A Beautiful, Desperate Struggle

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It was my good fortune recently to travel to Costa Rica and there to experience firsthand that country’s remarkable biodiversity. From rainforest to cloud forest, Costa Rica offers a dazzling and at times overwhelming array of species. Coati, tree frogs, howler monkeys, fear-de-lance serpents, leaf-cutter ants–the list goes on and on and on. If you are curious, Google Costa Rica and biodiversity; you’ll be blown away. The reasons for such a plethora of flora and fauna are numerous, but basically Costa Rica is a geologically young country blessed to be at the crossroads between North and South America and serving as a land bridge for species between the two. Having a salubrious climate, Costa Rica became home to countless species.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cloud forests. Heavy winds and yes, clouds, greeted me as I entered the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Here the vegetation is lush from an annual drenching of twelve feet of rain, and this is apparent everywhere one looks. Moss clings to trees, bromeliads and orchids to the moss, and entire ecosystems develop in pools of water that in a plant’s fronds and which host countless other species. According to a Monteverde travel web site, this cloud forest reserve is home to  “over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, and 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles living within its bounds. It’s one of the few remaining habitats that support all six species of the cat family – jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays, and jaguarundis – as well as the endangered three-wattled bellbird and resplendent quetzal.” But everywhere one looks, the vegetation dominates.

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But it was a chance event on the way to the cloud forest that most affected me. High winds had prevailed in the days before I arrived in Monteverde, and the night before my visit to the cloud forest, they brought down trees in the area. En route to Santa Elena, my progress was halted by a fallen tree that several locals were in the process of removing from the muddy roadway. I was stunned by the thick foliage covering the trunk of this ficus tree, and stunned even more when I realized that there were literally hundreds if not thousands of species of flora on this one fallen tree. Five orchids with different blooms I spotted in a few minutes–these branches were literal gardens.

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As I pondered this casual destruction of myriad life forms, I grew reflective. In this meditative frame of mind I wandered the cloud forest, ascending a tower for windswept views of the Costa Rican continental divide, descending again into a wet woodland of wind and green. I was overwhelmed by the multitude of life forms about me, literally unable to begin to count or differentiate among them.

But one sinister fact was clear: amid the gorgeous, luxuriant spread of flower and foliage and then-snoozing nocturnal creatures, survival was at a premium. Walking palms moved their center of gravity to catch fleeting glimpses of sunlight; various species of philodendron grew enormous leaves in an attempt to accomplish the same goal under the thick, tropical canopy; the strangler fig choked the life from its host tree–each engaged in a silent, beautiful, but desperate struggle for survival.

Standing amid the towering trees, crystal droplets of moisture falling everywhere, my thoughts were as disruptive to me as the gusting winds. Here, amid nearly unfathomable beauty, life remained a precious, uncertain thing.

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