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Gullixson: Among the roots of Costa Rica

  • Members of First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa help the indigenous people of Chirripo National Park in Costa Rica install a water line in the remote village of Colonia. An increasing number of Americans are looking for opportunities to volunteer in foreign lands. (Paul Gullixson)

There's a tree found in the cloud forests of Costa Rica that grows in an unusual direction — from the top down. As with so much of the plant life that feeds off one another in these dense forests, this tree's seeds become lodged in the dirt high atop the canopy, and as it grows, its roots extend down deep onto the forest floor.

“Many people think they are vines but they are roots,” said Rodrigo Solano, my family's tour guide through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve last month. Solano grew up scampering through the senderos (trails) of these forests, home to more than 400 birds, 120 amphibians and 3,000 plants. As a boy, he and his friends would cut the tendrils and swing from them.

“But they were amazing,” he said slapping one root, now thick as a trunk. “They always grew back.”

Eventually, as more roots grow and bury themselves deep in the earth, the plant envelopes the host tree like a gloved hand wrapping around a twig, until ultimately the host tree dies. Thus it gets its name, the “Strangler Fig.”

As we stood amid the cascading greenery of this forest — which supports some 20 percent of the world's plant diversity — I saw myself in his story. Many of us probably do.

After college, I spent two and a half months exploring Europe with friends. Before my flight touched down at SFO, I was already planning my return. I had dreams of being a a travel writer, maybe studying at the Sorbonne or touring South America. But as so often happens, the demands, problems and obligations of life conspire to alter our plans until ultimately those responsibilities sort of take over, like the roots of a Strangler Fig.

That sort of explains how my family and I ended up in Costa Rica this summer, out of concern that the roots were winning and — given that my oldest was about to start high school — a conviction that we needed to try something different as a family.

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