch a reef shark, about four feet in length or maybe even five.  It isn’t easy pulling it out of the water, the animal resists and tries to free itself. Its heavy body is silvery grey with a white belly. Its head and jaws are smaller and less impressive than the Great White shark we have all seen on TV. The Reef Shark is a common coral reef dweller and they are not dangerous to swimmers. Once, a six-foot reef shark passed nearby as we were snorkeling around a reef and none of us panicked.

A Reef Shark

A Reef Shark

Thrashing about on the deck of the boat, fighting for its life, the creature doesn’t look scary at all but frightened and helpless. It is a beautiful animal and I am against killing it.

„100 million sharks are killed each year-by longlines, by „sport“ fishermen, or by a barbaric practice known as shark finning. Hooked sharks are hauled onto boats; their fins are sliced off while they are still alive. These helpless animals are then tossed back into the ocean where, unable to swim without their fins, they sink towards the bottom and die an agonizing death.

With 90% of the world’s large shark populations already wiped out, sharks are being depleted faster than they can reproduce. This threatens the stability of marine ecosystems around the world. Sharks are vitally important apex predators. They have shaped marine life in the oceans for over 400 million years and are essential to the health of the planet, and ultimately to the survival of mankind.“ (from http://www.seashepherd.org/sharks/)

 

Sharks are endangered species but Ivo and the kids insist on grilling and eating it. Ivo says he is not exterminating large shark populations, just providing protein for the family, like Bear Grills would do…

The shark we caught

The shark we caught

And so we do. We eat the shark. There is so much meat and no bones. It is not bad at all but a bit chewy. I feel guilty…

The next day my belly is killing me, swollen, hard and hurting like hell. I feel like dying. The pain goes away very slowly; it takes me a few days to feel good again. I am sure it is the shark meat even though everyone else is fine. I knew we shouldn’t eat the shark…

Often in ocean predators bigger than four feet heavy metals accumulate, like iron and mercury, and people avoid eating them.

Shark fillets on the BBQ

Shark fillets on the BBQ

 

Today, we are more aware of the problems posed by unsustainable fishing practises around the world. New legislation regulating the overfishing of sharks are being implanted around the globe.

Shark are critically endangered and faced with extinction and some species are already wiped out due to overfishing and shark finning practises. From predator they have become pray. The survival of this marine creature with false bad reputation is being threatened. And it is not just the sharks who are in trouble. All life is interconnected in a fragile balance, and if sharks disappear, our own survival is at stake.

Personally, our family has become aware of the horrific shark-hunting industry thanks to a 2006 Canadian documentary by Rob Stewart Sharkwater. The film is not only informative on the subject, but also full of thrilling action, suspense, and hidden camera footage, as the film crew gets chased by poachers and police in Guatemala and Costa Rica, exposing the illegal shark trade and corruption. It is a must-see documentary.

Sharkwater.com

Sharkwater.com

We decide, from now on we will no longer fish for and eat sharks, unless we are forced to do so by extraordinary circumstances.

* A link to 100 Great Points of Interest in Sharks and their Conservation by Erik Brush

 

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The Solar Ark

„The overriding goal is to get away from the notion of ‘waste’ – everything natural is food for somebody or something, and therefore a resource.“

– ARVO

Close your eyes and imagine a place:

A mountain desert. Harsh climate. Desolate landscape.

But that is not the place you had to imagine, I’m sorry. Go back, and close your eyes again, and imagine a different place:

In the mountain desert, amidst the desolate landscape, surrounded by beautiful highlands, imagine an oasis. But don’t imagine the typical boring clishe, the one with the small lake in the middle and two palm trees, please. The one I am asking you to envision is much much more complicated and will take a lot more effort and ingenuity from the part of your imagination. But I’ll help you, don’t panic. Here are some of the most important items you need to place in your mental picture of the oasis: 

(You can now open your eyes in order to continue reading and see the visual aids)

 First, imagine HOMES built with a deplorably low budget using natural or recycled materials (such as rock, flagstone, recycled brick, tile, glass and lumber, straw bale, pallets, earth block [adobe], and pumice), powered by sun and wind. Imagine wind turbines and solar panels sending little packages of canned sunlight and wind puffs which come out of the wall outlets of these homes to power ultra-efficient appliances: a light-bulb, a washing machine, a well pump, a ‘solar fridge’. The sun bill of these households never goes up one cent, imagine…

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  Next, imagine a complex of integrated GREENHOUSES where lemons ripen without any supplemental heat while outside temperatures can dip to -25 degrees and where, surrounded by plants and rocks, you can take a greenhouse shower, rain water heated by the sun cascading down from a log.

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Imagine a BEAUTIFUL BACKYARD which we will now call Flushing Meadows as it is irrigated by Greywater from the showers and toilets (after a proper sceptic treatment, of course).

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Imagine a truly sustainable to perfection  ORGANIC FARM where frogs eat the nasty insects, ladybugs dine on pests, earthworms take care of the waste material turning it into prime soil, bees provide honey, wax, propolis and pollen while pollinating the orchard, and when they die, god bless their innocent little souls, become a source of protein for the chickens. And the chickens eat everything and everybody. Cannot blame the chickens, because they make eggs and are tasty, but also, they poop. And that’s good too. In this particular oasis, chicken poop makes biogas for heating and prime liquid fertilizer, which is used to grow duckweed algae as a protein-rich feed, for who?- For the chickens themselves!

Arvo with Carlos

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And finally, imagine, in the middle of it all, A SMILING GERMAN GUY NAMED ARVO who looks dramatically like Klaus Kinski, holding a female raven named Carlos.

Klaus Kinski

Klaus Kinski

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Congratulations! You have now successfully imagined The Solar Ark . And if you like this vision, let me tell you, it is real! And you, if you just imagine it possible, can become a part of it. All you need to do is to get to New Mexico where this oasis exists for more than a decade now. Or, you can simply think about all of this, maybe consider it possible to change your ways a little?

Thanks to Baba Ghanoush, we met Sherri and Nathaniel who told us about all this and who are heading to New Mexico in June to become part of The Solar Arc Project, to live there, to learn, and to help Arvo build and maintain his oasis.

Note:

I took the liberty of getting information and pictures from The Solar Ark’s website which you can visit right here for more information and details on accommodation for visitors and students, the educational program and topics covered, cost, and possibility for work-exchange (you don’t have to pay anything to learn and stay there as long as you work!)

This is something Ivo and me would totally do and we would be perfect, as we come from Bulgaria where everyone had orchards, and chickens, and outside toilets, and wells, and little wood shops. Maybe one day we will do this, when we get tired of sailing the world…

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