|Perspectives Through Time|
The morning air was cool and the sun shone from an intense blue sky. The trees were huge! Lichens, bromeliads, ferns and mosses coated every undisturbed surface forming a fuzzy green fantasy land. A narrow road cut back and forth down the mountain. At every switchback a new vista left me with mouth agape. Our destination was the Chacon Family Farm, a 10-mile hike down the valley at 7,200 feet. The cabins for fishermen were primitive and cold, but without them we would have never discovered this special secluded place.
Missionary Phil Corey had found it to be a fisherman’s heaven and described it in vivid detail to Drs. Judd, Finkenbinder and me. By the following January of 1982 we had followed him here. Water vapor from the Atlantic blew upward over the cold Talamanca Mountains and enveloped us (we were inside the cloud forest), a part of this unique ecosystem.
The next morning I climbed alone to a high spot on the wild mountain and was proud of my agility until I noticed a cow patty at my feet. Holstein cows, cheese making, a small family farm, and trout for the table seemed to coexist harmoniously with wild habitat. We began to hear the story of how don Efrain Chacon and his wife, Caridad, had pioneered this uninhabited valley some 28 years before. Doña Caridad was a marvelous cook and we dined on fresh cheese, trout, and other local produce. Eleven Chacon children all contributed their part to the garden, farm, dairy and the embryonic “ecotourism” business. The eldest son, Marino, had learned English and served as our translator and guide. Despite the language barrier, friendships were begun and we reluctantly said good-byes.
Providentially, Leo Finkenbinder was soon able to return to Costa Rica and spend a very effective sabbatical. He learned much about the diverse ecology in Costa Rica and strengthened friendships with the Chacon family. By 1986 Biology faculty, students and alumni were back in Costa Rica, absorbing much of the scientific knowledge gained by Dr. Finkenbinder. He played an audio tape of quetzal calls, an accepted procedure then. Student Nancy Halliday (now a faculty member) immediately pointed to a male Resplendent Quetzal overhead. “Dr. Fink” thought she was joking. We watched the bird while he continued to lecture about Pharomachrus maccino.
A land lease was negotiated with the Chacon Family so that SNU could plan a field station. Funds from SNU and alumni and lots of work by Leo and Zana Finkenbinder produced a small “bodega” - one multipurpose room and a bathroom. Clothes could now “dry” after several days under the wide eaves. Students Rich Sawin and Paul Denton dug a hole for the septic tank using pick axes to penetrate the rocks. Alumnus Ted Bader donated a used four-wheel-drive Isuzu Trooper. (It still “runs”!) Students helped mark trails at 50-meter intervals so locations for scientific data could be established. The field station was christened “Quetzal Education Research Center” (QERC). Many beautiful butterflies and other insects were studied, pinned and displayed there. Unfortunately, humidity and crowded conditions in the bodega molded and destroyed the entire collection before a dehumidified museum could be built. I still want to cry over the wonderful specimens and hard work by students and myself that were lost.
Professors and students headed to Costa Rica whenever the academic calendar and funding allowed. Courses included photography, sketching, literature, sociology, history, Spanish, astronomy and many biological topics. I taught entomology at every opportunity. A semester sabbatical from SNU allowed me to teach tropical ecology and travel in Costa Rica with the students of the Latin American Studies Program (LASP), a CCCU program based in San Jose which includes a two-week ecology/stewardship component.
Both Leo Finkenbinder and Efrain Chacon felt a spiritual commitment to stewardship of the environment and development of QERC. With a commission from God, great things become possible! The Chacon family traded their prize-winning dairy herd for sustainable agriculture and ecotourism while SNU researched ways to preserve the local and global environment and educate others in the process. During academic semesters, Leo taught on the Bethany campus while his wife, Zana, was often at SNU’s house in San Jose planning, scheduling, and making personal contacts that could only be done in the country. Dr. Don Dunnington and SNU’s administration visited the QERC site and committed to build the 2-story facility that now serves students and faculty from SNU and other universities. Zana Finkenbinder served as contractor and foreman. In 2001 the building was dedicated under the flags of both Costa Rica and the U.S. Dignitaries, school children, and the local community of San Gerardo de Dota celebrated with all who had worked, donated, and prayed to bring about the dream. The building is awesome – skylights and windows give the feeling of being out-of-doors. Floral colors and decorative touches add art to the science. Three bunk rooms can house up to 28 students if necessary. Two large bathrooms with hot water showers allow students to study and work without the time consuming logistics that were necessary in our earlier days. A lab, library, museum, and small apartment for the directors support the objectives of QERC. The museum has a dehumidifier and a new insect cabinet that reaches from floor to ceiling with 25 specimen drawers.
Faces, names and stories of scores of students and colleagues fill my memories. I was in the QERC library when I heard “Dr. Young, Dr. Young come quick! A bird flew into the window and its brain is on the sidewalk!” Sure enough, a bloody mass with a large cerebrum in front and smaller lumps behind looked like the brains students had dissected in Comparative Anatomy labs. But the bird (a beautiful Emerald Toucanet) had its skull cap intact. On the second story window above was a yellow splat and the “brain” below was the embryo from a nest that the toucanet has raided. The beautiful predator soon recovered enough to perch on a branch and we snapped lots of close up photos.
During Dr. Wes Hanson’s term as director of QERC, he lead the team who reached a long-term goal. For the past 3 years SNU students have been able to spend the entire spring semester at QERC and earn 17 hours of college credit including science, research and general education. He has done budgeting and planning and stringent accounting.
The students’ full semesters at QERC would not be possible without on-site field station managers, David and Sarah Hille. Backgrounds in biology, Spanish, environmental stewardship, teaching and cross-cultural experience make them well-suited for the diverse job requirements. They have been excellent “dorm parents,” friends, leaders in Christian eco-stewardship, community outreach specialists, building maintenance, and Christian role models.
My research interest is insect diversity – especially a comparison between the undisturbed primary forest and secondary forest that is recovering from clear cutting and cattle grazing. David and I set up light traps in primary and secondary forests simultaneously – a controlled experiment comparing the night flying insects in the two forests. It is very time consuming but fun to separate moths, flies, and other insects into morphotypes. I presented the data and results at a conference of the Oklahoma Academy of Science. More importantly, I was able to tell don Efrain that my data indicated his efforts to restore the cleared land to forest were beginning to be successful.
Tourists, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world come to the Chacon’s ecotourism facilities to see the Resplendent Quetzal and the biodiversity of the cloud forest. Many of them follow the signs up the trail to the QERC and are surprised that a small Christian university has one of the finest of field stations they have seen.
Official weblog for the researchers, students, faculty and friends of QERC - The Quetzal Education Research Center