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.

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baby cedars in Hedi’s trunk back in May

i'm so happy planting cedar!

oh my god i’m so dorky and happy

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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).

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Kembly planting a wee tiny cocobolo back in May

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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.

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i think the intern was a little scared of me

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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.

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

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Favorites from the wildlife camera: 1st installation

Last year around this time we saw tapir prints in the finca (yeah!) and that was when I decided to invest in a wildlife camera. By which I mean, ask my parents for a wildlife camera for Christmas. Thanks Mum and Tim! (for that and way, way more). We ordered the unfortunately named Bushnell “Trophy Cam Aggressor”, whose moniker makes you think the animals caught on pixel might need post-trauma counseling but whose features are good value for money.

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I tested it first on family members and caught an adorable towhead asleep in his daddy’s arms.

Since January I’ve been putting the camera in different spots where we’ve identified wildlife trails…next to the drinking pool below the spring… trained on the trunks of a fruiting rambutan tree, etc. The camera is a window of marvels into the habits of these beautiful beings that share the finca with me, sight unseen.

Red brocket deer, for example – I’ve never laid an eye on one, yet almost every day they pass by the camera in search of the fresh young leaves of my baby trees. Same with the little tinamou – a petitely rotund ground bird whose haunting call floats far through the crepuscular air, but is seen rarely, unless you happen to put a camera in front of her daily commute (see below!).

I’m not convinced the camera is capturing everything that passes – once, for example, we found a half-eaten fresh-water crab discarded immediately in front of the camera, and no imagery of the racoon or whatever must have been lunching on it – and I know it takes waaay too many pictures of leaves rustling in the breeze. Nor has the camera successfully “Aggressed” tapir or ocelot or peccaries, all of whose tracks we’ve encountered at some point. But the images it has taken so far are enough to allow me a sense of the richness of life depending in small or large part on the finca.

In my previous post I shared photos of the red brocket deer. Here are some of my other favorites. None of them are particularly endangered, but they’re still thrilling to find when you troll through the SD card.

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Tolomuco or tayra, sidling up the wash where my springwater descends

The tolomuco! Also known as a tayra (Eira barbara), an omnivore, weasel family, a common species of disturbed landscapes. Look at that smooth gorgeous strength.

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A pair of tayras in elegant retreat

Next: My very first picture on the camera! The Northern tamandua (Tamandua mexicana), an arboreal anteater.

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My date settings were off. it wasn’t actually 2015.

The Crab-eating raccoon (Procyon cancrivorus), of whom I mainly seem to capture butts and tails. Distinctive tails, I’ll give ’em that.

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Almost 3am, last call mister!

The pizote or White-nosed coati (Nasua narica) . I used to call my cat Astro mi pizote because of that big fluffy tail he always carried high and proud.

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You want some of those yellow rambutans? Yeah, get in line….

.An adorable young Central American squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedii) stealing a solo moment on the ground with ripe rambutan.

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I just, like, needed some alone time from that big rowdy troupe over there….. ❤

The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is solitary, mostly nocturnal, omnivore, and  apparently the “state small mammal of Texas” . Carlos also found the empty shell of one of these guys discarded by the spring once, having been excavated efficiently by some feline predator (that of course we didn’t capture on camera).

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When I run, I’m super cute, but cheapo Andrea isn’t paying for video uploads on WordPress

Birds of prey are not easy to catch on a wildlife camera! What was this yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) doing here?

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Enjoying the rambutan party like the rest of the finca crowd…

And perhaps my favorite of all… the Little Tinamou (Crypturellus soui), which bustled back and forth almost every day for a month straight, heading to work in Sector Astronium uplands at 5am, and returning to the arroyo between 4 and 5pm.

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time to make the donuts….

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little lady, it’s a long day you put in!

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In a different part of the finca, we found a Little Tinamou nest, with beautiful mauve eggs.

Oh and then there’s always the occasional glamour shot of Carlos and myself!

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Whatcha lookin’ at???

Data-deficient deer messing with my baby trees

I have a red brocket deer problem. This isn’t exactly a “first world problem”, I guess, but it does feel somehow funny and privileged. At least in that I’m not shooting, trapping, poisoning, or otherwise doing anything to these damn animals, which may or may not be endangered….

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A nice view of a female red brocket deer from February

 

Let’s back up. Carlos has been doing a stupendous job of taking care of the trees. All the trees, but especially the trees in the area planted by my friends back in 2016. We call it Sector Astronium, after Tree #1, the ron-ron (Astronium graveolens). In my mind it’s the sacred grove. Whatever you call it, it’s where the trees are all dedicated to friends and their loved ones. Where we’re trying to plant at least one example of almost every species we put into the finca.

Most of the trees in Astronium are growing like gangbusters. Seriously folks, they are growing so tall and happily, it’s amazing to behold. I am sorry that I am not better at posting photos all the time, because it is rather thrilling to see how well these trees grow. I should put in a 24-hour live camera, they’re that beautiful. (Note: I promise to send new photos and post more once planting season slows down….)

 

And almost from the beginning, we’ve had visitors. There are many species that can’t resist the tender nutritious glory of a young leaf. Crickets, caterpillars, aphids and unidentified Insecta; leaf-cutter ants, with a logic all their own; armadillos, who have a specific, intense love for digging up the tree dedicated to my nephew Forrest; and the red brocket deer.

Locally called a “cabro” (goat), the red brocket deer is a bit of a puzzle. The species is Mazama americana but the quantity of sub-populations or sub-species between here and Argentina appears to bedevil the experts enough that the IUCN Red List, the world’s definitive data set for endangered species, says “This species is considered to be Data Deficient in light of high taxonomic uncertainty….which may constitute a cryptic-species complex…until we understand the taxonomy we do not have enough information to evaluate [its status].”

Whatever its status, the cabro freaking loves to eat the cojollo, or the bud and top leaves, off my young trees.  Which obviously sets their growth back. But even more damaging, it loves to rub its little antler nubbins on the thin bark of the young Calophyllum and Carapa and Caryocar trees. It’s either scratching an itch or marking territory, but either way, the little guys do damage! I have at least three coming through the finca, according to our read of the wildlife camera footage.

 

They went into a frenzy back in June-July, perhaps marking territory around mating season, and rubbed the shit out of at least a dozen seedlings. Never mind the bark, they rubbed down to the point where the trees didn’t have any phloem left and needed emergency medical attention from Carlos.

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see those little nubbins? apparently they itch.

The trees that were most damaged, we tried something called an acodo or “air layer” where you treat the tree with hormone and wrap it in plastic and or spongey material at the point where its phloem connection has been severed. If all goes well, it sprouts new roots at this point and you can cut it and start again. The base will also likely resprout because, guess what, trees are super resilient. (Ever the amazing metaphors.) It’s another type of grafting often used on fruit trees, which often if not always works.

 

So what can I say. The “cabro” may or may not be endangered. People in Costa Rica sure love to hunt them. They’re actually really cute. And in theory, this is exactly what I wanted the finca to be: a haven for biodiversity. I’m providing ecosystem services with all these yummy little trees, right?

 

Trees, more trees, and friends who help to plant them: Optimism

So you may have noticed from the steady photo stream lately of me crouched on the ground in dorky hats: I’m doing a lot of tree planting.

I’m one of those people who is always a few minutes late, who meets deadlines the day-of (if that), whose calendar often looks like a tetrus game full up with back-to-back travel. I’m eternally, stubbornly optimistic. I know this interpretation provokes annoyance-to-rage reactions by the timely among you, and yes of course it’s fair to expect that by 41, one should learn her lessons and, say, account for the taxi time en route to meetings, or a day to do laundry between Eugene and Cameroon. But I swear that (almost) every time, I truly believe I’m going to get it right.  Even if I can see that the timing is overly ambitious, when I want something to work, it’s a real psychological challenge to admit that it won’t.  The clock and the calendar will bend to my will.

Of course this isn’t true. But guess what? Carlos shares this stubborn optimism. In fact, early this year when even I questioned our tree planting ambitions, he assured me it was totally doable. Since he’s the one who ends up doing the lion’s share of the work, I just chose to believe him.

The other thing is that Carlos ended up with 75 different species of trees in his little nursery, and I obviously needed at least one of each. And way more than one of most of them.

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75 species and they’re all so purty! Why say “i’ll just take one” when you can say “I’ll take 50 and let’s plant a parcel in Sector Caracara”…

So, long story short: now we are planting a whole lot of trees.

First came the pilons from Barca, 650 of them.

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Then the cocobolos and the cedros from Dos Brazos, 211 of them.

Then 520 little teak

Now we’ve moved on to the awesome diversity of trees that have been in Carlos’s nursery. While a few were from seeds that I’ve collected or friends have given me over the last year, most of these he collected and germinated himself, with a few more or less specific requests from me.

For example, I told him I wanted some Inga – commonly called guaba in Costa Rica. That’s a genus in the legume family, Fabaceae, most of whose members are nitrogen fixing and produce edible seed pods with appealing fruits for wildlife and people. We planted one species last year, Inga golfodulcensis, along a fenceline where the squirrel monkeys frequent. This year I wanted to plant several patches with Inga and poró in steeper areas of the finca, as small ‘islands’ to attract birds and speed up seed dispersal processes, a design found to be effective by researchers looking into cost effective forest restoration strategies in southern Costa Rica.

Carlos managed to round up no fewer than 10 species in the Inga genus. (Well, I contributed one, the most common one.) I think it’s half of the Inga species found on the Osa, and now the search is on for the rest of them….

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Carlos with a sample of the 10 Inga species

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Getting ready to plant our demonstration parcel…one example of each

Meanwhile, the trunk of my poor RAV4 has acquired fine new layers of red mud, mildew, and insect bits as I lug load after trunkload of trees up the hill.

 

And now: the race is on to get everything in the ground as soon as possible so that my trees have a few months of rainy season to get going and stand a chance against the fierce dry season. Which is why it’s so awesome to have friends excited to come help plant them! This past Saturday several of Osa’s most awesome ladies came out for a deliciously cool and rainy morning of planting 130 trees on an erosion-prone slope near the spring. (Sadly we took almost no photos in the light rain…thanks Julieta for these.)

I’m so grateful for this: to have friends who are stoked to be involved, who show up. And to have a project that allows me to be optimistic in a historical moment when that sentiment has become increasingly harder to summon.

10% mortality, and saying goodbyes

I spent a sweaty morning recently taking stock of how the pilón trees we planted back in May are doing. You’ll recall that we brought them to the finca as tiny little clones, with three or four leaves as their only resources in the face of intense sun, intense rain, grazing insects and mammals, fungi….and grass, so much grass to compete with. They got a little dose of fertilizer nearby to jump start things, and as much love as Carlos and I could give between planting teak, fighting off deer and insect attacks in last year’s plantations and carting another 800 trees up the hill.

I walked all the rows counting and observing. Many look lush and are growing fast. Others are hanging in there in a way that makes you say “c’mon little guy, you can do it….” Some were so deeply entwined in tangled grass that I couldn’t find them at first. Fertilizer is just as good for grass as it is for pilón! And about 10% of them were simply gone. Maybe a rotting brown stalk, maybe just the remnant of a jiffy capsule when we poked around where the hole had been.

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A flourishing pilon

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C’mon little guy… you can do it!

10% mortality isn’t particularly bad. I’ve been told it’s within the parameters one might expect in any plantation, even where chemicals are used to kill the competition and control pests. Still, these were our trees. I put most of those little things into the ground myself. Did I do something wrong? Will many more die? I think both Carlos and I felt a bit somber when I gave him the stats.

It’s a reminder that things don’t always thrive, that nature will have her way despite your best intentions and loving care. It hit home I guess, because it’s been a somber time for me in other respects. Last week we had to put my housemate Dani’s dear cat, Pato, to sleep. He was only 5, a beautiful black cat and a beautiful feline soul. Pato was Astro’s buddy (as far as that goes for cats) in Turrialba and for a brief time in Escazu. When I moved across town into the new apartment earlier this year, sharing again with Dani, Pato was part of the package, and it’s been so lovely.

Pato went blind and was diagnosed with feline Hodgkins lymphoma in January; since then it’s been a gentle decline. Dani dedicated herself to ensuring his remaining time was peaceful and comfortable, chineándolo as folks say here. (He happily ate the feline equivalent of daily McDonalds in the end times…) He slept in the sunshine and continued to be a source of joy until the very end.

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mealtime with Pato the gato

Far less final, but still a bit of a bummer, Dani is moving away this month to do her Master’s degree in a fantastic program at U of Florida, Gainesville. I am hopeful that the land of Trump treats her well, and will try not to indulge in much self-pity about this ‘so long for now’ to my best friend here in Costa Rica. Life is nothing if not change and growth. Trees provide all the right metaphors.

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thank you for sharing Pato with me, Dani!

Mamon chino season! And a grafting lesson with my favorite fruit

Glory days in the finca…the mamon chinos are ripe! Everyone, from the squirrel monkeys to the scarlet macaws to the Baird’s tapir to yours truly, is stoked about the brief window when these weird perfect little fruits ripen and bestow their bounty.  It almost makes us forget that the mangos are done.

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These fruits are so popular that Carlos made a scarecrow – or actually a scaremonkey – espantamonos! – to keep our local troupe of squirrel monkeys at bay long enough for me to have a shot at eating a few.

As I wrote in Sol de Osa, the mamón chino is another gift from Asia, where it’s called rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum). Rambut means hair in Indonesian, appropriately enough for its appearance. 15 years ago I worked studying orangutans in Indonesian Borneo, and one of their favorite foods in the forest were wild rambutans. Imagine my delight upon moving to Costa Rica and realizing that this species had been brought over and cultivated with such delicious success.

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There’s little reason to pick favorites unless you’re participating in a permaculture workshop intro game (‘tell us your name, where you’re from and your favorite fruit….’) but, since you asked, I’m going with rambutans.  It’s the whole experience: the aesthetic pleasure of a pile of rubbery-haired fruits, richly red or yellow-pink, perfectly sized for your palm; the momentary taste of earthy and bitter as you break the skin open with your teeth; the suspense before you bite, wondering what the sweet : tart ratio will be and whether the flesh will flake easily off the seed or cling and need to be gnawed away; the finale of flavor and texture; the memories of Borneo. The fact that you can proceed to repeat all of the above steps until there’s a troublingly large pile of husks and seeds at your feet. It’s just a great fruit.

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I have six mamon chino trees in the finca, in Sector Astronium near the Sacred Grove (where most of the dedicated trees are).  They were planted by Freddy, the previous owner, and each one is unique in its precise taste and color.

I want to plant more in other parts of the farm. Basically I don’t ever want to be more than 50 meters from a mamon chino tree. And because the ones I already have are so good, Carlos and I decided to reproduce them with grafting. A graft, as you probably know, is when you take a branch from an adult tree whose genetics you want to reproduce, and vegetatively attach it to another seedling. The host tree doesn’t even need to be the same variety; its value lies not in any fruit but in being a robust seedling that’s already developed root mass, that’s strong and able to immediately pump lots of nutrients and water. Meanwhile, the grafted material, because it comes from a mature tree, begins to give fruit far more rapidly and consistently than if you’d grown something from seed (3 yrs versus 8-10).

For years I’ve heard of and seen and bought grafts, but I’ve never done it myself. Well, that’s precisely the point of all this finca madness, right? So Carlos gave me a little lesson, because of course he’s good at this too:

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This is the graft tree. Carlos cuts the stem just below the first leaves or buds.

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Choosing a ‘scion’ (the tree whose fruit you want!). must be close to same size as your graft tree, and have a few leaves/buds.

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We cut a notch into the graft and insert the scion, which has been trimmed angularly to insert as flush as possible – cambium on cambium – and treated lightly with basic plant growth hormone.

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Then you wrap that whole situation up tight with, in this case, a strip of plastic bag. (electrical tape, aluminum foil, other things work too. high tech.) And then you talk nicely to the little guy and cross your fingers.

Voila! So exciting. Grafts, to me, are yet more proof of just how much trees want to survive and grow. Cut them apart and saran-wrap different individuals back together? Sure, let’s grow! I’m amazed by their creative strategies for resilience in the face of defoliation, penetration, decapitation, drowning, baking, burning, insect hordes….. More on that topic someday soon. Meanwhile, time to eat.

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We may need to make a ladder. As it is, more fruit for the birds!

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The morning’s harvest, nom nom nom

Mangosteens! An Asian fruit tree run

Carlos and I took a drive to the other side of the Golfo Dulce this past weekend. (Driving around with Carlos is like walking around with Carlos, except more dizzying, as he must adjust his running arboreal monologue to the speed with which we pass the trees.) The urgent purpose of this trip was to visit the Golfito´s duty-free mecca El Depósito, in order to replace the tires on Hedi, my RAV4, which in the last month have gone particularly deformed and dangerous-feeling. The more interesting purpose (although the Depósito is a fascinating cultural experience in its own right, as I wrote way back in 2012) was to stop in at the Paradise Botanic Garden just outside the town of Rio Claro, where I’d been recommended to look for diverse and hard-to-find fruit trees.

Robert Beacham and Ines the volunteer

With Robert Beatham and his volunteer, Ines.

The place lived up to and exceeded expectations. Its owner, Robert Beatham, is an octogenarian gringo who’s lived here since the 1960s when he was the chief mechanic for United Standard Fruit back in southern Costa Rica’s banana glory days. Nowadays, he makes a living from his nursery and gardens. He sells rambutan (mamon chino here, Nephelium lappaceum) and langsat (Lansium parasiticum) from the back of his truck in Golfito; as he tells it, local taste for the exotic langsat developed only after word began to spread that it’s a fruity aphrodisiac. He sells fruit tree seedlings and cuttings from a remarkable variety of gingers and heliconias, as well as giving occasional tours.

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A fabulous white torch ginger (native to Indonesia, actually)

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Mangosteen and I forget the name of this flower but it smelled exactly like honeysuckle. Yum.

I went home a happy girl with a trunk full of Asian fruit trees: mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana), langsat, longan (Dimocarpus longan), pulasan (Nephelium mutabile), rambutan and even a durian tree! (NO, I feel no eco-guilt – many of Central America’s most popular fruits are Asian or pan-tropical cosmopolitan anyways: citrus, mangos, bananas, coconut palms…) A sweet, efficient and very slender Polish volunteer printed species labels onto aluminum from old beer cans and told me that she is “transitioning to Breathatarian”. Robert and I must have spent an hour talking about his theories on and natural remedies for autism, cancer and Alzheimer’s. He then very kindly gifted me a salve for lower back pain and sent me on my way. A very fruitful visit, as it were.

bounty from Paradise Gardens

bounty from the Garden, including fruits, herbs, salves and printed instructions for staying cancer free