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Tungahua I - Bosque Protector Los Cedros

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Trogon Creek - Bosque Protector Los Cedros

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Amanecer Cerca del Observatorio - Bosque Protector Los Cedros

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Clearing - Bosque Protector Los Cedros

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Aves en el Bosque Secundario - Bosque Protector Los Cedros

I thought that there might be some interest in these, and they’re certainly not doing anyone besides myself much good just sitting on my hard drive. When I last had the pleasure of visiting the tropical forest I recorded many, many hours worth of soundscapes from different areas of the Bosque Protector Los Cedros, a biological reserve in Ecuador covering 17,000 acres of mostly untouched wilderness in the lower part of the Chocó biogeographic region, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and home to a staggering number of species of flora and fauna, many endemic to the region.

Below are several recordings, all about an hour in length. They were taken from several locations and form something of a picture of this type of forest in the middle of the (relatively) dry season; though life doesn’t seem to slow down much in the rain there, it certainly becomes more challenging to record it well. My efforts at makeshift umbrellas made of Anthurium leaves were enough to protect my equipment from the many downpours, but the acoustics left much to be desired. All of these recordings were made with me present, perched a little way further down the trail but still within eyeshot of the area so that I could attempt to document the wildlife I was recording (I must have looked positively ridiculous flipping furiously through the field guide The Birds of Ecuador, which contains something like 1600 species, after some tiny hummingbird or another).

I will unabashedly confess that this area of the world is what sparked my interest in plants, and I believe that In Situ has come into the interior landscaping industry directly from these forests, with our boots still muddy; our interest in working with more unusual and exotic species, replicating natural habitats, creating impromptu natural history lessons and trying to recreate indoors that feeling one gets when surrounded by a forest almost violently alive and brimming over with some of the most amazing plant species on earth is a direct result of this early exposure to the rainforest of South America.

Mostly tranquil, sometimes raucous, often hilarious (although maybe you had to have been there), these recordings (to me, at least) capture much of the feeling of being alone in these primeval forests; so lush, vibrant and vigorous, the plants seem to grow visibly as you watch them, and there is an abundance of life everywhere you rest your eyes. I hope that they have some measure of transportive effect: take them for a spin and let me know what you think.

If I hadn’t temporarily lost my notes I’d use the space here to name the goodly number of bird species one can hear in this recording; when they turn up I will add them. The avian fauna makes up a large percentage of the readily visible creatures one can see when walking (or in this case, sitting) the trails at Los Cedros. (I should say relatively visible; even the brightest coloured-ones are somwhat cryptic in the riot of life that is this type of forest.)

If you have this recording on at appreciable volume though a decent set of speakers you may notice a dull booming sound, which I didn’t know what to make of when I’d heard it out there. It wasn’t until I got back to camp and heard the news that the Tungurahua volcano near Baños (nearly 200 kilometres away) was erupting did I put two and two together.

This recording was named after the bird which can be heard calling beginning at about twelve minutes into the recording; a beautiful bird which I had seen infrequently but had never heard call before I captured it here.

Water is at the heart of this forest, and indeed this reserve’s mountain streams and massive rainfall serve as the principal watershed for the surrounding communities, which are noticeably hotter and dryer than even a little ways up the hill.

El Observatorio is a small open space atop a hill on the ridge that overlooks Los Cedros. Perched at about 2100 metres, it’s a great place to sit and, weather-permitting, look out over the great untrodden wilderness below.

It’s a bit of a hike to get there, much of it along the sopping-wet ridge where is seems always to be raining or have just finished raining; epiphytes abound, and it’s a great place to find orchid species, among them species in the genus Dracula, of which several are unique to the area.

This recording was taken at dawn after having spent the night on said ridge with a couple other fellows and a prodigious amount of rum. Dawn was certainly not as painful as it could have been had I woken up elsewhere, as I’m sure you’ll agree after listening.

Empty space is somewhat hard to find there, but I was able to find a clearing at set up shop for a few hours, which is where this recording was taken. By the way, the white noise that’s present more or less in all of these recordings is the sound of the river, which was something of an annoyance, but easily forgivable.

This is a pretty minimal recording, really, (with the exception of the one or two parrot-flock flyovers) but I feel like you can hear a bit of tension; it was threatening to rain (again) for its duration. A few of the forest-edge bird species make their appearance here.

Another recording taken just after dawn in an area of more secondary forest, where epiphyte density is a little lower and where sound seems to carry a little better. If you’ve ever been up and about at dawn (couldn’t blame you if you haven’t) you know that it is a busy time for our feathered friends, and is a general changing of the guard in the tropical forest from the night to the day shift, so one tends to hear a good solid mix of different creatures at this time, from frogs to insects to monkeys and lots of things in between.

If you’re unfamiliar with the chemical reaction above, then you may also be unfamiliar with the fact that life as we typically tend to think of it would not be possible without plants.

Photosynthesis is responsible for the capture of solar energy that in turn powers nearly all life on earth: everything we eat is either plants, or other animals that formerly ate plants (or that ate other animals that ate plants). Plants absorb sunlight and convert it into chemical energy which is stored within the plant for its own uses; we eagerly exploit this by consuming them and thus the sum of the solar energy they’ve stored. Good deal for us, bad deal for the plants (not that they seem to care).

There are not many other ways to capture and metabolize energy in this way, save chemosynthesis (which is why I need to keep referring to ‘almost all life’ above, which, while definitely less dramatic, is more accurate, as there are organisms which are able to capture energy from chemical reactions, most notably in deep-sea communities colonizing hydrothermal vents, and so have no need of sunlight). So plants really are the foundation of nearly all life on the earth.

And not just regarding energy, either. Though a bit more oft-toted, the fact that plants maintain the planet’s oxygen levels is equally prevalent. This does bring up the subject of conservation, but I can save that for another time. I will add in a shameless plug, though, that plants indoors will raise local oxygen levels and just generally improve the air quality indoors. You can read this post for more information if you like: Plants at Work: The Science Behind how Plants Improve Life Indoors.

For anyone interested in the equation who doesn’t understand the chemistry, basically the plant takes 6 molecules of carbon dioxide and 6 of water, and splits these to create free oxygen (which is released by the plant), and a few other goodies which combine with the solar energy captured by the chlorophyll in the plant to create carbohydrates (the C6H1206 in the equation above) which contain that solar energy. Pretty simple, but critical to life on earth.

It’s a little humorous to me that our industry (speaking very broadly here, of course) provides, in a manner of speaking, a product that no one can live without. Maybe that’s why everyone tends to like plants so much: I’ve met many people indifferent to them (and have changed a few minds there), and many more people who love them but can’t seem to stop killing them (and I can only hope I’ve helped a bit there), but have never really met anyone who’s said that they actively dislike plants (except maybe recent victims of poison ivy or the like). Maybe it’s a stretch to assume that we as a species are that aware of the inexorable connection we have with the rest of life, but for whatever reason the biophilic instinct is certainly alive and well.

A photo of the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, a view of which prompted Darwin's words to the right. Image source unknown; retrieved from Projeto Entre Serras.
A photo of the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, a view of which prompted Darwin's words to the right. Image source unknown; retrieved from Projeto Entre Serras.
The cradle of humankind: the plains of Africa. Image © Gossipguy; retrieved from Wikimedia
The cradle of humankind: the plains of Africa. Image © Gossipguy; retrieved from Wikimedia

`…that the naturalist`s journey will go on forever. That it is possible to spend a lifetime in a magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree. That as the exploration is pressed, it will engage more of the things close to the human heart and spirit. And if this much is true, it seems possible that the naturalist`s vision is only a specialized product of a biophilic instinct shared by all, that it can be elaborated to benefit more and more people. Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.’

E.O. Wilson, from Biophilia                

You may have noticed that we reference and tag a word fairly often here at In Situ: biophilia. Biophilia as a concept was developed by the great Edward O. Wilson, biologist, ecologist and prize-winning author, who used it to describe humans’ innate need for affiliation with other living things. From the plants we have kept in our homes since at least the beginning of recorded history, to the out of work domestic animals we still keep around (there aren’t many professional mousers or herders among them these days, at least from an urban perspective- I’m sure there’s still work in the country), to the way we design our cities and parks, human beings have always surrounded ourselves with other organisms. Here’s another (admittedly long) quote by Wilson, who can put it all much more elegantly than I ever could:

‘I have suggested that the urge to affiliate with other forms of life is to some degree innate, hence deserves to be called biophilia. The evidence for the proposition is not strong in a formal scientific sense: the subject has not been studied enough in the scientific manner of hypothesis, deduction, and experimentation to let us be certain about it one way or the other. The biophilic tendency is nevertheless so clearly evinced in daily life and widely distributed as to deserve serious attention. It unfolds in the predictable fantasies and responses of individuals from early childhood onward. It cascades into repetitive patterns of culture across most or all societies, a consistency often noted in the literature of anthropology. These processes appear to be part of the programs of the brain. They are marked by the quickness and decisiveness with which we learn particular things about certain kinds of plants and animals. They are too consistent to be dismissed as the result of purely historical events working on a mental blank slate.’

E.O. Wilson, from Biophilia                

So while at the time the book Biophilia was published (1984), there had been no empirical study on the presence of an innate biophilic instinct shared by all of humanity. Since Wilson’s introduction of the hypothesis, many studies have been done that highlight the importance of proximity to nature and other living things to our mental health (see this literature review for a good discussion on some of the studies that have been done: Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being?). Beyond all this, and at the risk of relying on intuition when so many of our human eccentricities are indeed counterintuitive, it just feels correct. At least to me (biased as I might be). Any client I’ve ever spoken with has always pleased with having plants around, and they often comment on how much better a place feels, which seems like mission accomplished and hypothesis confirmed to me.

But how did all this come about? Rooted in our history the habits may be, but the fact that humanity is itself rooted in the natural world is what has caused our deep-seated need to be surrounded by nature. We are the product of a particular habitat, and to this day we still find space in our urban centres for an approximation of it. Think of practically any city park you can imagine. Open grassy areas, with scattered copses of trees; sometimes a pond, fountain or the like. Maybe something somewhat reminiscent of this?

Our species came to be in just such a habitat, and we still seek these same landscapes for comfort, relaxation and meditation. We select our homes in similar ways: perched atop a hill, overlooking water, with a few trees (not too many) here and there describes some of the most sought-after property available (and indeed will often fetch a hefty price).

Turn now to the indoors, where people have been keeping plants for at least as long as we’ve been recording history. All ancient civilizations have depictions of potted plants indoors in the images they created, and sometimes went through great lengths to cultivate plants difficult to grow outside of their native environment (the Romans were building greenhouses even before glass was invented). It is safe to assume that many of these were functional from a medicinal or culinary standpoint, though the Chinese have cultivated ornamental plants indoors for at least three thousand years. Plant mania swept homes and offices in the 1970s, to an extent that has not yet been rivaled (though what those early pioneers of the interior landscape industry would have made of vertical gardening technology!). The interior landscaping industry was born in this era, and has persisted since.

Said industry has often toted the benefits of keeping plants indoors, primarily from a health and employee productivity standpoint (I went through some of the science that these claims are based on here), and some companies have begun to reference the biophilia concept as another selling feature. They are certainly right to do so, but I doubt that many who belong to these organizations have actually read and understood the ideas behind the concept, and are genuinely interested in fostering the sense of interest and wonder in the natural elements we surround ourselves with.

What In Situ is trying to do (and what we would like to encourage the rest of the industry to try to do) is to create more of those moments when nature really takes us in, where time falls away and we are free to explore with our senses the structure of a leaf, say, or the contrasting textures or colours of different plants growing together, to go on Wilson’s ‘magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree’. We wish to recreate the forest edge, viewed from our comfortable place amongst the figurative grasslands of our urban interiors, which draws us nearer, showing us glimmers of the mysteries held deeper within. We want to replicate indoors the richness and splendour that has captivated us as a species forever, has inspired countless works of art, and that still, in the lives we live primarily apart from it, holds a special place in our imagination.

‘Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and decay prevail. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: — no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.’

Charles Darwin, from Voyage of the Beagle          

By using new and interesting species, and using familiar species in interesting ways, we hope to satisfy the biophilic instinct by completing indoor environments with the engaging natural elements that have been a part of our species’ evolution since time immemorial. When used this way, plants can create a kind of biotic warmth that tempers the sterility of many modern interiors. I don’t advocate turning every indoor space into a jungle (…): rather, the contrast between our manmade constructions and these natural elements are what highlights their presence and what really makes them come to life. The studies I referred to above seem to indicate that having these elements in sight from any area of an indoor space is the optimal placement, and this is the model that many in the industry use when designing their interior landscapes. It`s sound to me, but I feel it’s only effective if the elements are actually visually captivating: this is why we try whenever possible to use plants that people are not usually familiar with, and that have very unique textures or colours, or some other interesting facet to their biology that creates real interest. We seek to foster a true biophilia, through which we can draw inspiration, comfort and knowledge, secure in the surrounds of our earthly cohabitants.

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