Finding Leaves in the Forest
Walking through a forest full of unfamiliar leaves and sounds felt strange.
I felt uneasy not knowing which plants are sharp or induce rashes, not knowing which bugs are creating the constellations on my skin, and not knowing how the snakes would behave if I came near them. I was very alert, and out of my comfort zone in totally new territory.
Yet, going into this forest to find one specific plant was the only task on my to-do-list. I love hiking through the forest and I was excited to discover the dry tropical forests of Costa Rica, but my fear came from the idea of naïvely blundering through a totally new tropical forest—alone.
So before venturing down senderos (trails), I spent several days driving the roads in the surrounding area. I remembered the photos my advisor showed me, where wild lima bean plants were cascading from trees and fence lines along dirt roads. After stopping the car multiple times to check out yet another trifoliate-leafed lookalike, I was still out of luck. I had to abandon the safety of my rental car. And I would try to not step on a snake.
My German scientist friend showed me a good trail to begin and as he left me at the trailhead I joked,
“If I don’t come back by dinner, you’ll know where to find me”,
to which he replied,
“If you don’t come back it is probably because you ran into some trouble with snakes. They can be a real problem and should be taken seriously”.
Yes, I know. I looked down the shaded trail and was petrified.
Luckily the dark clouds overhead rumbled, so I let that be my reason to head back to camp. I figured I snakes might be less active in the morning when the sun is shining, and when my heart is not pounding out of my chest… right?
So the following morning, as a walking cloud of bug spray in pants and long sleeves, I started walking, scanning as I walked. Scanning for safe places to step, and scanning every leaf dangling from a vine.
Let me tell you, there are a lot of vines in the tropics.
This is the first of many things I had known in my head, but had never experienced firsthand. Sorting through the interwoven blankets of green, looking for one specific vine, I experientially learned how popular this lifestyle is for plants in this type of forest. Not surprisingly, these vines all looked the same. The angle at which the leaves hung from their stem, their pointy leaf tips, and even the particular shade of bright green they all shared gave the vines in this forest a similar look, which happens to be the “look” I anticipated using to recognize my lima bean plants. Every glimmer of excitement was met by defeat when I leaned in closer and realized I was not even close. Many of these lima bean candidates were from totally different plant families. I was baffled that leaves with only 2 leaflets could deceive me so convincingly.
That is when it dawned on me: this plant I came to find in its native habitat is adapted to its native habitat, but so are many other plants!
Of the plants that had three leaflets and were at least in the bean family, I found roughly 13 different species when I thought I had finally found lima bean in nature. One was very fuzzy, one had a thick stem that supports itself upright, one had super exaggerated curvy leaves, one had long, skinny leaves, another was too round at the tip, and so on. Again, something I have always known, but never had experienced firsthand, is that certain plant families are incredibly diverse—especially Fabaceae, the bean family.
Luckily, in this past year I collected a lot of extrafloral nectar from tiny stipules at the base of the leaflets, and my intimate relationship with these tiny green glands served me well—I could identify imposters with confidence.
At least I was certain. Here I was, alone in the forest, certain that I had not found my plant. The weight of several fears crashed over me, including the fear of failing this entire field research endeavor.
Overwhelmed, alone, and frustrated, I kept scanning as I walked, trying to land my eyes on each leaf by the trail, under shrubs, hanging from trees, and then to the base of the tree and to the trail.
To not surprise anyone that could deliver a deadly bite, I started singing. Never have I been more grateful to have the words to songs from outdoor school like “gypsy rover” lodged permanently into my autopilot memory.
Leaf, leaf, leaf, trail, leaf, and so on.
But then I came to a fork in the trail, neither of which actually looked like a trail, instead it seemed a deer passed by several times, slightly clearing the foliage. After investigating both options, the idea of getting lost on top of my neurotic scanning was too much. I stopped singing and turned around.
I immediately realized the forest around me was not the quiet forest I had been imagining as I sang my way in. The snakes I thought I would scare away by announcing my presence might not have even cared about the gypsy and his lady over the hum and buzz of the canopy and forest floor. I stopped panicking and just listened.
As I listened to the forest, I also began to notice the forest.
The sunlight scattered through the palm fronds and I noticed the blackish purple spikes running along the midrib. I saw the strange, twisted thorns winding up the Acacia tree, bustling with tiny red ants. Golf ball-sized bees whirred past my head. I took a big breath, taking it all in. I loved where I was, exploring a new forest, but instead of seeing what was actually in front of me, I had been imagining my hopes and fears: picturing lima bean leaves under the next limb, while imagining a snake peering out from under the next log.
The fundamental richness of my situation began to seep in and I could finally breathe easy. I could finally just be in the forest. To get to know how the lianas grow and what kinds of birds make which sounds. I took it all in.
And that is when I actually found my first lima bean plant.
The moment hung in the air just as my trifoliate vine hung delicately in a gap between trees. It became the beginning of my journey with field research: I could begin. This peace of mind also brought an ease in being on my own in this adventure, and in soaking up each moment of this experience.
-Adrienne L. Godschalx, October 30, 2015