Within half an hour of arriving at the finca for the inaugural tree planting on May 18th, 2016, my friends had sussed out who was really in charge. Yeah, Andrea was rocking that red sequined baseball hat and seemed like she knew what she was doing as she demonstrated how to plant Árbol 0…but if you paid even half attention you realized she was just translating for Carlos. And once people spread out to start putting trees in the ground, Andrea was mainly running around like a headless (albeit somehow grinning) chicken while Carlos seemed to be patiently digging holes, directing traffic and showing 19 different people at once how to remove their seedling from the bag without exposing its tap root. The cries soon went up: “Carlos for President!”
In the precisely one year since I first convinced him to work with me, it’s become clear that hiring Carlos was the best decision I’ve made since buying the Finca in the first place.
First, he’s a born naturalist. He’s curious and observant as hell. Carlos’s formal education ended before high school and his spelling reflects it. But he learned early from his father, an indigenous person of the southern Talamanca (the mountains between Panama and Costa Rica), how to be in the forest. He looks closely and remembers well. He sees signs of animals that I would never in a million years perceive – tiny grass tunnels, broken twigs, fading footprints, feather fluff, directional mud splatters. After years spent tracking animals to their favored feeding sites, he has a mental list of dozens of species we should plant whose seeds and fruits will attract tepezquintles (pacas), monkeys or songbirds back into the finca.
The finca literally comes more alive for me when we walk around together. There are birds’ nests in every bush, that tree is flowering for the first time, oh be careful of that rash-giving vejuco del fuego vine! (too late.) It’s like a private PBS en Español natural history special every time, as he explains which butterfly reproduces on the leaves of what tree, and how to tell whether it was an armadillo or skunk that uprooted your nephew’s dedicated seedling for the third time in a week…. At least once he’s described to me a behavioral observation that is, as far as I’ve investigated, undocumented by ornithologists (scarlet-rumped caciques using pheromones to make wasps temporarily flee their nest and leave the larvae unprotected).
Where I’m all book brain, Carlos is pure experience. We see a bird: I’m still reaching for my dog-eared guidebook while he tosses out the local name and tells me the best method for catching it with sticky tree sap and twine. I’d be lost without my local-to-scientific-name list of Costa Rican tree species (yay internet!) that allows us a more common language. Last month we discussed how best to prevent erosion on my steep, newly levelled internal road and stabilize the big landslide areas from last November. His top suggestions: tall poró stakes, more sotacaballo trees and transplants of a low, invasive legume called manicillo. That afternoon I read the most relevant articles I could scrape up on the topic and their top suggestions were, basically: poró stakes, sotacaballo and manicillo. (I will say, thank god, my fancy research skills dredge up something new and worth bringing to the table just often enough that he doesn’t consider me redundant…)
Not only is he a good overall naturalist, but Carlos is particularly obsessed with seeds and trees. I mean to the point where he talks your head off until everyone just nods ‘uh-huh’ and smiles. It’s not just me – his wife Nuria and daughters do that too! Especially, they tell me, when they’re on the back of his motorbike and really would prefer he looked at the road, not the ripening manglillo seed pods. Recently I asked him what kind of books he liked to read, other than the Bible, and he said “books about trees”.
I know, right? I give myself credit for picking up on this obsession during a December 2015 visit to the lovely ecotourism project that his family briefly offered in the Osa village of Rancho Quemado. The tour objective was to show us how to pan for gold, but while other guests ate Nuria’s lunch spread, he showed me around the garden where he had hundreds of seedlings seemingly haphazardly lying around, describing each species with the urgency of someone who needs to get a secret off his chest. I remembered that chat four months later when I realized I desperately needed some trees to plant. Oh and someone to help me plant them!
This roving curiosity about the natural world translates really well into restoration. His front yard is an ad hoc experimental nursery of over 30 species that he’s germinated from seed or collected as sprouts. Some are collected opportunistically, others from patient observation of when attractive, or useful, or unusual species begin to flower and then bear fruits and seeds. He tries different techniques to germinate, uses different substrates, tests whether things grow better from seed or as transplanted sprout… Seedlings are growing in tires, buckets, in the shade of his plantains. I’ve invested only a tiny fraction of what Dos Brazos has received into his nursery, but will get 10x the species diversity (this year, anyways… I’m still hopeful DB steps it up for 2018).
I’m pretty sure Carlos enjoys our project so much because he actually gets to apply his brain to it. Possessing a restlessly intelligent mind in the vacuum of educational opportunity that is rural southern Costa Rica has translated, for him, into a churning sequence of short-term jobs either unsatisfying, impermanent or uncomfortably informal. He’s now 44, and has worked at least some time farming cocoa, harvesting bananas, harvesting oil palm, picking coffee, illegal logging, industrial-scale melina plantation logging, driving unregistered taxis, driving trucks, operating heavy machinery, illegal gold mining, illegal hunting, giving ecotourism tours, commercial fishing, grass-cutting, landscaping and now restoration and nursery management.
I know these things because Carlos also excels at talking, fast and furiously and distracted at regular intervals by passing birds or manglillo seed pods such that I have to beg him to refocus on the topic at hand in order to get a decision made. He and I have something of the same impatience for mundane life details (see: our combined record on cell phone breakage).
In the end, none of this would matter if I couldn’t trust him. I’ve made some pretty bad hires in my days (sorry, EIA) of folks who seemed perfect on paper. But I think I got this one right. I knew from the start that I couldn’t afford to hire him full time, for now, so my hope was that he become committed, invested, and proud of something that felt like a joint project. I try to pay well and I ask for his opinions. We sit over coffee and make plans. I fronted the money for a new motorbike to remove transport obstacles. I support his nursery efforts, connect him to other land owners who need trees. And in return, I can trust that when I need to leave early, and the bulldozer operator repairing my road offers to charge the gringa an extra hour and split the difference with him, Carlos will turn the offer down and tell me about it later. (That was last month.)
I just really enjoy working with the guy, even when the sun has melted my brain and his running tree phenology patter might as well be in Sumerian. Things here at Las Tijeretas have advanced so much more rapidly and smoothly than they would have in any scenario that did not involve Carlos being President of the Finca. Our constitution is still being negotiated but no term limits have yet been established.
(I still have better hats though.)