It isn’t every day that you meet a real-life pioneer. Their names fill textbook chapters, their portraits hang above fireplaces and their tales, factual or fictional, can provide whole nations with a sense of origin. But seldom do they drop by for a walk in the park.
The newly released “Walking with Wolf: Reflections on a life spent protecting the Costa Rican wilderness” offers a detailed stroll through the story of a living pioneer, Wilford “Wolf” Guindon, the book’s co-author.
“I live a lot of years in this book,” Guindon, 78, said during a recent interview at The Tico Times’ office in San José.
He and co-writer Kay Chornook, 50, dropped down to the capital from northcentral Monteverde, where Guindon and a group of U.S. Quakers settled peacefully half a century ago.
It was, at first, like watching a fish out of water seeing Guindon, proudly sporting his TropicalScienceCenter shirt, walking down San José’s unforgiving pavement.
Here was a man who has spent much of his adult life walking for entire days, swinging a machete to clear his way through one of the country’s most beautiful natural landscapes, down paths such as one he nicknamed “The Trail of a Thousand Lookouts.” Guindon is revered by locals, tourists and international researchers alike as Monteverde’s woodsman and tour guide par excellence.
Here in the capital, on the way to photograph the authors at the National Park, the hurdles were polluting cars, gaping wide gutters and potholes, far from north-central Costa Rica’s lush cloud forests and sweeping green valleys – never mind the land of Guindon’s U.S. upbringing in eastern Ohio and, later, Fairhope, Alabama.
Guindon left the United States after he and three other members of the Fairhope Meeting of Friends in Alabama were tried in 1949 for refusing to join the newly instated military draft. An Alabama district judge sentenced the Quaker men to “a year and a day,” and they served a third of that time.
The judge also told the men that, regarding their nation’s law, they should love it or leave it. Though torn to leave a nation behind, they chose the latter.
Costa Rica posed a promising new life, with green space abounding and, most notably, its military officially abolished.
“It was an article in Reader’s Digest that I read that explained the (Costa Rican) revolution being over, that the new government wanted to put its emphasis on education and health, and that they were eliminating the cost of an army,” Guindon said. “This was attractive to people who wanted to invest in development.”
The families’ move and development into a thriving community, a school, a cheese factory and innumerable stories, are all thoroughly woven into the book.
Most of the stories unfold between quotation marks – words from Guindon, transcribed from recordings during his rambling walks through the forest, or “the bush,” as Canadian environmentalist Chornook, who did the impressive load of transcribing, calls it. Other settlers, such as Guindon’s wife, Lucky, offer personal accounts as well.
In San José, Guindon described his first time up to the big, cloud-covered “GreenMountain.”
“My first trips up to the parts that we bought that were later called Monteverde were just two-day trips. One trip I went up and there were trails made for the surveyors, and I went right up into that woods. Oxcarts came up, too,” he said. “Mainly just homesteading, that’s what I wanted to do.”
“Walking with Wolf,” however, isn’t just about the land’s foreign founding fathers and the lasting community they created. It chronicles their transition from pioneers to protectors of Costa Rica’s treasured cloud forest.
This has struck Chornook immensely ever since her first visit in 1990, she said.
“As an environmentalist, it was phenomenal to walk into a place where there is so much positive organization going on, and supported by scientists and by Quakers.
There’s a philosophical background and a scientific background,” she said.
“The locals were very supportive (of the reserve) and receptive because they were getting jobs out of it and they were starting to really catch on to the idea that conservation was going to bring tourism, and they were going to be able to survive with this,” she added.
Chornook and Wolf agreed the book has so far received a warm welcome among Monteverde residents.
“I knew that the Quakers would be nice because it’s their nature; it’s Quakerly to be nice,” Chornook said of the community’s response. “But it was actually the biologists’ reaction that was probably the scariest for me, because I know that they’re sticklers for fact and detail. They’d accept Wolf ’s observations, whether they agreed with them or not, because that’s observation. But the narration is supposed to be more factual,” said Chornook, whose educational background is in horticulture. Many scientists have embraced the work, she was pleased to say.
Particularly prickly was her endeavor to recount the rise and fall of the golden toad, Monteverde’s “first poster boys,” she writes in the book.
By the late 1980s, the popular, photogenic toads had experienced a shocking decline, underscoring the problem of diminishing amphibian populations around the world.
“In 1987, Reserve personnel counted more than 1,500 golden toads. In 1988, 10 golden toads were seen,” Chornook writes. “These would be the last golden toads ever observed.”
Chornook aims to explain the phenomenon through widely accepted theories such as climate change, though she acknowledges the creatures’ disappearance is still regarded largely as a mystery.
Even today, teams of scientists, such as a recent expedition by researchers from the U.K. University of Manchester and Chester Zoological Society, comb the terrain in search of amphibians (TT, Sept. 12).
But up in Monteverde, behind the science and, perhaps, alive within it, is an active guy named Wolf. If you listen to him carefully, you might learn something about the land, or at least a joke.
“I was coming up on a bus one time and I heard a person from a nearby town, Guacimal, asking someone from up at Santa Elena, ‘What are those foreigners actually doing up there?’ She said, ‘Well, I don’t know. It seems to me just making roads and building houses,’” Guindon recalled. “They thought we were gonna plant Quaker oats.”
Where to Get It
“Walking with Wolf” can be purchased for $28.99 plus shipping at Kay Chornook’s blog, walkingwithwolf.wordpress.com, and at stores including the Cloud Forest Reserve, Galería Colibrí, Ritmos and Chunches in Monteverde; Topsy’s Librería in Montezuma, on the Nicoya Peninsula; Librería Lehmann and 7th Street Books in San José; the Arenal Observatory Lodge and Arenal Evergreen Tourist Info in La Fortuna, in northern Costa Rica; and the ATEC office in Puerto Viejo, on the southern Caribbean coast.