Silence is golden.
I remember hearing that phrase as a kid—usually from a teacher about how I needed to quiet down. However, here in Costa Rica, the idea of “golden silence” has taken on an entirely new meaning.
A week ago, our UGA class arrived in San Jose and after enduring the bumpy four hour drive up the mountains of Costa Rica, we found ourselves in a unique place. The UGA Campus here in Costa Rica is as clichéd as it may sound, amazing.
And much of that amazement has come in the form of hikes.
Our hikes have been led by naturalists from the UGA campus most of them not much older than me. The research projects that they are working on are varied, but all dovetail with the idea of environmental stewardship. But I digress.
My first hike was a lesson in diversity. I’ll be honest—I had arrived with a blank slate of knowledge when it came to Costa Rica’s biodiversity. I learnt a whole new vocabulary during that first hike: the distinctions between secondary forests, cloud forests, and a “shadow desert.” A secondary forest is a forest that had been logged at some point, resulting in a mix of tree sizes, and
providing an ecosystem that looks different than a traditional rainforest. A “cloud forest” is characterized by heavy rains, lots of colors that cover the entire spectrum. Finally, the last definition of forest would be the shadow desert. A “shadow desert” is a forest that lives on the opposite side of the cloud forest. It is called a shadow desert because it receives very little rain in comparison to both other distinctions of forests because of its location on the downslope of the mountain. The most substantial piece of information I learned was that a mere 5% of the species that were found in the cloud forest could also be found in the shadow desert. Here are two ecosystems, no more than 10 kilometers away from each other, that lived in complete isolation.
The next day our class met and prepared for our second hike. However, this time, we were told to not speak for the entire duration of the hike. At first, I thought this was a joke, and as we got into the hike, I was a bit disappointed. I had thoroughly enjoyed our first hike where things were explained to us, and I thought that this hike would be superfluous because I simply wouldn’t know what I was looking at. Boy was I wrong. This silent hike turned out to be one of the most interesting experiences of my life. One thing I realized that you give up when you are explained things on a hike, is you give up your own interpretation of things.
While the silent hike proved to be a truly eye-opening experience, it paled in comparison to the silent night-hike. Before the hike, Professor Kavoori asked the class if we wanted our night hike to be silent or not. I guess I wasn’t the only one who thoroughly enjoyed our initial experience because there was an overwhelming consensus: “Silent!”. As we silently walked through the path, our flashlights lit up the dark path.
At first, I focused on the narrow band of light thrown by my flashlight trying to find nocturnal animals hiding in the trees. However, when that turned up nothing, I became more short-sighted, literally. I began looking at the first thing my flashlight would highlight— the trees and leaves on the edge of the path. Nearly every single leaf had something distinguishable from the others. Whether that be a texture, a smell, a marking or even an inhabitant! This night hike truly taught me the importance of taking what is given to you, rather than trying to make something out of nothing.
So what have I learnt from my hikes?
Well, one thing for sure.
It has taught me certain strategies of which I can implement in my everyday life as a student. The idea of interpretation is far more important than memorizing information. To quote Elliot, one of our naturalists here on campus, “What do names even mean?”. While he was partially joking when he said this, I think what he was suggesting was indeed important. What does a name really mean if you have no idea what it looks like? It makes more sense to call something a “stick-bug” than to call it a Phasmatodea. The knowledge gained through self-interpretation and discovery heavily outweighs any knowledge that is just handed to you.
And, oh, yeah, silence may or may not be golden, but it sure can be one heck of a teacher.