San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Book Brings Barbilla Park to Life

Freshly published in English and Spanish is a 425-page book by biologist and theologian Ingemar Hedström:

“Untamed Talamanca/ Talamanca Indómita: Chronicle and Field Guide to Barbilla National Park, Costa Rica.”

It is like a children’s book for adults curious about what is still wild in Costa Rica, or a grown-up book for kids who dabble in the natural sciences. The author is a champion among those who pushed for protection of a mountainous corner on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope. Just south of Siquirres, off Route 32 between San José and Limón, 31,700 acres of the warm TalamancaMountains became BarbillaNational Park in 1998.

In 40 short chapters with titles such as “Watch out for the largest ant in the world!” “A turtle that will even attack birds,” “The forest has all that we need” and “Save it, know it, and use it,” the book reads like the lost journal of a Central American explorer with a marvelous knowledge of natural history and a deep compassion for living things, including people. It is stocked with interesting factual nuggets and replete with color photographs of animals, forest, Costa Ricans and Swedes by Hedström, Tore Hagman and Marine Hedström-Rojas, the author’s daughter. The book is expanded from a 1999 Swedish study that compared Nordic woodlands to those of Costa Rica.

Much of the prose is in the present tense – “At night, we are invited to taste the cultivated Peach Palm or ‘palmito de pejibaye,’ Bactris gasipaes in Latin…” (p. 49) – and brings to mind an image of a Swedish grandfather capturing a child’s imagination with tales in his second language.

Some of the English, which is printed on the right in blue type, bears evidence of translation with an occasional grammatical slip or slightly misspelled word. This shouldn’t hinder readers struck by the unfolding scenery of biological wonder with a strong dose of Hedström’s personal reflection and more than a few tangential stories from other moments in the life of a spellbound biologist. Some might skip the writing and jump to the photos, most of which are in sharp detail and hopefully reveal what lives in the park.

Partially a field guide, the book has a species index, but the pictures are mostly mixed into the journal rather than catalogued separately. There is also a good portion of practical advice for visitors, such as how to excise a botfly larva if one should burrow into your flesh following a mosquito bite. After two decent options, Hedström wrote: “The only other alternative, which I do not recommend because it can be very painful, is to leave the larva to grow to maturity, giving you the opportunity to experience the transformation of part of yourself into another creature” (p. 151).

Most of the advice, however, is along the lines of wear-long-pants-and-rubber-boots-and-don’ t -worry-too-much-aboutstings-and-bites. That said, this comes from a man who wrote he has “swum in Amazonian waters with six species of piranhas and nothing – so far – ever happened to me” (p. 87).

Generally, the book is about how plants and animals get along in Barbilla, among themselves and the occasional Swedish scientist.

There are also a few anthropological chapters on the indigenous Cabécar people who live in the forest around the park, principally in the Chirripó indigenous reserves to the south and east, and Las Brisas de Pacuarito village to the north.

So far, visitors to Barbilla are few; most are researchers or one-day tourists who fourwheel it to the park’s edge, Hedström said. A handful of visitors stay in cabins owned by his daughter, Marine Hedström-Rojas, just outside the park.

Hedström, 60, has lived in Costa Rica with his family for about 20 years.He and his wife live in San Mateo, Alajuela, northwest of San José, and teach in Nicaraguan universities.

They have two children in Costa Rica and two in Sweden. Still immersed in several areas of biological research, Hedström said he hopes Barbilla will come to attract ecotourism on the level of Monteverde, a cloud forest preserve in the north-central region of the country.

“If you want to do conservation, you have to find alternatives,” he said. “You can’t just be romantic.”

“Untamed Talamanca” is available for ¢19,000 ($37) in Costa Rica’s larger bookstores, such as Universal, and El Mundo de Sofia bookstore in Nova Centro, in the northeastern San José suburb of Guadalupe. Profits from the book’s sales will be used to maintain the Nairi Lodge, a visitor’s center on the edge of the national park.


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