Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Art of Attentiveness

"Pay attention to your surroundings; there's always something going on and, if you're lucky, you can observe it."  This advice, offered to us by the Wilson Botanical Garden's resident naturalist on our first day at the Las Cruces Biological Station, has shaped my time in Costa Rica thus far.  This country is bursting with life, from the crowded avenues of San Jose to the subtler green mosaic of the forest.  In the United States, we are taught to turn our attention inward, but the most rewarding aspect of my time here has been learning to pay attention to what's around me.  

Our courses have been crucial to the development of our attentiveness.  The first two weeks of classes have involved lectures on insect and plant taxonomy and identification, the history of Costa Rica, and the sociopolitical aspects of coffee farming in the tropics.  Our first week here at Las Cruces, we went on a night hike to see what crawls and flies around the Wilson Botanical Garden under the cover of darkness.  The most attention-grabbing creature that we found was the tailless whip scorpion, a.k.a. the spider-like arachnid that Mad Eye Moody used to demonstrate the Unforgiveable Curses in the fourth Harry Potter movie.  Despite their fearsome appearance, whip scorpions are relatively harmless to humans and quite shy; we only found one after half an hour of searching, and even though we all shrank back from it, my instructor was able to simply pick one up and hold it.  

On other group hikes, our instructor has stopped us to point out the small wonders of the forest.  For instance, during one of our first hikes, he showed us marks in the dirt of the trail that are made by mountain lions.  It's still difficult for me to discern the difference between a cat mark and a footprint from the person in front of me, but I'm working toward being able to identify other signs of big cats, such as the odor they use to mark their territory.  Other points of interest during our hikes have included discussions of tropical flora, such as the strangler fig, which grows down from the boughs of its host and grows up to surround the unfortunate host, killing it not by strangulation, but by stealing all the nutrients and water from the soil; we have also stopped to observe birds such as the crested guan and insects like army ants.   As a result, when I walk through the forest surrounding Las Cruces, I have begun to take note of what's going on around me.  Instead of just looking at the forest and seeing a sea of green, I perceive epiphytes growing on a tree, or ants crawling on a bush.  I have enough background knowledge to question what these organisms' relationships are to one another--are they mutualistic partners, or is one gaining a benefit through commensalism while the other gains nothing? 

While my newfound attention to detail hasn't found me anything as impressive as the tailless whip scorpion on my own yet, simply paying attention has led me to smaller, but no less important discoveries, starting with the everyday experiences that I usually take for granted.  For example, an assignment to collect and identify insects transformed our common room here at Las Cruces into a menagerie.  Any and all insects that flew in our windows at night only to become trapped in the window, usually an object of mild revulsion or plain indifference, became a daily source of wonder.  We observed (and competed to catch) moths, katydids, and beetles.  My favorite common room discovery was when I walked into the room, fresh out of the shower, to find a beautiful member of the family Nymphalidae, about the size of my hand, sitting on the window which, with the help of a couple other students, I was able to catch and subsequently identify.

However, in my opinion, the most important insights I have gleaned are those into the connections between politics/policy and the environment.  This past week, we had the opportunity to visit a family-owned coffee plantation where the effects of international coffee prices and lack of government protection for coffee growers is evident.  Don Roberto, the owner of the cafetal we visited, is responsible for all aspects of growing and storing his coffee.  The roasted coffee beans that one buys at the grocery store are a world apart from the raw coffee bean.  Before processing, coffee beans are nestled inside cherry-like berries, making it necessary to wash and ferment the berries to degrade the organic material covering the bean.  In order to create the best-tasting product, Don Roberto and other coffee growers must ensure that the fermentation conditions are just right, otherwise they will lose some of their precious yield.  The beans are then dried and can be stored for up to several months.  When Don Roberto is ready to sell some of his product, he must shell the beans, which involves smashing them by hand in what is essentially a giant mortar and pestle.  The shelled beans are then sent to a roaster.  The bottom line is that coffee growing is a lot of work.  Yet, coffee is not all that Don Roberto grows.  In addition to coffee, he produces maize, yuca, cilantro, cinnamon, oranges, avocados, bananas, and plantains in addition to coffee to guarantee that he always has something to sell in case coffee prices fall.  The fact that Don Roberto and other small farmers are so vulnerable to shifts in coffee prices and ultimately must worry about whether their crop yields will put food on their table evidences the cutthroat nature of the coffee industry that favors the large corporations that monopolize coffee distribution over growers.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have met Don Roberto and his family, and to have had my eyes opened to the systemic inequality which disadvantages small farmers in Costa Rica.  I hope to continue to develop my attention to detail throughout the course of this semester so that I may see more of the interactions that govern both tropical ecosystems and tropical societies.

Emma Roszkowski, Grinnell College

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