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Anne Dalke's picture
We have spent the last two weeks with our brother-and sister-in-law, who are avid birders. We have seen some amazing birds and enjoyed some astonishing walks through cloud forests, rain forests, and other reserves (though I maintain that birding, like golfing, is a sure way to ruin a good walk: there are too many pauses for someone as impatient as I am!). We've enjoyed one another's company, sharing of new experiences, and laughing over old stories. We've also talked about our different ways of approaching the world, and came up with four different kinds of understanding (with each of us representing a different angle on the spectrum): there are those who "just live"; those who "admire and adore"; those who have to "find expression for their experiences"; and those who "ask questions about them." Birding is an act of recognition and admiration. Although I can appreciate how family members take great satisfaction and pleasure in seeing things in nature they never noticed before, that doesn't go very far for me. I approach life a little differently: I have always had a compulsion to do something with what I see, to connect it to larger patterns or questions or understandings. So I'm ready now to head back to the city (we arrived this afternoon in San Jose, where we will be living in Casa de Amigos and take up Spanish lessons again, as well as exploring the metropolis).

Our trip from Pacific Coast back up into the highlands entailed a 40-km. stretch of dirt road pockmarked with potholes (it took 3 1/2 hours), then another hour of paved road, driven @ breakneck speed in the rain - it was harrowing (though if I were that bus driver, after 3 1/2 hours on such a terrible road, I'd speed too, when I hit the pavement). Our next trip, out of the highlands and back into the cloud forest, across the "Cerro de Muerte" (Mountain of Death), was equally harrowing, though my sister-in-law, an inveterate optimist, noted that there was more leg room on the bus than there is on airplanes these days: "this is like traveling first class."

I've been thinking a lot about the contrast between her optimism and my skepticism, which I think is linked to my incessant questioning of what is, my imagining that things might be otherwise. In Spanish, "esperar" means both "to wait" and "to hope"; I suppose waiting always entails an expectation of change. But I've also been thinking about possible differences between hopefulness and speculation. Since leaving the Quaker settlement in Monteverde, we've stayed @ three different lodgings, the first two owned by ex-patriots -- Finca Amanecer and Talari Mountain Lodge -- and the last run by a Tico family who has long lived in the area: Paraiso del Quetzal.

The first was a spice farm, the second two birders' havens. There's certainly a sharp division between those who, in farming, change the landscape; and those who are trying to preserve the habitat, and offering guided tours to what is already there. At our last stay, the patriarch of the family had made the transition from logger, to farmer, to naturalist. When he had cut down a quarter of the trees on his property, he began to wonder what he'd do when they were all gone. So he started dairy farming. When the prices for milk and cheese crashed, and a Canadian friend suggested he could make money showing tourists the quetzals that frequented the farm, he turned his attention to preserving, and showcasing, the birds and their habitat. His sons and grandsons have followed him in this calling.

As I consider these varieties of ways of making sense--and making use--of the world, I've also been trying to get my head around the varieties of ex-patriot experiences and experiments here in Costa Rica. We've seen lots of ill-kept lots-along with lots of signs advertising "Paradise." We've seen lots of development--and lots more speculation. And I've actually begun speculating myself, about sponsoring a semester @ the Monteverde Institute, one whose overarching theme could be "Biodiversity all the Way Down," or "What is a Sustainable Life?" It would include a range of related courses:

  • biodiversity
  • diversity of sexual and gender identity/expression
  • linguistic diversity (=conversational Spanish!)
  • the human dimensions of sustainability (including both the history of the Quakers' "ethnic enclave" there, and field work w/ the three women's cooperatives in the area, including "Ecobamboo," which focuses on sustainable building materials)
  • sustainable education (w/ work in the five schools there-- three private, two public, two bilingual, two English-immersion; all sorts of class and accessibility issues...)
What say ye to these speculations?


Shaye's picture

And lo, she hath journeyed far and beheld worlds beyond knowledge, and in triumph brings forth great joy.
admin's picture

I like the idea of the semester at Monteverde with interdisciplinary courses and themes. I'm wondering what you mean by "all the way down" though?
Anne Dalke's picture

It's lifted from Clifford Geertz's essay on "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture":

There is an Indian story--at least I heard it was an Indian story-- about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked...what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? "Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down."

Nor have I ever gotten anywhere near to the bottom of anything I have ever written about....Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it commit oneself interpretive to commit oneself to a view of ethnographic assertion as "essentially contestable." Progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other.

e.'s picture

i think that all of the types you describe are, in a sense, "just living" but in different ways...i think that though i tend towards the "trying to find expression mode" i too am just living :)