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

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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.

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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.

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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;

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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;

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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…

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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.)

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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.

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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).

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“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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.