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!

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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!