Finding at Las Cruces the “Impartial Calm of Nature”

View of Fila Cruces from the Canopy Tower, 6:30 AM, 26/06/16

View of Fila Cruces from the Canopy Tower, 6:30 AM, 26/06/16

Lately I have become more zealous in my desire to photograph birds. When I lived and worked within the grounds of the Wilson Botanical Garden (WBG) as associate director from 1988 to 1999, I recall marveling at the photographs of many of the over 400 resident and migrant bird species taken by professional photographers. My work there–in charge of development and visitor administration– represented a dramatic change of career and lifestyle for me, and I used my camera as much as possible to record people at work and on vacation—scientists, students and bird and plant aficionados, but I never thought I could be a bird photographer myself. It takes time and a patience that I didn’t then have! But now that I’m “retired”, I’ve been able to find that time and patience to attempt the challenge, and this blog, I hope, is a testament to that. 

Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant

Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant

Hoping to see birds that aren’t found here at Finca Cantaros, I decided last weekend to visit my old stomping ground, the Las Cruces Biological Station, which incorporates WBG.  Leaving home early, I arrived at Las Cruces before 6:00 a.m. on both days. I saw almost no one as I made my way to the steel “canopy tower” built not far inside the forest.

On my way I saw an agouti female and juvenile foraging, and from the 4-story tower platform I was entranced by a baby squirrel, birds, bees and butterflies, trees flowering and fruiting, fog floating over the forest canopy and into topographical hollows.

Green Honeycreeper, male

Green Honeycreeper, male

Clouds rolling over the nearby ridge provide the humidity needed by thousands of arboreal orchids, bromeliads, ferns and other epiphytes clinging to forest trees. It was damp and cool, but I was warmed by a state of heightened energy and connection to this place I know so well. Within the Wilson Botanical Garden (WBG) that I passed through to get to the forest tower, palms and trees that were planted as seedlings before my eyes in the early 1990s are now stalwart specimens rising high overhead. I began to think back to my early days here and what drew me to this wonderful corner of Costa Rica.

Though palms are everywhere in WBG, this view is on a trail dedicated to diverse palm species.

Though palms are everywhere in WBG, this view is on a trail dedicated to diverse palm species.


There is a timeline to our lives, but we sometimes can’t recognize the relative importance of events as they are happening. We may have minimal perspective, until years later. As a child, I was an intrepid explorer in the wilds of my environment. Even if it was exurbia, there were woods,  ponds and brooks that attracted me. As an adult, I didn’t allow much time for the natural world and focused instead on work and the cultural life of the cities where I lived. I know my friends and family were anxious when I left the San Francisco business world in 1988 to take a job with OTS and to marry someone from another culture, the botanist-director of Las Cruces, Luis Diego Gómez. They needn’t have worried, though my marriage ultimately failed. I was reconnecting my life to the natural world— the rich vibrancy of the tropics.

To Luis Diego, alas, deceased in 2009, I will always be grateful for the botanical knowledge, and much more, that he shared with me. He and the OTS staff at Las Cruces welcomed me and made me feel that Coto Brus was my home from the very first day.

Maidenhair fern, or "culantrillo" in Spanish. (Adiantum macrophyllum) Thanks to Robbin Moran, Ph.D, NY Botanical Garden for the ID.

Maidenhair fern, or “culantrillo” in Spanish, Adiantum macrophyllum.
on Tree Fern Hill at WBG. New leaves of this species are bright pink instead of the usual reddish color of other ferns in the genus. (Thanks to Robbin Moran, Ph.D., NY Botanical Garden for ID.)


Many aspects of life at Las Cruces appealed to me, but best of all was being able to work with—and learn from—tropical scientists. I also felt part of a historical custodianship in which all players along the way have had a positive impact upon the land; I believe Luis felt this strongly, too. When Luis arrived in 1986, an impressive tropical garden with an attractive infrastructure of trails, stone walls and steps was already in place. But Robert Wilson, a Florida horticulturist, and his wife Catherine, who had purchased the property in 1962, were aging, and needed fresh botanical ideas and a steely-minded planner and implementer. They found that person in a fern and fungi specialist, Luis Diego.

Stone steps within Wilson Garden covered with flowers from manzana de agua tree

Stone steps within Wilson Garden covered with flowers from manzana de agua tree, Syzygium malaccense, or Malay Apple.

Fortunately, in laying out the gardens Wilson had consulted with one of the most renowned landscape architects in the world—Brazil’s Roberto Burle Marx. However, there remained much creative gardening for the new director to do, and together he and I faced a desperate need to build a laboratory and civilized accommodations for long-term resident scientists, short-term students, artists, birders, plant enthusiasts and volunteers. Visible improvements came slowly, but very surely. Foundations and generous individuals stepped up to support OTS’ mission, including providing funds to double the size of the forest reserve through two land acquisitions secured in 1993 and 1998. Las Cruces was always, and remains, a cosmopolitan high-energy center that not only changes peoples’ lives, but protects a growing biodiversity with each new land acquisition!

Photo from Dec. 1991 Amigos Newsletter of Robert W. Lichtwardt collecting aquatic insects from bromeliads with a turkey baster.

My photo from the Dec. 1991 Amigos Newsletter of botanist Robert W. Lichtwardt, Ph.D, U. of Kansas, collecting aquatic insects from bromeliads with a turkey baster. He studied the systematics and ecology of Trichomycetes–gut fungi of insects and other arthropods. As editor of the Amigos Newsletter, I asked scientists to write articles–no one ever turned me down!

Thoughts like these passed through my mind as I was standing at the top of the canopy tower, and were almost a distraction from my mission to photograph birds. I did get some, but upon getting home, the trip down memory lane inspired me to go through some old photos and reflect on how things have continued to improve at my former home and life at Las Cruces.

Reading the farewell message and assessment of progress by Las Cruces director and forest ecologist, Zak Zahawi, in the latest Amigos Newsletter, and from the vantage point of 17 years since my own departure from LC, I can only marvel at how much has been accomplished since Robert and Catherine Wilson arrived in 1962 and invested all their aspirations into that forlorn cattle pasture which became the cultivated garden.

Buttress roots and diverse plants suggests the wild nature of the Wilson Garden

Buttress roots and diverse plants suggests the wild nature of the Wilson Garden.

If Zak is having mixed feelings about leaving Las Cruces after ten years of hard work, I can certainly understand. Though catering to the public, scientists and students day-in and day-out is difficult, to live in such a tropical garden, and share it with others, is a very special privilege.

I call upon some stanzas from a Rainer Maria Rilke poem I discovered recently, to express my sense that, though I was impulsive about leaving my life in San Francisco in 1988, I knew instinctively what I was doing was right.



Yours truly in 1990 with the tallest Zamia fairchildiana plant I ever found in the primary forest of Las Cruces . Photo: L.D. Gomez

Yours truly, Gail Hull, in 1989 with the tallest endemic Cycad (over 10 ft to top of crown) Zamia fairchildiana plant I ever found in the LC primary forest. This plant species became the focus of my own research as an amateur. Photo: L.D. Gómez




#54 from “Orchards”

In the animal eye I saw
a peaceable life enduring,
the impartial calm
of nature, imperturbable.

A beast knows what fear is
but keeps going nonetheless
and in its field of plenty
a certain presence grazes
with no taste for someplace else.

And additional stanzas in homage and with best wishes to Zak Zahawi:

Unidentified forest plant in Las Cruces reserve.

Unidentified vine in the Las Cruces reserve.

The sublime is departure.
Instead of following, something
In us starts going its own way
And getting used to heavens.

Isn’t art’s extreme encounter
the tenderest farewell?
And music: that last glance
that we ourselves throw back at us!

[Rainer Maria Rilke, The Complete French Poems, translated by A. Poulin, Jr., Greywolf Press, 1986, pp. 167 and 193.] To read original French, see below:

Vergers #54

Baby squirrel searching for food in a tree next to the Canopy Tower.

Baby squirrel seems to be eating and licking wood in the crux of a tree next to the Canopy Tower.

J’ai vu dans l’oeil animal
la vie paisible qui dure
le calme impartial
de l’imperturbable nature.

La bête connaît la peur;
mais aussitôt elle avance
et sur son champ d’abondance
broute une présence
qui n’a pas le goût d’ailleurs.


Portrait Intérieur  #33

Le sublime est un départ.
Quelque chose de nous qui au lieu
de nous suivre, prend son écart
et s’habitue aux cieux.

La rencontre extrême de l’art
n’est-ce point l’adieu le plus doux?
Et la musique: ce dernier regard
que nous jetons nous-mêmes vers nous!





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