I enter a driveway shaded by the tangled jungle canopy. I take in a deep breath of the cool air, and feel relieved to have escaped the heavy, tropical heat. A layer of green moss blankets the trees and clings to the stone pathway. Ferns and bromeliads grow on either side and the breeze carries a sweet scent of an orchid growing high above on a tree branch. Arriving at my apprenticeship is the highlight of my day. As I walk, I take a moment to appreciate the multitude of green.
At El Jardin Botanico Las Orquideas, with childlike enthusiasm, I encounter extraordinary insects and plant life that inhabit the Amazon jungle. Every day I come across otherworldly creatures: orchids that can only be seen with a magnifying glass, grasshoppers that look like leaves, spiders that spin quadrant webs, medicinal plants that treat anything from stomach aches to preventing cancer, yellow fruit that is chewed like gum, ants that taste like lemon, transparent frogs, colonies of white starry fungi and bright blue butterflies as big as birds. Sometimes it seems as if IÛªve passed through a hidden portal and arrived in another universe. What I find most astonishing is how the most unbelievable and outrageous life forms serve very logical and fundamental purposes for survival. Every plant, animal and insect are intrinsically connected and interact to maintain a balanced ecosystem.
ItÛªs hard to imagine that just 30 years ago the thriving forest at El Jardin Botanico was nothing but a barren cow pasture. Remarkably, Omar Tello, my apprenticeship host created the forest himself. How is that possible? I wondered that myself. He spent years diligently working to replenish the nutrients in the soil.åÊ He collected and planted trees, palms, and orchids that are in danger of extinction from degraded areas of the Amazon. Over time, Omar cultivated a sanctuary that now harbors a delicate ecosystem teeming with life.
One of my favorite parts of the garden is the insect display in a one room museum.åÊ The walls are covered from the ceiling to the floor in a patchwork of photos, categorized by year, to illustrate the increasing number of insect and bird species, normally found in the primary rain forest, that have appeared in the garden. Omar explained simply, ÛÏIf you build a home they will come.Û
Omar himself is a legend of sorts. A Paul Bunyan in reverse. He grows forest rather than chopping them down. I guess Johnny Appleseed would be a more appropriate comparison. Anyway, he has described to me the stormy night in which he moved giant boulders, in the pouring rain, to protect a young tree from the flood. When he started to clear the pasture his neighbors thought he was crazy. They couldn’t believe he would ÛÏwasteÛ the land growing trees when he could raise cattle in the pasture. Or the opposition of the Ministry of the Environment and the threats they made to clear the land because he lacked papers for some of the endangered trees. He persisted, hopeful that with time the ministry and his neighbors would understand what he envisioned.
The garden is more than just a reforestation or conservation project, åÊitÛªs a work of art.åÊ And like an artist Omar envisioned the impossible and regardless of the obstacles, he refused to stop until it was done. It is his entrepreneurial spirit that demonstrates how each of us has the capacity to restore the environments that humans are destroying. El Jardin Botanico Las Orquideas is a monument that reminds us that with patience and dedication anything is possible.