Design a site like this with WordPress.com
Get started

Madagascar 2.0(22)

After nearly two years, I finally did make it back to Madagascar! It felt good to be back, and with a bit more knowledge, wisdom, and agency this time around. We’ve all been challenged to grow, mature, and adapt over the past few years, but reunions with old friends still feel the same: As if not a day has passed.

Old friends and new (left to right): Ravaka, my host mom from Peace Corps; Sissi, ESSA-Forets masters’ student I am working with; me; Fazara, my host dad from Peace Corps and collaborator. Photo Credit: Tantely.

Knowing the economic hardship many have faced throughout the world during the pandemic, I was relieved and happy to see the resilience and growth of Ampasimbe, despite these challenges. A number of new businesses and shops have popped up since I left – and for the most part, even though the economy isn’t fantastic, people are making things work. And of course, through it all, people have been growing trees.

In the field! Fano (far left) shows us his agroforestry fields, including new saplings from our project.

Every report and photo from my collaborators in Ampasimbe told a story of success and enthusiasm for our agroforestry project, yet it was even more uplifting to witness the growth and flourishing of our endeavor in person. During my two-week stay in Ampasimbe, I was able to meet nearly half (~20) of the farmers who have been able to expand their orchards with our support. Though the trees won’t be producing fruit for 3-5 years, farmers are excited about the investment in both their future and the future of their landscapes.

Litchi saplings planted on a hillside amongst current hill rice crop, keeping the land agriculturally productive until the first litchi harvest.
Amboara (a native rainforest tree) seedling naturally sprouting in Ampasimbe.

While the trees are maturing, farmers also continue to cultivate annual crops between them, including rice, ginger, cassava, and bananas. As before, I also spoke with many farmers who valued the young native trees naturally regenerating alongside fruit trees they have planted. They recognize the resources these native forest trees provide, and hope to foster their growth throughout the landscape, as well. Our collaborators with Green Again Madagascar are also aiding natural regeneration through planting saplings of several native species. Of course, restoring a forest landscape is a long, challenging journey, but gradually, through the protection of naturally growing seedlings, lower incidence of fires, and improved habitat for birds and mammals that disperse tree seeds, native forests and animals will have a greater chance at survival.

Photo credit: Papan’i Jessy.

Of course, I can’t forget to mention Toto – who has grown from an adorable puppy to king of the village over the past two years. He’s become quite independent, but still friendly and well-loved, cared for well by my former neighbor who has adopted him. As you can imagine, I was delighted to see he was faring so well!

In addition to following up on my Peace Corps project and reconnecting with old friends, I spent some of my Madagascar visit contemplating my next steps as a researcher, and building up my network of potential future collaborators who are also passionate about ensuring forest restoration is successful and impactful throughout Madagascar.

Deforested, but no longer treeless: Exotic Grevillea trees have recently grown in alongside native Ravinala palms, shading out invasive ferns (like those seen in the foreground). How do changing landscapes like this affect native forest regeneration and ecological succession? There is still much to learn!

As a PhD student at UC-Berkeley, I will be able to continue my work supporting and improving forest restoration and agroforestry here in Madagascar, and for that I am incredibly grateful. I’m exploring various opportunities to incorporate agroforestry and timber trees into forest landscape restoration to foster the assisted natural regeneration of Malagasy forest trees, and contemplating how project design and strategies affect restoration outcomes. This summer, I’ll have the opportunity to dig into these questions a bit further, exploring Madagascar’s rainforests beyond Ampasimbe and building a network to simultaneously address the most pressing ecological and practical questions surrounding the regeneration of Malagasy rainforests.

Stay tuned for further updates on this journey! Here’s to hoping for a more empowering 2022 for us all…

Cinamon seedlings ready to be planted in their forever homes!

Tratra ny taona vaovao

Happy New Year

My colleague Fazara tends to our agroforestry tree nursery in Ampasimbe. Photo Courtesy of Odonald Damo, CRS.

Today is January 19, 2021. Exactly one year ago, the world was a very different place. Looking back, it all feels surreal – we literally had no idea what was going to hit us. I’ll never forget the earth-shattering experience of the unprecedented (do you hate that word yet?) “Great Global Evacuation of 2020”, or the ensuing feelings of loss and utter helplessness. Every one of us living through 2020 has our own personal story of loss, turmoil, and wrestling with uncertainty over the past year. It wasn’t the year anyone hoped it would be.

It’s important to leave space to mourn the could-have-beens of 2020, and of course, the tragic loss of life, which at least in some part should have been preventable. At the same time, it is essential to reflect on and appreciate what we each have been able to accomplish despite all odds. It’s this dynamic tension that will buoy us as we, both personally and as a global society, seek the best way to rebuild from the ashes of the Great Dumpster Fire of 2020. A good friend of mine recently told me: “Every time you think about something you did in 2020, you really have to add ‘in a global pandemic’ to the end.” It provides a bit of perspective.

I haven’t written about Madagascar in a while, and it’s about time that changed. While my role in the goings-on in Ampasimbe has been quite different than I’d hoped, I’m proud to say that, due to the unflappable dedication of the most incredible team of people I have ever worked with, we have managed to keep things chugging along. The past year has indelibly etched one old, yet still resonate, cliche in my mind: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. (Even if that way is a bit more roundabout than you might have intended.)

Here’s a little update on Ampasimbe, and what we’ve managed to do – in a pandemic.

Context: Coronavirus in Madagascar

Thursday is market day in Ampasimbe. Life goes on much as normal in many ways, despite the pandemic.
Photo Courtesy of Odonald Damo, CRS.

Madagascar, along with much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, appears to have escaped the worst ravages of COVID191. Of course, there is debate about whether or not this appearance is simply due to a lack of resources to effectively diagnose and report cases and deaths; while I’m sure reported statistics do not capture the whole picture, it does seem that Madagascar wasn’t hit as hard as many western countries. Whether this may be due to a younger population, prior immunity granted by previous viruses, or other factors is yet unclear.

Many of my Malagasy friends agree that the greatest burden the country has sustained during the pandemic is economic crisis. The common indicator of economic trouble in Madagascar is the rising price of rice: the prized staple food source of the Malagasy people. After travel restrictions imposed by COVID, the price of rice has nearly doubled in many towns in Madagascar, especially those that are more rural and/or more difficult to access (and thus more under-resourced to begin with). Simultaneously, many people saw a loss in income from COVID-induced shutdowns, and goods generally became more difficult to access. A substantial number of Malagasy live below the poverty line, and don’t have much in the way of a rainy-day savings fund. It’s also difficult to stockpile many types of food due to a lack of refrigeration. Social distancing is incredibly difficult in crowded homes and crowded cities, as well as on public transportation. When I told my Malagasy friends that “social distancing” in the U.S. meant keeping two meters of space between people, they laughed and told me that one meter was the “social distancing” standard in Madagascar – nothing more was realistic.

The country has been closed to most foreigners since last March, with only the resort island of Nosy Be on the northwest coast opening to tourism this past fall, in an effort to recoup some lost revenue (tourism has risen to around 15% of Madagascar’s GDP in the past decade). Internal travel restrictions within Madagascar were also in place for a couple of months, but have since mostly reopened, initially due to the impracticality of a sustained shutdown given the aforementioned economic challenges. For a while, people were reportedly doing a decent job wearing masks and keeping some distance, but I’ve heard recently people are becoming more lax, and thus cases are again on the rise2. Unfortunately, COVID vaccines likely won’t make a significant appearance in Madagascar for quite some time; even so, the current situation doesn’t appear nearly as disastrous as I’d feared.

Trees

Nekena, my host brother, helps arrange cinnamon saplings provided by CRS.
Photo courtesy of Fazara Ravelomahita.

For me, the greatest success of 2020 was that both of the tree nurseries that our team has established continued to grow and thrive! I can’t think of a better example of a true team effort; without any one of several key players this would not have been possible. The native forest restoration program we started with Green Again Madagascar (GAM) is still going strong. We managed to keep our native tree nursery puttering along, even through travel restrictions in Madagascar prevented GAM staff from reaching Ampasimbe to begin tree planting last spring as planned. In fall 2020, GAM-employed community members were able to start planting and recording data for our first official plots. As the team continues to seek out new tree-planting contracts with landowners, the program continues to grow, and I’m excited to see where it leads3.

A tiny forest of coffee and avocado trees.
Photo courtesy of Fazara Ravelomahita.

When the pandemic started, we hadn’t yet been able to construct our agroforestry nursery. However, thanks to the incredible on-the-ground efforts of my collaborator Fazara, aided with the support of Jim, Odonald, and the SPICES team at CRS, as well as my UVM collaborator, Tim, we’ve been able to get a fantastic program up and running. We have constructed a tree nursery filled with over 10,000 coffee, avocado, litchi, orange, and other fruit and spice trees, and several hundred saplings have been distributed to farmers and planted so far. While the rigorous initial data collection we’d hoped for may not be possible, we should still be able to monitor planting and collect some data over the course of 2021. This information will be invaluable in the adaptive management and future implementation of agroforestry and forest restoration projects throughout eastern Madagascar and beyond! Our team in Ampasimbe is also starting to grow some native tree species to plant amongst shade-loving agroforestry trees, which we hope will ultimately be a win-win for biodiversity and farmer livelihood enhancement.

Toto

Toto hanging out in Ampasimbe.
Photo courtesy of Fazara Ravelomahita.

Topping my post-evacuation FAQ list was the inevitable, “But what happened to Toto?!”. While this question was the last I wanted to contemplate at the time, I’m happy to report that – to my surprise and relief – Toto has made out quite well. I get intermittent “Toto updates” from several of my friends in Ampasimbe…

“Toto has been coming to our food stand for his dinner every day!”

“Toto and Jessie (my neighbor’s daughter) are the best of friends!”

“Toto loves going out into the forest with Papan’i Jessie!”

Fazara tries to get Toto to look at the camera…
Photo courtesy of Fazara Ravelomahita.

…these little anecdotes never fail to bring a smile to my face. It’s funny, it seems that Toto’s presence in Ampasimbe weaves a connecting thread between me and my friends on the other side of the world in an undeniably concrete way. While Malagasy generally don’t have the same attitudes towards dogs as Americans, Betsimisaraka tend to have a favorable perspective on them as loyal protectors. However, they typically don’t train or bond with dogs closely, and were amused by the tricks I taught Toto, and intrigued by the connection I was able to form with him. It made him a bit of a curiosity – in the same way I was, I suppose. It’s heartwarming to know that people are still looking out for him in my absence.

Toto needs a belly scratch!
Photo courtesy of Fazara Ravelomahita.

Toto has grown to be one of the biggest dogs in Ampasimbe, too, rivaling his elder brother in size. (I tell you, it clearly demonstrates the power of maternal nutrition – Toto’s mother was the butcher’s dog, and likely the best fed for miles around). My neighbors are delighted to have a big “guard dog” around the hospital. Not that Toto would hurt a fly, but people coming in from out of town don’t know that, of course.

The only less-than ideal “Toto news” I’ve received is that he seems to have lots of fleas. Whoops. Better add some more flea collars to my packing list…

Air Quality

The wildfires of the western U.S. this past year have clearly demonstrated the link between extensive fires and poor air quality. Microscopic debris released into the air by fires can have a significant impact on peoples’ health. In Madagascar, frequent slash-and-burn farming, or tavy, may increase exposure to harmful particulate matter in the air during tavy season. We’ve started measuring air quality in Ampasimbe to test this hypothesis. Although our current data are still preliminary, daily air quality samples demonstrate a strong correlation between tavy burning and particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), an interesting dataset providing evidence for yet another reason to shift to more sustainable farming practices.

Maternal/Child Health

Rural health clinic in Ampasimbe. Solar panel provides electricity for a small vaccine refrigerator.

Before the pandemic, the Interact club at Manhattan High School embarked on a service project to package 100 clean birthing kits, which were sent to the rural health clinic in Ampasimbe. Clean birthing kits have been demonstrated to drastically reduce the rates of life-threatening infection in both new mothers and infants4. Kits like this, which simply include basic sterile supplies such as gauze, gloves, clean sheets, and razors blades can actually have an enormous impact in under-resourced communities, where access to even the most basic clean medical supplies are slim. Of course, throughout the COVID19 pandemic, supply chain disturbances have created even more challenges to accessing medical supplies around the world. I’m happy to report that, despite some logistical hurdles imposed by the pandemic, the birthing kits did indeed arrive and are being put to great use! The newborn and maternal mortality rates in Madagascar, as in many under-resourced countries, remain unacceptably high. Hopefully these birthing kits will enable health care workers to address some of the sanitation challenges that often lead to these preventable deaths.

Clean birthing kit awaiting use in Ampasimbe. A few simple supplies can go a long way in saving lives.
Photo Courtesy of Francia Elisabelle.

Solar-Powering Education

The vast majority of people in Madagascar lack access to a power grid of any sort, leaving communities reliant on small-scale solar for all of their electricity needs. While the pace of solar technology adoption in rural Madagascar (and rural, under-resourced communities throughout the world) is impressive, communities still often lack the capital or technical knowledge to install systems capable of generating substantial electrical power.

Early last year, I started working with engineering students from the Kansas State University solar club to design and implement an upgrade for the rudimentary solar system at Ampasimbe’s Middle School. This would provide students and teachers with enough power to run several laptops, allowing students to learn basic computer skills that are increasingly vital in today’s world, and providing school administrators with better ways to keep track of records. While the pandemic threw a wrench in our plans, we are still working to develop this project and aid Ampasimbe’s teachers in upgrading their system as soon as possible. I recently acquired several laptops generously donated by members of Manhattan’s Konza Rotary group for this project, which will make their way to Madagascar for student and teacher use at some point this year.

That’s all for now. Here’s to hoping for many more adventures (of only the good kind) in 2021!

Bonus photo! My host family’s cat, Aslan, and her two young kittens… Asla and Asle.
Photo courtesy of Fazara Ravelomahita.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1Interesting piece on COVID and sub-Saharan Africa from the BBC here.

2COVID-19 dashboard for Madagascar.

3Need a new coloring book, for yourself or a friend? GAM recently published a little coloring book of Malagasy critters as a fundraiser to support the work of this excellent organization. Learn more here.

4Here is a link with a bit more info and a short video on the importance of clean birthing kits; here is a review of some scientific studies demonstrating their positive impact.

Little Butterfly, Big Journey

A little bit about the critters that started it all

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog; I’m still working my way back to Mada, but in the meantime, I’ve been lucky to land briefly as a seasonal naturalist for the New Jersey Audubon Society in Cape May, NJ.

Here, I’m working on a 30-year project monitoring the fall migrations of monarch butterflies – a truly incredible species that serves both as an important biological indicator and an exceptional science ambassador. When I was 3 years old, I concluded I wanted to be an entomologist, inspired in large part by raising monarch and black swallowtail caterpillars into butterflies. The first presentation I ever gave was on monarchs, and while I likely won’t become a “real” entomologist at this point, I’m still set on becoming “Dr. Culbertson”… As I apply to PhD programs in restoration ecology this fall, it’s been a truly special experience to spend some time walking down memory’s lane with a species that will always hold a special place in my heart!

8-year-old me showing off my “pet” monarchs and poster! (From the days before powerpoint presentations…)

As part of my current job, I’ll be writing weekly blog posts about monarch butterflies, posted on https://capemaymonarchs.blogspot.com/. I’m also sharing the first of the series (and who knows, maybe some of the subsequent ones) here. Hope you enjoy this piece, and maybe these little guys will inspire you a bit, as they have inspired me!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Monarchs are starting to roll through Cape May on their fall migration! While we’re still a ways out from the peak of their migration, monarchs are becoming more commonplace around the Cape, especially in some of the most elaborate native flower gardens. But where did they come from? And where are they going? And why on earth does it matter? Chances are many of you already know the answers to these questions, but to get everyone up to speed, this blog piece – the first in a series of educational blog posts on monarchs – will set out to address these questions.

As you likely know, monarchs embark on a seasonal migration through North America each year. Most of the population will overwinter in Mexico, heading north as the weather warms in spring, and returning back south as cooler fall weather approaches again. However, no individual monarch will make the entire migration to Mexico and back; in fact, monarchs complete this journey over five generations! During the first four generations, the entire population migrates to the north, taking advantage of the expanding plentiful seasonal milkweed (caterpillar food) and nectar (butterfly food) resources of temperate climates. As the weather starts to change in the fall, the year’s final generation – the monarch “super generation” – is born. These butterflies will make the journey all the way from their summer feeding grounds to overwintering sites in Mexico. They travel an average of 50 miles per day on their journey and live nearly 8 times longer than all of the previous generations. Of the monarchs you’re seeing now, some are still part of the last summer generation, which won’t actually make it to Mexico; their children, however, will.

Map from MonarchWatch showing the range and migration paths of monarchs!

The migratory monarchs you are beginning to see now likely hatched out in coastal areas of the U.S. and Canada northeast of Cape May – places including New Brunswick, New England, and the eastern part of New York and Pennsylvania, or perhaps right here in New Jersey. Because the northeast part of North America tapers west as it goes south, many monarchs from the northeast regions travel due south until they reach the coast, and then continue to follow coastline as it tapers into Cape May, creating a sort of natural funnel for the butterflies. (This is the same reason that Cape May is an incredible birding spot, too!)

Some of the butterflies tagged here in Cape May in the past – at least 90 so far – have made it all the way to Mexico and been recovered there! Our butterflies have been found in several southern states along the flight path to Mexico, too, including Virginia, South Carolina, and Texas. Interestingly, some have ended up in Florida, as well, possibly assimilating into the year-round populations found there. It’s unclear why some monarchs from Cape May end up in Florida, while others make it to Mexico. Did those in Florida end up there intentionally? Or did they simply lose their way on their journey to Mexico? Scientists are still trying to figure this out!

Millions of monarchs coat trees at Cerro Pelon Sanctuary, Mexico, where many of the species overwinters. Photo courtesy of Mark Garland, Cape May MMP director.

Now, the question you’ve all been waiting for: Why is it important to track migrating monarchs? Every monarch enthusiast may have their own unique answers, but I’d contend that tracking monarchs is important for two main reasons: First, monarchs serve as a great biological indicator species; second, they are great science education “ambassadors”. 

As an indicator species, tracking the health of monarch populations can help us assess the health of the broader ecosystems they depend on. Because monarch populations need a vast expanse of habitat to successfully complete their multigenerational migration, they are one of the first species to suffer from habitat degradation and fragmentation. They are also easy to see and track, unlike many other less visible species dependent on the same habitat. A decline in monarch populations indicates that something is going wrong across the North American landscape, hopefully motivating actions to improve conservation and habitat restoration before many species are adversely affected.

Monarch on the move! Photo Courtesy of Jack McDonough.

As a “science ambassador”, monarchs hold the power to help people of all ages learn about our incredible natural world. Monarchs are easy to spot, can be found throughout the United States, are easy to raise, and venture on a truly incredible and inspirational journey. We don’t have to go out of our way to encounter them: Monarchs can help teach us about conservation, migration, metamorphosis, and so many other things right in our very own backyards and nearby parks. We can all participate in tracking monarchs, too, through the Monarch Watch and Journey North nationwide citizen science projects. It’s especially magical for children to get involved in raising and providing habitat for these butterflies, generating a deeper understanding of and appreciation for nature. I, for one, can trace my love of science and nature back to my childhood adventures raising many a monarch caterpillar! It’s truly incredible to think a creature so small can travel so far – quite an inspiration for all of us, and a marvel of the many mysteries of the natural world! 

Into the Wilderness

Views from Herman Gulch Trail, Arapaho National Forest, CO.

I find nothing more invigorating than an adventure in the Great Outdoors. The crisp scent of mountain pines, the heat of a dancing campfire on a chilly evening, and the views only possible after scaling a challenging peak refresh body, mind, and soul. And it’s not just me – science continues to demonstrate a multitude of benefits from getting outside and accessing green spaces. Nature can help us relieve stress, dampen depression, and fight obesity. It allows us to sleep better, think better, work better – and overall, just makes us happier*.

A somewhat ironically named “tree lizard” (Urosaurus ornatus wrighti) eyes me cautiously from a rock in the Canyonlands desert.

But this isn’t a concept new to humanity; rather, we’re rediscovering something that every soul has known throughout the ages, without requiring any scientific validation: Nature is sacred. Retreating into the wilderness, braving the desert, or climbing a mountain are some of the most spiritually rejuvenating experiences I could possibly imagine – a feeling echoed by spiritual traditions and holy scriptures throughout the ages. I need look no farther than my own Catholic faith tradition to witness this: Jesus prayed, taught, and healed on mountains. He retreated into the desert and the wilderness to pray and reconnect with God the Father; not only as an act of spiritual rejuvenation, but to deepen his faith through challenging it, as well. My favorite passage of the Christian New Testament is the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus’ longest, most comprehensive sermon recorded in the Bible, taking up an entire three chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, and perhaps the most powerful expression of Catholic/Christian social justice teaching in the Bible**. Jesus’ transfiguration at Mt. Tabor – an event interpreted as a significant demonstration of His divinity – also happened on a mountain. (Granted, at a humble 1,886ft, Mt. Tabor was certainly dwarfed by the 14er’s of Colorado, but, hey, a mountain nonetheless!)

Walking the canyon rim at Canyonlands National Park, UT, reminds you of how small you really are – as do many wilderness experiences. We saw only 6 other people on the entire 10-mile hike.

Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on the importance or sacredness of nature, either. Just take the role of mountains in many other faith traditions as an example: From the home of the gods on Mt. Olympus, to the Roman Vulcan’s fiery forges in Mt. Etna, to Moses’ receipt of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, mountains play a key role in the many faiths of familiar western history. But stepping beyond this still-narrow viewpoint, we can find a nearly universal theme of the importance of mountains in the human search for the sacred. Many Native American traditions hold mountains as sacred spaces to fast and pray; oftentimes even respected as animate beings. China’s indigenous Daoist tradition holds five mountains – associated with five cosmic deities – sacred, which were common pilgrimage and monastery sites throughout the ages. Even the Tibetan name of Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world, translates to “Holy Mother”.

Mt Bierstadt, Mount Evans Wilderness, CO, covered in snow after a late-season snowstorm.

What is it about wilderness – and mountains, in particular – that resonates so deeply in the human soul? Is it the vastness and grandeur that strikes wonder and awe akin to a fear of God? Is it a deep connection we human beings have to wilderness, ourselves a part of nature? Is it a humility we are struck with when we’re reminded that there are ecosystems we are so ill-adapted to survive in? Or perhaps just the simple fact that venturing into the wilderness pulls us away from the rest of society just enough to reflect a bit more on what really matters in life, beyond the often narrow perspective we maintain in daily life?

The descent from Mt. Yale, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, CO.

For me, I’d certainly claim it’s a bit of all of these. When I step into an expanse of nature stretching to the horizon, I feel unbelievably small. I feel like I am truly in the presence of something Greater – more so than I have ever felt in any grand cathedral. In alpine tundra, as angry marmots bark from beneath lichen-encrusted boulders, chubby with fat reserves that enable them to sleep on the edge of life through the harsh winters here, and alpine sunflowers peep up through the snow, brilliant gold against a backdrop that would doom most other flowers, I recognize that all of human ingenuity is still no match for the creatures who have adapted to survive – and thrive! – here. And it is a step away from the rest of the world. It does force you to confront silence. To think. To recognize all that has brought you here, and somehow to appreciate it more deeply.

I’ve nearly always seen marmots as solitary animals; however, on Mt. Harvard, I encountered a boulderfield that appeared to be home to 10+ marmots!

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mountain-top experiences – these moments of deeper spiritual connection with God and/or the world around you – don’t necessarily occur on actual mountains. Any space that allows you to get outside, put some distance between yourself and daily life, and reflect on the bigger picture can generate the same rejuvenation and provide new perspective. But it is all too easy to forget your mountaintop when you step back into everyday life. (Trust me, I’m so guilty of it!) The revelations you’ve found can be easily brushed off, put on a the metaphorical back shelf, and fail to affect your life moving forward. Finding a way to ensure your refreshed attitude leads to actions that make a difference in your life – and the lives of others – is crucial.

Pitkin Lake in the Eagles Nest Wilderness, CO.

Last week, during my most recent retreat to the wilderness, I found my mind drifting back, again and again, to the injustices that plague our society – many of which have come into a special light over the past few weeks. I came to recognize that stepping away from a systemically unjust society is, in itself, a privilege afforded to far too few members of that same society. No, we don’t have to venture deep into the wilderness or climb rocky mountains peaks to find our mountain-top experiences; but everyone should still have the opportunity to do so. And yet, many low-income (and often historically POC) communities have little access to even small green spaces within cities. I can’t tell you the amount of expensive outdoor gear I saw strewn around carelessly at campsites and trailheads this past week; every time, it was a reminder of privilege. If you don’t have a car, if you can’t buy hiking gear, if you have to work so many hours a week that there is no way you can take a vacation, much of the great outdoors is entirely inaccessible.

Sometimes the outdoors open a window into the past – these paintings in Canyonlands NP were created 1,000-8,000 years ago. It’s wild to think people passed this same spot so long ago, and we can see the marks they left – though we’ll never know much else about their lives. (The age of the older, darker prints is still debated. Don’t worry, we didn’t actually touch any of them!)

It’s not a problem that only pervades our communities here in the U.S. either – inequality and systemic injustice are global issues. Take Madagascar as another example: Countless children in impoverished rural communities – including many in my adopted home of Ampasimbe – will never have the opportunity to even see a lemur or a remnant of Madagascar’s great rainforests. It’s not just an injustice for the people missing out on these experiences either; it’s a loss for all ecosystems and their inhabitants. Because how can you love – and thus, protect – what you don’t know? As our natural world continues to face more and more anthropogenic pressure, reconnecting people with nature becomes more and more pressing. Witnessing injustice here is also a powerful reminder for me to do what I can to help combat this global challenge of disconnection with nature as I plan my return to Madagascar, as well.

So, coming off of this mountain-top experience, I’m asking myself: What can I do to help right injustice in our society, both in the U.S. and in Madagascar? Of course, it’s not something any one of us can do alone. And quite frankly, I’ve found myself at a loss of where to start recently, as I’ve woken up to my complete obliviousness of so many issues of injustice facing our society. I am sure there are innumerable injustices I’m still unaware of, as well. But I’ll start where I can, speaking up, contributing to relevant causes, and forming longer-term plans working to fight injustice. Am I going to stumble along the way? For sure. Am I going to stick my foot in my mouth and say the wrong thing at times? Absolutely – and for that, I apologize in advance. But fear of action only leads to inaction, which is the worst of all, is it not? So, let’s all try. Listen. Speak up. Help lead others to the most empowering actions, if you know how. I think we’ve all realized that a lot of people truly do care now, so let’s put that care into action!

It looks different for all of us – there is no solution that fits all. I know that feels like a rather unhelpful statement at times. But I would encourage everyone to find the closest spaces that you can access nature, venture out there (while social distancing, of course!) and spend some time reflecting on what our natural world means to you, and how accessible the space you’re in is. How can you share this space with others? Is there anything you can do to make spaces like this more available throughout your community? And what can you do to fight injustice more broadly? All injustices are ultimately interconnected, after all – as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Speak up, contribute what you can, and together, we can all make the world a better place.

A magnificent sunset over the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*Demonstrated by a new study by researchers at Stanford and UW. Here’s another fun article about the benefits of getting outside, too!

**Matthew Chapters 5-7; I highly recommend giving this passage a read, if you’re curious! Whether you consider yourself Christian or not, there are some great lessons here that you can incorporate into your personal philosophy and empower you to better stand up to injustice.

Rise from the Ashes?

A grackle perches on an ornamental cherry tree in Manhattan, Kansas.

Spring in Kansas is a beautiful time: Days warm, birds start singing, flowers bloom… and the prairie catches fire. Literally. As I recently hiked out on the Konza Prairie Biological Station – part of the largest unbroken tract of unplowed tallgrass prairie remaining in the US – I couldn’t help but contemplate how fire shapes landscapes. Sometimes, it’s vital to an ecosystem. Sometimes, it’s disastrous. Oftentimes, it’s simply the frequency of fire that determines which way this scale falls. For the first time, seeing the vast swathes of burnt land at Konza triggered a deep sense of revulsion in me, as my mind flashed back to the burn-scarred hillsides of Ampasimbe, Madagascar. But in truth, the ecological story is much different here in Kansas: one not of destruction, but rejuvenation.

The stark contrast between a watershed a few days after burning (left) and a few weeks after burning (right).

Fires are one of the greatest driving forces in maintaining grasslands. Over many years, the entire ecosystem has evolved to not only handle them, but to thrive because of them. Even with low levels of rainfall, scrubby trees can dominate a landscape that doesn’t regularly burn. There’s a range of speculation on the frequency of lightening-strike fires and prevalence of intentional burning on American grasslands in pre-columbian times. Today, although natural fires are no longer allowed to range across the prairie anymore, most farmers in eastern Kansas replace them with prescribed burns every 1-5 years.

A pair of meadowlarks; the male (left) has a bold yellow chest, while the female’s shades of brown blend into the surrounding prairie.

As I walked through the charred remnants of prairie grasses and forbs, I could already see hints of the grassland springing back into life. A deafening chorus of frogs echoed from long-forgotten buffalo wallows, meadowlarks flitted to and fro searching for insects, and new vegetation was already starting to peek up from the blackened crust. As I crossed into an adjacent patch, likely burned just a week or two earlier, I was immediately surrounded by a sea of tiny bright green leaflets springing forth from the bare earth. Soon, I knew, the hills would be a brilliant green, dotted with patches of radiant wildflowers – in stark contrast to the unburned stretches where last year’s tall, golden brown, long-dead grasses still remain. Burning refreshes the prairie – it makes way for new life, a rebirth from the ashes.

But why are things so different in eastern Madagascar? In a nutshell, rainforests weren’t built to respond so quickly to the destructive forces of fire. Fires do occasionally occur in these forests, and they play an important role in creating pockets of diversity within the landscape, as do other infrequent natural disturbances. But they’re rare, and don’t tend to affect a large are. It’s estimated that burn cycles in a natural humid forest are between 500-1000 years – if they were more frequent, a mature forest would never be able to grow. Trees take many years to reach maturity, and many species cannot even begin growing until the forest canopy is already established (they must grow in the shade!), delaying their return even more. Forests weren’t built to spring back after frequent fires, and the gap between burns in eastern Madagascar has shrunk drastically over the past several decades. Historically, farmers burned patches relatively infrequently, allowing trees to grow back and soil nutrients to replenish before using a patch for farming again. Even more crucially, these burning practices only directly affected a small portion of the landscape, leaving most forests intact. However, population growth and slowly degrading soil quality has resulted in farmers dropping periods between burning to 5-7 years, or even less – far too little time for a forest to regenerate, or even for soil nutrients to replenish, leading to complete exhaustion of soils.

This 800 year old Ambora tree would never have grown to maturity in the face of frequent fires.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Contrasting these two very different, incredibly complex ecosystems is a poignant reminder of the magnificent diversity throughout our world. Conservation challenges and solutions are just as diverse as the ecosystems and communities – both human and ecological – they seek to protect. Though we may not need to worry about the American prairies burning, (in fact, perhaps we should worry more about them NOT burning…) the truth is, they’ve been pushed to the brink in many other ways. Put under the plow to generate enough food for ever-growing human populations and animal consumption, they’re exposed to a different suite of unsustainable farming practices. Both our American grasslands and Madagascar’s rainforests – and every other ecosystem on earth – require unique solutions to promote both human and environmental well-being, incorporating the complex environmental processes and societal dynamics unique to each region. The right perspective and information can be the line between success and failure in conservation projects – and really, all endeavors, right?

A view from Konza overlooking neighboring farms. As in Madagascar, the sustainable management of these landscapes is their greatest conservation challenge, though the specifics are quite different between the two ecosystems!

The Giving Tree

I suppose you could say that this past year has certified me as a bona fide tree hugger (if there was any doubt previously!)

There are soooo many reasons why trees are both amazing and vitally important to us and our planet; you’ve likely heard that trees “preserve biodiversity” and provide an “entire suite of ecosystem services”… but what does that jargon really mean? Sometimes it’s tough to visualize how trees actually fit into real world challenges and solutions. At its roots, (sorry, lots of tree puns to come…) that’s what my work in Madagascar is all about, and with a series of posts, I’d like to help paint a more concrete picture of why deforestation is so intricately linked to the health and livelihoods of people in Madagascar, as well as the health of the environment as a whole*.

Part 1: Water

Neighbors’ buckets and jerrycans form a line waiting for the water to turn on.

In Ampasimbe, you can’t sleep in if you want water. We’re lucky to have 8 water spickets in the village, but they only run twice a day. If you aren’t in line with your buckets and jerrycans at 5:30am and 4pm, you won’t be getting any water. This system may provide better access to clean water than many places in rural Madagascar – but it’s far from ideal. When it rains, the water is full of sediment, and when it doesn’t, the reservoir runs dry long before everyone has filled their jerrycans. And these problems have been gradually getting worse… both of them closely linked to deforestation of our village’s water source.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Trees are vital in protecting water quality**. Some of the most significant impacts of deforestation on human health and wellbeing are related to the provisioning of clean water for communities. But how do trees help ensure access to abundant, safe drinking water? Well, three reasons: Trees aid in water purification, trees aid in water retention, and trees help maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems.

Bare dirt leads to lots of sediment in the water after a rainstorm!
Deforested, plowed hills are a recipe for erosion, runoff, and resulting water pollution.

Trees keep water clean through absorbing rainwater and slowing the flow of runoff before it reaches streams. As water flows over soil covered by vegetation and speckled with stems, trunks, and roots, it slows down and is less likely to pick up sediment and other contaminants. More of the water sinks into the ground and runs belowground to springs and rivers aiding in filtering out any contaminants as well. Roots also help hold soil together and ensure it is not picked up in the flow of water.

A rare clear stream!

Trees aid in water retention, too. Since trees help more rainwater sinks into the soil instead of flowing aboveground, as mentioned before, more groundwater is available, which then flows in a slow, steady manner towards springs. This is what ensures a stream consistently flows! Additionally, the shade of trees keeps the land cooler, decreasing the incidence of evaporation from soil and thus contributing to better retention of groundwater, and thus more consistent water availability at springs, as well.

CEG students Dino, Vanily, Hasina, and Yansa learn how to test water turbidity in a rice irrigation ditch.

Since healthy forests provide shade, prevent sediment (dirt) from entering water, and keep stream flows more consistent, they also ensure a better habitat is available for creatures living in streams. A good habitat means a healthy ecosystem, which, in turn, will affect water quality… for example, too much algae, an imbalance in bacterial communities, or lack of aquatic insect biodiversity can all have rippling impacts that lead to poor water quality, which can in turn affect human health.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A concrete barrier near this spring is the start of Ampasimbe’s water supply system.

The current water collection system for Ampasimbe starts at a spring high on a hillside above the village. The spring has been turned into a small reservoir by the installation of a concrete barrier; water flows from this reservoir through a simple sediment filtration system and into a holding tank before being released to the eight pumps in the village. However, only a year ago, even this system did not exist. Instead, canals dug into the red clay channeled water from the spring into the holding tank – I can’t imagine the amount of sediment in the water then!

I suppose this exposed piping is a step up from the previous water conducting system (a dirt trench), yet it’s still far from a secure water system!
After water is collected, it flows through this simple sand-and-gravel filter before being piped to a holding tank and release into the distribution system.

The current water system was built with the aid of an NGO previously working in my community, but further clean water projects are in the works through CRS’s Rano WASH program. Recently, Jacqui, the Rano WASH representative for my village, approached me about improving our village’s water supply – by reforesting the watershed feeding our spring.

Immediately above the spring lies some scrubby vegetation, yet further up the watershed this thins out to only grass.

Jacqui and I went to check out this watershed several weeks ago. It was an eye-opening experience, indeed! Nearly the entire area is lacking forests… most of it is either covered in brush or grass, with a few exotic eucalyptus trees mixed in. Fortunately, though, people have begun to realize this is problematic, connecting the deforestation to its effects on the amount and quality of water reaching our village. This watershed will be a high priority area for reforestation as soon as we are able to get back to work, and I’m looking forward to helping my community improve the quality of their water!

Most hilltops nearby are completely devoid of trees.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*The connection between ecosystem health and human health is known as Planetary Health, a fascinating and growing field! The Planetary Health Alliance, based out of Harvard (and one of our previous Harvard College Conservation Society partners!) is a great place to learn a bit more about this field, if you’re interested.
**Disclaimer: The exact role and number of trees naturally present in ecosystems can vary, so planting more trees isn’t always the best solution to water quality issues. Also, not all trees are created equally… some invasive species will actually consume too much water and negatively affect ecosystems. BUT – generally speaking, in any area that was originally forested, trees are vital to maintaining water quality and quantity!

Wild Madagascar

Admittedly, I came to Madagascar in large part for the wildlife.
Perplexingly, it took me until the week before I left to actually make it to a national park.
But it was incredible. And I’ll be back…

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Trees in Mantadia, as in every tropical forest, are covered with a diversity of epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants), lichens, and mosses, building even more complexity into these fascinating ecosystems.

Mantadia is a beautiful stand of primary-growth forest. One of the last larger stretches in east-central Madagascar. When we set up our tour, our guide tried to convince us to instead venture to one of the smaller parks, closer to the main road. They’re predominantly secondary-growth forest, with younger, smaller trees. Better for spotting lemurs! But we weren’t just there for the lemurs. We were there for the trees.

One of my best friends, McKenna, had come to visit Mada for a week, and we had embarked on a whirlwind tour. After spending an evening in Tana, the capital, we set off to Andasibe-Mantadia; one of Madagascar’s more famous parks, both relatively accessible and filled with incredible biodiversity! It’s also located only about 30km from the village I’d been living and working in for nearly a year.

McKenna and I explore the Malagasy jungle…
The larger tree here is an ~800 year old Ambora (Tambourissa spp.) – one of the trees in our nursery! Someday, hopefully, they’ll look like this, too…

Objectively speaking, we hadn’t picked the best season to visit – it’s rainy season now, just coming off of hurricane season, and on-and-off drizzle is currently the common mode. Not a great time to spot critters, who don’t particularly like venturing out in the rain. Nor is it a great time for photography, admittedly; electronics and water are never a good mix. But still, just the opportunity to see many of the same tree species we have growing in our Ampasimbe nursery, but fully grown – in some cases, hundreds of years old – was really a dream come true. As we slowly meandered through the forest, peering up at the incredible assortment of trees, vines, epiphytes, mosses, and lichens, our guide ventured off calling out for lemurs… and looked perplexed as we kept stopping along the way, fascinated by the assortment of odd plants and insects.

Diademed Sifakas were actually recently reintroduced to Mantadia in 2006, after having gone regionally extinct about 30 years earlier! Fun fact for my midwestern friends – the Omaha Zoo was one of the main collaborators for this project!

Look up! Lemurs! Surely, nearly directly above us – but by several meters, mind you – were two beautiful Diademed Sifaka, a particularly adorable and fluffy lemur species. They was difficult to see with the naked eye, despite being fairly large animals, but with the aid of some binoculars and a telephoto lens we were able to watch them from afar. Oblivious to our presence far below, they relaxed and groomed each other in the canopy.

Diademed Sifakas, like many primates, reinforce social bonds through grooming each other.
Blue Coua. A predator to many reptiles and insects, and a relative of the cuckoo – though not a nest parasite…

As we continued through the park, we spotted a couple striking birds, as well. I’ve never been much of a birder, but the likes of the Blue Coua and Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher are making me reconsider that… turns out, bird photos are a fun challenge, too! (Clearly I’m not very good yet… but stay tuned… maybe I can practice with some cardinals back in MHK…)

Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher! Didn’t want to sit still for a pic, but managed to get this shot right before he took off again…
A weaver bird’s nest! The males build elaborate nests like this to attract a mate… no birds in this one today, though. Maybe it wasn’t good enough? 😦
Did we find Gary?

Walking through the rainforest is tough – there’s a substantial vertical continuum, packed with biodiversity, and making it near impossible to decide where to direct your gaze. (Very different for those of us who grew up in temperate grasslands…) Look down, and you’re bound to miss the countless critters and plants perched above you. Look up, and you’re bound to step on something. Watch out for the snails! calls our guide. Sure enough, crossing our path, moving so slowly you can barely tell, is one of the biggest snails I’ve ever seen!

The rest of our hike involved several frogs, tadpoles, a waterfall, and some truly incredible views… most of which I’m afraid I couldn’t capture on camera (rain, alas). I guess you’ll just have to trust me… perhaps we’ll have better conditions next time.

Can you spot the frog in this photo?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The previous evening, we’d started our adventure with a night hike – after all, the fall of darkness presents the best opportunity to spot chameleons, which display a peculiar sheen in the light of a headlamp… and a tendency to rest on fairly exposed branches where said headlamp beam can easily find them. Lemurs are amazing, don’t get me wrong, but the chameleons are undoubtedly my favorite wildlife in Madagascar! Both the very largest and the very smallest of the world’s chameleons can be found in Mada, not to mention an incredible diversity in between.

My tiny chameleon! (Don’t even get me started on how long it took to figure out how to get this pic… )

My #1 chameleon-watching goal in Madagascar was to find a tiny chameleon. I am now proud to say – mission accomplished! The little cutie pictured here isn’t quite the smallest of the chameleons (a title reserved for Brookesia micra, google it!) but as a juvenile of one of Andasibe-Mantadia’s smaller species (Calumma nasuta, the bump-nosed chameleon), he comes pretty darn close!

A terrible photo of an amazing chameleon – Brookesia superciliaris, the stump-tailed, eyebrowed chameleon! This genus is predominantly ground-dwelling, unlike most chameleons, and includes the smallest of all chameleons.

We also did see the largest of Madagascar’s chameleon’s on our walk, Parson’s Chameleon (Calumma parsonii), as well as three other species, including a Brookesia – just not quite the smallest of the Brookesia! We spotted two nocturnal lemurs, too: The Dwarf Lemur and Mouse Lemur (perhaps most affectionately known as the animated film Madagascar’s Mort…) though photo quality for these leaves something to be desired…

Frogs are also fun to spot at night! Caught this couple crossing the road…

~~~~~~~~~~~~

I think varika, common brown lemurs, might be my favorite lemur species. They remind me a lot of South American coati, in a way – very social, active, and fun to watch!

Our un-guided wandering along Andasibe’s main road led us to a couple other lemur encounters, with the Common Brown Lemur (known in Malagasy as varika) and the famous Indri (in Malagasy, babakoto), the biggest of the living lemur species, whose calls can be heard from over a mile away! I can’t say the babakoto were very keen on photos, but we had a great time watching both them and the varika. Both are very active diurnal species, lots of fun to see, and in this area, very accustomed to human presence!

A little blurry, but still cute… spotted these guys around dusk, and the lighting wasn’t in our favor!

~~~~~~~~~~~~

In case you curious…
A little more on Andasibe-Mantadia and Malagasy National Parks and conservation in Madagascar…

Andasibe park, like many places, has a complex land use history. Much of the forests now seen close to the main highway, RN2, are actually dominated by introduced species of eucalyptus. So, while there are many incredible endemic critters still living in Andasibe, the forest composition is quite far from natural.

Mantadia, on the other hand, still contains an extensive stretch of primary-growth rainforests, with some trees nearing 1000 years old. The canopy is higher, which means, in practicality, it’s more difficult to spot lemurs (Andasibe-Mantadia’s main tourist attraction) and it’s more expensive to access, as you must hire a 4-wheel-drive vehicle to take you out there. But for anyone who actually wants to see the trees – it’s certainly worth it!

Lichens sway in the wind on top of one of Mantadia’s hills, with a beautiful forest backdrop.

In Madagascar, as anywhere in the world, protected areas have existed in some form through the ages. However, the first of Madagascar’s modern national parks were not established until 1989 – one of which was, in fact, what is now Andasibe-Mantadia. Today, Madagascar National Parks manages 43 protected areas throughout the country. In 2003, Madagascar officially declared a plan to triple its protected areas, which materialized in 2014.

One of Mantadia’s native bamboo species, liana bamboo, is one of the dominant types of shrubs that can be found growing on the forest floor.

However, designation of a “protected area” does not mean these places are instantly safeguarded against deforestation and poaching. It doesn’t mean people aren’t still harvesting firewood, grazing livestock, and hunting animals to feed their families. And who could blame them, really? Over half of people living Madagascar remain subsistence farmers. They still live off the land. You can’t simply tell someone they can no longer utilize the natural resources they’ve been exploiting for generations without providing viable alternatives. While many different approaches to providing these alternatives have been tried, from Payments for Ecosystem Services, to livelihood trainings, to collaboration in building new community resources, the best approach to ensure real protection of Madagascar’s incredible biodiversity is still an open question. (An extensive topic that I can perhaps add to in another future blog post… and/or my PhD dissertation…)

A full-grown Harongana (Harungana madagascariensis) tree in full bloom! Harongana are a great “pioneer species”, growing back quickly even long after deforestation has occurred, and are common around Ampasimbe. However, I’d never seen an Harongana this size before – or one growing in an actual intact forest!

Fortunately, there is a growing consciousness in Madagascar, and around the world, of the critical importance of forests, both as protectors of biodiversity and providers of many other ecosystem services. From the time I’ve spent so far in Mada, I’d say the will to protect and restore forests certainly exists in abundance – yet, whether or not the resources are available to capitalize on that will is a different question. Even so, the president of Madagascar has declared an initiative to plant 60 million trees this year alone! It’s not a perfect plan. It lacks clear prioritization for native and/or overall beneficial trees. And it’s doubtful Madagascar actually has the current capacity to plant this many trees at the moment. It’s unclear how (or even if) the trees planted as a part of this initiative will be maintained. But it’s a start. With any hope, it’s a step in the right direction.

And that’s something to celebrate, is it not?

An ecologist in her natural habitat?

Normal?

This week, last year, I was preparing for the adventure of a lifetime. I was about to embark on a journey into the unknown, headed to the fourth largest island in the world – diverse enough in flora, fauna, geography, and culture to have earned the nickname “the eighth continent”.

This week, now, I’m back at my parents’ house in Manhattan, Kansas; but this time, I’m starting a 14-day quarantine period, trying to make sense of the epic disaster that started just over a week ago. I would never have imagined that my Peace Corps service would end like this, another victim of an unprecedented global pandemic.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It all started last Monday, 5:50am Madagascar time, when I woke to an email from our Peace Corps Country Director:
“Dear PCVs, It is with a heavy heart that I forward you the message from the agency director below that Peace Corps is evacuating all posts around the world due to corona virus…”

My half-asleep brain took a second to comprehend the meaning of this. Evacuating all posts? The past week, I’d been traveling around Madagascar with one of my best friends. We felt the looming scepter of coronavirus, worrying what havoc it would wreck next… but now here it was. So fast. So soon.

Evacuating all posts.
Evacuating Madagascar.
Leaving Madagascar.

I sobbed. Uncontrollably.

My poor pup, Toto, jumped out of his bed and ran to comfort me, pushing his brown-and-white nose against my mosquito net. What had happened to this strange human? Was she broken? She was broken. But he could not comprehend. How could he? And I couldn’t explain.
My heart broke.

I pulled myself together, as best I could, sending off a couple of panicked texts to friends and calling my parents. Mom, Dad… looks like I’ll be coming back a bit sooner than expected.

I emerged from the tiny one-room house that had become my home over the past year, bracing myself for a string of goodbyes that I didn’t want to say. I knew I must now seek out the friends who had become family and the best colleagues I could have asked for, and share with them the vaovao tena ratsy (bad news):
I had to leave. Now. And I didn’t know when I’d be coming back.

~~~~~~~~~~~

The next two days were a whirlwind of goodbyes, both formal and informal. I finally pulled together the solar-power system we’d been working to acquire and install. Jean Claude, my Malagasy colleague who will be running our agroforestry nursery, started work that Monday. He’s going to do an amazing job. The nursery fence was finished. Fruit seeds were starting to come in. Jean Claude has coffee seedlings to transplant as soon as pots are made. Our forest tree nursery is thriving with over 2,000 saplings. Jean Paul, another colleague, brought us plastic to make pots with from our NGO collaborators at GreenAgain. The crew should be able to make pots much more easily now, with our new source of solar power. I handed off all of our project materials to my stellar colleague, Fazara, who pledged to keep things running while I am gone. I hope they can. They’re certainly capable of it – but with so many external factors that are so difficult to account for, it’s always difficult to predict. They’ll have support from our NGO partners. Maybe I can come back soon; I hope so. But no one knows how this will all shake out… no one has seen a global pandemic like this before.

Voamadilo (tamarind) trees in our native tree nursery.

~~~~~~~~~~~

My students plant Intsina trees by the old CEG.

We were supposed to have a tree-planting bike ride last week. Suffice it to say, that got corona’ed. But at least I still had a chance to plant a few trees with my middle school students; one small part of my projects that I could see through from start to finish:
Thirty-nine trees.

Tuesday morning, I headed up to the old middle school grounds with a few students, marking out where to plant our trees. The view from the top of that hill was magnificent. It always is.

Marking spots for trees.

That afternoon, as I worked to prepare materials for this last lesson, a couple of my students dropped in – Tahina, Dino, and Valiny. Three of the four students who had come to my first science club meeting a few weekends earlier.

“Are we meeting this Sunday?!”, they asked excitedly.
My heart broke again.
I had to break the news to them.
“Will you be back? When? Are you bringing your dog? When can we meet again?”
I wish I could have given them concrete answers. I wish I could tell them with confidence I’ll see them again.

We looked at the tree-planting diagrams I’d been working on for a while.

Tahina poses for a photo (taken by Valiny!).

I’d been meaning to take some photos. “Want to join me?” I asked. “I’ll teach you how to use a camera.” And so I did. My last day. They marveled at the camera, posed for each other to take photos. How badly I want to come back and give them a real photography lesson!

Tahina takes a photo of Valiny, while Dino watches carefully.

That afternoon, we planted trees. With 80 middle school students. It was wild, like it always is. My 3-meter spacing pretty much fell apart. But they had fun. I had fun. My heart broke again. Once we had wrapped up, Madame Noeline, the director of the middle school, called an assembly and presented me with a lamba, a traditional wrap used by Malagasy for pretty much everything, and a mini tanty, a bag traditionally used by Malagasy to carry pretty much everything. I put them on, and did my best to give a kibary, a formal speech, in Malagasy. I’d wanted to officially write one before my planned departure next year… yet another plan gone to scratch.

When our mini-ceremony came to a close, ten little girls fought over who would help carry my angade, my Malagasy shovel, home with me. They all ended up coming. One gave me the most beautiful of farewell cards, complete with a bible verse she’d roughly translated to English:
No problem for brave man or nothing difficult which diligence can not accomplish.
Did she know how relevant that was? Perhaps I’ll never know.

Madame Noeline, Director of the Ampasimbe CEG (Middle School), poses for a selfie with my friend McKenna and I.

When we arrived at my house, all ten girls posed with me for a selfie, even though it was pitch black, and lined up for hugs… though that’s not at all a Malagasy custom.
My heart broke again.

I bought a chicken for a last meal with my host family. It was somber. My host mom sent me back with leftovers for Toto – “aza adino ny sakafo ny zanakano”. Don’t forget the food for your child.
My heart broke again.

My host mom, Ravaka, and sisters, Larisa and Nomena, pose for a photo with McKenna and I, all sporting traditional lamba hoany.

The next few hours were a whirlwind of packing up my belongings. It felt kind of like packing up my college room again – left to the last minute, packing everything for the summer into my two checked bags.
But also, really not at all the same

My host family showed up at 4am to help me load all of my belongings onto a taxi brusse.
And that was it.
I patted my dog one last time, telling him tearfully not to follow me.
I hugged my host mom again.
And then I was gone.
The same old green Dodge Sprinter, the same route to Moramanga. The same beautiful scenery.
But all so different now.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

All of us Madagascar PCVs consolidated in Antananarivo that Wednesday. Peace Corps chartered us a flight out of Tana Thursday night – the last night the airport was open. It was wild; an entire plane full of 139 disheveled Peace Corps Volunteers. Heading back to a world we don’t know. Unemployed. Essentially homeless. With few benefits and unemployment support, and heading into a crashing economy. There’s over 7,000 others like us headed back to the states, too. Torn from the new homes we’ve built, the communities that we’ve loved and served, and cast into the great unknown in the middle of an unprecedented global disaster.

In Ethiopia, we met up with volunteers who’d been stationed in 4 other African countries, from where the Peace Corps chartered us another flight back to the states. An entire Boeing 787, chartered for Peace Corps Volunteers. Now, that’s a story.

The airports were pretty much a ghost town, and both my domestic flights were less than half full. What kind of apocalypse have I walked into?

I’ve seen the photos, all the streets shut down. Heard about the toilet paper hoarders. My Instagram stories are filled with new recipes people are trying and fitness challenges for those trying to keep sane in isolation. Now I’ll be a part of that world, too.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

And so here I am. Sitting in my parents basement. Trying to make sense of it all. Wondering if I can go back. Wondering when. Wondering what comes next. Knowing no one knows.

Everything seems as I’ve left it. Normal, almost. Almost like the past year never happened – was it all just the strangest of dreams?
Our neighborhood is the same. My room is the same. My dogs are the same. My family is the same, though my parents are working from home now.
My brother just got back from his study abroad in Morocco the day before I arrived.
We’re all reunited, I guess. But we can’t even step within 6 feet of each other.
The strangest of family reunions.

Yes, I have a far more comfortable bed than I’ve slept in for the past year. Yes, I have WiFi, and even a printer that functions remotely (that really just blew my mind). Yes, I have electricity and refrigeration. Yes, I have running water again, and can even drink water from the faucet (imagine that!). Yes, I have “room service” here in my quarantine.
In a way, I almost feel like a queen.

The world’s loneliest, most heartbroken of queens. Kind of wishing I could go back to bucket showers, solar powered lights, and lugging my own well water every day. Running to meet the dawn each morning through the magnificent hills surrounding Ampasimbe, Madagascar.

But for now, I’m here. Back in Kansas.

Trying to make sense of it all.

Toto ❤

~~~~~~~

Note: COVID-19 arrived in Madagascar just after we left. There are at least 12 confirmed cases in Antananarivo, and surely many more unconfirmed. They’ve shut down public transit in the big cities, and have started to shut down traffic on the major highways, as well… including the highway, RN2, that my town was located on.

My heart goes out to all of Madagascar through this crisis. If you think America’s done a terrible job handling the coronavirus, imagine a country with a completely inept health care system and no resources. Which now has seen a major shutdown in transportation, cutting off goods and services to a population that has very little access to savings, and likely very minimal food stores.

Keep them in your thoughts and prayers. If I can find any more productive ways to give them a hand, I will certainly share here…

Sakamalow

Sakamalow – ginger – is certainly the biggest cash crop in my region of Madagascar. Also known as sakatany or gingembre, sakamalow thrives in phosphorous-poor soils, kudos to their special ability to snag this crucial nutrient out of the soil better than your average plant… and the soils here are hella poor in phosphorous (as are most tropical soils, but once you’ve been through too many short slash-and-burn cycles… it gets much worse!)

Toto “helps” plant some sakamalow

Sakamalow is pretty matsiro (delicious), and is one of the few spices actually commonly used in Malagasy dishes here – stay tuned for an akoho saosy recipe in the near future! It also makes a great rhum arrange; that is, rum with a bunch of fruit or spice soaked in it. (Think sangria, but with rum – and a little more variety.)

Lack of terracing and mulching means soils can erode super quickly – goodbye dirt, and goodbye nutrients!

The thing about farming sakamalow, though, is that it requires you to completely till the soil, both when you plant and harvest – a recipe for erosion and further soil nutrient loss in a landscape of steep hills and incessant rain! However, by using terraced or semi-terraced farming methods, and incorporating some companion crops to root the soil more effectively, you can drastically improve soil conditions over time. While one of my big goals here is to encourage farmers to produce more fruits and spices that don’t require annual clearing and tilling, there is no doubt ginger will continue to be a part of the local economy for the foreseeable future. That means it’s crucial that people learn how to grow it in the most environmentally friendly (and productive!) way possible.

Semi-terraced ginger farming incorporates pineapples for water breaks and soil retention – promoting soil health and sustainable production, as well as diversifying harvests!

My counterpart, Fazara, trained with the Malagasy agency FormaProd in these “new” improved sakamalow growing techniques, and passes these lessons on to young Malagasy farmers each planting season. This year, I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands dirty (very literally!) and learn how to farm ginger and mananasy (pineapples!) alongside Fazara’s Malagasy students.

First up, the land needed to be cleared and tilled – while most farmers burn the fako, or brush cleared from the area, and scatter the ash as fertilizer, Fazara encourages his students to simply push it to the sides of the field to dry, and later use it as a mulch, protecting the soil from erosion or drying and giving the sakamalow a better start! (As well as reducing the carbon lost to the atmosphere, and not contributing to the incessant smoke of tavy season, a recipe for respiratory illnesses…)

Next, the contours of the hill needed to be marked out to set up the terraces. Fortunately, you can create an a-frame “level” with only a few simple tools: a couple of tree branches, three nails, a piece of string, and a rock! By positioning this a-frame along the hill so that the rock hangs straight down in the center, you can mark out terraces along the same elevation.

Once the boundaries between each terrace were marked, we used a few angade (Malagasy shovels) to dig a canal along the terrace line. These will serve to break the downhill flow of water for now, decreasing the strength of the water flow and thus erosion. We’ll also be planting pineapples in these canals, which will provide an additional water break, and their roots will help hold the terrace in place.

At last, we plant the ginger! What this really means is jabbing a sharpened stick into the dirt to dig out a hole every 20cm… a grueling, humbling task, to be sure. Next, we placed a handful of fertilizer (compost) in each hole, add a piece of masomboly sakamalow (it’s planted like a potato, more or less), and cover it up.

When the field is finished, we’ll throw the dried fako back over the ground as mulch, and the ginger will be ready to harvest in August! Yum!

A Malagasy Holiday Season

Sometimes being in Mada means making new holiday traditions!

Being so far from home really hits you during the holiday season – especially when traditions and holidays aren’t shared between cultures. (I know I’m a little late on this one, as we’re already 3 weeks into January – but I haven’t managed to get time on WiFi recently, and still feel it’s important to share!) The first holiday I celebrated here was Easter last year, which was actually super fun – I hadn’t been away from the states long enough to miss home too much yet, and Easter is a BIG DEAL in Madagascar! My first Malagasy Easter was a bit different than Easter in the U.S. though, to be sure – rather than spending a chill spring day with the fam starting with Easter egg hunts and ending with consuming far too much chocolate, people here share a big family meal (often a picnic) after church and then commence drinking all through the next day (so really, almost how Americans celebrate the 4th of July… minus the fireworks and plus the church service…). Some bigger towns, including the one by the Peace Corps Training Center, end up with a bit of a carnival-like atmosphere, complete with street vendors, boat rides, and quirky games (my favorite involved betting on which tissue box a guinea pig would run into…).

Some of my favorite holidays, though, simply don’t exist in Madagascar – like the Fourth of July, or Thanksgiving. It’s definitely cool to explain our American holiday traditions and see what similarities there are with Malagasy holidays, but ultimately hanging out with a small group of PCVs or expats for an American holiday just isn’t the same as celebrating in the states.

This Thanksgiving, I was fortunate enough to spend the holiday weekend with a couple of good friends on the east coast of Mada – it wasn’t a typical Thanksgiving, for sure, but we had a good time hanging out at the beach and roasting a turkey. There wasn’t any cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie (alas!) but we did have some pretty great rhum arrangé and managed to get some mashed potatoes, stuffing, and mac & cheese together – amounting to a nice touch of home-away-from-home!

Ironically enough, though, the holidays that have felt most different here aren’t the ones that are strictly American… Malagasy people certainly are always excited to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s, but in the states, we really launch into an entire “holiday season” after Thanksgiving – and that is very much not a thing here. Without weeks of being surrounded by Christmas carols, stockings, and evergreen trees, and lacking the slightest nip of cold, it really never felt like Christmas was on its way. In large part, I’d say this difference is driven by the lack of such a consumerist culture as in the U.S. – people here can’t afford to buy Christmas decorations and presents for every friend and acquaintance, and God knows there’s not enough power to illuminate every house on a daily basis, much less to power an abundance of Christmas lights! The fact that it’s summer in the tropical southern hemisphere certainly doesn’t lend itself to Christmas sweaters and hot chocolate, either. The only places in Mada that have a little bit of a “western” Christmas feeling to them are the big cities. In an interesting fusion of cultures, an abundance of absurdly colored fake “Christmas trees” lined the streets of Tana in the weeks before Christmas, which definitely gave me a good laugh.

A slightly unorthodox Christmas tree…
Old friends, new places!

This year was my first Christmas away from family – and quite honestly, I hope the only one. Christmas, for me, has always been a holiday centered around family and faith: one of which is now on the other side of the world, and the other of which I just can’t quite practice the same way here in Madagascar. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be able to visit one of my best friends from college, Maria, who is also working abroad now and couldn’t make it back home for Christmas. It was a fantastic adventure, but I’ll still say – it didn’t quite feel like Christmas. I’d been hoping to get back to my village and celebrate the New Year with my host fam, but ended up held up in Tana without a proper taxi brusse – alas! It was fun to ring in the New Year there, though, with a couple PCV friends and tequila shots.

So overall, I’d say holidays here have certainly been a mixed bag – but I’ve been blessed to find a way to celebrate each one, regardless, whether or not it was quite what I expected. I’ve even been able to celebrate a new holiday – Malagasy Independence Day! (See my blog post from back in June…) This year, I’m excited to find new ways to celebrate and create a home-away-from-home… and now that I feel a bit more comfortable in my adopted culture, I’m sure I’ll do better this time around. I’m especially curious to see how Catholics in Madagascar celebrate lent… so stay tuned for a potential blog post about that…

But one thing’s for sure: If there’s any way it’s possible, I’ll be home for Christmas!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On a separate, but related, note, I always find the holiday season and start of a new year lends itself to a spirit of thanksgiving and reflection on all of the blessings one has experienced over the past year. I just want to say a big THANK YOU to every single person who has been walking with me along my journey this year, both near and afar. I cannot describe how blessed I feel to have the best of “support crews”, lifting me up when things get rough and celebrating with me over every success – no matter how big or small. There’s really too many people (and a dog) to mention here, but you know who you are, and you are truly amazing. Love you all, and wishing you the very best in 2020!

Tratra ny toana! (Happy New Year!)