Photo Credits: Hayley Stutzman
8:00 am on a Wednesday morning found 8 students, 2 professors, a TA, and a driver squeezed into a van, bumping along the road away from Las Cruces Biological Station. We spent the first part of the ride watching out the window and playing various car games from both the US and Costa Rica. When the paved road gave way to dirt and gravel we tried not to slide into each other and admired the driver’s skill at zooming along these steep, winding roads. There was a feeling of excitement in the car; we didn’t really know what to expect but it was a change from the normal routine and promised adventure.
As we passed coffee fields and small, colorful houses we saw groups of people, from young children to adults, standing or sitting along the side of the road and watching us as we rumbled by. It made me feel like a foreigner. Mau told us they came to help pick coffee. When someone asked about child labor, he stated simply that the kids help their parents earn some extra money. I thought about how different their lives are from those of the 10 year olds at home, who spend their time at organized sports practices and summer camp.
Up at the station, while we got a few introductions to the farm, Pablo, a visiting professor, gathered branches from surrounding trees and bushes and laid them on the porch. We knew the drill. We differentiated between simple and compound leaves, debated branching patterns, looked through magnifying glasses at little white dots in between the veins, and crushed the leaves to smell them. After Pablo had helped us determine the characteristics he would tell us the family. We had to ask him to repeat the names a couple times – Moraceae, Passifloraceae, Zingiberaceae. We saw plants in the fig family, the coffee family, and the palm family and tried to remember how to tell them apart.
After pulling on rubber boots and filling up water bottles, we squeezed through a gap in the fence and tromped off into forest, Mau and Pablo in the front, Mario (our TA) in the back, and the 8 students in between. As we got further into the forest, the world around us changed. It got cooler and darker, the colors endless shades of green or brown, the occasional ray of sunlight highlighting a clump of leaves or patch of dirt. I couldn’t get enough of the forest and, as we walked, tried to simultaneously look at the canopy and between the trunks and still not trip over roots in the path. The amount of life in all directions was amazing, ants marching across the path, huge strangler figs towering over us, orchids, bromeliads, and vines clinging to branches, fungus growing on roots. A little while later we heard a sound like metal screeching on metal and stopped short. None of us had ever heard anything like it. Mau told us it was the bell bird-probably a juvenile practicing his call. We stood and listened to the unearthly sound for a few more minutes, craning our heads in search of the bird. The noise rang out even more in the otherwise quiet jungle, a welcome change from the constant buzz of cicadas we heard in the forests around Las Cruces. When we started walking again, the path began to slope upwards. I appreciated the plant identification stops as a chance to catch my breath. If we had already covered this particular family, Pablo pointed to a plant or passed out small clippings and had us guess the name. Sometimes we would figure it out with a couple hints and other times we would never get there and Pablo would explain what to look for next time. An uneven base on a leaf that looked like it came from a banana plant identified a Heliconiaceae. A leaf with a joint that helped it follow the sun was a Marantaceae, or a prayer plant.
We had just started walking again when a loud rustling came from the canopy up ahead. Wandering ahead cautiously, with Mao at the front scanning the trees, a few people caught sight of a monkey swinging through the branches. Soon we had caught up with the troupe and there were monkeys all around us, a mix of white-faced capuchins and the larger, almost red-colored spider monkeys. The capuchins quickly continued on their way, leaving the group of spider monkeys above us. We watched in fascination and amazement as they jumped from limb to limb, one with a baby riding on its back. They chirped and screeched, some sitting above us, shaking limbs, ripping them off and throwing them down at us. Mao told us they probably weren’t used to humans in their territory, that we were just another primate invading their space. While we watched them, we peppered Mao with other questions - what do they eat? How long do parents take care of children? Are the members of the group all related? I was thrilled at this opportunity to see truly wild monkeys in their natural habitat. Before coming to Costa Rica, I had only ever seen them in small cages. But even Pablo and Mao, who seemed to know everything about the forest, were excited because spider monkeys are both endangered and highly mobile. They move constantly to maintain a fresh supply of the fruits and leaves that they eat and we were just lucky enough to have our paths cross. Eventually, as the monkeys gave up on scaring us away and moved on themselves, we started up the path again, already feeling satisfied with the hike.
The trail continued steepening. Eventually we had to put away our field notebooks to make use of our hands as we scrambled over rocks and clung onto trees. The lush green forest gave way to a shorter, paler bamboo forest. Then, abruptly, we piled into a clearing that looked out over a valley towards the Talamanca Mountains and a huge national park that extends all the way to Panama. From our vantage point, all we could see was canopy, no roads or roofs or any sign of humans at all, just the green folds down below and the grey clouds floating above our heads. It struck me for the first time how rare such an experience was, to be surrounded by forest as far as the eye could see. In my experience, it has been special to even be out of earshot of a road. As I hike and enjoy the views and inspect plant venation and breathe the clean air, I feel incredibly lucky that these kinds of places still exist and even more so that I get to see them. And I worry that future generations won’t get the same opportunities. But that is why we are here, meeting inspirational people with similar concerns who are working to protect this wealth of beauty and biodiversity. As I perched myself on a rock and took out my lunch I also realized that, sometimes, it is enough to sit at the top of a mountain eating gallo pinto and soaking in the world around you.
Nicki Oppenheim, Washington University in St. Louis