The Conservation Conversation or “Find your inner Don Carlos”

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On our final night in Cuerici, we circled in the wooden classroom, our backs half heated by the fire. Don Carlos: expert survivalist, trout farmer, Latino Buddha, sat serenely ready to field our questions. His comrade, Alberto, was perched on the edge of his seat, full of grit, quick words, and anecdotes of rebellion. These men, juxtaposed in mannerism were united by a goal: to conserve and protect 200HA of secondary and primary oak forest near Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica.

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The primary oak forest. Photo by Nick Herremann.

Conservation was the discussion  topic and we began asking Alberto and Don Carlos questions about their lives, their choices, their struggles. Our coordinator, Andrea, did her best to translate. Both men had started as hunters, with little care for the land and are now living in dedication to this plot, raising trout, giving tours and hosting classes to keep it all aloft.

“Have any government programs or initiatives been helpful to you?” we asked.

“No,” said Don Carlos.

“How did you transition from being a city planner to working here?” we asked Alberto.

He launched into a rapid-fire, 5-minute, soliloquy (in Spanish) complete with hand gestures and some yelling. The gist being that once he felt ready to kill someone, he gave it up. I think a lot of that rant was lost in translation. Andrea giggled.

At the end of the conversation, Will asked Don Carlos, “Is conservation something you can do alone?”

I readied myself for a formulaic answer; we need each other, no man is an island, we stand on the shoulders of giants, etc., etc. But Don Carlos looked straight ahead with a solemn face and said in a quiet, steady voice, “Yes.”

The moment lingered, and then a voiced chimed in, “if you are Don Carlos!”

We laughed together. Yes, according to Don Carlos, conservation is something you can do alone. And this gave me hope.

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Don Carlos looks out over the trout ponds and talks about his land.

A few years ago I was commissioned by mongabay.org to write a series on “Innovation in tropical forest conservation.”  For this job I was fortunate to interview 30 “change-makers” about their work in tropical forests. I noticed some themes. The primary theme was this: real change seems to happen when a small group of people or even an individual dedicates themselves to one place or cause for a very long time.

This is not really a revelation. The idea of success via life-long dedication applies across fields and professions: academia, athletics, art, music, etc. The “problem” for most of us in the room and many in our generation is deciding where to focus our passion, talents, energy and intelligence. We feel we can do almost anything and the effect is paralyzing. What do we choose? How do we know it will be effective? Will it be meaningful? We discussed this at length and tears were shed.

And after the conversation, I’m not sure we had any more clarity. But I do I think we touched upon some important points. The first was to accept that you can NOT do absolutely anything. You are not going to be good at whatever you want. Accepting this is actually a bit of a relief. You don’t have to be an astronaut, and Olympic gymnast and save the rainforest. Phew!

So, what are you good at? And of those things, what makes you happy? Because, and this I feel was the second point, it is difficult to sustain a lifelong effort if you are miserable. Marshall Thurgood (African-American author, philosopher, and Civil Rights leader) sums this sentiment up more beautifully than I:

“Don’t ask what the world needs,” he says. “Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Yes.

Often my memories, before they start to fade, brighten and crystallize.  So now, as I reflect on the OTS course and my 11 fellow travelers just a few weeks out, I remember more clearly the gifts they have to offer the world, their brightness and their joy as they worked directly with their strengths and passions.  I hope they can hold on to that same image of themselves. I hope they remember what it felt like to be so alive.

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