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 “couchsurfing.org” 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.

Hawaii – A Tale in Two Parts

Part 1: Monitoring Carbon Dioxide

I went to Hawaii on a pilgrimage. Not to discover whales or surf the big waves but to visit the Mauna Loa Observatory on The Big Island. Most people, locals included, are more familiar with the shiny astronomy observatories located on the nearby Mauna Kea, the highest mountain in the Pacific. But I was interested in this lesser-known research station on this slighter lower but larger volcano. The Mauna Lao Observatory (MLO) was established in the late 1950’s by scientist Charles Keeling to measure and study the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

I was lucky enough to be touring the facilities on the same day as Dr. Kevin Harrison who had been a student of Dr. Keeling. In continuing the lineage to Keeling our guide was Aidan Colton a former student of Kevin’s.  I felt like I was among climate change science royalty. Kevin and his girlfriend Beth graciously agreed to drive me up to the lab since there is no public transportation to get there.  It was a bright warm winter day when we started out in Hilo, but the temperature dropped considerably by the time we got to the lab. And since Mauna Loa (translated as long mountain) is more than 13,680 ft / 4,170 m above sea level we also noticed that the thin air caused us to feel a bit light-headed.

Keeling  chose to build this lab in Hawaii since he wanted to a place where the atmosphere was not polluted to ensure the accuracy of his measurements. In addition to Keeling’s original carbon dioxide analyzer, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) also funds a newer separate CO2 monitoring device. The complex of several buildings are part of the Earth System Research Laboratory – Global Monitoring Division (GMD) based in Boulder, Colorado.  The GMD consists of several projects focusing on different but related issues that affect climate change: such as The Aerosol and Radiation Group and the Ozone and Water Vapor Group.

After seeing the fancy shiny observatories at Mauna Kea the day before I was surprised by the Rube Goldberg  appearance of these facilities. The complex is made up of several corrugated metal and wood buildings. Yet despite the simple construction of the labs, the work they do there is very important in monitoring the rising rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The MLO is responsible for the longest continuous record of atmospheric CO in the world.




A little background

Before the industrial revolution the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was a steady 275 parts per million (ppm) for about 10,000 years.  When Keeling started his studies, that number was 315 ppm. On the day I visited it was 396 ppm with the average so far for this year being 391. Aidan explained they always work with averages collected over many days rather than using any one number that might signify a high or low spike. The staff is also careful to disregard any false numbers that may be influenced by other particulates in the air such as when extra sodium dioxide is blowing downwind from nearby volcanoes.

Part of the carbon dioxide analyzer at the MLO

One of the first things Keeling noted from the early measurements is that the concentration of C02 varies seasonally reflecting the growth and decay of vegetation in the Northern Hemisphere. Hence in the spring  the level drops as leafy trees and plants absorb more atmospheric C02 and in autumn the concentrations begin to increase again as trees become bare. And more importantly, over time the Keeling Curve, as it’s become known, has shown connections between the increase in the global combustion of fossil fuels and the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

A poster from 2006 showing the Keeling Curve hanging in one of the MLO buildings

Even though we don’t need scientific charts to tell us that the climate is changing, lining up the Keeling Curve with one showing the increase in global temperatures underscores the relationship between the two.

Polar ice is melting, sea levels are rising, and storms are getting worse.  And some of these effects have further feedback loops: For example, as the reflective white surface of ice sheets melt leaving more dark sea to absorb heat, ocean temperatures are also increasing. And it’s not just the atmosphere that is absorbing more carbon dioxide but the oceans as well (more on that in Hawaii: part 2).

Essentially the level of CO2 has risen steadily by 2ppm each year since the 1950’s and there has been more than a 37% increase since the Industrial Revolution level of 275 ppm. In the early years of climate change studies, scientists thought that number could safely increase to 550 ppm. But as more studies were done that number was lowered to 450. Then in 2007 NASA scientist James Hansen announced that 350 ppm is the highest level that the earth can safely sustain.  Since we surpassed that number several years ago we need to work hard to try to get it back down. Pessimists might say that it’s too late. But people like activist Bill McKibben (who started the group 350.org) believes in focusing  our efforts to motivate politicians to take action instead of just making hollow promises.

Reading McKibben’s books The End of Nature and Eaarth and Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren made me aware of how important the studies at Mauna Loa are. Both authors point out how dangerous it is to ignore this rising CO2 figure and just continue with a “business-as-usual” mentality. Even if we did change our dependency on fossil fuels overnight, much of the damage that has been done cannot be repaired. But I don’t think that is reason to give up the fight. I have followed the activities of 350.org for a couple of years now and am inspired by how strong their presence is worldwide. I urge you to check out their website and consider getting involved in a local chapter.

At the end of our tour Aiden gave Kevin, Beth, and I each a glass tube to capture our own CO2 sample which he sealed and marked with the date and the current level of 396 ppm when we captured it.  I periodically check NASA’s Vital Signs of the Planet website to monitor their current stories and statistics about climate change including concentrations of CO2  so I will check it with greater interest now that I have been to Mauna Loa. And I pray that the little vial of carbon dioxide on my shelf will become a relic of the past when/if the levels of carbon dioxide start dropping as we humans learn to curb our dependency on fossil fuels.


I am publishing this post from Sydney, Australia on March 31st marking the city’s 5th annual Earth Hour. This event was begun here in 2007 as a way of drawing attention to the issue of climate change. Now over 135 countries around the world take part in turning off their lights for at least one hour between 8:30 and 9:30 pm  I will be in the Sydney Harbour watching as they dim the lights on some of the city’s iconic landmarks and buildings.  Where will you be? Maybe there is a local event in your city that you can attend.

And if you can’t attend an Earth Hour event tonight or are reading this after the fact or are  looking for ways to reduce your own carbon footprint, here are some websites to guide you:

A carbon footprint calculator from The World Wildlife Federation (the original sponsor of Earth Hour). From Squidoo, 101 ways to cut back your footprint,and interestingly enough – a list from conservative Fox News.

Good luck and good night!

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.




Antarctica: The Great White South

The Great White South: Antarctica

I feel very privileged to have visited the Antarctic Peninsula. Words cannot really describe how awe-inspiring it is, and I don’t think that pictures can fully convey what it’s like to visit there either. But I hope through both my words and images that you can share in a little bit of the magic and understand through the references I’ve included how climate change is affecting this important place. This is a lengthier blog post so you may want to pour yourself a winter warmer as you settle in to read it.

The Akademik Ioffe - a Russian research vessel and our home for 10 days

The Akademik Ioffe – a Russian research vessel and our home for 10 days

Days 1 -3

From the minute our trusty Russian ship, The Akademik Ioffe, pulled out of port in Ushuaia (the self-proclaimed “end of the world”) there was excitement bubbling up among the 64 passengers on board. Since the boat can hold about 100 guests, we were an unusually small group. In addition to charmed Hillary Guy from the UK who won her trip with a 1 pound auction ticket, there were about 13 lucky backpackers who bought last minute tickets at discounted prices. (Hint – apparently the voyages that set sail just before the Christmas ones are generally less full and thus you are more likely to be able to hitch a ride last minute). I also felt lucky since I paid to share a triple cabin but got upgraded to a spacious solo cabin.

Our cruise was run by the Canadian-based company One Ocean Expeditions. We were joined on our trip by the company’s managing director, Andrew Prossin. Andy has been coming down to Antarctica for nearly two decades. It was a pleasure having him aboard as I learned firsthand about One Ocean’s commitment to conservation on the Great White Continent. From using low-emission fuel to offering carbon offsets for their trips, they take their company philosophy (“the world really is one ocean”) very seriously.

It was clear that not only does Andy still get a thrill from being in Antarctica but, that he also takes great pride in his spirited staff. I cannot praise them enough. I truly believe that their many years of experience and boundless energy were a large part of what made the trip so worthwhile. With the daily sultry wake-up call by Chad Gaetz (“Good Morning everyone. It’s another beautiful day outside”), the informative daily presentations by the knowledgeable staff, the attentiveness of the Russian crew, and the friendly pourings by bartenders Andy and Rose, I felt very pampered.

Day 4

After 2½ days of a relatively calm crossing of the infamous Drake Passage, I awoke at 5:30 am for my first glimpse of the Antarctic Peninsula. At first I thought I was seeing just dense clouds out my window but after a few blinks of my dry eyes I realized it was Land Ho! I headed up to the bridge and was soon joined by more of my shipmates. Eyes wide with wonder and reverence, we sailed to what would be our furthest point south  (65°104’) until chunks of brash ice forced us to skip our intended first destination of Peterman Island and head inland to Damoy Point instead.

an iceberg near our first landing

An iceberg near our first landing. Only 10-20% of an iceberg’s mass is above water.

Two Gentoo penguins

Two Gentoo penguins

After donning our gum-boots and Christmassy-red “wet skins” we marched down the gangway to waiting zodiacs which whisked us off for our first of ten excursions off the mother ship. Here we had our first encounter with a rookery of Gentoo penguins.

Although I took this trip to primarily photograph the landscape, I must admit I was impressed with all the wildlife we saw:  the many sea birds (albatrosses, skuas, shags, petrels, gulls…), seals (Weddell and Leopard) and of course, penguins. They sure are cute – but stinky! As our landing was downwind there was no way to avoid the stench of their guano. We had been warned of this by shipmates Rebecca and Paolo – penguin “counters” working on behalf of the nonprofit group Oceanites – and they did not lie. While these two gals were allowed to enter the holy sanctuary of the rookery to gather eggshells and click their counters the rest of us were asked to stay five meters away from the penguins which was sometimes hard to do as they would curiously saunter close to us.

I slowly tracked up a hill turning every so often to take in the views behind me. The staff said we could explore at our own pace but asked us to stay on trail so that we didn’t create deep “post holes” with our boots that could create traps for the penguins. At one point I got on the trail between the two Japanese men on our trip. The one ahead of me turned to make a comment to his friend and seeing me instead just lifted his arms up to the view and voiced something like “wowwwwwouuuu” – to which I replied , “Yes, wowoooowwwwouuuuu.” No translation needed. We were in full agreement about the stunning landscape in front of us.

After a couple hours of exploring we reluctantly headed back to the ship for a hearty lunch and to gear up for our next outing to Danco Island. I reveled in the subtle but constantly changing luminance.  The snowy white glaciers set off by dark skies were a treat for my eyes. In fact, sometimes the peaks in front of me looked like meringue. When asked by someone if I thought I got any good pictures that day – my response was, “I feel like I am photographing a supermodel.  It’s hard to take a bad picture of such a gorgeous subject.”

That night about 40 of us took advantage of clear skies for an optional night of camping on Ronge Island in the Errera Channel. I had hoped to stay up all night but once most everyone had settled into their sleeping bags and bivy sacs I too, succumbed to the warmth of the snowy “grave” my new Dutch friend Marvin had dug for me. I managed to stay up to watch the sun more or less “set” at 23:55 (it never really got dark) and saw the first glow of the sun that was to officially “rise” at 2:30.

Three shipmates sleeping in their "graves" as the sun sets on Ronge Island

Three shipmates sleeping in their “graves” as the sun sets on Ronge Island

sunrise over our campground

A very early sunrise over our campground

Day 5

That morning with the sun shining more brightly we docked in Neko Harbor for an even more spectacular view (I fear I am going to run out of superlatives while trying to describe the landscape) of the bay surrounding us. We spread out among the Harbor’s hills each finding their own space to savor the sunshine. Our artist-in-residence, David McEown painted a watercolor of the harbor while staff member Kristy Wright did some yoga. Others watched more Gentoo penguins while some lucky kayakers and zodiac passengers got to commune with some humpbacked whales.

Our afternoon expedition took us a little further north to Paradise Harbor, an aptly named spot but instead of making a landing we spent some time exploring  Andvord Bay in the zodiacs looking at some very large icebergs and a few ice shelves.  I was glad I had this opportunity to see the ice so close-up as the naturally sculpted forms are very stunning and this is what I had come to photograph.

Ice is melting faster in Antarctica than anywhere else in the world and the rate of melting is accelerating more rapidly than was initially thought. Ninety percent of the world’s ice and about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is contained in Antarctica. Since the 1940’s temperatures there have been rising an average 0.5 degrees C per decade. In the last fifty years it has risen a total of 3 degrees C. If all the Antarctic ice melted sea levels would rise over 6o meters. Although this is not likely to happen in our lifetimes there are predictions that If Antarctic ice shelves continue to melt sea levels could rise 3 meters by the end of the century.

An iceberg I thought looked like a sea monster

The end of a large iceberg that looks like a profile

According to NASA, since 2002 Antarctica has been losing at least 100 cubic meters (24 cubic miles) of ice per year. The ice in East Antarctica is currently fairly stable, as it is a cold high desert about 1.2 km (2 miles high) and little surface warming is occurring there now. West Antarctica is where most of the melting is occurring since it consists of a series of islands covered by ice and most of which is sitting on the Southern Ocean floor and not on land. With ocean temperatures on the rise large ice shelves are collapsing into the ocean as their underbelly gets weakened.  (Ice shelves are thick floating pieces of ice fed by glaciers which are essentially moving rivers of ice.) In the last couple decades, two of the three parts of the Larsen Ice Shelf and the Wilkens Ice Shelf collapsed. Over 20 billion tons of ice has been lost in this area since 2001. Ice shelves act as a sort of “plug” at the end of a glacier so when the shelves break off, the glacier starts to flow more rapidly.

A large ice shelf that has broken off a glacier

A giant tabular iceberg that has broken off a glacier

Currently a group of international scientists are studying the Pine Island Glacier to see the effect of warming ocean temperatures on its melting process. This area is the new “hot spot” that climatologists are keeping an eye on.

When queried about the ways in which they see climate change affecting Antarctica, some of the One Ocean and Oceanites staff members noted the following changes: glaciers that used to extend farther out into the bays are visibly receding, rocky peaks are appearing earlier in the season due to warmer temperatures, penguin populations are both shifting and declining.

The edge of a glacier that is breaking up

Day 6

The skies were overcast and heavy with snow for our expedition to Spigot Peak in Orne Harbor. We climbed up a steep hill to observe a Chinstrap penguin rookery that contained over 400 birds (although we only saw a portion of them). It was amazing to witness the heights at which they build their nests. Apparently they chose to nest so high since higher rocky outcrops get more snow blown off them earlier in the winter and thus make for better nesting areas despite the demand of having to climb down so far to get food.

In the afternoon we went to Cuverville Island in the Errera Channel which hosts the largest colony of Gentoo penguins on the peninsula (approximately 4,500 birds). There was one lone Adele penguin who kept more to himself and I found him quite stunning with his dark head with a bright white circle around his eye.

Ron Naveen, the director of Oceanites who joined us near the end of our voyage gave a presentation on the current state of the penguin populations in the Antarctic Peninsula.  While Gentoos are thriving and even on the increase in some areas, Chinstrap and Adelie populations are on the decline. Since Gentoos prefer open water and are more opportunistic colonizers they are the “climate change winners.”  Adelie and Chinstraps are the “losers” since they are more ice-loving and “obligatory” colonizers who will not seek out a new home as the ice decreases near their usual habitat. Gentoos also have the upper-hand as they will also eat fish but Adelies generally eat krill (a small shrimp-like crustacean) which are on the decline as ocean temperatures warm. I salute this organization for their hard work in keeping an eye on the changes happening in Antarctica.

A rare sighting: all three Peninsula Penguins together in one spot: upfront are two Adelies, in the middle back is a Gentoo and on the far right a Chinstrap

Day 7

We spent the morning in the zodiacs in Wilhelmina Bay. Humpbacked whales had been sighted in the bay so we wondered if we might be lucky enough to come upon them in our little boats.  I was in a zodiac piloted by “Whale Whisperer” Liz Calhouln. Liz has been leading whale watching expeditions in Canada for many years so even though I came to Antarctica to witness the landscape I was hoping her svengali powers might bring a whale close enough to photograph. After thirty minutes of cruising around and taking in the views, we spotted some humpbacked whales in the distance. Within minutes there were two of them were within meters of our little zodiac. They were next to us before I had time to change my long telephoto lens for something more practical.  Not knowing how long they would stay near us, I quickly made the decision to make a video (still to come! I couldn’t upload with the weak internet signals I’ve been getting) of them rather than shoot still images. I am still amazed how gentle these giants were around us.  They clearly just seemed curious as they surfaced to get a view of our boat several time before swimming away.  It was breathtaking to be in their presence.

 In the afternoon we docked at Portal Point to give three cheers and raise a toast to Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his crew of three who were the first explorers to reach the South Pole on December 14th, 1911. Sunniva Sorby led the salute to her countrymen for their bravery.  She is one who can genuinely speak from experience about how challenging that trek can be as she was part of the first all-women team to reach the South Pole in 1993. Everyone was in good spirits (the whiskey certainly helped) and we lingered here awhile to bask in the sun and reflect on our adventures.

The One Ocean Staff celebrating Amundsen at our version of “Poleheim”

Day 8

Our time in Antarctica was officially over but we still had another day of adventure left. As our ship successfully navigated the narrow and shallow channel of Neptunes Bellows the fog grew thicker and a misting rain began that would last during the entire day we spent in the South Shetland Islands. We docked that morning in Telefon Bay for a walk around the lunar-like landscape of Deception Island. This active volcano is horseshoe shaped with a large flooded caldera at its center. The barren ashy-black ground covered with dirty white snow made for a stark landscape compared to the soft white-on-white world we’d just left.

In the afternoon we visited Whalers Bay – the site of a former whaling station and also a now defunct research station. The rain continued as we explored the remains of the buildings, whale bones, and boats. At one point I looked around my shipmates in our red rain-suits scattered around the beach and I felt like I was wandering in a post-apocalyptic world. It was very surreal.  But this dream-state was shaken off as many of us chose to take the plunge into Antarctic waters. A balmy 1 degree Celsius, it was a quick and frigid plunge. I think I am now ready to join the Polar Bear’s Club at Coney Island next New Year’s Day.


Days 9-10

Once we started back across the Drake Passage passengers began retreating to their cabins. The Dramamine I succumbed to taking when my homeopathic sea-sickness medication failed took the edge off my queasiness, but made me only want to sleep. The last highlight of our trip (besides the last-night party in the bar) was passing by Cape Horn on our last morning. I imagine I am not the only one who started to feel a bit sad at this point. When I booked my trip to Antarctica I thought of it as a “once in a lifetime” trip. But now I know I must return. I have been bitten by the South Pole bug and will somehow find a way to get back there. Perhaps I can do it as a staff photographer on another One Ocean voyage or maybe I’ll start buying $1.00 auction tickets and hope to get lucky.

I am sure most of you rarely think about Antarctica in your daily routine. But since the world really is “one ocean” we all need to consider how climate changes in the land way down under will ripple across the water to affect us all sooner or later.

Pura Vida Part 3: Monteverde Cloud Forest

The last-leg of the drive to the twin cities of Santa Elena and Monteverde was very bumpy but also very pretty – especially once we started gaining altitude.  Located in the Tilaran Mountain range there were dramatic views on both sides of the road. I shared the ride from Rancho Mastatal with Prescilla and Chet from Lyons, France. We arrived in Santa Elena just as it got dark and it started raining. It was pitch black by the time I arrived at my destination in Monteverde.

I was here to photograph the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Located high on the continental divide in Costa Rica it is home to over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds and over 2,500 varieties of plants. which is being affected by warming temperatures which are causing its vital clouds to form higher up in the atmosphere instead of lingering among the trees as traditionally does. Even though there was plenty of precipitation during my visit during the end of the wet season, overall there has been a decrease in the amount of misty days during the dry season that are critical to the life of the forest – especially the orchids. This mist is what makes it a “cloud” forest.

My home while visiting the reserve was the Monteverde Cabin House owned by Mills Tandy, a retired biology professor from Austin who has been coming down here since 1986. He built the little cabin I stayed in when he first moved down and then, when he retired, built a larger home on the same property – Finca Colibri.  He lives there with his Berenese Mountain dog – Shaggy – a lovable Wookie-look-alike.

Mills gave me a tour of the trails on his property that abuts the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (MCFR). I already knew that one of the first species to disappear in the forest was the golden toad. He said he had been lucky enough to see them before they disappeared around 1989. The Harlequin frog has also been in serious decline for many years and many other species are being affected by the changing climate.

Monteverde has a very interesting history as it was largely settled by Quakers from the US who were looking to escape the draft as conscientious objectors during the Korean War. They cleared a good bit of the land for farming and some residents now think it best to let the jungle take back much of this land as Mills has allowed to happen on his property. But apparently this can be a contentious subject in an otherwise super-friendly town.

I spent Thanksgiving Day walking the trails through the MCRF with Rowan Eisner and her partner Willie Bach. They are both very concerned with the changes in the forest’s climate and are actively involved with finding ways to support its preservation. I had emailed with Rowan when I was thinking about coming to Costa Rica and she wrote that with the changes in the climate, “our cloud forest is quickly becoming a rain forest, so see it while you can!”

Having never been in a cloud or rain forest – I was immediately enchanted with the density of the foliage.  Immense strangler fig trees and delicate ferns, mosses, and orchids can sit side-by-side (or in many cases on top of each other) in an incredibly dense space. A medium-sized tree can support up to 70 different species of flowering epiphytes (plants that live on other plants) including  up to 40 species of orchids. Even though the sun barely came out when I was there I imagine it rarely sees the ground even when it is brighter out. Hansel and Gretel would never find their way out of there even if they left a trail of bread loaves. The forest floor is even more jam-packed than the canopy. It’s an enchanted place worthy of saving.

As the climate warms both the flora and fauna in the forest are being affected. The delicate orchids are especially at risk as they are dependent on there being misty days. I asked Giovanni Bello one of the guides in the MCFR about his take on how climate change is affecting it and he noted is that many flowers bloom earlier and birds are migrating up the mountain. One of the highlighted must-see stops on the way to the forest is the hummingbird garden where I was mesmerized watching the tiny birds zipping around my head. Their colors were so vivid – it would really be a shame if they were one day victims of the warming trends.

I also spoke with Dr. Alan Pounds, a scientist who has worked in MCFR since 1981.  He reinforced the fact that there are more variables in the wet and dry season along with population changes (both decreases and abundances) and shifts in habitat in the fauna – most notably those of the anurans (frogs and toads) and lizards,  You can read more about his studies in the forest by clicking here and here.

The bird populations are being affected too. As mentioned in The Weather Makers, by TIm Flannery, as the temperature warms the keel-billed toucans, generally a lowland bird, are moving up the mountain and they are predators of the eggs and young of the resplendent quetzal. I was there in the wrong season to see this colorful bird but I wonder if the next time I get to visit Costa RIca if there will be any left for me to spot.

In reference to the bigger picture of climate change Dr. Pounds believes that Costa Rica could go “carbon-neutral” fairly easily since they don’t use coal to heat their homes. The country is already using some hydroelectric and wind power but the biggest carbon dioxide contributor is transportation … one that’s tough to alter with our worldwide addiction to our cars and trucks. “I think we can reduce the impacts of climate change but since there are already forces we’ve set in motion it will take a long time to turn the ship around.”

Coffee bean plant outside The Common Cup

While in Monteverde I stopped in at The Common Cup for some fresh roasted and brewed  java.  Master roaster Heyner Varela commented that climate change is starting to affect their crops as warmer temperatures are forcing their plants to blossom earlier which means the beans could lose some of their robustness. Thankfully the cup I had was good and robust to the last drop.

Since it’s difficult to show the changes that global warming is causing in many of the places I am photographing for this project (like the absent Golden Toad), I am striving to capture the existing beauty of places such as Monteverde. I hope that by showing them as they exist now that I can urge all of you and my future audiences to become more concerned about how climate change is affecting the world – either in your own backyard or someplace you have dreamed of visiting. Because if we don’t find ways to curb carbon emissions you may never get the chance to see these places in all their glory. I’m including examples of the many, many plants I photographed to share its dark beauty with you.

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.