Thursday, June 3, 2010
The Real South Woods
Before I start on today's topic, I'd like to mention that this week EOLYN made the All Time Top 20 List at The Next Big Writer (TNBW). This is an on-line international writer's workshop that includes about 2800 authors and reviewers from the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and other places around the word. Over 600 novels are currently being workshopped on the site. During the last year, I have met a lot of wonderful, talented people on The Next Big Writer, and read many exciting novels in the making. The chapters of EOLYN have received about 750 reviews, all of which have contributed in one way or another to the completion of this novel. So, thank you again, to all my friends and colleages at TNBW, for your incredible feedback and support.
I'm wrapping up my season in Kansas City right now, getting ready to spend the summer months in my second home in Costa Rica. (Of course, if I had it my way, I'd spend winter in Costa Rica and summer in Kansas City, but unfortunately I'm bound by the academic year. Not that I'm complaining - two months in the tropics is two months in the tropics, no matter when it happens.) Costa Rica is an incredibly diverse country biologically, housing 4% of the world's species on about 0.001% of the world's terrestrial territory. Part of the reason for this intense 'species packing' is the terrain of this tiny nation - A rugged, mountainous landscape that rises from sea level to about 3800m (or just under 12,000 feet). So while the lowlands are lush with what we normally think of as "tropical forest" - hot, humid, full of thick vegetation and towering trees - as we move up the mountains, we find dramatically different kinds of ecosystems housing very distinctive plants and animals.
The South Woods, Eolyn's home for the greater part of her childhood, is based in part on the highland forests of the Cordillera Talamanca, the oldest of three mountain ranges in the country. At elevations around 2800m (or just under 9,000 feet), we find a forest that is tropical in its seasonality - in the sense that it is not subject to the intense winters of the northern latitudes - but temperate in its composition. Oak trees - some up to 1,000 years old - dominate the canopy. Blueberry, blackberry and wintergreen plants grow close to the ground. Mushrooms sprout up all over the place, many of them edible, others very poisonous. Mixed in with all of this are plants and animals more 'typically' tropical - monkeys and tapirs, for example, or bromeliads and orchids and a spindly form of bamboo. Their are nearly 50 endemic species and subspecies of birds in Talamanca - and no, I have not seen them all!
Days in Talamanca dawn bright and sunny, but almost invariably end shrouded in mist and cold rain. Nights are chilly and windy, and at our field station in Cuerici we would spend them huddled by a wood burning stove drinking hot chocolate, or buried under as many blankets as we could scrounge, hoping to stay warm until dawn. For ten years I took students to these forests, and I always saw the same reactions: Despite the strange intermeshing of tropical and temperate life, despite the bone-penetrating chill of that rustic field station, this was a place that made them happy, a place that reminded them of home.
Eolyn's life in the South Woods was very much inspired by my day-to-day experiences in the oak forests of Talamanca. These are forests rich with resources - everything is edible, medicinal or otherwise usable. They are friendly to those who know how to navigate them, and cruel - even deadly - to those who do not. The ancient trees are magnificent, and carry an energy that demands awe and respect, a kind of power that seems to flow from the very heart of the mountains on which they grow. When I am in Talamanca, this is the energy that restores my spirit and inspires my creativity. I like to call it 'magic', and when writing the novel, I gave it to Eolyn as the source of her power.
The Cordillera Talamanca is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it's one of those places that should be on the list of all adventure-minded folk. But even if you never get a chance to visit Talamanca, you will encounter something of its essence and beauty in the first chapters of EOLYN.
Today's picture is from the forests of Talamanca, near Cuerici Biological Station. The tree is called 'Abuelo' (Spanish for "Grandfather"), and while the exact age is uncertain, it is estimated to be about 1,000 years old. This same tree, by the way, appears in my short story Turning Point, published in the speculative fiction journal Zahir. Pictured with 'Abuelo' are me and Alberto Torres, manager and naturalist guide at Cuerici.