Chelsea Carson is the Director of Outreach at Earthfire Institute, working to increase our local and global reach through environmental education, programming, and conservation. She has been working remotely for Earthfire while traveling through Central and South America, finding parallels to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the wild residents at Earthfire. While we usually focus on the Tetons and experiences on site at the sanctuary, it is important to make global connections between ecosystems and creatures near and far, to feel how intricately woven our lives are to one another and to share the messages of the animals across distances.
For the past two months, I have been visiting Ecuador and Costa Rica on a journey to revisit spaces that fill my soul and to discover new ones to nourish it. My travels have fueled a passion for Life and a joy to experience the abundance of it. Within these travels I have visited many ecosystems–coastal dry forests, high elevation paramo, the rainforest, the sierras–each leaving me with deep appreciation and a sense of wholeness. Each reminding me in many ways of the ecosystem where I live–and where Earthfire resides–the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
But while traveling, there is one ecosystem that I have hopelessly fallen for: the cloud forest. I first hiked in the cloud forests of Ecuador six years ago, and each time I come back, I am flooded with the wildest love for a place I have ever known. The cloud forest, which gets its name from the characteristic fog cover, receives the majority of its moisture through horizontal rain, or cloud stripping, which is a process where plants receive condensed water droplets from clouds passing across the landscape. Similar in diversity and first glance to a rainforest, the cloud forest is overgrowing with life. However, unlike the lowland rainforests, the cloud forest can range in elevation from 500 – 4000 meters, creating extreme biodiversity, endemism, and habitats unique to this ecosystem.
The diversity of the cloud forest is staggering, as it is home to hundreds of species of birds, amphibians, insects, reptiles, and mammals. There is so much Life here in the cloud forest, I often feel that I lose my human identity. I walk into the deep green and let myself get lost within it. It feels so good to feel lost within a place as a human, to be but a small part of the functioning of this wild place. It is the type of lost where we can discover ourselves, find our true selves as an equal being walking this earth with every other creature on this planet. I try to take it all in, to feel my breath ease, my muscles relax, my stomach settle, the electricity of my skin ignite with familiarity. My being blurring into the processes around me, so evident and vivid. Here in the cloud forest, I am a part of all Life, I have come home to the wildness.
One deep pull of air into my lungs flowing into a methodic exhale. Feeling the cycle of our earth, birth and death, all at once. Here in the cloud forest, I find myself thinking a lot of cycles, as everything transforms into the next within this ecosystem. Life is growing on life, which is growing on life, and again and again and again. There is no stop, but many beginnings. In the cloud forest everything makes so much sense, and yet leaves me perplexed by its magic all at the same time. Water is absorbed into plants only to be redistributed as fruits which are eaten by animals, who excrete the seeds as nutrients into new soil. The seeds are buried and mixed in with the leaf litter as its decomposed by millions of the most important creatures here on this planet, creating the conditions for a seed to germinate and grow into a plant which will absorb water and carbon and so forth and so on. It is a land far more intricate and exotic than I could have ever imagined. This is the place of my dreams, my deepest curiosities, fears, and desires. The creatures here move in perfect, organized chaos, each one playing their unique and valuable role to ensure the cycle of life, decomposition, and maintenance.
There is a moment I share with a butterfly, as it mills about and flies in its reality and I contemplate mine. This butterfly, this beautifully intricate and delicate being, feels so fierce and powerful as it flutters around me and finally settles atop my outstretched hand. I wonder how its life passes in relation to my own. How it must find food, water, shelter, companionship—all things I, too, seek. It has endured the challenges of life as grand as any being does, and also its pleasures. Our lives dance through the same cycles, within the same planet, but our timelines vary significantly. What would the world be like if we slowed down to the pace of the butterflies? How much appreciation could we gain by moving slowly in a world attempting to move faster and faster?
The butterfly stays with me for a few moments, or perhaps a lifetime. We do not talk, but the feelings that pass leave me with the satisfaction of one of the richest conversations I have ever had. I breathe deeply and bow in gratitude as it decides to move about its day and flies away.
I then allow my thoughts to circle back to my love for this place, and then to what this ecosystem offers to our Earth. The cloud forest, as with all of the earth’s ecosystems, is changing drastically. With human development and agriculture, deforestation and pollution, and climate change, the future of this magical ecosystem is uncertain. As humans take more of the space, the rest of the creatures are forced out of it. The thought of moments like this one disappearing weighs my heart down.
But I find hope in this moment too. The deep love and gratitude I have for this experience and this place encourages me to help preserve it for all beings who call it home, or are fortunate enough to be brought home to its wildness for a visit.