I finally was able to do something in Nicaragua that I have dreamed about ever since I first traveled there: I took a hike.
And this was no ordinary hike, to be sure. Our workshop on cooperatives was held at the foot of Peñas Blancas, a stunning range of white cliffs rising up from a deep forest floor. It’s also an eco-tourism site which is home to the cooperative GARBO and the association of forest guardians. There is a meeting room at the location, along with a dormitory, eating facility, environmental study building and a few small homes dotting a winding forest road. Some pretty amazing things are happening at this site, which just ten short years ago was devoid of any trees at all, the forests having been cleared for grazing land. Now it’s as dense as ever under the care and nurturing of a committed group of people who see this resource for the jewel that it is.
The three-day workshop itself focused on the topic of coffee: its production, commercialization, buying and selling, its technical advisors, second-tier associations, its funders, its fallacies and its future. This third of three workshops during 2011 brought together thirty-some participants, each representing their own interests and issues, but all with the desire to learn how they might collaborate for better success. We don’t know for certain that it was the first time for such a conference; we do know that it was a most unique gathering.
The workshop featured many presentations on coffee, along with some conversations that were simply philosophical. Parables helped to frame the issues and jump-start participation. Real-life stories punctuated the sessions every day. Even poetry found a niche for consideration. The facilitators, Rene Mendoza and Edgar Fernandez, understood that learning styles and preferences are as diverse as the audience. So I was not surprised to learn that at the end of the three days we were to take a hike through the woods, up to Rainbow Falls, where waters gushed forth from the upper levels of Peñas Blancas onto the forest floor below. In fact, for two days I was antsy for the chance!
Rene and Edgar decided that we would head up the trail in three groups, not really competing with each other but with ourselves, to make sure that every member of each group made the climb all the way to the falls. For some, especially the young or the physically fit, this would present no problem. But for some others in each group, the difficulties of age or sedentary habits or physical limitations would provide a challenge. The objectives were made very clear: get every member of each group to the top and down again, and along the way note the lessons that might be learned from a walk in the woods. At 6:30 A.M., the first group set off on their climb, with another group to commence every 15 minutes.
Each group had the benefit of a “guide,” one of the members of the forest rangers/GARBO. These young men not only knew the preserve and its inhabitants, but also understood what the forest says to us, what it means, and how we need to comprehend what it teaches. Jairo and Carlos served as our guides; by the end of our hike I regarded them as I might have considered one of the mammoth forest trees. Such was the manner in which they spoke of the woodland, cited its sacred nature for the Indigenous people, and even caressed the leaves and buds of some very unfamiliar plants. In each case, they taught us about the use of such leaves, the value of such buds, and why regenerating their existence was so important to us all. Very soon into our walk, the groups seemed to take on a quieter, more reverential demeanor as we became introduced to the host of forest life, and new ideas.
I cannot recount here all of the realities and legends encountered during our hours in the woods. But I did see where the rare puma often made its evening encampment (the cave to the left), the curative plants with the power to heal in ways that western medicine does not know, varieties of trees once thought to be extinct and now thriving under care. I entered the “sanctuary of the mammoth trees,” where visitors are respectfully asked to seek permission to enter this world with a respectful attitude for life there. This door to the forest evoked a sense of humility in each of us. I did not observe the forest elf after hearing about him, but I confess to looking over my shoulder during the rest of our climb in hopes of catching a glimpse of the elusive waif.
Despite all of the environmental teaching that was going on, I really did give a great deal of thought to organizational lessons that I might learn from the hike and the cooperative efforts of the teams making their way up the cliffs. And as obtuse as the assignment sounded when Rene first gave it, I found that the further into the heart of the forest I immersed, the clearer became the lessons.
Systems either work together in fully-integrated fashion or they create destructive- even fatal- imbalances. The woods provide some very clear examples of both cooperative co-existence and predatory destruction. With the resurrection of the forest, the trees which now dwarf the land also provide a convenient and calming canopy for the native plants growing beneath. Without the protective covering, the plants which are indigenous to the area cannot survive. And yet some of the trees which now inhabit the savannah once again, with tremendous capacity for rapid growth, find themselves wrapped by parasitic, invasive vines that can literally choke the life from these fast-growing marvels. Having the native trees return is a wondrous thing; whether they can survive choking vines that have been allowed to take root is a frustrating thing. Balance is everything in the forest.
The scope of diversity that now exists in the forest at Peñas Blancas is staggering. Some of what grows there has not even been identified by the rangers; they even speculate about flora and fauna that might be growing in their midst without being seen. Such is the density and breadth of the woods. But I was struck by the ability of these very diverse plants to be in balance in the woods, essentially being in harmony within the broader habitat. Living things that are very different from one another create a woodland tune in harmony with itself, as if understanding that such an integration is necessary for the good of the whole. I don’t know if plants think that way; I suspect that they simply act that way.
That the forest was non-existent a mere ten years ago after being cleared for grazing is unimaginable. How an entire forest can be reborn to full maturity in such a short time defies belief. But the resurgence is the result of conservationists with a long-term view of things like the environment: they are compelled to see the longer-range in light of what human beings have done to the earth over the past hundreds of years. That vision has allowed them to tackle the re-birth of the forest with patience, consistency. To view the recreation of the forest through a short-term lens would be as damaging as the short-term views of those who destroyed it a generation ago. Short-term might even feel good today, but it comes with a price tomorrow.
As the trail lengthened and the minutes gathered to an hour or more, the tightly-formed group that started out together on the trail had become spread out, due to thoughtfulness or perhaps fatigue. Our guide drifted ahead so as to be out of sight from the last member of our group; we became more of a line than a circle. But the separation did not last for long. Each of us seemed to have an instinctive feel for when the separation became too great and each of us took a turn at reforming the hikers into a group once more. The desire to be together, to reach the top together, to experience the summit of our climb as a unit far overshadowed any individual inclination to “be the first.” In some groups, older participants (who perhaps had not exerted so much hiking energy in decades) migrated to the falls by literally taking one hand and then another of their younger fellow hikers. This was the locus and the joy of the group.
This desire to reach the summit together provided testimony to another group dynamic, the speed with which individual members of a group can bond in the spirit of c0-creation. Some of these workshop participants had actually operated as adversaries, of sorts, toward one another. Self-interests fanned the embers of suspicion, geographic distances engendered social ones, and even the presence of North Americans in this Nicaraguan audience influenced its chemistry. Yet the innate desire for achieving something together, something larger than any individual might have been capable of achieving alone, emerged almost immediately during the very first workshop in January. It manifested itself as the participants demanded a continuation of the workshop into April. It crescendoed when the April participants pleaded for a follow-up in September. And it continued at the conclusion of our time two weeks ago with disparate groups planning alliances with one another, to carry forward the momentum achieved as fellow learners and hikers of the three workshops.
For me, the hike offered a rare opportunity to get some exercise while in Nicaragua, to stretch my legs and muscles and to remember why I revel in physical activity no matter where I might be. But perhaps the most important stretch was the one I experienced in my reflections on the trail. If we miss the lessons along the way, or think that we navigate alone, or that the best achievements are individual, or that we do not require the hand of fellow travelers while on our respective journeys, we have missed the entire point of the trip and the opportunity to share in the basking at Rainbow Falls.