Upper San Luis
We are sweating, dusty, in the midday sun of Upper San Luis, Costa Rica. Abby and Michael haul a log, one at each end, the log as thick as my thigh, then one-two-three, yo heave ho, they toss it on the brush pile at the edge of the field. Kendall, Mary, and Maggie wrap tattered canvas bags around enormous piles of grasses and leaves, and carry them in a bear hug. Ann’s in the underbrush, raking. Cathy and I are dragging seemingly endless spikes of bamboo. Meanwhile, the two young men we never met are weed-eating the other side of the field; Hugo and his pretty, shy wife tote brush and gather sticks; and handsome, wolf-eyed Noah, straddled in a thick copse of bamboo halfway up the hill, whacks and slashes steadily at trunks and branches, diminishing trees, finally taking them down, hour after hour, stopping only to sharpen his machete.
We’re here for the morning, helping to clear a field the size, Michael says, of two football fields, for the tiny town of Upper San Luis, kitty-corner from their spanking new Community Center — the field, given to the town as part of the Finca la Bella, to become a playground por los niños, an extension of the library, perhaps even — if there’s enough land — a volleyball court as well. We’ve come from Ole Miss on Study Abroad to the UGA Ecolodge at San Luis, near Monteverde, as part of our course in Nature Writing: autobiographical creative nonfiction, pieces that grow from our developing awareness of how inextricably we are embedded in environment — how we are environments, self and other-than-self not separate, as we are taught in our highly individualistic culture, but interdependent, intertwined, the health and wellbeing of each of us not possible without the health of that which gives us life. Pura Vida, the local greeting, I’m told: May you be full of life.
And so it’s lovely to see this community, the handful of people halfway up a mountain, taking time away from their jobs to work together for the good of all. Others will volunteer later, to smooth the ground, pour concrete, build whatever they’re going to build; the town will decide, in community meetings. Bit by bit, the field — which was a tangle and snarl of scrubby trees, bamboo, and clotted grasses — gets cleared, and the brush pile grows mountainous and sprawling. What will they do with it? I ask. Mulch it, Hugo answers, use it for compost.
Sweaty, dusty, a little scratched and bitten, we gather for a break in the Community Center for horchada, apples, cookies. Someone goes to summon Noah, who, we’re told, won’t stop once he gets going. Mostly we don’t speak Spanish — except for Cathy, who’s Peruvian, and Ann, who lived in Ecuador. But we grin. And grin. And grin.
— Ann Fisher-Wirth
The Loudest Call
Thundering through the mountains of Monteverde, the loudest bird call could be heard even from one kilometer away: the three-wattled bellbird has made his first appearance this year in the Cloud Forest Reserve. The excitement of the nature walk tour guides could be seen in their ecstatic faces and heard in their thrilled voices when they were talking to each other. The call was made, now the ambitious job begins — to find the tree where the bellbird is perched. Running up and down the different walk trails and carrying the tripods with the binoculars, the guides look as if they are dancing with their longtime partners waiting to shine the spotlight at the right tree: the one holding the jewel of the reserve. The second call is heard, and all of us can feel the commotion in the place; we are looking up to the trees trying to spot something we have never seen before, but that we all desperately want to see for the first time. The guides are contacting one another from different spots by whistling a unique whistle they have created to ‘talk’ without using words. Binoculars are pointed in different directions searching rapidly for the bellbird, before he decides to leave us, the search continuous in a fast-paced manner; a few words are exchanged only to coordinate locations where the search party should look for the bird. In the middle of the forest filled with animals and sounds, nature stands still as if she wants to see the bellbird too. Quickly we hear: ¡lo encontré! — I found it! One of the reserve guides spots the jewel and all the others launch to the spot to set up their binoculars; timing is everything to them. One by one, our group approaches the binoculars to take a quick look at the beautiful and majestic jewel of Monteverde. In a vigilant post there he stands, and he has chosen a very tall tree as his landing place. Turning his head side to side, the wattles graciously swing on the bird’s face, as he looks down to the forest contemplating his reign; the white- chested bird perches peacefully. The bellbird calls a third time. This time some of us are looking at him while he is calling, and he flies away promptly after that. It feels as if we have received a special goodbye, he gave us a last call just to say: “remember that I am back, once again”. The enjoyment of these few minutes is celebrated with hugs, high fives, and overjoyed smiles by the reserve tour guides, who also talk about plans for a later formal celebration, and drinking good coffee.
— Catherine Adams
They are harmony, they are Monteverde. They are the dusty bone road that turns into lush, green forests and strangling figs that hug all the pieces of life together. From the dry incline of the mountain to cloud dampened greenery- the people of Monteverde are purely nature.
And their voices sound like the nature, the crunch of sticks and the wind in the trees. It is a natural blend with the birds.
Their features are invitations. Eyes pinch upward like smiles sweet as sugarcane, and sunlight shines in between their teeth.
Every time you share a look it is so intimate a moment. I think because they have spent their entire lives looking at the decorated harmony of Monteverde, it reflects from their eyes now and looking at them is like looking in the mountains all at once.
— Abygail Thorpe
Which reminds me of the bellbird perched high up in an avocado tree, tolling through the mists of a Costa Rican cloud forest, and suddenly I am there once more. As I lower my eyes behind a spotting scope, the view shifts, and the bird becomes more brilliant: crimson torso edged against a headdress of white feathers. Three wattles sway loose like clappers chiming from a pointed beak. Through the lens, deep eyes are clear. One hundred yards away, bellbird looks back at me. I am small down here through films of glass. Always looking through glass, wanting always to see. The eyes of the bellbird see.
The bell tolls from the forest edge, echoing out over miles of clear-cut pasture.
— Michael Martella
I shot up from where I had been crouched on the cold concrete floor. Little, dark yellow corn kernels scattered out of the neat line they had been arranged in on my game card. Faces, familiar and new, stared up at me as I shouted a word that the Spanish and English speakers alike understood — “bingo!”
I quickly made my way to the front of the room, passing benches and desks where members of the Monteverde community sat with their own bingo cards and piles of corn kernel placeholders. The fluorescent lights of the school building mixed with the natural evening light that filtered through the windows, illuminating the brightly painted blue walls and multicolored shelves scattered with books and toys that I recognized from my own elementary experience.
We had been invited here after helping out at the San Luis community center, working to clear a newly donated piece of land that would become the site of a book kiosk and playground for the children of the area. Graciously welcomed into their gathering, we saw faces we recognized from earlier in the week. The woman who had given us a tour of the sustainable farm sat in the far corner with her daughter, and the woman who had taught us to make arepas was busily making snacks to be sold throughout the evening. I had already scarfed down one of her handmade donuts, which were being sold for 250 colones from a tray circling the classroom.
Once I had made it to the front of the room, I nervously placed my card down on a folding table where a man checked my numbers against those he had just called out loud. My eyes wandered to the folding table next to this one, which was covered in seemingly random objects — the prizes that would be given away when someone had successfully filled a line on the card with kernels. I had watched as earlier a young girl victoriously carried a neatly packaged set of assorted cutlery back to her mother, smiling broadly. A member of our group had won a brightly colored Tupperware set, which featured the English phrase “closer to nature” tucked in between the plastic flowers painted on its surface.
Amidst the prizes was a chipped blue and white teapot, used to settle ties if they occurred during a round. The called numbers that had caused multiple people to exclaim “bingo!” would be placed in the teapot, and whoever drew the largest number would become the winner and claim their prize from the table. All of this, however, would be trumped by anyone who had been able to mark all four corners of their card with a kernel.
The man at the table finished checking my card with the same deliberateness with which he had explained their established system. My limited ability to count only to ten in Spanish had not hindered my bingo skills, and I triumphantly returned to my seat on the floor with a hand-painted tea set.
— Mary Merkel
Flashlights dimly worked their way through the leaves and rocks on the black mud path. It was around 8:30pm, and night long had been hiding beetles, tarantulas, and snakes in its sticky darkness. I allowed myself to imagine that my grey rain poncho’s hood had a second function of invisibility so that what I couldn’t see also couldn’t see me. Though I knew most nocturnal creatures had more senses than sight, I wanted the darkness to cover me. Even my bright purple-pink rain boots seemed darker in the cloud forest at night. I hoped the darkness was also enough to conceal some growing insecurity.
Michael, one in our group of nine people, had spotted successfully multiple bugs. Others had correctly identified rainforest plants. I was becoming desperate. I wanted to prove as much to myself as to the others that I contributed to the group. The thought crossed my mind to blame my flashlight which shined slightly dimmer than many others, but I knew that really it came down to sight, memory, and a stroke of luck.
Where are the others not looking?
Stroking my flashlight’s beam above us I saw a bird on one twig leg, the other leg tucked up among its yellow and white fuzzy feathers which were speckled with brown dots. I whispered excitedly, “Look! There is a bird in the tree asleep on one leg!” As the group oohed and awed, I asked Michael to tell us the name of the feathered find. Then I knew that I’d done something besides proved to myself I could be a part of the group. I’d learned not to just look at nature, but to search for it.
— Ann Heard
Tree and Toucanet
In the sustainability world, we often like to imagine a distant, ideal scenario where favorable conditions exist indefinitely — where current life is sustained without change. But nature does not exist in this way. Life in the Costa Rican rainforest is in a constant state of flux. Species evolve, migrate, disappear, reappear, and divide into many. The Morpho genus of butterfly, famous in Costa Rica and other parts of Central America for its iridescent, lapis lazuli wings, derives its name from a Greek suffix denoting “change” or “transformation”1. Even the weather of Monteverde feels no loyalty to a particular identity. At one instant, you could be squinting dumbly in the sun; at the next, you could be shuffling for your raincoat as dissipating rain clouds tumble over the mountain, brought by Caribbean trade winds. In an introductory lecture on landscape geography, Nat Scrimshaw of the San Luis community center described life as the natural foil to entropy and homogeny2. Change is the substance and texture of life.
During a freewriting session, I searched the late morning light for an inspiring location. It was a luxurious decision I had before me. Staying in Monteverde is like peering into the red, plastic eyepieces of a handheld slideshow toy. With the pull of a lever, you cycle through a circular reel of backlit images, each impossibly more spectacular than the last. While tugging at the stiff, green raincoat tied around my waist, I ambled solo down the Sendero Annona. Winding just behind Dr. Fisher-Wirth’s cabin, the trail is named after the genus of flowering plants that houses Costa Rica’s prickly, sour, raincoat-colored guanábana. Although I was alone, the trail was far from quiet. I could hear the click-click-WHIRRRR of insects, manifold and miniscule, many living their entire lifespans without a single human witness. I could hear birds I could not name sing songs I’ll never replicate. I could hear the rancorous tumble of strangler fig limbs, twisting hungrily around one another and towards the sky.
I found where the roots of one such tree contorted into a chair-like shape and sat. Crowned in sunlight, I closed my eyes. How easy it is to keep moving back at home. How simple to weave through moments when time is metered out in due dates, internships, thesis chapters. During the semester, I am constantly moving through one place to get to another, my mind navigating the ten thousand things before me. Under the fig, I sat still, wide-eyed, watching a white beetle travel a length of moss-covered stone in singular passion. Time was full as it was empty. As the freewriting session ended, I felt a pang in my stomach, followed by a strange compulsion. I wanted to write my name on the tree. I couldn’t account for it; the idea of doing so was not and never had been a part of my intuitive fabric. I folded the thought and tucked it away, attempting to continue with my morning. Yet during our discussion period, I grew frustrated. Why would I want to mark the tree?
The passage of time bears heavily on travelers. With each day’s close, our wealth of time in San Luis diminished like the multicolored colónes crinkled softly in my pocket. In wanting to write my name on the tree, I uncovered the desire for something permanent. I wanted to sit in that moment, to consume it, to have the moment become a part of me. But nature — life — cannot sit still. Time must pass, and things must change. Just as students, interns, tourists, and other beautiful, temporary creatures move in and out of this place, I was no different. I wanted to believe that in some way I was special, and that my short presence in San Luis de Monteverde had some longer-lasting, positive effect. Even so, all is eventually lost as the pages turn in larger story. I thought of the disrupted earth that walls the cleared trail paths, and the life that still exudes from it in felted, verdant growth. I wanted to be similarly resilient — a creature who exists temporally, yet still grows, creates, inspires.
On the final afternoon of our stay, we offered our goodbyes to a group of naturalists and other interns on the front porch of the main building. We were weary from a late night and early day — an unfairly pallid ending to a week lived in such vivid color. As we gripped our suitcase handles and motioned towards the gravel driveway, I noticed the crumpled sheen of a black trash bag creased in the hands of one of the interns. The buzz surrounding the bag grew until we learned its contents. A toucanet had died earlier that day, and they had retrieved it. “Do you want to see it?” the intern asked, and our eyes grew large. Pulling back the plastic sheath, he revealed the delicate creature. The bizarre yet elegant bird was a sight to mirror the surreal landscape of its home, which it still seemed to observe half-heartedly through partially open eyes. Frayed emerald and viridian feathers framed its oversized features. Fascinated, I traced the long, curved outline of its onyx bill. I had searched for a toucanet all week, unable to discern any from the ebullient green of the rainforest. There it lay, shrouded in the black plastic bag — transient, ephemeral, wonderful.
1. “Metamorphosis, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, ‘’A, at Perseus”. Perseus.tufts.edu.
2. Nat Scrimshaw of the San Luis Community Center, “An Environmental History of San Luis de Monteverde,” Guest Lecture.
— Kendall McDonald
“He wants to know if you’d like to go outside and play fútbol with him.”
Miguel is a little boy of eight from the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, and he is staring wide-eyed at the only other boy in his kitchen, a gringo from Mississippi named Michael.
“Of course, I’d love to!” As storm clouds suck the afternoon sunlight out of the kitchen, we file out into the open front yard to watch the match, licking hot pineapple and papaya juice from our fingers.
Miguel is unstoppable, tripping up Michael and Abby, making steals and quick passes and taunting in bits of English. The air is weighted down by the coming of the rain, but Miguel is slicing through it like a sharpened machete.
The hot, heavy air has cooled with the arrival of the mist, and with it has come a brilliant rainbow, blended in as part of the dusty rose sky.
Time stops in this moment. Every spray of mist becomes magnified, every drop visible and shimmering. Abby’s face is frozen in a laugh, the mist glistening in her corkscrew hair. Michael has his tongue out in concentration, trying to block Miguel as he slyly prepares to weave between his legs. Kendall is looking up in awe, with Miguel’s dog Toby snuggling into her lap. Cathy and Ann sit inside the house, chatting with Miguel’s mother in rapid-fire Spanish. Someone has just made a joke because they are grinning wide and open-mouthed. Dr. Fisher-Wirth is wandering the yard with her hood up, snapping photographs of us all so we are never able to forget an instant. Mary is on the porch looking out at it all, her eyes weaving back and forth, taking in the scene.
We have all become connected in this moment, one under the rose and rainbow sky of Monteverde. I shiver, from the sudden icy touch of the mist and the slender thread I feel that is woven through our chests.
And then the moment is gone.
I once again hear dogs barking, Miguel and Michael shouting, peals of laughter and the even flow of Spanish conversation, filled with only a handful of words I am capable of grasping.
I pull at my chest, and for a moment I don’t know why. Then I remember I am feeling for the thread. I can no longer touch it. Time has picked up again, the thread has hidden itself from view. I do not know when I will see it again. I convince myself I may never see it again.
But as we leave Miguel’s house and trek up the hill towards our temporary home, as the clouds part and shift over the mountains of Monteverde, I think I glimpse something in the group far ahead. The sun has positioned itself between Michael and Ann, making them silhouettes and casting the rest of the group into shadow. The sky is orange and red like fresh tropical fruit and somewhere far ahead, I hear laughing. And for an instant, for less than a breath, time stops.
— Maggie Smith
[These were written quickly, our last day in Costa Rica. Our class from Ole Miss spent a week at the UGA ecolodge in March 2015 as part of a course in environmental life writing. On the last day, I asked each member of the class to write about one moment, one thing, that stood out above everything else as the quintessence of his or her experience of the week. Here they are, in their variety and beauty — Ann Fisher-Wirth]