All is forgiven here at the cabin in the Cloud Forest at Monteverde here in Costa Rica. The sin was simple enough to atone for: replace the propane tank that heats the water that feeds the shower that enables you to wash away the sweat and terror, unruly dust and apprehension that accompany zip lining hundreds of feet above the tops of very tall trees at speeds approaching 50 miles an hour over distances as great as half a mile, a third of a mile longer than your biceps and triceps believe you can hold on to the device that holds you on the thread-thin cable that balances you between the most beautiful green canopy and a blueness of heaven that never looked so close or so ominous. But you don’t let go because your fingers have cramped into a vise-grip and because those fingers have no interest in your plunging into the oncoming platform upside down, head facing in the wrong direction, and no prospect of braking or throwing your legs
apart and forward to crash-bang into a soft mat reducing your speed from 50 to 0 in one jarring jolt. So you take deep slow breaths, try to appreciate the greenness of the mountaintops, keep your wits about you while all about you—well you know your Kipling as well as I. But daughter and granddaughter do you proud by cascading through all seven zip-falls and actually enjoying their moments of flight.
Plummeting down from far above the Cloud Forest is not the only activity here on Monteverde. Not by a long shot. There’s a night walk; that’s the one where you might be lucky enough to find the nocturnal frog whose skin discharges the poison that will kill you in minutes. There are snakes and adders who, apparently, have no problem gobbling these and other frogs. The vibrant blue butterfly (one who feeds exclusively on rotting fruit whose disintegration produces volumes of alcohol so that the species is perennially drunk) retires for the evening. The blue signifies to hungry birds that this fellow is poisonous. Nighttime, however, reveals the butterfly’s real color: brown, juicy, edible brown. For added protection, the brown wings now display, on the lower half, and owl’s eyeball, surely enough to frighten off a small bird. The upper half, should the attack come from above, mimics a snake’s head and its glowing eyes. Now imagine the moonlit jungle trail above which hangs a serene three-toed sloth who, barely turning his powerful neck, watches the drunken butterfly cascade past with never a straight line to conduct his flight.
Jorge, who taught us all this, is a very happy young lad. Naturalist studies are both his profession and his hobby. He sees everything—newts, howler monkeys, quetzals, the third smallest orchid in the world which is so small your camera can not get close enough to focus clearly on its delicate, mostly invisible tendrils. He knows the Latin, English, Spanish, and local nicknames for everything in the forest. He knows the numbers of species of ferns and butterflies. He knows how to pick up and stroke a millipede without being sickened by its coating of cyanide. He doesn’t do zip lining anymore because there is so much more to see when your nose is pressed to a medicinal leaf and your ear is tuned to one of the fourteen distinct vocalizations of a beetle whose name I have conveniently forgotten. Jorge is so well attuned to the forest that even his trousers cooperate with his lectures. Need to confirm the identity of that bird, that fern, that root? Out from a pocket comes the appropriate plasticized, foldout chart. Want to know the relative size of the million beetles resident above 5000 feet? Another pocket produces a thicker, though still abridged, pamphlet. Don’t believe that’s a female quetzal? You should know better says yet another pocket. I suspect he has, in his deepest pocket, a Roget’s and a Jane’s Fighting Ships aftermarket-fitted for jungle applications.
He has eaten one of those cyanide oozing caterpillars, but he didn’t make us do so even though we were deep in the jungle and needed to master survival skills.
I can’t say as much for Brittany, the Minnesota undergraduate who, as an Environmental Recreation Major, has landed the great internship for her senior year: docent at the Monteverde Butterfly Garden. She breezily talked Graylin into eating a live beetle (really, not much bigger than a gnat, but still. . .), so her mother and I had to follow suit. “Tastes like pepper, right?” queries Brittany. She also handles tarantulas, loves bugs of all sizes and colors, and, when you are sensitized to insect life, leads you into three different habitats to luxuriate among the hundreds, thousands of butterfly species. Once more, the especially gorgeous blue (but really brown) ones dart drunkenly about, undone by their fermented diets.
Alexa, I fear, is so content on this green mountain that she might well abandon life in America and reside, Thoreau-like, under the vast green canopy, the steady stars, the random morning visits of a dashing red macaw, and, I confess it, the occasional visit of her urban father whose triceps still ache and who screeches like the howler in the freezing shower.