Each year during the field season, an expedition of biologists plunges into the Amazon rainforest. They live and work together at a field station so remote that telephones and Internet access are a distant dream, and the only entertainment they have is one another. Peggy Cole is a natural at the nature side of things. She faces down vipers, tarantulas, and jaguars while spearheading a groundbreaking project on short-eared Amazonian bush dogs. Peggy’s real struggle is with people. She must grapple with her unexpected love for Julie and a shattering betrayal from her beloved mentor.
Just like her professor, Peggy Cole knew at once that she was in a sacred place. The canopy was so dense that they walked in light made green by leaves hundreds of feet overhead. The air was alive and heavy. It vibrated with the breath of insects and the hum and song of birds. Peggy felt as if she could dissolve into it.
“What do you think?” Professor Jay Lions asked her. He always went by Jay with his students, even his undergraduates.
“It’s unreal,” Peggy said, tilting her head back. The rainforest was rich in all three dimensions. Vines twined up the tree trunks and a group of monkeys swung about the top of a tree that sprawled across the sky. Peggy had never seen wild monkeys before, and she pointed them out to Jay. When he saw that the monkeys were wearing magnificent white handlebar mustaches, he took off his hat and put it over his heart.
“Those are good friends of mine,” he said. “They got me my PhD.” Peggy knew what they were because Jay had been telling her about them for years. She named them out loud - Emperor Tamarins - and saw the subtle shift of a fine facial muscle at Jay’s temple. Peggy suspected he was pleased, but she did not realize that he was ecstatic. He was home.
“Soon all this will be yours,” Jay said to her, sweeping his one free hand around him in a grand gesture as the other tugged on a wheeled duffel bag. Now, as Peggy helped lug the expedition’s equipment from the boat landing up a treacherous staircase and to the field station laboratory, she understood that none of her previous fieldwork could compare to this. This was the most alive place on earth.
Lunch didn’t much interest Peggy, even though she was ravenous. She would eat thousands upon thousands of lunches in mundane places. Now she was in the Amazon rainforest and there was no sense being inside.
“Jay, Daphne, can I go have a poke around?” Peggy asked after she had cleared her plate. Jay’s wife only went by her first name with older students, but Peggy had been underfoot for so long that it would be bizarre to call her anything different.
“Hold on just a second, I have to give a quick introduction,” Jay said. Peggy looked at him keenly for a moment and turned to chat with her soon-to-be roommate. Someone pointed to a sizeable rat near the ceiling on a support beam, and Peggy looked up. It was gigantic, and not like the ones Peggy had seen before. It was tawny-colored and stocky and watched them with impunity.
“Don’t mess with the rats,” Daphne warned them, and Peggy laughed with the rest of the students. “You laugh, but you know what happened to the old freezer? A rat chewed through it. True story,” Daphne said. With that, she stood and Jay joined her. Peggy looked around as they started the introduction. The dining hall had a high lofted roof and a seating area with old couches in the corner. It was the centerpiece of the field station, flanked on both sides by laboratory facilities, with three dormitories in front of it, between it and the main river. All of the buildings on the field station’s main campus had metal roofs and were connected by an elevated wooden walkway covered in palm thatching. Behind the dining hall was a facility to dry equipment, a grill, and a diffuse cluster of cabins that trailed into the forest. All together the station could house 60 people and host 40 active researchers, although it rarely ran at full capacity.
Daphne explained the location of all the facilities and reminded everyone that other research groups would be joining them, and they should expect to share their dormitories with those students. They then went over the projects with everybody again. Peggy’s boyfriend, the only other undergraduate on the expedition, was working with a pair of grad students on one part of Daphne’s macaw feces composition project and listened carefully while Daphne explained where the refrigerator for their samples was and where they should do their fecal dissections.
“I don’t want the bench next to theirs,” Peggy’s roommate muttered to her during Daphne’s introduction. The affectionately labeled “bird-shit project” was in the far lab near the dissecting equipment and refrigerator. Jay’s projects, which as far as Peggy knew involved observing monkeys, were in the main segment of the lab on the left side of the dining hall.
“Okay, my group, let’s go check our equipment,” Daphne announced. She stood up, and her students and postdoc followed her to the lab. Peggy’s roommate and boyfriend made exaggerated sad faces as they left her, but they were distracted before they left the dining hall. They had spotted a lizard basking on the walkway.
“My group, go unpack the equipment and sort it out. Meet in your project groups and get ready for an orientation hike before dinner,” Jay said.
Peggy waited as the other students congealed into their groups and gravitated to the lab. She looked out the window to the lab building and saw Daphne showing her students around. Daphne smiled faintly at Peggy as Jay’s other students lingered to see which team Peggy would be joining. Her official expedition title was ‘field assistant’, and that could mean anything. She waited for one of the groups to claim her, but they all trickled out of the dining hall and disappeared into the lab.
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Cory Rivers is a tropical field biologist, or at least a graduate student. She does the bulk of her fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest but has also studied at field stations in Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico. Her fascination with tropical biology began when she was a young kid listening to her mother’s stories about growing up in a tropical village in Tanzania. Unlike her mother, she never got to school too early and found a lion on the swing set, but during her own field seasons she was treed by a stampede of tropical boars called peccaries, shared a bathroom with a spider the size of a dinner plate, and had the spectacular luck of twice seeing a short-eared Amazonian bush dog.
In fact she has been very fortunate to behold some of the rainforest’s grandest wonders. She has followed a family of giant river otters on canoe and spotted a jaguar lurking on the riverbank by night. She has seen tapirs, giant anteaters, caimans, and the extremely dangerous bushmaster viper (which she was happy to see from a comfortable distance). Unlike some tropical biologists, Cory has only been set upon by wasps once, and was lucky that they were a relatively lazy species that did not chase her too far. She also, by complete accident, interrupted a pair of 10-foot-long boa constrictors during their mating ritual. They were very gracious about the disturbance. Cory has sparred with army ants and been bullied by Capuchin monkeys. During one field observation session a flock of toucans settled right above the field site and heckled her for nearly an hour.
Cory’s observations of people and animals have provided a fruitful avenue for storytelling, and began during her undergraduate years. While in college Cory won the Hoopes Prize and the Blumberg Creative Science Prize for her writing in and out of the classroom. She has been an aspiring novelist for many years and Field Season is her first novel.