Trees of Life : Frances Lynn Carpenter has a vision: a renewed tropical forest. The UCI ecologist's dream offers hope for Costa Rica's tired and wasted land.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the soggy mist of the nursery, Frances Lynn Carpenter's newborns lie still, nestled in a blanket of dusky topsoil.

Thousands of jade-colored seedlings sprout from a crib of wet earth, pushing forward delicate leaves like butterfly wings. Carpenter squats to finger the tender shoot of a freshly germinated tropical tree. She admires its fullness. She pictures it fully grown. She dreams of seeds rising up and saving the world.

"Some of the people here feel sorry for me because I don't have any children," said Carpenter, a 50-year-old ecology professor from the University of California, Irvine. "They don't understand a gringa who doesn't have babies. But I do--I have 6,000 babies."

Some baffled friends call her the "wanna-be Johnny Appleseed" of the tropics, a seasoned scientist who risked her academic prestige, her personal savings and every last dollar of her credit card limits for a quixotic project to raise a rain forest from the battered, grassy slopes of southwest Costa Rica.

With a $20,000 gift and the mud-stained, blistered hands of California volunteers, Carpenter is carving a tropical tree finca, or farm, along hills beneath the mist-shrouded mountains of the southern frontier and overlooking the steel-blue ribbon of the Pacific and Golfo Dulce.

She is gambling the ranch that she can coax a rain forest so quickly, efficiently and economically that local farmers will imitate her, investing in trees and reaping a cash crop of hardwood.

Her aim is to stave off further destruction of rain forests, which have been chain-sawed and left rotting in the hills of Coto Brus to clear land for cattle pastures and coffee plantations.

*

Rufous-tailed hawks and wild parakeets sail the cool breeze above her farm--63 acres of steep, emerald hills that have been burned by fire, shaved by herbicide, washed by relentless rain, crushed by cattle hoofs and now planted with 6,000 trees, with more on the way in the nursery.

"It is exactly what I wanted," Carpenter said with a smile.

Just four decades ago, the vast sweep of hills was covered with a canopy of lush tropical hardwoods so dense that the towering forest smothered the light for 20th-Century settlers who wandered here from northern Costa Rica, the United States and Italy.

The first tree slain by an ax fell on Feb. 28, 1952, and in the years that followed the giants came crashing down with such fury and intensity that some wistful residents called the shuddering land la Tierra Triste --the Sad Earth.

Costa Rica has been losing its forest more rapidly than other ecologically rich countries, even though the nation has been widely praised for its extensive network of forest preserves. At the start of the century, more than 85% of the small, Central American country was covered with forest, but that figure has fallen to less than 50%. Some local economists fear that forests outside the preserves will vanish at the rate of 98,000 acres a year.

Far from the thunderclaps of falling timber, Carpenter had been preoccupied for much of the last 22 years with the foraging patterns of Hawaiian honeycreepers, or the pitched battle for nectar waged by insects and hummingbirds.

Her UC Irvine research focused on the torpor of the Andean hummingbird and the feeding territory of migrant hummingbirds. She was fascinated by the wild, furious creatures that consume life at a fever pitch.

"They live life on the edge," she said. "They're always in danger of using up their energy reserves. They have to interact intensely with their environment."

But Carpenter keenly missed that intensity in her own life. She was restless in class, daydreaming about retirement that was years away. And as she careened toward her 50th year, she took stock of herself and assumed a peculiarly modern burden.

"I began to realize that my life was going to be my career," she said. "I was not going to get remarried and have a family, and I accepted that."

Gradually, the iridescent hummingbirds no longer seemed so intriguing. While on sabbatical in 1991, she participated in a deforestation seminar in Costa Rica. She left the lecture outraged because no one seemed to offer a solution to the relentless problem.

That's when the seed of an idea took hold: Why couldn't la Tierra Triste be healed? Carpenter started biting her nails again, tossing at night with dreams about her life's work. She received encouragement from her parents, who gave her $20,000 to purchase property for a tree experiment. Still, she couldn't decide. She feared that her colleagues might be scornful of a practical project in a lab of deep red mud and washed-out cattle trails.

Then came her father's funeral.

"Does it really matter whether hummingbirds define their territory or not?" Carpenter asked. "I had never before taken on something that really mattered, because of a fear of failure. If I failed with the hummingbirds, it didn't really matter. But the trees really mattered."

*

This June, when the steamy rain of Coto Brus began thrashing the hills, Carpenter returned to her 6,000 young trees rising from the gentle slopes known as Camp 2 1/2.

She first glimpsed the land in 1991 while on a seven-month sabbatical to research the effect of exotic plants on native trees in a rain forest preserve. She was seated in a rumbling bus bound for a Pacific beach when she saw her future farm. It was disgust at first sight.

From her window seat, she was struck by the eroded pastures and she snapped a photograph of the bleak hills. The steep slopes, etched with a network of cattle trails, were losing black topsoil to a murky lagoon at the bottom of a huge, grassy bowl.

So exhausted was the clayish, rust-colored soil that farmers deemed it unfit for agricultural use. No tractor could tackle its rutted slopes. Chemical herbicides had ruined an old crop of coffee plants.

Later, her photo of the damaged hills would become Exhibit A in her passionate lectures on deforestation to ecology undergraduates at UC Irvine. There was something about the forlorn hills that touched her students like the whisper of hummingbird wings never could.

She bought the farm for $20,000 in August, 1992, a move that gave her new passion for teaching undergraduate and graduate ecology students.

"I was getting fed up with my job until I got the farm," said Carpenter, who divides the year equally between teaching and her Costa Rica research. "It's given me some kind of heart and compassion for my students that I didn't have before."

She received a standing ovation after one lecture that featured her project. Volunteers started trickling to Costa Rica for the unglamorous tasks of counting and measuring trees and watching them grow. Some special expeditions paid as much as $2,000 to make the odyssey to her farm and a neighboring rain forest preserve.

At a supermarket checkout stand in California, a San Diego couple overheard a conversation about Carpenter's project. It was enough to inspire them to buy plane tickets to join the professor in Costa Rica. A Newport Beach accountant also headed south after reading about the project.

They were drawn by Carpenter, a guide as charismatic as Peter Pan--particularly when the ecologist is dangling by rope from the sturdy branches of a 150-foot-tall amarillon tree.

A cocked olive hat covers Carpenter's cropped brown hair. Her eyes are the color of tree bark. Slim and lithe, she is dressed in lavender from her delicate amethyst earrings to socks thick enough to stymie chiggers.

Through the woods, people trail her even as she blasts along muddy roads at the wheel of a lurching four-wheel-drive vehicle, red earth spraying from the tires while howler monkeys scream from hidden retreats in the tree canopy.

"She's single and she calls the trees her kids, and they are in a way," said Eric Pianka, 55, a volunteer and herpetologist from the University of Texas who followed Carpenter to Costa Rica to build a carport for her farm station. "It's kind of nuts. It sounds like a crazy project to me. And if it wasn't Lynn, I would probably say she's a lunatic. I hope it works."

Carpenter said she thinks volunteers are attracted because her solutions seem practical.

"I think the appeal is the same for me," Carpenter said. "Once you hear the core ideas about my project, it just makes so much sense. You feel like your effort is making a difference."

Her goals are summed up in her pleas for six-figure foundation grants, which have yet to flow like the volunteers: Find native trees that thrive on hardship and ravaged soil. Develop a recipe of mulches and clippings, vegetation and leguminous trees that can nourish the earth and speed growth. Move out of the way when the trees start growing.

That sounds deceptively simple. But most forestry experiments last about five to 10 years while Carpenter estimates her experiment will take place over 20 years.

She has also chosen to nurture trees on nutrient-poor earth--in contrast to most forestry experiments, which usually are conducted on rich soil for quick results. She argues that her results will be closer to reality for farmers struggling to make damaged land productive.

*

To achieve her grander aims, Carpenter had to start with basics--such as conversational Spanish. She brushed up on her college Spanish with such relish that a scientist marveled at her academic mastery of virtually all of the local vulgarities.

She also had to tackle subjects that she scorned during her university training: soil ecology, economics, sociology, forestry and political science.

With her broad American accent and open manner, she won over many of the farmers, who freely shared lore about the fastest growing, most marketable native trees.

They were in no hurry, though, to follow her example. A steady stream of visitors made a pilgrimage to her hillside station after hearing she had bought one of the most tired farms in the area. They simply wanted to sell her another finca .

"I am waiting 10 years to see what happens to her project," said Hernan Villalobos, a son of Costa Rican pioneers who helped to settle Coto Brus and a member of several farming organizations looking for alternatives to traditional coffee plantations and cattle ranching. "This is really an adventure at this point. It seems to have promise, but the problem is, she has to demonstrate that it will pay for campesinos ."

Still, it was the campesinos who gave her the advice that prompted her to pick the amarillon tree to spawn a forest of seedlings. A tropical hardwood of rich, mustard-and-red grain, the wood was used for the double doors to her new Costa Rican home.

Last year, the task of plucking fresh amarillon seeds was assigned to her workers and volunteers who literally hugged and scaled trunks in a quest for robust mother trees.

Carpenter took a shopping list of mountain-climbing equipment to California and purchased $1,500 worth of webbing, ropes and harnesses. Then a savvy volunteer adapted the equipment to reach the towering canopies of amarillon and mayo colorado trees.

They could have plucked seeds scattered below the tree trunks, but Carpenter insisted that they had to come from newly cut branches to avoid fungus and rot that weakens seeds on the ground. She wanted to know the full history of the mother trees so she could track the strongest, healthiest stock for her seedlings.

And so a giant rubber slingshot was fashioned to send a heavy rope and a five-pound weight sailing over the tops of the mottled, white-and-gray branches of the amarillon. Then the volunteers climbed up, entering a new dimension of treetop life where the branches swarmed with beetles, butterflies and birds.

Devon Biggs, a Wisconsin volunteer, and Eduver Sandi, Carpenter's Costa Rican foreman, learned to hoist themselves 150 feet with ropes and carabiners.

"It's really an emotional feeling up there because you know your life could be on the ground," said Sandi, 30, who on one foray for pristine seeds was attacked by bees that swarmed over his face, ears and mouth.

Last year, Carpenter stayed on the ground while others embraced the trees. This summer, she insisted on a climbing lesson, weighing the consequences of the ascent much as she mulled her decision to switch careers.

While her volunteers watched, she dangled from an amarillon tree like a spider, inching with the same deliberate speed until her hiking boots thrashed four feet above ground. Somebody whistled a James Bond theme song for encouragement. She paused in midair, measuring the growing separation from the earth.

"The hardest part is switching from climbing up to coming down," Carpenter said. "I don't feel stable at that point. I feel basically that I know what I have to do, but I get nervous and weak when I think about what could happen. I really, really want to be able to get up there."

*

In the morning, before the afternoon mist drapes the mountains and rain pelts the slopes, Carpenter slides on mud-caked rubber boots to head for her nursery.

The green wings of tiny seedlings make a thick carpet along the narrow beds of topsoil. Soon it will be their turn to sink roots into the hills where 6,000 trees are already flourishing, some of them reaching above Carpenter's knee.

It is quiet moments such as these that Carpenter relishes like a favorite photograph in a family album. She doesn't dwell on the fact that she has charged her credit cards to the maximum to furnish her new farm station with a stove and refrigerator. She doesn't worry that she hasn't yet attracted foundation grants to underwrite her grand vision.

Fellow scientist Marta E. Rosemeyer, a University of Costa Rica researcher, said she believes Carpenter has been able to plod along on a shoestring budget subsidized by volunteers because the UC Irvine professor has invested so much of herself in the land.

"Most scientists don't do this kind of thing," Rosemeyer said. "She's put a tremendous amount of her savings into this. What's that old expression? Where your treasures are, that's where your heart is."

Carpenter takes heart in her seedlings.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°