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Learning to Live in & Listen to the Forest

May 7, 2021

Hello everyone, Katie and Nick here again with a blog post for April 2021 🙂

Hard to believe our time here at Reserva las Tangaras is almost over and what an incredible journey it has been. As we are getting ready to say goodbye to this amazing place, we wanted to reflect on some of what we have learned while we were here…not from books, or teachers, or from previous managers, but from the life in the cloud forest.

Living this lifestyle can offer so much to the average, modern-day, management couple or visitor in general. Many people come here to Reserva las Tangaras already having decided they wish to live their lives in a more circular way with nature, rather than linear, but how many of them know how to learn from the forest? How many people truly know how to sit and listen to what mother nature has to say? and What IS living in a linear economy or a linear way versus living in a circular economy or circular way?

Usually, even those of us who arrive here as environmentally conscious individuals live a typical busy life that is socially acceptable in the first world. Many of us are are lucky enough to grow up a relatively “normal” life and receive an education along the way, then we either get a job or perhaps further our education, then we work on climbing the promotional ladder and getting that perfect job, usually accumulating a car or a house or many belongings along the way, while also typically adopting a pet or two and a eventually having a spouse or a family as well. Many of us chose to live either in a city or close enough to a city, that we can commute back and forth efficiently enough to do our jobs well and still have time to spend with our pets, spouse, and family. As an environmentally conscious person, living a socially acceptable life in the first world, likely we would be buying products with as little plastic packaging as possible, recycling when available, choosing to be a vegetarian or vegan, working a job that benefits the natural world in some way (Teacher, scientist, naturalist, etc.), and perhaps even driving a small-economic car or riding a bicycle for transportation. These are all GREAT things that each of us can do in our own small ways to help mother nature, and in fact it is far more than the average person in most first world countries are doing for the environment. So, if this is you, be proud. But, can you do more? Yes. We ALL can do more. And as people who are perhaps more informed about the environmental issues of the world today, it is our responsibility to do more and to be better environmental stewards tomorrow, than we were today. This means not only taking action in your own life, but also sharing your knowledge with others who may not know where to start. All of this can be a lot…can be a bit overwhelming at times. Sometimes, we also need a break. The stresses, the worries, the fast-paced lifestyle, the social and societal pressures, the temptations, the easy-escapes…sometimes those of us living with what we think are the closest relationships to nature, are actually the farthest away. This place, Reserva las Tangaras, and one would assume other places like it, offer a reset. A place to rediscover our passions and remember what drives us to be the best environmental stewards we can be…

Let’s say you have made the commitment to spending some time in a place like this. You needed a restart. A natural reset. You decided that living an off-the-grid lifestyle in a wildly foreign environment would help to re-ignite your passions for the natural world. Good for you. Get ready for a wild ride 😉 You will experience all of the ups and downs of this amazing adventure, hopefully learning from each experience along the way…therefore, there are no negative experiences, only lessons. Besides the lessons that you may encounter mentally and emotionally, there will be many experiences that test you physically and spiritually. For the remainder of this blog, we are going to focus on some of the lessons that we have learned strictly from the natural environment…from the cloud forests of Pichincha.

Let’s start with the basics, orientation. Do you know where you are? If not, how do you figure that out? Well, follow the sun. We all know that the sun rises more or less directly East and sets more or less directly West. Once you know which directions are East and West, you can deduce which directions are North and South. Assign landmarks to those directions, ex. You notice that when you are at the ACOR lek, the sun is directly behind you, therefore the ridge you are on is to the East of the cabin. Continue assigning directions and locations to various landmarks around the reserve, which you can see or figure out their location, from several different vantage points. Now over the next days, weeks, and months, keep paying attention to where the sun is at various locations around the reserve at many different times of day. Pretty soon you will be able to tell what time it is, just by looking at the position of the sun in the sky. You will also be able to tell approximately where you are on the reserve property. This is a pretty basic orientation skill, but one that can also be very useful.

How about the river, have you ever truly watched what the river is doing? Enough to let it speak to you about what is going on in nature around you? Again, starting with the basics…which direction is it flowing? Does it always flow that direction? Likely here in the Andes Mountains, it is always flowing in the same direction…down the mountain. What color is the river? If it is relatively clear, then there is little sediment in the clean water, meaning there has been little to no rainfall lately. If the river is cloudy and brown with lots of debris in it, it’s likely there has been heavy rainfall recently or upriver from the section of river you are looking at. Now, how high is the river? Look to the riverbanks for any trees or shrubs that standout as an easy landmark, then look to the boulders on the riverbed. If you don’t notice anything out of place, then perhaps the river is running at its normal height; But, if you notice darky muddy marks along the riverbank and you can see a clear line of moss/algae growth on the boulders on the riverbed, then likely the river is running lower than its normal height. If you can’t see any of these high-water marks and you notice that many of the boulders on the riverbed are actually moving along the bottom, then likely the river is running higher than normal. Are there any birds on or around the river? If so, then likely the river is running at a fairly continuous velocity and at a relatively normal height. That means the river at the moment is stable enough that fish can be seen for feeding, bugs can skip across the surface for insectivores to eat, and spiders can build their webs. If there are no birds or riparian forest species of any kind in sight, then the river could be ramping up to become more unstable. These are all good signs to watch out for, especially if you are working IN the river. I was always told to stay clear of the river when it’s raining, but here in the cloud forest flash floods happen quickly and occasionally on a sunny day. After all, you never know, it could be raining at the top of the mountain for one hour or more before it reaches you.

Now let’s talk about the BIRDS! You must have some love of birds if you are coming to live in a place like Reserva las Tangaras, it IS the Tanager Reserve after all! So besides identifying them for your life’s ebird list, do you know what else these beautiful little creatures can tell you about your environment? A lot!

For starters, most birds have many different types of songs or calls, but many have a specific “alarm” call that they sound when danger is near. If you hear a loud, shrill, or very blunt call in the forest, this may be an alarm call. Look around for a potential bird predator, perhaps there is an eagle soaring above, or a jungle cat walking the trails below, or maybe they are calling about you! Either way listening out for this “alarm” call can point us in the direction of potential bird danger and therefore something else incredible for us to see in the cloud forest.

Have you felt a strong, cool wind and looked up to see a flock of birds just soaring over you? More than likely those birds are riding the thermocline (a distinct change in temperature, in this case leading to two air pockets of different densities) layer in the air being pushed forward by an oncoming storm. Birds riding this thermocline layer, can often signal that a storm is close by and it may be time for you to take cover! Usually, this sighting is coupled with a cool breeze, or an increase in bird calls, or an overall increase in overall animal movement to take cover in protection of the storm.

And finally, they can teach you to truly live in the moment. As Nick wrote in his last blog, the birds live their life to the minute. They wake up, and are only ever concerned with the basics: food, calling for a mate, more food, mating, probably more food, and perhaps building a nest all while on the constant look out for predators. They wake up and go to bed with the natural light of the day, they dry their wings and bask in the heat of the sun, and enjoy a cool bath in the rain. They bounce around in the fruits and flowers of the trees when they are abundant and supplement their diet with bugs rich in protein and fats when things are not in bloom. Birds travel incredible distances to find the perfect mate or the perfect meal and many don’t leave their home area once they have found the perfect spot. They are beautiful creatures that just exist and BE in nature…which we think can teach us humans quite a lot.

We have learned so much from living in the cloud forest for 6 months, yet we know there is still a lot to learn. We hope to be able to return to this incredible place again one day and see what the birds can teach us that time…now go out there and see what your forest, or garden, or stream, or lakeside terrace can teach you! We bet that if you take the time to sit, observe, and just BE…you will be surprised 😉

Thanks for reading! We hope you’ve enjoyed! All our best, Katie and Nick

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