Monday, February 22, 2016

A gift from the windstorm

Our hike was almost canceled due to wind. At breakfast on our first full day in Cuerici, we were told it was too windy to walk up in the oak forest. This was unsurprising news, since the wind was still blowing in violent gusts, just as it had been doing all night. The wind forecast was not looking promising for a hike for a few days, so our walk was put on hold. Luckily for us, by lunchtime the weather was surprisingly calm, and our hike was put back on the schedule for the afternoon.
            We headed up the mountain led by Don Carlos, the owner of Cuerici, who may also be Santa Claus’s younger Costa Rican brother. He would stop frequently to teach us about what we were seeing, and with Erika to translate,  it quickly became clear that Don Carlos knows a lot about his forest home. The beginning of the trail goes through 40 and 60 year old secondary forest that had been logged by Don Carlos’s grandfather. The forest was lush and green, but there were no oak trees, only the fast growing jaoul. People say that once you cut an oak forest, it never can come back. This is true if you are thinking about “never” in terms of a human lifespan. The oak forest won’t return in our lifetime or the lifetime of our grandchildren, but with hundreds of years, the mighty oaks can return.
            When we get into the primary oak forest, it is stunningly gorgeous and unlike any place I’ve seen before. The trees are tall and strong, with moss clinging to trunks and draping off branches, while bamboo and palms grow in the understory. The forest still needs some help though, since many of the palms that used to be abundant had been cut down. Don Carlos is working on restoration of these palms, and may be the only one who is doing a project like this.  He’s keeping track of what works and what doesn’t to help other people who may want to do similar restorations.
            The path continued to head upwards, and Don Carlos soon pointed out that we were around the transition area where the lower altitude species switch to the higher altitude species for the two species of oak and the two species of bamboo that grow in the forest.  He also passes around two different species of mosses that are growing in this area. The moss is important for collecting water, which I can tell it is very obviously good at from feeling the damp moss samples. One of the species is yellow and stringy, and Don Carlos tells us that people will harvest oak forests just for this moss. Erika made us guess what the moss was used for, and we guessed bedding, medicine, and water absorption before she told us it is used as fake hay for nativity scenes. In the past, they would cut down the whole oak to harvest this moss and use the tree for charcoal.
            As we stopped to talk a little farther up, I noticed that the sunlight was glowing through a very fine mist of water. The sun made the water seem golden and magical as it drifted down through the tall trees. Despite this image of the mist still in my head as we reached the mountain overlook, I was so surprised to see a rainbow arching over the peak. As we stood there looking for miles across the mountain range, the rainbow became clearer and I could just begin to make out a faint double rainbow right above the first.
            The forest was just as gorgeous on the way down, and Don Carlos continued to teach us, pointing out the bamboo that hasn’t flowered since 1992. It is common for bamboo to have long periods between flowerings, but no one was keeping track before the last flowering, so we don’t know when it will flower again. All the bamboo will flower at once when it does, even bamboo taken from the mountain that is now far away in greenhouses across the globe. After flowering, all the bamboo will die, making room for other understory plants to grow before new bamboo shoots up.
            Back at the station, a rainbow had followed us down, arching right over the roof of the smaller building, making the view from the porch even greater than normal. I suddenly realized that we had only seen the rainbow at the lookout because our hike was postponed. If we had gone in the morning, the sun would have been shining the other direction and any potential rainbows would have been on the other side of the mountain. The windstorm didn’t ruin our walk at all, it made it so much better with the gift of some rainbows.
Erin Gashott
Grinnell College

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