Boat at sunset, Costa Rica, March 16, 2019 | Photo by ade fathurahman via Scopio, St. George News
CHARACTERISTIC – Our local guide tilted the flat-bottomed boat to the left and slowed toward the edge of the Tempisque River in Costa Rica, the branches of lush vegetation scouring us under the fiberglass canopy.
His Spanish was brisk as the boat stopped and he pointed to something interesting with a small mirror in his right palm.
None of us saw it. “A long what? My Spanish didn’t quite have the words for what he was saying and the only thing of any length that my vision registered was the trunk of a tree twenty feet away. And yet the mirror continued to flicker along its ashy white patterned trunk.
“Lo ven – you see it,” he asked in thick, tacky English, still flashing the side mirror up and down the trunk.
And then I did – see it. Or rather them. Nine little creatures forming a tidy row of ash on the trunk.
But what they were, I still didn’t know. Their flared shape gave them the appearance of starfish, although they were painted for the forest and not the sea. Perhaps they were moths or spiders. Or some weird local bug.
“Wager,” repeated the guide slowly. “Paris with a long nose.” I repeated the last word in my mouth, without always understanding: “Paris.” Paris. Paris.
“Bats! Long-nosed bats,” someone in the group exclaimed.
With the mystery finally solved, our guide smiled softly and directed the boat back to the center of the murky brown river.
For the next hour, as we wandered through Palo Verde National Park, he tilted from side to side, shining his mirror on the teeming wildlife just outside of our view. gringo: more long-nosed bat colonies roosting on trees; a troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys scratching the canopy above; and a boat-billed heron placidly perched on a branch with its big black beak and even bigger black eyes surveying the water.
The guide’s mirror flashed on large Lubber grasshoppers swaying in the tips of long green grass; lizards and iguanas that appeared to be doing iterations of the upward facing dog yoga pose; a baby crocodile that looked like a branch on a floating log; and a nine-meter crocodile that looked like a log itself.
The only animal the boat operator touched was one of the Lubber Grasshoppers who hopped amiably on his finger and then walked away just as amiably, after showing us the bright orange fan the hopper displays to ward off predators .
I tried to imagine what it was like to be one of those animals on the banks of the Tempisque River, watching boats full of pale-faced visitors pass by day after day. Do we entertain them? Do they recognize any of the guides? Do they have their favourites? Do they hate us for the plastic bottles floating in their river? Do they worry if they will find enough to eat? And, perhaps more importantly, are they worried about something else eating them?
Science again warns against anthropomorphizing animals — giving them human emotions and human experiences — but it’s hard to avoid.
Just that morning, I had seen an ant trying in vain to pull its crushed comrade off my yoga mat in the sand. And I felt sad. It was just an ant, I know. But he probably had a family – and maybe he had hopes and dreams, however tiny.
And these monkeys are smart. Perhaps smarter than us in some ways – capuchin monkeys figured out that rubbing garlic leaves all over their bodies is a natural mosquito repellent.
Swedish journalist Patrik Svensson says in his Book of Eels that one of the things that influential nature writer and biologist Rachel Carson did that made it so effective was exactly what science warns against. “Rachel Carson anthropomorphized the eel to help us understand it better, to let us imagine the eel’s experience and better understand its behavior.”
I guess it’s because we can’t protect what we don’t understand. Or at least what we are not trying to understand.
When we returned to the rusty “turismo” van waiting for us in the dirt parking lot, the driver, Douglas, was eager to hear about our adventures. “Did the monkeys come in your boat,” he asked. “I always bring bananas to get into the boat. Tourists like that.
Those within earshot silently shook their heads, thinking of the two large signs we had seen in the boat that warned against feeding animals. And I was glad Douglas wasn’t on the river with us. As well-meaning as he was, perhaps he had taken Rachel Carson’s example too far and made the monkeys too human.
As we descended the dirt road, Douglas stopped to rev the engine to entice the howler monkeys in the trees to vocalize. They wouldn’t. As much as he tried. They would not respond to his call. Neither should they.
Kat Dayton is a columnist for St. George News. All opinions expressed are his own and do not represent the staff or management of St. George News.
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