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

One of my favorite days ever

May 31st was one of my favorite days ever. That blithe hyperbole is such an American formulation, but I’m going to use it here with intention, because it is rare and superlative-worthy to have moments when your life feels like it coheres and comes full circle. Planting cedar and cocobolo with Dos Brazos community members and friends was all that.

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Yeah that’s how I felt about things all right! (also, aren’t those removable sleeve thingies awesome? $2 each at the local hardware store.)

First, because one year after Karen and I began the process of raising money for a native species nursery and garden with the community of Dos Brazos, we found ourselves parked at that very nursery, loading 200 baby trees into the trunk of the car before heading out to the finca to plant them, accompanied by the community nursery managers Kembly and Alexis and DB’s inimitable Peace Corps volunteer Jackie.  Yes! We made it happen! (Look at these trees only 3 months ago…. And at the nursery after Hurricane Otto…)

 

Second, because these 200 trees aren’t just any species. They are two of the best timber trees in the New World tropics: Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) and cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa).  The former is closely related to mahogany, not a “true” cedar, although its scent properties have indeed made it a favorite lining for cigar boxes. Cocobolo, meanwhile, is a gorgeously hued, dense wood, coveted by artisans and furniture makers. Almost all species within the genus Dalbergia – found in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and usually called rosewood in English – share these qualities.

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my lovely little Dalbergia…someday I may sell you for lots of money to Chinese merchants

For my entire career with the Environmental Investigation Agency – six years in DC and now two years based down here – I’ve been working on exposés and policies and enforcement and governance measures to stem the global flow of illegal timber. Under my lead at EIA, we documented million-dollar trade streams of both Spanish cedar (from Peru) and rosewood (from Madagascar). These species are now listed by the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) after having been pillaged across most of their natural range. Between 2008 and 2015, the Chinese demand for period-replica red-brown wooden furniture became so voracious that hong mu beds made from Malagasy rosewood were selling in Beijing malls for over one million dollars.

I worked for years on the illegal logging and trade in Spanish cedar before I ever had a chance to hang out with a living Cedrela tree. Same with Dalbergia. So you can perhaps imagine the simple joy of kneeling out there in the red mud and hot sun with my friends to plant a few hundred on my own finca.

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Planting crew! Carlos, Karen, Kembly, Alexis, Jackie and me

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My planting pattern. Green squares are pilón, orange squares are cocobolo, and yellow are cedro. It’s important to keep the Cedrela well spaced, as this species is plagued by the shoot-boring caterpillar Hypsipila grandella . Only distance, interspersed vegetation and luck can keep it at bay. 

The 2017 tree planting extravaganza begins!

Carlos (El Presidente) wanted me to call this blog “Lost between the lines”, which would have been the perfect title during the first few days of our planting prep, when we ended up feeling more or less like I look in the picture below at the end of multiple sweaty afternoons spent blundering through thick tufts of dull-razor-edged pasture grass on uneven terrain, trying to arrive at the best way to create straight parallel rows of evenly spaced 3-meter holes.

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Good times! I haven’t used my 7th-grade geometry skills this much in years. I still don’t quite understand why my original design didn’t result in 3m spacing between lines, but I’m sure it has something to do with hypotenuses and acute angles.  I dreamt about grass grids for several nights running.

Carlos was even more perplexed by my vision than I was. I thought introducing an old-school compass to the scene would help matters, but soon realized that he is about as comfortable using compass bearings as I am using a machete. We can hack our way through it, but it’s not the most efficient way of doing business.

Finally we got a right angle between two transects of string set up across the parcel area. At that point I decided I just needed to step back and let Carlos roll with whatever system worked best for him. It’s already clear that he and I have different styles of learning, it’s logical that we had different approaches to line-making.

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hacking hopefully straight lines in the broiling sun, yeeha!

Well, we got the lines done. Then we marked them with stakes, at least the first few rows.

Then we got the holes dug. (And by “we” I mean Carlos, since after I dug 65 holes on the first planting day, my hands began to seize up and I had to submit to the reality that I have carpal tunnel and nerve problems and if I want to continue to subsidize my finca habit with consulting work, I need to be able to type. Hold a phone. Things like that.) Lotsa holes. About 800 or so holes …for now.

Then we planted! This first round of 2017 planting is a mixed plantation dominated by pilón (Hieronyma alchornoides), or zapatero, a native species that grows well in nutrient-poor, acidic, iron-heavy soils like mine and is often recommended for restoring degraded areas. I like pilón as a multipurpose tree – it’s got pretty foliage and its seeds are popular with wildlife, which will draw out the birds and mammals from my neighbor’s forest; it grows relatively quickly for a native hardwood, and its wood is lovely and durable, if slightly tough to work with. I like its market prospects down the line.

I bought the pilón seedlings from a commercial forestry company, BARCA, which has large teak holdings in southern Costa Rica and sells/exports its clones throughout the region. The fact that they’re working with pilón suggests that they also think it’s a promising native timber.

Commercial clones are sold real small, in these things called “jiffys” that are basically little bags of sphagnum moss enclosed in gauze. They retain water like nothing else, and are a fantastic environment for seeds to germinate or – in the case of clones – little stems to regenerate and develop roots. They’re far lighter and easier to handle than bagged seedlings, which makes transport and planting simpler (I brought home all 650 in the back of my little RAV4).

The downside is that they are small! Our little guys only had a few leaves on them. Which means a bit more maintenance in the field, and higher possibility for stochastic events like a grazing armadillo to cause mortality. We shall see how it pans out.

It took us 14 days to get all the pilón in the ground, lost-between-the-lines and all. I learned new contours of the finca as we mowed the grass to lay out the terrain. I used a hell of a lot of sunscreen. My arms and hands are nicked to hell, I have dirt deep under my nails and I haven’t felt this exhausted from physical labor in years. It’s such a good kind of tired.

Next up: teak and dozens of native species from both Dos Brazos and Carlos’s nurseries!

 

The final cows

On May 25th we kicked the final cows out of Finca Las Tijeretas.

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Adios! You’ve had a good run, my bovine friends.

To be clear, we had invited them in.  This year I’m planting 1500 trees in Sector Tórtola, a broad gentle slope near the main road – the best spot, really just about the only spot, where all the conditions align for a commercial timber parcel – and by late April the rains had begun, the Panicum maximum “mombaza” grass in this whole sector was above my head and growing strong. The idea of hacking out over a hectare (2.5+ acres) to plant tiny trees was daunting.

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Just picture mowing 1500 m2 of this stuff to plant trees 15 centimeters tall

Panicum maximum indeed. I asked my neighbor and former owner of the finca, Freddy ‘Gordo’ Jimenez, if he wanted to put some of his cows back on the pasture for a few weeks. Freddy, I am learning, is a man who never misses an opportunity to do a slightly shady business deal, so he promptly showed up with cows and horses. It was only later that we realized they weren’t actually HIS cows and horses. Yes, that’s essential Freddy, renting out my pasture to other people for his profit.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m fond of Freddy (here with his son Emmanuel). Good thing he gave me a GREAT deal on the finca back in 2015, or I’d be less forgiving of his shall we say ‘foibles’.

Whatever. I got the main thing I wanted – less grass. Thinned out, tamped down, possible for Carlos to mow without destroying his machine and endangering his limbs. The cows got amazing feed for a month, including the pick of my mango crop, their only shade tree. They shat a lot and covered the area in natural fertilizer. Everyone was happy.

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Sorry, there are two shade trees: the mango and this laurel (Cordia sp.). In case you wondered about the value of having a few trees in your pasture, this photo is a good reminder.

And then…the grass was greener on the other side of the fence. Literally. These sayings come from somewhere, people. Carlos and I had divided the area in half to protect my newly repaired road from becoming a mud wallow, and he herded the livestock into the top section as we began to prep for planting in the bottom.

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What happens to a dirt road when you let cows have their way with it.

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The mowing begins in sector Tórtola!

But grass grows fast. The calves began to stare longingly through the barbed wire and then began slipping through Carlos’s well-built fence. Cattle and baby trees don’t go well together! It was time for them to go. End of an era.

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Go ahead, make those adorable calf eyes at me. You’re still not getting through my gate….

Moving back to Osa (kind of)

I’ve been toying with the idea of moving back to Osa for a while now. I want to be on the finca more: I don’t love the rhythm of coming down from San José once every 6 weeks for 10 days, getting no computer/consulting work done while I root around in the dirt a bit, and then returning to traffic and good internet while Carlos does all the work. It’s intense and guilt-inducing both towards the finca and towards my employers. (You know me, I’m good at guilt.)

That said, it’s taken me a while to come to terms with the idea of renouncing what social life I’ve managed to establish in San José to return to a land of permanent rubber footwear (boots or flip flops.) You’re not attending any concerts, movies or cultural events in Puerto Jimenez, not even a weekly farmer’s market with jars of over-priced artisanal pesto or cheese that has flavor.  And if you’re not married or rigorously single in PJ, you’re liable to get yourself into trouble; pueblo chiquito, infierno grande.

But…. I got ambitious with my tree planting ideas for 2017! And I got robbed a few times in my Escazú (San José) apartment late last year. So, back in January, I moved into a far safer and cheaper situation with dear friend and roommate Daniela, which freed up my budget to think about renting in Osa as well. Not long afterwards I decided that it wasn’t fair to leave so much of the fun to Carlos. I needed to head south for this planting season.

I’m not calling this a full move nor a permanent one. (You know me, I’m grrrrrrrreat at commitment….) But I’ll be here lots for the next six months, when I’m not back in San José or on work/personal travel.

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La casita amarilla! The view from the road

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And the view from the porch! usually there are two white horses hanging out in that pasture.

So: this is my new sort-of house!  It’s just down the road from the finca. It’s pretty darn cute. My landlord, Rick, is a retired and laid-back gringo whose three large, quick and loud pure-bred Malinois dogs are way more effective than any alarm system or lock. They’re sweethearts once they know you, but they race up and down the fence thoroughly intimidating anyone who passes by.

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Rick has the best stories ever. Come visit and hear for yourself about hanging out with anyone from Hunter Thompson to ravens in Alaska. But wait outside the gate when you come… it’s definitely “cuidado perros bravos” around here!

It is perfect…except that it’s on the wrong side of the Barrigones River. I’m 200 meters on the far side of the crossing, which means that, well, if it rained hard near the headwaters up in Corcovado, I either can’t leave, or I’m stuck at home, until the river goes down.

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That’s how it looked for 2 hours on the afternoon of my birthday last week. Can’t wait until the TRUE rainy season kicks in.  It goes down quickly but….

Also, the internet situation is kind of more complicated than I anticipated. [Long boring explanation deleted.] Let’s just leave it at this: if I’m even less communicative than normal, please have some patience and try calling me on the old cell phone. I’m in the process of getting a US number that will forward directly to the cell so that I don’t have to rely on Skype while I’m out here in the boondocks.

We shall see how this whole “Trying to be an international consultant from San Miguel de Cañaza” thing goes! At least for now, putting my own sweat equity into getting 1500 trees planted feels important and right.