The Osa Oh ****!s

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Here in Costa Rica, the scientists are dreamers, and most dreamers natural scientists with an instinctive grasp of the stuff that governs their days – meteorology, seismology, tropical ecology, and so on. All conversations in the Osa move back and forth between observation and imagination, and from objective to subjective without warning, the result, I think, of being ensnared in the rhythms of the natural world while having the time and intelligence to think. Park guards will reveal a deep-held belief in the guiding hand of a capricious higher power; cooks, captains, farmers, fishermen, bar staff will predict and explain the weather along with the behaviour of snakes, whales and pizotes using a fusion of facts and folklore without adding more weight to one or the other, or even seeming in any way conscious of a distinction. There are people who hold conversations like this on the London underground, but here it’s usually illuminating and charming, rather than extremely irritating.

I’ve been reading Reflections and Studies of a Biologist in the Jungles of Corcovado by Alvaro Wille Trejos, a national classic up there with Dan Janzen’s Costa Rican Natural History, and most books by Alexander Skutch. Ostensibly a biology text book, its main thrust is philosophical, eccentric, meandering and sentimental. It could only have been written by a Costa Rican – possibly only a Costa Rican who had spent a year waking up to noises in the night and lying awake until dawn. Dr Wille (who went on to write about yogis) ponders altruism and spirituality, along with man’s search for contentment, while identifying complex rainforest ecosystems and patterns of animal behaviour.

It’s a heady (airy) mix that I’d find totally unreadable if it wasn’t all presented as a boy’s own adventure story in which the self-deprecating Dr Wille, and his luckless research assistant, Enrique, find themselves tackling the complete set of Osa ‘Oh ****!’s from capsized boats, storms, fallen trees and collapsed tents, to close encounters with fer-de-lance, peccaries, jaguars and crocodiles. If he was writing it now he’d probably need to include a run-in with a droguero guarding a stash of coke on an isolated beach, but aside from that, he faces every possible misfortune with great cheer.

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