Two weeks ago this morning, I awoke to the singing of a clay-colored robin. The song was entirely new to me, but the voice so closely resembled that of an American robin I knew I was hearing a close cousin. Where? At the Hotel Rincon in San Jose, Costa Rica, at the start of spring break field expedition put together by my colleague in the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment (SESE), Professor Anna Nesbitt.
Our mission: Enable students to experience how the concepts they study as majors in Earth, Society and Environmental Sustainability play out in a nation that occupies only about 35 percent of the land area of Illinois.
"Costa Rica is a poster child for sustainability and conservation," says Nesbitt, "and traveling there enables us to cover dramatic differences in landscape, agriculture, energy use/production and conservation, both within the country and in juxtaposition to the U.S."
In one class meeting prior to the trip, we had learned about coral reefs from graduate students working under UI Professor Bruce Fouke: The complexity of coral organisms, the diversity of life reefs support, their sensitivity to changing conditions (especially the acidification taking place as oceans absorb the increasing amounts of CO2 we dump into the atmosphere) and more.
On the Caribbean coast at Cahuita, we spent a morning snorkeling to observe a living reef. Seeing a stingray close up was a highlight for many in the group, but even those of us who missed that (sad face) enjoyed the opportunity to look upon living coral and swim among tropical fish. At one point as I floated, motionless, a school of vibrant blue fish drifted up from below and nearly engulfed me before an accidental twitch of my arm scattered them.
Before the trip, we got a crash course (with Powerpoint) in the geology of Central America from SESE director and Professor of geology Steve Marshak. Through that, we learned how the isthmus connecting the north and south of the New World arose and why it's the site of so much volcanic activity.
In country, we hiked a flank of Volcan Arenal, the best known of Costa Rica's six active volcanoes, and the one that's been the most trouble since a massive, surprise eruption in 1968 that buried three villages and killed 87 people. (There are another 61 dormant or extinct volcanoes in the country.) On Arenal, our local guide provided detailed accounts of the volcano's activity, gesturing toward relevant parts of the mountainside with a stick, which he also used to draw very effective diagrams in the sandy soil at our feet.
And then there were the coffee plantations. We saw first a conventional operation, which bore one sort of beauty. It was "clean" in the way a typical cornfield in Illinois is — straight, evenly spaced rows with little growing other than the crop that yields direct economic benefit.
Later the same day, we visited a place where "shade-grown" coffee comes from, and we experienced beauty of a different sort altogether. The pleasingly complex scene there included coffee bushes, of course, but also various bananas, oranges (which we were able to pick and eat on the spot — hey, that's organic) and other fruits, as well as native overstory trees. Surrounded by the diversity of life in that environment, it was easy for me to understand why the farmer (our guide) responded "a day picking coffee" when a student asked what part of his work was most satisfying.
Beyond our field experiences in Costa Rica, we were also treated to classroom time with some amazing people. Among them was a young man from the Netherlands who seven years ago signed up for a season of fieldwork with Monteverde bat expert Richard LaVal and never left.
In his one-hour presentation on bats and climate change, he communicated more passion for wild creatures and conservation than many of our students had ever witnessed before (and he spoke after dinner, without the benefit of a working projector).
Perhaps the crowning jewel of our trip was the opportunity to sit with Marvin Rockwell and hear him tell the story of how four Alabama members of the Society of Friends (aka Quakers) established a settlement at Monteverde in the early 1950s. That settlement has benefited conservation in Costa Rica and the wider world in innumerable ways, and Rockwell, now 91, was one of the four who went to incredible lengths to make it happen.
To give credit where it's due, I must also recognize Anibal Torres, our expert, personable coordinator from the Monteverde Institute, who cooperated with Professor Nesbitt to make our expedition so meaningful. Our students and I owe them both a great debt of gratitude.
P.S.: This was not really a wildlife tour, but I did have my camera. Photos can be found at Environmental Almanac on Facebook.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.