About my trees: Durian!

I’ve now planted well over 100 species in the finca. I got 122 at last count but my database is imperfect, I may be counting three different spellings of Schizolobium parahyba or Pterocarpus officinalus, whatever. Fact remains, I’ve only told you, my faithful readers, about a tiny fraction of all the amazing trees we’ve put in the ground since May 2016. You’ve heard a bit about pilón, cocobolo, cedro, mahogany, melina, manú negro, manglillo, mangosteen maybe. But have I told you yet that Carlos germinated no fewer than 10 different species of Inga last year which I’m still trying to identify to species? That we have a whole sector devoted to bird-friendly fruits and seeds? That we have at least one specimen from 28 types of fruit trees, many of them gifts from friends and neighbors? Wait, 29, I forgot about the papaya.

Have I told you about my durians? Let’s start there. One of my favorite fruits and little finca success stories.

If you haven’t heard of durian, a quick google search will serve you up plenty about this most charismatic of fruit trees. It’s a surprisingly polemic subject. Durio sp [there turn out to be at least 27 species, although I think I‘ve planted Durio zibethinus] is native to Southeast Asian rainforests, where it’s the favorite fruit of animals crafty or strong enough to pry it open, like orangutans – I once saw 8 individuals of this most solitary of primate species hanging out in one giant old Durian tree at Gunung Palung. Lumps of thick creamy flesh around each seed offer high return on energetic investment, and must be full of interesting nutrients as well as sugars galore.

It’s also the favorite fruit of many Southeast Asian humans. The streets of every city and town turn into tent camps of temporary vendors during durian season, green spiky lobes piled high under bare bulbs strung up to allow business late into the night as folks throng to purchase this delicacy (though not to be consumed with alcohol! The lore my Borneo research assistants insisted upon is, as usual, rooted in fact: durian extract inhibits the alcohol metabolism enzyme up to 70%). And simultaneously, the signs go up in hotels and businesses: NO DURIAN ALLOWED. Because, it turns out, that creamy white, slightly mucous flesh emanates an intense odor many meters beyond its spikes. It smells like “turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock” (great sites for more historical background and fragrant descriptions HERE, HERE). How, you might ask, can something with that description possibly be not only appetizing but so delectable that it causes mass fever in the streets? This is the enduring, endearing mystery of the durian.

1. durian fruit from Kekoldi 20161026_1521312. durian abierto 20161026_153202

You’re either revolted by or obsessed with the durian. I happen to be in the latter camp. But this is NOT a common fruit in Latin America. (Somehow, spiky, fleshy fermented gym sock fruit never caught on… I guess for nasty they already had noni. [p.s. click that link, it’s hilarious.])  You can therefore imagine my joy when, on an October 2016 trip to watch the raptor migration on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope, a friend brought me to the base of a fruiting durian tree. The forest is the Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve, and the durians were part of a sustainable agriculture project started back in the 1980s which brought in and planted interesting tropical varietals from around the world. These are no papayas – it takes a durian tree like 20 years to reach fruiting size. And here it was, at my feet: One. Perfect. Fruit.

Reader, I carried that fruit home! And I let it stink up my Escazú apartment as I ate it with orgasmic delight. And I set aside the four seeds it produced as though they were pearls plucked from a rare oyster while I consulted the internet gods about how to germinate durian. I ran out and bought substrate: a mixture of sand, soil and coconut fiber. I laid each seed in this bed with the utmost care and kept them moist with daily ablutions for weeks. Hell, I asked my neighbor to check on the moistness when I had to leave for a work trip.

3. getting ready to germinate IMG_12174. seeds IMG_1221

And look what happened!

They germinated. They poked a probing root out, a weird wrinkly member, slightly obscene and fascinating; blindly, surely seeking the soil. And then they seed-somersaulted and began to create stems and leaves, that self-contained glorious alchemy of a new plant coming to life. I created the conditions for this to happen!, I thought. I didn’t fuck it up! These four seedlings felt like more of a success than when I graduated from Harvard.

Within two months they were big enough that I brought the basket down to Osa and entrusted my four precious beauties to Carlos. Who knows me well enough to recognize when I’m excited, and treated them as though they were made of gold and growing him an ounce a day.

8. transfer to Carlos IMG_135310. in Carlos nursery 20170103_140315


11. ready to plant 20170729_112942And by rainy season, all four were ready to put into the ground. (For sticklers: I gifted one of my fledglings to someone who I wish truly deserved it, and bought an additional seedling from Robert Beatham, the American with a farm full of gorgeous Asian fruit trees).  We tried to put each one in an optimal semi-shady site, but we’ve subsequently had to create some additional shade, as they don’t love the intense dry season sun.

I’ll install personalized beach umbrellas for these babies if that’s what it takes to keep them happy. In 20 years, I plan to sit on my deck high above the Golfo Dulce, invite friends over for a durian party and happily stink up the neighborhood.

12. into the ground IMG_229013. new home IMG_2293




Logging & building on the finca!


Aka my saga of trying not to buy illegally-logged timber.

Since May of last year, when we started the serious planting and realized we were going to need some semblance of a roof to protect fertilizers, tools, motorbikes, and ourselves, Carlos has been waiting for me to get my act together to build a real work shelter. He’s patiently strung up one plastic tarp after another and watched as they degrade to tatters within a few months under the rotating pummel of UV rays, banshee rainstorms, and wind whipping through the Barrigones valley.

Education of a gringa: my original infrastructure plans for the finca back in 2016 involved putting in three elegant little platforms on which I envisioned doing yoga, setting up a picnic, pitching a tent, sipping gin and tonics while the sunlight faded.  But while I have done no yoga on this hobby farm yet, I have planted over 3000 trees and acquired two horses. Thus, many dollars and hours and deliberations later, I now have a level internal road, a horse corral, a fenced pasture, a covered work space, and 0 leisure platforms. It’s been a massive, frustrating arc of a learning curve – just as I hoped.

The work started last spring when we decided that the old entrance road was too steep and shitty to allow my beloved but low-riding RAV4, or really most vehicles, to comfortably pass. So I hired a guy with a backhoe. This was exciting if slightly upsetting, watching heavy machinery churn through my beautiful red dirt. The guy gouged an unnecessarily deep gash in the hard clay-pan drainage and tried to convince Carlos to conspire in overcharging me. From that exercise I learned that men who are paid by the hour to operate heavy machinery should be closely supervised, preferably by someone who actually knows something about things.

The backhoe built up a broad, firm dirt landing near the mango tree and internal teak fenceline, just where my road begins to drop off steeply (the sentonazo section). This landing, out of sight of the public road and with lovely views down into the valley side of the finca, immediately became the work station and parking area.  (Elements other than roofs I also hadn’t considered in the original planning: staging areas, parking, turning around.)  It turned out to be the strategic sweet-spot and is where Carlos and I have ended up spending the vast majority of functional time. From this I have learned why you should get to know the contours of a place through daily use and seasonal change before you design, plan, build, or plant too much.


Almost as soon as we put up the first makeshift tarp shelter – champa – on this landing, last May, I began trying to figure out how to build something more permanent. How difficult could it be?


The first iteration of the “champa” as we still call it, just after the bulldozer created the landing

Dear reader, you know what comes next when someone formulates a sentence like that…. Nothing but trouble.

For starters, I want to use local timber, not the imported Chilean pine lumber that dominates hardware store shelves across Costa Rica. But I want legal local timber! And that, my friends, I have learned, is not so easy to find in Osa.


A warehouse for one of CR’s biggest lumber distributors (this is the kind of place I visit for my day job sometimes). It’s almost all Chilean, some U.S. Southern pine.  While this stuff is “legal” in the strict sense, it’s not contributing to Tico forest management and its shipping is an unaccounted greenhouse gas emission. Not what I wanted in the finca.

Sure, your wood may come with a formal invoice from the sawmill that makes it “legal”. For people who genuinely don’t know or people who don’t care, that’s fine. For suckers like me whose professional reputation was made explaining ad nauseum how “timber laundering” works around the world, an invoice on its own means nothing if everyone from Carlos to the Adminstrator of the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve is constantly telling me stories about clandestine logging operations. When even I see trees being cut down without permits all the time, and hear trucks heavy with logs chugging down from the upper reaches of San Miguel at night to avoid patrols.

When it comes to wood, it becomes clear, the Peninsula exists in a deep state of cognitive dissonance. There is a ton of construction. And much of the construction is done by hotels, by retirees, by vacation-home builders, all drawn by the rainforest and supportive of its conservation. These people want their beautiful rainforest timbers: the red glow of cristobal, the rock-solid heft of chiricano, the durability of manú, the sinuous crenellations of cara de tigre. There are at least three sawmills within 15 minutes of my house, all processing natural forest woods.

But where does their raw material come from? MINAE grants exceptionally few permits for any natural forest logging in Osa – for many years now, even the vast majority of fallen trees are technically illegal to saw up and sell. This corner of Costa Rica has been exceptionally protective in its conservation ethos since a series of scandals around logging back in the 1990s. So….

Almost everyone here works with illegal wood. It’s an open secret. The legal supply is light years away from the demand. Now, we can have robust debates about exactly how damaging this highly selective illegal extraction of large hardwoods really is, or why a farmer shouldn’t just automatically be allowed to sell lumber from a valuable tree that the wind knocked over.  But the fact is: if you’re trying to stand on principal, you can’t trust the origin of any timber you didn’t see standing up first.

Last year (2017) I got excited for a hot moment when I learned that natural forest management is returning to Osa, slowly but surely. For three years now, a project between the Osa Loggers’ Association (Asociación de Madereros de Osa (AMAOSA)) and one of Costa Rica’s public universities, the TEC, has been slogging through the studies and bureaucracy involved in obtaining approval for several Forest Management Plans on private forestlands. AMAOSA has also been helping its members obtain proper permits for Fallen Tree extraction. I got their species list, I swallowed hard at the prices – as you’d imagine, turns out it costs more to do things right! – but I was ready to buy.

Then of course it turned out that the Association didn’t actually have permits yet for the species I wanted.  [Watch this space: AMAOSA has a small stock of fallen wood timber already, and I’m told that by January 2019 they’ll actually have legal wood from management plans to offer us.]

Back to the drawing board. At this point, I looked around the finca and thought, well hell, I’ll just use my OWN trees then. I have at least 700 meters of fenceline that Freddy Gordo planted with teak trees years ago, harvested and left to coppice (regrow from stump). While most of them are a little too small still, I figured I could squeeze enough timber out to build a simple shelter or two, leaving the rest of the trees to thicken up for when I’m ready to build the retirement house (!).

But if I’m going to cut trees on the finca to build on the finca, it makes little sense to pay a bunch of money to transport them miles away to a sawmill for processing into dimensional lumber, only to bring that lumber back up the hill. Better to just hire a guy with a portable sawmill, right?

Finding a guy with a portable sawmill didn’t take too long – Fernando was referred to me by the coordinator of AMAOSA. We first spoke in October 2017. But between rains and holidays and my travel and his lack of much interest in my (admittedly tiny) job, he finally showed up on 9 March. This visit was just to cut down the selected trees – obviously, the prelude to milling them. Timing was particularly tricky since we had to time the cutting for the luna menguante, that is, the few days on the waning side of a full moon, because it is a religious belief among Latin American forest users (including the professional ones I am paid to supervise in my day job) that if you cut at any other time of the month the resulting timber will be eaten by insects or rot twice as quickly. (Respectable Western-science citations for this point available HERE or HERE.)

Fernando showed up in a prehistoric Land Rover that had no brakes, with two sidekicks. One sidekick was a skinny dude in sweatpants who was deemed the chainsawyer but didn’t really know what he was doing. The other guy had a nice beer gut and no apparent function. As usual, Carlos was the most competent person in the room and ended up cutting most of the trees down. Then Don Fernando & Co got back in the Land Rover and coasted downhill…never to return.


After another month or two of attempts to get him back up the hill, I took the hint and found a new portable sawmiller (recommended via my horse broker, because rural economies). In the interceding time, Carlos had hired a son-in-law and his tractor for a day to pull the 18-odd logs we’d cut along the fenceline to one central landing where the mill could be installed. The art of portable sawmills, José my new miller explained, is getting them set up perfectly level, otherwise your boards end up crooked. His machine had been built by a man in Perez Zeledón, it looked ancient but it did the job.

It was an extremely informal scene – would a little safety equipment really kill you to wear? – but hypnotic to watch during the two or three days he was in the finca.

And now I learned the importance of knowing the dimensions of the lumber you need before milling. At this point I had already been speaking with builders (another saga!), but to be clear: I was starting from zero here. I have never in my life designed even a simple wooden structure. I was still trying to remember the difference between a viga, a varilla, a regla, a tabla, a basa, etc – beams, boards, bases, honestly I still don’t know what all these pieces are called in English.  So: Do I want 2x4s or 1x4s or 2x3s? How many? Um…“Yes”?

Poor José. Most of the trees we’d cut were barely of a size to yield the respectable Tico minimum of 4 varas in length. (The vara, uselessly enough, is an ancient Iberian Peninsula unit measuring 83.5905 centimeters.) Especially when we had to sacrifice the first vara on most logs for safety reasons: these trees were planted along the fenceline, and Fredy had let the growing trees swallow up barbed wire and fence staples – dangerous for the saw and anyone near it (remember tree spiking? Same principle). I basically told José to cut as many thick 2×4” pieces as he could, then square off 1×4” boards, then make half-inch slices of the remaining sides to give rustic two-face pieces.

After milling, we counted and measured and settled up. Here in Costa Rica wood is sold by Pulgada Maderera Tica, the Tico logging inch, which is one of those maddening idiosyncrasies you just have to accept: in a country that otherwise functions entirely in metric, the basic timber industry unit combines two different antiquated European measurement systems: a PMT is 1 inch by 1 inch by 4 varas. Whatever. José charged me 160 colones/PMT and I paid him for 590 PMT, a whopping total of c/94,400: that’s US$167 for a pile of homegrown, artisanally milled teak lumber. He even gave me a formal invoice so that I could legally transport some of the wood off-farm for future shelving and handicrafts.

In a hardware store around here, teak goes for 900 colones/PMT, so I figure I saved myself at least $500, taking into account various labor costs. And got free courses in tree felling, portable sawmills and dimensional lumber. Great deal!

Except… when I finally pinned down a builder (after bailing on my first option and being left hanging by my second option), I learned that 590 PMT isn’t nearly enough to build both a work platform and the horse corral which had become necessary in the time between my starting this infrastructure project and now. And also that teak – at least this kind of untreated, young teak – isn’t, actually, all that durable for the wet and termite-ridden Osa. There are only three types of wood that builders here really want to use for bases, ie the part of a structure that’s in/on the ground: manú negro (Minquartia guianensis), cirri (Caryodaphnopsis burgeri), or níspero chicle (Manilkara chicle). Everything else will, according to gospel, simply rot away in a few years. But try obtaining legally harvested manu negro, cirri, or níspero. See above. It’s almost all informally logged and laundered through the mills.

I talked it through with Adrian the builder (after making him sign a ludicrously detailed contract to ensure he would take me and my little job more seriously than previous men with heavy machinery). We could have gone for cement or metal bases, but that seemed way more carbon intensive. In the end I did two things. First, we dug up the most robust of the old manu fence posts that Fredy had put in around the finca – many of them were still solid enough to use as bases. Then, I bought from Carlos three thick old cirri posts that had held up a building on his now dismantled gold-panning tourism project. These were almost certainly logged originally without permits, years ago, but of all the lines I was trying to decide whether to draw, this seemed the least problematic. Adrian cut the posts into 1.5 meter sections, long enough to be safely off the ground, then spliced suitable teak posts on top.

Adrian tried to maximize the lumber from the portable milling, but I didn’t really have enough pieces of the right dimensions to cobble together good roofs. He convinced me to use bamboo, an option that both saved me from another round of wood-origin angst and allowed him to show off some new building skills. I’m stoked about the results. Bamboo is a pretty insanely amazing material in so many ways: strength, weight, durability, workability, and time from planting to harvest.

In the end, though, we needed a few more strong, durable pieces to use for the corral walls. And I admit that after months of trying to be the only person in Osa to build even a fucking horse corral with thoroughly legal timber, I caved. I bought some wood from a neighbor, I allowed myself to believe that the tree had fallen of its own accord, and I decided that he was going to use it and/or sell it to someone else anyways. I said: at least I can trace it back to source. It’s one tree. I know it’s not some local timber mafia, it’s my neighbor who needs to build some new fences.

Justifications? They are. But honestly, by this point, I found myself more bothered by the hypocrisy and counter-productiveness of government policy around here than by my neighbor’s action. The Forest Reserve is, in theory, about finding a balance between preservation and human usage. Maybe hotels don’t need fancy hardwood trim on every balcony, but farmers and ranchers and communities need wood for their livelihoods and homes. Policies that make it almost impossible to harvest even occasional trees at extremely low densities in the midst of a rural economy like Osa are obviously going to create illicit activity. And like marijuana, you can’t regulate something you simply don’t allow. Cue pointless game of cat-and-mouse between rangers and low-level logging peons.

We need to establish a more honest framework of rules and oversight that keeps high-demand hardwoods from being targeted and endangered, but also makes it possible for people to benefit from active forest management. (To be clear: there are excellent officials in MINAE aware of this and trying to do things differently.  They just aren’t really in charge.)

So I’m not going to feel guilty about my posts. I learned too much reality in getting to the point of buying them.

Then I went off to the US for three weeks, leaving Carlos to oversee the construction process and Karen to play both good and bad cop. Team effort! Nice work everyone. Now we have a real work platform! A real corral! They are both thoroughly imperfect but wonderful in the way that only something you yourself fumbled through from inception to completion can be.



The only caption for this is: FINALLY!

Hillary Clinton and horse invasions

My current life circus has some entertainingly disparate acts operating in its parallel rings. Last month (May) I abandoned Karen to care for our tick-ridden feral horses in Osa and headed to the States for Highly Serious Events with the East Coast Liberal Elite. These included a celebration of 10 years since passage of the Lacey Act Amendments in 2008 (a legislative achievement spearheaded by EIA, making it a crime to trade illegally sourced wood products from anywhere in the world) – speeches by a Senator and a Congressman in a wood-paneled hearing room on Capitol Hill – and a week of strategic planning with colleagues from DC, Peru, London, and Indonesia.

Then north to Cambridge, Mass for my 20th year Harvard reunion, in honor of which I cleaned the finca dirt from under my fingernails and even got a haircut noticed by someone other than myself for the first time in years…

The first event: “Radcliffe Day”, in which all us ladies head a few blocks north of the Square Brattle St and convene in the impeccably manicured gardens of Radcliffe yard, rhododendrons blooming, massive tents and table settings by graduation year, waiters serving salmon and coffee and petit fours while we all sit there in our heels and flowery dresses listening to a prestigious panel of international affairs experts debate US policy vis-à-vis the Middle East as we hold out for the main event – Hillary Clinton receiving the Radcliffe Medal for distinguished service, introduced by Madeline Albright, with no shortage of chummy jokes about the Wellesley-Radcliffe rivalry nor jibes at the current administration’s dangerous trajectory.


And I’m sitting there trying to make small talk with lovely people I haven’t seen in 5 or 10 or maybe 20 years, trying to listen to Hillary’s dialogue with Maura Healey and not be sad about how likable she is when not reciting debate talking points… all the while discretely looking at my phone where the following whatsapp exchange is taking place:


“Andrea, Carlos… I’m here in the pasture…and all those horses from the pasture on the other side of the road…they are in our pasture! They are trying to mount Bella.”

“Can you help?”

“All these big horses broke through the fence and Coco and Bella are running back and forth”

“the big pinto is on Bella”

“it’s possible we will have babies on our hands in the near future”

“okay everything has been resolved”

“todo bien”


I’m sitting there watching Hillary Clinton in my garden party outfit receiving urgent messages about horse rape down in Osa. The moment feels slightly irreconcilable.


Um….#metoo ?????

Postscript: Everyone is fine. Bella does not appear to be pregnant. Fenceline was repaired. Horses are friendlier and fatter, but still have lots of ticks. Hillary still did not win the election. But those emails….


Our current “President” is even grosser than Coco’s ear ticks.

of horse(s), of course

There’s no other honest way to start this:  I HAVE HORSES OMG I HAVE HORSES TWO LITTLE HORSES HOLY SHIT


Why hello there, Bella & Coco (stunned, on Day 1)

Yeah, I got some horses. WE got some horses. My friend Karen and I, we adopted/rescued a colt and a filly that were being neglected and removed from the property of Osa Conservation. They are half-siblings (same father, different mothers) and have been together basically their whole existence. Which began exactly when, nobody has yet been able to tell us accurately.  Between 12 and 18 months ago it seems.  These two got “lucky” – they were taken away too young from their mothers, they were sickly and skinny and wild, but at least they are alive. Around here, I’ve learned, the slaughterhouse is a not-uncommon destination for horses like that.

We have named them Cocobolo (the colt, mine) and Bella (the little filly, Karen’s). “Cocobolo” because (a) it’s the name of a beautiful endangered tree species that I have planted on the finca, (ii) he is a rich bay brown, like cocoa as well as like cocobolo wood, or even like the outside of a coco(nut), and I am game for any interpretation (at least til we try to register him for a Derby outing with the Jockey Club where rules apply). “Bella” because Karen loves the name and is willing to correct a lifetime of locals thinking it’s Vela like a ship sail.

I grew up as one of those horse-obsessed little girls and my parents tried to indulge me. There was that small gray pony Casper at Chagrin Valley Farms who dumped an even smaller me sliding down his neck into a pile of hay. (But later let me win a few ribbons.) There were many bored trail-ride-by-the-hour horses at Meeker Park Stables who sometimes, if it was just me and my way-cooler friend Katie Broun, the guide would kick into a decent canter through the aspens.  There was a season on a ranch in Wyoming, during a break from Harvard, where I understood that putting on my cowboy boots and running a gray appaloosa named Cherokee across vast sagebrush plains was the best cure I would ever find for depression.

So, yeah, it’s been my childhood dream to have a horse. But of course there’s a distinction between racing over the plains with wind in your hair, and acquiring two young, semi-feral animals that need food, medicine, shelter, running water, good pasture, love, training and all sorts of paraphernalia to make these things possible, the words for which you don’t know in English, much less Spanish. #learningcurve

Coco and Bella arrived dinged up and ribs-showing. After leaving Osa Conservation they had spent a few months under someone else’s care in what looked like a nice, large, shady pasture, mixed up with a herd of someone else’s horses.  But the dry season did a number on the grass, the water, and the kiddos. By the time we were finally ready to get them, they were scrawny and covered in a horrifying number of ticks ranging in size from corn kernel to pumpkin seed.  Their ears and manes and butts and even eyelids were lined with these blood-engorged ticks. It was hard to see. Coco had a fleshy gouge in his front hoof and Bella, as Karen says, looks like “a cutter”.

Of course we traumatized them even more by loading them in a cart and driving them a few miles down the highway to a small pasture on Rick’s land, directly in front of my rental house in San Miguel. This pasture will be their home until I can prepare the fences and build a corral on my actual finca 2km up the hill. In this early stage, as they heal and adjust, it’s actually great to be able to keep an eye on them all day long.

For this pasture we made them a little ranchito where they and their food can stay dry. It’s not really a corral, just a glorified roof with a very rustic chute to keep them contained if they need shots, medicine, etc. (Assuming, of course, you can get them into the damn chute!)

One thing about rural Costa Rica: everyone has opinions about how to handle horses. And boy, are those opinions different from what you see on the gringo internet. A few examples.

Re ticks and parasites:

Gringo internet:  Have your horse properly tested for possible diseases. In close consultation with your veterinarian, give your horse the appropriate combination of injected, oral and topical parasite control. Regularly apply insect repellent.

Tico rural road wisdom: “Put some diluted kerosene in a backpack pump and spray him down every few weeks! Gets rid of everything.”

Re approaches to taming a horse:

Gringo internet: Spend hours with your animal from the beginning, accustoming it to your presence, your voice and your hands on all parts of its body. Touch it gently with the rope, teaching it not to fear. Earn its trust. You must ask permission to enter your horse’s space every time.

Tico rural road wisdom: Leave your horse in a pasture with essentially no human contact for the first 3.5 years of its life in order to preserve its mojo. When you’re ready to break it, lasso up and choke it to the ground in submission if necessary. It’ll learn who’s in charge.

Now I do appreciate me some good local knowledge. However, I internalized to the depths of my little suburban soul those tales of gentling the wild ponies of Chincoteague, of the mystical connection Alec had with the Black Stallion. I have no intention of beating my own Misty-equivalent into resentful submission. And Karen is way kinder than me. So, of course, we are doggedly proceeding to shower these little wild things with love and treats and animal-talk (much like baby-talk, you just have to trust your tone is getting through).

The main thing we have going for us is that they are both really stoked about food. They can’t get enough of the pellet concentrate. I imagine it tasting like what Doritos once meant to me. Actually probably more like Cinnabon with a savory kick, since we mix it up with molasses and salt and an attractively pink mixture of unknown minerals. It took Coco and Bella all of 48 hours to learn that when they hear the sound of rattling in plastic buckets, it means their equine pelletized crack is close by and they should make a beeline. So we go out and hang in the ranchito trying to fondle them while they snarf concentrate. Coco – not unlike my beloved Astro – is so focused on hoovering his food that he lets me touch him pretty much anywhere, whisper sweet nothings into his ears and identify ongoing agglomerations of ticks in his ratty mane. Bella is warier.  Some days she lets love in, others not so much.

We also obviously brought in a vet. God bless Ricardo, who appears to be the only veterinarian for the grand metropolitan area of Puerto Jimenez (!), and has been making regular visits to give vitamin shots and de-parasite medicine, check on strange inflammations, take blood samples, and generally terrorize the horses with needles and spray bottles.


Coco – who arrived to us heavily anemic – has gone from passive recipient of the ass-thermometer and multiple injections during Ricardo’s first visit, three weeks ago, to escaping from the chute on the most recent appointment. He jumped over four feet high, needle tip still in his neck, caught his back feet on the bars, somersaulted over and landed on his back, practically breaking his neck before scrambling to his feet and scampering off. I screamed and then sobbed. It is, I guess, a sign of his improving health, but it was fucking scary.

This incident reminded me that the joy of having any living being in your life, under your care, is necessarily accompanied by the risk of losing something you love. And this place is fierce – there’s no impeccable, flat Kentucky bluegrass lawn. There are snakes and hidden holes in the grass, tons of insect disease vectors, a lack of medical options. Also, terrifyingly, there is me, who doesn’t know what I’m doing and could make stupid mistakes with big consequences (like not tying Coco up in that chute before Ricardo stuck him). I’m aware I let myself be convinced by Ticos who’ve grown up on farms that “having a horse is easy”, that if you’ve got land and grass and water, what the heck. Of course it’s not that simple. I am thankful knowing Coco and Bella are going to be raised by a proverbial village of good people with more knowledge than me: Karen, Carlos, Rick, and basically everyone who lives on the San Miguel road and passes by daily amused by our folly. Everyone’s keeping an eye out for our little guys.

We have such a long journey ahead of us with Coco and Bella. For now it seems to be mainly about patience. And pelletized crack.



Tapirs and loan forgiveness: it’s called gratitude

We’re in the heart of dry season – dust season – on Costa Rica’s Pacific slope. The Rio Barrigones crossing between my house and the highway – remember I couldn’t get out for days last fall? – has dried up entirely; what little water is still flowing goes underground upstream. Leaves are wilty. People are wilty. The scattered drops of rain that fell tonight felt delicious. They didn’t come close to rinsing the coat of Osa dust off Hedi my RAV4, but they did serve to remind me to be grateful.


Dust season

My old, dear Shaker Heights friend Alisa has been visiting, the perfect excuse to play tourist and do a full Peninsula circuit: basically, madly gorgeous places separated from one another by various forms of bumpy, sweaty, nauseating, dizzying and lumbar-pain-inducing transit over land and sea.

old friends are awesome friends

Old friends are the goofiiest.


Pipas in the finca.

From my place in San Miguel de Cañaza, to the gorgeous beach sunsets of Drake Bay;

Drake Bay beaches, sigh

to Sirena Station, in the heart of Corcovado National Park, where endangered wildlife roams in antediluvian tranquility amongst us human visitors;

female currasow

A female Great Currasow – these large and apparently quite tasty birds are rare and exceedingly shy in most forest contexts…but around Sirena, they strut their stuff fearlessly.

Slaty tailed trogan gorgeousness

Slaty-tailed Trogon be like – yeah, i know i’m gorgeous, what’s YOUR deal?

yeah YOU!

White-faced capuchin who missed his morning coffee

out 19 kilometers of sand hiking along a crashing jungle shoreline to arrive, dehydrated but deliriously satisfied, at the simple luxuries of La Leona Ecolodge;

beach tracks

Tapir in the surf, aka “reasons to get up before 5am”. Not only for the wildlife: beach hiking after 11am is a long, slow broil.

reaching peak pura vida while doing yoga on Luna Lodge’s sky-framed deck;

A beautiful bridge

Alisa’s bridge was particularly beautiful in front of the primary rainforest

and then to begin that journey back into ‘reality’ on the appropriately jolting road from Carate to Puerto Jimenez…


Melvin Cruz was a terrific guide , particularly for anyone interested in birds and photographs taken through his Swarovsky telescope. Thanks Osa Wild and Melvin.

finally, back to my porch, where the primary agenda item was “beer and birding”, an activity that goes a long way towards convincing doubters of my dorky hobby. (Let’s just say Alisa has since been sending me pictures of cardinals behind her Atlanta condo.)


Resistance to the charms of my porch is largely futile.

I first visited Sirena in 1999 as a new college graduate (hi Nina! thanks again, Dan & Glenn!), and at the time it felt like a vision of paradise: misting surf, soaring trees, waterfall grottos, jaguar tracks on the beach, bioluminescent sea under the velvet darkness of a tropical night without artificial lights. All that without mosquitos. (Although there might have been a night where I woke up at 2am with chigger bites so bad I raked all the flesh off my ankles with a hairbrush, now that I think about it.)  I’ve since lived in, worked in or visited rainforests around the world, and Corcovado still feels like a vision, ticks and chiggers and all. I can’t get enough. I’m grateful that Alisa gave me a reason to explore again with fresh eyes.

Setting Out001

Looking chubby and innocent as we take off through the jungle with no guide, good map or nearly enough water, i’m sure. Good thing we’re wearing scrubs. (??)

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Nina pondering what we felt sure were jaguar tracks in the sand. (Tapir tracks in the sand, Playa Sirena, 1999)

Back at the finca, I finished taking monitoring measurements and yearly school photos of the little trees we’ve planted over the last 2 years that are dedicated to friends and family.  (I promise to send them soon!) Another big fat reminder of all the love and support in my life.


But right now the biggest gratitude in my heart is to my mother and father. I need to put this out there. It feels awkward to get public about money, but it’s intellectually dishonest to convey this finca project as a completely stand-alone endeavor. Yes, I paid for the finca entirely with savings from years of working for non-profits. But. But. I could save that money because my parents paid my college loans and my health care and my plane tickets throughout my 20s while I was gaining work experience and language skills. And I felt more secure in my decision to move to Costa Rica back in 2012 and take a massive pay cut because of investments made with inheritance passed on by my thrifty AF working-class grandfather, an electrician who belonged to good unions his whole life (the kind being strangled out of existence in our times).


“I bought a finca! Holy sh*t now what do I do….”

The property purchase depleted my finances and I took out a little loan in early 2016 to float various costs – buying a car, paying my taxes, organizing a 40th birthday inaugural planting event and otherwise putting Life Dream: Finca in motion.  It was a Citibank personal loan with crap interest rates and my folks, who still receive and sort through heaps of Andrea Johnson’s U.S. mail – add another tally to the ‘grateful’ column for every fundraising plea they open – noticed as much.


World Wildlife Fund, stop it with the schwag! I’m wearing out my mailing address welcome.

They soon offered to pay off Citi and let me repay them with 0 interest over a flexible timeframe. And in late 2017, after I’d paid just about 25 cents on the dollar, they forgave the rest of the loan. Several thousand dollars I don’t have to budget out in the next year or two – enabling me to be pickier about the consulting work I take, give Carlos more hours, advance more quickly in the finca.

I’m aware this is deep privilege. (White American privilege, in a country where the average black family has just 6% of the wealth of the average white family; see here or here). Saying that in no way takes away from the hard work and smart decision-making of my parents, or their parents, or from my own work and decisions. It’s just real, and I try not to take it for granted as I speak of the enormous gratitude that I have for my parents’ unwavering and non-judgmental support.

20160321_000523 Cagan foto

My adorable parents, holding me up with a smile since 1977

With all that, you’d think I would have at least ensured that the trees dedicated to them are in a perfect site and spoiled rotten with shade, fertilizer and water as needed. Ha! Instead, for the family, I chose a scenic knoll that turns out to have the hottest, driest and poorest soils on the whole finca. Mum and Tim’s trees have grown approximately 5 whole leaves each in all of 2017.  I’m embarrassed to even post the photos. Um, thanks so much for teaching me to love nature and watch birds, for taking me on world-class trips, for subsidizing my career development, for paying off my loans, and well really for making my whole life possible…here’s some wilted seedlings?

Costa Rica Xmas 2016 112

This shot will have to do! Inspecting my father’s tree and trying not to infer too much on the inhospitable family knoll, Dec 2015

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AJ at Rio Madrigal near the now-defunct Los Patos ranger station, March 1999. Who knew this place would lodge itself into my heart and come back into my life 13 years later…

still love Sirena after all these years

AJ on Sirena beach, Feb 2018


Candice and Tim in Costa Rica, December 2015. So much love and gratitude.



Rainy (mixed) blessings

January 21: I’m writing under the fog of mild heat delirium, not exactly sunstroke or anything you need medical training to manage, just that loopy slightly stupid feeling of having been out wandering the full hot humid glory of the finca for 8 hours without enough food or water and then you have a (1) beer with friends and now you are finding it hard to remember why, four lines ago, you titled this blog what you did.

In summary: summer, it seems, has finally arrived to Osa.

afternoon rainclouds gather over the hills

Afternoon rain clouds gathering over the hills…that’s not your typical January sky

I’ve been down in Osa for 2 weeks now and up till today it rained every day – big afternoon or evening thunderstorms, the kind of weather we get in September or November, never in January. January is for beach afternoons and flowering treetops, for all-day sunshine that feels welcome after months of mildew. This weird rainy spell is pretty much all anyone has talked about since I arrived.

Needless to say, it’s probably somehow linked to the same Gulf Stream aberrations producing record numbers of U.S. Eastern seaboard Facebook posts featuring grumpy friends in puffy winterwear entertaining their children during official snow days. Climate change. How can you feel happy about it? Plus the rain is going to spoil the incipient corteza tree bloom and is knocking the flowers off my damn mango tree. Climate change is fucking with mango season! It’s not quite a starving discolored polar bear shambling over melting permafrost, but it’s dire.

holy melina!

Holy fast-growing melina trees! In the background is my beleaguered mango tree

However, my baby trees love this weather. As I’ve mentioned before, January through April is a bit of a gauntlet for a seedling just trying to establish itself; the sun pounds and crisps your tender leaves, the soil not-so-gradually loses its moisture (especially in shade-less grassy fields). Growth rates slow and plants slip into survival mode. Two weeks of no rain and Carlos is filling up the Ghostbusters backpack pump and repeatedly carting 44 lbs (20kg) of water upslope to keep our trees alive. This January, though, my trees are putting on new leaves daily and look healthier than ever. Carlos and I are stoked to be working under cloud cover, which keeps the sun-stupidity at bay. I have felt more than a little bit grateful for the weird weather.


The halting start to summer also fits my new year’s state of mind. I spent November and December in EIA overdrive taking rock stars and indigenous activists to the Peruvian jungle (read a professional blog about it here and a nice article here). I then got back on a plane to spend quality time in beautiful places with my alarmingly adorable niece and nephew, all members of my family, and multiple beloved friends. I landed back in Costa Rica with a hangover from all that love. My situation in San José felt cold in the literal and metaphorical senses of the term.  Once I got down to Osa a profound exhaustion set in, and the usual questions: does it still make sense for me to be here? Why have I created a life spread across so much damn geography? What would it take to feel coherent?

But this place restores me, every time. Somewhere around day 12, tree #688 of my randomized pilón monitoring count, I felt whole again. That’s a mixed blessing too, in some ways. I love it so much, I never want to leave. But it’s sort of hard to be an environmental policy professional based at la casita amarilla with mediocre internet on the wrong side of the River Barrigones. I haven’t entirely figured out the balance, much as I think and write about it. For now off I go, back to the chilly evenings and broader bandwidth of San José.

rain means rainbows

Rain in a time of sun means rainbows too. It’s all very confusing.

Work work work work work… and my illegal logging trees

It’s been a long time since I last posted a blog entry. That’s largely because all that beautiful offline time I spent planting trees earlier this year came back to haunt me in the form of unfinished major writing products for EIA that came due big time, urgent, now, NOW! I suppose I knew deep down there would eventually be a consequence for working all of 8 days in May.

As many of you know, I’ve been working again with Environmental Investigation Agency, where for years I headed up the Forest Campaign. From 2006 through 2012 I had my head deep in the world of illegal logging and associated timber trade around the world. Coming back to that world has been a comfortable return to something I care about and am good at, with colleagues I trust and respect beyond words. It’s also reminded me, at times, of why I left D.C. and sought jobs engaged on a more daily basis with forests and trees and sawmills and communities.

I love words. I love using them to leverage people into doing things the way we want them done. (Which is, to be clear, different than convincing people.) I can put together complex advocacy documents, weave a coherent argument from hundreds of sources in multiple languages, incorporate trade data analysis and video imagery, think through the strategic implications of every sentence I write, badger my colleagues into giving me their revisions, see the damn project through to its gorgeous final publication.  Those are skills I have. I’m not good at self-promotion or even self-congratulation, I wake up most mornings thinking of 10 ways I failed to live up to my own expectations, so I’m taking a moment to recognize: I have some skills. And it’s fun to exercise them.

But part of this “skill” is that I’ve never been good at moderation. And I don’t have the parameters that rein many people in – the children, the spouse, the discipline to close my computer after a certain hour in the evening.  This last month has made me doubt how much we really change. In 2012 I  moved down here, put myself in a new place, removed that constant low-grade D.C. urgency vibe from my life, and wow, look, I now have a daily yoga practice. But would I keep it up if you put me back in D.C.? That’s the question I fear to answer.

On the other hand, surely much of the “wisdom” you acquire as years accumulate is the ability to make decisions based on self-knowledge rather than fantasies, guilts, projections, desires. Perhaps it’s fine to just say: I’m a better version of myself in Costa Rica. I am happier when baby trees are part of my life.

On that note, and with EIA on the brain, I wanted to share how much I am enjoying watching the growth of saplings of some of the very same species I spent years campaigning to protect.


baby cedars in Hedi’s trunk back in May

i'm so happy planting cedar!

oh my god i’m so dorky and happy


five months later, this particularly robust seedling is loving life in the finca

This here above is Spanish cedar, cedro amargo, cedro real, Cedrela odorata. I worked with the community of Dos Brazos to germinate and plant about 125 cedros this year in mixed plantations across the finca. (In the Neotropics you can’t do pure plantations, it’s attacked by the Hypsiphyla shoot-borer)…. In my favorite work at EIA, recently profiled in a fun piece by Wired magazine, we documented systemic illegal logging and laundering of cedro from Perú to the United States, and fought for it to be uplisted in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).


Kembly planting a wee tiny cocobolo back in May


These guys grow like gangbusters (and i’m real excited about it as you can see, ha!). This is the biggest one of all, but almost all are happy. The problem is their growth form….most are either slinky like this or bushing out with multiple stems. Not sure how to manage them. Stay tuned.

This above is cocobolo, rosewood, Dalbergia retusa….this year we planted about 120 in the finca, also from the Dos Brazos nursery.  Last year (2016) the entire Dalbergia genus was determined to be threatened by international trade and listed under CITES, the first time that’s ever been done for a timber species, due in large part to EIA investigations and campaign work done in both our U.S. and U.K. offices to document the corrupt and violent pillage from Madagascar, Thailand, Cambodia, Belize, Guatemala, Nigeria (check our latest exposé), and elsewhere around the tropics, pouring into China.


i think the intern was a little scared of me


These are mahogany seeds germinating in the CATIE seed bank. Soon Carlos will do the same with ours.

And these are mahogany seeds!  I bought them last month from CATIE’s commercial seed bank. Mahogany was practically the reason EIA hired me in the first place – its illegal extraction and trade from Honduras and other countries across Latin America was my first campaign focus and the origin of all our work in Perú. Mahogany financed the illegal road networks that have now turned southern Perú into a deforestation frontier. It’s also financing the best community forestry in the world in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Like its Meliaceae cousin Spanish cedar, you can’t grow Swietenia macrophylla in pure plantations in the Neotropics – it always gets attacked by Hypsiphyla shoot-boring insects that cause the trunk to bifurcate while still tiny and thus lose its commercial value.  But I think next year the finca will have enough diverse scrub and growing trees that I can tuck a few hundred mahogany seedlings into the cracks, which research shows limits insect damage. Fingers crossed.

I want to be clear: planting trees is not the answer. Or rather, it’s just one part of a bigger answer that I believe involves all the other stuff I’ve worked on: trade policies, awareness campaigns, international treaties, law enforcement, community forest monitoring.  We’re not going to protect mahoganies, rosewoods, cedars, ebonies, shihuahuacos and other beautiful endangered species without fighting battles on many fronts. I’m not proposing we all stop fighting and start planting. That’s in fact why I’m trying to make this weird schizophrenic life of mine work – dividing my time between airplanes, a San José apartment, and a cabin on the wrong side of a flooding river, trying to skype into urgent phone calls while watching toucans through my binoculars.   I’m trying to plant AND fight. I’m not at all sure it’s a sustainable set-up, but in a world coming apart at the seams, where everything needs fixing, starting with one’s own slightly doomsday perspective, it’s what has felt necessary in my heart for now.


I take work calls from here a lot of the time nowadays. It feels weird but I’m not complaining.