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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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.

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.

i'm so happy planting cedar!

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

cocobolo y cedro pattern

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.