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


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.




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.


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.


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….


Carlos with a sample of the 10 Inga species


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.


A flourishing pilon


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.


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.


thank you for sharing Pato with me, Dani!

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.

baby cocobolo

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.

DB planting day group 50p

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. 


Six weeks after May’s hectic birthday week despiche – and a subsequent victory lap around the U.S. holding work meetings by day and partying by night, from North Kakalaka to SoCal to DC to Brooklyn – I was overdue to put in some long hours on the finca. And give my poor liver a break! I mean, I can proudly say I rocked my 40th, but after a month of near-constant socializing, plane travel and inadequate sleep, my body was beginning to not-so-subtly suggest that it would like me to act my age for a little while.

Time for some clean green living. Time for trees! I went down and spent ten days in Osa, house sitting for Karen, working in the finca by day and making finca databases by night, hanging out with almost no one other than her dogs, her lovely Nicaraguan neighbor…and of course, my amazing assistant Carlos.

First things first: checking on all the trees. I was delighted to see that El Presidente has kept every single one of our May 18th beauties alive, with the possible exception of that poor guy whose roots were indecently exposed (“Andrea doesn’t need to know anything”, remember?). He’s patiently rerouted the leaf cutter ants and gently applied fertilizer and whacked the weeds back where necessary.  Some of them are already putting out limpid new leaves like nobody’s business. Others are clearly focusing their floral energies on developing root structure. A few seem to struggling with too much sun, or are making caterpillars very happy, but are still in the game.

Next, more trees! Carlos and I and Alex, a Dos Brazos community member, drove my valiant new/old RAV4  over an hour out along what vies for Costa Rica’s worst road to reach my former office – the lands of Osa Conservation. Things are changing at OC, and the acting ED, Max, had offered to donate seedlings to my cause. (Well, I asked, since they have the most diverse native species nursery on the Peninsula – for now! – although the trees are destined almost exclusively for their own lands.) We were like the (nerdy botanical geek) kids in a (rather monochromatic) candy store, picking out some 80 trees of 23 species – hard-to-find, bird-friendly, monkey-friendly, or otherwise emblematic – that will contribute to more rapidly diversifying my finca’s forest as it returns to life.

Accepting these trees from OC felt like a small but real act of reconciliation. And I found it in myself to plant trees dedicated to the two people who threw that great and painful wrench in my life plans back in 2013.

Then, dedications! Many of these new trees were planted in name of our project donors and my own family, who I sort of forgot to plant for back in May. (Oops. Nothing personal, my deceased cat just came first…) One of my new favorite activities is matching tree to person, deciding who should be dedicated what. Every tree is a metaphor of growth, character, approach to life; every species calls up a unique set of traits. Nazareno’s slow-growing, valuable wood is beautifully purple: clearly my friends’ youngest children.  Cenízaro bestows a generous and friendly shade in its ever-widening circle: my mentors and dearest hosts. Sapote and ojoche nurture communities of both animals and people with nutritious fruits and seeds: moms and dads!

Or sometimes the decision is just intuitive. There are specific emotional logics in the leaf shapes and patterns; I sense the tree’s gestalt and feel clear that my brother should be represented by a Jorco. Right. I acknowledge this is sorta nutty. I’m okay with that.

Finally, tag time! Carlos and I spent hours ensuring that every tree planted thus far had an etiqueta with a species and a number. Tree, date of planting, where was it from, who planted it, to whom is it dedicated? It’s all in my Tree Database now. I’m up to P330.

My friends at the first siembra were, it turns out, quite charming in their dedication choices, with only a few utterly mystifying tags . (Seriously: who planted all those trees with the nom-de-plume of “J. Lo”?)


Wouldn’t you like to see what kind of tree I’d match YOU with? Find out by making a contribution 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


40 years, 300 trees, 5 life lessons, part 2: The lessons

Apparently the combination of Big Birthday and trees makes me want to wax contemplative.  I kind of hate the idea that “40” is some milestone – especially one that divides the country of youthful hijinks from a land of sobriety, wrinkles and restorative yoga – but it’s far too ingrained in our collective brains to treat as “just another birthday”. When my dad turned 40, we began to count backwards…. (it was a joke, people – but now he’s 8.)

So, okay, just a few life reflections. It’s better than buying a sportscar. (BTW I did just buy a car! a mildewy RAV4 from 2001! how’s that for a half-assed midlife crisis?) The epic birthday week in Osa (see part 1 of this post) left me thinking about a few durable lessons I’ve wrung from 40 years.

You get out of things what you put into them

In grad school I was elected to the Forestry Club, a small group of folks charged with the carrying the legendary torch of FUN (and let’s be honest, drinking) at Yale F&ES. It fell to us to organize the TGIF happy hours and big school-wide social events each semester – a great honor, to be sure, one only questioned when you were picking up half-full red Solo cups from Bowers auditorium floor at 3am after everyone else had already left the Halloween Party.  From FC, from Burning Man, from my beautifully creative community of party-throwers in DC and the professional event-planners in my life, I’ve learned that the effort you put into an event is always more than recouped. (Even if nobody consciously notices those menu details you slaved over, right Emily?)  It gave me such an absurd amount of pleasure to show off the Osa to friends who had never been to Costa Rica before, and any amount of planning was worth it.

I’m pretty sure that’s the same with most things in life. My most rewarding professional experience thus far has been those years at EIA, into which I put my blood, sweat, tears, weekends and dating life, but I am proud every day of what we achieved and grateful for the career options it’s given me.  And so it will be with this finca. I have no doubt whatsoever that I will waste gobs of money and effort over the next decade because I don’t really know what I’m doing…but that process is itself much of the payback. (Also back to the parties…there will be more FincaFests to come! Team 2016 did a great scoping job.)

The world is so not what I want it to be, but it is possible to make change 

I wrestle deeply with an environmentalist’s particular strain of indulgent defeatism. Climate change, rising oceans, disappearing species, poisoned ecosystems, attendant social paroxysms, etc.  The planet feels like a grim place to bring children into.  Aging seems to make it easier to slip into facile cynicism than tap into righteous rage.

How to flex your sense of agency, not simply turn and turn in the widening gyre? Perhaps restoring this small corner of the world to forest is simply my own fantasy of control over uncontrollable change, but it feels more like spiritual engagement. Confronted with the contemporary physical, social and psychological landscape, willing one’s positive visions into reality is a practice of hope.


Sharing things and working together makes the heart grow bigger

Yeah I know, this is straight out of “everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten.” I’m increasingly okay with a hokey factor. This past week I had friends with me from childhood, from college, from grad school, from DC, from Costa Rica, all hanging out and working together… it was kind of like a wedding party, except we were all gross and sweaty and wearing this freaking awesome commemorative t-shirt designed by Yuki.

I haven’t gotten married, I don’t have that nuclear family thing going on, but damn if I haven’t managed to build a fabulous web of people around me.  And we planted 150 trees together in two hours! It took even El Presidente two days to do the same number on his own. Now everyone feels invested in the outcome of these trees and this place.

Even more: the circle we’ve created goes beyond the May 18th crew and into the community of Dos Brazos, now beginning to build a nursery with funds raised by my friends and family. A nursery that will contribute to our forest restoration work and to Dos Brazos’ local economy and community pride (please read more and give here).  That my finca can be a wellspring for this nascent web of community and friendship and support…I love that so much.

Corollary: Asking for help is really hard and really powerful. Note to self: do it more.


“Real” versus “beautiful” – the Velveteen Rabbit and my yoga teacher got it right

I have caused myself so suffering in this life by obsessing over physical appearances. I not infrequently wish I could teleport back to 1989 and tell poor 13-year old Andrea staring naked into the mirror, please, please don’t go down that rabbit hole. If I could, I would show her the pictures from this week.  Of course you want to feel like you “look good for 40” or whatever…but actually, we were all quite busy laughing, eating and drinking well and doing beach yoga with no mirrors around, playing in dirt and telling stories and being really real people, and who cares that we all look kinda shiny and red and bug-bitten and are wearing socks up over our pants legs in most pictures? We also look real pleased with life. It’s the Osa Look.


Trees are awesome….but okay, sloths are cuter


Hi! My name is Chewbaca the baby sloth. My little buddy Anakin is napping in this basket next to me.


sloth and flower

Oh did I mention that I eat flowers for breakfast? Now what were you saying about that tree? (Thanks to Eli Black for the photos and obsession. Photos taken at KSTR in Quepos..)


And finally, one last lesson that I’m still working to internalize (thanks Brett for breaking this down to me as the essential 40s attitude): Call it the honey badger principle. Stop giving such a shit. Life is far, far too short to spend it ruminating over what others think of you and your actions, or what you think of yourself compared to others, or how things could have been more perfect, how you should have done the party on a different day from the planting, should have read more reviews of the Lodge before renting, should have ensured everyone saw monkeys and ocelots, should have tested your music systems beforehand, should have helped Becky more with her lost luggage, should have spent more time with each and every one of the beloved people who showed up….  Yeah, okay, all of those things are true. But “shoulds” are toxic. Everything’s always imperfect; what can you do beyond acknowledge the loss and accept the learning that it brings? And celebrate the hell out of what time we do have together in the gorgeous green corners of this crazy planet.

(But PS, Team Siembra…. I’m still not calling it Finca El Despiche!)


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