Tag Archives: conservation

Paying It Forward

canopy, rain forest, Costa RicaOnce upon a time I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, Central America. That was a different lifetime, back when I knew everything and was poised to save the world. I spent 2 years living in some of the poorest areas of Central America, where many kids had no shoes and only two sets of clothes, one for the week and another for Sunday. For perspective, I lived on $100 a month and was among the wealthy elite in my town. You see a lot of things when you live in places where living is hard. I remember the body of the man who drowned in the river, crumpled on the street outside the police station. Then there was the time that the teenage mother had her baby on the bus. If your eyes are open – and it’s hard for them not to be – you learn a lot of things. Hopefully the lessons include humility and modesty, and that we are all part of the same fabric that is knitted across the surface of this planet.

One of the lessons I learned was that I was a long way off from saving the world. It was hard to deliver a conservation message to parents who were wondering how they would feed their families when the bean crop failed. Plus you can figure in that I was an outsider who was only going to be around for two years. It slowly dawned on me, being the young foreign genius that I was, that to have a lasting impact I had to train others. Somebody was going to have to carry the message after I was gone. Preferably that somebody was a local who knew the community and how to talk with people, and who was invested in seeing their neighbors have a better life.

I carry that lesson today. Recently I was the lucky bastard who got to fly to Costa Rica and train Latin American biologists how to climb trees. These young people are the field soldiers that are saving the world out there, not I. I’m “lucky” because I live in North America where I have access to training and expensive equipment. I’m LUCKY because once when I was younger I learned that sometimes the best thing you can do is to pay it forward. So with good friends Jamz, Juni, and Hannah we put on a 1-day clinic amongst the branches of a guayabillo tree. Now I’m trying to piece together the resources to go back and teach an 8-day course, with full-blown certification in climbing essentials and canopy biology methods. Enjoy the pics. Contact me if you would like to donate to young people and the natural environment they serve – I’ll be buying more equipment to donate at the next climbing workshop.

A few good people donated the climbing equipment that you see in the photos.  It was all left behind with the biologists we trained.  I’d like to thank: WesSpur, TreeStuff; working arborists from the International Society for Arboriculture, Pacific Northwest Chapter; and an anonymous friend with a talent for making Kentucky moonshine – you know who you are.  I also thank The Peregrine Fund, where I work.  They sponsored my plane ticket and lodging in Costa Rica, and are believers in paying it forward.

Dedicated to Francisco Urbina, my Honduran counterpart from my Peace Corps days.

canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica

canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica

canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica

canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica

canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica

The Ghosts of Forests Past

Aerial image of Indiana today. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/video/view-of-farmland-morgan-county-indiana-united-stock-video-footage/608723165
Aerial image of Indiana today. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/video/view-of-farmland-morgan-county-indiana-united-stock-video-footage/608723165

I have worked in the conservation of nature in tropical countries for about 20 years now. I started as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995 in Central America, where my job was to tell local people how to manage natural resources like forests and rivers. I was uniquely suited to the job, because as the only person in the sector of my host country – Honduras – with a college degree, I thought I knew just about everything. Thankfully, I have learned a lot about the world and myself since then. One lesson remains unchanged, though: we are destroying the natural world at a far quicker pace than we are allowing it to heal.

The truly impressive thing about some developing countries is the amount of untouched land out there. In many places you can still walk into an old-growth rain forest that nobody owns and look up at monkeys and macaws, and amidst the raw humidity and shrieking insects and birds, it is easy to imagine yourself into a nature documentary. Wild places are still out there, all over.  And that is a part of the problem. When you have an overwhelming abundance of something you can fall into the trap of thinking that there is no limit to the supply. We can use it as much as we want, and never run out. This lesson has been learned and forgotten a thousand times in North America. Passenger Pigeons blackened the sky, until they were gone. The buffalo were endless. The coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest would supply lumber forever.  And the great forests of Indiana could never be exhausted.

Screeeeech. What?! The great forests of Indiana? Who are you kidding? Have you been to Indiana lately? The typical mental image is land flat as a pancake, and nothing taller than a corn stalk as far as the eye can see. It didn’t used to be that way. Barely 150 years ago Indiana contained some of the lushest forest and most massive trees on the continent. I kid you not. The photos below, from Gordon Whitney’s 1994 history of forests in America, tell you the story.

forest canopy
Wild sycamore in wild Indiana. They don’t come any bigger than this

 

forest canopy
Massive oak tree in mid-western hardwood forest, a ghost of forests past.

 

forest canopy
Tulip tree in Scott Co., Indiana.

I want you to hear the voice of Robert Ridgway, preeminent naturalist of the late 1800’s, who took many of these photos.

“The [Wabash] River flows for the greater part between dense walls of forest . . . If the forest is viewed from a high bluff, it presents the appearance of a compact, level sea of green, apparently almost endless . . . the tree-tops swaying with the passing breeze, and the general level broken by occasional giant trees which rear their massive heads so as to overlook the surrounding miles of forest.” Ridgway described forest monarchs that “attain an altitude of more than one hundred eighty feet.”

“Going into these primitive woods, we find symmetrical, solid trunks of six feet and upwards in diameter, and fifty feet, or more, long to be not uncommon, in half a dozen or more species; while now and then we happen on one of those old sycamores, for which the rich alluvial bottoms of the western rivers are so famous, with a trunk thirty or even forty, possibly fifty or sixty, feet in circumference, while perhaps a hundred feed overhead stretch out its great white arms, each as large as the biggest trunks themselves of most eastern forests, and whose massive head is one of those which lifts itself so high above the surrounding tree-tops.”

This was Indiana, people. The endless forests are replaced with farms and cities. And THAT is my worst waking nightmare for the vast forests of the Neotropics: seemingly endless cathedrals of trees and beasts will be turned into corn fields and cattle pastures. Unless we can remember history, and teach the lessons of history better than I did as a Peace Corps volunteer, the ghosts of forests past will become the ghosts of forest present. All that will be left for us will be blurred photos and the writings of long-dead naturalists.

Recommended reading

Gordon G. Whitney. 1994. From Coastal Wilderness to Fruited Plain: A History of Environmental Change in Temperate North America 1500 to the Present. Cambridge University Press.