Paradise is Eden, legendary and unreal. Locked in storybooks and fables and prayer, untouchable and unattainable.
Paradise is promised to certain people who live a certain way, or it's sold to a certain tax bracket: a paradise built of glass and concrete and chrome, vacation resorts carving bubbles of Paradise out of other people's countries, a garden with barbed-wire fences to keep the illusion locked in and the people who live outside the shiny snowglobes of resorts locked out.
Paradise is going up in flames, disintegrating to ash in the Paradise Fire devouring the temperate rainforests of Washington State's Olympic National Park.
Paradise is a casualty of globalization, industry hooked on profit and seeking a better high. Unironic signs sprinkled through an as-yet-almost-pristine area of Costa Rica read, in English, "We Sell Paradise."
The tourism industry, though, is not the sole threat to the paradise of Costa Rica. Walking along a beach, with fog wreathing the distant mountains and dark lines made by snails streaking the sand, a guide told me that the foundations of a collapsed stone building half-buried in sand were the remains of an old park rangers' station that was supposed to have been built 50 meters back from the highest tides.
Those highest tides now roll right up to the foundations of that now-abandoned outpost, which stands at no remove at all from the beach itself. Sea level rise isn’t a bad-case scenario prediction--it’s happening now. The things we fear are no longer distant bogeymen. The dragon has breached even the gates of Eden. How much longer can we ignore that?
Another menace, plastic, also made its presence known on the beach. Perhaps it's a mark of eyes well-adjusted to the splatter of unnatural colors in the midst of a place we would call nature, but it took me a while to feel the wrongness of blue or yellow or pink flecks in the sand--not shells or sea glass, but plastic. Plastic tossed and torn in the oceans so long that it has photodegraded to this: specks on what is at first sight a pristine beach, a paradise.
On the Costa Rican island Corcovado, a national park, I hiked in a rainforest with scarlet macaws, monkeys, and coatis leaping and flashing around us, like denizens of my old rainforest jigsaw puzzle come to life. But that precious habitat is shrinking, thanks to human encroachment and environmental damage, and macaws are highly endangered. The value of the ecosystems and species of Corcovado is unquantifiable, and to be ensconced in the vivid, thriving color and life there made it surreally clear how lucky those animals are, to live on protected, healthy land, and how lucky I was, too, to be there to bear witness.
I went snorkeling afterwards in the most perfect aquamarine swimming-pool-color water, and while I wouldn't bill myself as an expert snorkeler at all, it was still incredible--the fish flickering far below; the clarity and color of the water; the feeling of weightlessness, lying on the surface looking down, sandwiched like a piece of paper pressed flat between the expanses of ocean and sky.
On the way back to the mainland, the water-sky contrast was stunning: oxidized-copper water against slate-gray stormcloud sky. I saw lightning and waterspouts, little streams of what look like tornadoes stretching down from the clouds. And I heard thunder, very close by; not a best-case scenario when in a little boat on the ocean in a tropical lightning storm. By the time I neared land, the waves were enormous and choppy, tossing the boat between peaks that rose like something was thrusting them up from beneath. I had noticed earlier how eerie it was that when the boat was in the trough of a swell, suddenly the flat horizon line would seem to become undulating waves. But now it was like the ocean was really trying to buck us off, fling itself free of these humans who dared to ride on it. Floating on the surface or just under it, rocked lightly by the water, it's easy to feel like you're a small and content part of a greater, beautiful whole. But the storm we rode through was a reminder of the other overwhelming power of nature--how fierce it is, how untamed, how no matter how we fail to respect that, the oceans can still swallow us whole.
There are a thousand-thousand paradises on this earth to value, in a non-monetary capacity, but also so much to lose. We are driving to extinction species we don’t even know about, discarding untold beauty and importance in the face of commercial value. We are losing things we will never get back and never even understand, and their value will go unappreciated until it’s too late. We are destroying the world we take for granted, hoarding pieces of it, despoiling the rest and forgetting its beauty, forgetting there are people whose Paradise looks nothing like our shiny prefab ideas. Forgetting we all share a perilous future that depends on what we do right now.
Time is a finite resource; if we're going to wake up and fight, we can't dawdle. So distanced many of us have become from nature, so wrapped up in the virtual. We experience so-called paradise through our cameras or the Internet, and forget that underneath those glossy photographs we snap and stunning views we ooh over lurks a menace that will strip it all away before our closed eyes. Do we have enough connection left with the natural world to care? To do something about it?
What is it that we value in nature, when and if we value it? The aesthetic beauty, the emotional connections, the delicate ecological balances? How long before we decide whether that invisible, unmeasurable value of our only planet--the places we love and the ones we've never given a second thought to--is a paradise we are going to fight for?