West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Beauty and foolishness

For the past three years, my friend Bernal has been trying to get me to go fishing. Every year when the fishing season opens in December, he says, “eh, vamos al río para jalar un bobo” (let’s go to the river and fish up a bobo). Last weekend we finally found a time when both of us were free, the river was low and clear, and a friend with a truck agreed to take us through the pastures and mud roads to a secret fishing spot. Bernal and Víctor (the man with the truck) came by my house early Saturday morning, and Franklin and I jumped into the back among the fishing rods.

The bend of the river was still in shade when we arrived, the water running green and smooth by the black sand beach. We spread out along the sand bar, avoiding the downed trees that cast their lure-snagging arms into the current. It’s been years since I fished with a rod, and my first casts were somewhat embarrassing, but the in the beauty of the early morning river I hardly cared.

Franklin caught the first bobo, a gorgeous little trout-like thing just the size for our largest frying pan. Bobos are streamlined, blunt-nosed silver-scaled fish that like to hang around the edges of rapids. They’re rare enough in Costa Rica that they enjoy a semi-protected status: you can catch a limited number for personal use, but it’s prohibited to sell them. Bernal said there’s a considerable black market, anyway, with the fish fetching up to c9000 per kilo—about $18; two or three days’ wages for a lot of people here.

We stood in the current until lunchtime, with little minnows nibbling our bare feet. Toucans flew over, and once a quartet of green macaws, making their trademark ungodly racket, swooped low over the river. I had a few nibbles, but nothing solid. Just as we were about to leave, Bernal had a strike. He reeled in a gorgeous bobo, almost half a meter in length and about 2.5 kilos, as far as we could judge.

“Que bobo más lindo,” said Víctor. What a beautiful fish, and also, Spanish being the delightful palimpsest that it is, what a beautiful fool. We hung the two beautiful bobos on a string and began the trek back through the soggy pasture.

Later as I prepared the smaller fish, pan-fried with lemon, garlic, onions, and peppers, I began to think more about beauty and foolishness. There’s a wonderful Billy Collins poem on the subject, called “Nightclub,” which I would love to quote at length, but I will refrain out of respect for the vanishing species called copyright. (Google it. Lots of people have already performed this particular act of copyright infringement.) The poem’s more or less about how love makes us all foolish, and all beautiful.

I thought about my friend Alex, who, after finishing her doctorate, moved here to Costa Rica to live with her tico boyfriend, Felix: an act that some might call foolish, but also an act of undeniable beauty. They have bought a farm together, up in the foothills along the San Ramón road, and they’re planning to start building the house next year. A few months ago I went up there to help put in a living fence and replant some tree seedlings that they’re planning to use in reforestation. This week, I took a quick trip up to the farm with Alex again. The fenceposts are sprouting new leaves, and the seedlings are growing well. In a month or so they’ll be ready to plant out into the nascent forest. The species I helped them plant is cola de pavo (“turkey tail”), Hymenolobium mesoamericanum, a tree so rare that it was first described as a new species in the year 2000. There’s a Hymenolobium tree at La Selva so large that the trail curves around it; the immense buttressed trunk looks like a rocket ship poised for flight. At Alex’s farm, the seedlings are only putting out their third or fourth leaves. Looking at them this week, I felt an almost maternal combination of sadness and pride: I’d placed those seeds in the earth, and with luck, they could all outlive me.

Alex showed me the space where the new house will stand, currently a patch of brilliant red earth carved out of a hilltop. Off to the south, ranks of green mountains vanished into the low clouds, with rain showers now and then darkening their flanks. We talked a little about her decision to come here.

“Sometimes it still scares the hell out of me,” she admitted.

I’m trying to imagine what it would be like for me to live in Costa Rica. The thought of leaving Franklin is like the idea of cutting off my right hand. At the same time, it’s scary to imagine a future so different from the one I always pictured: a little New England town, a job teaching generations of smart and enthusiastic students about Lotka-Volterra equations and phase plane diagrams; a garden, a cat or two, my piano, and my solitude. Here, I could have many of the same things—garden, cat, maybe even a piano—and I would be with the man I love. But the job? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Alex said that the six months when she was in the midst of the decision was the most stressful period of her life, but after she decided to stay here, she felt peaceful. She knew it was the right decision. For me, I don’t know whether I’d ever feel peaceful with my decision. I’m too prone to second-guessing and daydreaming of might-have-beens. And I know I’m in no position to make this kind of choice right now: I’ve got to finish my doctorate before I plan anything. She’s right about the stress, though. I feel the decision looming over me like a wave about to break.

In a few days I’ll be back in the temperate zone, which, according to the little news I have seen, is currently intemperate as all hell. When a US snowstorm is featured in Costa Rican newspapers, you know it must have been pretty serious. I don’t know how I’ll take the cold—when the temperature here drops into the upper sixties, I have to put two blankets on the bed at night. And I don’t know how I’ll take the culture shock, either. Each time I come back to the US, it’s harder to adjust. There’s such a dangerous mix of arrogance and provincialism at play right now: so many people seem convinced that the US is the bright center of the universe and therefore justified in all its greed and belligerence. Seen from the outside, from a little country where peace has brought prosperity, this view seems all the more irrational. The US has changed a lot in the past few years. The past six years, three months, and seven days, to be precise. There was a moment when America could have chosen another path, a path that would have allowed us to keep our moral standing in the world. Instead, we’ve chosen a path into war and more war, with no end in sight. Sometimes I think that I’ll leave the US even if Franklin and I don’t end up together. It’s not the country I grew up in any more, and it’s no longer a country in which I would want to bring up children.

Franklin and I took a vacation this weekend up to Arenal, the most active volcano in the country. We got to see the lava rolling down the side of it, albeit from a great distance, and we relaxed in the hot springs on the less active side of the volcano. The forest is growing back on the old lava flows around the base, although the newer flows still have that lunar, blasted look. Sometimes I think that love is a force like lava in the world, wild and destructive, burning and rearranging everything it touches. It ripped apart my family when I was young, when my mother fell in love with another man. And now love is forcing me to a decision between two futures, two worlds. I wish sometimes that I could control it, that I could force myself to be rational and accept the world I was born to, to give up this love, this country, this crazy, beautiful, foolish dream. But I could sooner stop the lava flowing down Arenal than stop my love for Franklin.


At 10:08 PM, Anonymous sunshine and more of it said...

I consider Billy Collins one of my friends, and I know he would not mind if you put his poem on your blog. Haven't you seen all those animated Billy Collins poems on YouTube? He loves to see his poetry everywhere.

At 3:26 PM, Blogger Cheryl said...

Susan, this is Cheryl Klein from Carleton. I check in on your blog occasionally and I always enjoy it, and I have a question for you -- would you e-mail me? My address is chavelaque at gmail dot com.

At 3:20 PM, Anonymous thetentman said...

I vote for love. You will never forgive yourself if you don't take the chance. The US will always be here if you need us.


At 8:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I vote for LOVE every time. Stay happy and healthy.

Naples Maine


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