Posted on 06 December 2009.
Sandra Shaw Homer, who has lived in Costa Rica for over 20 years, did something a little over a year ago that all writers will applaud and probably envy. She pared away from her life all but the essential, so that she might, for a year, concentrate on writing the book she knew she was meant to write.
She’d been very active in a few local nonprofits, and she scaled back her commitments, quitting boards and letting people know that she’d be putting her energies elsewhere for a time.
And dammit if she didn’t write that book! In a year. I’m beyond envious—I’m positively inspired. I keep looking at little huts on the side of the road or up on top of mountains, thinking, Now there’s a good place to hole up and write.
The book is Evelio’s Garden: A Memoir of Costa Rica. It centers around a garden on her land on the shores of Lake Arenal, an organic garden a longtime friend, Evelio, tries to create out of nothing. Evelio is a local, born and bred in the Arenal area, and he has a natural talent for planting and tending. But trying to garden organically, and on a plot ravaged by the winds off the lake, turns out to be more than he–and Sandy, as his enabler/landlord/cheerleader–bargained for.
Sandy describes the ups and downs of the gardening project, but more than that, she details how the achingly beautiful land around the lake is at risk of devastation. Not incidentally, a portrait of expat life emerges, as we learn of Sandy’s neighbors from Europe and North America and Costa Rica and see how they all coexist, sometimes peaceably, sometimes contentiously.
It’s a book about how we live on the land, how it nourishes us and how we should nourish it. It’s beautifully written and has a strong sense of place. I’m honored that Sandy let me read it and that she’s allowing me to publish an excerpt here.
Excerpt from Evelio’s Garden: A Memoir of Costa Rica, by Sandra Shaw Homer
All land has a history, and the history around here goes back a long way. Satellite images have picked up old roads all over this canton, long grown over, made by the indigenous peoples of pre-Columbian times. One of these roads runs along the south shore of the lake, uphill from the current road and downhill from the ridge that links Tilarán with the tiny villages of Silencio and Río Chiquito. I have ridden my mare along one stretch of this old road that runs behind San Luís and Tronadora, much washed out and crowded with second-growth forest, and it took a man on horseback with a machete to cut open a way for us to pass. Artifacts of the native people show up everywhere. When the lake is low, you can go out in a kayak or canoe and explore along the naked shoreline for pottery shards. In town, there’s hardly a house that doesn’t sport a metate, or corn-grinding stone, that turned up when the foundation was being dug. It usually has a potted plant sitting on it.
Modern local history dates from the late nineteenth century, when there were gold mines south of here in Las Juntas and Líbano. It was rough country then, virgin forest, and the only way in was by horse or mule. The gold was shipped out in ox-carts. (More recently it was taken out in helicopters!) Gradually settlement drifted north, and people carved farms out of the ancient forests, establishing a fiercely independent, frontier life-style. Even in the 1930s, it could take the better part of a week to get to San José – from Tilarán on horseback (oxcart took longer) to Cañas, where you waited days for a small boat to take you down the Bebedero to the Río Tempisque and the port of Puntarenas, then by all-day train up to the Central Valley. The Inter-American highway wasn’t completed along its northern reaches until the sixties. There was no paved road around the lake until the eighties. (It’s still not finished.) I have met retired school teachers in Tilarán who remember four-hour treks on horseback to get to their one-room school houses on the lake, sometimes in mud up to the horses’ knees. The niece of one of these teachers told me that her grandparents owned our farm in those days, and that it was a much bigger property. A lot of the farms around here were broken up when ICE acquired the land for the reservoir. Since then, the process of development has been inexorable. As long as there’s someone to buy, sooner or later a farmer will face the economic conditions that force him to sell, frequently just a small piece at a time, enough to give him ready cash to get along until beef prices go up, or the weather improves enough to let him get a good crop in. There are still some fair-sized farms around the lake, but since the early nineties development has speeded up and been gringo-ized. (At least in Tilarán, the word gringo can refer to Europeans as well as to non-native-Spanish-speakers from north of the Río Grande. Our nearest neighbors are Germans.)
Earlier this year an 18-wheeler parked its trailer by the side of the road just uphill from Cinco Esquinas, smack in your face where the first grand view of the lake should be. It was a mobile office with the name of an international real-estate company painted in large letters on its side. This was beyond ugly, but it never opened. Instead the world-wide recession brought local real estate sales almost to a halt. Still the trailer sat there, month after month, until finally some locals couldn’t resist jacking the thing up to steal a pair of off-side tires, leaving it listing crazily on a slender pile of cement blocks. Just the other day it finally disappeared. How it was moved, nobody seems to know. But nobody was sorry to see it go. This little story – especially the part about getting that trailer out of there – is no doubt already brewing up into a local legend.
We’ve been here long enough to see people come and go. Some can brave the remoteness, the vagaries of the weather and the strangeness of the culture, and some can’t. Some people get attached to the land, and some don’t.
When I was growing up, my family never lived long enough in one place for me to become bound to the land. We lived in some beautiful – and not so beautiful – places, both rural and suburban. From my early twenties until I came to Costa Rica, I moved almost as frequently, living exclusively in cities. It was a little shock to realize, when we started building this house five years ago, that I’ve lived on Lake Arenal, and on this particular plot of ground, longer than I’ve lived any place else in my entire life.
You can’t get attached to the earth in Philadelphia or New York. How many millions of people never do? It’s this attachment that fires my desire to protect it – but not just my attachment to this particular plot of ground, but to the whole thing, the planet. It’s not such a giant leap of the imagination from the sight of a growing young forest to the image of a tiny blue speck in the vastness of the universe. So, finally, it is the sense of place that has captured me and pinned me to the planet.
It is gratifying to be part of the history of the land, to be growing a farm instead of shrinking it, to be building a forest instead of cutting it down. Here, in one tiny corner of the planet, the question becomes obvious: do we add something by our tenancy of the earth, or do we take it away?