Lessons of Beauty and Death Learned in the Cloud Forest

Death is an inevitable part of our world. For us humans, it’s something we hope to carry over to the later stages of an otherwise long and fulfilling life.

My experiences from a recent family trip to Costa Rica gave me the opportunity to reflect on the non-human world of death and its place in the natural world.

Costa Rica is known for its incredible biodiversity and commitment to conservation. Our guided hike in the Monteverde cloud forest revealed many birds, animals, insects and reptiles.

We were lucky enough to see a Resplendent Quetzal, one of Costa Rica’s rarest and most beautiful birds, on a guided hike in Monteverde. Unfortunately, climate change is already altering the characteristics of the cloud forest to the point where quetzal populations are declining. Monteverde’s cloud forest is slowly being converted to tropical rainforest.

During this same hike, our guide stopped to point out a small hole about 6 inches in diameter in the vertical wall that the trail runs along. The hole was about waist high and our guide crouched down to shine his flashlight into the hole.

Barely visible in the back was a tarantula, probably a female. The tarantula’s story connects her to the larger network of relationships in the cloud forest.

The tarantula plays a special role in the ecological community of the forest. Not all, but many tarantulas will fall victim to the tarantula hawk wasp. They will not be killed by the wasp but paralyzed by a sting and an injection of wasp venom.

The wasp will bring the paralyzed tarantula back to its burrow and then lay an egg on the tarantula. The baby wasp feeds on its living host as it grows.

It’s a slow, sacrificial death for the tarantula.

Seen from our human perspective, this looks like a cruel outcome for the tarantula. However, the non-human world, or “nature” as we sometimes call it, operates according to rules and timescales that are not easily understood under the scrutiny of simple human observation.

Biological evolution has shaped this symbiotic interaction between the tarantula and the wasp over thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years.

I must confess here that I am biased in my perception of the natural world. I am a botanist and ecologist by training with a doctorate. in the evolution of plants. I understand a little about the rules of nature and the big picture. I can understand what the slow death of the tarantula means for the greater good of the wasp and tarantula populations and the forest as a whole.

It is good to get out of our human perspective of the world around us. Traveling to a rainforest and taking a guided hike with a trained naturalist can show us a world that operates under very different laws than our human world.

I see beauty in the death of the tarantula by the wasp. As much as my human eyes and mind want me to close off the idea of ​​this relationship, my ecological mind helps me see the context or the big picture. Some animals become food for other animals.

The beauty comes from appreciating how this interaction between the tarantula and the wasp contributes to the functioning of the whole cloud forest, which most of us view and appreciate as a thing of beauty. The death of the tarantula and the success of the wasp help produce the beautiful orchids, ferns, resplendent quetzals and adorable sloths we associate with tropical rainforests.

Beauty abounds in death. For the tarantula, this is a meaningful and holistic death.

However, the Resplendent Quetzal, the beautiful bird I mentioned earlier, is experiencing a much different death, one that is the result of actions put in place due to climate change. Warming temperatures have invited vampire bats to migrate into the cloud forest and they hunt and kill female quetzals and their chicks.

The quetzal’s tragic, non-holistic death is a foreboding to the cloud forest and the world beyond.

Beyond my ecological worldview, my Christian faith and worldview affirm my perception of beauty and foreboding as death unfolds in the cloud forest and beyond. More on that later.

Rick Hammer is a writer, photographer, lecturer and naturalist living in Abilene. He earned a doctorate in plant evolution from Texas A&M University and is president of the West Texas Science Center. Contact him at [email protected] and follow his Kirby Park posts on Facebook: @lakekirbynaturepark.