The Tree on Top of the World
article written by MRI
21.02.18 | 02:02

“But if you do know what is taught by plants and weather, you are in on the gossip and can feel truly at home. The sum of a field’s forces become what we call very loosely the ‘spirit of the place.’ To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are a part of a part and that the whole is made parts, each of which in a whole.” – Gary Snyder

Katie busy doing fieldwork at a polylepis location Katie busy doing fieldwork at a Polylepis tree location

5:30 AM. 3600 M. Southern Ecuador. The whisper of dawn. I sipped the bitter coffee, my frozen fingers wrapped around the mug’s heat. Around me for miles the high altitude paramo grasslands were bright with a strange light: the night’s full moon (a once-in-a-few-years-super-blue-blood-moon) was setting, and the sun, not yet up, was just beginning to shoulder its crimson way toward the horizon. The grass ridges stretching in wide broad peaks and valleys around me glowed a dark orange. A rocky massif to the southwest was shadowed in purple. My breath mingled with the coffee’s steam in the thin air.

It was the start of our third day at the top of the Zhurucay River watershed, setting up dozens of different sensors to study a small patch of polylepis forest. Polylepis: a type of tree that grows at higher altitude than any other in the world, well above the treeline where continuous forest cover occurs. In the midst of the harsh paramo ecosystem, little groves of Polylepis trees grow, in sheltered pockets along streams or in the wind-protected lee of cliffs. These gnarled, tough trees grow in these microhabitats in spite of the Paramo’s extreme conditions, which can range between high ultraviolet radiation and below freezing temperatures. I was there with a team of researchers from the University of New Hampshire (USA) and the Universidad de Cuenca (Ecuador). The others were PhD scientists, grad students, professionals. I was merely there by association (my partner Heidi Asbjornsen is a researcher at the University of New Hampshire). I was an untrained field grunt, a mountain lover, a pagan dirtbag, a poet.

Hiking in the paramo, an unusual yet crucial Andean ecosystem Hiking in the paramo, an unusual yet crucial Andean ecosystem

The Paramo – a high elevation tropical ecosystem – looks like a cross between the highlands of Scotland, central Wyoming and Arctic Alaska. Big, open, lonesome, barren, rolling mountains. Windy, cold, yellow grasslands where the ground is etched with uneven peaty lumps under the wind-swayed ankle-high grass. It’s almost like walking on the semi-frozen tussocks of the Arctic, but instead you’re on the equator where the sun crackles with intensity, peeling skin and bleaching concrete, even when it’s cloudy. In the distance, stone-etched massifs and hoodoos that look like they belong in Monument Valley, or Dr Seuss. The weather changes radically in minutes, rushing from blinding sun to hail or rain, though clouds and light rain are more common than clear blue sky. Always wind. Wind that leaps and pummels and breezes and curves and surprises and shivers. Always wind.

The field site we were working at was a hectare-sized patch of polylepis forest tucked underneath a steep ridge. The land belonged to the Quimsacocha mine, an extensive mining project owned by a Canadian company. While all of us had mixed feeling about the intensive mining that would soon start on this land, we were grateful for, and impressed by, the mining company’s scientific support and ecological initiatives, which included a polylepis tree nursery. We were generously fed and put up in a bunkhouse by the company, and they provided workers to help out with parts of the research.

Patricio puts one of the countless sensors in place Patricio puts one of the countless sensors in place

The previous two days had been a persistent mix of activities to push the work along. Humping equipment across the broad, sumpy ridges of the paramo; drilling into tree trunks, climbing, digging, cutting, chainsawing, and wiring to install sensors; we installed sap flow sensors, leaf wetness sensors, soil moisture sensors, point dendrometers, wood moisture sensors, and temperature and humidity sensors. The sensors were wired into circuit boards that we attached to trees inside of waterproof Tupperware bins.

On that third morning, once the sun rose and we were done with coffee and breakfast, as in the days before, we donned our 100-proof sunscreen and rubber boots and got to work. In the sun and wind, after a few days of working together, we were relaxed in the way that people who work outside usually are. As we attached wires and replaced broken drill bits, we talked about the politics of climate change, of how scientific research funding is getting harder just when it is getting more important. Despite that, the urgency of learning more about these mountain ecosystems was clear. Not just for the polylepis and paramo, but for the speckled bears and alpacas, the ranchers and villagers, for the millions of people who lived downstream and depend on the precious water collected, stored, and slowly released by the paramo.

By early afternoon, we were starting to wrap up the project, burying bundles of wires in trenches, troubleshooting sensors that weren’t connecting. We picked up the bags of tools, cables, garbage bags. The field site looked like it was booby-trapped for a prank with colored cables spider-webbing all over the place.

As I crouched high up in a tree, screwing a final leaf wetness sensor into a branch, I wondered what this place would look like in ten or twenty years. I wondered how the kind of climate anomalies already evident would impact these trees and grasslands. Would they hold up under greater extremes? While so much of the world is aware of the danger of melting glaciers, awareness of the importance of paramos, which serve as high-altitude wetlands, is just becoming more common. Andean paramos occupy only 5% of the watershed area, yet provide drinking water for 40 million people. Human pressure, climate change and solar radiation all stress these unusual ecosystems, and no one really knows how the paramos will respond. As an ecosystem that not only provides water, but also stores carbon, paramos are critical for the world we know and love. And we’re just starting to understand how polylepis trees fit into that water cycle: how they capture additional water from fog in their leaves and allow water to infiltrate more deeply into the soil.

Heidi and Juan working in the middle of trees, shrubs, bags and wires Heidi and Juan working in the middle of trees, shrubs, bags and wires

As we concluded our work, I stepped out from the maze of trees into the open paramo, which stretched for dozens of miles in every direction. Aside from a few distant fragments of barbed-wire fence, I could see no obvious impact of humans, just a landscape that was largely self-regulating. I thought of the writer Martin Shaw, who writes that, “Wilderness is a form of sophistication, because it carries within it true knowledge of our place in the world.”

This is why I had come halfway across the world: to be in a wild place, to be on the front lines of climate change research. To start to develop a new language around climate change. That science is critical is more self-evident every day, but it is just as critical to express those findings in ways that motivate people on an emotional level. Words like like “evapotranspiration” and “stomatal conductance” reach the mind, but we also need to reach hearts. If we want people to support science, we need to make them care.

After finishing, we hiked back to the pickup truck parked along the road, our backs and arms heavy with shovels and cordless drills and loops of wires. As we stumbled, tired, up the steep ridges, it occurred to me that we were mammals just like the horses and alpacas we saw grazing in the distance: all part of this planet. We would be back.

Ian Ramsey teaches music and environmental writing, chairs the Visual and Performing Arts program, and leads student trips at North Yarmouth Academy. He’s also the founder and director of their Kauffmann Program for Environmental Writing and Wilderness Exploration. Heidi Asbjornsen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of New Hampshire. Currently they are both visiting and conducting field work at the paramos in Ecuador.