The Lorax Takes His Coffee Iced

Maybe it’s because all the vegetation down here looks Seussical, IMG_1972 but I’m having a Loraxy moment.

The reason I support organic agriculture in the name of taking care of the people who produce and eat agricultural goods and not in the name of taking care of the planet is because the planet can take care of itself. I only saw one episode of that History Channel show “Life After People,” but I’m pretty convinced that if people disappeared today the planet could recover from all the damage we’ve done within a few years.

It caught me off guard that all men here carry machetes pretty much all the time. It really caught me off guard that kids as young as 4 or 5 walk around with them too, and no one blinks. But here you really need a machete, because stuff grows like crazy. The tropics are alive and plants, vines, trees, grasses, and flowers are growing so fast I swear I can see them changing if I stand still for long enough. You need a machete if you want to be able to hack your way through the jungle to get to the banana trees and yucca grove, and then you need your machete to chop down the hand of bananas and dig up the root vegetables.

Ngöbe women digging up ñampi from their mangrove finca. Note the tool.
Ngöbe women digging up ñampi from their mangrove finca. Note the tool.

You need a machete to chop the vines off the roof and the weeds off the sides of the road. If you don’t have a machete and spend time constantly chopping, you will loose to the plants. Roots uproot pavement and house floors; vines crack adobe tiles and choke bamboo boards. The jungle will overtake any space you carve out of it if you don’t constantly keep carving.

Which is why people here have been carving for centuries. And when you carve long enough you end up with cement and glass cities that look fairly comparable to those on other sides of the world. If we people disappeared plants would eventually overtake the work of so much carving. But we’re probably not going anywhere en masse any time too soon, and we’re certainly not going to stop carving as long as we have the capacity to carve, which means we have to check ourselves, because carving unchecked means that we’re carving faster than the jungle can keep up with, and while too much jungle will choke us out, too little jungle will fry us alive.

The Lorax has already said it in many iterations; he’s been quoted and cited again and again, but I think realizing that the more you take time to look out for the environment the more you’re actually looking out for yourself (forget about 7th generation, anything positive you do to the environment around you has immediate positive benefits for you as an individual) is a lesson everyone has to actually learn firsthand, not somehow absorb through the preaching of others.

I’m not crunchy granola and while I love a good verse of kumbaya as much as the next perso I’m not going to sit around singing it all day, and yet one of the biggest take home messages I’ve gleaned from these 8 months out and about in the tropics is to plant trees. Lots of them. The parts of the jungle that grow the fastest and do the most choking are the vines and the grasses; they’re also the ones that can restart themselves pretty much anywhere. Trees grow a little bit more slowly, but they grow faster when we give them a leg up.

The coolest thing about trees is that they really have no negative affects. They just have higher standards for growing conditions (like actual deep soil) and can therefore sometimes use a little help getting started. But if we take the time and planning to get our hands dirty for a few minutes to plant a few trees, we’re doing something that has zero drawbacks and endless positives. There is literally no other activity I can think of for which I can say the same.

In the northeastern United States it’s a little bit harder to see why trees are so important and to really appreciate their power. Things grow slowly, and while we know from 5th grade earth science that trees give us oxygen and blah blah photosynthesis, we don’t have the chance to experience firsthand one of the most amazing things they do: bring down the temperature.

In the northeast there are usually no more than a few weeks a year when the temperature is so high that you will be in bad shape if you spend too much time in the sun. But in the tropics the sun is more direct all year round and middays are just brutally hotter.

I went for a 3 hour walk with friends on a particularly hot and sunny day, and we got ourselves through it by saying, “we just have to make it to the next shady part.” The dirt road was literally baking in the sun, and so were we. When we came to a section of the road shaded by trees the temperature dropped several degrees, and when we passed a patch of jungle with a thin waterfall trickling through it we stopped and stood for a few minutes, arms outstretched, letting the cool breeze that blew down the mountain wash over us. That is jungle power. Nature’s own climate control works like magic.

Some people are still denying global warming/climate change, some people (like me until a few weeks ago) acknowledge it but don’t really understand what it means on a personal level.

I came to understand it in the middle of a cafetal (where else do I learn anything these days?) and unfortunately coffee was on the guilty side. Colombian coffee is markedly different from Central American coffee in that it is grown in full sun. Pretty much every single farm I saw in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama had at least some degree of shade. Even if it was only a sporadic tree every hundred meters, there was something to break up the sea of coffee. Not here, in the kingdom of the prince of technified coffee (Brazil is king).

Here the cafetales bake in the sun as much as the dirt road. Most of the time there is nothing to break up the rows and rows of coffee climbing the hillsides, and cafetales with trees are referred to as “aged” or “traditional,” which are euphemisms used about as affectionately as a Yankees fan would call the Red Sox “the opposition.” Cafetales here are pure coffee, and their purity is a point of pride (I hear there are some agroforestry ones in the Santander province….) But when there’s nothing but coffee in the cafetal it gets really hot. Like, really, really hot.

Hot Colombian coffee.
Hot Colombian coffee.

One day I helped clean out the tank that catches drinking water for the finca I was staying at. The water bubbles out from a natural spring in the side of the mountain, and the area surrounding the spring is protected by a patch of jungle. 360 degrees around the patch of jungle is pure coffee-only cafetal. We only walked through the cafetales for about 5 minutes on our way to the spring, but I felt my face burning as I sweat through my clothes. When we stepped out of the coffee into the jungle, the temperature change was about as drastic from stepping off the Atlanta pavement into an A/Ced office building in the middle of July.

It was cool and pleasant under the giant banana leaves and between the trunks of towering bamboo. In the coffee it was downright miserable. It didn’t take much mental extrapolation to think how much cooler things (on a global scale) would be if all the hundreds of thousands of acres of hot coffee spreading across Colombia (and Brazil…and coffeelands of Africa and Asia) were instead still the jungle they used to be.

Mountains planted with coffee are better than mountains planted with cow grass, in terms of contributing to livable air temperatures and “mitigating” climate change. But they’ve got nothing on the jungle.

I have a hard time seeing all this technified coffee. I know it means more harvest and secure livelihoods for the people who grow it. But I also know that coffee can work under a much more jungle-ish system. I want there to be just a few more trees; just enough to break up the monotony of the hot coffee. Because planting a few more trees never hurt anyone. And because they grow so fast in the land of 365 growing days, they are guaranteed to help someone soon by shading out the midday heat.

The best legacy you can leave for anyone, your own children or Future Generations in general is to plant trees. Currencies and values change, and if it ever comes down to it you can’t eat money. Or plastic. “My dad left me 50k.” Cool. “My dad left me a forest.” Now that’s literally cool.

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4 Comments

  1. Tomorrow at the Botanical Gardens here in Washington DC, Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Program is hosting a program from 10 to 2. If any of your readers are in the area, they would be welcome to stop by.

  2. Fantastic message Rachel! Plant more trees and lots of them! It takes so little to plant a tree, for whatever purpose. As you suscinctly put it, there is no down side to planting a tree; a coffee tree, an orange tree, an elm tree. Each one benefits the greater good for a long time. In the Potenciana, we are working to acquire endangered species (ron ron, cocobolo, aguacate montana, etc) from ICE for our reforestation projects. On your next visit, we will plant one in your honor!

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