COP21 Paris: Recap # 4

I was thrilled to hear yesterday that leaders from the nearly 200 nations assembled in France for the COP21 were able to finalize a new global climate agreement that will ostensibly limit greenhouse gas emissions to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) by 2050. It is not as strict or encompassing as many nations and climate activists had hoped, but it is a hopeful start to moving towards plans to prevent temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) and limit other devastating changes in the climate such a sea level rise, storms, droughts, and flooding. Many of these climate impacts will continue to be felt, but this treaty is the first step towards making all nations more accountable.


Below, I continue with my recap of my activities in Paris during the first week of the COP.

Day 5-6: Wednesday – Thursday, December 2nd – 3rd

These two days I was involved in the second of the three “Creative Factory” workshops that were organized by Place to B during this first week of COP21:

  1. Dismantling the Buying Imperative: Getting to grips with behavior change and identity
  2. The Balm of Nature: Reconnecting with the wonder and healing power of the natural world
  3. Invoking the spirit of change: Harnessing the power of spirituality, and broadening the engagement with faith-based communities.

Also held that week were a Transformational Media Summit –a workshop focused on talking about ecology with media professionals and an Urban Gardening Workshop that crafted some garden boxes out of recycled palettes and installed them around Paris.

The Place to B’s theme for Day 4 was What is the role of technology in changing the world? We need to scale up decarbonization with major Research, Development, Demonstration and Diffusion efforts (RDD&D) to develop low-carbon technologies and ensure their availability and affordability.

And for Day 5 it was How to reconnect with our human nature? What if we remember how it was when we lived in harmony with nature? What if we were reconnected to the earth, the biodiversity, the seasons? How can we recreate such a harmony? Is it possible?

 This latter theme fit in well with what we were trying to accomplish in the Balm of Nature workshop I participated in on Wednesday and Thursday. After several engaging and informative presentations by some of our co-pilots (David Holyoake and Chris Aldhous) and a few guest presenters (see photos below), we divided up into three groups. Our mission? To create projects that would reconnect people with nature.

My gang of four (myself plus fellow American Scott Shigeoka along with Eve Demange and William Tan, both from France) decided to create a card game. After a lot of brainstorming and planning we chose to name it WILD – to play with the double entendre of having a wild and crazy time but also to reference wildlife. Initially, we thought of our target audience as youths, ages 15-25 years old. But, after playing a test round with our co-pilots, we realized that everyone who played, from those in their 20’s to 50’s, seriously enjoyed it.


Notes from our brainstorming session on Day 1 of the Balm of Nature workshop

The game has two sets of cards – ones with the red WILD logo list daily rituals or activities that everyone around the world does and the blue ones list natural elements. A dealer turns over one of each card and the teams of two have one minute to share a memory or create a story to tell their partner using those two words. When the time is up a spinner is spun and whomever it points to has to share their story with the group. To spice things up there are several WILD cards in the deck that up the ante on the story-telling (for example: sing your memory or hop on one foot while sharing your story).


Our prototype cards

At the end of the second day, all three groups shared the results of their projects with the rest of the workshop participants (Click on the thumbnails to see the pictures larger):

When it came my team’s turn to share, we decided to vamp it up a bit, so we came dancing in to the song, “Wild Thing” by the Troggs. And since it was happy hour, my team bought a round of beers for all who played. (Note: If all players are of legal drinking age, we recommend making it a drinking game since it helps loosen people up a bit to share.) We still have a few kinks to work out in the game, but based on the response we got it seems to be fulfilling our wildest dreams of helping folks reconnect with nature and create a stronger sense of community.


Some of our workshop co-pilots playing “Wild” during our test run.

My teammates and I decided we liked the physical card game but recognize that if it was an online game it might draw a younger audience and create its own community that way. We envision there being a WILD gamer community and WILD parties. I am bringing our first run of the game home with me to test with my own students and see if our initial target audience of “today’s youth” shares the same enthusiasm for the game that our climate activists had. We were all asked to sign a creative-commons agreement that will allow our projects to be adopted and adapted by anyone who wishes to utilize them. Scott set up a Facebook page for the game so you can find the cards and instructions there! So go get your WILD on!

Days # 6-7: December 4-5th


Outside the climate negotiations pavilion, these pillars featured flags of the nations participating in the COP21 talks.

Although I was glad I was able to participate in the Balm of Nature workshop, I was anxious to go out to Le Bourget to see where the actual COP21 was being held and to check out the “Climate Generations” Pavilion. Since Place to B, where I was staying, was close to Gare du Nord, it made the trip up to Le Bourget very easy: just a short train ride and then another 10 minutes on shuttle buses provided for the COP.


A cool “abre a vent” or wind tree near the entrance to the COP21 buildings. Its “aeroleaves” spin to collect wind which is transformed into electricity. Unlike traditional wind turbines, its operation is completely quiet … and quite mesmerizing too. (Created by New Wind)

The cloudy skies that had been lingering all week had finally cleared, making it a gorgeous day for my expedition. I was hoping I might get to at least peek into the building where the negotiations were happening but as there were staff checking IDs and armed police were all around, I decided this would not be the time to try to push my luck.


A slightly surreal tableaux outside the Climate Generations Pavilion.


All week I felt attuned to the presence of the police in Paris. Even when safely inside Place to B, with some frequency, I heard sirens out on the street. I wasn’t sure if their presence made me feel more safe or more uneasy.

Unlike the building where the negotiations were being held, the Climate Generations Pavilion was free and open to the public. Three exhibition halls housed booths by over 100 organizations such as UNESCO, The Climate Reality Project (for which I am a trained Climate Leader) The Environmental Defense Fund, The Sierra Club, The Global Ocean Forum, and Birdlife International. Many cities from around the world also had booths touting their “green” economies. And, other special-interest groups, such as The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of Suriname and Women and Gender Constituency, were represented as well.

In between these three main halls were side rooms where presentations, exhibitions, and screenings were held. In the middle of the building, a wide main corridor contained a work area for journalists, a pedal recharging station, a booth that had a twister game set up, and a place to have your picture taken with a styrofoam #COP21 sign.

One of the things on my agenda that day was to stop by the booth run by Ecolise – “a coalition of organizations engaged in promoting and supporting local communities across Europe in their efforts to build pathways to a sustainable future.” I had met some of the Ecolise members at the International Permaculture Conference in the UK that I had attended and exhibited my photographs at in September. It was at the IPCUK that I met Gil Penha-Lopes who along with Tom Henfry were writing a book, Permaculture and Climate Change Adaptation, that they were hoping to have ready for the COP conference. They asked if they could use some of my Witness Tree photos in the book. I was very happy to support their efforts and even more pleased to see the published book available at their booth. It is a well-crafted and informative book featuring over a dozen of my photos!


Although there were many engaging exhibits at Climate Generations, and I met many interesting people, I found the overall atmosphere to be a little flat. I had felt much more energized by the vibe and activities at Place to B. So after several hours of wandering around the pavilion, I decided to head back to Paris. I wanted to rest up before heading out to La Recycleria, a hip hangout spot that was hosting performances by youth activists that evening and on many other nights during the conference weeks.

Day # 8: Saturday, December 6th

I knew there was a gathering of Climate Reality Project Leaders back out at the Climate Generations Pavilion, but I was feeling that I had spent too much time indoors and I was eager to walk around the city, see some more climate exhibitions, some art, and meet up with a friend from my travels for a cup of tea too.

My first stop was a special climate exhibit at de L’Hotel de Ville featuring displays about eco-energy projects from around Paris. I had wanted to try to visit some of these sites in person, but with limited time, I figured this was one way to learn about some of these green projects in one location.

Upon seeing this “Generous Tree” (below) I was wishing I had a front yard to “plant” either the “wind tree” I saw at Le Bourget or this one whose solar panels are said to provide me with “wellbeing, connectivity, and conviviality.” I wonder if my co-op board would replace the tree that used to be outside my back window but was felled by a severe storm with one of these? Surely the whole apartment building would benefit.



Next stop was Ice Watch – an installation by artist Olafur EIiasson and geologist Minik Rosing. It was originally scheduled to be at la place de la Republique but was moved to the plaza in front of the Pantheon after the terrorist attacks in November. The artwork consisted of 12 icebergs that had been harvested from the sea outside Nuuk, Greenland and were arranged in a circle like a clock. The installation was created so that the ice would slowly melt as the clock of the climate negotiations was ticking.

Even though I have been to both the Arctic and Antarctic and seen very large icebergs in person, this was still a magical experience. I especially enjoyed watching the expressions of the children as they interacted with the ice and were told some facts about the ice (80 tons of it!) and climate change by some of the Ice Watch guides.

After getting all chilly with the icebergs, I was ready to warm up.

I met my friend monastra_151205_8446Kathyrn Hudson for tea at Mariage Freres in the Marais – one of my favorite neighborhoods. If you have ever been to Paris – you know what a treat it is to have high tea there. And, if you haven’t been, you should put it on your list of places to visit when you next visit Paris.

I first met Kathryn in Hawaii when I was traveling during my 2011-12 sabbatical – doing the majority of my work on The Witness Tree.  I felt like I had come full-circle in filling her in on what had happened to the  project since we’d first met. It was good to reconnect with her after so long and, of course, the tea was delicious.

My last stop for the day was at Le Centre Georges Pompidou. As this was my last day in Paris, I couldn’t leave without sampling at least a bit of its wonderful museums – several of which had special exhibits to coincide with COP21. I had gone to the Palais de Tokyo earlier in the week with my two roommates to see Exit – an amazing video project created by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (and others).


A piece primarily about migration, it was originally created in 2008 but was updated to be screened during the climate conference. I found this video of it online but it doesn’t quite convey the powerful experience I had of sitting in a large, dark, circular room as its astonishing statistics unfurled on the long semi-circular screen  – both enveloping and implicating you in some of the sad facts of today’s world.

Although Centre Pompidou had some pieces that were selected to coincide with the COP – such as this installation by Thomas Hirschorn, Outgrowth (2005),


I spent most of my time there looking at a photography exhibit and film about Cuba by Agnes Varda, installations by Dominique Gonzalez Foerster and paintings / drawings by Wilfredo Lam.

My favorite exhibit, however was a long table full of tiny houses made of small colorful candles. Created by Chinese artist Chen Zen, the project entitled Beyond the Vulnerability was created in 1999 with children of the favelas he was visiting in Brazil. Although this exhibit was not one of the ones selected for the COP activities, to me, it has strong references to the climate crisis. monastra_151205_8477.jpg

A statement said that Chen Zen built these to reflect on the “precarious character of favela homes and the shimmering luminosity of Brazilian baroque architecture.” But, I was thinking, that if the government negotiators had not reached a global climate agreement, we may as well all be living in wax houses which would melt with global warming or be knocked down by increasingly severe storms or rising sea levels. We are not “beyond vulnerability” as some Americans and too many of our politicians seem to think.


Chen Zen states about his work: “I’m looking for a language through which I can engage with the source of the Universe and the heart of the human.” I agree with his goals, and I hope that through my on-going work with my Witness Tree project, that I can affect the minds and hearts of my audiences to think about our collective impact on our world.

COP 21 Paris: Recap #2

Day 2: Sunday – November 29th

I learned that in lieu of the Climate March, which had been cancelled by city officials after the ISOL attacks on Paris on November 13th, there was going to be a “Human Chain” of climate activists this morning. On a website I found that listed the event, it stated that the chain would begin at 1 but when I arrived around 12:15 at the end of Le Boulevard Voltaire, the chain was already mostly broken up having actually started around 11:30. (Apparently organizers did this to fool the police.) But many people lingered still – some chanting, others holding signs, while a group of angelic “climate guardians” from Australia floated silently through the crowd.



Some climate monsters?

I walked down Le Boulevard Voltaire as far as the Bataclan theater, the site of the worst massacre. Police had barricaded off the street in front of the club preventing anyone from getting too close, but flowers, letters, poems, photographs, and candles adorned a fence of the park opposite it. The band that had been playing that night – Eagles of Death Metal returned there to play last night (December 8th) after being invited to perform with U2 in a show of solidarity.


The Bataclan Theater



Another memorial near the Bataclan that marked a street corner where more killings occured.

Another memorial near the Bataclan that marked a street corner where more killings occured.


 Although I missed the actual "Human Chain" I was touched by this drawing whose words translate to: "We are the strongest"

Although I missed the actual “Human Chain” I was touched by this drawing whose words translate to: “We are the strongest”

The mood here was very somber, reminding me of the days after 9/11 so I decided to turn around and follow the crowd back to Place de la République where I knew there was another memorial, but where I sensed the spirit of the group would be more hope-filled. And it was. I spent time some time talking with some of those gathered: artists, activists, moms, kids, and monks. Most everyone was there in support of the climate talks. I was enchanted by a twosome that had umbrellas decorated with crocheted flowers attached to their bikes. I stopped them to ask about their project: Faites une fleur … au climat.

Sara (left) and Fabienne

Sara (left) and Fabienne

Fabienne told me that she and Sara (plus another partner who could not be there that day) came up with the idea of asking people to crochet simple flowers from recycled yarn in order to raise awareness about climate change. I told her about a similar stitching project I was thinking about and we agreed that we should try to stay in touch and do something “across the ocean” that would connect our ideas and projects. She expressed concern over the ISOL attacks but seemed hopeful that something positive would come out of the COP21.

Elsewhere at République, dozens of pairs shoes that had been neatly placed out earlier in the day to represent those who could not/would not march were now gathered in smaller batches around the plaza. (Some estimates state that there were over 10,000 pairs laid out at the start of the day.) Someone had lined several pairs up in the street and some of these shoes were now getting run over by cars that were trying to get through the activists
who were now dancing and singing in the street.


I thought it was a bit ironic that this car had the words - "Free like air" painted on its side. I did not catch why.

I thought it was a bit ironic that this car had the words – “Free like the air” painted on its side although I did not catch to what it was alluding.


Activists with signs that read ” State of Climate Emergency” and “Heads of State – Act for the Climate”


The memorial at Place de la Republique

Although I saw that police and their vehicles were stationed at the ends of the roads that led into the square, the atmosphere remained more joyous than boisterous for another hour or so. I noticed some protesters coming down one side street and as I went to photograph them, they covered their faces with scarves; they seemed of a different ilk than the climate activists that I’d been chatting with.

Around 2:30 as I was starting to head back to my hostel, I saw the police moving in closer to the crowd followed by their vans. I could tell things were going to take a turn and decided to keep walking. When I searched the news an hour later I saw that there had been clashes with the police. I was sorry to hear about the conflicts but at least pleased to see that French President François Hollande did not blame us climate activists. Some locals told me that the people I saw covering their faces were most likely there to protest the “police state” that had been enforced after the ISOL attacks.


The police and some Sunday shoppers who seemed oblivious to what was happening across the road in the plaza.

That evening at Place to B, the hostel where I was staying, more climate activists had arrived and were meeting and greeting one another over beer and wine and some live music. This hostel was going to be our home and resource center for the next week (or two weeks for some). I formed a quick kinship with my two roommates: Kelly, a professor of analytic psychology from Illinois, who was in Paris to assist in the making of a documentary film about a climate activist, and Lavinia from Romania, who is getting her masters in Environmental Philosophy at Keele University in England. Although we all had different schedules during the week, it was encouraging to end each day sharing stories of our daily experiences and hopes for the coming weeks of the COP.


Climate Resolutions

I am generally not a big fan of making New Year’s resolutions, but the more I learn about climate change, the more I’ve been trying to cut back on my carbon footprint. Each year (and not necessarily starting on New Year’s Day) I have focused on just one thing I can do to reduce my environmental footprint. The first thing I focused on after starting my research for The Witness Tree in 2010 was my driving. I teach on Long Island but live in Brooklyn. For the first few years at my job, I commuted 60 miles a day (return-trip), 4 days a week, 9 months out of the year. This equaled driving almost 9000 miles a year –  just for my job. Some days I took the LIRR (Long Island Railroad), but getting to and from the campus was problematic and frustrating and this deterred me from taking the train. Early on in my research I had learned that one gallon of gasoline produces 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide (diesel produces 22.38 lbs.) so I was determined to find a way to cut back on my driving. I bought myself a second, used bike for $25 which I keep at the train station in Long Island. (I keep my other 25-year-old bike in Brooklyn to use for general usage.) It’s not a pretty bike, thus no one bothers to steal it, but it gets me where I need to go. And since global warming has meant milder winters (this year being the exception) I have been able to ride nearly every day.

me_bike_ncc copy

My commuting now takes longer (about 1:45 hour each way vs 1 hour for driving) but I am much happier knowing I have significantly cut back on my carbon footprint. I actually prefer the train as I can read, answer emails, grade student projects, or just look at the passing landscape. I am also happy to be getting in a little exercise. It’s only about a 15-20 minute ride each way but that’s more exercise than I got sitting in my car. I don’t claim to be a saint. I still have my car which I sometimes use for other purposes – transporting large artwork, getting to sites to photograph for my project or freelance jobs, and occasional weekend escapes. But I have cut back my usage by at least 85%. I feel pretty damn good about that.

An unexpected side-benefit is that I have inspired some of the students. One student saw me bringing my bike into my office one rainy day and asked incredulously, “You rode your bike to school?” I explained how it’s only part of my commute, that I don’t ride all the way from Brooklyn. “That’s cool,” she said. “And you’re a professor?” I nodded. “That’s really cool!” she added. “Thanks. I think it is too.” In the four years I have ridden my bike to school I have noticed more and more bikes locked up along the railing where I often put mine. Although I don’t know if I’ve influenced any of those riders, it’s nice to know more people are joining me. Will you?

It is often said that one person can’t make a difference, but I believe otherwise. Recently I picked up a book of essays about the influence of Rachel Carson. I have enjoyed reading about her life and her influence on the environmental movement but it made me realize I never read her seminal book Silent Spring. Published in 1962, it drew attention to the harmful use of pesticides, primarily DDT. She is often credited with starting the modern environmental movement and although DDT was not banned until 1972, her book and subsequent appearance in Congress clearly brought needed attention to a terrible matter.

Although I am no Rachel Carson, I do have a voice and am also using my camera to draw attention to the critical issue of global climate change. So my first “resolution” or goal of this year is to read Silent Spring. And the second is to start sharing more of what I have learned about climate change on this blog and via more presentations with school and community groups. I want to share more of the stories I’ve collected from the people I have interviewed and photographed. And, as clichéd as it sounds, every journey does begin with a single step. I encourage you to think about what you can do this week, this month, this year to lower your own carbon footprint.

Happy New Year!

Rising Seas, Part 1: Tonga

Rising Sea Levels – Part One: Tonga

Preface: I started writing a post about sea level rise in Tonga and Thailand last summer when I was still traveling. But when I came down with malaria near the end of my trip, I never finished it. After Hurricane Sandy and a recent trip I took to Florida, I think now is an apt time to finish and post this while this issue is at the forefront of many people’s minds. 


A sunken boat off the island of Pangaimotu, Tonga

Seas are rising because of several reasons. The two primary ones being:

1)  As air and ocean temperatures increase, seas expand since warm water has more volume than cold water.

2)   Melting land ice from glaciers and ice caps is increasing the volume of water in the oceans.

I already mentioned the issue of sea level rise in my post on Hawaii  but the effects were much more visible in my visit to The Kingdom of Tonga. Located in the South Pacific, Tonga is an archipelago made up of 176 islands, of which only 36 are inhabited. Along with hotter temperatures, the biggest threat facing Tonga and all low-lying nations is that of rising sea levels. The people of the Cartaret Islands also in the South Pacific have the unfortunate claim to fame of being the first climate change refugees to be relocated due to this problem.

Compared to large developed nations like the US and China, small nations like Tonga contribute very little to greenhouse gases. Yet, this does not mean they are unaware of the causes and effects of climate change. I saw a poster at a local church encouraging residents to do what they can to fight climate change and take care of the environment.

Boy and climate change poster at Catholic Church in Nuka' alofa

Boy and climate change poster at Catholic Church in Nuka’ alofa

To get to Tonga I flew 3 hours from Auckland, New Zealand into the capital of Nuka’alofa on the island of Tongatapu. I was greeted at the airport by Makanesi Pale – a friend of a friend of a friend… who I thought was just going to be my ride into town but “Maka” ended up being my guide, translator, travel agent and guardian angel.  He dropped me off to have my first “couch-surfing” experience with Kathleen, a German nurse and dive master working in Tonga, and her 2 roommates Tahi and Delu.  They welcomed me into their home and quickly confirmed my suspicions that “Couchsurfing” is an amazing global social network helping travelers find a place to crash for free and/or someone to proudly show you around their town.

Since I had read that Sunday is primarily a church-going day  in Tonga, I asked Maka if he could take me to his. The main reason I wanted to go was to hear the singing which was indeed heavenly. The Catholic wooden-framed church was simple but elegant.

I was also enchanted with the traditional clothing that many of the parishioners wore. Men commonly wear taʻovala or “mats”  around their waist to show respect. The kiekie is the more decorative version worn by women. When a family member dies, Maka told me that the surviving members will wear all black clothing plus a more elaborate ta’ovala for up to six months.

Tongan children wearing ta'ovala mats

The boy in this picture is wearing a ta’ovala while the girl on the left is wearing a kiekie.

After Mass, Maka took me out to the island of Pangaimotu . It was brutally hot under the midday sun and although I would have preferred to be there later in the afternoon to photograph, the last boat back was at 2pm. Maka wanted me to see how the coconut trees were being killed by the salty ocean waters that flood the island every day at high tide.

Coconut trees being killed by rising sea levels

Coconut trees being killed by rising sea levels

He pointed out that local residents are trying to create a protective barrier around this island by planting mangroves along the coastline, but the ocean seemed to be winning the battle. Some of the mangroves were starting to grow but it would be a long while before these small saplings could offer any protection for the island.

Mangrove sapling planted to try to hold back rising seas that are killing vegetation on the island

A mangrove sapling at low tide, planted to try to hold back rising seas that are killing vegetation on the island

Maka trying to cool off in some shade

Maka trying to cool off in some shade on Pangaimotu Island

After returning to Nuka’alofa, Maka gave me a tour of Tongatapu – the kingdom’s largest island. We ended our tour at a spectacular place: the island’s blowholes. With the setting sun back-lighting the streams of water the effect was magical.

Tongapatu's magical blow holes

Tongapatu’s magical blow holes

I was mesmerized as water hit the rocks below me and then shot up sky-high through these naturally created blowholes. All the way up the coastline I could see spouts of dancing water. I wondered aloud if rising sea levels will take away this delightful experience once the water gets high enough to cover the rocks 24/7 instead of just crashing into them at high tide. Maka said he didn’t know but it could happen. I might have to go back in ten or twenty years and see what has become of this mystical phenomena that is one of the highlights of a visit to the capital.


Curious to see what was happening to some of the smaller Tongan islands, I headed north to the Ha’apai group of islands. I had wanted to take a ferry but was told it did not run on the days I needed to travel. I was lucky to get a seat on a renovated 1940’s DC-3 plane. Clearly Chatham Pacific (“The Friendly Airlines”) is very proud of it for in each seat-pocket they had a history of the plane they named “Tangaloa” or “God of the Sky.” Due to the slow pace and simple lifestyle of Tongans I was already feeling like I was in another era.  Once I got on this cool retro plane I really felt like I had traveled back in time.

The renovated DC-3 plane that took me to Lifuka.

The renovated DC-3 plane that took me to Lifuka.


Maka had arranged for me to stay at Evaloni’s Guesthouse in Pangai on the island of Lifuka. From my second floor balcony I enjoyed watching the school children and teachers walk to and from school. I discovered I was not the only one who found the March sun to be blisteringly hot as I watched the passersby shield themselves with parasols, books, and one student even used his guitar.

Students walking to school in Pangai under the heat of the morning sun

Students walking to school in Pangai under the heat of the morning sun

A couple of times in the late afternoon I borrowed a bike and rode up and down the island’s main road looking for areas to photograph that showed signs of the rising sea. I didn’t have to look hard as all along the shoreline I could see the effects from the rising waters and the erosion it was causing. Tupou mentioned that recent heavy storms had caused significant damage to the local hospital and that residents were now considering whether it should be moved more inland.

Sandbags have been put up along the shoreline to try to protect Pangai's hospital from further damage from rising seas and storm surges

Sandbags have been put up along the shoreline to try to protect Pangai’s hospital from further damage from rising seas and storm surges

In Tonga “inland” is a relative term since many of the islands are very narrow and long, so moving buildings away from the shores is only a temporary solution. From the western end of the island, residents used to be able to walk over to nearby Uoleva island at low tide, but this practice had now become obsolete ,as well as dangerous. Due to rising sea levels  the water is never low enough to cross safely at any time of day.

View from the tip of LIfuka to Uovela

View from the tip of Lifuka to Uoleva

An aerial view showing how close Lifuka nad Uoleva are

An aerial view showing how close Lifuka and Uoleva are

At the other end of the Lifuka, there is a narrow causeway that allows locals to drive to the next island of Foa. Apparently high tide now covers the road on a daily basis requiring a road crew to be on standby for frequent repairs.

monastra_120314_4140Since there was no way to walk to Uoleva I took a boat there to stay at Captain Cook’s Hideaway. There are no roads or cars on this island so the pace of life is even more laid-back.  The owner Sonny told me that he has noticed the change in sea level. He gave me a postcard that depicted a little bench he had made from driftwood for guests to watch the sun set over the water. “One day a few years ago I went out and the ocean had taken that bench. It was just gone,” he said.

Sonny showing me the spot where his bench used to be

Sonny showing me the spot where his bench used to be

Since it was off-season and I was the only guest, Sonny let me pick which fale (beach hut) I wanted to stay in.  I chose the one closest to the water. monastra_120313_3486

From my front door, I counted just eight steps to where the ocean came at high tide. I wonder how many years it will be before the water will reach the hut. Sonny told me: “I didn’t want to build that close to the water’s edge, but I have some guests who have come for thirty years and they begged me to build a hut closer to the ocean. Now I regret it, “ he lamented.

My fale at Captain Cook's Hideaway. The red line marks the top of the water during high tide - just 8 short steps to the door

My fale at Captain Cook’s Hideaway. The red line marks the top of the water during high tide – just 8 short steps to the door

I told him that some people in the US don’t believe that problems like rising sea levels are connected to global warming. He said they should just come there and see it for themselves. All along the shoreline, felled trees littered the beach. It reminded me of a graveyard or a battlefield with wounded soldiers.monastra_120313_3766

Trees next to my hut that are on their "last legs."

Trees next to my hut that are on their “last legs.”

At the edge of the beach, the red roots of palm trees were sticking out. They looked like exposed veins, raw and vulnerable.

monastra_120313_3650At twilight, many of the trees looked like creatures that were crawling into or out of the sea.

monastra_120314_3913 monastra_120313_3699

monastra_120313_3792I felt conflicted. Here I was in this beautiful tropical environment and yet everywhere I looked there were clear signs of how climate change is negatively impacting the landscape. It was a bittersweet experience. I wanted to chill out and just soak up the sun and surf while I was there but it was hard to relax wondering if Tongans will have the same fate as their Pacific neighbors of the Carteret Islands and have to leave their islands to find homes on higher ground. With sea levels predicted to rise at least another 18 – 55 cm (7- 22 inches) by the end of the century, it might only be a matter of time before my fale ends up being a house-boat floating out to sea.

Next up:  Sea Level Rise – Part 2: Thailand


I wanted to give an update since it has been several months since I have written.

I am back in Brooklyn settling back into life Stateside after nine months on the road. In some ways it feels like I never left. If it wasn’t for having the very visible marker of my nephew Leo turning from a baby into a chatty toddler with an ever-growing vocabulary, I might think it was all a dream. Of course, I also have many wonderful memories, dozens of new friends, and thousands of photographs to remind me what a rewarding (albeit bittersweet in terms of learning about climate change) experience it was.

As my travels progressed, I found my free time to write becoming more scarce (along with internet connections not always being what was promised at my hostels). I met such interesting people, especially via the “” network, that I ended up spending my non-shooting time with them, plotting and planning about where to photograph, and just learning about their cultures (and often eating delicious food!)

I still plan to finish writing about the rest of my experiences but decided instead of writing about my visit to each country, I will group my essays together according to the following climate change issues:  rising sea-levels, melting glaciers, drought / wildfires, and flooding.  I will tie in the way these conditions are impacting not only the landscape, but also people, agriculture and wildlife.

Since some of you may be wondering where else I went after New Zealand. Here was the rest of my itinerary and some sneak peeks at images (in order):

– The Kingdom of Tonga

– Australia

– Thailand

monk in Khun Samut Chen, Thailand

– China

– India / The Himalayas

Pindari Glacier

– Kenya (where a devlish mosquito must have bit me)

women at flooded area, Western Kenya

– London and Holland (where that mosquito’s dose of malaria caught up with me!)

I was supposed to end my travels in Germany, photographing their highest mountain, The Zugspitze, but the malaria knocked all the energy out of me. I am grateful I had friends in Amsterdam who got me to their doctors and then the hospital (Thank you Ivar, Sanne, Suzy and Yasha!) and that my mother came to nurse me back to health (a double thanks to you!). I feel very lucky I didn’t get ill until almost the very end of my trip.

There are other locations in Europe I would like to photograph next summer. I know the Zugspitze will still be there, but at the rate its glacier is melting, the snow may not (despite the large reflective tarp they use to cover the ski slope every summer). I also hope to cover more northern destinations next year:  Alaska, The Arctic, Greenland, Russia, and a little further south, Madagascar (which I had to skip over due to time limitations this trip.)

I know I couldn’t have done this past year of work without the generous support from so many of you. Gracias, Merci, Kob Khun Ka, Xie Xie, Sukriya, Asante! No matter what language I say it in, words cannot fully express my gratitude. I have updated my website to list the many of you who have supported me with financial donations, letters of recommendation, a couch to sleep on, homemade meals. travel companionship, informative interviews etc…If I have left anyone out or misspelled your name – I apologize, please let me know.

I am very happy to announce that I just received a Puffin Foundation Grant in support of The Witness Tree. I will be applying for other grants to continue working on this project.I am still fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, so if anyone is interested in making a tax-deductible donation to my help me continue project, follow this direct link to do so.

All the time I was traveling I was keeping an eye on what the climate conditions were back home. I know that few snowmen were created this winter and that record high temperatures were set all over the US. The hottest days I had to cope with were in Delhi where it hovered around 110 F during my time there.

I am heading out to San Francisco in a couple days to attend a conference by The Climate Reality Project. The focus of this meeting is to train a new group of concerned citizens to give presentations on the “reality” of climate change. I feel privileged to have been chosen to participate in the training. Starting this Fall, I will be available (in my free time between teaching and photographing weddings!) to give talks on behalf of Climate Reality as well as presentations on The Witness Tree. Please let me know if you are interested in having me speak to your school or community group.

When I realized my return flight from California was via a stopover in Chicago, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to photograph farms in Illinois that are being affected by this summer’s drought. ( I always try to tie in photographing for this project with locations where I will already be going to keep my carbon footprint lower!) Over the next year I hope to photograph in other US locations, including Vermont to photograph their sugar maple trees whose production is in decline due to global warming. If you have any suggestions of landscapes near your hometown that you think would be good to include in my project, please drop me a note via this blog or at cam (at) carolynmonastra (dot) com.

Stay tuned for more blog posts and a new website coming early next year!

New Zealand: Land of the Long White Cloud


When I first started researching places to photograph for this project, New Zealand was not one that came up high on the list of countries being affected by climate change. But since I had planned to go to Australia and my flight via the Star Alliance network was scheduled to go through Auckland, I decided to dig a little deeper. Although there was not a lot of news coverage about it I discovered that their two largest glaciers, The Franz Josef and the Fox in the South Island were in retreat due to global warming. And has often been the case on this journey, when I got to Aotearoa (or Land of the Long White Cloud, as the Maoris call their homeland) I learned of other climate change issues affecting New Zealand.

ImageI had an image in my mind of New Zealand being very mystical – both rugged with mountains and lush with mossy old-growth forests. I’m certain The Lord of the Rings movies, which were filmed there, reinforced that notion in my psyche. Thus I was a little dismayed to find so much clear-cutting of forests especially in the North Island.

ImageDespite the glorious double rainbow I saw with my travel partner, Jennifer – a Canadian from British Columbia, we were saddened by the geometrically planted rows of second-growth pine trees. It made the landscape look phony, like an architect’s model. Along some roads we noticed several places where landslides had occurred, an unintended side effect of cutting down so many trees and leaving hillsides bare. Thankfully once we reached the South Island the timberlands diminished and Mother Nature’s hand predominated.

Before heading south on the inter-island ferry we were privileged to spend a few days in Wellington (“the world’s smallest capital city”) with biologist Elizabeth Rose Heeg and her partner Anrik. Both of them have volunteered at the nearby Zealandia, a wildlife sanctuary where they told me I could see the tuatara, an endemic ancient reptile often called a “living fossil.” Since the tuatara’s sex is determined by temperature, with global warming of only a few degrees it’s possible that within the next eighty years only males will be born.


I was lucky to have an avid tuatura aficionado and volunteer roaming the grounds of Zealandia the day I visited. He pointed out a few spots where these prehistoric creatures were just coming out of their underground nests to warm themselves. They were so well-camouflaged I don’t think I could have found them on my own. Since tuatura were only reintroduced to the mainland in 2005 after having been extinct there for several centuries (due to predators and human development), these reptiles have already been battling the odds. Zealandia is doing an amazing job of giving them a fighting chance, but if the world continues to heat up due to global warming, their only chance at survival might be breeding in temperature-controlled incubators and not in the wild where they belong.

Our first few days in Auckland had been very rainy but by the time we reached the South Island we had several days in a row of sunshine. Driving along under clear skies we kept hearing stories on the radio about how areas of the North Island were being hit with a “weather bomb.” With 100 km/hr winds it looked like a hurricane had gone through some areas. Several cities were experiencing flooding as a result of the storms. A few Kiwis told us that the past couple months had been unusually cold and wet and many felt they had been cheated out of having a true summer. Could this weather bomb be a sign of climate change? It’s too early to tell but most climate scientists predict an increase of extreme weather events such as unusually heavy rains, as a result of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

When we hit the west coast of the South Island the rain started up again for us. This was expected: “They might as well call it the ‘wet coast,’” our b&b host in Murchison said. But thankfully this perpetually damp region also signaled the arrival of fertile old-growth forest. We had arrived in Middle Earth, a land definitely made for hobbits. We continued down the coast toward our destination reveling in the beauty of the scenery.

Although New Zealand has about 3000 glaciers (at last count in 2007 – it could be less by now) the Franz Josef and the Fox glaciers are the two most visited ones not because they are the largest, the Tasman at 27 km has that honor, but due to their easy access. Located in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park these two are unique in that they descend from the Southern Alps to less than 300 meters above sea level and end in a temperate rainforest. In the last ice age they reached out into the Tasman Sea. Both have a strong history of advancing and retreating in response to climactic conditions but in recent years, due to global warming, their retreat is more pronounced.

Before heading to the Franz Josef we stopped at the Info center. I learned The Maori call this glacier Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, ‘The tears of Hine Hukatere,” which comes from a legend in which Hine convinced her lover, Tawe, to climb in the mountains with her. Unfortunately an avalanche caught him and swept him to his death. Broken-hearted Hinehukatere’s many tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier. In 1865 German explorer Julius von Haast named it after Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria.

I explained my project to the fresh-faced representative behind the counter and asked if she could give me any more information about how climate change was affecting the glacier. She didn’t have any pamphlets but recounted that when her father was­­ a boy (about forty years ago) he had been able to see the face of the glacier out the windows of the church fifty meters down the street. “Poor little glacier,” she lamented. “I first saw it when I was eleven and it was so much bigger. I’m just eighteen now which is only seven years ago and it’s shrunk so much!”


I later discovered that a New Zealand postage stamp issued in 1946 featured a view of the glacier from the altar of St. James Anglican Church, erected in 1931. By 1954, the view of the glacier was gone but with one more significant advance, it made a brief repeat appearance in the 1990’s.


We stopped at St. James Church and even though the doors were locked and I could not see the view from the altar, no glacier was visible from anywhere on the property. We then drove another 5k along the Waiho River (formed by glacier water) to the car park and still no ice. We headed up a trail to a viewing platform at Peter’s Pool and. at last, way in the distance, and with the help of a telephoto lens I got my first glimpse of the Franz Josef.


Though this display (below) was erected to explain how this “kettle pool” would one day be filled in by encroaching vegetation and soil I found its pictures more of a commentary on the diminishing size of the ice sheet which is prominently seen in the photos but which we could only see a glimpse of from this vantage point.



“Poor little glacier” was right. Its tongue, split in two like a serpent, it was riddled with dirty ice and rocks. It was hardly the majestic sheet of ice that was represented on the postcards I’d just bought.


Top postcard is of the Fox Glacier with the Franz Josef below.

Our hope was to see the glacier in the glow of sunset but realizing that the mountains were going to block the sun long before it set we hurried down to the Glacier Valley Walk trail. It took us about forty-five minutes to reach the end of the trail where we were stopped by the stern-faced “ranger” warning us of the dangers of going any closer. Granted we were only seeing the face of its 12 km of length but it hardly seemed worth writing home about.


According to a 2007 report, glaciologists predict the tongue of the Franz Josef could be completely gone in less than 100 years. “Even with the minimum amount of likely warming over the next century, the glacier will shrink in length by 4 km, and reduce in size to three-quarters of its current volume.” says Dr Brian Anderson from Victoria University.” On a related note, I discovered that New Zealand has kept their own measurement of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere much like that of the Keeling Curve recorded at Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii (see my last blog post on Hawaii for more info).

The next day we headed to the 8 km Fox Glacier to see if it fared any better. The face of it looked healthier but neither of these glaciers could compare with the ones I had seen in Patagonia in December (more on them in a future post). I chatted with one couple from the curiously-named Doubtful Bay in the North Island who said they had been there just five years before and were surprised by how much smaller it was now. They said they knew it was melting fast because during their last visit there were chunks of ice as large as cars breaking off and flowing downstream in the Fox River.


According to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research the volume of ice in New Zealand’s glaciers have declined approximately 50% over the last century, while the country’s average temperature has increased by about 1° Celsius.


This chart from the US Geological Survey shows that the retreats of the glaciers are definitely outweighing any recent advances. I wonder if I come back in twenty or even ten years if any ice will be visible from the valley trails. We could have paid about  $400 to get a bird’s eye view from a helicopter and/or take a trek further back on the top of the glacier but with my backpacker’s budget this free hike was our only option. And truth be told, even though there might be more ice farther up the valley – what can be seen from a worm’s eye view should be enough to give anyone cause for concern.


The same “ranger” that we’d seen at the base of the Franz Josef was hanging out at the Fox Glacier the day we went (He seems to be everywhere in these parks!) I told him I was concerned about the rapid retreat of New Zealand’s glaciers. He agreed it’s a sad story what’s happening to the world around us due to climate change. But he gave me a pat on the back for the work I am doing with “The Witness Tree” to spread the news to everyone that we need to take care of this world since she’s the only one we’ve got!

Hawaii – A Tale in Two Parts

Part II: The Landscape

Although my primary goal in going to Hawaii was to visit the Mauna Lao Observatory to learn about atmospheric carbon dioxide (see previous blog post), I was also curious about the impact of our excess CO2 on this slice of Paradise.

When I arrived in Oahu it was mid-winter and since my first day there was quite rainy I needed to forgo the beach for an indoor activity. I chose the Waikiki Aquarium. I was already aware that oceans are absorbing some of the excess carbon dioxide humans are discharging into the atmosphere and I was hoping the aquarium might be able to shed a little more light on how this was specifically affecting marine and plant life in the Pacific.

Despite it being a small aquarium I stayed several hours reading all the wall text looking for clues about the health of the Pacific marine world. It was easy to linger since it was raining outside and the undulating jellyfish and the delicate sea horses mesmerized me.

The coral in the aquarium was gorgeous! I have not seen a lot of coral in my life but I was impressed with the variety of types showcasing a brilliant array of colors. The soft coral reminded me of showgirls, swaying seductively with the aquarium’s machine-generated currents.

Although there was a display about how monk seal populations are in decline due to various factors, there unfortunately was no mention of how climate change is taking its toll on this region.

When the skies cleared and I finally got in the ocean several days later I was dismayed by how unhealthy much of the coral reef actually is. I snorkeled in three different locations: Kealakekua Bay and Kahalu’u Beach (both near Kona on The Big Island) and also in Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve – a protected marine reserve in Honolulu, Oahu.

The fish may have been pretty but I was too distracted by the marked difference between how damaged this coral looked as compared to what I’d seen just days before in the aquarium. There have been several “bleaching” incidences over the years, most recently in the northern Hawaiian Islands that have taken their toll on the state’s coral reefs. The areas I was exploring are not the most damaged and yet they did not look the picture of good health either.

I contacted a group called “The Coral Reef Alliance” (CORAL) to see what information they could share. I did not get to meet with any of their representatives, but Liz Foote, the Hawaii Field Manager for CORAL sent me links to some interesting articles on how climate change is affecting Hawaii.

Coral is very sensitive to changes in ocean temperatures. With global warming causing the oceans as well as air temperatures to rise, much of the world’s coral has become stressed leading to “bleaching” of these fragile polyps.  Other climate changes that negatively impact coral are the rising sea level and more frequent and severe storms. I’ll be writing soon about my visit to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia so in that post will discuss in further detail the impacts of climate change on coral reefs.

photo of Chip Fletcher by Dennis Oda from the Star Bulletin

One of the other articles Liz sent is about how the projected increase of one meter in sea level (by 2100) will affect Hawaii, specifically the Honolulu area. Chip Fletcher, a marine biologist for the University of Hawaii has done research on this topic and since I spent most of my time on Oahu in the Waikiki/Honolulu area I appreciated seeing these photos of him noting where this increase in sea level would reach in spots I had visited. I also found the maps showing the breadth of this change very compelling.

Representation of what parts of Waikiki will be submerged with a one meter rise in sea level. The hostel I stayed at is marked with a red dot.

I have marked the location of the youth hostel where I stayed with a red dot. Since most of the rooms were on the 3rd and 4th floors one could conceivably still stay there in 100 years but you would need a canoe to get there!

It was on the Big Island though when I started talking to locals about my project that the effects of climate change were made even more tangible. I first stayed in Hilo, on the eastern side of the Island. Even though this is known to be the rainy side of the Island, I learned that they had just come out of 55 straight days of rain.

Terry Rose, one of the owners of the charming Hilo Bay Hostel where I stayed was the first of several people to comment on this deluge. He had brought a bowl of juicy grapefruit from his backyard to share with the guests. He apologized for them not being as juicy or as large as usual but explained that the heavy and constant rains had overwhelmed his garden even though it had been constructed with swales by the previous owners (a botanist and a landscape designer) to accommodate for Hilo’s usual rainfall. I thought the grapefruits were delicious and of a typical size I was accustomed to back home in New York – but Terry kept insisting they were sub par. He mentioned too how those almost two solid months of rain, especially since they came over the Christmas holidays had dampened everyone’s spirits as well as their yards.


After I had visited the Mauna Lao Observatory I got a ride to the western side of the island with two new Brazilian friends, Igor and Samantha who were taking their rental car back to the airport. Once we crossed over the northern tip of the island I was astonished how the lushness and farms of the Hilo-area gave way to bone-dry grassy hills. While I was Hilo I saw a report in the newspaper about a wildfire that had just happened on the Kona-side.  I’d forgotten about it until driving down the main road to Kona I smelled the scent of the fire still lingering even before I noticed that the trees on the side of the road were scorched.

I stopped to take a look and some photos. Having photographed after the wildfires in Bastrop, Texas that destroyed over 1,500 homes, this fire had thankfully done little damage. Still, it was a sign of the drought this side of the island was experiencing.

At The Pineapple Park Hostel on the southern edge of Kona I met Mike Holliday, the son of one of the owners of the hostel. A self-described artist, pro-skater, and farmer, Mike was born in California but his family made the journey to Maui on a houseboat when he was thirteen. From a young age he said he has felt connected to the natural world. Now forty-five, Mike discussed how he sees climate change affecting Hawaii. “I just want things to be cool and green,” Mike mused. I presume he was referring to the actual physical conditions as well as the political/social climate. From a farmer’s standpoint he noted that increasing temperatures have also led to an increase in invasive species. “There’s a weird imbalance now that wasn’t here before,” he said referring to their being more snakes and less insects.

Mike asked me if I’d been to Mauna Kea. I mentioned I’d just been there a few days before. “Did you know that its name translates as “White Mountain?” he asked. I hadn’t really thought about it.But when I later found a postcard of it this volcano, the highest peak in Hawaii, fully covered with snow the name seemed justified. Mike said wistfully, “There used to be great snowboarding  and even skiing there, but in recent years there has been barely any snow.“

And that was exactly how I had found it in the midst of winter – just a few patches of snow on the shady-side of the mountain. I wonder if I return to Hawaii in five or ten years if there will be any snow there or if will need to be renamed Mauna Ele’ele, or Black Mountain, for its rocky volcanic surface and lack of snowy white blanket.

Amazonia: The Lungs of the Planet

Looking out at an Indian family in a canoe on the Rio Negro through a break in the forest. I used to think the Amazon was just about jungle. Now I know it is about the interconnectedness of the trees, the rivers, the sky, and the Indians that live there.

Looking out at an Indian family in a canoe on the Rio Negro through a break in the forest. I used to think the Amazon was just about jungle. Now I know it is about the interconnectedness of the trees, the rivers, the sky, and the Indians that live there.

It’s difficult not to talk in superlatives when writing about the Amazon Rainforest; Amazonia, as this vast region in northern South America is called (roughly one-third of the continent), is the world’s largest river basin, covering over 1.7 billion acres (2,656,250 square miles). The actual tropical rainforest is spread over nine countries: Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. Home to the world’s richest biodiversity and to over half the remaining rainforests worldwide, the Amazon has rightfully earned the moniker “Lungs of the Planet” since it’s continuous recycling of carbon dioxide supplies up to 20% of earth’s oxygen.

There are several aspects to the issue of climate change in The Amazon Rainforest. The decades-long practice of deforestation* contributes to climate change via the increase in harmful greenhouse gases from two primary sources: carbon dioxide released by fires used to clear the forest for agriculture and cattle ranches, and methane from belching cows that replace many of those trees. In addition, this removal of large swaths of the jungle has diminished a valuable carbon sink for the world. Yet, The Amazon, like many natural environments, is primarily a victim of climate change. I had read about severe droughts (in 2005 and 2010) causing problems in some areas of the forest and was curious about what other effects I would uncover once there.

* Ironically, The Brazilian Forest Code is one of the most rigid in the world.  The problem has been a very deficient and corrupt inspection/monitoring system. The good news is that since 2005 there has been a sharp decrease in deforestation due to more thorough monitoring especially in the Brazilian states of Pará and Mato Grosso, the most heavily deforested areas. The state of Amazonas, where I visited the rainforest, is the best-preserved stretch of the Amazon rain forest: to this day. 

It is not easy to travel in the real Amazon as a tourist. There are plenty of “adventure” tours that promise piranha fishing and a trip to a rubber tree museum, but none can take you up river to visit the indigenous communities. Much of Amazonia is off-limits to non-indigenous people for a number of reasons: difficulty of access (limited number of roads, places accessible only by boat during the months of rains, uncharted regions), demarcated indigenous territories, unsafe areas etc.

Lalado gazing admiringly at the passing jungle from atop our river boat. I affectionately refer to him as "the Mayor" since he makes friends with everyone is always connecting people.

Lalado gazing admiringly at the passing jungle from atop our river boat. I affectionately refer to him as “the Mayor” and he makes friends with everyone is always connecting people.

I was lucky and privileged to have Luiz Eduardo Pontual Marx, a native Brazilian now living in Barcelona, acting as my conduit to the Indian* communities of the Rio Negro region. I met Luiz, aka “Lalado,” through my dear friend Carolina Freitas da Cunha who also joined us on our trip. Lalado had developed many connections in the Amazon through his studies of the healing properties of the flora, assisting on archeological digs, and running art workshops with the Indians. Through his connections he was able to bring us on a journey that most could not do on their own.

*Since in the US it has become customary to use the term “native American” I asked what the politically correct term is for natives of the Amazon and was informed that “Indian” is what is most often used.

We three started our expedition in Manaus, home of the famous Teatro Amazonas and Encontro das Águas – the Meeting of the Waters – the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões (what the Amazon river is called in this stretch of Brazil). During the rubber boom years at the turn of the 20th century, Manaus was a wealthy and happening hot spot in the jungle, known as “The Paris of the Jungle“. Today, its population is the only thing that is booming.  Currently at 2 million it’s expected to grow to 5 million in the next 10 years. Although there are remnants of its glorious past peeking through here and there, the soot and mold covering many of its former mansions makes for a sad sight. When I asked Lalado’s son Pedro (a lawyer in Manaus) if he thinks the city will be ready for the 2014 World Cup, he replied, “Ah yes, that’s a good joke.”

The Genesis III in port just south of São Gabriel da Cachoeira

The Genesis III in port just south of São Gabriel da Cachoeira. Since there are too many rocks in the river, these ferries cannot go all the way into the city. During the summer months when the river is low, the river boats cannot even go this far upriver and thus canoes are used to travel in this area..

The first leg of our journey involved taking the Genesis III, a typical Amazon river boat, up the Rio Negro as far as Santa Isabel. There we would meet up with Marivelton Barroso, an incredibly focused 21-year-old who is a coordinator for the Association of Indigenous Communities of the Middle Rio Negro (ACIMRN). He would be our guide and pilot our canoe the rest of the way to São Gabriel da Cachoeira (population 13,000), the northernmost city of the Upper Rio Negro. We were excited to learn we would also be joined by Ely Sarmento, another bright and motivated Indian who is a project coordinator with ACIMRN.  He joined us to learn more about The Witness Tree so that he could write an article about my project and our expedition for the local journal O Povo.

Our tribe of five: (left to right). myself, Ely, Lalado, Carolina, and Marivelton

Our tribe of five: (left to right). myself, Ely, Lalado, Carolina, and Marivelton

A dock worker carrying a refrigerator onto a river boat in the port of Manaus.

A dock worker carrying a refrigerator onto a river boat in the port of Manaus.

Even though the Genesis was to leave Manaus at 6pm and we arrived just after noon, the two decks of the boat were already crammed with hammocks. (The boat’s maximum is supposed to be 84 passengers but I counted about 112 hammocks with some of those holding a parent and child.) We managed to find spots to hang what would be our “homes” for the next few days and then watched the activity of the small port. Three of these river boats would be leaving that night and it was fascinating to watch them being expertly loaded with food for the journey, luggage, sacks of flour, TVs, motorbikes and even a fridge.

A man selling dried bananas to passengers on the river boats.

A man selling dried bananas to passengers on the river boats.

A woman crocheting in her hammock on the Genesis.

A woman crocheting in her hammock on the Genesis.

Our chef in his small galley kitchen.

Our chef in his small galley kitchen.

Our crew ran a very tight ship over our three-day voyage sweeping and mopping the floor and cleaning the bathrooms several times a day. It was certainly not a Princess Cruise, but I was impressed. They managed to feed over 100 people three full meals from a kitchen that was about the size (4 x 8 feet) of my own aptly named galley kitchen in NYC. Being the only native English speaker on board I was a curiosity for the children especially one doe-eyed boy who shadowed me around the boat. Although I was fortunate to have Carolina and Lalado translating for me, I wished I knew Portuguese so that I could communicate more with my neighbors on the boat. Despite the jam-packed conditions, everyone was very pleasant and polite. I wish I could say the same about the New York City subway at rush hour. One woman commented to Carolina, “The boat is like a mother’s heart, it can hold all of us.”

A woman from Barcelo likening the Genesis to a mother's heart that can hold many "children".

A woman from Barcelos likening the Genesis to a mother’s heart that can hold many “children”.

Passengers watching satellite TV as they wait for their turn to shower in the bathrooms to the left. Although I spent most of my time looking at the scenery, I caught glimpses of novellas, cooking shows, and even an Eddie Murphy film that was playing on the DVD player.

Passengers watching satellite TV as they wait for their turn to shower in the bathrooms to the left. Although I spent most of my time looking at the scenery, I caught glimpses of novelas, cooking shows, and even an Eddie Murphy film that was playing on the DVD player.

The crowded conditions of the boat didn’t really bother me during my waking hours as I spent most of my time either on the top deck or up in front of the pilot’s station taking in the unfolding scenery. After all, I was there to photograph the Amazon and I never tired of looking at it; the river, the trees, the ever-changing sky.

With so much wide-open space on the rivers of the Amazon, the ever-changing clouds are a feast for the eyes.

With so much wide-open space on the rivers of the Amazon, the ever-changing clouds  and sky are a feast for the eyes.

The water of the Rio Negro (The Black River) is clear but starts as a yellowish color when shallow and then builds up its density to a rich black like a cup of tea or coffee.

The color of the Rio Negro is clear not muddy. At shallow depths it is a yellowish-red then builds  to a rich black like a cup of tea or coffee at deeper depths.

The water of the Rio Negro, the “black river,” is dark like a cup of black tea. Although the river is very wide at spots it does not run very deep and the pilots of the boat need to be on watch for rocks, sandbars, and small islands. Lalado asked one of the pilots if we could see the river’s charts so that I’d have a better idea of where we were but was told they don’t keep them on-board. I was amazed how well our two pilots knew the river… mysteriously veering from the middle to the left bank then the right to avoid obstacles I certainly couldn’t see. They didn’t have any fancy gear to guide them – just years of knowledge gained from traveling along it.

One of our two pilots with a poster of a Statue of the Virgin Mary behind him. Catholicism is still a strong presence in many Indian communities although Evangelical Christians are gaining a foothold in some villages. Most Indians believe in God but also subscribe to their own Indian spiritual beliefs.

One of our two pilots with a poster of the Virgin Mary behind him. Catholicism is still a strong presence in many Indian communities although Evangelical Christians are gaining a foothold in some villages. Most Indians believe in God but also subscribe to their own Indian spiritual beliefs.

Our mid-January trip came at what is normally the very beginning of “winter” – or the wet season. Even though I’d never been there before the river looked swollen to me. A few people on the Genesis commented that over the past several years the heavy winter rains started earlier than usual. Generally “winter” starts in late January or early February but some locals noted the rainy season has begun as early as November in recent years. This year, the La Niña effect is partly to blame for more precipitation but as we continued our journey up river, we heard again and again that the rains had annually been getting worse.

A heavy rain storm catching up with us in our canoe.

A heavy rain storm catching up with us in our canoe.

I had thought that the recent droughts were a primary concern for the region but given that the Indians are so dependent on agriculture this excess rain is more problematic. One Indian mentioned that the rains had come so early this year that they missed the opportunity to burn an area of land for crops.* Now that the ground is so damp they will probably not be able to prepare it and plant this year.

* Unlike the destructive practice in other states of cutting and burning large swaths of the forest to clear the land for industrial agriculture and cattle ranches, the Indians use a more sustainable method of just burning small areas with superficial surface fire to prepare the soil. These areas are called “capoeiras.”

We spent a couple of days in Santa Isabel, a sleepy town of about 8,000 with fruit trees in every yard and dogs wandering the streets looking for love and affection. From there our posse of five traveled in an aluminum canoe with a small outboard engine to visit Indian communities* to ask them about their experiences with climate change.

An over-the-shoulder shot of my colleagues in our canoe.

An over-the-shoulder shot of my colleagues in our canoe.

North of Santa Isabel we entered Indigenous Territory, a legally demarcated area that is generally off-limits to non-indigenous people. When I saw these “Indigenous Territory” signs posted I realized how privileged we were to have Marivelton and Ely leading us on this journey. When we pulled up to a community, Marivelton would first go up to find the chief of the village and ask permission for all of us to visit.  We were not once turned away and were generally greeted with freshly made açaí juice, a variety of fruits, coffee and even a delicious traditional fish stew a couple of times.  The places we stayed at night also gave us a place to hang our hammocks and a breakfast of coffee and bijú ( a cracker-like bread).

*Most of the Indians we visited consider themselves to be of the Baré tribe although they may come from mixed Indian blood. There are also some cablocos (those of mixed Indian and European descent) living in these areas.

The colorful architecture of one of the Indian communities on the Rio Negro.

The colorful architecture of one of the Indian communities on the Rio Negro. This unique design was thought-up by the Village Chief. 

The communities varied in size, scale, and architecture but in all of them agriculture and often fishing was a key component of their daily life. In Brazil there is an ongoing battle over who owns the rights to the lands along the rivers of the Amazon. For now, much of it has been granted to the Indians, who their supporters call “The Forest Keepers.” Strongly rooted in the forest, this population is considered extremely important for conservation because they know the forest best and are increasingly aware of its importance.

Opponents say that the land along the river banks is too sandy to grow food and since it is flooded six months out of the year that it is not a viable place for people to live. (The recent discovery of oil in the Amazon is sure to add more fuel to this side’s fight to take land rights away from the Indians.  However, there is evidence from recent archeological digs that the land of the Rio Negro has been cultivated by the Indians for over 15,000 years. Archeologist Eduardo Neves* was one of the first to discover the rich humus-like terra preta de índio (Indian’s black earth) layered with shards of broken pottery that is proof of the early Indians being farmers and not just hunter-gatherers. Who better than to tell me about changes in the climate than the people in these communities where the oral tradition and connection to the land is so strong?

* For a great film on the Amazon and Neves’ work there check out National Geographic’s “The Lost Cities of the Amazon.” 

Shards of pottery we found along a stretch of "black earth" on the Rio Negro.

Shards of broken pottery we found along a stretch of “black earth” on the Rio Negro.

A father, daughter and their plans for dinner.

A father, daughter and their plans for dinner.

Despite the western clothing, satellite HDTV, pay phones, and even generators at some of the communities we visited, the lifestyle of the Indians of the middle Rio Negro is still fairly traditional and revolves around the river and the land. I watched açaí berries being smashed in a bucket to release their nutritious juice, saw farofa and tapioca being made from manioc flour*, heard a parrot being shot for that day’s supper, met a traditional boat builder, and saw children and adults fishing along the river’s banks. I also saw fields of manioc, smelled the sweet scents of a variety of ripe fruits, and heard the calls of a diverse array of birds.

* Manioc, also known as cassava or yuca, is an endemic root vegetable that is a staple of Brazilian diet.  Even before I’d arrived in Manaus I’d sampled at least 2 different forms of it in the traditional dish Moqueca de Peixe that used farofa and pirão.

The many forms of manioc. Here the plant ...

The many forms of manioc. Here the plant …

… the root …

….Goma de tucuri, the liquid squeezed out of the manioc root, often used in soups…

…being toasted as farofa …

… and bijú, a cracker-like bread.

An Indian chief showing us a plant used to treat "Impinge" a skin infection.

An Indian chief showing us a plant used to treat “Impinge” a skin infection.

The farms I photographed in Costa Rica (Verdenergia and Rancho Mastatal) were started by Americans who were consciously choosing to create sustainable living environments. But the communities I visited in the Amazon are natural agro-forest communities. Besides using the plants and trees to create utensils (bowls, sieves, platters) and build canoes and homes, they have a great knowledge of and respect for the medicinal properties of the plants.  Lalado told me that in the Santa Isabel region alone there are over 3,000 medicinal plants, most of these endemic to the Amazon.

All the Indians we met noted changes in the climate but as one missionary worker told us of her community, “Even though they may not understand the science of it, it has affected them psychologically.” In Manaus I bought a catalog from a 2008 conference entitled “Impacts of Climate Change on Manaus and the Rio Negro Basin,” sponsored by the Social and Environmental Institute (ISA), the Environmental Secretary of Manaus (SEMA) and the Sustainable Development Secretary of the State of Amazonas (SDS). This sense of emotional uncertainty among the Indians to climate change is further underscored in the catalog. Carolina translated sections of it for me and connected it to what we were witnessing:

Over the millennia, the close observance of the cycles of nature has informed much of the Indian’s habits, from cultivating to hunting and fishing, passing through rituals of all sorts that celebrate the delicate balance between community life and nature. It’s like they’ve built their cosmology on top of that observance.  The ensuing confusion and distress caused by the shifting climate must be really enormous on those communities, more so than in modern societies…[The catalog says that] the climate functions as one of the great organizers of decision-making in the life of communities. Take the Baniwa Indians for example, in order to find out someone’s age, it is not uncommon for them to ask “How many summers do you have?”.

A river boat dwarfed by the approaching storm. We got caught in several rainstorms on our journey up the river.

A river boat dwarfed by the approaching storm. We got caught in several rainstorms on our journey up the river.

Besides the heavier and earlier winter rainfall (which we experienced firsthand), some of the other changes that the Indians noted were an increase in both ant populations (which destroy their young plants), and mosquitoes, especially those that bite. At one village we saw signs posted warning of symptoms of dengue and malaria. Both infectious diseases are carried by mosquitoes and are expected to spread more as temperatures around the world increase. One study found a direct link to an increase in malaria in Amazon’s deforested areas.

One village chief also told us that the direction of the wind had shifted. “It would only come from the North right before the river was going to flood and now it comes from the North all the time.” For a culture not only dependent on the land but also extremely respectful of it, I wonder if they imagine that “the gods might be angry with them” in throwing them these environmental curveballs. I sometimes think Mother Earth is sending us warning signals to watch our behavior.

Another important concern noted in the ISA catalog states that the Amazon region is expected to suffer a 5 degree Celsius increase by the end of the century as compared to a 2-3 degree increase in the rest of Brazil. With most climate change predictions it is difficult to create solid models for future projections because of feedback loops that can affect or amplify changes. The difficulty of creating a “definite model” for climate change prediction in that region of the world is a valid problem and ends up creating two very opposing projected scenarios: one of increasing severe droughts and loss of humidity and another of massive increasing precipitation. This difficulty arises precisely from the intricate interconnection of a variety of life forms, including the human presence. As Carolina commented on this in an email to me: “From what we’ve heard, it seems like both things are happening. I, for one, sure got confused with what seemed at times like contradictory information, didn’t you? It’s like an uncontrolled yo-yo.”

As perplexing as it seems, the existence of opposing extreme weather conditions in many areas of the globe is an all too common scenario with climate change. As explained in the 2007 United Nation’s Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report:

In a warmer future climate, most Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models project increased summer dryness and winter wetness in most parts of the northern middle and high latitudes. Summer dryness indicates a greater risk of drought. Along with the risk of drying, there is an increased chance of intense precipitation and flooding due to the greater water-holding capacity of a warmer atmosphere. This has already been observed and is projected to continue because in a warmer world, precipitation tends to be concentrated into more intense events, with longer periods of little precipitation in between. Therefore, intense and heavy downpours would be interspersed with longer relatively dry periods.

An Igarapé – a small stream that goes into the forest.

Like many developing regions, the Indians of the Amazon have not significantly contributed to the causes of climate change. But because of their close relationship with the land they are more affected than those in industrialized societies who are responsible for higher greenhouse gas emissions. Since the Amazon is home to so many valuable natural resources (oil, gas, minerals, gold, trees, fish etc) it will certainly be fought over in economic and political arenas for years to come. But the over 30 million people from 350 indigenous and ethnic groups that live there and depend on the land should have priority over corporate interests. If the health of the Amazon continues to be compromised, all the world will suffer the loss of its important role as The Lungs of the Planet.

I’d like to express a special thanks to Carolina for her excellent role as translator, traveling companion, and sounding board in helping put this blog post together.

For more pictures from my journey up the Rio Negro … see the gallery below.




Pura Vida – Part 2 – Rancho Mastatal

I am now in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina but wanted to catch up a bit on my postings on Costa Rica before I leave for Antarctica tomorrow.  Internet access has been intermittent which has made blogging a bit of a challenge. But I will try to keep you all abreast of my whereabouts as time goes on!

welcome sign to town of MastatalRancho Mastatal is another permaculture farm started by gringos from the States – Tim (Timo) O’Hara and Robin Nunes – whom I unfortunately did not get to meet as they were in the US visiting family with their daughter Sole. Unlike VerdEnergia which can really only be reached by bus and then car (or a good long hike) Mastatal is on a bus route which does make it a slightly more convenient place to live/visit. Yet, even so, if one wants to run errands in nearby Puriscal it’s an 11 hour return-trip beginning at 5:30 am so it’s not a journey made to pick up a couple items.

bridge at the tilapia pond

Bridge at the tilapia pond

One of the bedrooms in the Hankey House

One of the bedrooms in the Hankey House

The Rancho was begun in 2001 and is spread out over 550 acres. Their buildings are not only sustainably constructed from local wood, mud, and bamboo but they are also very attractive. Located at the crossroads of Mastatal, the rancho sits across from the local soda (a small café where everyone from the finca eats on Sunday nights) and next to that is the police station and across from it is the bar. Thus the area’s main attractions are literally a stone’s throw from the main house, with the exception of The Iguana Chocolate Farm only 1 km down the road.

James enjoying some quiet time on a Sunday afternoon

James, one of the volunteer interns, enjoying some quiet time in the Hankey House on a Sunday afternoon

The Hooch, mi casa for several nights

The Hooch, my home for several nights

I stayed in “The Hooch” – a lofty two-story “hut.” Built primarily from native bamboo it is very elegant and airy. I felt privileged to stay in it as I think it’s one of the prettiest buildings on the property. There are no windows or walls, just tarps to help keep it dry during the rainy or “green” season as it is often called. The only downside of this hut is that it sways when there is a strong wind or when someone else walks across the room. The other issue is that to get to the second floor bedroom you have to climb up a ladder so it’s not good if you are afraid of heights or need to make a trip to the bathroom (a couple buildings away) during the middle of the night.

Which brings me to the subject of the bathrooms.  Both the fincas I visited had flush toilets in the house reserved for just peeing. All toilet paper goes in a trash bin next to the toilet and then gets composted (something I found is a common practice in Costa Rica to avoid clogged toilets).  Both places also had separate composting toilets that TP would go into along with a scoop of sawdust to help the process along.  But unique to Rancho Mastatal was their “Bio-D” toilet.  I had seen a video once about these bio-digestor toilets so it was interesting to get to see/use one in person.

The Bio-Digester toilets.  On the outside are mosaics illustrating the cycle created by using them.

The amazing Bio-Digester toilets. On the outside are mosaics illustrating the cycle created by using them. To note: the views from all the bathrooms and showers are quiet lush and green!

A bio-d toilet is similar to a composting toilet but is used for solid waste.There is a hose next to the toilet to “flush” down the contents into a holding tank underneath it. I believe this added water also helps with the process of converting the waste into methane fuel that then gets pumped up a small hill to the kitchen and gets used for cooking.  I know this might seem a bit repulsive to the uninitiated but I can attest from the cup of tea I made using the little stove it fuels that there is no residual smell.Actually, I think it’s kind of brilliant and is a good example of how Rancho Mastatal is committed to the full cycle of sustainable living.

The 3 stages of Mastal's composting stalls

The 3 stages of Mastal's composting stalls - another sign of their commitment to the cycle of sustainable living: The signs read: Let Me Be, Use Me, and Feed Me.

a shelf of books on food issues in the Rancho's library

Just one shelf of the Rancho's great collection of books on food, environmental and political issues

When I first arrived I was given a tour by Katina who, along with her partner Tyler, is acting as caretaker while Tim and Robin are away. The gardens here contained many of the same fruits and vegetables as at VerdEnergia: bananas, pineapple, passion fruit, cranberry hyacinth, peppers, water spinach, and various herbs to name a few. They also have lots of fruit trees spread out across their property. By the main house are hydroponic beds in which some eggplants and small tomatoes are being grown. The main water container for this set-up contained tilapia fish that will become food for their table once they got bigger.

A view of the main house looking across the verdant front garden.

Looking across the verdant front yard gardens to the main house.

Chepo, a local Tico who has worked at Mastatal since its inception

Chepo, a local Tico who has worked at Mastatal since its inception, carrys greens to feed the goats.

The Rancho employs several local Ticos who help cook and maintain the property. They are in integral part of the Rancho’s success. Besides various jobs around the farm, the volunteer interns help cook in the kitchen and are fully in charge of Sunday brunch. Needless to say the food here – like at VerdEnergia is delicious and farm fresh.  I got very spoiled.

The farm has 6 goats, about 25 hens, and 1 cocky rooster plus several cats and dogs. Approximately 30-35 eggs a day are collected, not always enough to feed all the guests but a fair amount all the same. I left the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and there was talk having chicken for their holiday dinner. I am sorry I had to leave before then since, as an occasional meat-eater, I would like to have participated in the butchering of the hens to feel more connected to what I eat.

Simon carrying a basket of fresh chicken eggs

Simon carrying a basket of fresh chicken eggs

The two billy goats in their stalls

The farm's two billy goats (Oliver and Fenway) in their stalls

Liv, her hands sticky from making empanadas, stands in front of the Rancho's wood burning stove

Liv, her hands sticky from making empanadas, stands in front of the Rancho's wood burning stove

Priscilla and Chet from France - making crepes and falafels for Sunday brunch.

Prescilla and Chet, volunteers from France, making crepes and falafels for Sunday's brunch.

The current residents at Mastatal were mostly Americans but they often have Europeans, such as Chet and Prescilla from France, who find their way there.  Most visitors are young adults ranging from their late teens to their early 30’s but there was also Stacy, a mom in her early 40’s, and her two adorable daughters – Mica, 11 and Liv, 9. One lasting memory I will take away with me from my stay there was Liv asking her Mom if she could use the machete.  (The answer was “yes” as long as there was adult supervision. Talk about trust).

Like VerdEnergia, Mastatal also accepts volunteer interns who are eager to get some dirt under their fingernails and learn more about sustainable agriculture. Just spending three days at each of these fincas left a lasting impression on me.  I look forward to the day I can return for a longer visit and help with more than just photographing their exemplary work.

Rancho Mastatal, where even the dogs are politically engaged

Rancho Mastatal, where even the dogs are politically engaged.

Pura Vida – Part 1

view from VerdEnergia Farm

View from VerdEnergia Farm

I’m on the road at last. After weeks of planning (getting vaccines and visas) and packing (four pairs of socks or five?) I left for my first international destination: Costa Rica.  My original focus in this laid-back land was just going to be The Monteverde Cloud Forest which due to climate change is turning into more of a rain forest. But after my friend Jose Conde spoke to me about several fincas (farms) based on Permaculture, I knew I wanted to visit them to show the flip-side of the story of climate change. Much of our world is being altered by our putting too much carbon dioxide in the environment but there are many concerned citizens who are working to restore Mother Earth’s greenery.

Finca # 1 – VerdEnergia

VerdEnergia mural

One of the many colorful murals painted around the finca

Located in the ultra-small town of Lanas, down a narrow-muddy-bumpy road southwest of San Jose, past Puriscal and Salitrales, it’s an adventure just getting there. But the warm welcome I received from the members of the VerdEnergia tribe made all the jostling worthwhile. Begun in 2006 by American Joshua Hughes and some like-minded compatriots who were seeking an alternative to the traditional consumer-based rat-race, they began this finca to embrace a more conscientious, sustainable way of living.

mushroom growing from a crack in the cementVerdeEnergia is a magical place where a mushroom grows from a crack in the cement to mirror its painted shadow and a late-night impromptu batch of chocolate  is made from cocoa beans from a local farmer. Food is,of course, of the essence here … from the fresh goat milk which is stirred in coffee, drunk straight-up or made into yoghurt and cheese, to the yucca that is chopped down in the field one morning and then graces the table that night in the form of crispy chips and a cheesy casserole. Yummm. My mother asked if I was eating well on my travels. She need not worry. The food was fresh, flavorful and plenty at both farms I visited.

Maiju making yoghurt

The resulting yoghurt with granola sprinkled on top

The resulting yoghurt with granola sprinkled on top

Cheese made with jalapeño peppers for some extra kick

VerdEnergia is on 20 acres of a former deforested cow pasture.  They are letting the jungle take back part of the property and structuring the rest to maximize the land’s potential for agriculture and to avoid landslides during the rainy season that are all too common on such deforested lands.

Swales cut into the earth help prevent landslides and make better use of rainfall for crops

Swales cut into the earth help prevent landslides and make better use of rainfall for crops.

A landslide created by deforested area down the road from VerdEnergia

Everyone who is staying at the farm takes part in the daily cooking schedule as well as with helping with the various farming and construction projects.

Two residents planting peanuts

Angel and Douwe readying the earth to plant peanuts

Caspar varnishing boards for new living quarters

Caspar varnishing boards for new living quarters

view of the main house at dusk

View of the main house at dusk

The farm is a colorful place with murals painted on many walls and a cool blue pool outside the main house. The current group living there is a multinational bunch hailing from the US, The Netherlands, and Finland.

The current crop of residents and volunteers at VerdEnergia

The current crop of residents and volunteers at VerdEnergia

A fledgling Jatropha plant

A fledgling Jatropha plant

Besides the farming and building a bigger “village” to extend the size of their community, a large part of their plan is creating biodiesel from the Jatropha plant (or tempate as locals call it). It takes several years for a plant to become capable of producing fuel from crushing its leaves and collecting the oil, but they have already started production. VerdEnergia plans to use this “green energy” for their own use as well as selling it to put equity back into the farm. I was amazed at the ease of planting the Jatropha and other plants by just sticking a branch into the ground and letting it sprout.

overhead view of a Jatropha plant

Overhead view of a Jatropha plant

With composting toilets, manual labour under a hot sun, and early-morning starts to the day, this lifestyle is not for everyone, but if you are interested in community living, fresh food, solar-water showers, and learning about sustainable agriculture VerdEnergia welcomes volunteers.

Maiju in the goat barn with a rabbit visiting from the other side of the fence

Maiju, one of the full-time residents, in the goat barn with a rabbit visiting from the other side of the fence

Pura Vida more or less translates to “pure life” but it is used in a much broader sense in Costa Rica to mean things like – full of life, awesome!, this is living! or even – this is awesome living!! It is often used in greeting someone or saying farewell.  It’s a catchy phrase that aptly describes my experiences in Costa Rica. I left VerdEnergia with renewed faith in our ability to reclaim land that has been deforested and depleted of nutrients. In my next post – I’ll talk about Rancho Mastatal, another permaculture finca down the road  from VerdeEnergia.