Look at a map of the Pacific Coast of the Americas, and near eight and a half degrees north you will find a protrusion of land that resembles my misshapen second toe. This toe is the black sheep of digits, first jutting awkwardly to the center, then over-correcting itself to crowd the largest of its brethren, as though seeking an escape. I am not of this, it evokes. I belong to something else.
So too is this peninsula wondrously disconnected from its neighbors. The jungles atop its corrugated landscape are bigger, wilder, and share a closest ancestry with forests hundreds of miles to their southeast. Beneath canopies at times two hundred feet in the air are beasts of lore and ones you never knew, none of them ever far from an ocean that wraps all but a narrow bridge of this land, nibbling at its margins, a siren beckoning a return to a saline womb. Near the westernmost point of it all, a hundred feet above the waves, you can hitch a rope around the dappled and buttressed tree of your choice and rappel down cliffs pockmarked with the fossilized remnants of a long distant sea.
It is a land of rhythms. The morning starts before you can detect a hint of light, the relative silence perforated by asthmatic roars of howler monkeys. And then, just like that, a soft gray light is there and it is day but it is not yet hot and you are afloat in a maternal peace.
It is fleeting. An hour later you already feel the heat, and you must decide what your day is about. If you are lucky, perhaps you will spend it in the forest, where the canopy will not only shade you but unleash a great unseen river from beneath your feet to the air above. And as the sun heats the land, the river will rise ever higher into the sky, pulling air from off the sea in its wake. You will know this has started when the canopy rustles and you begin to hope for those moments when the breeze reaches all the way down to the forest floor.
Eventually, the atmospheric river is dammed by its own exuberance, countless tiny droplets coalescing as the sky turns dark. Soon enough, water that only hours ago rushed past you in timbered pipes will return, sometimes in impossible bucketfulls that make you feel vibrantly alive. Again, the howler monkeys are prescient, announcing the rain’s arrival before you hear the first drops on the leaves far above.
This is not a land of gradual transitions. One moment it is still light, the next dark, and soon will come a palpable stillness. The diurnal tug-of-war between land and sea begins to reverse, locked in an hour or two of impasse before a gentle breeze flows from the distant hills. Until it does, you sit and you sweat. When you inevitably grab a cold beer, you may hold the bottle against your forehead for a time before putting it to your lips. If there’s trouble in your mind, it is the most fragile time of day, for in the stifling quietude your thoughts ring loud.
For the last three months, the fragile stillness of my own life has come in the hours between my daughter’s bedtime and my own. It is then that our loss aggregates into something more sinister and tyrannical, when it takes a form that threatens to conquer and consume. Some nights I push back with a few songs on the guitar or a call to a friend; others I seek out the pain, willingly entering a sauna of grief I can feel in my bones. Sometimes I wonder how I can emerge. But I do. And of late, tendrils of peace have begun to infiltrate this nightly stillness, and I find myself reminded of a longer rhythm in the sweep of equatorial jungle that has shaped so much of my adult life.
There too spring is a time of renewal. In this land that can receive fifteen, even twenty feet of rain every year, very little of it falls in winter. The dry season is short enough that its effects are not dramatic – most trees keep their leaves – but walk into the forest and you’ll sense that things just aren’t quite as alive. You can’t see it, but this is true even beneath your feet, where in every thimbleful of soil are more tiny creatures than all of the plants and animals on Earth put together. They’re still there in the dry season, and they’re chugging along ok – chewing on each other and the dirt around them a bit – but like the animals above them, it’s a lazy time.
Ah but when the rains begin, all hell breaks loose. Those uncountable bacteria and their microbial cousins feast upon rivers of tea, brewed from the passage of rain over every leaf, branch, trunk and particle of soil. In so doing, they quite literally breathe more, chemical building blocks of life passing in and out of their unicellular bodies as they boom and bust with a profound fervor, feeding themselves and the jungle above. It all begins in April, and by May the canopy is awash in a brilliant green hue that is the province of young leaves alone. Here and there, the green is interrupted by blazing yellow flowers of the eponymous mayo tree.
Some years, the rains take a break in late June, a time known as the veranillo. By then, the forest is in full swing, and its as though the gods want to step back, take a breather and admire their handiwork. It doesn’t last long, and as July falls away to August, there are hints of a great cleansing to come. Rains intensify, sometimes lasting all day. By fall, they can become biblical, with those of September and October better counted in feet than inches. There are days when a foot or more of rain can fall in hours, scouring the landscape, reshaping arterial junctions between land and sea as it all turns the latter’s edge from aquamarine to a roiling coffee-and-cream mess. Everyone hunkers down and hangs on until the sun finally breaks through and you can go have a look at how the land has changed. For changed it will be.
In my own life, last year’s rains brought devastating change, the ensuing dry season an unequaled stillness. It’s too soon to know what this season will bring, or the ones to follow.
And yet lately, the first drops of a spring unlike any past are tinged with something providential. With a sense that like the trees in a tropical land I love, I can be forged of the past, but it is this very construction that allows new life to bloom.