The Tree of Life

By Jheri St. James

A White Swan in Costa Rica

Imagine playing the part of a gardener in a green, peaceful environment, working the soil between your fingers with a stage set of volcanic mountains, rivers, waterfalls, rainforests, gardens, exotic flora and fauna, all embraced by miles of dramatic coastline. Costa Rica is nature’s live theater on earth. The actors include creatures that impersonate other beings and are hard to find: insects that look like rotting leaves, moths that look like wasps, the giant Caligo memnon (cream owl) butterfly whose huge open wings resemble the wide-eyed face of an owl, and the mottled, bark-colored machaca (lantern fly). Here are also backstage players like pumas, jaguars and ocelots. With patience a group of monkeys, iguanas, quetzals and three-toed sloths might make an entrance. Thus is the soil/stage of Costa Rica. The play could easily be called “The Garden of Eden.”

Columbus discovered what is now the Republic of Costa Rica in 1502, but because of its lack of resources the region escaped the ravages of the conquistadors. As large-scale colonization began elsewhere, only 330 Spanish colonists claimed lands in Costa Rica by 1611, because it had neither of the two things the Spanish conquistadors wanted: mineral wealth (gold and silver), or an abundant Indian population to work their haciendas. The absence of minerals and indigenous workers meant that settlers worked their own land—and there was plenty of it to go around for centuries—to form a huge middle class of yeoman farmers.

Like Guatemala and El Salvador, Costa Rica was transformed by coffee in the 19th century. The brown bean attracted foreign capital and immigrant merchants, and promoted road and railroad development. But Costa Rica’s more equal land tenure patterns and the absence of Indian-ladino racial tension averted the class warfare and growing militarism that accompanied the coffee booms of some of its neighbors.

In 1821 Costa Rica declared independence from Spain, joining first the Mexican Empire and then the Central American Federation, which dissolved into anarchy in 1838. Despite internal strife in 1919 and 1948, the country’s history has been peaceful and its politics democratic. The country has had traditionally good relations with the United States.

Located between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is the second smallest (after Equador) of the Central American republics, measuring between 75 and 175 miles from the Caribbean to the Pacific coasts. San Jose is the capital of this country consisting of tropical coastal plains, chains of mountain ranges running northwest-southeast through the interior, and a central plateau. The mountains begin near the Nicaraguan border northwest, split into two major ranges curving around the plateau, and continue into Panama in the southeast. These volcanic cones reach altitudes from 9,000 to 12,000 ft. above sea level. The central plateau of Costa Rica is the most densely populated section, and the center of coffee cultivation. It lies at an elevation of 3,000-4,000 ft. in the climatic zone known as tierra templada (temperate land). Rainfall is heaviest along the Caribbean coast, feeding the several short rivers that rise in the mountains.

Costa Rican Volcano

Unlike the peoples of the other Central American countries, most Costa Ricans are of direct Spanish descent, though most also claim to have some Native American blood. Life expectancy at birth is 76.84 years. Costa Rica has the lowest rate of illiteracy in Central America because school attendance is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 7 and 14. The University of Costa Rica is located at San Jose.

Though some gold and silver is mined in western Costa Rica, the country’s volcanic soil is its most important natural resource. The principal cash crop and export product has been high-grade coffee, in constant demand on world markets. Bananas are raised on the humid plantations along the Pacific coast, where rubber trees also thrive. Low prices for coffee and bananas have recently hurt the agricultural sector. Local industry is mainly confined to sugar refining, food processing, and the manufacture of a limited range of consumer products. The Costa Rican economy has been expanding to include strong technology and tourism sectors. The standard of living has historically been relatively high.

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Costa Rica and Panama form the lynchpin between North and South America. This narrow strip of primal beauty is home to an important tree, the national tree of Costa Rica. The location and the name of this tree is Guanacaste (from the Indian word quahnacaztlan, that means “the place near the ear trees” because its seeds come in a peculiar pod that has the form of an ear). This region was the center of a vibrant pre-Columbian culture—the Chorotegas. Descended from the Olmecas of Mexico, they arrived in Costa Rica around the 8th century and became the most advanced peoples in that area, developing art and writing schools. Their culture was based on agricultural cornfields. Today many of their metates (grinding stones) are on display in the National Museum in San Jose, elaborately carved with turtles, crocodiles, monkeys and jaguars, all depicting the strength of their culture.

The success of Guanacaste society owed much to the blending of Spanish and chorotega. The campesino life revolved around the horse and cattle ranch—called sabaneros—cowboys. Corridas de toros (a kind of bullfight) and topes, the region’s colorful horse parades are still major events in which the Guanacastecos show their groomed horses and their fancy footwork.

Guanacaste is the location of six national parks and half a dozen wildlife refuges and biological reserves, two of which are the Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve and Santa Rosa National Park. “Wind-sculptured elfin woodlands on the exposed ridges are spectacularly dwarfed, whereas protected cove Monteverde rainforests have majestically tall trees festooned with orchids, bromeliads, ferns, vines, and mosses. Poorly drained areas support swamp forests, while parts of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, dissected by deep gorges, have numerous crystal clear streams tumbling over rapids and waterfalls. The variable climate and large altitudinal gradient has helped produce an extremely high biodiversity. Spectacular wildlife includes the Jaguar, Ocelot, Baird’s Tapir, Three-wattled Bellbird, Bare necked Umbrella bird and Resplendent Quetzal.” (from Monteverde Preserve literature) If the “ear tree” is listening, it hears only the sounds of resplendent Nature revered in Costa Rica.

An Ear Tree in Guanacaste

Trees belong biologically to the two most advanced groups of plants. The gymnosperms include the cone-bearing trees such as pine, spruce, and cedar; they are nearly all evergreens and most live in the cooler regions of the world. The angiosperms (flowering plants) have broader leaves and much harder wood; in tropical climates they are mostly evergreen, but in temperate regions they are deciduous (lose their leaves in winter).

A Depiction of the Mexican Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is an important symbol in nearly every culture. In Jewish and Christian mythology, a tree sits at the center of both the Heavenly and Earthly Edens. The Norse cosmic World Ash, Ygdrassil, has its roots in the underworld while its branches support the abode of the Gods. The Egyptian’s Holy Sycamore stood on the threshold of life and death, connecting the worlds. To the Mayas, it is Yaxche, whose branches support the heavens.

With its branches reaching into the sky, and roots deep in the earth, the Tree of Life dwells in three worlds—a link between heaven, the earth, and the underworld, uniting above and below. It is both a feminine symbol, bearing sustenance, and a masculine, visibly phallic symbol—another union. The tree has other characteristics which easily lend themselves to symbolism. Many trees take on the appearance of death in the winter—losing their leaves, only to sprout new growth with the return of spring. This aspect makes the tree a symbol of resurrection, and a stylized tree is the symbol of many resurrected gods. Most of these gods are believed to have been crucified on trees as well. A tree also bears seeds or fruits, which contain the essence of the tree, and this continuous regeneration is a potent symbol of immortality. Trees seen as givers of gifts and spiritual wisdom are quite common. It was while meditating under a Bodhi tree that Buddha received his enlightenment; the Norse God Odin received the gift of language while suspended upside down in the World Ash.

The Mayan Tree of Life

In Judeo-Christian mythology, the Tree of heaven is the source of the primordial rivers that water the earth—similar to the Tooba Tree of the Koran, from whose roots spring milk, honey and wine.

This Tree of Life and its gifts of immortality are not easy to discover, being almost invariably guarded. The Tree of Life in the Jewish bible is guarded by a Seraph (an angel in the form of a fiery serpent) bearing a flaming sword. To steal the apples of knowledge, the Greek hero Hercules had to slay a many-headed dragon, Ladon. In Mayan legends, it is a serpent in the roots that must be contended with. Similarly, the Naga, or divine serpent guards the Hindu Tree.

Egyptian Tree of Life

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Amphibians and reptiles, like those that guard the Tree of Life in myth are an important part of Costa Rica’s biological landscape. There are 160 species of amphibians and 200 species of reptiles in Costa Rica, including crocodiles, caimans, iguanas, lizards, snakes, and turtles. There are basic differences between the two species: the word “amphibians” contains “amphi” which means double or two sides. The “bians” part refers to “bio,” which means life. Thus, the word points to the fact that amphibians lead a double life, which in their case means that they live both in water and on land (frogs, for example). Reptiles, however, are restricted to living on land, since all throughout their lives they are air-breathing creatures; this fact does not limit their watery excursions, though.

Costa Rican Reptile: Iguana

Maybe the most dangerous creature in Costa Rica is the extremely toxic frog that displays brilliant colors as a natural warning against predators. There are at least 20 poison-arrow frogs, thus named because of the use of their toxins in deadly arrows of some natives. One of these frogs is called the bufo marinus and it can squirt its poison as a fine mist or spray. Other frogs are completely harmless, like the tink frog which owes its name to the sound that it makes. The golden toad, discovered in 1964 in the Monteverde Park, is the only one known to exist in this area. The females are yellow, black and red, while the males are a golden-orange color, which is the reason for their name.

A lot of the Costa Rican frogs are so specialized that they have learned to survive in the canopies of trees by using the water that’s deposited in bromeliads and tree trunks; this way, they don’t have to descend to the ground and risk being attacked by predators or of their tadpoles being eaten by fish.

Amphibians: Toxic Frog and Turtle

The three-toed sloth is legendary for its slow movement. This medium-sized mammal is perhaps the most important vertebrate primary consumer in the canopy of the moist neo-tropical forests of Costa Rica. Three-toed sloths are arboreal mammals that live, feed, and reproduce many meters above the forest floor near the upper levels of the forest canopy. They feed almost entirely on leaves using a large ruminant-like stomach and long intestinal tract to aid in digesting this energy-rich but relatively indigestible foodstuff. Early reports that sloths spend their entire lifetime in a single tree are not true, and a three-toed sloth moves from tree to tree on average about every 1.5 days by passing between tree crowns, often using pathways formed by lianas that interlace the crowns. A major predator on the three-toed sloth, the harpy eagle takes advantage of the fact that sloths go into sunlight in the tops of the trees to thermo-regulate their temperatures, and snatches them from the branches while in flight.

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One would expect the soil collection story of Costa Rica to be very exotic and adventuresome; however, it is very mundane. Fletcher Dice visited San Jose in October of 2005. “I am a flight attendant and stayed at Intercontinental Hotels when I flew for Pan Am. They were the flagship carrier and pioneer who built hotels to match their routes around the world. Since my stay in Costa Rica was so short, the gardener at the hotel assisted me in collecting soil. Douglas Soto, the concierge, translated for me. The friendliness of the Costa Rican people was demonstrated by these two men. They are proud of their country. Douglas said they liked being represented, even though their country is so small. It is still important in this project. The garden at this hotel has many plants showing the lush vegetation of this country.” The gardener’s name is Mr. Abraham Morales. Thank you Fletcher. Douglas and Abraham, gracias.

A Waterfall in the Intercontinental Hotel Landscape.

Perhaps the soil collection story must be mundane to balance out the glory of the flora and fauna in beautiful Costa Rica, a Garden of Eden on earth today—just a gardener putting some soil in a box for a hotel guest to ship to Common Ground 191. But Costa Rica’s soil is so special. The National Institute of Biodiversity (INBIO), a private, nonprofit organization formed in 1989 has been charged with the work of collecting, identifying, and labeling every plant and animal species in Costa Rica. The task is expected to be done in ten years. The work was done before by the National Museum, which only discovered from about 10 to 20 percent of the totality of the flora and fauna species in the country over a period of 100 years. Identifying the species is a prodigious task. Costa Rica is home seasonally to more than 850 bird species. There are 5,000 different species of grasshoppers, 160 known amphibians, 220 reptiles, and 10 percent of all known butterflies. This great quantity of species is because this region served as a “filter bridge” for the intermingling of species and the evolution of modern distinctive Costa Rican biota, a fairly recent amalgam as the isthmus has been in existence for only some three million years. Oh yes, the country of Costa Rica is unique in the “Theater of Life on Earth”, producer of trees in which many life forms live . . . Trees of Life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if somehow this peaceful, verdant energy field could infect the rest of the planet with its organic, rich peacefulness? Perhaps it will contaminate at least the other soils in the Common Ground 191 project.

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"The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree... As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications."

Charles Darwin, 1859

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