Although night temperatures reached close to freezing due to the high altitude, Don Carlos’ hospitality made this station feel very cozy and comfortable. Don Carlos also imparted some of his vast knowledge of the forest (he has lived there for over 25 years having bought the land from his grandfather and uncles), and he led very clear and informative tours of his farm.
On a hike through the oak forest with Don Carlos, we observed high altitude plant adaptations. For instance, many of the leaves had tiny hairs (or pubescence) on them, which disrupt the windflow, thus creating a boundary layer or microclimate around the leaves and subsequently reducing the plant’s moisture and heat loss. Other adaptations that we observed included small leaves, high branching rates, and more acute leaf angles. The purpose of the acute leaf angles is to reduce light capture at mid-day when the sun is overhead, thereby reducing water loss. The small leaves and high branching rate both minimize wind effects. Additionally, we learned about the two dominant species of oak and bamboo. Interestingly, the lower altitude oak and bamboo species have similar ranges, switching to the higher altitude species at the same point along the trail.
During our stay at Cuericí, we also had the opportunity to catch, kill, clean, and eat some of the trout raised on the farm. I was nervous to participate since I have always thrown back any fish I caught as I felt guilty about killing them. First, in order to trap some of the trout, two students dragged nets along the raceways, and then the trout were removed from the water one by one to be killed. I killed the last trout, first breaking a tendon in front of the gills and then inserting my fingers into its gills, quickly snapping its head back. My biggest worry was that the trout would suffer while I was struggling to break its neck, so I tried to make its death as swift as possible. Overall, I found this experience of catching and cleaning trout very valuable, as I now feel more competent and self-sufficient. Additionally, our trout lunch was delicious, and it was satisfying and reassuring to know the exact history of our meal.
One of the biggest lessons I learned at Cuericí was the importance of maintaining a balance between conservation and use of the land. It was inspiring to spend time with Don Carlos, who believed so strongly in the value of conservation, dedicating much of his life to the maintenance and preservation of this unique oak forest. He led a simple life and gathered many resources from the land, using the freshwater to raise trout, harvesting blackberries, and removing fallen oak trees to construct new buildings for the biological station. In the future, he plans to start an organic garden on recently abandoned pastureland, which would supply his family and the station with fresh produce. Using the land in this manner reduces inputs to the station, thereby making it more sustainable. I am grateful to Don Carlos for sharing so much about his ethics, and I want to incorporate his ideas, values, and perspective into my future endeavors.