Standing on the side of this mountain in Costa Rica; in the heat and humidity, among the bugs and the birds I have never felt more invigorated and overwhelmed.
I cannot truly remember the last time I have been aware of the capabilities of the human body. I did not know my legs could carry me this far; that my shoulders could bear the weight of my possession; that my senses were capable of absorbing the world around me.
This, then is what I learnt – about myself and my relationship to the Earth–through several hikes around the UGA Costa Rica campus.
One of our first hikes was two hours long, upwards and downwards through the forest surrounding campus. Our professor asked that this hike be in silence, just fifteen of us, our two guides and the forest. We started in a single file line, shoes scuffling the leaves and dirt beneath them. The guides were interspersed between us, halting us at various points to show us animals and plants (they turned out to be great at dumb charades!). We smelled leaves that had the odor of pepper, touched leaves that felt as soft as fur, and observed ants marching dutifully across a fallen tree.
As we continued further, ankles hurting, breath heavy, a handful of us caught a glimpse of something extraordinarily beautiful: a toucan, flitting from branch to branch in the tree tops. As the hike came to a close, we all sat in a circle and held hands. At first, I giggled, picturing our
class looking like a group of hippies from a BBC special. However, as I glanced around the people that had just experienced this first adventure with me, I clearly understood the rather obvious point of our professor’s request—connection. The goal for this course is to for each of us to consider our position in the world at large, but also for us to become more in tune with each other, un-artificially. We had just begun.
On another hike we went on a sustainability tour of the UGA Costa Rica Campus. We marched up the trail before we made it to our first stop—the farm. From lemon grass being planted as both a wind break and bug repellant to chicken waste and food scraps being used for compost, I realized that every aspect of the UGA farm was meticulously sustainable. The guides explained the arduous methods of cultivation and germination, both processes easier to maintain on a small scale. However, these are nearly impossible for the large farms in the United States.
From the farm, we trekked onward to the Bio-digester, probably one of UGA Costa Rica’s most impressive accomplishments. Our naturalist explained how waste is filtered into purified water in only 8 days. Again, no part of the Bio-digester uses chemicals or machinery. The work is entirely undertaken by microorganisms, creatures capable of eating both the cellulose in toilet paper and human waste. As the tour closed, various students asked our guide about the sources of wood used of the buildings, how the water was heated, and the set-up of the campus itself, I began to create more connections. As an American student, I was astonished that every object on campus, its position, and constitution all had a purpose. As the hike came to a close, I thought about my own home and possessions. Could I name where the wood in my house was from? No. Could I tell you where my water was sourced? No. How it was cleaned? No, and
also No. That sort of knowledge, I now understood is a kind of power—a connection (that word again) to our environment that is all but absent in our ‘developed’ nation.
Professor Kavoori paired these two hikes with a book called Ishmael by David Quinn and a reading about “biophilia.” Ishmael is a book that details a conversation on the fate of humanity and the environment between a man and a gorilla. Perhaps even more broadly, the book asks questions on how we might be able to save the world. Biophilia is the idea that humans have an inbuilt propensity, or love for nature.
So between the hikes and these readings, I have had much to think about and reflect on, and yes, begin to connect. These include questions of activism, involvement, engagement, the creation of environmental conscience. I do not have the answers yet. Yes, its ok to blame my parents’ generation for creating the mess we are in, but the way forward, whether through activism or protest or introducing a love for nature in childhood or even a silent hike is something that I –and my generation– will have to grapple with.
And so, yes, while my legs might be sore, and my back stiff, from all the hikes – the real journey has just begun.