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.

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. 

Making baby trees!

In May of last year, when community members from Dos Brazos decided to work with Karen (Osa Birds) and me to establish a native species nursery and garden, none of us really knew what we were doing.  Despite the fact that during the year I worked at Osa Conservation I oversaw programs that were collecting and germinating thousands of trees from over 50 species, I never actually DID any of it myself. I wrote pretty proposals and watched Max give our donors nursery tours. I helped students plant trees and thought I understood things way more than I did.

Much like during the two years I worked for CATIE-FINNFOR2, a project whose mission was basically to help small farmers manage, harvest and sell trees. I designed some real neat indicators for that M&E matrix, but was left feeling like I’d still be lost if confronted with a real live plantation.

So, like most things related to my finca, the vivero (nursery) in Dos Brazos is partly an experiment in “doing it myself”. Ourselves. We’ve all been learning as we go, with the help of a few good books (here & here), advice and training from Osa Conservation staff, the wisdom of experience from my assistant Carlos, and lots of mistakes. (That latter, I was taught decades ago in my Harvard environment seminars, we call “adaptive management”….)

And now: we’ve got thousands of baby trees! It’s very exciting. Here’s a brief recap in photos.

We hatched plans back in April 2016 and began to raise funds for a small project

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hatching plans with Ermer, Seidi and Neftali, leaders in Dos Brazos’ community association (2nd, 4th and last from left), Karen of Osa Birds (3rd), and botanist Reynaldo Aguilar (5th)

My donors – YOU ALL, I have no pretense that strangers read this blog – have been amazingly generous, and there’s a lovingly planted and labelled tree in each of your names (or your kids’ names) growing happily in Sector Astronium on Finca Las Tijeretas. Come see it when you can.

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My goddaughter Maisy gets a nene so she can one day make jewelry with its awesome red-and-black seeds

Nursery construction got underway in October 2016, in what seemed to be the ideal open, flat space behind the ACODOBRARTI community tourism association offices.

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building Germinator 1.0

We held a workshop with Max Villalobos of Osa Conservation to improve planning and organization.

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Talking with Max about how to locate and design a nursery

We began collecting the first seeds and putting our first plants in bolsas (bags).

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Then…disaster struck, as rains on the outer edge of Hurricane Otto deluged the Osa for weeks. The slope behind ACODOBRARTI offices simply let loose, covering the nursery site in several meters of red mud and leaving an altered landscape.

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AFTER the flood: our nursery site 😦

We felt a bit dispirited. But not vanquished. Fundraising for the rebuild commenced. See: my amazing friends.

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That is some impressive damage!

In January, I got serious with the community group: either you get seeds germinating by February, or you don’t have a project because we won’t have anything big enough to plant in 2017. See, tree planting in Osa begins in May, as soon as the rainy season begins, and it ends around August. If we plant later, trees don’t have enough time to take root and thrive before summer hits again in December.  (I made that mistake this year, and don’t intend to repeat it.) Dos Brazos rose to the challenge.  The group identified a new nursery site and began to build.

Community members also began collecting seeds from forest trees. For a few species, I ordered seeds from CATIE’s Forest Seed Bank and the Hojancha Cantonal Agricultural Center (CACH) delivered to Puerto Jimenez. (I did this partly because I wanted high quality genetic material for endangered timber trees such as cocobolo, and partly because I like the idea of using seeds from institutions that I worked with…)

This here is The Germinator, where seeds begin their long journey to becoming trees. Embedded in sterilized, constantly moist river sand under hot greenhouse conditions, most species sprout rapidly.

There is nothing more exciting than seeing the first seeds poke out of the sand and realize that, yes, YOU CAN MAKE BABY TREES!

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I got this photo in Whatsapp in mid-February. We were all thrilled!

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Healthy seeds emerge quite rapidly in a well-build and maintained germinator

As I said – we are learning lessons. Some seeds sprout quite exuberantly! It probably wasn’t necessary to spread all 4000+ seeds of guachipelin (Diphysia americana) into 4 square feet.

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The carpet of guachipelin seedlings after a few weeks…very pretty, but no way in hell DB can sell that many trees. It feels like enough for fencelines halfway to San José!

Likewise, the minimum 100 grams order of Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) seed contained approximately 5000 seeds. It looks like ALL of them germinated.

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I’m excited to plant Spanish cedar, which is a vulnerable species whose illegal logging I spent years documenting in Perú. But my finca can’t fit thousands!

Other species didn’t do so well. I am keen to plant roble de sabana (Tabebuia rosea) along my fences, but only a single sprout broke the sandy surface. Could be a problem of the seed or who knows. Luckily they’re blooming all over the peninsula now, so I’m hoping Dos Brazos takes the initiative to collect the seeds.

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why so forlorn, Tabebuia rosea?

Two members of the community group are being paid a standard local wage to oversee nursery operations for now. Meet Alexis and Kembly. They’re awesome.

As the seeds – whether from my order or collected from the surrounding landscape – germinate and begin to grow, the work is now to transplant them from germinator to individual bolsa. This is a meditative task that has its technique. Exposing their tiny roots carelessly is bad, as is overpacking the soil around them. I feel it’s important to undertake transplanting with love.

And there we are: well over a thousand trees are now bagged and beginning to grow their root systems with twice-daily watering and moderated sunshine. Monitoring for munching insects, fungal infections or droopy, dying seedlings is a constant effort.

The positive energy in our little Dos Brazos group grows in parallel with the trees. The positive feedback cycle of watching seeds become sprouts become seedlings is empowering in such a primal way. I feel it too. I can’t wait to close the loop come June by planting these trees in the Finca.

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Karen, Alexis, Andrea and Kembly with the miniature forest of guachipelin behind us

And I dearly hope that Dos Brazos is able to build on this year’s beginnings to create a stable business model for next year’s vivero.  They must learn not only to make babies but to market them to an Osa clientele. Anyone need a few thousand guachipelins? Be in touch!

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A Deluge in Dos Brazos

Costa Rica was hit by its first hurricane in recorded history (165 years) this past Thanksgiving Thursday. Otto – whose name, shared with the country’s noxious pseudo-Libertarian politician Otto Guevara, generated a rousing bout of internet memes before everyone got distracted by the business of survival – was a late season unwelcome surprise. He was upgraded from Tropical Storm not long before touching land and violently raking the border with southern Nicaragua, leaving floods, landslides and at least 10 people dead.

Otto was preceded and followed by heavy rains all throughout the region – up here in Belize, where I waited the storm out on a work trip, it’s been drenched – and as is often the case with hurricanes, it was the simple quantity of water that ended up causing most of the damage. Overflowing rivers swept peoples’ homes and belongings away, over-saturated slopes collapsed in muddy swaths of destruction.

In Osa the damage was mostly done in advance: in the week prior to Otto’s arrival, the Peninsula experienced the worst rain in recent memory. I have heard no reports of deaths, thankfully, but infrastructure and people’s livelihoods will be affected for a long time. And one of the villages to suffer the most was Dos Brazos del Rio Tigre, where as you know I’ve been working with the community association and Osa Birds to establish a native species nursery and garden.

Just as we were making progress! In the last few months, Karen and ACODOBRARTI had drawn up a simple budget and contract to allow all your generous donations to Osa Birds be put to use with a modicum of transparency and accountability. The community obtained permission to use what seemed like an ideal space behind their association’s office for a spacious nursery and beautiful germinator. They bought bamboo posts and had finished framing up both buildings as of just last week. We held an initial workshop to talk about species and workplans. We had even started to bag the first seedlings. Then came the deluge.

The community is so named because it’s nestled between two branches (arms) of the Tigre river…so you can imagine what that looked like after three days of incessant downpour in the headwater hills above. Photos and videos started to trickle down my Whatsapp feed: houses flooded; bridges underwater; main entrance road collapsed; potable water out. And then the news that was only one more of many minor tragedies, but one that was partly mine: our fledgling nursery was gone. All of it – the constructions, the materials, the first seedlings. The river had risen more than anyone had imagined possible and simply swept it all away.

(As for my finca: let’s just say there’s less grass to worry about now. Carlos reports that one of the steep slopes collapsed and funneled literally tons of organic matter and topsoil through my waterfallito, a cascading notch that drains into the Rio Barrigones. The landscape has been slightly rearranged, but it spared the areas where this year’s restoration efforts were focused.)

I’ve been watching and listening from afar, helpless and anxious first in San Jose and then western Belize. But it’s been beautiful to see the solidarity in Costa Rica. Literally every Tico I know is pitching in somehow to help the communities left in ruins by Otto, and down in Osa it seems like every other person is member of some Emergency Committee, helping to organize evacuations or get supplies for residents trapped by bulging rivers and broken bridges. So much compassion and spirit.

In Dos Brazos, community members and friends pooled enough money within 24 hours to pay for a bulldozer to repair the road that had washed out and left them isolated. There was no waiting for any agency to dig them out. But so much more will need to be done.

The community nursery, of course, is just one small part of the losses. I estimate that we’re out at least $1000 in materials and labor to get this project back on its feet in time for 2017 planting season. I’m committed to putting up at least $500 of this and am hoping I can raise matching funds to support rebuilding the nursery and repairing damage to the local association’s office. These funds will primarily support wages for community residents and some building materials.

The horizon has turned ominous since 11/9, and I know that for most of the folks reading, this year end’s donations will be rightly focused on expanding support to organizations that must now lead the resistance to Trump and the cynical minions riding his narcissistic coattails into power: defending basic civil rights, reversing voter suppression policies, fighting the ruinous logic of climate change denial, etc.  I don’t want to divert a penny from that giving. Really. But if, when all that’s done, you find yourself inspired by the hopeful work of Dos Brazos, Osa Birds, Carlos and me on Finca Las Tijeretas (I have a name for the finca now!) and can support in some small way, here’s the link. (Tax deductible.) There will be a tree in your name, and great gratitude in my heart.

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August love stories: Part I: Osa: Falling for the finca

With only three months more of good rain, Carlos and I are on a countdown to get trees in the ground. This month we shifted our focus from Sector Astronium (the site of the birthday plantings and dedicated trees) to Sector Tucán, a descending swath of pasture on the southwest border hidden from sightlines in the rest of the finca by a little ridge into which we’ve now carved a staircase, I mean ‘trail’.  The descent levels off into a lovely hollow ringed by forest and close to the second permanent spring. The particularly copious quality of the Panicum maximum cv. Mombasa (ie. the grass) down here suggests that the right tree species will grow fast and happy.

We decided to put in a parcel of manglillo (Aspidosperma spruceanum), which is a native species that grows well in many habitats, has the most beautiful seeds in the forest, and is currently fetching top dollar on illegal markets around here. This is a fairly traditional albeit tiny plantation: we’re mixing in a few rows of cristobal (Platymiscium curuense), but the idea was to plant the manglillo at high density (~2.5x3m) so that the trees compete with one another to grow straight up for now. Down the line we’ll thin out 30-50% of them so they begin to put on girth and volume.

Setting up this parcel was a triumph of man over Mombasa grass, let’s just say. (Gender intentional: I helped put the seedlings in the holes, but I sure didn’t wield the machete.) I had offered the grass to my neighbor/former owner Freddy in a selfless gesture of support for his cattle grazing needs (= mow it down porfa!), but he couldn’t be bothered to install the fencing to make sure the cows wouldn’t stray off and stomp on our precious seedlings already planted just over the ridge.

The other big activity was designing the finca’s bird monitoring program. Karen Leavelle of Osa Birds and our Dos Brazos community collaborators came out and spent a day measuring and marking off four vaguely linear transects from the western to eastern boundary lines.  Two of these follow the new ‘trail system’ that I drew on a map and Carlos mowed into existence.  Some minor conflict was had about the proper identification of a small, black, grass-dwelling bird that makes (imho) an indistinct chipping noise, but everyone set aside their egos and went for lunch.

I also met Humberto Cedeño, a local miner who spent four days spread out on my river-front gravel bar panning for gold. I can’t say I was super stoked by this, but all water courses in Costa Rica are public, so technically it’s not “my” river to kick him out of… why make enemies? He’s not using mercury, just throwing rocks around. I’m pretty sure he’s disturbing the invertebrate macrofauna, yes, but that somehow seemed like a nuanced point to make in the moment. Anyways he didn’t seem to feel too awkward about the situation. I introduced myself as the owner of the property he was basically standing on, and the conversation immediately turned to what it always does around here: “do you know anybody who might want to buy our family farm?”

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Every trip to the finca is a new adventure in natural history wonderland (see the slideshow at the end here); there’s so much more than I would have imagined in a 12 hectare abandoned pasture. This trip included the sight of tapir tracks leading up from the river to feed under fruiting trees; last trip I found a whole new 30-foot waterfall. (Right!?) Every day we observe new insects, new bird species, new plants whose leaves are being eaten by some new and exotically gorgeous caterpillar. And with every discovery, my love for this tiny patch of the planet that I’m now responsible for grows just a little bit more.

I also put in days on the finca that leave me sun-migrained, soaked in sweat and covered in an unholy mess of scratches and bumps and bites. My back has been a mess lately, and yet on the first day of this latest trip I grabbed a shovel and started right in digging holes to plant manglillo seedlings. I could barely walk that evening. You really showed ‘em, AJ. But still…every hole I dig with my own hands, every sapling I put in the ground, or lovingly tag with a friend’s name and monitor for new leaves, even every painful and itchy moment I suffer later, deepens my love for the place.

So I have been thinking about that love.  And about Borneo. (see Part II)

some cool discoveries of late:::

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40 years, 300 trees, 5 life lessons, part 1: The birthday planting

The first tree planted on my finca this past May 18th was a ron ron. Astroneum graveolens. A big healthy beauty – practically a sapling already – that Reinaldo Aguilar gifted me. The tag of course reads: “for Astro”. We planted it on a knoll overlooking the river below, a spot where someday soon I plan to install a bench. (It’s not only a lovely spot, it’s ideal for resting when you’re halfway up a hill that, I’ve recently learned, used to be called “el Sentonazo” or “the Big Sit” for the position in which you ended up descending its slippery steepness ….)

And from there the ceremonial first siembra [planting] on the finca was a delightful chaos of friends and children from near and far, dashing around purposefully with shovels and seedlings, markers and aluminum tags (“I need a ‘Calophyllum’…’ wait, no, that’s not an Inga golfodulcensis….’). Pity my assistant Carlos, dubbed El Presidente somewhere in there as he valiantly tried to orchestrate us all, or at a minimum to prevent us from wreaking havoc.  I’m still laughing at the stories my visiting American friends told me afterwards of his gentle, linguistically-limited interventions.

Mwende: [tries to remove plastic bag encasing seedling and dirt, all dirt falls off, leaving her holding exposed root] “Oops!”

Carlos: [wrangles tree from her hands and begins to reorganize said dirt in the hole] “Andrea no sabía nada. [Doesn’t need to know a thing.] Happy birthday…happy birthday….”

Over the course of two hours, we got our systems down. Freddy (former owner) shuttled seedlings from the road down the planting site on his ATV, Alexis from Dos Brazos unloaded them, Eli wrote scientific names on tags, folks dug holes in pre-prepared little clearings, trees went into the ground, you put your name and your dedication on the back of the tag; repeat. Carlos and I gave general indications of where to plant what: quick-fruiting Inga and Miconia minutifolia along the edge of the property, next to the neighbor’s brushy regrowth, where they can induce wildlife across the fence; the beautiful endemic flowering shrub Osa pulchra in the shade near the spring; and five other slow-growing native timber species in a diverse mix – Platymiscium curuense (cristobal), Carapa nicaraguensis (cedro bateo), Callophyllum longifolium (cedro maría), Caryocar costaricense (ajo) and Hymenea sp. (a species of guipinol that Reinaldo believes is distinct to the peninsula).

We planted over 150 trees — my friends rocked it! The kids were awesome too. Carlos’s family was there from dawn and the oldest girl, Alison, followed me around most of the morning. Even Freddy’s adorable shy little Emanuel got into it; at one point while they were putting a guipinol seedling in the ground Freddy commented, “the father cut everything down, and now the son is planting.” You said it.  The best kid of all was Sora, Yuki and Christian’s incredibly tranquil 13-month old daughter, who when she wasn’t napping on a plastic tarp was padding about in a water-filled Tupperware bin to keep her cool and away from biting, stinging things. Officially my new parenting heroes.

I also had a very special long-distance delivery for the birthday week: 12 fruit trees – lemons, limes and caimito seedlings – ordered by lovely and logistically intrepid ladies in Europe through friends-of-friends-of-friends (Favorite bit: when Jade in London asked via text a few weeks ago: can you just give me the address of your finca?)

The final two trees on May 18th were a pair of ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) that we put on either side of the future overlook bench.  Originally a Southeast Asian species, ylang-ylang has become a classic tree in the Costa Rican landscape. They don’t grow very tall, but quickly begin to put out limpid pale-green-to-yellow flowers whose fragrance make anyone nearby feel slightly intoxicated with botanical joy.  Diminutive, happy-inducing, and at home anywhere in the tropics: it felt like the perfect tree to plant in memory of our friend Laurie Cuoco.

The other one was dedicated to my maternal grandfather and grandmother, Paul and Naomi Brown: my grandma was as sweet as the perfume of an ylang-ylang, while my unionized electrician grandpa’s lifetime of, shall we just say, ‘thrifty’ ways left an unexpected inheritance that’s helped me to feel financially secure about buying the finca.

Cycles of sacrifice and legacy, of life and death, of destruction and rebirth: already this place is imbued with the richness of metaphors we all share.  We plant a tree remembering a loved one and our sorrow deepens our joy, gives it contours, and that is life. My reasons for coming to Osa in the first place, for leaving it, for returning to take on the project of this denuded land, they are partly about deep sadnesses within me, but they have led to this beautiful moment when I stand here with dear people from across the years and geographies of my life and share in the beginning of a cycle of renewal. I am humbled by the interdependence and so immensely grateful to those who were able to be there for this first siembra.

Help us to be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers. – May Sarton (poet, writer, Unitarian Universalist)

 Please consider contributing to my project with Osa Birds and the community of Dos Brazos to build a native plants nursery and bird garden on the Peninsula.  Gratefully, Andrea

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Andrea, Alexis of Dos Brazos, and Karen of Osa Birds, trying for a tree pose. We’re better at planting trees than doing yoga in rubber boots!

Read on for part two in which I get even mushier about things. But also have some nice pictures.

(**Several photo credits to Eli Black, Karen Leavelle and Lakshmi Kanter.)