In 1994, Gail Hull first sat by “Zoncho Lagoon” on a property she later named Finca Cántaros, here in San Vito, Costa Rica. She was moved by the magic of the place. She was drawn to the contours of the land, even though it was just cattle pasture at the time. And, she was fired up by the possibilities for transforming that pasture into forest.
But who could take on that challenge?
At the time Gail was working as an Associate Director at the Wilson Botanical Garden/Las Cruces Biological Station up the road, and met restoration ecologists on a regular basis who inspired her with their stories of regenerating forests. She reached out to them—and everyone else she could think of—about buying this land that had sparked such a strong internal call-to-action. But there were no bites.
Finally Gail decided, I will take this on myself!
Flash forward to the year 2018, when I met Gail and visited Finca Cántaros for the first time. I had been looking at properties in Central America to fulfill the dream of living in the region full-time. I had come to San Vito on several occasions by that point, teaching workshops and conducting research related to an environmental education program called BirdSleuth International (Detectives de Aves) that I helped develop on behalf of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But I had never stopped in at Cántaros until Gail fatefully invited me and the group I was leading on that particular trip—a teacher exchange workshop of BirdSleuth educators from both Guatemala and Costa Rica.
As the group and I walked through what is now Cántaros’ secondary forest, I was moved by the magic of the place. I was drawn to the beauty of all the tall trees that had filled in the pasture thanks to Gail’s years of stewardship. And, by the time our tour arrived at the lagoon, I was fired up by visions of the environmental education activities I could lead here that might inspire others to care about nature.
But was that possible?
Gail and her husband Harry were in fact looking to sell Finca Cántaros and move closer to family. However, they wanted to ensure the future owner would steward the land with equal dedication.
The Hulls and the Briggs-Pascoes had found their seller-buyer match made in heaven!
After shaking on the deal, Gail pointed out that the adjacent cattle pasture (owned by different people) was also for sale. It was equally ripe with restoration possibilities as Cántaros had been when she first sat by the lagoon all those years ago.
Having worked in environmental education my whole life, I have often talked about tree-planting as a powerful way to engage people in positive hands-on action for the planet. But would I be able to walk my talk with no prior forest restoration experience of my own?
Gail inspired me with her example—a courageous, intelligent woman, passionate about plants but without formal training as a restoration ecologist. She was brave to throw herself into the unknown and smart to strategically collaborate with experts who could help her achieve her goals. In doing so, she not only grew a forest, she created a space to grow her own knowledge of plants on-the-ground, literally.
I listened to Gail’s story and thought: I can do that, too!
And that is exactly what I have been doing these past few years, thanks to the support and collaboration of mentors like Gail and many others. That adjacent pasture is now where Finca Cántaros Environmental Association runs different forest restoration projects that we use to facilitate environmental education experiences for the community.
As I work with my team to create these environmental education experiences for others, I continue my own environmental education journey. Just as I seek to mentor others, I need my own mentors like Gail to turn to. And as I teach others, I likewise learn from them. Finally, I want the educational experiences at Cántaros to help push people out of their comfort zone, in the same way I force my own learning curve to be both a little scary and empowering at the same time (like launching into the unknown of land stewardship, following Gail’s inspiring lead).
For me empowerment is as important as knowledge gain—if not more so—as an environmental education outcome.
Gail has been back at Finca Cántaros these past two weeks, collaborating with our team on different projects. Her visit has highlighted the importance of the two parallel paths—simultaneous environmental learner and educator. It has also reminded us both, once again, of the good fortune that our life paths intersected, thanks to being equally drawn to the magic of this place.