Back at Colgate


I am currently sitting in the Coop at Colgate, having just finished my first day of classes in 10 degree weather, which I’m being told is a warm day compared to the past week. It’s hard not to want to be back in Ethiopia! It took me about 42 hours to get from the hotel in Bahir Dar to my house in Vermont but the long trip gave me some time to reflect on how amazing this experience was for me. When I enrolled at Colgate I never thought I would have the opportunity to do field research in Africa, working with the same professors who taught my classes. I could write more about memories and lessons from the trip but I have work I should be catching up on, so instead I’ll just say thanks for reading my blog! Hopefully I’ll have another opportunity to travel soon and I’ll have more to write about. Until then, amaseganalo, ciao!

Last Day (01/21)


It seemed fitting that on our last day in Ethiopia we would not be sitting around the hotel packing, but that we would be in the field. In fact, we were returning to a forest that we had planned on doing on the way to Debre Tabor but had taken one look at and decided it was too hot to attempt that day. We were taking the group from Colby, a professor and four students, to show them our methods. Since the forest was over half way to Debre Tabor, about an hour drive, we wouldn’t have time to do plots and transects. We opted to do just transects because they would give a relatively quick idea of the condition of the forest. Josh and I had spent the previous afternoon compressing two and a half weeks of samples into a dozen, gallon-sized ziplocks that would fit in a suitcase, so we weren’t too devastated we wouldn’t be collecting another forests worth of leaves and soil. I was glad the forest was far away because it meant one last car ride through the country side. This has been my favorite way to see Ethiopia, watching the fields, animals, and people along the road. It didn’t matter how tired I was on any given day, I never wanted to sleep in the car because I thought I might miss something, like the parade we came across today!

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By the time we got to the forest, having stopped several times for Alemayehu to secure permission to work there, the sun was high and I was excited to get out of the heat and in to the forest. Unfortunately, this forest despite the large area it covered, was fairly degraded and the lack of trees mean little protection from the sun. As we hiked up to the church, Cat and Carrie were giving the Colby students a run down on the exact procedures for doing a transect and some basic lessons on how to tell native plants from non-native ones. I realized while listening to this mini-lesson I was surprised how familiar everything was to me considering I had known almost nothing at the beginning of the trip. I really learned a lot, whether I meant to or not!


I was to do a transect with Alemayehu and a Colby senior named Gray. We would be walking the 120 degree line from the church all the way to the edge. Gray was in charge of pulling in the meter tape along out in front so that we knew where we were.  My job was to follow behind Alemayehu and record names, diameters and distances from the church of all the species we came across. We didn’t really know what we were getting in to with this forest but after 10 meters we were all covered head to toe in burrs and thistles, a really pleasant introduction to the forest for Gray, I’m sure. I think it’s a testament to how far I have come over the trip that I didn’t stop to pull them off, well except the ones that managed to get stuck under my backpack straps and inside my shoes. It was a rather hellish 200 meters but we found a lot of species, where there were human paths through the forest and that there were more invasives the closer we got to the edge. It is pretty incredible the amount of information we can get about a forest from a relatively simple (aside from the physical struggle of walking through a dense, prickly underbrush), low tech method. All told on this trip, between the transects and the plots, across 15 forests, we found 53 different species. Given that Alemayehu found just over 80 species in his dissertation on the church forests, our methods have given a fairly accurate picture of these forest, especially considering that we were here for just under three weeks!

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We finally finished our transect around 2 but couldn’t head out because Cat, Peter and the Colby professor were on an even longer transect and weren’t done yet. Those of us who were finished were by the cars trying to rehydrate a bit when Alemayehu came over from talking to the priests and told us that we were invited to a ceremony they were having. I was so surprised, that on our very last day in the field, we  would actually be allowed to see what goes on in the gathering spots that we had been so carefully working around! Apparently the next day was the feast day of the church’s saint so they were having a big feast. The whole church community was in five or six groups, sort of by neighborhood, and were sitting around a clearing in the forest chatting while they shared a big meal and homemade beer.We weren’t there for long but the group was very friendly and welcoming, offering us food and drink (which we politely declined) while chatting with Alemayehu and Isabella about our project. What a nice way to end our work in the forests!

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Blue Nile Falls (01/20)


Our plans for today changed at least three times because of the amount of work we needed to get done and the things we wanted to see before heading home. Originally we had wanted to visit Lalibela, which is the site of one of Ethiopia’s most famous landmark, a giant stone church. Then we decided that was too far away and so we thought about going to Gondar which used to be the Capitol of the Ethiopian empire and there are ancient castles to explore. But then we saw the crowds of the Timkut celebrations and decided that Gondar, which is also a place religious pilgrimage, on St. Michael’s feast day, might not be a little overwhelming. The other factor in our plans was that today a small student group from Colby College was supposed to be arriving in Bahir Dar so we thought we might stay in Bahir Dar and do work while waiting for them to arrive. Eventually it was decided that Carrie, Josh and I would visit the Blue Nile water falls in the morning while Cat, Peter and Isabella stayed to get some work done. Even on a non-field day there are so many decisions to make!
We set off early even though the falls were only about 30km from the hotel because it was a bumpy dirt road almost the entire way. As much as I love the views when driving around Ethiopia, I won’t miss the dirt roads and the dust too much. It took us about an hour and a half to get to the falls and I was glad we had left early because it was already starting to get warm as we started the hike. The walk was beautiful although you could t really tell you were headed for a waterfall except for the hydropower plant down in the valley. We hike up for 20 minutes or so before coming over a ridge where there was a stunning view of the river and the drop off of the falls. In the wet season the falls are about twice as wide and far more water is coming over, looking more like Niagara Falls, but it was still beautiful. Apparently we were lucky to see anything at all because the week before the hydropower plant had diverted most of the water away so there were no falls to speak of!





In order to get closer to the water we had to cross an extremely long, extremely high bridge over the gorge that part of the river ran through. I had trouble getting a picture that shows just how high up this bridge is but you can definitely see the length! Carrie was having a great time dancing and jumping on the bridge, trying to make it swing and bounce so I let her go a ways ahead of me before crossing. You can just see her green backpack in the background of the picture of me on the bridge.





One of the benefits of being there during the dry season was that we could actually get really close to the falls! We walked right up to the river, sat on some big rocks and got sprayed by the mist. We definitely could have hung out there for a couple of hours, and not just because the spray of the water felt great in the heat, but we knew there was work to be done back at the hotel so we started the hike back. If I get to come back to Ethiopia I would love to spend more time hiking and checking out some of the other regions of the country. I’m sure there are many other places like this to see and I know there are always more church forests to research!





Timkut celebrations (01/19)


(Note to the reader: I didn’t forget to write about Saturday! I wasn’t feeling well and stayed home from the field so there wasn’t much to report until Sunday!)

Waking up on Sunday morning you wouldn’t have known that today was the celebration of the Epiphany, called Timkut, in Ethiopia. I had breakfast with Isabella in the hotel and we watched the Timkut ceremonies in Addis. The amount of people there made it look like St. Peter’s square on Easter, except that the crowds were being rather unceremoniously sprayed with water from a hose to represent the baptism. Water is a big part of the celebration and Isabella was pointing out the huge reflecting pools that all of the priests were standing around, holding the “arc of the covenant” from each of their respective churches. Aside from services, when everyone is at the church for several hours in the morning and then again at night, the main activity of Timkut is parading the Arc of the church down to the main square of the city and back. I was hoping to see this in Bahir Dar but before we could go check out the scene, Josh and I had to devote some time to transferring leaves for drying. I know this is a recurring theme but it’s exciting because we’re getting very close to being able to pack and label all of our samples to bring home!
Around 1 we finally left the hotel to go walk around town but we walked out the front door and found ourselves basically in the middle of the Timkut parade heading away from St. George’s church. Rather than trying to go upstream against this crowd we waited and took pictures of the scene (at the bottom of this post). The road has a median dividing traffic but today it was dividing groups of rowdy young men from the women and priests. The boys would be in clusters of 10-20 people, jumping up and down and chanting songs. Isabella said they are partly trying to show off for the women on the other side, who are all dressed in beautiful, embroidered white dresses and shawls and singing together as they walk down the road. I was surprised to see that they were rolling out a red carpet for the priests to walk down while the women were lined up on either side, sort of forming a tunnel.the most amusing part to me though was that the carpet was made of many shorter pieces of carpet and as soon as the parade moved off of one section, a couple of young men would roll it up and then sprint, carrying the carpet on their shoulders, down to the end and roll it out before the parade ran out of carpet! It was quite the production. Even though the groups of boys could get out of hand sometimes, especially if they had been indulging in celebratory beers, it was really fun to walk around and see how joyous everyone was. It felt like almost like the Fourth of July for us because it seemed like everyone was out celebrating and that it wasn’t a religious occasion for just one group of people. Although there is a Muslim population, the Ethiopian Christian church is such an overwhelming majority of the country (at least in the area we are in) that it’s hard to remember that it isn’t the entire Ethiopian culture.
Later that evening I was sitting outside the hotel, (probably writing a blog post) and I was having trouble believing that there had been such a big celebration just a few hours before. The city had cleaned up very quickly and it was amazingly peaceful. Across the street a couple of twenty something men were kicking a ball around with a little boy who couldn’t have been more than two while his father sat on the side and watched. They would pass the ball toward the boy who would pick it up with his hands, take a few tottering steps and then try to throw it back to one of the guys. It was really cute and I’m not sure why but it just reminded me how friendly all of the people I have met here have been. Everyone really wants you to like Ethiopia and tries to make you feel at home. I hope I get to come back and explore more of the country some day!

I have some cool videos from Timkut too but I can’t upload them on the wifi in the Dubai airport. Hopefully I’ll be able to post a bunch when I get home tomorrow!







The last church forest (01/17)


Today might as well have been Colgate day for us because it was Friday and we were doing our last church forest, site 13! At this point we are practically a well oiled machine when it comes to packing up and moving so we were ready to head out of our hotel and get on the road quickly. This forest was at slightly lower elevation than the other highland forests but it still had absolutely gorgeous surroundings.



The forest itself had some challenges in store for us, as usual. The first plot took us a while to find but once we were there we realized it would be hard to lose simply because of the sheer amount of scat present. Apparently this forest has a very healthy population of what I have been calling the Ethiopian tree rat, although I’m not sure what the official name is. This creature looks kind of like an over grown cross between a rat and a guinea pig. I have no idea how these creatures live in the trees because they just don’t look like they would have any balance! The only one I had seen before was sitting on a wall at site 2 and when Fiero told me there were all over, up in the trees, I could barely believe him!

20140119-213119.jpg But at this plot I final saw one balanced up on a branch looking quite comfortable as he contributed to the piles of scat we were so carefully working around. The second plot was much more friendly, hardly any thorns or animals around and even nice enough for Cat to sit down and label her foliar samples right that we collected them. What luxury! It was really peaceful but unfortunately we knew that the pleasantness of this site also meant there was very little regrowth so this forest might not be as nice for the next generation. The last plot of the day was really testing our limits because it was full of a liana (a woody vine) that was covered in spikes. These aren’t just thorns I’m talking about, these are weapons that can do some serious damage.

20140119-213405.jpg This plot was practically taunting us because we could see the outside and knew we were so close to being done for the day but still had to be vigilant in not forgetting any tree or litter plot.

20140119-213612.jpg We actually managed to finish at a reasonable hour and Alemayehu convinced us to put off our PB&J lunch in order to eat in a town on the way back to Bahir Dar instead. It was a long and slightly grouchy ride (our team mood really depends on how frequently we’ve eaten) but with a couple of candies from Cat’s hidden stash we made it to the restaurant. The best way to describe it was like a mom and pop’s diner almost, Alemayehu clearly knew the woman who owned it and it felt like we were just guests someone’s home. The food was as good as homemade too, and beautifully presented.

20140119-213854.jpg It’s a little late to be mentioning this just now, but injera is the bread all of the food here is served with. It’s made from a grain called teff and is self-fermenting so it’s light and fluffy but cooked sort of like a crêpe. We were trying to figure out how we could make it back in the states and Alemayehu told us that it’s like sour dough, made from a starter reserved from the previous batch every time. It always amazes me that the same technique can be used for cooking across continents.
Tonight was Mabel, Eliza and Peter’s last night with us and by the time we got back to Bahir Dar I barely had enough energy to help Mabel sort out all of her gear from mine. Two weeks of rooming together and nothing was a packed where it started! She is off to an exciting semester abroad in Wales and I will definitely miss her but I think Cat might miss her even more!

20140119-214511.jpg We had a nice farewell dinner down by Lake Tana, which is starting to remind me of Lake Champlain, but maybe that’s just a sign that I’m ready to head home. Only four more days in this beautiful country!


Cemetery forests (01/16)


This morning was a nice surprise because we all got to sleep in a bit while Alemayehu and Isabella had to visit the local religious authority to get permission to work in two new forests. Having the morning off was really great in terms of getting to relax a bit and also to catch up on data entry and transferring dried leaf samples into plastic bags. Josh and I turned the back deck of the hotel into our own mini-lab, much to the entertainment of the construction workers working on the expansion of the hotel, so that we could at least catch some sun while working(pic 1). After lunch at the hotel we headed to site 11 which was practically in the city it was so close. The church was apparently very wealthy because in addition to the classic, old round church, there was a brand new modern looking church that Alemayehu thought was a terrible eyesore (pics 2&3). The night before we had been talking about these forests being used as cemeteries. Alemayehu said that anyone who was a member of the church had a right to be buried there and that he himself would be buried in a church forest near his home. Traditionally these graves are covered in piles of stones which over time fade into the ground and will be grown over with plants. Recently though, they have started using huge cement tombs to go above the graves which make it look a lot more like a cemetery in the US would look like and they will never fade back into the forest. Coincidentally, site 11 was covered in graves, both old and new(pic 4). It was a little unsettling to be walking over these old piles of stone for sure. This also meant that there just weren’t too many trees in this forest and we couldn’t even do a third plot because that spot was just a front yard for the church essentially. So we blew through our work in a few hours and moved on to site 12.
This forest was clearly under a lot of human influence as well. Cat called it a “camp ground” which was a very accurate description because anything that wasn’t a tree was trimmed down so there wasn’t an understory to speak of. We weren’t in our first plot for two minutes before Josh got bit by an ant and we noticed that we were right on top of a huge colony. We retreated back a ways to tuck our pants into our socks and then completed the rest of the work in the plot by just running past the spot with the ants. My personal strategy was just jumping from one foot to the other whenever we had to be in one spot for more than 15 seconds at a time. We heard thunder while walking between plots and I noticed a huge rainbow in the sky. I guess when I pulled out my iPhone to take a picture (pic 5, although you can’t see the rainbow, still pretty!), I dropped the sharpie that had been in my pocket. Sharpies are in high demand in our group because we use them to label every sample we collect. We can get pretty possessive over our sharpies and losing a sharpie that someone else lent you is on par with high treason! (only a slight exaggeration). After being asked for pens by so many kids in the past two weeks, imagine my surprise when I heard two little boys saying “Pen! Pen!” and instead of asking me for one they had picked up my sharpie and brought it back to me! It was so heartwarming and I was happy that I had a few pens in my backpack to give them as thanks. Ethiopia might have some of the thorniest plants I’ve ever encountered but it also undoubtably had some of the the nicest people too. Friday would be our last day working in the highlands so that night we all had to pack up clothes and samples for transport. After another delicious dinner in Debre Tabor(pic 6), I was ready to head back to Bahir Dar.







Flora and Fauna (01/15)


We had another early start this morning, with a beautiful drive to site 10 (double digits!!) and, unlike the day before, we were able walk right into the forest after a quick introduction from Alemayehu. (Pic 1 is a view from the drive and pic 2 is the entrance of the forest with a group of nuns.) We have been running into some interesting flora and fauna here and this forest had just about all of them. My favorite new tree is called a euphorbia (pic 3). It an example of convergent evolution that you can really see because it’s basically a normal tree trunk but then a cactus on top! Cat said the ones here are some of the biggest she’s ever seen and they really are stunning just because it’s bizarre to see a cactus up in the canopy among other trees! The best thing about them though? We don’t collect foliar samples from euphorbia! This might seem trivial but we have had some plots here with over 20 trees and it saves us a lot of time when half are euphorbes. This forest also had the most monkeys we had seen so far. They’re sneaky and hard to take pictures of but you can hear them running through the trees and they’re especially noisy when they land on a corrugated tin roof right near by. Sometimes I think they are doing it just to startle me! As annoying as the monkeys can be, they are nothing compared to the porcupines around here. We came across three or four dens in this forest that we thought might have been dug by dogs because they were so big (pic 4). Walking around these holes though, we found porcupine quills as long as 8-10 inches! Luckily porcupines are nocturnal because I would not want to stumble upon one of them while collecting leaf litter.

Since site 10 was fairly small and easy to work in, we were able to finish around 1:30 and eat a quick lunch before heading back over to Debre Sina to finish what we had started the day before. We quickly finished our last plot and then while the professors went back up through each plot to do micro climate, Josh, Mabel and I took what we though was an easier route around the outside of the forest. Although we didn’t have to battle trees and undergrowth on our way back, it did end up being a bit of a hike. As we walked around the outside of the hill to the cars, the land sort of dropped away, giving some absolutely stunning views(pics 4-8). I think that hike might be one of the highlight of my trip! It had been a long day of hard work but we were all excited about the progress we are making. At dinner that night, out at the same restaurant Alemayehu took us to yesterday, the professors planned out the rest of our time in the highlands. It was decided that we would add a few new forests from our original lists in order to get some more degraded ones that would be comparable with some we had done in the lowlands. I am always amazed at how many big decisions need to be made on a project like this every single day. Or current plan is nothing like what the original project described, but despite all of the challenges we have faced, we will still come away with the information we need to learn a lot about the church forests. I’ve started notice how the professors think in terms of how the data we collect will be published which makes the decision making process a lot more clear. It’s all about being flexible because you never know what challenges the next day will bring!