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.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Among the clouds

I am home in Heredia for a few days, catching up on sleep and tying up loose ends. Here is an update I wrote at our last site, but never posted due to lack of internet:

We are spending the week at Cuericí Biological Station, in the montane oak forest at an elevation of 2600 m (8500 ft), with frequent hikes to higher-elevation sites. The few remnants of oak forest remaining on the high peaks of the Cordillera are lovely to behold; giant shaggy-barked trees hung with moss and often fog-festooned, with an understory of bamboo and tree ferns. When the sun is out, the landscape is inviting, but the clouds roll in inevitably, dropping the temperature and spattering occasional rain and putting a damper on my spirits. I’ve noticed for a long time that the weather affects my mood to a great degree, and the effect seems to grow even stronger as the years go by. This morning, I woke up feeling cheerful and optimistic with the sun pouring through the skylight. At mid-morning, when the cloud layer’s first tendrils whisked through the clearing and then the sky went gray, I felt gloom settle over me. I am trying to be aware of how the weather affects my mood so that I can try to mitigate the impact. Well, I’m very aware of it, but the mitigation strategies have yet to materialize. So, cloud forests: beautiful. Gloomy. And cold. Nights here drop into the 40s, and I have lost all my tolerance for it. I am working hard to muster some appreciation for cloud forests, but (as the clouds close in thicker and begin to dribble) I am once again forced to conclude that they are mostly better viewed from a distance, or for brief periods of time.

The proprietor of Cuericí, Don Carlos Solano, is a native Costa Rican whose grandparents settled the land many years ago. He used to support his family through trout farming and occasional tourists, but now he mainly hosts educational groups like ours. He is an amiable man in his fifties, I would guess, who speaks eloquently of the need to balance conservation and responsible resource use. The farm is a model of sustainable operation—he gets much of his electricity from a small hydroelectric generator at the base of his steep pasture; he has replanted forests on many of the former pastures, and he has preserved almost all of the old-growth oak forest on his land. He still runs the trout farm, which I can see through the window as I type this, but he has tried to minimize the environmental impact by composting the solid waste (when he dries down each of the ponds every four years or so) and building better retention systems to keep the fish from escaping. (Trout are non-native here, and their original introduction wreaked havoc on natural stream ecosystems.) Like so many Costa Ricans I have met, Don Carlos is working hard to make a living and to make the environment a little better. The uncharitable, seasonal-affective-disordered side of my brain, though, can’t help but wonder why anyone would want to try to make a living at these elevations at all. Even now in the purported dry season, fog, mist, and drizzle are the order of the day. I am reminded of Ray Bradbury’s Venus.

In a lot of ways, this field station reminds me of hiker hostels on the AT. The student lodging, especially, a warren of bunks upstairs in the main house, now adorned with layers of gear, detritus, and drying clothes. A basket of old Newsweeks and Christian Science Monitors completes the hiker hostel appearance. There’s even an old notebook filled with messages from people who have stayed here before, and I leafed through it somehow half-expecting to see familiar names from the trail—Pilgrim and Gollum, Porkchop, Waterfall, Blue Skies, Blade. I did find a few names I knew, the world of tropical ecology being as small as it is, but nothing like the wealth of information that a trail register conveyed. Especially in the early winter when Isis and I hiked alone, trail registers were our link to the rest of our community, and we followed the unfolding sagas of romance, injury, hardship, and humor from shelter to shelter along the trail. Ridiculous as it was, I felt a little let down to open the notebook at Cuericí and not see the familiar scrawls of GAME (Georgia-Maine) and the AT symbol.

Sometimes I miss the trail a lot. I miss the instant camaraderie that developed between hikers at a shelter. I miss the sense of belonging. I’ve had so few times in my life when I really felt that I belonged where I was. Growing up on the coast of Maine with parents “from away”, I was “from away” by default. College was the first time I found a group of like-minded people who I could share everything with. The trail was the second, and I’m beginning to fear it may have been the last. I certainly don’t belong here. For a time, perhaps, but I can’t imagine settling here anymore. Wherever I go, I am inevitably recognized as foreign, and it begins to wear on the nerves. A few weeks ago I was riding the bus from Heredia to San Pablo, and another gringa (unknown to me) got on at the next stop.

“Son como pisotes,” the driver observed. “Se ve una, se ve otra.” They are like coatis (raccoon-like rainforest animals that generally travel in groups)—you see one, you see another.

Yet another reminder, if I needed it, that I’m a stranger in a strange land. Also a rather unwelcome breed of stranger, unfortunately. Public opinion of Americans has risen slightly in the last month, but not enough to make up for a generally concealed tide of anti-American sentiment, driven more by our appetite for real estate than our political foibles. In many parts of Costa Rica, speculation has driven land prices so high that Costa Ricans can no longer afford to buy farms at all, and the only people who can are foreigners. Mostly Americans. Americans who come for three weeks and spend money are welcome, but Americans who come looking for a second home are (quite understandably) personae non grata. As someone who’s here for a few years, I occupy a somewhat tenuous area of middle ground. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty, as a foreigner here, working at a job that could presumably be filled by a tico. In order to get me a work visa for this job, OTS has to write a letter claiming that they had to hire a foreigner because there were no qualified locals. Is it true? Admittedly most of the bilingual ticos with doctorates I know are currently pursuing post-docs in the US…

Gloomy thoughts of a cloud-forest-addled brain. Maybe when I get closer to sea level I will be able to think this through and feel more like I belong here.


At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Susan
I enjoy reading your blog. I am currently doing a post-doc in Cape Town, South Africa. I think this is the first time I feel like a real foreigner, specially bc everybody thinks I am American; little do they know that I am from Peru and that my native language is Spanish.



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