Miles and miles of pure, untouched, mountainous rainforest beauty. Walls of ferns, the ancestors of the forest. Non-existent Wi-Fi. The sun, blazing hot and intense. Rocky roads. This is how I started the New Year.
Solo traveling to Costa Rica as a female American tourist (during a pandemic, to boot), I'll admit had a certain amount of stress tied to it. I almost didn't go out of concern for my safety. A housemate of mine lovingly and only half jokingly said, "Don't get trafficked!" My dad offered to buy my plane ticket back from me and mentioned his concern at least 3 or 4 times, to my exasperation. Ultimately, though, I knew part of my dissatisfaction stemmed from my excess level of comfort. I knew there was more out there for me, and I decided to go looking for it.
In the end, it was an amazing decision. Hiking Rio Celeste and lava flows at Arenal Volcano, swimming under Rio Fortuna Waterfall and in hot springs, canyoning and rappelling, ziplining in Monteverde Cloud Forest superman style for a mile between two mountains, and Tarzan swinging (but not before contemplating my life decisions and yelling "This is crazy!" while the tour guide said "I know! One, two, *push* WAIT!!" while I'm free-falling and screaming)… Between all the action, I had plenty of time to reflect on my relationship with the land, to remember what it feels like to be human in a time with such rapid and unpredictable change. I journeyed to recalibrate my attention towards what truly matters to me.
High in the treetops, a green-eyed, yellow-bellied and banana-beaked toucan sings; he tosses his head back and lets out a sweet call for a mate.
Perfectly camouflaged, the fifth deadliest viper rests on a tree.
A sloth suspends herself in a tree by two of her limbs so she can scratch her leg with her three pointy claws.
A pack of raccoon-like coatis with elongated snouts, long tails, and black and white markings run across the street.
Iridescent green hummingbirds flit between purple flower beds in front of the backdrop of Arenal Volcano, which is enshrouded by wispy clouds. Every few minutes, a lean storm cloud pops and releases an outpouring of water for the land.
A tarantula sits in its den.
Admiring the foliage, a rainforest is delicious to the senses. Costa Rican cuisine, beautiful vistas, acres of villas etched into the mountains with cows happily grazing between the hilltops. It seems like every turn holds a new feast for the eyes and soul.
The water is the most delicious water I've ever tasted. The waterfalls provide potable spring water and most tap here comes from the springs.
A guide told me I can drink from Rio Celeste. I did so before finding out it gets its rich blue color from aluminum silicates. Alas, I was thirsty and didn't want to go back to the trail entrance. I acknowledge there are probably sediments and possibly eukaryotes in that water that my body is unfamiliar with. Anyways, I only had two bottles of it, and I like to think I was receiving a gift from the land, from Pachamama that I have never received before: fresh spring water straight from the source--right at the rich coast. I observed the water tasted delicious--it was flavorful (presumably the minerals)--and did not taste at all unusual in a negative way. Later on, I read that aluminum silicates have detoxifying effects and are in the same category as zeolite and clays.
Between getting rained on (thanks to my unpreparedness for the rainforest) and cold showers, I also notice my curls are tighter, like the waves are rather bouncy. Must have something to do with the water. Minerals. Natural springs. It certainly helps that there is no hot water. It means my showers clock in at under 4 minutes and I use less water. Hot water is unnecessary here. It's been between 70-90 consistently. Also, the cold water feels amazing on my skin.
I continuously drank freshly squeezed juices: orange and passionfruit. The pineapples are way sweeter in Costa Rica and have almost no acidity due to peak ripeness. One of my Airbnb hosts chopped a young orange coconut (called a "pipa") straight off the tree and handed it to me. I drank the super refreshing coconut water, and then I had some incredible coconut meat, which is extremely tender and gel-like, rolling up on my spoon like ice cream. Now I'm craving a fresh coconut…
In La Fortuna, I descended knee-height stairs and waded across a thigh-deep stream to a massive waterfall that was delightful to swim beneath. Every time I tried to make a mad dash for the flume, I could feel the force of a gushing cascade pushing me back to a rocky shore.
I feel very safe here, and held. It's VERY quiet except for the sounds of nature, the birds and insects and occasional rain and wind. The level of silence is stilling and soothing.
There are 288 volcanoes in Costa Rica and 5 of them are active, meaning they have erupted in the past 100 years. Arenal Volcano erupted continuously from 1968 to 2010. I walked on the 1968 lava flow.
A volcano is a break in the Earth's crust. Costa Rica is between two tectonic plates and there are 100 earthquakes a day, but they're almost always too small to notice.
Costa Rica is also a global leader in renewable energy. They run on 98% renewable energy, which includes geothermal, hydroelectric, and wind power. The mountain ridges are lined with wind turbines.
Lessons I Learned in Costa Rica
The magic of Earth.
Mother Earth will hold you when you are inconsolable even by yourself. She will love you for all that you are, for you come from her.
Humans are a grand mosaic of microbes, teeming and bursting with life, just like planet Earth. This microscopic world educates our nervous system, immune system, cardiovascular system, respiratory system, and endocrine system. When the mutualistic microbiota disappear, our well-being goes with it.
The responsibility of scientists.
While in Costa Rica, surrounded by all this vibrant life, I felt a surge of desire to get back to my art. I felt like I'd strayed so far from my original purpose of writing: gratitude.
I'm so grateful for this Earth. She loves us and provides for us generously. She's a tough mother, but there's only so much taking we can do until she becomes depleted and we become sick.
To become a better scientist, I need to balance receiving (reading literature) with giving (completing projects). This is the key to producing both high-quality and prolific art.
Food, medicine, materials, fuel, arts, science, spirituality… they all necessitate a connection with the land, sea, and sky.
The documentary Fantastic Fungi expresses the sentiment that our national security and economic health depend on the protection of biodiversity on Earth.
We, as scientists, need to integrate ethics and have a conscience about our work. That means seeing the bigger picture of who our work affects. We are all connected, and a single lab can change the world.
Those of us who are informed and in power have a responsibility to act with impact. Scientists, in particular, stand at the intersection of key stakeholders--government agencies, companies, and the public. We need all the voices, especially the voices that advocate for Earth's ecosystems and natural health, while clearly delineating what that means and what that looks like, and grounding it with evidence.
I wish to contribute to this growing body of knowledge, this wilderness frontier of empiricism of ancient wisdom, translating the language of nature into one humans can understand, care about, and act upon.
Community starts with the individual
We need beautiful, quality communities where grounded voices of consciousness can convene, intermingle, intersect, intertwine, integrate. We've been fragmented and sprawled by technology, specifically habitual media consumption.
Food connects us with the land. I am deeply concerned about our relationship with mother nature. We've lost self-sufficient ways and TRUE place-based, land-connected community. We've outsourced our resources to industry, and what we've gotten in return is monopoly, the macro-scale manifestation of monoculture.
My work to be done
How can I possibly give back to the Earth for even a fraction of what it's given me?
By researching Alzheimer's, senescence, and addiction… I know all roads lead back to Pachamama.
My goal is to facilitate detoxification of our bodies and the soil, for the microbial world inside depends on the one outside.
All I know is that there are plant, fungi, and microbe allies out there waiting to be heard, listened to, decoded, and understood.
Bringing it home
I wonder if the US can shift its commodity culture. I wonder if we can go back to grassroots protection of the land and local cultivars. I wonder if we can connect to and learn about the plants and fungi beneath our feet in our own backyards and their nutritional and medicinal applications.
I wonder if we can scale regenerative agriculture practices. If we can leave the soil be so that the mycelium can weave and microbes can thrive. This will result in plants with stronger immune systems, reducing the need for pesticides.
I wonder if we can provide domesticated animals a better quality of life as a whole, allowing them to enjoy the fresh air, sunlight, grass, and honey we've taken from them. I wonder if we can save organic seeds and preserve heirloom crops.
The more we care for the soil, the more it provides us with more nutritious, satiating food that harmonizes gut-brain signals and promotes mood, energy, and memory.
We've been taught chemical fertilizers and pesticides are necessary for production, for feeding the world, for keeping costs low. But this is a very resource-intensive way to farm that is largely promulgated by industrial influences.
What we see happening to the land indicates what's happening with humans. A hyper-hygienic world is reducing microbial diversity, weakening immune systems and paving a landscape for pandemics. In short, a lack of biodiversity is destroying lives.
Meanwhile in Costa Rica, many families grow food. Their chickens and dogs run free--no leashes and no chicken coops. Despite having 0.02% of the world's land mass and 6% of the world's biodiversity, I have not seen any roadkill. All of these stark differences between the life I'm used to and the glimpse of Costa Rica has me thinking about decentralized agriculture and the revolutionary power of a backyard garden.
The voice of Mother Earth came through really strongly in Costa Rica.
"Come to me, my child. Let me hold you. I'm here for you when nowhere feels like home, when you've been uprooted and wandering, tired. I'm always a few steps and a few feet away. Even under concrete and polyester. I've created allies to help you on your journey. I've created teachers that sometimes deal their lessons in the suffering. All to help you come home to that still point of peace, where there's no resistance, only the flowing of the river of awareness.
When you doubt the authenticity of the source of my voice, listen for a gentle whisper within. I'm always with you. You can return at any time. I'll be waiting, for you to listen, to remember.
I am the voice inside your gut that tells you something is wrong and that guide in your heart that swells and bursts not with pride but with gratitude. I'm the soothing sound of rustling leaves dancing in the wind that makes you swoon under the cloak of a new moon. I'm the call that compels you to get your sneakers into the spring, to pull the scrunchie out of your hair, to be wild like the way you were made. I'm always here, even when you can't see me. You can feel me within you, pointing you home."
Listen: A journal prompt
Get into nature. Write from the point of view, the voice of Mother Earth, or any natural element (soil, fungi, bacteria, tree, plant, mountain, moon, fire, stone, volcano, lava, wind, light, sound, music, sun, snow, bird etc.)