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Letters Home from the 2000 International Congress of Entomology in Brazil

Editor’s note: The author, Tom Sappington, attended four different International Congresses of Entomology, from 1996-2008, and sent hand-written letters home during each of them. The following, the second part of four, is unedited text from his trip to Florence, Italy for the 1996 Congress.

Click here for Part I (1996 in Florence, Italy).

By Tom Sappington


Tom Sappington

Iguassu Falls, Brazil, Sunday, 8-20-00, 5:20pm: I’m standing in line to register for the Congress. I’m currently in the “T-U-V-W-X-Y-Z” line. I had been standing in the “R-S” line for 15 minutes or so until I overheard someone mention that we are alphabetized by our first names… I took a tour today to Iguassu Falls. You walk out about an eighth of a mile through blowing mist on a walkway hanging over one of the drop-offs, with roaring water in all directions. Big rainbows keep popping up here and there – really bright rainbows, one almost completing a full circle right at your feet, and reaching out about a mile to the other side. All these really big boulders of basaltic rock lie everywhere with water cascading off, and others are covered with long lush grass that is always wet from the mist, forever blowing in the wind generated by the falling water. And the light sparkles off the long moving grass, and hundreds of swifts (shaped the same as our chimney swifts but twice as big) and giant shadows of vultures flash across the red cliff faces, sometimes behind rainbows, and the water is roaring, and dozens of people are around you but you can’t hear them talking, and they are transfixed and subdued by the force and beauty and wildness of it all, except for a toddler asleep in his mother’s arms….

Iguassu Falls, Brazil, Monday, 8-21-00, 8:58pm: The opening ceremony last night started off 35 minutes late with 100’s of people still standing in line trying to register. We were under a giant awning, but basically in open air. The first hour was mostly welcome speeches from local officials that took twice as long as scheduled because they forgot to take into account time spent translating. The plenary speaker [John Lawton, U.K.] made up for it though. He studies ways to maintain biodiversity of insects, birds, and mammals in the face of escalating habitat destruction across the earth. He went through a lot of data, and drew conclusions about what will be needed if we are going to try and save as many species as possible by setting aside reserves. “But no matter what we do along these lines, we will lose large numbers of species over the next 50-100 years. And that’s the good news.” – [About this time a staff person slipped him a note – being a rather snappy Englishman, he reported to the audience, “Well I’ve been handed a note that says because all the preliminaries dropped us behind schedule, I am requested to shorten my talk… So I’ll just skip all these slides…” The request was so preposterous, he just took a deep breath and smiled and clicked through a bunch of slides.]. The bad news, he says, is that extinctions in these reserves will be even greater because of the global warming now occurring. This is all very depressing to me. Especially climate change. But the speaker’s final message was to remind us that while perhaps we can’t do much to stop the slide in extinctions that has begun and is accelerating, we can do something. And we owe it to our children and grandchildren to do what we can to leave them a world that is at least as interesting as the one we have lived in.

And on that somber, yet strangely inspiring, note, the local Brazilian dance company came out on stage and put on about the best show I have ever seen. It was a modern dance/ballet kind of show, acting out the legend of the formation of the falls. The band consisted of three drummers (hands only), some guitars, a trumpet, a bass guitar, and variety of percussion type things. They started off with a dance in native Indian costume, and the way Brazilians dance is something to behold – movements that are wild yet controlled and graceful. Their costumes were of rich basic colors, very bright. It was energetic, beautiful dancing, ballet most of us could never imagine – wild ballet… At the end, some kind of big dragon thing was fighting with the two Indian lovers of the legend and a big pyrotechnic display started going off in the background – a series of fireworks blowing up and shooting off in perfectly synchronized choreography with the dancers.

Afterwards there was a reception, in this great half-open-air hall. The night was cooling off and the light breeze felt so good and the hum of voices and the chorus of tree frogs and crickets all around us blended easily with a band that was playing lively Brazilian music somewhere above on another level. I wandered around, eating food laid out for us, looking at all the vendors’ displays. I circled the hall twice before finding the little ramp that led up to where the music was coming from. About 200 people were dancing, maybe 300 – in a small space between rows of poster-stands and a railing that looked out over the floor below. A third of the dancers were native Brazilians – I could guess because they cheered with each new song and sang along as they danced. Many were young, probably graduate students at their first ICE, and proud to host it in their country. I stood and watched, mesmerized as at the falls. I found a spot right behind the “band” that consisted of a guy on a keyboard wearing a double-breasted suit and black pointed shoes, and two women singing – they were very young and they all three sang for all they were worth. Everyone dancing was an entomologist of course – everyone was a scientist – almost everyone probably had an analytical (= nerd) type personality. But they were dancing Brazilian style, which includes a lot of jumping in place and arm-shaking over their heads and turning and clapping and leaning – Brazilians don’t do slow songs – and everyone was dancing with everyone. Every shade of color was dancing with every other shade of color and every age with every other age and Germans were dancing with South Americans and Russians with French and Chinese with Americans and Brazilians with everybody. As those on the lower level went home, the waiters came up – they all wore white shirts and black pants and gold-&-gray checked vests – they stood around in a group near where I was for a while watching and talking and laughing, and their legs were shaking a little with the rhythm, and finally they tossed their vests aside and danced their way in among the crowd. A waiter, probably 17 or 18 years old, started dancing with an older Japanese lady. A guy who was kind of short with glasses and probably an IQ of 150 was grabbed by the arm by a tall pretty Swedish gal and they laughed and danced.

And the grad students trying to learn science and make good grades and hungering for recognition and respect, and the postdocs under the gun to get good research results and then to find a job in a saturated market, and the young professors desperate for grant money and to make tenure under a crushing work load, and older entomologists worrying about how to pay their grad students’ salaries and perhaps confronting a growing realization that they will never be the famous scientists they dreamed of becoming as grad students so long ago now, and the scientists from poor countries who can’t buy even the simplest supplies to do their experiments – for an hour and a half they forgot it all and they danced with each other, and they were free….

Iguassu Falls, Brazil, Tuesday 8-22-00, 10:30pm: I saw the Southern Cross last night. They closed the patio section where I was sitting, but I didn’t notice it – then most of the lights went out and I couldn’t see to write anymore. I laid back and looked up at the stars. I saw the big scorpion-shaped constellation which is on the Brazilian flag, so I knew the Southern Cross must be nearby. I looked at it for a long time. I was locked outdoors now, but eventually I worked my way around through some trees and bushes and made it back to the front of the hotel….

Iguassu Falls, Brazil, Thursday 8-24-00, 7:31pm: In the middle of my talk, two guys came in the back door carrying a ladder, trying to be quiet, but clanking around a little. They worked their way to the center of the room and started to unfold and climb it – and it was a big ladder, at least 10-foot. They were right next to the slide projector and people were staring and I was trying to talk. I had this urge to burst out laughing, but fortunately all I did was smile. I looked over at the moderator, who watched them with his chin on his hand, smiling. They were changing a burned-out light bulb hanging from a wire over the projector. They tested it, folded up, and clanked out.

Iguassu Falls, Brazil, Friday 8-25-00, 6:53pm: On the way home from dinner last night, an Englishman who had had a few too many drinks sat next to me on the bus and started telling stories. He asked if I had gone to Florence four years ago. He had taken his wife to that one and they had a great time. “She wanted to come on this trip too, but I told her this was sounding like it was going to be a rather wild and wooly place…” He asked if I’d heard about the snake-bit entomologist. No, somehow I’d missed that one. “Oh yes, seems he went on a collecting expedition in Argentina, took off running trying to net a butterfly of some sort, and a fer-de-lance shot out and bit him! So now he’s at death’s door in some Argentinian hospital. Hope he pulls out of it…” He started to drift away with a far-off look.

I was curious whether he thought of the U.S. as a wild-and-wooly place too. “Have you ever been to the U.S.?” “Oh yes, several times. The last time, my wife and I went to Arizona for a conference and she got stung by a scorpion. Seems the little blighter was on the other side of the bathroom door, and when she opened it, it fell to the floor, went under the crack, and she stepped square on it. Got her right in the heel! Of course, being an entomologist, I wanted to find it and see what kind it was. My wife, however, suggested I not worry so much about what kind it was, and perhaps consider calling the hospital. She could feel the poison moving up her leg. But I explained to her that it might be helpful if I got a look at it before I called the hospital. I’d heard that the bigger ones aren’t as poisonous as the smaller ones. Have you heard that?” No, I’m not too familiar with scorpions. “Well, my wife was getting more insistent, so I called the hospital. They asked me, ‘Is she very young?’ No. ‘Is she very old?’ No. ‘Does she have a history of heart problems?’ No. They recommended that because as far as I knew she was rather fit, the best thing was just to let the venom take its course. Seems the antiserum when injected can lead to anaphylactic shock, and since the sting probably was not going to be fatal, it probably wasn’t worth the risk. Apparently, scorpion stings are excruciatingly painful, though, and normal pain killers can’t touch it. Do you have scorpions in Texas?”

“I haven’t seen any where I live. Further out west we do. Lots of rattlesnakes too.”

“Ah yes, rattlesnakes! At least they give you a warning. The fer-de-lance just leaps out of rotten logs to strike anything that happens by…” He drifted away again with that far-off look.

So, I was left with the impression that, yes, the United States is a wild-and-wooly place too, but not quite as much as South America. At least our deadly snakes give you a sporting chance…

Iguassu Falls, Brazil, Sunday 8-27-00, 11:14am: I got the urge yesterday at dusk to go stroll out back by the pool. It was cool and rainy, so no one was out there. I was just standing there, trying to get motivated to go work on my computer. But something kept pulling me down the path, almost against my will (I’m not making this up) – and off to the left, I saw something a little bigger than a blue jay hopping around in a tree. It was getting dark, but I saw a flash of red and then the silhouette of a toucan. I never thought I’d see a real toucan in the wild! – too cool to happen to me I guess. There was a flock of about 5 or 6 of them going to roost inside a tall, dead, upright stump, sometimes landing like a woodpecker at the entrance hole. They let me get pretty close, and I watched them for about half an hour until the last one gave up watching me. It must have been a big cavity to fit them all inside. The last one kept sticking his eyes just outside the entrance hole to stare at me warily. He probably felt sneaky and well-hidden, but his 8-inch nose tended to give him away…

2:04pm – They announced yesterday at the closing ceremony that the next Congress in 2004 will be in Brisbane, Australia. I hope I can go – who knows what I’ll be doing 4 years from now. I would never have guessed, 4 years ago in Italy, that I’d be doing what I am now career-wise.

Thomas W. Sappington is a research entomologist with the USDA-ARS and a collaborator professor at Iowa State University in the Department of Entomology. He is an insect ecologist, with a primary interest in dispersal and migratory behavior of agricultural pests. The views reflected in this article are solely Tom’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARS, the Department of Agriculture, or the United States government.

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