Veronica's Garden

I originally started this blog to promote my novel, Post Rock Limestone Caryatids. Now I write essays and poetry about everything, including the Flint Hills, healing, parenting, etc. WARNING: emotional content, sometimes intense. Read at own risk of feeling.

Tag: cloud forest

Costa Rica Diary: Zip Lines at Selvatura Park, Monteverde

I think when we were in Monteverde twelve years ago, there was only one zip line tour; now there are several to choose from, and we’d been told Selvatura‘s was the best, with over a dozen lines. The longest stretches a full kilometer. Guides helped us into harnesses, and double checked that they were secure. We were each issued a set of heavy leather gloves and a helmet. We left all valuable items (including cameras) with my father-in-law Mike, who didn’t care to fly that day.

There was a lot of walking up stairs and steep hills. It was good exercise and I didn’t mind. I just loved being in the forest. The zip lines terrified me, though. It was the first time I remember ever being afraid of heights. I don’t remember being particularly scared the last time we did zip lines. I have no idea what was different this time. I couldn’t decide which was more frightening, zipping along high above the tops of the trees, or into thick clouds where I couldn’t see a thing. Once or twice I was so terrified that I just closed my eyes for a few seconds. I willed myself to breathe. There was a woman in our group who was there alone, and she kind of made friends with us. It was a bit of a comfort to me that she seemed even more scared than I was.

At the end of each line was a platform, and some of them were built onto giant trees, which I later found out were kapok trees. As soon as a person was detached from the cable, the guide would click his/her harness onto a cable attached to the tree, so no one could fall to the ground two hundred feet below. One of my favorite moments was standing on the platform, under the protection of a tree whose diameter must have been more than six feet. There was another tree close by —I could almost touch it— that was broken off just above a fork in the trunk. A family of little yellow and gray birds nested there, in the green moss and delicate epiphytic plants above the clouds.

Under certain conditions, a person doesn’t get enough speed to get to the end of the cable. This can happen if there’s a cross wind, or with a lighter person. The kids mostly went with the guides, who were all fine young men who appeared to be under the age of about twenty. If someone came to a stop before they got to the platform, a guide would have to go out, hand over hand on the cable, attach himself to the stalled tourist, and pull her/him to the end. It wasn’t a huge problem, but it slowed the group down and was a bit of a pain in the neck.

For the longest line —a full kilometer— smaller people were attached to each other. Our new friend stepped up and requested to go with my mother-in-law, Pat. I guess something about Pat felt safe to her. The guides had to have a conference to decide how to split us up. I got lucky and ended up going with one of those attractive youths. “You don’t have to do anything,” he said. I asked him his name, I think he said Darius. I held onto my harness while he wrapped his legs around mine. We took off from the platform. I wondered how long it would take. I felt so much safer with a guide than by myself. My only fear was that my arms would give out from gripping the harness, which I only had to hold onto to keep from hanging backwards by the hips. I can do it, I told myself.

Then we were in the clouds, beyond space and time. I think Darius was talking to me, but I couldn’t hear over the zip of the pulleys on the cable. I tried to relax into the harness. Then we were in trees again, approaching the enormous tree that anchored the cable. We stalled out and the guide had to pull us by hand. “It’s not scary with you,” I said. He asked me where I was from.

I said, “Kansas. It’s very different from here. Grass, no trees, open sky.”

He said, “It’s beautiful?”

I said, “Yes, beautiful. Very different beautiful.” We were almost to the platform.

I had to add: “But here it’s magical.”

Then we were on the platform, and it wasn’t even high above the ground.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell you about the scariest thing I’ve ever done: the tarzan jump.

As for the photo gallery, the zip line photos all came from the park’s hidden cameras placed in the trees somewhere. They look pretty much the same, so I’m filling in with some more photos from La Colina Lodge.

Costa Rica Diary: Hanging Bridges in the Matrix of Life

The Monteverde area has many more ecotourism parks and reserves than it did twelve years ago. Andrea at La Colina Lodge recommended Selvatura Park for a zip line tour, but they have much more to do there than that. We took a walk in the bridges hanging in the cloud forest before our zip line adventure. It might sound pedestrian (no pun intended), but I’d rank it among my favorites of all the wonderful activities we did in Costa Rica.

It’s an understatement to say that it’s wet in the cloud forest. It’s not like the ethereal fog we have infrequently in Kansas. It’s like the air is hypersaturated with moisture. You get thoroughly wet just being in it. We couldn’t quite decide if it was sprinkling or not, and half of us put up the hoods on our rain jackets, half did not. Though there were other people around, we let them walk past us, and lingered in the quiet. We saw a slate-throated redstart and emerald toucanets, and other birds that I wasn’t able to identify.

Epiphytes grow everywhere. Wherever a seed or spore can land, it can grow. Trunks of trees are covered in shades of green, from so many kinds of plants that they would defy counting. The hanging bridges connect the steep sides of the mountains, so we walked among the clouds, wisps of which swirled silently among the trees. Looking down, I’d see a fern with leaves longer than my arms; when I’d crossed the bridge and come down the slope a bit, I could see that huge fern was growing from a crook in a tree, twenty feet off the ground. With so much water, who needs soil to grow in?

In my beloved tallgrass prairie, soil is the source from which springs everything that lives. There are insects and animals in the grass, and in the sky, and in the rivers and ponds; but the grass that anchors it all comes from the soil. It’s a thin but incredibly rich source of nutrients and moisture and the microorganisms that make other life forms possible. Old gardeners will tell you that the key to gardening is to feed the soil. Poets and scientists speak of soil in reverent tones. Soil is the matrix of life.

Monteverde cloud forest is so saturated with water everywhere, that the entire ecosystem itself is that matrix, from the soil up through the underbrush, and on up, two hundred feet into the tops of the trees. Many of the forest’s creatures rarely or never even touch the earth. If the prairie’s soil is a two-dimensional plane, the cloud forest is life exploding into three dimensions.

Amidst this fecundity, my Costa Rica story began to conceive itself. My character would have to journey from San Jose to the cloud forest. (There would be similarities to Maeve’s journey to the prairie, don’t you think?) I told Kevin about this as we walked, and he suggested mixing in some study of botanical medicines. Yes, I thought, she would be sick, seeking healing that couldn’t be found in civilization. What kind of illness? What sickness can only cloud forest heal? Forests are the lungs of the earth, so it would be a lung ailment, one which becomes more prevalent as the forests are inexorably razed. Somehow that led to the question of to what extent plot is necessary. Some authors (myself not included) excel at plot; I find myself moved more by other elements, as a reader and writer. Some books I’ve loved didn’t have much plot. We thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as an example of a story with not a lot of plot, but a journey.

If I were to make my story a heroic journey, then the heroine would have eventually to go back to her home, to bring newly acquired wisdom to share with her people. What form would that take? What wisdom will she find, and how will she share it?

I’d thought, I can’t write about this place without being here for a while, living in Costa Rica for months, learning the language and studying the culture. I’ll put this story on the back burner. But once I start talking about a story with Kevin, it takes on a life of its own. The story has no regard for my timelines and preferences. The story does not care that I don’t belong here, that I have deep roots and commitments elsewhere, that my eyes haven’t yet learned how to see this place. The story wills itself to being through me, its vessel. The story has magical power I cannot constrain, especially in this fertile matrix of life.

Cost Rica Diary: Night Hike in the Cloud Forest

La Colina Lodge, outside the town of Santa Elena, feels like a house where generations of hippies have lived and left their mark. The rooms are painted in pretty colors, and there’s a reading room with enough books that I could stay and read for six months, if I didn’t get distracted by the lovely mosaics in the floor. There’s a large yoga room with lots of windows. Andrea the manager was terrific at making recommendations and arranging activities for us.

The first evening we took a night hike at El Refugio. Our guide’s name was Javier. Before we began the hike, he asked us if we’d been to Costa Rica before. It was the first time for everyone in our group except me and Kevin, who had been there twelve years previous, for our honeymoon. He asked how we liked it this time. I said I was enjoying myself more than last time, which had been great. Javier was surprised, and remarked how much things had changed. How, I asked? There had been a lot of development, lots of paving of roads, with more planned. The gravel road we’d come on would soon be paved. He liked the way things were before, but said that the development is needed, in order to compete with other locations, as in the US.

Why compete? I’d love to have had a chance to talk at length with Javier about ecotourism and conservation of the cloud forest, but it was time to begin our hike. It wasn’t until a couple days later that I put together my memories and the place as it is now. Santa Elena was the dusty town we’d ridden into by bus. We were greeted by several people with binders, showing us pictures of rooms, to entice us to stay there. Not having a reservation, we took a chance and followed a man to a family-operated lodging that turned out to be inexpensive and scrupulously clean, and the only person in the family who spoke English was a little girl. That town, as I remember it, had one main, gravel street. Now there are more cross streets, and when I looked for it, I could recognize only one block. Everything seemed to have rotated and expanded. There are ten times as many restaurants, both casual and more upscale, and a supermarket. The town grew so much that I hadn’t recognized it.

Rustic and remote is always my preference when traveling to see nature; so why was I more thrilled to be in this place now? The answer lay not in changes in the place, but in the changes in myself. I’m much happier now, with myself as well as the world, and more able to be present and enjoy the moment. Also, while there is much pleasure to be had in discovering something new for the first time, there’s a special satisfaction in sharing that discovery with loved ones, especially one’s children. To enjoy a place, start by being able to enjoy yourself. Then find someone to share it with.

But I didn’t have time to figure this out, and tell Javier, because it was time to go off into the dark forest. Javier turned out to be an excellent guide. He knew the habits of the animals, and how to find them in the dark. He made a point of telling us that the animals at El Refugio are neither fed nor hunted by humans, and therefore don’t pay much attention to us at all. There were several groups out, and the guides talked to one another via radio, telling each other where they’d seen a coati, a kinkajou, a possum, or a tarantula or a trail of leafcutter ants. He also showed us a sleeping warbler, a walking stick insect more than six inches long, and a pit viper, which had placed itself, obligingly, at a comfortable distance from the path. Javier even walked off the path to get closer to the pit viper to take pictures for us.

We didn’t see any monkeys, which Kevin had hoped for. Monkeys were to come later.

By the time we returned to La Colina we were exhausted. Everything was damp, including the beds. You can’t keep moisture out when you live in cloud forest. I was chilly in bed, but quickly warmed up and fell into a deep sleep.

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