Updated on January 18, 2017
The Safina Center
80 North Country Road
Setauket, NY 11733
Updated on January 18, 2017
By Safina Center Fellow and Writer in Residence Paul Greenberg
“There, up ahead,” my Costa Rican guide said in a whisper through fog and darkness. “There is something very special. Something we don’t see very often around here.” I was in the middle of a two hour night hike in the cloud forest near Monteverde. Up ahead was a bird about 2 feet long with the slim stately profile of a raptor. It was sleeping and its head was tucked into its shoulders so it was difficult to make out any identifying markings. But the guide new exactly what it is. “That my friend, is what they call the broad-winged hawk. So exciting to see it here.”
The tense straining of my eyes let up and I lowered my head in disappointment. All this way to the Costa Rican cloud forest, just to see a bird that in a typical New England autumn swirls in kettles by the hundreds? It seemed silly. As silly as many things I’d seen in Costa Rica so far. Tourists hanging by zip lines and shooting through the air at thirty miles per hour. “Tarzan Swings” that dropped those same tourists a hundred feet before zooming them out over the forest canopy.
Like many American conservationists I had limped into the holiday season with deflated hopes and troubled dreams. The goal posts of a more balanced, ecologically friendly world which had seemed to inch slightly closer during the Obama years, now, felt as if they had been moved beyond the horizon. Just before leaving for Costa Rica I had called a Republican staffer who had helped co-write the US Clean Water Act during the Nixon years, longing to hear at least a little bit of hope in what lay ahead. He was glum and foreboding. “I have no good feeling,” he told me. Neither did I.
But day by day, as I walked the Costa Rican cloud forest pathways and ate the hearty meals of rice and beans that pervade the low impact kitchens of the country, the essential differentness and indeed goodness of this good land started dripping into my consciousness even as the ever present mist and rain dripped into my boots. For, when you look at it beyond the zip lines, Costa Rica is the Antitrumpistan–a place that has carved out a completely unlikely place in this nature-averse moment in time.
Just how different a place Costa Rica was from the usual Latin American country came a few moments after I took my first walk in the cloud forest. Within minutes someone in a uniform approached me and began explaining how the strangling ficus got its name. “The tree inside was another kind of tree. And the ficus, he grows up around it. And that’s why now he is hollow.”
I looked at his uniform and asked if he was army.
“No,” he said, “haven’t you heard? Costa Rica doesn’t have an army.” This is true. In 1948 after a bloody civil war, the victorious general Jose Figueres Ferrar broke a wall with a mallet to symbolize the end of Costa Rica’s military. With that one stroke he broke with every other country in Latin America. To this day, there is no army in Costa Rica. All that money that in other countries goes to arming and fighting in Costa Rica goes to education, infrastructure and conservation. The difference is palpable. A third of Costa Rica’s land is protected.
This is particularly palpable in the cloud forest. For not only did Costa Rica become a place that banned its own military, it became a place that welcomed people who had abandoned militarism. During the Korean War a group of American Quakers refused to enlist in the U.S. Military. After serving prison sentences and enduring taunts from US officials the Quakers left the U.S. altogether and alighted finally in Monteverde, the town that now served as the base for my Anti-Trump vacation. In the demilitarized ground of this peaceful Central American state conservationism resonated. In league with the emerging green consciousness of the country, the American Quakers founded Monteverde’s first forest preserve.
One of the most frustrating things about traveling with American conservationists is the tendency to feel as if an American-formed vision of protecting nature is being impressed on lands and people that think differently. But here the equation felt entirely reversed. In Costa Rica, it is the local tenderness to nature that makes Americans feel uncomfortable in the guns and money straightjackets we’ve sewn for ourselves. In Costa Rica is illegal to cut a tree, any tree without an official government inspector’s approval. The only exceptions are invasive trees like pines and eucalyptus. Indeed when you walk through a forest with a Costa Rican you notice how they touch the trees as they walk, not insipidly or showily, but simply and calmly, like gently touching the shoulder of a friend as they pass by on a path.
And so as my week drew to a close, I thought back to that broad-winged hawk nestled in the night forest, peacefully sleeping in the mists of the clouds. Here she would be safe. Here she could gather her strength and hunt in peace while the storm clouds gathered to the north. Here because humans have said no to armies and wars, there is room for nature. As James Madison once wrote “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”
Amen James Madison. Imagine if we had only listened to him way back when.
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Paul Greenberg is author of a forthcoming book on omega-3 fatty acids and the marine food web, titled The Omega Principle: A Journey to the Bottom of the Marine Food Web. It is due out by Summer 2018. The accompanying Frontline documentary is slated for release in early 2017.