Verdant, Drenched & Down At Ground Level

During the last six weeks or so of rainy season in Costa Rica, the word verdant is the perfect word for describing coffee plantations, especially those with long-lived canopies. The photo above, which I took while visiting a coffee farm in the Turrialba region, shows a mature canopy and coffee that is thriving under it, as are the lichens and moss on the gigantic rock in the foreground. Greenest this time of year, the coffee will have red cherries ready for picking within the next two months as the rains subside.

At home, potted flowers that have been providing color on a rock wall near our terrace are getting that drenched look.

Drenched does not have the same beautiful implication of verdant, but it will have to do. I cannot find a prettier alternative to describe the look of flowers that have absorbed as much water as possible and now just let the morning mist roll off.

I was surprised to find this nest while tending to some overgrown grass yesterday. It was right by a post of the fence that protects the land we are replanting. The surprise was a nest at ground level. According to Seth these are most likely eggs from this bird. Good luck, eggs. Good luck, birds.

Costa Rica’s Insects In The Limelight

Green Orchid Bee, Euglossa dilemma. Pablo Piedra

Some of our favorite topics–Costa Rica & insects & photography–are covered in this interview:

A Longtime Military Photographer Has A New Passion Project: Bugs

Digger Wasp, Sphecidae
Pablo Piedra

Field Cricket, Gryllus assimilis
Pablo Piedra

Pablo Piedra is a military photographer turned insect fanatic. After retiring in 2019 from 22 years with the military, he moved to Costa Rica with his family. Here he started doing macro photography of the country’s native bugs as a way of staying creative during COVID-19. His wife Daniela helps him look for insects and his son Jaden loves the final results.

How did you transition from being a military photographer to an insect photographer?

After my retirement in 2018, I began working as the Multimedia Director for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) in Arlington, VA. In 2019, my family moved to Costa Rica and I became a freelance multimedia content creator. Continue reading

Adventures In Blue

Blue morpho butterfly

The last time I posted about a blue insect you could see the blue. In the case of this butterfly above, all the blue is on the upper side of the wings, hidden in this view. To wrap up the thoughts started a couple days ago, I share a few more photos that for me qualify as visual micro-adventures.

Probable identification: one of the 50 or so species of the Trametes genus of fungi

I do not know the species of this fungi, but I find it remarkable that it comes to my attention just after the surprise of seeing a blue morpho butterfly, not commonly seen on this land in Escazu. Remarkable because some of the colors in common, including an unexpected hint of blue.

View to the east from Escazu as sun sets

Likewise, by the end of a day on this land, dusk may not produce a classical awe, but in the context of the various shades of brown it is something to still see some blue.

All In A Day’s Microadventures

A New Hampshire lawn in June. John Tully for The New York Times

Emily Pennington has shared recommendations from some experienced folks about alternatives to the well-known spectacular adventures, such as hiking the Grand Canyon. She recommends trying microadventures in this article subtitled How to find a sense of awe and discover a miraculous world right outside your door. Early on she writes about what we are often looking for in the places we travel to :

…Researchers often describe awe as an emotion that combines an experience of vastness with both pleasure and a fear of the unknown. While many of us might consider these moments rare, ephemeral and tricky to reproduce, a few scientists are finding that this reverence is a skill that can be cultivated and has remarkable mental health benefits.

“Awe basically shuts down self-interest and self-representation and the nagging voice of the self,” said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “That’s different from feeling pride or amusement or just feeling good. It’s like, ‘I’m after something sacred.’”

I have spent most days since early March 2020 looking for awe at or close to home, so I could relate immediately to what she was writing about in this article. A typical day starts with this view:

Start of a day’s microadventures

If you cannot imagine being awed by that, stop reading here. I will seek more awe as the day continues. Continue reading

Sugarcane On The Curvy Berm & Other Wonders

Sugarcane planted with vetiver grass mulching cover

The saving grace of the period from March, 2020 to the present day has been this few acres of land needing attention and care. Saving grace means that by giving attention and care to the land, I was simultaneously tending to my own wellbeing. The therapeutic value was such that by September, half a year of cloudy outlook was giving way to an urge to send postcards to the world. It was an urge urged by tending that land. As we began the second year of the venture that supports that land, all kinds of regenerative initiatives kept coming to my attention. And now it is nonstop planting around the curvy berm.

When Life Gives You Sugarcane, Plan For Lemonade

On the first day of this platform’s new decade I posted about harvesting sugarcane for the purpose of expanding the stock. Since then I took the long stalks and chopped them in to about 70 pieces, each between one and two feet long.   Here is what it looks like to plant it. Tops of stalks grow best inserted at a diagonal, as seen on the left of the image below, one serving as a hat stand. All other segments get planted horizontally in the soil, just a couple inches below the surface.

After covering each segment with compost-enriched topsoil, I cover the entire area with freshly cut vetiver grass. This protects the topsoil from the heavy rains typical this time of year, and at the same time allows the nutrients from the decomposing grass to fortify the topsoil.

It occurs to me: this time next year we will be sweetening the lemonade. A year prior to planting poro saplings we planted several citrus saplings and they are already bearing fruit now; one more year will mean plenty of sweetened juice to go around.

Year 10, Day 1

As we start another decade of posting here I will share two photos. The one above shows the outer layer of sugar cane that sheds, on the ground to the left of the stalk of cane that was planted about 18 months ago. The photo below shows the height of the cane today.

I posted this view six months ago, where you can see how green the leaves were in the drier summer time versus the rainy season we are in now. I will harvest these stalks to plant more sugar cane, rather than to produce sugar, and once the ground is prepared for that planting I will illustrate here how it is done.

Milkweed, Monarchs & Meaning

A monarch butterfly on a milkweed plant in Vista, Calif. Gregory Bull

We feature monarch butterflies in our pages to highlight conservation challenges, and milkweed is often part of the story. Claire Fahy’s story below reminds me that the link between the insect and the plant, and the effort in California to repair that link, is one example of why we created, and why I continue to post on, this platform. A short statement of purpose might be something like: in hope there is meaning. June 15 will mark the 10th anniversary of the first post, and I intend to start the next decade with a more regular series on our regeneration efforts on a few acres of land here in Costa Rica. Because it provides a sense of meaning, among other reasons. So we thank those in California who are doing the same on a 200x scale:

A coalition of conservation groups have partnered with the state to add 30,000 milkweed plants in an attempt to restore the species’ population.

A consortium hoping to rescue the Western monarch butterfly is planting three varieties of milkweed: showy milkweed, narrowleaf milkweed and a desert milkweed. Rob Cardillo for The New York Times

Known for their windowpane wing design and bright orange color, Western monarch butterflies add a dash of magic to the California coast, where they spend the winter. Now a coalition of conservation groups, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the environmentalist organization River Partners are working together to extend a lifeline to the monarchs, whose population has been dwindling drastically.

The groups have embarked on an effort to add 30,000 milkweed plants across the state to provide the butterflies with places to breed and acquire the sustenance for migration.

The Western monarchs’ California population has fallen 99 percent since the 1980s, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. A major factor in that drop has been a decline in milkweed caused by farming and pesticide use. Milkweed is vital to monarchs as a place to lay eggs and as a food source for their caterpillars. Continue reading

Ants, Food Raids & Evolution

Image #1 Army Ants reproduced with permission from “Army Ants: Nature’s Ultimate Social Hunters” by Daniel J.C. Kronauer; Image #5 painted clonal raider ants photograph by Daniel Kronauer. Credit: #1: Daniel J.C. Kronauer, #5: Daniel Kronauer

It is rainy season, therefore the season for starting the growth cycle of some plants, in Costa Rica. It is always ant season here. Some of the trees we planted last year, mostly citrus varieties but also pomegranate, have become feasting locations for ants who devour their leaves and haul them off.

My assumption, seeing this constantly during the 25 years since we moved to Costa Rica, has always been that ants are primarily vegetarians So, today a bit of ant-wonk from a team of scientists at Harvard University, summarized on Phys.org’s website, to correct my assumption (the video alone is worth visiting the source article):

How army ants’ iconic mass raids evolved

Army ants form some of the largest insect societies on the planet. They are quite famous in popular culture, most notably from a terrifying scene in Indiana Jones. But they are also ecologically important. They live in very large colonies and consume large amounts of arthropods. And because they eat so much of the other animals around them, they are nomadic and must keep moving in order to not run out of food. Due to their nomadic nature and mass consumption of food, they have a huge impact on arthropod populations throughout tropical rainforests floors. Continue reading

Blue Bugs Signal Approval

We are having an early change of seasons in Costa Rica, where in the Central Valley the rains do not normally begin until May. In the last week we have had rain several times, which is unusual for April, but would be quite normal in the first half of May.

During the dry season I let patches of green grow without cutting, as a way to see where there may be subterranean water that will be useful in the future for irrigation.

In one such location some grasses grew that resembled bamboo, and once I started moving them recently dozens–maybe hundreds–of these blue bugs started fluttering about.

At the intersection of my sweatshirt and glove one settled long enough for me to get a good look, but I have no recollection of ever having seen this type before. Part of our purpose of the replanting we are doing has been increasing biodiversity on this little bit of mountain terrain, and today I got a buggy blue signal of approval.

Organikos, 2021 New Growth

In the center of this picture is a poro tree, the tallest on the land where Organikos is replanting coffee. For nearly a century the coffee growing on this hillside was shaded by this type of tree. In the year 2000 we started planting fruit trees around  the poro trees, to provide additional shade to the coffee that was still growing here. In 2020, we planted saplings from this tree. Continue reading

Tasting Costa Rica In Chocolate

Four samples of Nahua chocolate: 100%; 90%; 70%; and one with an additional ingredient to be identified during the tasting session

Our first taste of place experience was a small gathering, but a lively one, and fulfilled our objective. Today we continue with our second event, focused on the ingredient-sourcing, production, and sustainability aspects of bean-to-bar chocolate. We will also taste four different chocolates, each with a different level of chocolate and one with an added mystery ingredient. Our supplier, Nahua, is a pioneer in Costa Rica’s sustainable cacao farming, as well as in gourmet chocolate production. Guests at this event will learn about the history of cacao in Costa Rica, much less well known that the history of coffee here but rapidly gaining a global following.

Taste Of Place Experiences In Costa Rica

While bee populations have waned throughout rural America, urban hives are thriving in cities such as Detroit, producing honey that’s reminiscent of mint, clover or goldenrod. Photo by Patricia Heal. Prop styling by Martin Bourne

Terroir is a word that has appeared often in these pages. Taste of place, a phrase with related meaning, likewise has appeared plenty of times. This phrase is a tag line used frequently in our work, based on an experience I had in Paraguay in 2005. We will begin weekly “taste of place experiences” for guests in both Authentica shops tomorrow; starting with mead, followed by chocolate, then honey, coffee and so on. Every week an artisan will present how they source ingredients, how they make their product, and how the taste of it reflects the particular location in Costa Rica where sourcing is done. So, great to see this about urban taste of place movement in our neighbor to the north:

The Growers, Bakers and Beekeepers Embracing the Terroir of American Cities

THE GRAPEVINES RISE at the corner of East 66th Street and Hough Avenue in Cleveland, 14 trim green rows claiming over half a city block — a little less than an acre — beside an abandoned building with boarded-up windows, whose rolling lawn on a summer morning is as lush as Versailles’s. The sky is brilliant and wide above stoplights and swoops of telephone wire. Across the tar-patched street stand storefronts behind scissor gates and a former grocery whose facade half collapsed last May, raining brick on the sidewalk. Down the avenue, the walls of another boarded-up building have been commandeered as an outdoor art gallery, papered over in posters with messages: “I survived the Hough riots”; “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

Long celebrated in France, the concept of place-specific tastes is spurring the revitalization of neighborhoods and communities.

THE GRAPEVINES RISE at the corner of East 66th Street and Hough Avenue in Cleveland, 14 trim green rows claiming over half a city block — a little less than an acre — beside an abandoned building with boarded-up windows, whose rolling lawn on a summer morning is as lush as Versailles’s. The sky is brilliant and wide above stoplights and swoops of telephone wire. Across the tar-patched street stand storefronts behind scissor gates and a former grocery whose facade half collapsed last May, raining brick on the sidewalk. Down the avenue, the walls of another boarded-up building have been commandeered as an outdoor art gallery, papered over in posters with messages: “I survived the Hough riots”; “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

For centuries, the French have used the word “terroir” to describe the environment in which a wine is produced. Going back to the Latin “terra,” “earth,” it’s rooted in a traditional vision of the countryside and has become more fervently embraced as our agrarian past recedes. Continue reading

A Surprise At The Intersection Of Coffee-Growing And Bird-Watching

Mourning Warbler. Guillermo Santos/Provided

Villa Triunfo, final day of 2021 harvest

We recently visited Villa Triunfo, on the last day of the harvest. I have not yet had time to post the photos and video from that visit, but to the left is an image from that day. As interesting as the coffee varietals growing on this estate are the trees that shade the coffee, fix nitrogen in the soil, and provide compostable material to further enrich the soil. We chose to offer this coffee primarily for the taste, but the shade trees were part of our decision, given our commitment to support bird-habitat regeneration.

To my surprise, this recent finding by a team of researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Virginia Tech tells me that we need to do much more to promote the benefits of shade-grown coffee, not only for its impact on taste:

Shade-grown coffee could save birds, if people drank it

Shade-grown coffee beans. Guillermo Santos/Provided

Shade-grown coffee has big benefits for bird conservation, but the message may not be getting through to the people most likely to respond – birdwatchers.

A team of researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Virginia Tech surveyed birdwatchers to learn if they drank shade-grown coffee and, if not, why not. Continue reading

Osa Peninsula Has A History Of Surviving Challenges, But It Takes Work

MAP BY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY STAFF

After two visits in 2019 I wrote a quick note about the Osa Peninsula, and afterwards I found the map above on National Geographic’s website. A couple years have passed since those visits and National Geographic published this article that I somehow missed until now. Jamie Shreeve shares a history I was well aware of due to our four years managing Lapa Rios, and back then I heard versions of it many times in the first person; but here it is told better than by anyone else in my experience, plus accompanied by the kind of photography you expect from National Geographic (not included here out of respect for the copyrights of those images). The title notes the challenge facing the peninsula, and my bet is on the peninsula’s having the support it needs to survive:

A loss of tourism threatens Costa Rica’s lush paradise

The Osa Peninsula is a biodiverse wonder and a model for conservation. But its preservation programs have been devastated by COVID-19.

Celedonia Tellez doesn’t recall the year she moved to the Osa Peninsula, or exactly how old she was, but she remembers well why she came: free land. At the time, the peninsula, a 700-square-mile crook on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica, was a forest frontier, separated from the mainland by a neck of near-impenetrable mangroves and accessible mainly by boat. Celedonia was pregnant when she arrived with her five children, six chickens, a dog, and 700 colones, about one dollar. She also brought her boyfriend, but he “hated nature, and would run away from insects,” she remembers. So she took an ax and cleared the land herself.

“When I was cutting down the trees, I would think how they must have taken so long to grow, and I cut them down in an instant,” she says. “That’s what we did. We cut down the forest to live.” Continue reading

Birds & Birders At Marriott Hacienda Belen

Yesterday my hand reflexively reached for my phone to snap a photo. That happens most frequently when I see a bird, but in this instance it happened when I saw a man pointing binoculars at a group of squawking green parakeets who were eating fruit from a palm tree.The common conception of where birdwatchers stay while visiting Costa Rica at first seems at odds with this scene.

This hotel, Marriott Hacienda Belen, developed a guide for birding on property in 2018. About a year ago bird models adorned the tops of “no parking” signs, sending a birder-friendly signal. Since these were placed in front of the Authentica shop, I have regularly seen parents, many of them local guests during a year when there have been fewer international guest, bring their children to look at the birds, read the species name, then walk to each of dozen or so others within short walking distance. I count that as progress.

Post-Harvest Coffee Processing

Processing coffee after harvest refers to getting the beans out of the cherry, with fruity pulp removed. How that happens, and what follows, is partly a function of tradition, which is itself a function of geography.

In Costa Rica, due to the abundance of water, the tradition historically was to wash the beans. Since I am in Costa Rica I will give a simple illustration of this process using a small quantity of beans. These are from a handful of trees as mentioned in yesterday’s post.

In the photo above, where the coffee is in a round sink basin, you can see some beans in the middle that have been removed from the cherries. You can also see a couple green beans, which get sorted out. The goal of the “washed” method of processing coffee post-harvest is to get all the beans out of all the cherries, with as much residual pulp removed as possible. Water makes this process easier. The skins and other residual material does not historically have much, if any, value. In recent years farms are taking greater care to compost this material and use the result to fertilize the soil where the coffee grows.

The wet weight of the washed coffee is irrelevant, but for comparison purposes I will note it here and then weigh the coffee again once dried. Although many coffee processing mills dry coffee on large patios with direct exposure to the sun, there is some belief that drying without direct exposure to the sun conveys some advantages to the final taste of the coffee. So, that is what we will do with this coffee. When it is fully dried, I will post again to explain the differences in the coffees process this way, and those processed the other most common way.

From Farm To Yard And Back Again

 

It is time to harvest these cherries from the several coffee trees that held their ground for more than two decades since this land was converted from farm to yard. In our conversion of yard to farm, these ripe cherries will provide the seeds for replanting the land after processing them in the simplest manner. Tomorrow I will show that process.

Regeneration, Cecropia & Sugarcane

Yesterday, while working on the land we are preparing to plant coffee a few months from now, I noticed that the cecropia trees suddenly have abundant fruit.  I knew that sloths love these trees, but while looking for more information to understand this fruit I learned that bats and birds and other animals also appreciate them for food and nesting material; plus, the leaves and roots of the trees have many uses among indigenous communities in the American tropics.

Most of my work recently, now that the poro saplings are planted, is removing unwanted grasses to make way for wanted grasses that help retain soil. One of the grasses planted this year, sugarcane, also surprised me. This plant above, now about one year old, suddenly shot up an extra five feet without my noticing, until yesterday. And the furry, flowery top of the stalks, now visible nearly 20 feet above ground, presumably mean something I will need to read up on. This first stand of sugarcane, which is at the highest point of the land on this property, provided us offspring that we planted along the lowest portion of land, neighboring bananas and plantains that will shade one section of coffee saplings.

Sheltering in Nature

The Turrubares Hills in Costa Rica’s Central Pacific region. Photo courtesy of Hugo Santa Cruz.

This is an exciting example of the old adage about life’s lemons and making lemonade. The Macaw Sanctuary is an inspirational space and we’re proud to have explored it with Hugo during the Global Big Day.

Thank you to Milan Sime Martinic and the inspiration of Mongabay for nature and conservation stories.

A new conservation project is created in Costa Rica thanks to COVID-19

  • Hugo Santa Cruz is a photographer contributing to a new Netflix documentary about nature and coping with COVID-19.
  • A Bolivian currently stuck in Costa Rica due to the pandemic, he has turned his camera lens on the local landscape, which has helped him deal with his separation from family and friends.
  • Many hours spent in the rainforest have given him solace and also an idea to aid the rich natural heritage that he is currently documenting.
  • Santa Cruz is now a co-founder of the new Center for Biodiversity Restoration Foundation, which will work to restore and connect natural areas in the region.

Call him inspired.

If Biblical Ishmael were banished to the desert, naturalist Hugo Santa Cruz is quarantined to wander in paradise, a paradise in the Costa Rican jungle, that is.

He is in the Central American rainforest along the Paso de Las Lapas Biological Corridor, an area near the Pacific coast that converges with the mountainous foothills of the western dry tropical forest.

Roaming some 370 hectares of ample primary and secondary forests, regenerated forests restored from human damage, plus plantings, ponds, and biodiverse jungle, Santa Cruz is deep in the wilderness, far from home due to the COVID-19 shutdown of travel and normal activities. He is exploring the jungle, studying the animals, photographing, filming, and registering the species he encounters. Continue reading