Earth Day: High school students from Aldo Leopold’s alma mater spend a week in our Cerro Candelaria forest

Aldo Leopold’s 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac”, was one of the first voices of the environmental consciousness that began to awaken in response to the post-World War II rise of man’s destructive power. The founder of Earth Day, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, was deeply influenced by his writings.

Aldo Leopold wanted humanity to develop a land ethic, one that respected plants and non-human animals. He wrote:

“When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence.”

“This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls were property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong. Concepts of right and wrong were not lacking from Odysseus’ Greece: witness the fidelity of his wife through the long years before at last his black-prowed galleys clove the wine-dark seas for home. The ethical structure of that day covered wives, but had not yet been extended to human chattels. During the three thousand years which have since elapsed, ethical criteria have been extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those judged by expediency only.”

“…There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.”

Perhaps (just perhaps) our ethical sphere has been extended a bit since Leopold wrote those words, but we have a long way to go. We spend less and less time in nature, to the point where most people today do not even know what real nature is. Intact ecosystems are now so rare that the vast majority of people will never experience them, much less fall in love with them. This visceral love of nature is the only thing that can drive people to sacrifice their own comforts to protect it.

Dr John L. Clark, who holds the Aldo Leopold Distinguished Teaching Chair at The Lawrenceville School, Aldo Leopold’s alma mater in New Jersey, is as much in love with nature as anyone I know. He has started a program to bring his high school biology students (ranging in age from 15-18 years old) to our reserves in Ecuador, to try to ignite this passion for real nature in the next generation.

John is an old friend of mine who used to be a Peace Corps volunteer here in the 1980s. He is now a famous botanist specializing in gesneriads, the African Violet family. He has published several monographs on gesneriad genera and has discovered many new species. Two years ago, as a professor at the University of Alabama, he brought a college biology class to our Rio Zunac Reserve to set up two quarter-hectare plots, in which every tree bigger than 10 cm in diameter was sampled, tagged, and identified. Dr David Neill from the Universidad Estatal Amazonica helped set up that plot and identified the trees. In the process they found what turned out to be two new species of Magnolia trees, and John discovered a new gesneriad in the genus Columnea.

Now in his new position at The Lawrenceville School, he has done the same thing with a dozen of his high school students, joining with David Neill again to set up a quarter-hectare plot in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve last month. It was a daring project, very unusual for an American high school.

Some of his students wrote about their experience. Here is Kaimansa Sowah’s essay, which she titled “Botanizing!”:

“Never had I seriously considered ecology or botany or even entomology as a field of interest until our trip to Cerro Candelaria on the eastern slopes of the Andes in Ecuador. Arriving in Quito on a Saturday morning with many missionary groups crowding the lines at immigration, I questioned if our work in Ecuador would have any real impact on the community. How could plant identification transcend traditional community service? It would not be until I was sitting around a fire at our high camp sipping tea made from recently collected crushed foliage of a Lauraceae we had found earlier, barely communicating sufficiently in my middle school Spanish that I managed to realize the profound importance of our trip to Ecuador.”

“The hike up to camp was brutal to say the least. Many of us had never hiked before and mounted on our backs were 50-pound packs with silica gel for preparing museum specimens, M&Ms (which would be our lunch for several days), and personal belongings. Our frequent stops for “Botanizing!” only heightened the difficulty level. Our expedition leader Dr. John Clark lights up at a fallen Gesneriaceae leaf, so throughout the hike and the trip as a whole, he was never short of excitement as our paths were lined with rare and new species. Fortunately, the view of mountains perfectly scattered, parting only for the rapids leading to and from waterfalls, fuelled our strenuous walk to the camp. The view never ceased to amaze us, and many of us still fail to believe its reality.”

“It was not until we began work on the plots that each of our own individual love for botany and plant life was established. Divided into groups of three, we established and inventoried tree diversity in a 0.25-hectare permanent plot. With the help of Tito, our guide, friend, and resident tree climber, we identified trees based on vegetative features (e.g., leaf patterns, leaf arrangement, smell), recorded DBH (diameter breast height), tree height, and tagged each tree with an aluminum label. Our field journals appeared something like this: “tree 4, subplot 5, 25 meter height, 18 cm DBH, simple-alternate leaves with milky sap (Moraceae?).” On the first day we found a cherry tree (Prunus sp.) that had never been observed by our resident scientist and tree expert, Dr. David Neill who is a professor of biology at the Universidad Estatal Amazónica. Many of the trees were challenging to identify, which only further affirmed how much biodiversity surrounded us. During a lunch break, we played a plant identification game where we were divided into teams and given Al Gentry’s book “A Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants of North west South America.” Each team was timed in their ability to identify foliage to family. All of us being extremely competitive, we quickly held our leaves to the light using our hand lenses, crushing and smelling, and rapidly blurting out names like “Piperacae!” Euphoribacae!” “Melostomatacae!””

“Along with our own Dr. Clark were resident entomologists and ecologists who shared their love of biology. We also met the director and founder of the EcoMinga foundation, Lou Jost who is a theoretical mathematician, ecologist, and botanist who specializes in the study of orchids. We were surrounded by vast amounts of unique talent, which greatly sparked our own interests. Besides the fieldwork, we were able to connect and talk with our guides. They soon became our friends, and it was through conversations with them that we realized how grateful they were for our interest in visiting their reserve. No, as a sixteen-year-old girl, I had never thought of biodiversity research as one of my interests. And I cannot say whether it was our guide giving us hints during the scavenger hunt with his ability to identify plant families from meters away, or the sheer look of ecstasy when “Ranger”, also known as Dr. Clark, and Dr. Neill sat around their pressed leaves dumbfounded at a new species, or Darwin [Recalde]’s ability to navigate the maze-like mountains and carting us up steep hills. Nonetheless, this trip has piqued my interest and I suspect that botany and biodiversity will play a large role in my future.”

Eloise White wrote of her experience:

“…When I first signed up to travel to Ecuador with the School, I expected a week of light hiking, bonding with new friends, and great food, all coupled with the occasional botanical reference. While the food was indeed fantastic, the intensity of the trip took us all by surprise on the first day in the field, when we embarked on a challenging four-hour hike to our camp. It was not until after we finished showering in the beautiful waterfall and sat down at dinner to prepare our field notebooks for our work in the tree plots the next morning that I realized the importance of the work that we would accomplish during our time in the forest.”

“When we reached the plots bright and early the next day, we received instructions, and my group quickly fell into a rhythm of tagging trees with bright orange tape and communicating with our local guides who were climbing to the canopy of the trees, a task that gradually became easier as our Spanish improved. Each time that our guide, usually some 30 feet high in a tree, would cry “Ten cuidado!” the three students in my group would jump back and wait for an unidentified specimen to come crashing to the ground. That first day, in the moments that I spent with Dr. Clark, tagging and pressing plant samples into pages of newspaper, his excitement surrounding new and rare species was absolutely contagious. I found myself eager to memorize the names of plant species, to identify which types of bark had latex, and to distinguish simple leaves from compound leaves. Even now, I find myself so grateful to Dr. Clark and the other scientists accompanying us in the forest because they showed me what it means to be passionate about a specific field of study, something that I hope to do as I move forward in my Lawrenceville career, the college process, and my life.”

“…My Spanish teachers at The Lawrenceville School have always stressed the importance of experiencing the language abroad in order to truly further my understanding… Between trying to ask our guides to scale a certain tree to obtain a specimen and sitting around our campfire late in the night, telling ghost stories and jokes with Jordi and Darwin, I was constantly speaking Spanish. The pure exposure to the language coupled with the locals’ willingness to help me practice provided me with a unique opportunity to further an area of interest which I had not previously devoted much attention to. Furthermore, partially overcoming the language barrier opened the group up to an irreplaceable chance to form lasting friendships with locals, a memory that I will forever treasure. Lawrenceville constantly stresses the importance of expanding our horizons, and I can attest that in communicating with and working alongside unfamiliar faces, the twelve of us expanded our own world views significantly.”

“Before embarking on our journey, our teachers made it clear that our accommodations would be far from luxurious. We were told us that we would be perpetually damp, sweaty, and dirty, all of which later proved true. However, I will be the first to say that the view from our wooden cabin base camp without windows, doors, or even walls was extraordinary, rivaling that from any mountain getaway or island. When we summited Cerro Candelaria (3800+ m), while it was extremely challenging and put both our bodies and minds to the test, the breathtaking outlook from the top instantly made our hard work worth it.”

“Overall, my work and experiences in Ecuador were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. They opened my eyes up to an entirely new scope of interests, people, and awareness. For example, as I previously planned on dropping out of Spanish for my senior year, I have changed my mind and will continue to advance my understanding of the language, hopefully into college. As I begin the college search, I have been relentlessly pestering my counselor about which schools have the best programs to study abroad while working with the science department. I attribute these shifts in my interests to my recent experience in Ecuador.”

Vivienne Gao expresses the very real physical challenges of this trip:

“Honestly, if I had known our expedition to Ecuador involved so much hiking, I probably would not have signed up. I’ve always been more comfortable in the water; I prefer swimming over running and am generally more athletic when I am not on land, so the minute I found out that our first hike to low camp would take roughly four hours, I definitely had my doubts…The day was hot, but not unpleasant, but I still kept my hair in braids to keep it off my neck. Once we began our hike however, the physical exertion made the heat borderline unbearable. We all carried large Osprey backpacks with our personal belongings, and these bags were not only heavy but also didn’t breathe well. Sweat happily gathered between my back and my pack, soaking through my shirt so that when I finally peeled the pack off, my shirt still clung to me as a dog’s fur clings to it, dripping, rinsed after a soapy bath in the backyard. The hike was mostly uphill, but the terrain varied. We were slopping through mud, climbing over rocks, and wading through streams, sometimes on level ground and sometimes on downhill slopes, but everything led us upwards eventually.”

“I remember seeing the cabin for the first time after three or so hours of hiking and thinking that this was the best moment of my life. I had fallen behind with a couple friends, so the rest of the group was already in the cabin waiting for us. As I slowly trudged up the hill, humoring the impressive cramp in my right calf that had formed over the duration of the hike, I congratulated myself for completing the hike, a feat that I considered the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Little did I know that in the days to come, I would experience hikes many times more difficult than this one, a prospect far beyond my wildest imaginations…”

“Twenty minutes before we reached low camp, my small group of hiking companions and I had come across waterfall, the same waterfall that would host our daily shower and laundry trips. After reaching camp, everyone, me included, was excited to wash the salt and dirt off their bodies. The idea of showering in a waterfall enticed me, but my legs caved at the thought of hiking another twenty minutes to the waterfall, yet I went anyways. The waterfall became my favorite place and I went everyday after that.”

“I came back from Ecuador having learned more about my physical and mental limits, surprised at how hard I could actually push myself. I lost eleven pounds but earned so much more in experience and memories. The trip is something I will never forget, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll return, ready to face the challenges I faced this time and conquer them.”

As his students noticed, John Clark was at least as excited as they were:

“I am often asked how I know when something I come across is a new species. It is important to note that describing a new species is a process that is collections-based, requires several formal criteria outlined by the International Code of Nomenclature (ICN), and is contingent on a peer-reviewed publication. It is considered by some biologists (e.g., L.E. Skog who co-chaired my PhD committee) as “bad botanical etiquette” to say something is new without data. Nevertheless, outlined here are four species that I am confident have not been previously described. My doctoral dissertation resulted in a monographic revision of Glossoloma (Clark 2005). This is a group of plants that I dedicated more than a decade studying and when finished, I expected that there would be an occasional new species that would represent something that was not included in the monograph (Clark 2005). For example, Karyn Cichocki observed a new species of Glossoloma in 2007 when assisting me on an expedition in Ecuador. An additional new species was described with a student as a result of an expedition in Colombia (Rodas & Clark 2014). What I did not expect to find in Cerro Candelaria was a new species of Glossoloma every 500 meters in elevation change. I found three new species of Glossoloma between our base camp and the high camp. We also discovered a an undescribed species of Drymonia, which is a group that Laura Clavijo and I have studied together for more than eight years. I directed Laura’s dissertation committee (2007 to 2015) and together we have published more than eight papers on Drymonia. Thus, the four undescribed species featured in Figure 1 [below] are based on ongoing studies of museum specimens, extensive fieldwork, and comprehensive review of taxonomic literature. The remarkable discovery of biodiversity featured in Figure 1 is an example of the urgency and need for additional studies in the Neotropics.”

“There are also rare species from Cerro Candelaria that I did not expect to find. Two collections represent populations that were not previously known. The rarest plant that we found was Columnea bivalvis (photo below, D and E), which was previously only known from a single population (Amaya-Márquez & Clark 2011). [Note added by LJ: That original population was found in what is now our Rio Machay Reserve.] Drymonia ignea (photo below, A and B) is endemic to the eastern slopes of the Andes and was previously only known from 5 populations (Clark 2013). Never have I seen more than a few individuals of Drymonia ignea growing together and along the ridgeline there were multiple areas of ten or more individuals.”

The Lawrenceville School students not only gave us their friendship and enthusiasm but also brought the gift of electricity to our research stations. I’ll save that story for a separate post.

The Lawrenceville School staff who visited us: Baptiste Bataille, Jennifer Mayr (her husband is related to famous evolutionary biologist Ernest Mayr!) and John L. Clark.

The Lawrenceville School staff who visited us: Baptiste Bataille, Jennifer Mayr (her husband is related to famous evolutionary biologist Ernest Mayr!) and John L. Clark.

The essay excerpts used here are from John’s fuller version of this story which will soon be published by the magazine “Gesneriads”. They are used here with John’s, the school’s, and the magazine editor’s permission. Thanks John, and thanks Lawrenceville School students, for a wonderful cultural exchange and exciting scientific discoveries! Your enthusiasm and that of your students inspires us and makes our work feel worth the trouble. Lawrenceville School students, you literally walk in the footsteps of the great Aldo Leopold, and I hope that like him, some of you can help the earth face the challenges that your own generation will witness.

EcoMinga also thanks the World Land Trust and their donors Puro Coffee, Naturetrek, and PricewaterhouseCoopers for funding the Cerro Candelaria Reserve, and their donor Noel McWilliam for the funds to build the research station where these students, and many other students and scientists, stayed.

The World Land Trust’s “Forests in the Sky” appeal continues to expand the protection of this area.

Lou Jost

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