I think that I shall never see….
Anything so cool as monkeys in my trees. (With apologies to Joyce Kilmer, 1886-1918)
I owe a lifetime debt of gratitude to a former neighbor, don Pedro. During the hectic construction of my house in the woods, he pointed out a small sapling a few steps from the future front porch. Given the frenzy of trying to get a roof on before the rains, the farthest thing from my thoughts was the genus, species or whatever of a waist high stem no bigger around than my thumb. “This is an almendro del monte,” advised Pedro, “good for shade in the summer.”
What Pedro failed to mention is that the ‘mountain almond’ is also a super “monkey tree”. Unlike most of the deciduous trees in our eco-region, the almendro has the handy habit of shedding its leaves at the beginning of the dry season; they promptly re-sprout new ones to provide the welcome shade that Pedro had advised me to conserve.
As the tree grew and began to provide the much-desired microclimate at the edge of my home, other advantages began to become apparent. Similar to new growth on mango trees, the magenta-hued canopy of young leaves provides a seasonal dose of color in the landscape. For the monkeys, the bright display might as well be a neon sign at the neighborhood diner. They swing by for a meal on a regular basis, stripping off the tender leaves and shoots, returning only when there is sufficient foliage to warrant the round trip from the nearby forest. (Those with an ecological bent might want to brush up on the concept of ‘optimal foraging behavior’ at this point.)
Quite by accident, rather than ‘intelligent design,’ I had plugged a gap between the forest and the growing almendro tree with a guaba tree. Not guava, the fruit, but guaba, an important tree in agro-forestry not simply because of the ‘ice cream bean’ that it produces, but for it’s hosting of parasitic wasps that help in insect control. As luck would have it it’s also an evergreen, the monkeys seem to eat both flowers and the young fruit, and it is literally humming with dozens of hummingbirds during its rather prolonged flowering in the late dry season.
Around the back of my home the approach was a bit more methodical. Fast growing bamboo served to fill the gaps between a couple of citrus trees and a cashew, the source of much needed moisture in the months of March and April. OK, the monkeys might be a bit challenged in the table manners department. They clamber throughout the cashew canopy, squeezing and sucking up the astringent juice of the cashew fruit like ‘optimal foraging’ beer drinkers during Happy Hour at the beachside bars. For more than a month this pleasant diversion is taking place just outside a window where I’m hacking away into the wee hours on the latest contribution to Tamarindo’s homegrown literary gazette. Connecting up to the next stop in the simian smorgasbord involved another set of techniques.
Anyone with functioning eyesight knows by now that the ‘big-bang’ flowering strategy of the corteza amarilla lights up the local landscape in the mid-to-late dry season. But having one next to your home is a real treat. Not only do you find yourself experiencing the heavenly glow of filtered or reflected light depending on the angle of the incident sunlight. The Howler monkeys appreciation of this species’ showy display is perhaps more utilitarian than aesthetic. A bit of variation in taste, color, texture and no doubt nutritional value ensure that the canopy of the corteza is ‘hanging room only’ for the month or so of its flowering
phase. In my landscape the trick was in ensuring the aerial tramway to the existing tree.
Having taken out a ‘high canopy’ of the 20-year old gmelina trees for lumber, we needed to select and guide the smaller established cocobolo trees to fill in the voids in the canopy. In the back of my mind I remembered a visit to the Howler exhibit at the world-famous San Diego Zoo. “Threatened by Habitat Fragmentation” read the ominous sign at the entrance to the enclosure. As the last big gmelina crashed to the ground a few feet from my house, I realized that the corteza amarilla needed a dose of ‘landscape connectivity’ in a hurry.
As anyone who has planted a live fence of hibiscus around his property can tell you, there’s a time of the year here when you really can “just stick stuff in the ground and it grows.” The technique is known locally as pega pega and hundreds of plants can be inexpensively propagated in this way–including live posts for living fences. Commonly used for live fences are madero negro, jiñote jocote, matapalo and pochote, but they are usually cut just long enough to support the 3-strand fences which are the norm in cattle pastures. I decided to push the envelope.
We installed several 12-15 ft. tall, forked poles of jiñote, at 3-4 meter intervals. With successful establishment and 2 -3 years of growth, these trees were able to fill in the gaps and provide an aerial highway for the monkeys to the succulent flowers of the corteza amarilla. My take on the topic is that the pega pega technique can come in very handy for homeowners who want a bit more instant gratification in their efforts at landscaping and wildlife habitat restoration.
At this point it bears emphasizing that the true experts on restoring landscape connectivity for our long lost arboreal cousins are Patricia and Larry at Fundación Salvémonos. They have the appropriate species list, guidelines, and contacts for installing the all-important aerial bridges that allow the Howlers to safely traverse above the lethal mayhem of the local roads and highways.
On the topic of building bridges, I can’t resist referring to one of my favorite writers, Aldous Huxley, who argued elegantly in a short essay that the role of pontifex—or bridge builder—was one of the most needed in the contemporary world. Huxley was referring to constructing lines of communication between the academic disciplines, and between science and normal people, to avoid the narrow minded outlooks that so often prevail even amongst the supposedly well-educated elites. On a personal level, my efforts at bridge building have taken two main directions.
Linguistically, the topic of a future article, I somehow find myself in a daily attempt to improve communication between locals and the non-Spanish capable foreign hordes that have settled in this neck of the woods.
As per the theme of this article, with a background both as builder and agro-ecologist, trying to find a fit so that both homes and gardens enhance, rather than deplete, the natural world around us that both nourishes and delights us on a daily basis.
A case in point, a small project I’ve been managing was just visited by Coopeguanacaste, to plan the location of the first of many ‘monkey bridges’ that will restore the connectivity across the roads. The inspector detailed to me the ropes, cables and mesh that they were planning to use and indicated the trees to which they’d attach. What I didn’t tell him was that as soon as they drove out the gate, I’d be planting vines to rapidly take over the assembly, provide it with a more natural look, and, just possibly, another source of flowers and food for the enjoyment of all the residents in the project.
For anyone interested in looking to somehow ‘marry’ the disciplines of building and biology, of construction and conservation, I’d urge them to watch any number of the videos that are available on the “Living bridges of Meghalaya, India.” The term ‘inspirational’ falls short of the mark, believe me.
Returning to mull over the monkeys, one is tempted to ponder at times, as they languish in the security of their lofty perches, if they look down with wonder or with scorn at the frenzied pace and relentless consumerism of their supposedly superior ‘sapiens’ cousins. Do they thank their lucky stars that they never came down out of the trees, took stock of the situation, and decided to embark on the suicidal mission of rearranging nature to suit their self-centered whims? It seems like the least we can do is help them stay up in the trees, enjoying the view and truly experiencing what Costa Rica is supposed to be all about: Pura Vida !
Tom Peifer is an ecological land use consultant with 18 years experience in Guanacaste. 2658-8018. email@example.com
El Centro Verde is dedicated to researching and promoting sustainable land use, permaculture and environmentally sound development.