The Green Waste
by “Mary Kathleen Riordan” (nom de plume of Ekphrasian Carl Hoffmeyer)
The following item and translation of the original park service report provided by the Canaima Park Service was furnished by UPI and AP wire service sources, and was published in The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, Ohio.
This was supposed to be the field notes of our trip, but something terrible has happened. Professor Muirdens is dead. I need to write this down, because we were required to keep notes, and because we need to record the awful event that killed our teacher.
Dr. Muirdens brought four of us, all seniors, to study the carnivorous Heliamphora plant and the mosses and algae endemic to the Ptari-tepui environment.
We were faced with the task of ascending one of the massive sandstone monoliths that occupied northeastern Venezuela. These are mind-numbing objects, two-billion-year-old Precambrian giants that dominate the landscape. But the tepuis are not inert rock. Each harbors an incredible variety of endemic flora and fauna. Each tepui features its own micro-ecology. Professor Muirdens realized how draining it would be for all of us to climb the nearly 3,000 metres to the top of the tepui, (going down will be no fun either) so he sought leave to spend some of the expedition money (and chipped in almost $1,000 of his own) to have a helicopter deliver us to the top.
The sheer sandstone, thrusting convulsively nearly 3,000 metres from the Canaima region, gives little hint of the summit environment. Contrary to our expectations, we were not greeted by naked rock. Instead, we found ourselves awed by the jungle growth before us. In places like the Amazon basin, the emergent layer rain forest canopy can reach 50 metres, but here it rarely seemed to exceed three or four.
The summit is the better part of mile long, but only half as wide. The shape resembles a squashed football. We ran into rills and rocky, rolling ground. The going was treacherous, and Dr. Muirdens reminded us to temper our excitement and set our feet with more care. A couple of painful falls enforced this advice! We were also told to continue wearing our bright red, yellow, and blue day packs, so that we could keep in sight of one another and not get separated.
We had expected to encounter a very wet environment, and all of us, including Dr. Muirdens expressed surprise at the evident aridity. Perhaps the onset of the monsoon has been delayed.
Around us, at several hundred yards distance, we could make out deep rifts in the sandstone tepui. (We took the time to commit to memory a catalog of details – part of Dr. Muirdens’ requirement for our participation.) The rifts are a result of percolation over hundreds of millions of years and of seismic shifts. We approached one these rifts and were sobered to see a chasm at least 30 metres deep. Someone joked that we didn’t want to fall into it.
That’s when the terrible thing happened. Professor Muirdens had ventured farther out on a spit of rock overlooking the chasm when there was a loud rumble from below us. Before any of us could react, the rocky spit fell into the chasm – with Dr. Muirdens on top of it.
We cried out in dismay, but lost little time in throwing down our rappelling lines and racing down to find our teacher. Our effort ended in a sight that made us all cry. Dr. Muirdens was dead, his body crushed under a pile of debris. His right leg stuck out from under the rock pile, but we could not move him or pull the large rocks off. Much crying and hand-wringing. We decided to cover his leg with rock, and place a stone as a marker.
Lois wouldn’t stop crying; she had a thing for the prof. Now that we were without him, we all felt abandoned. Howard asked me to write a headstone inscription. It reads: “Dr. Donald E. Muirdens May 12, 2013, killed in rock fall. Beloved teacher.” Howard used a pick to chisel the epitaph into a flat piece of rock, and we laid this nearby.
We had barely finished burying Dr. Muirdens when more of the rocky outcropping above us began to give way. We had dropped our packs and some supplies while we worked on the burial, and now the talus flowed down pushing us back and covering much of our gear.
There was no climbing up this stuff. It was loose sandstone, like cinder-cone rubble, not enough to provide any sort of footing, but sharp enough to cut hands and ankles. Behind us opened a broad defile, so we made our way down into it. Ahead of us, the vegetation seemed lush, so we had hope of finding a stream to replenish our canteens. Lois was for ending the expedition and going directly home. Even if we agreed, it would have been tough. Our radio was lost under the small mountain of talus debris that fell after Dr. Muirdens was killed. We were at the bottom of a broad defile, and would first have to find a way to climb up and out of that before we could climb down the flanks of the sandstone monolith. The rest us would not hear of it. All of us were scared, but we deemed it demeaning and cowardly not to continue something that Professor Muirdens had worked so hard for, and an opportunity that he had been kind enough to offer us.
It’s about 18:00 and this has been a hard day. The death of Dr. Muirdens is a great weight that depresses every thought, every action, but we try hard not to talk of it. We encountered several of the swampy meadows that characterize these tepui. We also ran across specimens of the carnivorous Heliamphora plant and the mosses and algae endemic to the same tepui environment. We collected as many specimens as we could carry – a tricky business, since most of our sample vials and collection bags had been lost in the rock fall.
We also encountered something else: a kind of greeny-grey hedge growth that varied in height from just a foot or two – things we could leap over – to growths some three metres high, obscuring our vision and hemming us in. The hedge reminded us of holly, because it seemed sharp and angular, and it had a strange odor, sharp and rather disagreeable, but also possessing a sweet, cloying fragrance – it was almost soporific.
We noticed something else, something very unpleasant. In amongst the leaves of the hedge growth were the movements of insects, but unlike anything that we had ever seen or studied. Their color was a revolting mottled greenish with patches of brown and grey. They seemed like some kind of grasshoppers, except that they had ferocious mandibles that looked like nothing so much as the jaws of Marabunta – army ants. They had one other disturbing feature: their eyes looked forward, and (I know, it’s silly) they seem to be glaring at us. The grasshopper things appeared to nest in the hedge growth, and seemed to follow us as we made our way through the defile. The sensation of being observed was unnerving.
We slept reasonably well on this hard ground, and continued to make a circuit of the defile to find a place most likely to support our efforts to climb out onto the tepui basin above.
There’s a new pest to deal with, tormented us day and night: midges. These critters were blood suckers, very like sand fleas, but colored an indigo blue. When the brush was disturbed, clouds of them would rise and encircle us. The damn things crawl into everything, so there was no wearing a bra any more.
At the rate that we were moving, it took a long time to hike to, examine, and then evaluate each promising chimney of rock that offered some hope of climbing out. The trek was exhausting. As we made our way, the hedge growth seemed more dense, and the grasshopper things seemed more numerous.
We almost have the feeling that the hedge is following us somehow. (Crazy thought I know but the sharp hedge growth, the grasshopper things, and the midges – plus our hunger and fatigue may be playing with our heads – geez I hope we find a way out soon)
Woke up this morning to real scare; hedge really is closer than it was last night, and it seems to have grown across our path toward the next chimney. There were more terrors yet. This awful place is starting to numb our senses and spirits. Howard is one anchor of sanity. We walked together a lot. He was that rare boy who knew how to keep his hands to himself. That earned him some respect right off. But he wasn’t one of those sexless nerds that crop up in science and engineering. I knew that he was attracted, but he was one of the more mature boys I knew.
At one point he cast an anxious glance my way. “Cindy, what is it?”
I had stopped abruptly, suddenly aware of a subtle movement in a larger patch of the hedge. The green mass seemed to move slowly, as though some large form were making its way through it.
“Howie, there’s something moving in that patch over there – something big.”
We were prepared for a jaguar, or maybe a capybara, but whatever it was remained hidden, and we directly many a backward glance as we threaded our way through the maze. But there were worse horrors ahead. A pair of antpittas, incongruous on top of a tepui, alighted on the hedge in front of us. We half expected them to feed on some of the grasshopper things. Our curiosity turned to shocked revulsion when at least a dozen of the larger grasshopper things attacked the antpittas from all sides. One of the poor birds, probably the male, tried to take wing and flee before the onslaught. The female was smaller and less able to fight the things off, and she succumbed quickly.
We now understood the shape and purpose of the creatures’ jaws. Their voracity was appalling, and after the two song birds had been torn apart and dismembered, dozens of the two-inch grasshopper things rushed in to strip every bit of flesh from the slender, lifeless creatures.
Now we understood the danger of the six-inch specimens, and it was not lost on us that still larger ones might lurk in the strange patch of hedge. Howard believed in acting on his instincts. He had managed to keep his machete and approached the hedge. Three times he hacked at it, but the effect made our hair stand on end: the hedge screamed. We all knew that the growth could have no vocalizing organs and no lungs, but God help me – it screamed – when Howard cut it. The hedge and the grasshopper things must have a kind of symbiotic connection.
It got worse. As Howard lunged yet against toward the hedge growth, something within it, something we could not see, ripped the machete from his hand and nearly drew him into the hedge.
With some hesitation, we moved farther into the defile, still looking for a route out, and becoming more wary of the hedge with each step, because the path before us seemed to have narrowed. We were afraid to suggest that the hedge was moving – toward us. Then a shadow of wings crossed our route, and with it the scream of a harpy eagle. The eagle boldly displayed the slate grey of its head and seven-foot wings, and regarded us with a certain predatory interest.
It was somehow heartening to see this great raptor, something normal and majestic that contrasted with the weird things in the defile. But Robert damped our delight by noting that harpies were usually found in the emergent layer of a rain forest. We decided finally that it was more than disturbing to see one soaring over this tepui.
The harpy descended toward the maze of growth, and for a few moments we wondered if it had spied some kind of game. We had momentary qualms about the big female’s safety (males are smaller) but the eagle’s beak and talons made a formidable showing. Now, we thought, the grasshopper things would get their comeuppance for killing the antpittas.
Hardly had the raptor touched the hedge before the grasshopper things burst upon it. In seconds, they tore through the her wings, denying a chance of escape. The grasshopper things tore through feather, flesh, and bone, like a hot needle through agar. With talons and beak she took out a few of the monsters, but their numbers were too many. In less than a minute, the eagle’s torn and bloody carcass had been drawn down into the lower reaches of the hedge. We were all shaken. A huge, powerful predator had been dealt with in a summary fashion that made us ever more fearful for our own safety.
Then horror had a new name and tore out our hearts. Lois had backed away from where Howard had savaged the hedge, and in which the harpy had been killed, but doing so, she backed into a section of the hedge behind us. Suddenly the hedge growth was seething with the six-inch grasshopper things. In seconds, they covered her; Robert tried to pull her back, but something in the hedge tore Lois off her feet and pulled her back into hedge. Her body was borne away from us, but not before we were forced to see our friend being ripped to pieces. Her body was alive with the awful things, some were eight inches long. Her screams still resound in our minds now, hours after the attack.
Robert, Howard, and I clung to one another, terribly shaken, but staying well away from the hedge. We cried for a long time and settled on the ground, and Howard held me and let me cry. After a while, Robert rose to his feet, fighting back tears and repeating Lois’ name over and over. He stalked boldly toward the hedge and lit one of his the precious matches. He held it to the hedge, and the awful growth shriveled and became black – and it screamed!
Robert backed away and brought his canteen to his lips, then stopped suddenly. He half turned and gestured toward Howard. Howard nodded his assent. Robert took a mouthful from his canteen and then sprayed it from his mouth toward the hedge. The effect was stunning; where the water had landed, the hedge dissolved and dribbled onto the ground into a gooey grey-green moss. We weren’t surprised this time when the damn hedge screamed again.
I joked: “Wish we had a pumper truck and a water source. Make short work of this stuff.” We prayed for rain. I turned to Howard, and he gathered me into his arms. I thanked Robert and turned to swat at one of the awful indigo midges. We paused for a long while to look at one another, as though to examine for the last time something that we had taken for granted. I asked Howard if that was the way people left on the Titanic had looked at one another. As shadows lengthened, we shared the brave hope that the hedge would not be any closer next morning. None of us really believed that, but we were not scared any more. We were now past that. We were merely trying to make ourselves ready for what we knew was coming. We knew that it would be terrifying and painful, but given what we had seen, we prayed that the end would be quick, so we tried to find some little joy that we had left to us. Robert fished out his field glasses and lay in the dark for most of the night communing with the heavens and gazing at the glory of the Magellanic Clouds.
I needed something too. In the dark, I took Howard’s hand and placed it under my shirt – and pressed it there. I needed to feel his touch, the way that he had earned my trust, not taking it for granted. It was good to be close to him. We clung together, cradling each other, hoping that the next day would be better.
Parque Nacional Canaima
Secretary of Parks Department Services
Office of Tourist Affairs
The communications officer of the Parks Access Office has forwarded the following report to this bureau.
There has been no radio communication on either HF or VHF repeater frequencies from the party from Case Western University in Ohio for a period exceeding four weeks. Efforts to send a search team have been hampered by the monsoon which has finally abated sufficiently to allow a helicopter with a team to examine the summit of Ptari Tepui.
To their dismay, they recovered several articles of bright clothing and discovered the skeletal remains of four young adults, one separated from the other three. The ground cover thereabouts consisted of a kind of gooey grey-green moss. Searchers said that they never saw such vegetation before.
The search party also recovered several sheets of paper contained in a plant specimen envelope and weighted down with a rock. It is transcribed, and attached here.
Upon their return to park headquarters, search team officers examined it, clearly a field-notes diary, and they concluded that dehydration, lack of nourishment, fatigue, and altitude sickness probably contributed to the party’s hallucinations and evident hysteria.
(As the helicopter was leaving, searchers saw the dried exoskeletons of what resembled crickets, some exceeding a metre in length, but this was clearly an illusion, probably a result of the chance arrangement of rocks, vegetation, and ground terrain.)
The parks department has ordered an investigation, but inspection personnel are instructed to wait for the dry season to commence, when the gooey moss has dried up sufficiently to allow easier access.