Saturday, March 29, 2008

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

visiting the cassava

river after storm

Garden Tour

The garden here is 8 years old with 4 much older trees. When the land was bought it was all lawn. We are steadily getting rid of the grass, replacing it with beds and trees. We are somewhere between 8 and 9 degrees north of the equator meaning we get roughly 12 hours of sunlight a day, though with our trees we have a lot of shade throughout. The garden runs roughly east west with the west end being ornamental, the middle the orchard and the east end the cottage garden.

Cottage Garden

The cottage garden is much younger, only three months. I began it this January and much of this writing will detail my experiences and experiments raising food in a tropical climate.


This is probably the most stable part of the garden, short of taking care of the trees already here, not much changes.

Ornamental Garden

This is the most established and colorful part of the garden. The main pond is here and the space is beautifully rich and full of bright heliconias and stunning bromeliads. Two of the big trees define the space and their large twisting roots provide anchors for many of the bromeliads.

the mini and the mighty

Two different creatures caught my attention today. Two scarab beetles rolled a perfectly round ball of monkey scat amongst the bamboo leaves. They were a bronze color that shone green in the sunlight, about as big as my pinkie nail. When I moved a leaf out of the way to see them better they stopped for a few moments before restarting their journey. They looked identical but one was slightly larger and because of this doing most of the work. Such strong legs, thick and fairly long: the ball they rolled was at least 4 times as big as they were. I wonder where they were going?

The other creature was a magnificent male iguana, about 5 feet long with his tail. He was a gray silver orange colour with dark bands of orange and black on his tail. A living mosaic, each scale merging with the next to give him a skin as supple and as shimmering as – well I was going to say a mermaid’s, but who knows if their’s would be so beautiful? He had two larger perfectly round scales on his cheeks, just like the painted face of a clown, except his were a gray-green. His eyelids were scaled, the palms of his hands with their long black talons, his nose. He was on the ground, unusual they usually remain high in the canopy, and he was moving slowly his whole body swaying side to side, I guess he saw me. He disappeared into the brush behind the house.


Went for a walk into the forest armed with my snake boots, long pants and sleeves and trusty machete, and my bucket. I’m slowly, slowly tending the cacao trees, removing water spouts and trimming ephiphytes and vines. The main harvest will be September and October, but there are fruits now here and there and none quite ripe yet. For now I’m watching and inspecting and gently clearing paths. My bucket is to gather last year’s pods which I use for compost. The soil here is a heavy clay and all life relies on a thin layer of leaf litter. This mulch is beautiful rich soil in the making. Tree roots spread out rather than dig deep making it quite a common thing to find fallen giants. These rot down over time and become soil. To find a fallen decomposing tree is exciting and allows us to harvest new compost and food for the garden. There is a fallen giant nearby and we have begun a serious mining operation to scoop out the beautiful dark organic matter from between seams of gray and red clay. I’ve taken about as much as I can just now and will have to wait for a bit more decay and a lot of weather and fungus before I can go further. Gardening takes time.

spring equinox

A big storm hit before dawn this morning. I woke at 4:30 to the Howlers, two troupes, one beside the house in the Fig tree, the other across the river, what a cacophony – they must have been heralding the storm, in the distance out over the ocean I could hear the thunder. After the monkeys came the loudest birdsong and most varied I’ve heard thus far. I was excited as yesterday I bought a field guide to Costa Rican birds and here they all were. Insect noise too, very strong and beautiful mixed with the birdsong. And then the rain came in, soft at first, I could hear it at the other end of the garden and then it hit my roof. It rained heavily for about 5 hours, overflowing the little pond, giving the tadpoles a rare opportunity to explore where they’ll soon be hopping.

We’re on rainwater here, altogether we have 9 tanks of various sizes and moss cover. The storm gave us overflow. It’s so nice to see that overflow – showers all around! I cleaned the gutter that feeds the giant tank yesterday – full of dead flowers and leaves and the odd millipede, it was only cleaned two weeks ago, but we’re in a dry month and the trees are dropping leaves: I moved 14 barrowloads to a new bed last week, this week another 10.

Now it’s early afternoon and I’m bottling some plum jam. I picked the coco plums yesterday at the beach. They are very pretty, round as round can be and a rosy shade of purple, not like the northern hemisphere plums at all. They grow on low scrub bushes with light green shiny leaves on the shade side of coconut palms, hence the name. Their flesh is white and spongy and astringent, it draws the moisture from your mouth, inducing you to eat more in a mistaken attempt to replace lost moisture. When they are really ripe they become sweet and less astringent, it was these I picked. It reminded me of picking blackberries – the same eager search and joy at finding a dense cluster of purple hiding amongst the green. Yet these are more fun to pick – no thorns, no snags, no bloody fingers. They are about the same size as gobstoppers and have one stone, much like a plum pit, the flesh clings to it the same way too. I chopped them and put the whole fruit

in, the nut inside the stone is edible and nicely nutty. The shell is hard, too hard to eat, we’ll just have to deal with spitting it out.

The ginger beer I started yesterday is slower than usual, the storm has kept the temperature in the 70s, now the sun is peeping through and it’s becoming rather humid. It’ll be ready tonight. Such a simple recipe – a cup of sugar, ¼ teaspoon of yeast, juice of one lime and as much ginger as you can handle – all mixed in a 2 liter soda bottle and left somewhere warm for 24 hours or so. Here it sits out on the deck for a full day and then it goes into the fridge to stop the yeast. Really delicious. I put tumeric in sometimes when I want it extra healthy. The ginger, tumeric and limes come from the garden and the sugar is the raw tapa dulce we can get here from minimally processed sugar cane.


I live in the far southwest corner of Costa Rica, by the Caribbean. I live on an acre of land carved from an abandoned cacao plantation. The rainforest is re-establishing itself, growing out and through the cacao: Almendro, Fig, Naked Indian, Bloodwood, Cannonball Tree, Cecropia and Breadfruit are among the original shade trees and interlopers which are pushing through the low cacao. Bananas and heliconias fill sunny spots where trees have fallen. The garden is bordered on one side by a slow moving river, turtles, otters, Basilisk lizards and fish inhabit its waters, crabs move readily between the forest floor and the river shore. Overhead three types of monkeys, Howlers, Spider and White-faced Capuchins eat leaves and flowers, Three-Toed sloths move slowly through the canopy. On the other side a 12 foot tall hibiscus hedge provides a barrier against the forest. A house sits at either end of the long roughly rectangular garden. This is where we live.

The garden falls into three sections: ornamental, orchard and cottage garden, we have two ponds with lotus and water lilies, and lots of frogs. In this blog I hope to share our garden, its inhabitants and something of the surrounding rainforest and nearby beaches. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

picking plums with Maria

On Thursday Maria returns to Japan for a year. I will miss her and her soft spoken mum who was always anxious to drop her and hurry away to meet her young lover. She would return smiling, late and wearing different clothes. Today was our last class. We went to the beach and picked coco plums, very tart round purple plums which grow on scrubby bushes on the shady side of the coconut palms. They are all around the point which this week is littered with people from the city camping under tarps for Semana Santa, Holy Week. It’s a tent city complete with SUVs, blaring music and babies, paddling pools and beach fires. We were the only ones picking plums. Maria is fearless in her search for new foodstuffs wanting to try as many tings as I let her. Luckily most of the plants by the beach are edible: papaya, coconut, almond, ginger, plums, sea grapes and noni (well one could debate whether the vomit fruit is actually edible). The herbs while not always so tasty won’t harm with a nibble: blue snakeweed, life everlasting, hibiscus, mimosa, zornia. We stopped at George’s for coconut and an extra big kiss, I think there’s a lot of drinking going on this week. His house has been repainted a sunny shade of blue, it looks good. His neighbors did it while he was off for a clandestine weekend in Bocas. I promised I would visit properly sometime this week. I like George. His last name is Hansel – the Hansels were a big family round here, one of the points is named after them. I think they came from Jamaica at the beginning of the last century. George hasn’t got back that far in his stories yet, but he will. I like George and Mister Eddie and ol’ John Brown, old time Jamaicans with strong hands and big smiles who speak a patois English that sings. They still work their gardens and we sit and sip ginger beer and swap gardening tips and I listen. And they tell me what the weather will do tomorrow and what plants are good for the kidneys and I pay attention and feel totally bathed in another life. I brought home some akee. It’s so good, tastes a bit like peas straight off the vine. It was brought from Africa via Jamaica and not many people here eat it. Perhaps something to do with it being poisonous when unripe and toxic when overripe. But at the right time it’s delicious. It’s fairly easy to tell the right time – the fruit opens by itself and when it turns brown it’s no longer edible. The local name is vegetable brain for fairly obvious reasons.

I feel a desire to learn again and to share too. This afternoon on the way home from the store, two girls cycled behind me, a vulture was picking through garbage at the side of the road and they saw it and stopped to take pictures of the big bird. Was it important for them to know what it was? I don’t know, probably not. When one is traveling what is important? That one spends money where it’s needed? That one broadens one’s own horizons? That one shares one’s culture and takes interest in another’s? This is such an incredible place. I would like to guide. Nothing big, just something low-key with some cultural history and natural history and maybe a little responsible, conscious living thrown in. I wonder if anyone would be interested?


I feel a little awkward sitting at my table, in the same way I think I would be if I had a cleaner in: you know that kind of not comfortable in your own home, not really able to relax, wondering if you should go out – I have house cleaner ants swarming everywhere. They are on every surface – ceiling, walls, floor, countertop. I’m glad I cleaned yesterday. They won’t find so much to do. They are walking right over the flour I spilt earlier, skirting the coffee that dripped from my mug, avoiding the teabag that just missed the compost bucket. They’re here for the insects. Flushing everything out before them. The lizards have left, a couple of big ones even that I’ve not seen before. I hope they deal with the scorpion under the sink. They’ve been here about an hour and a half, roughly half way through their visit. Ants are such incredible creatures, constantly moving and never going at a leisurely pace, always galloping about. The leaf cutter ants have a mini road within my path and at night they use it to go deeper into the jungle bringing out sections of leaves like sails. They don’t come this way during the day. There must be two shifts who work around the clock feeding their farms. These house cleaner ants were over at the big house yesterday, last night as I walked along in the dark my trusty wind up torch humming with the crickets I jumped through the mass of them half way here. They arrived this morning at 10am. Where did they sleep? Did they sleep? Where do they live? Will they go home again or are they on an endless journey?

. . .

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Not just the blog, but letters, articles and the big old book I’ve been working on. There was a three month period there when I spent at least 2 hours writing a day, often more like 4. But one day I woke up and that was that, I found I had nothing to say. Why, and does it matter anyway? The second answer is easier, no it doesn’t matter. The why requires a bit of self reflection and that seems hard just now. I have to wrestle myself into a position where I can look and god, I seem to not want that at all and will squirm and twist myself free with a million distractions and thoughts and sudden desires to do something else. There seems to be a cloud between myself and my ability to think clearly for any length of time. My head is full of dross, cloudy, fluffy swelling stuff that does nothing. I have a couch potato living inside my skull. I can’t express myself or describe anything, I’m tongue tied in prose. My sentence structure irritates me.

And life continues.

But I want to write, it’s a way to process, to catch or snag moments in time, I forget so readily that without writing it all slips by like a great thick oily river full of experiences and observations and incidents. In writing I dip my net in and pull moments or thoughts and lay them on the bank spluttering back into life. So please excuse me while I haul myself out of these waters and try to shake off the passing of time long enough to pause and reflect something. It might be ugly, or it might be banal. I feel I have to learn again.


Trees fall over all the time and when they do it’s surprising to see how shallow their root systems are. Big trees have enormous buttress or ariel roots to support the trunk which is usually amazingly thick at the bottom and tapers to a narrow top before widening out to form the canopy. I wonder if the canopy indicates how far the roots are spread. It rains here a lot, trees don’t need deep tap roots to find water.
When a tree falls it rots – quite quickly – and the rotting wood turns into the most beautiful soil full of mycelium and organisms. It gives back everything it took from the earth, air and sun.
When a tree is cut and cleared it gives back nothing – no new soil is made, the forest is robbed of the nutrients and matter it had saved up in the tree.
When a tree is cut and cleared there is nothing to protect the leaf litter below. First it is compacted and damaged by the men and machinery which remove the tree and then it is left at the mercy of hard direct rain and wind: it dissipates quickly.
The leaf litter and mulch is the only source of new soil, only source of ground nutrients in a rainforest. It’s very obvious. When we cut and remove trees we are not only destroying the natural process of growth, decay and regeneration, not only removing necessary habitat for other plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. We are actually destroying the very base on which all life on the rainforest depends – the earth itself.

feeling domestic

I think I’m feeling settled. I hesitate in saying it – I’ve been very wrong before countless times over – but I feel quite at home. Not borrowed, not visiting, not living on the surface, but actually stable. It feels good. Yet I’m still tentative. I was in San Jose at the weekend and I bought stuff ‘for the house’ – a few plates and bowls and chopsticks so I could return the awful plastic ones I borrowed from kindergarten. I suddenly have nice things. I feel like the time I leave this place will be the time I leave Costa Rica. Ooh, that feels strange and nice. This is my home. Perhaps if I keep saying it it will be. I made a vegetable garden yesterday. I cleared a corner of my space – a lovely sunny corner and mulched and composted it. It looks good. The soil here is very poor, all the life is in the leaf litter. This is I guess the same everywhere, but here it is very noticeable – under the 4 or 5 inches of leaf litter there’s heavy thick gray clay. To find garden soil one must look for rotting wood. There’s a huge tree stump behind the house in the jungle, armed with my trusty machete I clambered in there and hauled out 6 barrow loads of the most beautiful compost full of mycelium and earthworms. I have ginger and tumeric ready to plant out and cilantro and yams. I’d like some beans and pumpkin. The ground is too wet I think for root vegetables, even though my garden is all raised, hugelkulture style. I can make a taro and a yucca bed.

city trip

I just got back from a two night jaunt to the city. It’s only a brief 4 hour bus ride – going through a passport checkpoint, but I made it through. I’ve never been to San Jose proper before, just passed through overnight on the edges. I like it, it has the energy of a city while still feeling like a fairly small town. For those of you who know, it’s a bit like a big Paisley, but somehow it’s tattered and broken up appearance is justifiable, given it’s a developing nation. I went to a museum, some asian stores and somewhere to buy some decent crockery. We ate sushi and Indian food, I got mystery meat from street vendors and we rode lots of buses and did a lot of walking. It was fun. San Jose is in the central plateau and is high and dry and cold. There are mountains all around, quite beautiful. I heard church bells and saw familiar plants and went out at night. Though now I’m sitting writing this with my new rug beside me and my new wind chimes tinkling, listening to the sound of the frogs and insects and the ocean and it’s nice to be home. Did I say home, oh my.

making ends meet

I’m beginning to write for an online thingummy. I say that because I’m not quite sure what it is: a place where one can gather information on all sorts of things from cat care to starships to current events. It’s a little like, I guess it’s the Canadian version. I am contracted to supply 10 articles each 3 month period. Fine and dandy. I needed to find a way to put money on my skype account so I can call regular phones and I’m hoping this is it, they’ll pay me through an online account I believe I can then transfer (thanks Jon). I don’t get paid for the articles, rather I will some percentage generated through the advertisers depending on the number of people who a) read my articles and b) visit the sites of the advertisers who appear by my articles. Sounds convoluted, we’ll see. I’m surprised that people visit advertisers this way, but hopefully they do. I’m excited by the idea anyway. Oh it’s called

monkey to monkey

I’ve been truly blessed in my life with some wonderful wildlife experiences, this morning I had a good one. There’s a troupe of white faced capuchins come through the garden, howler and spider monkeys too. In the treehouse I was neighbours with the howlers who slept in the tree a couple of times a week. But until now I haven’t had any real experience with white faced, the spider I’ve only seen a couple of times. This morning, just after 7, the white faced were in the bamboo that bends over my roof. They are beautiful, furry dark and strong the males about 2 foot high at tops, and they all have a lovely creamy white mantle that begins over the shoulders and chest and thins out around their faces. They don’t have naked faces really, but the hair is short and they look quite pink. They look like us, short quick gnomish us. Big round brown eyes, 4 fingers and a thumb, watching, thinking, nervous but driven by curiosity and interest. Thick tails which are prehensile and work as well as any limb, curling long and gracefully around branches. There were 9 in the troupe, only two young ones, no babies and I’m not sure how many males there were. Every face was different, of course, different expressions. They were quite noisy, barking, cooing, almost hissing and chattering as the dogs sat and watched them from the ground. The one which I think was the oldest and male, at least he looked the oldest came close. He grimaced a lot and they have fairly big fangs – the white faced are omnivorous like us and eat lizards, birds, squirrels – the teeth were quite menacing. They open their mouths as if to bite and curl back their lips and open their eyes wide – how I imagine the Maoris did, except no tongues. And they bounce and shriek. And they throw branches. It’s true, it was fun to watch them throw sticks at the dogs, and at me – a pretty big stick too. They hold a branch with their tail, pushing against it with their feet and use the momentum of their bodies bouncing to break off large termite munched branches and then they eat the insects. I thought they were like arboreal gardeners – even more gnomish. I had 2 ripe bananas so I stood on a stool with my arms up holding the banana. He wanted it very badly. And he came close – within 6 feet, but nope, not yet, though we danced like this for 20 minutes. He lay on a branch and watched me, arms folded beneath his head, feet dangling and we hung out. I peeled the banana, broke it in half and left it on the water tank, climbing down to sit on the stool to watch him. almost as soon as I sat down he came down and got a half in each hand, went to the next branch and slowly ate both pieces. He chewed with his mouth open and slurped. I was surprised no one came to see what he had. When he finished he stayed put. I put the other banana on the house roof and waited. This was trickier – it meant he had to momentarily leave the tree. It took longer, but he did it. In our time together I touched my face 3 times and he copied me. He absolutely copied me. Same hand, same spot. This was amazing for me, it felt like we had communicated somehow, shared something. Earth monkey to white faced capuchin monkey. Beautiful.

happy new year

Happy New Year!

May it be a good one, full of pleasure, laughter, peace and hope.

I’ve had a great start to 2008 though it did give me some angst at the very beginning. I grew up being told that whatever I did on new year’s eve would be what I did for the year – what a lot of pressure and stress that created! The house had to be beyond spotless, clothes new, the body scrubbed fresh and still wet from the shower, pockets full of money and heads full of anticipation mixed with regret and fear. So this new year I deliberately went mellow: came home early from a party and sat outside watching the stars as the time moved forwards. The house was clean but the bin was full of trash, I didn’t have money on me, nor was I busy wishing others well. I have to say it was a struggle to put aside my conditioning, feelings of me doing it wrong returned several times. But what to do. I spent it the way I would like to spend the year – at peace, out under a beautiful sky breathing in fresh night air full of crickets and bats, with my dogs and with a full heart and a sweet home.

The next night was a party night going out to celebrate a birthday, dancing to a great band from San Jose, drinking and eating, swimming at midnight. Best of both worlds I guess. And since then it’s been nice. I’m trying to come down from a very social last two weeks, finding it a little hard to wean myself from the doing nipple, but it’s settling down.

I’m making ginger beer for my friends’ cafĂ© and just now am sipping on one that kept on fermenting, feeling a little buzzed and cooking. Had a close encounter with one of my huge house spiders earlier – don’t know who was more scared, her or I, but for sure I made the weirder noise – a sort of whinny. It’s a big spider. And now I’m chomping down on my latest craze – curried banana flower. Who would’ve thought it? it’s fantastic and they’ve been eating it in Asia for centuries of course, but for me it’s brand new. It’s bitter but delicious.

Tried again with the banana flower this time soaking it in salted lime water for an hour. Bitterness gone, super delicious! Took some over to Ray and Ron’s and they fried up some coconut, just little pieces straight off the shell then tossed with soy sauce and brewers yeast. Incredibly this looks, smells and tastes like pork! Hard to believe but true. What a discovery.


It’s Christmas morning. It’s pouring down rain, I’m wrapped in a damp shawl sitting at the table on my new deck wondering when the rain will stop. This is the fourth day and I’m wishing to see some sun. As I write this the rain becomes harder and clouds rumble overhead. I have guests and I wish for their sake that the sun makes his glorious appearance. Not least because coming up the road last night we took a detour into the ditch and I’m worried about the level of water around the car. This morning it was above the tailpipe. I don’t think that’s good.

But it is what is. And so worries aside I’m sitting here watching the rain and the lizard who’s enjoying his Christmas breakfast of fruit flies around the cacao. He’s very beautiful: a dark red colour, about 5 inches long and he holds himself just like a tiny komodo dragon – very statuesque. This might be his first experience with plastic as he’s trying to snap the fruit flies through the container. I wonder if he’ll work it out.

Christmas. Last night I was with a family and as we ate dinner we spoke about Father Christmas and listened to carols. It was very nice and reminded me of my childhood where Christmas was all about anticipation and the idea that some complete stranger would just give you what you wanted – and more. Isabella and I had made toffee and as she wrapped it and left it out for santa claus I remembered leaving carrots out for his reindeer and the excitement at reading the note he always left in response to my letter. One year the reindeer didn’t eat the carrots and I was very sad to hear that they were sick. It was a wonderful time with this strange fat old fellow who seemingly knew about everything you did and would reward you. Perhaps he was the closest thing to god growing up in my house – though his realm of influence only lasted through December and was promptly over as soon as the wrapping paper was tidied away. But I think that was enough – just the idea that somewhere there was a benevolent, kindly, magical soul who knew me and gave me gifts was heartening and shaped my understanding of the world: Santa was always there and he was happy. An enlightened being who dealt in consumables and material goods to get his point across. And what was his point? That anticipation, excitement and sharing are gifts. Perhaps.

Christmas as a child is a lesson and encouragement in manifestation – what we ask for we receive. If only we could remember this our whole lives.

So this Christmas what gift would santa give me? What do I ask for and give myself? I want to give myself the gift of love: to see myself as worthy, to value, trust and listen to, to respect and care for and love.

I went for a walk on the beach this morning. It was raining, I was in my pajamas (I’m much closer to the beach now), and the dogs were having such a great time. The ocean gave me a gift: a beautiful heart shaped seed. I sang all the Christmas songs I know belting them out to the wind and the rain and the waves. It was fun. The rain is easing just a little and a hummingbird feeds from the hibiscus.

Peace on earth and goodwill to every living being.


i found somewhere the day after i heard i had to move. it's interesting how life is. . .

My new pad is adorable and I want to be here for a while. it's further into the jungle, by a river closer to a beautiful beach. it's 2 rooms, an outdoor bathroom and has a comfortable deck. it's the caretakers cottage for a larger house owned by a wonderful couple from Humbolt. What are the chances? but then there's no such thing as chance. the garden is full of fruit trees, the river has otters, there are spider monkeys as well as white faced and howler. it's good. it's all good.