The heart of darkness...
July 9, 2008 1:06 PM   Subscribe

I need to know what it's like to live in (or at least walk around in) a tropical rainforest.

I'm writing a fiction novel that is partly set in a tropical rainforest. Right now, I am not financially able to visit one and see for myself, but I intend to within a year or two. I will have to flesh some parts out later. Until then, I need at least a bare bones idea of what it's like to be a human being in a tropical rainforest. (Note: not a temperate rainforest, it must be tropical. I'm going to visit a temperate rainforest soon just because I'm in the area, but I'm not sure how much I can use from the experience. If you've visited both, please comment!)

Researching tropical rainforests tends to turn up scientific data, or information about animals or species that live there, more than anything else. There are not a lot of documentaries about the rain forest that reveal much of what I want to know, either, as they focus on the quirks of the animals. It's a fantasy novel, so it's not imperative that I get the specific plants and animals to be accurate; I'm making a lot of those things up. Real plants and animals can be inspirational, but I think I have enough of that for now.

Book and movie references, websites, and especially comments from those of you who have visited a tropical rainforest are welcome. I'm thinking I might have more luck with books that are first person accounts of something else, that are incidentally set in the rainforest and contain the details I'm interested in. (For example, maybe books by anthropologists or something?) I'm completely willing to read a book about something unrelated just to get those peripheral details. If you personally visited a rainforest, I would be curious to know which one, just to see if there are any differences.

I realize rainforests are huge and the answers to many of these questins might be "sometimes" or "it depends," but I gotta start somewhere.

I am looking for any information about the following sorts of things:
- How muddy/slippery/marshy (or not) the ground tends to be, or if there is a lot of variation.
- What is the soil like? I have heard that it is red. Is all of it red?
- How dirty do you get just by walking around normally?
- How hot does it feel, taking into consideration the tree cover?
- How humid does it feel?
- Is there much of a breeze or not, or does it depend?
- When it rains, is the rain dirty by the time it gets through all the trees and reaches the ground? Or clean?
- What does it smell like? Wet and gross? Green? Flowery? Rotting? Does it vary much?
- How quickly does the topography change? Are slopes gradual or steep? Does it vary greatly? Are you always going uphill or downhill, or are large portions of it fairly flat?
- How are things different in the valley areas, compared to the higher areas?
- How dense are the insect and wildlife populations? Do you see a million bugs every step you take, or do you not notice much more than in an average forest? Are animals visible everywhere, or not so visible? Some areas more than others?
- Is the ground covered in plants, or is it mostly bare? I have heard that it's bare unless there is a hole in the canopy that lets light reach the ground. If so, how often does that actually happen?
- Related, I have read this is what is considered the "jungle" and that it occurs most on the edges of rainforest. So do you normally have to struggle through that stuff, then reach an area where the ground is mostly bare except for trees?
- How dark is it, generally, during the day? Can you see fine without a light source?
- I have heard conflicting information, possibly pertaining to different rainforests. Does it rain every day? If not, about how often does it rain?
- How far apart are the trees? Can you spread your arms without hitting one, or not? Are some areas much more sparse than others?

And, perhaps what I'm most curious about, the darkest part. I'm not sure that many people have gone there, but any tiny bit of info helps.
- How dark is it during the day? Sometimes I hear it referred to as pitch black, which sounds awesome, but I admit I find it hard to imagine. I wonder if they mean the same thing by "pitch black" that I do. Can you see your hand in front of you or not? I saw a video of some rainforest researchers using flashlights to navigate it, but I couldn't tell how dark it actually was.
- How much of the rainforest is this dark part? Is it huge expanses, or just relatively small patches?
- Is there a term for this darkest part? I had heard "canopy" used, but it seems that just refers to the highest level of the rainforest, the actual leaves and whatnot. If there is a word for this, it would be easier to look it up.
- When it comes to this dark area, I am more interested in the plants and animals there. Basically, I can see plants and fungus thriving there, but I would be interested in how common amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds are in this area. While I get to make things up, I do like to keep things somewhat evolutionarily feasible -- if it would be stupid to have a panther or a snake in this area, I need to know that.

Also, if it might be helpful, a very hot, humid, and rainy place I have lived is Houston, TX. So if you know what that is like, it might be easier to say, "It's more humid than Houston," or, "It's about as humid as Houston but not as hot under the trees," etc.

Finally, feel free to tell me anything else about the rainforest you think is cool... anything that gives me a better idea of what it's like to be there will help me write.

Thanks for any help!
posted by Nattie to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Ah, a few questions I forgot about rain:

- How long does it tend to rain, when it rains? Does it usually go on for hours, or is it over somewhat quickly?

- I vaguely recall hearing that it usually rains in the afternoon. Am I recalling correctly? Does it ever rain at night, and if so, how common is it?
posted by Nattie at 1:10 PM on July 9, 2008

Best answer: OK: from the Indonesian rainforests, Indian jungles Sri Lankan jungles and Malaysian rainforest. Questions answered in order of yours.

Ground was fine when it wasn't raining, slippery as hell otherwise; only marshy in wet low areas. The soil wasn't red. Tropical soils can be but aren't all by any means, for example near volcanoes.
You don't get dirty unless it's raining, then you get muddy.
It's pretty warm, but shady. So not excessive. You do sweat a lot.
It's very humid, although more so if it's going to rain.
Not much breeze at all.
The rain is clean.
It smells nice. Just like a normal forest, but a bit steamier and more jungly. Organic.
Where I was was very hilly, but it needn't be. I've been in very flat rainforest too.
No difference between flat and hilly areas unless the hills are mountains in which case, it's more like a kind of temperate rain forest.
You don't see much in the way of bugs or animals. Some birds and monkeys. Lots of leeches. Guides can help you spot them.
The ground is mostly bare. You are correct about holes in the canopy.
Jungle tends to be used to describe a tropical forest that has a pronounced drier season - as with India. It's a bit scrubbier.
It's fine lightwise. Not much different to summer woods in the US.
It rains many days, but this will depend on the season (i.e. rainy).
Big trees are fairly sparse, smaller ones less so. there are plenty of places you can spread your hands.
It is not pitch black. You can see perfectly easily.
None is this dark in my experience.
It is about as humid as houston, when houston is humid. It's hot and wet. And when it rains it's unbelievably wet. Though not all that dissimilar to downpours in the US.
Err hope that helps. Email me if you want any more specifics.
posted by rhymer at 1:46 PM on July 9, 2008

I'm a visual person, and I really enjoy the Survivorman shows. He mentions things like how in the jungle wet feet can lead to nastiness and there are good shots of things like Ants that Will Eat Your Face Off (perhaps I exaggerate a bit).
I'd bet that National Geographic has some good specials - maybe a local library might have some DVDs?
(Disclaimer: Have not been to a tropical rainforest since I was wee, but thought maybe a visual might help.)
posted by pointystick at 1:54 PM on July 9, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you so much rhymer! I really appreciate you took the time to type that out.

I will check out the Survivorman shows, pointystick. That's exactly the sort of thing I wouldn't think of on my own, thanks so much!
posted by Nattie at 1:58 PM on July 9, 2008

Best answer: My experience agrees almost completely with rhymer's, with a couple of differences. The rainforests I've been in (with the exception of northern ones like on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State) have been, for at least part of the year, very hot and steamy. So moist that you can feel the wetness wrapping around you, and at the hottest part of the day it feels like a sauna.

Rain really varies, by geography, altitude, season, and so on. Often very heavy for an hour or two -- in some places, it is the same time every day, other places are more random. Cloud forests are obviously different in this respect.

Darkness has not been an issue in places I've been, although under the thickest of tree cover it can be pretty gloomy; however, there are usually thicker and thinner areas, so you move from gloom to sunshine and back as you walk. Your line of sight is often quite short, though, with few expansive vistas.

For descriptions and portrayals of at least one variety of rain forest, I would urge you to look at the memoirs and films of the Vietnam War -- the books (eg The Things They Carried; Dispatches) tend to focus heavily on first encounters with the jungle; a lot of the films (eg Platoon, Heart of Darkness) were filmed in places like the Philippines, and on old plantations rather than in the deep jungle, but the overall impression of GREEN! HOT! WET! is pretty close in my experience. Also take a look at the films like The Mission and some of Herzog's films (eg Aguirre: Wrath of God and the one about the steamship) for South American jungles, and The Mosquito Coast for Central America.
posted by Forktine at 2:24 PM on July 9, 2008

Best answer: My experience of rainforests is Australian (tropical Queensland). You could rarely see the dirt, because the rotting leaf litter was always so thick. The animals were out of sight (occasionally rustling) but the birds, not happy chirpy suburban birds, but cool weird rainforest birds, were noisy. Very shady, but not hard to see. When you come to a wide stream, there's a break in the canopy and the difference between the sunlight and the dark of the rainforest is very clear. Fungus, yep. Bugs and stuff, if you rolled over rotting wood. Not obvious on the surface. One of the funner things in Queensland rainforest is the wait-a-while, a vine with many sharp hooks that if you get caught on (ouch) you would need help to disengage from. The smell is different, it's like good compost (not surprising, giving the leaf litter).

Hot, humid, and yet cooler than not being in a rainforest.

The rivers/streams seemed to always be over rock and sand, travel swiftly (removing the leaf litter on the base, for the most part) and be so clear you could see straight through 15 feet of water (or more). And cold, in comparison, to the ambient temperature. It wasn't uncommon for kids (in my home town) to go swimming on a hot, hot day, and come out of the water an hour later with bluish lips from the cold.
posted by b33j at 2:28 PM on July 9, 2008

Similar to Survivorman, the I Shouldn't Be Alive documentary series had two shows about people who got lost in the rainforest and had to find their way back to civilization. The dramatic recreations probably aren't 100% accurate but the shows do a very good job of describing the details of the problems faced trying to survive in a rainforest without proper equipment and supplies.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:31 PM on July 9, 2008

Response by poster: You guys are seriously awesome. I would mark everything "best answer" but then it would be silly. I really appreciate all this stuff. I will check out that documentary for sure!
posted by Nattie at 2:38 PM on July 9, 2008

There's a really great book, Stranger in the Forest, which is a first-person account of a guy who hiked across Borneo. The whole book is a lesson in rain forest ecology, travel, getting help from the locals, dealing with mud and leeches, hunting and gathering food along the way. There's a lot you probably won't be interested in, but it does include some of the details you're looking for. Maybe there's a library near you with a copy?
posted by steef at 4:03 PM on July 9, 2008

Best answer: My experience with one in southern India:
- The ground was not really marshy but... moist?muddy? There wasn't much variation. Most of the floor was covered by leaves. Except for trails made by herds of elephants which were trampled solid and cleared of vegetation.
- Ranging from reddish brown to light brown
- Walking around doesn't make you dirty but all the sweat makes stuff stick to you. Shoes get muddy.
- Not hot, probably around 70-73F
- _Extremely_ humid. I could taste the moisture in the air.
- Very little breeze. Most of the plant movements were caused by animals.
- The rain is clean.
- Except for areas with dead animals and poop, the forest smelled green. Not so much like freshly cut grass but a mixture of mud and wet and rot and life.
- This was in a river valley, so it was always sloped
- The higher areas are quieter, there's much more life closer to the river
- Animals are pretty much invisible. There's so much visual information that it's hard to spot a couple of bugs. The only hint you get about larger animals is the sound of bushes and trees shaking. Oh. And leeches.
So many leeches.
They're seasonal and I got unlucky. But they were invisible and _everywhere_ on the forest floor, specially in areas where animals gathered. I had to scrape off the six or so that latched on to my shoes every minute or so, even though I was constantly moving at a quick walk. An hour later, two had managed to get around my shoes and through two layers of socks.
- The ground is mostly bare except for dead leaves. I didn't really see many canopy holes
- I'm not sure about the difference. Our guide said the area was a rainforest and it seemed pretty uniformly dense.
- Not especially dark. I could see fine without a flashlight. I'm sure this depends on the kind of rainforest though.
- It rained during the afternoon, I'm told pretty much everyday, with more rain during the monsoon.
- Some areas are sparse, some are broken and cleared by animals, and some are extremely dense (but still allow light through)

The forest was _extremely_ noisy. Crickets, birds, insects, animals, and various other sounds. That combined with the humidity created this weird oppressive feeling that the noise was kinda pushing down on me.

The food in the village nearby was excellent. Probably because of the nearby sources, or because I was tired after a long day, but I don't think I've ever eaten a more delicious (and cheap) meal.
posted by pantsrobot at 6:08 PM on July 9, 2008

Best answer: Just providing another data point. I visited a few rainforests in Africa, but the one I will describe below refers to the rainforest near (+/- 50 km) a small village in Gabon, Africa.

- How muddy/slippery/marshy (or not) the ground tends to be: The ground was only slippery after a rain storm. Other than that, normal conditions (dry).
- What is the soil like? Where I lived, the soil was red. There were dirt roads connecting villages, and that is one of my strongest memories. The color of the redish dirt road.
-How dirty do you get just by walking around normally?
This is where I am going to point out that for the area I lived there were a few distinct seasons: the long dry season, the long rainy season, the short dry season, and the short rainy season. During the long dry season, if you happened to ride in the back of a truck -- when you emerged from the truck, you would be covered in the reddish colored dirt -- your hair, your teeth, your skin (yuck!). If you were walking around, no problem -- but travel for any length of time in a vehicle that kicked up dirt = you do get dirty. I also observed that large towns bordering these roads acquired a layer of red dirt everywhere, even lining the trees. Again, this only applied to the long dry season.

- How hot does it feel, taking into consideration the tree cover?
this is where my response differs. I lived in an area that was a slightly higher elevation and hilly so it was not that hot. In fact, during the dry season, I wore a jean jacket almost daily. During the rainy season, it did get hot -- but no more than areas of the US. However, please note this refers to a specific region.

- How humid does it feel?
See above; not that humid. Washington DC was more humid than the area I lived in Africa.

- Is there much of a breeze or not, or does it depend?- I don't remember any breezes or strong winds at all. I don't think it was really that windy (my guess - trees protected vs that?)

-When it rains, is the rain dirty by the time it gets through all the trees and reaches the ground? Or clean?
With the exception of the first big rain after the long dry season (in which case, the red dust would end up in things) -- the water appeared very clean.

- What does it smell like? the only time I remember strong smells was right after it rained (a lot). Think of the smell of wet soil when you go hiking. A very pleasant smell. The smell of wet dirt if that makes sense.

- How dense are the insect and wildlife populations? Do you see a million bugs every step you take, or do you not notice much more than in an average forest? Are animals visible everywhere, or not so visible? Some areas more than others?
People that lived in the villages on the periphery or in the rain forest hunted the animals. Thus, it was extremely rare to see an animal (in the 2 years I lived there, with the exception of birds and an occasional snake, I saw 2 animals total (a gazelle type animal and a ?pangolin?). I did see insects -- the only insects that I would categorize as dense in population were army ants (the occasional march of these ants -- and then you would see them covering the forest floor).

I am also going to note that there were elephants, monkeys, porcupines. and gazelle type animals in the rainforest. I only know this because people in the villages who hunted the animals brought back the carcasses of these animals and ate them -- it was usually hard for them to find these animals, though, and people needed to spend several days in the rainforest and had to hike several km away from the village.

- Is the ground covered in plants, or is it mostly bare? I have heard that it's bare unless there is a hole in the canopy that lets light reach the ground. If so, how often does that actually happen? Where I lived the foilage of the trees were not particularly thick -- so you did see plants on the ground. Some plants had large, broad leaves

- How dark is it, generally, during the day? Can you see fine without a light source?- You could always see fine without a light. Imagine hiking through a forest in the states -- perhaps it gets cloudy and perhaps the sun is behind a cloud -- but it never got that dark during the day.

I have heard conflicting information, possibly pertaining to different rainforests. Does it rain every day? If not, about how often does it rain?
In the rainy season, it could rain frequently (almost every day or every few days). Some of the rain storms would continue for a few hours. During the dry season -- it did rain daily, but imagine a few drops/a light rain/almost a mist.
posted by Wolfster at 7:58 PM on July 9, 2008

Watch Fitzcaraldo, Aquirre the Wrath of God, and Burden of Dreams.
posted by Eothele at 7:02 PM on July 17, 2008

I'm late to the party, but the first chapter of E.O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life has a terrific description.
posted by softsantear at 10:38 AM on October 10, 2008

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