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Lou Jost studies—and fights for—the rain forest

Welcome to the Bosque Gigante. Welcome to the giant forest," says Lou Jost. He is standing in a rain forest located on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. It is an area he knows even better than Tom Bradley knows Los Angeles. After his brief salutation, Jost offers nothing further. He and his guest are standing alone in the rain forest and, quite apparently, conversation has come to an end. Jost, 32, does not seem uncomfortable. Normally, he is a reticent man, content, in fact, to go days at a time without saying a word. He prefers to listen as the forest speaks.

From a thicket 20 feet away a low sound like that from a tuba signals the presence of a curassow, a rare turkeylike bird. Far above, one howler monkey offers a throaty call to another, who replies with something that sounds like a chorus from Jingle Bells. Everywhere, male hummingbirds are buzzing, in hopes of catching the attention of females. And nearly drowning out everything is a drawn-out note performed by a chorus composed of thousands, perhaps millions, of cicadas.

Despite witnessing the seemingly endless ribbon of leaf-cutter ants at work, the undulations of a deadly fer-de-lance as it moves from one hidey-hole to another and the unpredictable flight of a brilliant azure Morpho butterfly, the visitor senses that the real action is taking place in the treetops, hundreds of feet above the forest floor.

Jost came to the same conclusion several years ago. At the time he was enrolled as a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Texas in Austin. While on vacation in 1981, he drove 250 miles south of Austin to spend a week in a forest in Mexico called Rancho del Cielo. He was enthralled with what he saw there, and in 1982, he arranged a monthlong study break with friends from the university's zoology department to tour the rain forests of Costa Rica. This time, Jost was so affected by the beauty of the forests and the mystery that lay beneath their thick mantle of vegetation that he decided he should shelve his preoccupation with trying to make sense out of cold fusion and "chaos" or whatever the problem of the moment might be in the realm of theoretical physics, and study the very tangible dynamics of rain forests.

The following year, he made a six-month expedition to Costa Rica. One afternoon, Jost found himself alone in Braulio Carrillo National Park, a rain forest near the Atlantic—the Osa Peninsula is on the Pacific coast—kneeling beside a large, freshly fallen tree. "Its high branches were packed with orchids and bromeliads [air plants]," Jost says. "That was when it really became obvious to me how much richness there was above me. Then and there I vowed never again to return to the tropics without figuring out a way to get up there."

Since then, Jost has become one of a handful of scientifically curious adventurers who have begun to reveal the richness of an environment that has been all but unexplored by man. He has lived alone in the top branches of the trees, with his notebook, tape recorder and camera, learning all he can about his lush surroundings. He has come to recognize the importance of rain forests, whose vast numbers and variety of plants, animals and insects are vital to sustaining life on this planet. And he has come to appreciate the fragility of the environment, a concept that will be emphasized to the public at large with the celebration of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22.

As they compete for sunlight, trees in the tropical rain forests grow slim trunks to amazing heights—50 to 150 feet—before sprouting branches and foliage. Then, in essence, they form a thick, verdant meadow suspended high above the perpetual darkness at ground level.

Yearning to get up into that fecund meadow, Jost recalled tales that he had heard of a similarly inclined American naturalist named Donald Perry, who was said to use a bow, arrow and fishing line to hang climbing ropes over the branches of tall trees. Following his trip to Braulio Carrillo, Jost returned to Austin and bought a powerful hunting bow. He attached a spinning reel to it so that when an arrow was launched, it carried lightweight (4-8 pounds test) monofilament fishing line along with it on its flight. Once the line was looped over a tree branch, heavier test-rated lines could be progressively attached to the initial line and worked up over the limb. Eventually a climbing rope could be hauled over the limb. It was all very similar to the way sailors deploy the thick hawsers used to moor ships.

As he looks about him, Jost's visitor sees his host's purple climbing rope dangling alongside monkey vines on some of the tallest trees in the Bosque Gigante. The system works perfectly. When Jost wants to go up, he slips a mountain climber's harness around his hips and places his hands on one of the metal "ascenders" attached to the climbing rope he has slung over a tall Cariniana pyriformis (a tree in the Brazil nut family that grows to 200 feet or more). Then he puts a foot in another ascender and "walks" up the rope, sliding his hands and feet quickly upward as he goes. The technique actually is more a test of timing and rhythm than it is of strength, and on this point the howler monkeys have nothing on Jost. "When I climb," says Jost, who gives his weight optimistically as 145 pounds, "there is a thrill because if I fall, I die. There's no one around to save me. But I do this constantly, so the real thrill no longer is the climbing, it's the seeing."

Jost is confident in the ascender sling he uses, but because his ropes are left in place for weeks at a time, he worries that animals will chew and weaken them. Whenever he chooses, Jost can let go of the rope, sit back in the harness and look around him in safety; it is a position he exploits to the extreme. Sometimes he will dangle for 16 hours at a stretch.

Hanging immobile that long, he becomes part of the arboreal landscape, and where there is at first an unfathomable welter of greenery before him, soon small movements begin to catch the eye: a pair of veinous leaves flutter to life, and a giant silk moth flies off; a tangled patch of moss gets up and moves farther along a branch, its silhouette now clearly revealing it to be a katydid; a paired set of dark voids in the greenery blink simultaneously, and around them the face of a spider monkey forms.

On these trips to what Jost calls "the third dimension," he may encounter a soft purple flower soaking the air with a fragrant vapor that would fetch a fortune in a parfumerie. There can be 40 different species of flower in a single treetop. Craning his neck, Jost watches hawks turning aerial somersaults as they pursue prey amid the tangles of leaves and vines, a flight pattern of such speed and intricacy in these tight confines as to make the dogfight scenes in Top Gun look as if they were shot in super slo-mo.

Swarming in these branches are beetles, butterflies, moths—entire communities of rare insects unknown to the soil-bound world far beneath. When sheets of sunlight shine on the wings of some of the canopy's birds and insects, a fluorescent effect is created, producing a brilliant tapestry of indigo, teal and lavender. It is breathtaking, and even Jost is compelled to comment. "Artist's light," he calls it.

Some days the outlandish beauty is tempered by humdrum reality: an anteater feasting inside a trunk, or branches and vines whose tops have been worn into aerial pathways by monkeys. Even those schooled in scientific methodology cannot always resist anthropomorphizing the primates. "They make very human expressions," Jost says. "You get a sense of these...imps watching you. You can play with them, throwing things back and forth, shaking the branches just as they do to one another.

"I never try to hide from them, or from anything up there. That's the difference between what I do and what a conventional wildlife photographer does. I'm trying to get the animals to accept me as I am. Active. You have a big head start in a rain forest tree because you're the first human they've seen up there. They're not predisposed to be terrified of humans in such an environment, the way they would be if they spotted you on the ground. You set the precedents, so if you're careful, everyone accepts you right away. That's a wonderful feeling."

Whether in the treetops or on the ground, Jost is not above using gimmicks to gain admittance to or acceptance in a world where he, by rights, should not be. He has made tape recordings of turkeylike alarm calls. When he plays them back in the woods, he does so to lure the hawks he wants to see. Because many birds, when confronted with an animal they regard as an enemy, attack the intruder en masse, Jost carries an inflatable toy snake with him. When he suspects he is in an area where there are nesting birds he wants to photograph, he will set up the snake in range of his 35-mm Nikon and wait for their attack. He always approaches his destination in a haphazard, zigzag pattern, so animals will not think he's attacking them and flee.

Jost says his only fear is encountering a wasp's nest. The reason is that he's allergic to wasps. "That's what I have nightmares about," he says. "From the ground you have no idea where they are. I have no fear of falling, but if I ever disturbed a wasp nest, there would be no escape. So far, my nightmare has not happened."

But even from his remote observation point, Jost can watch another of his nightmares grow into reality. From his treetop perches he can see the edges of the Bosque Gigante fray and draw tighter nearly every day. Where most of Costa Rica once was lush forest, now all but a third of that cover has been hacked away or burnt to the soil. The despoilers are the furniture manufacturers who covet the jungle's hardwoods, the farmers who grow food for sustenance, the coffee and cattle ranchers who want the land for grazing and growing to serve a worldwide market. If deforestation in Costa Rica continues apace, by 2015 there will be no forest to speak of in that country.

The first third of Costa Rica's tropical forests was destroyed over the course of 4½ centuries—from 1500, when the Spanish invaded the country, to 1960. The next third was erased in just three decades. One third remains. Jost is often reluctant to climb down from a favorite tree, because he can't be sure it will be standing next time he comes by.

When he talks about deforestation, Jost's normally soft voice takes on a harsh edge. "I'm so struck by the enormity of the problem," he says. "You're almost doomed here. On the Osa Peninsula every family will have at least six or seven children. They can't all go to San Jose, the capital, for work. Some of them will have to do what their fathers did to make a living—chop some more of the forest down to make a pasture or a bean field. They really don't have any other choice."

At the current rate of deforestation, all rain forests everywhere in the world will have vanished by 2050. That is a worst-case scenario. Many rain forests have already been "protected," but in only a few cases does that word mean the forests are watched over by rangers or fenced off; many rain forests are protected only by an unenforced government decree. As much as any other Third World nation, Costa Rica, a country roughly the size of West Virginia, with a population about the size of Chicago's, has demonstrated a concern for its forests. Since 1975—when the 100,000-acre Corcovado National Park was created on the Osa Peninsula—more than 10% of the country has become protected parkland; the designation also includes beaches, volcanoes, Indian lands and dry tropical forests.

"We are a model for the world," says Sergio Miranda, director of the Marenco Biological Station on the Osa Peninsula, where Jost has served two stints as a resident biologist—from July through December 1987 and again from October to April 1989. "Costa Ricans are proud of their country, proud of their land. We're classified as a UDC [undeveloped country] with plenty of social problems, yet there is still a remarkable national consciousness with regard to conservation."

"We're fortunate to be a peaceful, stable country which can investigate environmental concerns," says Rodrigo Gamez, 53, a biologist and director of the Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica, who was appointed as presidential adviser on natural resources in 1986 by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sanchez. "It's very difficult to discuss conservation with people who are starving to death or shooting one another."

The concern for rain forests in Costa Rica has been put to the test. In 1980, five years after Corcovado Park was established, officials concluded that gold miners were causing severe damage to rivers in the region with their pans and placer operations. Instead of nationalizing the mines and giving the country's economy a much-needed boost, the government ordered the miners to clear out. For a time most did, but by 1985 they were back in such numbers that the park had to be closed, and guards were sent in to force the miners out of the area—or to buy them off with payments reported to be as high as $2,000 (the annual per capita income in Costa Rica is $1,584). That worked for a while. Then, last year, the miners returned in force, and guards had to be called in to prevent wanton destruction of Corcovado.

President Arias, the winner of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to secure peace in Central America, also presided over an innovative loan-swapping scheme under which long-standing Costa Rican debts to foreign banks were sold to foreign conservation groups at drastically reduced rates. By prearrangement, the conservation groups then swapped the debts back to Costa Rica, receiving in return the government's promise that all such retired debt would be matched by local currency bonds to be used exclusively to finance conservation projects. Thus, the banks got at least something on what looked like an uncollectible Costa Rican debt (plus, in most cases, a significant tax deduction for writing off a bad loan); the conservation groups received government commitment and financial backing for their projects (with the bonus of interest payments on the bonds actually increasing the value of the investment); and the nation of Costa Rica has been able to retire significant amounts of its foreign debt (while protecting the environment). It is an innovative plan, and one that other debtor nations are attempting to implement. But it is strictly limited to the amount of debt foreign banks are willing to sell cheaply and the amount of money Costa Rica can divert to cover the interest on the local-currency bonds. Costa Rica has been able to retire $76 million of its foreign debt in this manner.

Virtually all of the world's rain forests are located in Third World countries, and environmental havoc can be hard to pinpoint. Most of the land-clearing is taking place in countryside distant and isolated and therefore difficult to patrol. And in these developing countries, almost every day a new coffee plantation is established here, a ranch there, a sawmill somewhere else. And an airstrip to serve them is on the way soon.

New forests will not be so quick in coming. It takes but minutes for a chain saw to topple a seven-foot-wide mahogany tree, but it will take five centuries for another mahogany tree to grow to the same diameter. Even in such an enlightened country as Costa Rica, Jost says, "I'm not at all sure that rain forests can be saved." Then his voice takes on that edge again: "But I'll do my damnedest to try."

That may become even more difficult in the future. Arias, who is prohibited by the Costa Rican constitution from serving a second consecutive term, will complete his four-year term as president on May 8, and as yet there is no firm guarantee that his successor, Rafael Calderon Fournier, will continue Arias's conservation programs.

Jost must often cut short his forays into the rain forests to return to Austin, where he takes care of the plants in the University of Texas biology department's teaching greenhouse. It is a job that has now helped to finance three expeditions. Still, Jost considers himself more a citizen of the rain forests than of the U.S. He has decided that his life's work will be photographing and writing about the New World's rain forests. He is willing to give up everything for this goal, including thought of a family.

"Lou has got an amazing ability to put aside his own wants and needs to attend to those of the earth and its creatures," says a friend, Austin environmentalist Christi Stevens. "But it's not that he's a martyr. Before he went to Costa Rica, he was spending his spare time crawling around hidden caves in Travis County, Texas, examining minuscule bugs."

Jost's commitment to the rain forests was sealed in December of 1985, when he had saved enough money to trek into El Triunfo, the volcano and similarly named rain forest in the highlands of southern Mexico near the border of Guatemala. Years later, there is still a note of reverence when Jost speaks of this trip. He sighted groups of 10, 20 and even 30 azure-rumped tanagers, birds so rare and unfamiliar with human life that they peacefully nibbled berries while he stood next to the bush and became the first man ever to photograph them close up.

Jost had also heard that El Triunfo forest contained some nests of the quetzal, the bird so sacred to the Aztecs that its iridescent tail feather was more valuable than gold, and whose likeness is the national symbol of Guatemala. He was shown a likely nesting spot by two Mexican biologists, a small hole in a dead tree. Jost built a blind in a nearby tree, set up his camera and waited. Four hours later, with a flurry of wingbeats, along came a pigeon-sized quetzal.

"It brought tears to my eyes," Jost says. "As a kid growing up in Franklin, Wisconsin, I had read about them. The bird went into a woodpecker-sized hole that wasn't large enough to fit its tail feathers, and they hung out like iridescent fern fronds. I stared at them for hours while the wind blew them in graceful patterns, the colors changing constantly as the sun moved through the sky. In the evening when I came down the hill, I felt like Moses returning from the Mount. I was goggle-eyed, hardly able to walk. It's everyone's fantasy bird."

After six months, Jost ran out of money and reluctantly returned to Austin and his job in the University of Texas greenhouse. He also began his career as an environmental activist, joining EarthFirst!, a group that has come under considerable criticism for its extremist approach. "Our motto is 'no compromise,' " Jost says. "We feel that at times, any method of preservation is justified. We're the terrestrial Greenpeace, except that we're a little more radical. Greenpeace goes between a whale and a whaling boat. An EarthFirst! action would sink the whaling boat. Some of us have lain down in front of logging trucks in the Northwest. One was run over—he wasn't hurt—when the trucks didn't stop."

Before the 1988 "Rattlesnake Roundup," sponsored by the Jaycees of Taylor, Texas, Jost was asked to help hang a banner that read ANIMAL TORTURE IS NO WAY TO RUN A CHARITY. STOP THE SNAKE ROUNDUP. Under cover of darkness the night before the festivities, Jost slipped into the fairgrounds where the roundup was to be held, planning to use his bow and fishing line method to hang the banner from a water tower. The police spotted him, and, as he says, "When you have a powerful hunting bow in your hands at 2 a.m. and you're trying to explain that all you were out to do was see how high your arrow could go, well...." He was questioned by the police for several hours but was released in time to help hang the banner near the entrance to the fairgrounds.

In 1987 and 1989, Jost was able to combine his interest in the rain forest with a job as a resident naturalist at Marenco Biological Station, a privately owned nature reserve a few miles north of the Corcovado National Park. His duties required him to lead mostly elderly couples from the U.S. on daylong nature walks, during which he would answer questions like "Are there poisonous snakes around here?" or "Should I put on suntan lotion in the woods?"

Many scientists regard this sort of activity as a waste of their time. Jost doesn't see it that way. "A traditional biologist might tend to ignore these sorts of people," he says, "but I believe that the life of the forests depends on educated laymen."

While Jost's ascetic life-style has provided him with unusual knowledge of one of the world's greatest and least understood natural resources, clearly he is more a Nathaniel Bowditch—the former cabin boy who revolutionized navigation on the high seas during the 19th century—than a Henry Thoreau. He embodies the tradition of creative, committed young men who don't require formal schooling to make significant contributions to the world.

Now Jost hopes to teach the world about rain forests. He knows he could have a Ph.D. if he wanted to go after one, and that by not having it he leaves himself vulnerable to the skepticism of academicians, but he's not bothered by this and neither are those who have worked with him. "If he wanted to be a formal biologist," says Bob Barth, a zoologist at the University of Texas, "I'm sure Lou would be a very good one. But when it comes to public education, somebody who has the talents Lou has won't be unduly hindered by the lack of a Ph.D."

Jost is now back in Austin, working at the lab and trying to save money for a trip to the rain forests in Peru. "I admire how much a trained biologist knows about a single organism," says Jost, "but my goals are different. I've been in the forest longer than most people have, seen things nobody else has ever seen, things that may be gone before anyone else has a chance to see them. I want to keep going back to the rain forests, to study the life there and to photograph and publish as much as I can."

Dusk in the Bosque Gigante, as in all places near the equator, is a shockingly brief, overwhelmingly vivid moment. The tree canopy is washed from above with translucent pinks and tangerines, the air misted with floral perfume, and the forest, after the silence of the afternoon's full heat, comes alive again. For Jost, it is time to come down from the trees. As he creeps along his rope, a howler monkey watching his encumbered progress squawks at him delightedly. "The peanut gallery," Jost says before addressing the monkey. "Please hold your comments until after the performance is over."

Near the bottom of the rope, Jost sits back in his harness and looks around. It is just about dark, and the first fireflies have appeared. The woods seem especially inviolable. Jost, more than most men, knows that is not the case.

"It's so beautiful here," he says. "When I'm out in the forest, I have an awareness of what's around me. It must be something like the way the animals experience the world. I pay attention to sensory things—subtle movements, sounds, textures, smells. It's not an intellectual thing. Words aren't going through my head.

"I can't imagine any other way of living my life. The way I see it, I'll always be racing the edge of forest destruction, trying to know as much about it as I can before it's all gone."






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