Some of my most thrilling moments happen before sunrise, that desolate time of day before the world wakes up. Stars hang heavy in the sky, yet to be dissolved by the morning light.
I’m up at four-thirty to volunteer, at an ecological station in the Costa Rican rainforest. Theo, and I are headed on a macaw survey, which consists entirely of sitting down and counting parrots. Our destination is the nearest town: San Francisco, accessible only by canoe.
As the canoe glides across placid water, the roar of a howler monkey reverberates all around. A heron is perched on a log, dreaming of fish. Arriving at an abandoned hotel, minutes later, three mongrels greet us, who usually bark to announce intruders. However, in this fragile morning, they respect the silence.
Our journey spans coconut-covered beaches, and crosses webs of tree roots. The sky is unfolding in layers. Blackness drips into baby blue, then yellow, green, and an intoxicating orange horizon. The nascent first light has dissolved all the stars but two, which are in fact planets: Jupiter and Saturn. I have searched for them for months in the starry skies, but never seen them. Only by waking up at hell’s hour, have I earnt the right.
San Francisco is a ramshackle town of tin roofs and wooden fences, with the occasional mural of a turtle. Cockerels and stray dogs stir in the golden light, but there is no one to be seen. We reach a dock overlooking a wide river that connects canals to the ocean.
We are looking for Great Green macaws, a parrot endemic to Latin America. They have a green body, and dazzling tail feathers. In Costa Rica they are critically endangered, with an estimated population of only a few hundred. The almendro trees they nest in have been felled, to make way for logging and crops like bananas. For these human needs, they have lost around 90% of their habitat.
On the riverside, we have an open sky, giving a better chance of spotting a macaw. Looking for them, however, is not an active process. We don’t have camera traps, just a pair of binoculars, and plastic chairs to sit on. For the next four hours. Phones are banned. It is a nightmare: no stimulation and nothing to do.
The beginning is the hardest. I am like an encaged pigeon, squirming in my seat. The minutes drag on, and my surroundings refuse to entertain me. The trees stand still. The river flows, in the same unoriginal manner it has been for thirty minutes. I am lost in thought: planning, reminiscing, fantasising about the future.
Strangely, the thought never occurs to me to talk to Theo, so I open up to him. I learn about his passions. We both adore nature, and aspire to save it. We have more in common than I realise, but we had not had the time to discuss it. An acquaintance slowly becomes a friend.
The minutes are moving faster now, and I notice a shift. My mind is smoothing out. Three more hours doesn’t seem so bad. My energy has shifted from the restless tempo I sat down with, to the rhythms of my environment. I listen to the flow of the tides, and feel the wind in my hair. Suddenly, the world is invigorating.
Then, the impossible happens. The air is assaulted by a piercing “RAAAK”, the unmistakable call of a macaw. We spring into action, binoculars aimed, and there they are. Two glorious green beauties flying in unison, like a royal procession, returning to declare their sovereignty over the rainforest. They fly high and mighty, blue wings flapping frantically. Just as we expect them to fly past, they turn, and land in the tree beside us!
The child-like wonder one feels when seeing a wild animal is unique. You can’t help but grin like an idiot. The Macaws bicker like brothers, fighting over nothing at all. They scratch and scrape and spin and squawk, while hanging upside down. They are the most ridiculous and wonderful animals I have ever seen.
The Macaws eventually leave, but the warm glow we feel stays with us for a while after. The peace of the stillness, and the joy of the sighting combines into a deep satisfaction with the world and our place in it. Theo and I have shared a special experience. I realise that if you stop rushing around, you can deeply connect with your environment.
To recreate the calm I felt that day, I practise the ‘do nothing’ meditation. Try it yourself. Set a timer for ten minutes, sit down somewhere comfortable, and just do absolutely nothing. Breathe, think your thoughts, feel your body, but there’s no need to try at all.
What struck me when I did this was how restless I was, and how easily my thoughts controlled me. I would think of ten different tasks to do, just as an excuse to get up. The truth is I found my own company intolerable. But as time went on, I became more comfortable with myself. When you do nothing, you realise how much noise there is beneath the surface, and noticing this relieves some of that burden.
In a rapid society, with the Gods of TikTok and Snapchat commanding your attention, it is a superpower to be still. When you are waiting in line, or on a bus, you won’t reach for your phone, and you can see the world instead. You might notice some beautiful scenery, or talk to a stranger. Without the discomfort of doing nothing, I never would have appreciated that day in Costa Rica, and would not have gotten so close to Theo. Survive the initial boredom of stillness, and there is true peace on the other side.
- Oliver Burkeman, ‘Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals’- Would highly recommend this book
Thanks to Caño Palma biological station for allowing this experience, you can check out their work here- http://www.coterc.org
Thanks to Dahlia for editing, you are wonderful as ever.