Friday, January 27, 2017

Fulbright National Geographic Stories: Senses at Work in Danum Valley

I’ve been in Danum Valley, a protected forest in Malaysian Borneo, for just over two months.

In addition to setting up camera traps in the canopy, I’ve also been setting a ground-level network of cameras, which have to be rotated every few weeks.

Because of this, my field schedule involves a great deal of waiting, punctuated with bursts of intense weeks collecting, resetting, and deploying cameras all over the forest.

Days in the field can be as mentally draining as they are physically exhausting, so it can be easy to just hike in and hike out thinking only about the next step.

As my time in Danum Valley nears the end I made a conscious effort to be a bit more present while making my final collections and appreciate this remarkable place.

I just recovered from a cold, so just a few days ago I couldn’t smell anything at all.

At various times in the forest I could have sworn I smelled anise, camphor, menthol, and on a couple occasions (perhaps swayed by a rumbling stomach), French fries.

Many of the trees in tropical forests produce aromatic compounds used in soaps and perfumes, so my nose might not be far off in some of those cases.

Today on the trail, there is a potent musk in the air.

There are a few piles of elephant dung scattered here and there, but they’re old and mostly grass, a few of them with mushrooms sprouting out – they really don’t smell like anything anymore.

The musk is coming from an animal, however – probably a Bearded Pig, but Malay Weasles can also be quite pungent.

It takes a lot of work to get up the tree. I use a mechanical ascender with little spiked teeth that grip my rope to slide my way up the tree.

Each time I pull the excess rope, I can advance an arm’s length further upward.

The particular technique I use is not the most efficient, but it allows me to go down easily if for some reason I need to make a rapid descent (ants, bees, monkeys, an unnoticed broken branch balancing overhead).

As you rise above the first layer of trees, the sun hits you for the first time all day.

There’s a light breeze and the air almost feels a little dry, a stark contrast from the sweltering humidity of the forest floor.