How Sara Grew Her Own Forest in Costa Rica

At 6,000 feet, Costa Rica’s tropical climate has given way to cool. Temperatures are generally in the 60s F year-round, 50 F on a cold day. Sara Clark lives on Poas Mountain above Central Valley towns like Grecia.

“My family always prided itself on self-sufficiency and Yankee ingenuity,” explains Sara. She’s brought both with her to Costa Rica, where she’s content among the few families who live on this part of the mountain.

Sara, “70 and proud of it,” lives on a former cattle pasture she has reclaimed for Costa Rica’s diverse wildlife. Her 723-acre Finca Dos Lados, or “Two-Sides Farm,” is so named because it straddles the Continental Divide, featuring both Atlantic and Caribbean wildlife habitats.

A retired flight attendant, Sara bought the property in 2002. For several years prior, she’d visited Costa Rica with her then-husband on bird-watching trips. As a nature lover, she was amazed by the incredible bio-diversity. Seeing 449 different bird species while touring just one quarter of the country kept her coming back.

Their guide was from Grecia, and when Sara decided to come back for a longer stay in the winter months to work on her watercolor painting (mostly botanical themes), he recommended his hometown.

Eventually, she found and bought the farm. At the time, it was nothing but barren land, extremely eroded after being home to dairy cows for 30 years.

But she’s undertaken an ambitious project to reforest the area and create a private nature preserve on it. So far, 22,000 trees have been planted. The poor quality of the soil has made it a challenge.

Alder, a native species, has taken root the best. Sara says the alders will ready the land for slower-growing and larger hardwoods. “After 10 years, there’s been a lot of progress.”

The new trees have brought wildlife, including greater numbers of birds like the band-tailed pigeon, rufous-collared sparrow, as well as long-tailed silky-flycatchers and rabbits, which have actually developed a taste for alder stems.

Contributions of trees from the local utility companies help, but most of her work is self-funded. She does try to involve the local community as much as possible. “It’s slow work, but I don’t get bored. And I’m really interested in the environment,” says Sara. “I really appreciate the tranquility of this place.”

She has integrated an educational element into her project, too. Finca Dos Lados hosts students researching from abroad, as well as any visitor who wants to help. And local school children visit each Arbor Day for tree planting and talks at the education center she’s built.

In the early days, Sara stayed in the small cabin on the property, with propane lanterns for light and three hot-water bottles to battle the chill. She’s since expanded to create a biological study center with three guest rooms, a meeting/eating area, a kitchen, and a sitting room with a view of the valley. Her room is in the back of the building.

There is also a separate building with bathrooms, a chicken coop, three sod-roofed dog houses, and a greenhouse for growing vegetables.

A micro hydroelectric generator running off the property’s streams provides power nine months out of the year—part of Sara’s efforts to make her property as green as possible. A gas-powered generator takes over the other three months, running in the evenings.

Life isn’t without its challenges. The closest cellphone signal is 50 yards from the house, Internet service arrived only recently, and the road up the mountain is accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles only. “It’s a public road, but there isn’t any road maintenance unless I do it,” says Sara. (She regularly picks visitors up and brings them to the farm.)

Still, she says there is no place she’d rather be. “I’m trying to help out a bit in saving species,” says Sara. “I’m trying to make a difference.”

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