Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica Spending eight days in the Costa Rican rain forest tends to focus the mind on fundamental questions. Why do some animals emerge at night while others sleep? Why do we press our noses to tarantula holes while recoiling at a harmless snake? Why are sloths known for laziness when they happen to move with the stealth of a bobcat? How did a black and orange land crab that looks like a plastic Halloween toy make the evolutionary cut? By what means does a chunk-headed vine snake, all the width of a pencil, swallow a frog the size of ping pong ball?
These questions have answers. But, while touring the Osa Peninsula-a place that accounts for 5 percent of the world's biodiversity-I didn't have them. Which was fine. It's an easy axiom to forget, but a lack of expertise enhances the power of observation. Pre-existing conclusions obviate the need to explore-be it an ecosystem, an animal, a tree's ropy grid of interlocking roots-with innocence. Working from a baseline of ignorance, at least for those who find the world's mystery worth pondering, improves the chances of seeing the world with fresh eyes and new thoughts.
As I was writing the last sentence, a dead roach dropped from the woody ceiling onto my laptop. It's a reminder of sorts, evoking as it does the hard brutality of existence (albeit not exactly for me, surrounded as I am by a semi-open but luxurious eco-cabin that I'm guessing is dosed every afternoon with a corona of insecticides). But do note that this roach was not only lifeless. It also lacked at least three legs, part of its tail, and a head.
Hence the most unavoidable observation one makes in this environment: matters of life and death dominate. Nearly every moment for non-humans is dedicated to honing the strategies that evolution has bestowed in order to stay in the game and, preferably control it. In a rainforest, winners and losers are juxtaposed with rare intimacy. You wake up to spider monkeys mating with cold efficiency on a tree limb and end the evening shining a flashlight on a rainforest pond, standing stock still as a cat-eyed snake stalks and eventually kills a frog quietly trolling for insects. My decapitated roach offer mere italics to the obvious: as Tennyson put it, nature is indeed "red in tooth and claw."
Yes, wild animals play. They frolic. They take time off from the preoccupations of survival to relax. But the specter of death-thoughtless but necessary death-is ever present. Even the seemingly benign snapshots of nature that we capture on our iPhones-snapshots with postcard appeal-verify the jungle's ongoing juggling act of eating, mating, hunting, and hiding. The dramatic vibrancy of this teeming patch of biodiversity is the result.