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A Gringo Reflects on Life in Cantarana, Costa Rica

Excerpts from the book The Gringo's Hawk.

[Editor's Note: This is chapter 19 of Marañón's beautiful book about ecological living and cultural integration in Costa Rica, "The Gringo's Hawk." If you'd like to order a copy, please visit]

Whenever I returned from a trip (scuba diving on live-aboard boats in different parts of the world or with my family on slightly safer vacations or visiting family in the United States), I was astounded by how much had changed at Cantarana in such a short time, and it always took me a while to reestablish myself. Over the years, I grew accustomed to this sense of dislocation, however, and found it easier to sink my roots again into the local environment. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and panicky as I had before, by 1992 I found it exciting and usually survived the trauma with a smile - sometimes a sad smile, but maybe sad smiles weren’t so bad.

I returned this time two days after the full moon in May, the month of pests, plagues, diseases, flowers, fruits, and fragrance, the transition between dry and rainy seasons, the month when the local world and people get ready for major change. “Macho,” our favorite taxi driver from San Cristobal, ingeniously got me and my cargo in his 4-wheel-drive Toyota all the way into Cantarana, which was green and lively from recent rains.

On the drive, I could see that nature was quickly recovering from damage done by the earthmovers who had ceased another of their fitful bursts of activity months earlier. The highway people again ran out of money, millions mysteriously disappearing in a typical scandal that enriched apparently legally immune politicians. Taking advantage of the break in the destruction and construction activities, balsos (balsa trees) were sending out millions of tiny seeds in little cloud-fine puffs. With their admirable ability to sprout and grow incredibly quickly in the very worst clay and rock, the balsa trees reforested themselves in apparent moonscapes in a year’s time. Other plants moved in around them; cecropia trees (the sloths’ favorite); leafy vines sending out long, thick runners; thorny weeds with elaborate orange-and-red flowers. Together with the balsos, the lush undergrowth helped cover the damage that had previously sickened me, and I felt immense relief. Tropical nature was not so easily defeated.

Later the same day, I received news to counter partially this triumphant development. Antonio, the foreman, informed me he had discovered a campsite high up on his forested land where hunters had come and killed the last white-tailed peccaries in the area, leaving the heads of the animals behind. A neighbor had obviously aided the hunters in their poaching, the same neighbor who had also sacrificed his best forest to loggers that year, a man I used to consider a good friend.

Antonio told me that some of the local farmers in Cachelote were using poison bait to kill all the animal “pests” eating their chickens, corn, rice, or beans. Thus, the agoutis, chachalacas, raccoons, opossums, parrots, monkeys, squirrels, coatimundis, hawks, doves, curassows, and how many other creatures were dying at a faster rate than ever before.

This folly was not only murderous, but suicidal. Mankind could not hope to achieve long-term success within the ecosystem as long as our voracious appetites led to this kind of competition-to-the-death with other creatures over land and food. Poisoning and killing was not the way, and whether we understood our interconnectedness or not, by damaging the biosphere we were also precipitating our own doom.

News like Antonio’s would usually stir up a torment of disgust, protest, and anger within me, but the day had finally come when I preferred to act as if, besides being balder, I was also wiser. Fighting was not always the answer; if I were going to be good for anything or anybody, I couldn’t afford to waste time in quixotic martyrdom. I must try to focus my energy on positive things, and leave the negative ones for later. It was as simple as that.

Never in my life had it actually been simple, but I had learned that there wasn’t much good in prolonged negative action or reaction. A plant whose roots ran into a rock needn’t sicken or be stunted or die as long as there were alternatives for its roots. I often had trouble dealing with obstacles that, with a little imagination and positive attitude, could easily have been circumvented or even pushed out of the way or ignored.

There was good news, however. Tina’s mare had given birth to a beautiful, strong colt, who pranced elegantly beside his proud first-time mother. And the large iguana that lived among the outcropping of black basalt boulders was still there. No one had killed and eaten him even though he was such an easy target and was considered so tasty. Flocks of noisy parakeets descended upon wild fruit trees. Shiny blue morpho butterflies larger than my open hand fluttered through my house; white-faced monkeys leaped through nearby trees; gaudy, fiery-billed aracaris and yellow-and-black toucans hopped around confidently; the dark-green forest trees branched out with deep-purple flowers; there were ripe pineapples, bananas, mangoes, avocados - everything testified that Cantarana was doing very well.

That morning I walked through the reforested areas and cacao groves, and the new growth surpassed my expectations. When I saw the workers preparing the new tree-planting area, all working hard even without the foreman or me with them, I knew Cantarana was functioning nicely.

The first day back after a lengthy absence was always a roller-coaster ride, so when I experienced the highs, I prepared for the lows. Lisa, my sister-in-law, was a reliable source of information concerning the lows. Problems and complications always seemed to accompany her and her family, wherever they were. She suffered from rheumatism in her right arm and needed an operation on the varicose veins in both legs. The doctor had told her to stay off her feet more, but that was impossible. Who would prepare the meals and wash the clothes?

Already her husband, Raúl, had grown so angered by the inability of his 14- and 20-year-old sons to care for the family’s pig that he killed the animal, butchered it in a hurry, and gave away most of its meat. Raúl told me his sons didn’t bother to collect and chop the firewood or pound the chaff off the rice or wash their own clothes to help out Lisa. And Raúl himself was not well. While I was in the United States, he had worked so hard to finish the 30-foot fishing boat he was building from scratch that he ate irregularly or not enough, causing his ulcer to flare up and sending him to the hospital. Antonio didn’t like to give Raúl’s sons work because they were lazy and unreliable. Lisa’s condition worsened so that she had to lie down every now and then. She put 14-year-old Quino (who liked onions and garlic) to cook, but Francisco, the 20-year-old (who hated onions and garlic) refused to eat it.

Lisa was very glad to see me, and I was glad to help out however I could, which seemed to be enough for the time being. I never liked meddling in other peoples’ personal affairs, but sometimes, when the family members were open to me and trusted me, I didn’t do so badly, and I thought my simple attempts at reparation were almost always better than not intervening at all.

Other families had more severe complications. Antonio and his wife Marta were suffering with their beautiful 17-year-old daughter Luz, who no longer wanted to attend high school in La Palma, where she had to work for room and board. During vacation, she got involved with a handsome 20-year-old squatter from Morita; her parents approved as long as she didn’t get pregnant. But she did.

Even though I had made it very clear to Antonio that I didn’t want any squatter sleeping on the farm, he and Marta had let Gerardo move in with them. I understood their reasoning; Gerardo’s neighbors were violent and dangerous. But when Antonio confided in me that this quasi-son-in-law rarely wanted to work or chop firewood or even help pay for the family’s food bills, I felt tempted to ask Antonio to reconsider the wisdom of handing his relatively well educated daughter to a penniless squatter of dubious character. I wisely kept my mouth shut. Antonio somehow sensed the gist of what was going on in my mind, and he smiled and said, “You have three daughters yourself, you just wait and see - it’s not easy, it’s not easy at all.” It would be too soon when I learned, unfortunately, how right Antonio was.

That afternoon, I sat in my house with my old dog Chito gazing out at the ocean and sandy beach of Punta Morita as the sky grew dark, a wind picked up, and rain began to fall. It was one of those surprise storms that even the local animals hadn’t predicted, or maybe I had just been out of tune with their signs. Around 3:00, whitecaps formed in the ocean, trees swayed drunkenly, showing the gray-green undersides of their leaves, and swallows and vultures practiced wild maneuvers in the shifting gusts. Hopping hunch-backed around a stinking mess of rotten flesh, a bald-headed vulture bore little resemblance to its wind-borne self, when it was miraculously converted into a majestic creature of outstanding grace and beauty. I loved to watch the vultures fly in a strong wind and disliked them when they were perched, especially when they perched in the black hawk’s formerly reserved place high up in the giant dead ajo tree on the other side of the stream.

I remembered how, during foul weather like this, the black hawk with the clean white tailband would be up there and we’d keep each other company, him way over there, me on my porch, both alone - similar, kindred spirits. He probably didn’t think of me much, or much of me, but I thought a lot of him, and it was important to me that he was there. But the people of Cantarana had pressured me to help them protect their chickens by killing my friend. The black hawk, “the gringo’s hawk,” was gone from his throne, and when I looked over there on that stormy afternoon, I felt lonely and sad and guilty even after so many years. Life would never be quite the same for me. I burned inside over grave errors that couldn’t be undone. Were these the coals of hell or the tough lessons required on the way to heaven?

I would catch myself in this too-heavy mood, reason differently, and rephrase my questioning. Why, for example, was it a bigger deal to kill the chicken-eating hawk than it was to kill the equally innocent chicken-killing skunk? Just because I personally liked the hawk better? What was the cosmic truth or divine verdict on this? The dolphin- and whale- (and everything else, it seemed) eating Japanese used this exact same kind of reasoning to justify their appetite for Flipper, Free-Willy, and other cetacean meat, just as we Americans casually devour many other wild and domestic mammals. Are there creatures that are okay to kill and others that are not? How can we know which ones to slaughter and which ones to protect? Who can say with authority? Will we eventually acquire this wisdom? Will we eventually obey it?

Cantarana could be so astonishing. The rain fell out of the dark clouds so hard that I figured it would just be a short-lived downpour, but the rain kept coming. Lightning ripped trees nearby. Falling branches crashed down into the forest. I could still see the black hawk’s tree, with the vines whipping out almost horizontally. The hawk would have been there facing the storm, magnificent in his rightful place, the place only he could occupy. The vultures had long since flown away in search of safety.

Inches of rain fell in hours. The same precious water that, in moderate amounts, nourished the young corn plants now - too much, too fast - threatened to wash them away. The dry-season road would have been rendered impassable; hopefully the big logs in the stream would wash over the little dam and not smash into its sides. Where would the emerald snake I’d seen that day hide during the storm? Or the big iridescent blue butterflies? In the last light of that spectacular afternoon I saw the water, too much water, forming rivulets of muddy soil, washing the land of cow dung and decomposed leaves and grass and twigs, scouring, cleansing, sterilizing, the ditch overflowing, all erosion controls overloaded, the Quebrada Chica raging and roaring, uncrossable and dangerous, a presence to respect and keep a safe distance from.

A thick lightning bolt seemed to paralyze the sky as it streaked down by the sandy Punta Morita, near where Raúl was building his fishing boat. I thought right away, “That was the killer type,” having no idea what a “killer type” lightning bolt looked like. I hoped it hadn’t gotten poor Raúl or destroyed his boat. Chito shivered under the table with fear.

The rainfall kept pounding without letting up in intensity. Giant boulders in the stream rumbled deeply, resonantly, and made the land around the stream tremble. Trees with tremendous gashes in their trunks crashed and banged in the violent stream and washed out to sea, which was orange-clay-colored out to half a mile from shore. More rain fell in three hours than many people saw in three years.

The storm gave me an ecstatic sense of awe, seeming to encapsulate all my feelings for the tropics and for life in general. There was so much energy and grandeur in that storm that it knocked most of my own inflated delusions right out of me. No contest! “Who am I?” I mumbled to Chito, who seemed to be trying to hide his head under his paws in a comparatively dry corner of the porch. “Who are we with all our pettiness next to this?” I’d experienced similar fleeting moments of enlightenment, of being overwhelmed by the immense presence of nature’s power and beauty. A hurricane, an earthquake, a mountain, a twinkling starry night, a lively reef in clear water, a giant tree, a tribal dance, a symphony, a clean glassy wave, a campfire, a cool drink when truly thirsty, a baby smiling, a tiger running, a fragrant flower, a smoothed piece of driftwood, a stone, a shell - there were many things as awesome as the storm, as magnificent, as inspiring, as nourishing in the deepest ways. All we needed to appreciate them was to let go of our self-imposed dedication to pettiness and to open our minds and hearts, explore, smile, be ourselves.

The storm dissipated, and I slept in the cool clean night wondering about Raúl and that lightning bolt and about those who had been stranded on the other side of the Morita River, which was at least five times the size of the Quebrada Chica.

I usually loved the mornings after storms, but this time was different. The news came that although Raúl and his boat had narrowly escaped the bolt of lightning, his companion had not. While Raúl’s partner Mino and his wife were eating dinner in their beach choza, the powerful electric charge hit the roof and descended a post, shattering it and sending a thick splinter into the fisherman’s temple, knocking him down in what appeared to be death. His wife, who at that instant was touching the post, took the blast more directly. The five sons and daughters shook their parents in a desperate attempt to revive them. The father regained consciousness but remained delirious all night. Their mother was dead.

They couldn’t get to a hospital until the next day, when the fisherman learned he had lost his mate. Everyone commented on the same thing: that that couple had been so happy, that the woman who died had been a fine wife, mother, person. “Why does God seem to always bring tragedy to people like that?” they asked.

I was troubled, too. Yes, the storm was magnificent, but it killed a woman and seriously damaged a poor fisherman’s family. Did that make it a bad thing, despite its awesome beauty? Sitting on my porch the next afternoon, looking out at the peaceful mountains and ocean and sky, I decided most things were too complex to judge in such terms as good and bad. This one fit in both categories. Classifying it was like describing the appearance and location of an electron, or explaining light in terms of waves or particles, proving whether gravity pulled or was the absence of push, debating whether the man-eating Bengal tigers or the encroaching humans had more right to territory and life.

The storm was mostly damaging, I supposed, yet it marked the spectacular end of a harsh dry season. It filled and cleaned the waterways, dispelled any fears of drought, washed away a lot of debris. It also filled people with awe, and through the tragedy of the fisherman’s wife, it taught us all some very important lessons: that life and nature and God were mysterious and powerful and worthy of great respect, that humans and their lives were vulnerable to sudden and drastic change, that death often came without warning, and that our loved ones would not always be with us.

The powerful storm served as a catalyst to opening my mind wider than normal, and in that relatively more enlightened state, cleansed out a lot of clutter. I pleasantly and surprisingly experienced a much needed peace as I - at least temporarily - felt acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion for those I had once considered enemies - the barbaric squatters, disrespectful poachers, unscrupulous bureaucrats, and corrupt politicians. Might they have classified me as an arrogant, meddlesome, self-righteous foreigner? We were all only human, and hating each other was such a stupid waste of time. I was tired of it.

Everything was relative. It was important to view personal, social, and planetary things from different perspectives. Even though, if Earth were the size of a soccer ball and we held it in our hand, arm outstretched, we could not detect any sign of life with our naked eye; even though our thin film of a biosphere, including us, was apparently insignificant amidst the chaos; even though this same biosphere had suffered five known major cataclysmic events that destroyed millions of species - could we still be complacent about our own ushering in and riding the sixth and possibly final great wave of mass extinctions? Didn’t astronomers, biologists, and theologians all agree that we, our fellow creatures, and our water planet were unique in the universe? Weren’t we worth protecting?

“We simply cannot afford to continue destroying the rainforests!” I complained, perhaps childishly, to my dog and to the pounding rain. The Minoans of Crete learned this about their forests only after it was too late. They had no more trees for building boats, and rains washed their topsoil away, and who knows, maybe even Thera’s devastating eruption was somehow linked to deforestation. The Easter Islanders also became extinct after cutting down their forests. The extensive and sophisticated Mayan and Incan civilizations mysteriously vanished after apparently severe droughts that some believe to be related to their own deforestation. With thousands of years of experience, and now numbering in the billions, shouldn’t we be wiser and more concerned? Did we necessarily have to trash our forests, wetlands, oceans, and selves?

Part and parcel of the universe, the storm was beyond us, not subject to our questioning or reasoning, not subject to our tampering. Instead, we were subject to it. Aloof from all our fears and hopes and joys, our jobs, our families, our projects, our plans, our problems, our ideas, our histories, the storm was itself, and its passing left me exhilarated, awed, and humbled, and I felt fortunate and grateful for the experience.

A few years later, I found myself riding another kind of storm, one that I was having much more difficulty with. I walked one muddy morning out along the orange dirt and gray broken boulder desolation of construction and highway, which was to bring speeding cars and buses and trucks and people and garbage and flies and the rest of modern Western civilization. I was amused by the continued impotence of man’s efforts to break through “The Stopper.” Already financed by international banks several times, each effort ended in failure. Rudely sculptured remnants of dead foreign bulldozers lay in the mud, rusting monuments to entropy.

Did it always have to be such a struggle? I enjoyed imagining being able to blame my personal feelings of insecurity on the defeated metallic monsters. I wanted to believe they were responsible for severing my roots, which had taken so many years to send out and take hold. It was a very satisfactory image, but only partly true. Though I often felt like a member of an indicator species or a displaced tribesman in danger of extinction, I actually was just a mix-blooded, mix-cultured, generally mixed-up gringo hungry for some convenient, ego-building, soul-asserting drama. It was rather fun assuming the role of heroic victim, eco-warrior battling the forces of evil. I’d daydreamed of attacking the highway machinery with my shotgun in a glorious “High Noon” shootout, proving something to everyone, achieving some sort of lasting triumph.

Sometimes I felt like the whole world bore down on me like the college psychologist, proclaiming that I was the self-absorbed narcissist, that I was the lost one, I was the mistaken, I was the one needing to adapt to them. The dozers and their drivers (no, not the drivers; they were too nice) were “them.” The “them” were indiscriminate hunters, the exploiters, the poachers, the loggers, the invaders, the banana companies, the bureaucrats allowing deforestation and poisoning - enemies of nature, mankind, family, country, planet, neighbors, me. Unwell daydreams - I felt embarrassed to be so easily taken by them, but I knew they still formed a true part of my darker self, the part of which I was growing tired. I no longer wanted to fight. My grandiose dreams of creating “a harmonious agricultural community nestled between pristine tropical ocean and rainforest” did not come true, but I didn’t regret having them. I no longer wanted to blame or be blamed. I’d always thought I was pretty smart about some things, but I really could not understand who should be responsible for putting themselves between the bulldozers and the rainforests. Where were the respective human representatives whose job it was to save our biosphere and species from extinction?

We are such a young species, such a unique one - surely it isn’t going to be easy for us to learn to accept the limits of our world and universe. Surely it isn’t so much a matter of “me versus them” as it is “we’re all in it together.” If I didn’t want to be chummy with certain people, or if I didn’t like a particular place or government or system, that was fine, but I need not fall into naïve and ludicrous self-righteous indignation. If I liked being warm and mostly vegetarian, it would not be wise to go and live with the Aleuts. If I wished excellent opportunities for my children, in a beautiful rural, clean, crimeless, diseaseless, nukeless, hazardless setting, I might have to do some very serious traveling or, more likely, reconsider my Edenic aspirations.

Life in the tropics (or anywhere) was never simply standard, linear, and black and white, as most of us modern, programmed humans seemed to expect or require. It was curvy and connected, and relative; there were always so many variables to consider, and surprises. Seeking the best circumstances and most favorable compromises for myself and my family was natural and praiseworthy, as long as I didn’t expect more than reality had to offer. Successful compromising, trading, sharing, symbiosis, benign selfishness - these were perhaps the keys to happiness and survival for everyone, for every creature on earth.

Out there among the agents of construction/destruction that were performing vivisection on Cantarana, I witnessed how the whole area’s once primitive scenario was changing drastically. As soon as they completed the bridge over the Morita River, no one would have to swim their cargoes or families across. No one would be stuck on one side or the other. No one would have to know how to judge the river or wait for it to subside. People would no longer cure with plants, but with pills they could go and get at the pharmacy. Intimate knowledge of the rainforest would be lost. Hunting and gathering would phase out. There would be no more mention of “el tigre” or “the old Tuli.” The oxen trainers, oxen, and oxcarts would become scarce, as would the entire horse culture. Most exploitable things would be exploited. Farmers would sell their trees and lands and waste the money and move to the city and regret losing their past lifestyles. The elders would no longer meet and exchange legends and stories and wisdom that younger listeners might have passed on to their children. Along with many of the wild animals that would disappear, so too would the people of the old culture. This was the story already unfolding in most of tropical America, and Africa and Asia and the rest of the world.

Gazing dysfunctionally at the horrifying spectacle of the once pristine Quebrada Chica stream being ravaged by many men and machines, straightened out and forced through a 3-meter-diameter, 50-meter-long aluminum culvert buried under 15 meters of dirt and rock, I noticed it was snowing.

Floating slowly down from high in the sky came little cottony clouds of air and fluffy fuzz, landing on me, and the bare dirt, and the men and their machines. Millions of them, each carrying a tiny, perfect, roundish seed. They came down so soundlessly, so softly, so humbly, so patiently, so surely, these timeless messages of new life, of God’s continuing creation sent out by Cantarana’s numerous balsos. On the road they had no chance for a future, but all along the sides they did. Balsos could somehow take hold and prosper, even in the most sterile circumstances. New trees were guaranteed. Highway or not. Me or not. The silent news made me smile.

Maybe the highway was okay, I thought. Maybe everything was okay and someday we would understand. Maybe it was less a matter of struggling so much with nature and man than it was of just trying to do our little part wherever we were, trying to be nice, positive, aware and helpful - trusting more in God and surrendering . . . or maybe I was just getting old.

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