From Costa Rican jungle to Big Sur’s Big Creek, the tales of a wild man.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
The mesmerizing wilds of Landels-Hill Big Creek Preserve belong to golden mountain lions and bright Indian paintbrush, remarkable redwoods and reticent red-tail hawks, nimble cottontails and noble condors. But its most curious inhabitant, while untamed, isn’t native, whiskered or winged. This is strange, as its stingy gate repels invaders – particularly humans – so biologists, botanists and other brains can study its South Coast environs in as pure a state as possible.
To that end, the 4,200-acre paradise’s waterfalls and rivers, soaring lookouts and cliff-clinging succulents are off limits to the public 364 days of the year, with the exception of annual open houses like the one this Saturday, May 8, when the resident professor and said unusual inhabitant welcome in hundreds for a hard-to-forget look at the seaside sanctuary they call home.
Sun baked and smiling wide, 57-year-old Feynner Arias trundles a little all-terrain Gator along a Big Creek stream, describing how he came here after growing up barefoot in a dirt-floor hut. His youth is chronicled in Hello My Name is Feynner: Growing Up in the Rainforests of Costa Rica, a just-released biography co-written by partner Terry Hallock. It involves catching and killing 50-foot alligator-cousins called caymans.
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“You don’t want the ones swimming in the middle of the water,” he says. “You want the ones on the bottom, [resting] with claw on log.”
From there he would stroke the sleeping giant’s underbelly, hoping to tickle a lift in response, under which went a rope that was gently looped, tied around the midsection and fastened to a tree. After an ensuing struggle would exhaust the snapper, a young Feynner would move in with a sharp machete affixed to a strong stick, stabbing it to death for its meat and expensive skins.
“HE’S GONE FROM SURVIVOR TO MACGYVER.”
There are other survivalist lessons that the oldest of eight siblings learned, some from his grandma Elijia, some from the jungle: How to use dry river bed bonfires to draw iguanas to lay tasty eggs in the warm sand. How to catch fish at night with just a candle, a reflective banana leaf and a trusty machete. How to hold back the gushing blood from a gash with the pulp of plants, a trick he says he borrowed from a injured monkey he saw do it first.
The jungle was his classroom, in part because he was booted from the missionary schoolhouse by nuns having none of his antics, which included terrorizing the playground with a live turkey vulture he caught with fellow recalcitrant Carlos, and responding to disciplinary whippings with the threat of his own machete. A familiarity with the rainforest, he says, is the best way to explain how he’d smell vipers before he saw them.
Sent from the hut at 11, he found work at banana and sugar cane plantations before his earthy intuitions caught the a scientist’s eye, which ultimately led to work at Corcovado National Park, the exotic heart of an Oso Peninsula where the thriving diversity matches that of any area in the world. A sequel to Hello based on those years is already underway.
Former Big Creek director Dr. John Smiley met Feynner there, depending on him to guide him through canopy and swamp to various specimens and airstrips. After Feynner later moved to Santa Cruz with his then-wife, a UCSC scientist, an job shepherding Big Creek came up, and Feynner’s name stood out among the 42 applicants.
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Instead of kinkajous and caotimundis, Feynner now spots big cats used to doing all of the watching, logging 24 mountain lion sightings in 23 years. He traces tracks, giving their makers names like Bent Toe and Fuzzy Paw according to pawprint personality. He braves wasp nests to steal larvae for swooping barn swallows that roost on his outdoor beams seasonally. When he’s not repairing solar cells and improvising water systems (“He’s gone from survivor to MacGyver,” Hallock says) or leading scientists to strategic observation spots (“I used to think they were God,” he says, “now I sometimes wonder how they got their PhD”), he’s often kayaking the Pacific, sewing mosquito nets for friends traveling to impoverished malaria-ridden tropics or polishing found wood into shapes he hangs from his high ceiling.
Each creation contains a story, as do the leafy and breathing inhabitants of Big Creek. Those stories, like the tales of Arias’ youth and the preserve itself, have a very capable and charismatic keeper in the man named Feynner.