In Costa Rica, Loss in the Clouds

The cloud forest in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

At the end of April, my mom to old age. At the end of May, my brother Rick to cancer. In mid-June, our next-door neighbor to a heart attack. So grief comes sometimes as the clouds do here, almost every day. Gray wisps descend and curl around the trees and before long I am engulfed in fog.

My wife and daughters and I arrived here in early August to hike the senderos, the trails of the refuges and reserves, and learn what we can of this place and its people. Most mornings, we admire the hummingbirds, little bejeweled creatures that whir and rush and rest at our feeder.

Sometimes, I find myself just trying to will myself to heal by noticing the way light plays on a giant leaf or by catching a glimpse of a toucan or a motmot. But the healing process can’t be hastened or willed to end. I’m realizing I’ll never really get over the people I’ve lost.

We are living among a group of Quakers, many of them American or Canadian, some born here, some here for a while like us, still more coming and staying. The oldest members of the Monteverde Friends Meeting are Quakers like Lucky Guindon and Marvin Rockwell who came here in the early 1950s to farm and over time began working to protect the cloud forest. All of us are escaping some of the madness of the North to live simpler lives.

While Native American inhabitants in this region date back to 3000 B.C., what is now known as the town of Monteverde was founded and named by those original Quakers. They came after a group of young men, Marvin among them, refused to register for the peacetime draft and were imprisoned and paroled. Though Marvin served in the Medical Corps during World War II, the judge suggested that these young Quakers might find another country to live out their ideals. Costa Rica, which had abolished its army in 1948, became their destination.

We rent a house on the mountain a few miles from the town of Santa Elena and just below the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. A cloud forest is, in essence, a rain forest at altitude. We live at just about 5,000 feet. From our kitchen window sometimes we can see through the trees to the faint horizon of the Pacific. From my makeshift desk I look across a jungle valley to another slope of forest. As it is the wet season, every day the clouds eventually surround us, and then the rain.

A week ago last Wednesday a different kind of rain began to fall. We understood that Tropical Depression 16, later to be called Nate, was along the Caribbean coast. A warmer than usual rain was falling, but my wife and I went for a hike with some friends that morning, high above a house and road that would eventually wash away.

Our friend who has been on these trails many times kept remarking that he was seeing water in places he’d never seen before. Late in the hike, a troop of capuchin monkeys appeared in the canopy overhead. The lead monkey yanked at a branch and threw it down to warn us away.

That night the rain pulsed across our tin roof in waves. While it continued the next day, our girls and a friend splashed in puddles in the soaked yard, all of us unaware of how dangerous the situation was becoming. By Thursday evening we had lost power and on Friday morning, water. My wife said she thought she had heard the rumble of a landslide during the night. We got word that the community was gathering below and hiked down. On the road, power lines had fallen, their poles askew because the dirt that had held them was gone.

We arrived to see and hear people working together. Local Costa Ricans were providing instructions and information, which was being simultaneously translated into English. Here, the language barrier is permeable. Just as at the Quaker meetings, if someone stands to speak in English or Spanish, another always translates.

We learned that Monteverde had been cut off from the towns around it. No one had water or power. After the meeting, clutches of us stood planning our next moves. Since we had no way to cook — our stove is electric — we agreed to bring what food we could to the house of another American family, who have a gas stove. We’ve been living with them since.

The Quakers here are having an effect on all of us. As a lapsed Catholic who became Episcopalian, I’m in a new place. Pews facing an altar traded for simple benches arranged in an oval. Liturgy and sermons turned in for an hour of plain quiet broken only by a person moved to speak. High church incense replaced by clouds slipping through an open door.

In Quaker meeting weeks before the storm, trying to deal with my own losses, I kept thinking about the presence of absence. One older member had hiked up the hill and came in late. As he sat, we all heard his breathing, heavy and labored, until he too entered the silence and we were left only with the sounds of birds and the hum of the forest.

And as I stood last week among our new friends at that gathering after the storm, I still felt the calm and steady presence of the Friends meeting, a silent, palpable resolve. A willingness to endure.

When my oldest brother, Paul, died of AIDS decades ago, I held his hand in that final rattle of air. I’ve thought about that moment many times, because it led to a firmer conviction that I have a soul. My brother was there one moment and then gone the next and I became convinced that he must have gone somewhere. And so I think of my mother there in a hospice room, then gone. My brother Rick only months ago on his bed surrounded by his family, but now somewhere else.

Even before the current disaster, I could look around the meeting house and think of stories people had told us about their lives: a couple who almost lost their son, a friend whose father was struggling with cancer, people still grieving a boy’s accidental death just over a year ago. All of us there in the meeting house silently holding our grief, trying, I suppose, to embrace it or let it go. I feel my brother and I feel my mom. And with them come all of my dead.

Since the storm, the people of Monteverde meet daily. Ad hoc leaders quell rumors, provide news, and plan our survival with limited water and no safe way off the mountain. Most have walked to the river to see a house torn in half, the road that snakes down to the town below us covered by a landslide. And most have at least heard about what is now an empty cliff by the reserve that days ago was still a rich tropical forest perched on a steep slope. More loss.

At the Quaker meeting this past Sunday, Lucky Guindon stood after a long silence and spoke lines from an old hymn. Among them, “No storm can shake my inmost calm.” For two months now I have been trying find a way to express the feeling I get at meeting where presence invades absence or absence folds into presence, where some sort of balance, even in the face of personal and now communal devastation, seems to be achieved.

Death feeds into life perhaps most spectacularly here in the giant ficus trees, strangler figs that wrap themselves so fully around a host tree that the host dies and rots away and the ficus becomes a tree itself, spreading up into the sky and out toward other trees so the process can begin again.

Even now, the spaces opened by landslides fill with activity. Like the leaf cutter ants we see everyday crossing our paths, the humans are carrying and constructing and living on.

But it isn’t simple or easy. Global warming has shifted the natural cycles of life and death here. Once abundant species are being crowded out of the cloud forest by others moving up to survive. Other species are disappearing.

And so in trying to escape loss, I’ve found more, but in the absences here I’m learning to quiet my own presence, in order to preserve what life remains.

Joseph Heithaus is a professor of English at DePauw University and the author of the poetry collection Poison Sonnets.

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