Thankful for great people who touch our lives
This year’s Thanksgiving column isn’t the one I was planning to write, as it’s about something lost: another of those heroes of nature who a number of local residents would recognize, but all of us knew in one way or another, at least in spirit.
Omar Herrera Parrales, my wife’s father, was a dairy farmer and head of a Costa Rican family whose reach has extended all the way to Wisconsin and beyond. He passed away early Saturday evening on the farm on which my wife, Yami, grew up.
Yami had arrived just a few hours before Omar slipped up to be with the birds he loved so much, those avian miracles who enrich his home country in an abundance and diversity seen in few other places.
His passion for nature was indirectly responsible for my move to Wisconsin, as he passed it on to his children, including Yami and her sister Rosie.
Rosie’s small nature-based travel agency has brought many Stevens Point students and residents to her homeland over the years, and after meeting Yami in Texas and later marrying her, I first visited and fell in love with Point when Yami was invited to speak at the College of Natural Resources early in our marriage.
A man who understood nature’s power
Omar took pleasure in the simplest of things. Like many working men – and he was one right up until recently, when it became clear that his health was failing – his free time away from his fields and pastures was often spent in front of the television, watching soccer, news or variety shows.
I’m ashamed to say that I’ve still not picked up enough Spanish to have been able to carry on more than a rudimentary conversation with him, but one of his best traits was he never seemed to mind. He was content to sit quietly, always sharing a comment or two and willing to answer simple questions, but comfortable in the presence of his gringo son-in-law who shared his love of the beautiful game but didn’t have much more to add.
Omar also loved karaoke, dancing, traditional Costa Rican and Latin music, and other basic pleasures. He especially cherished spending time with his grandchildren, seven of whom were born in the United States, where four daughters eventually moved.
There may be nothing more powerful than the pleasure he took in sharing the wonders of the natural world with his grandchildren.
From the time they’d be big enough for their moms to be comfortable with them riding a dirt bike down the rough roads to a local river or pineapple plantation, he would plop them onto the front of his seat, nestle his arms around them and head through the verdant subtropical fields and forests.
Off they’d go, bumping down a rock-filled, muddy road and across a rickety-looking wooden bridge. Whether it was to see the perch of a family of sloths, walk around in a riverbed, visit the milking shelter of his dairy herd or search his fields for archaeological treasure, he thrived on being outside and sharing that with his grandchildren.
He often found native artifacts, some of which he was able to keep and which still sit on his patio or in odd places around the house, reminding us of our ties to earlier times and lifestyles. He greatly respected indigenous cultures and did what he could to protect their heritage and history, just as he did for the environment in general.
Watching news of some affront to the richly varied forests or beautiful rivers that tumble out of Costa Rica’s mountains, he’d lament government decisions or business actions that diminished the sustainability of his country’s incredible life zones and biodiversity.
We are all connected
At times, Omar may have been bewildered by the changes he saw going on around him. Despite being consistently listed among the world’s happiest people, Ticos like Omar watch with concern as their country changes dramatically.
Highways, resorts and walled subdivisions replace much of the open land that was still freely available even in the time of his own father, who first settled and then passed the land around San Cayetano on to Omar and his siblings.
Although he refused to sell some of his land to a buyer wanting to build an airport, in his later years, Omar’s simple house had virtually doubled, with a huge, modern kitchen, dining room, two more bedrooms and an office – primarily because of the urgings of his children and the addition of some nature tourism-related income.
The house spreads toward the guest cabin and “party patio” where numerous classes of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) students have danced during their winterim sessions in Costa Rica; beyond that is a four-suite building which is usually occupied half by local workers and half by visiting family who can’t fit in the house or guest cabin.
In recent years, Omar found himself taking us more often to watch floods at the highway bridge over the Rio Caño where it runs by the farm. There, we would watch the roaring brown floodwaters as they strained to reach the bottom of the bridge and listen to the loud clacking of unseen boulders tumbling against each other below the surface.
The rocks would head downstream toward a bend where we could see a bank eroding not far from a poor home. Little more than a shack built too close to the river, it’s in danger of falling in some day if the riverbed isn’t artificially diverted again, as it was some years ago.
As a man of the land, Omar was smart enough to realize the changes he’s observed in Costa Rica’s climate and had to wonder why so many politicians couldn’t see the same obvious truth.
His concerns never kept him from enjoying and supporting life. Around the yard, he’d hang a batch of overripe plantains from a branch or pole to attract the bird life he appreciated so greatly.
Whenever we were near, he never failed to wander around until he found us and brought us over to share whatever he had sighted, from tiny hummingbirds to the massive-billed, colorful toucans that always thrill us.
Omar made a difference through such small gestures and by his more important undertakings, like providing good milk to his dairy cooperative and raising good children in the world – a doctor in Guapiles, a business owner and tree farmer in Venecia, a translator in Colorado, a nurse in San José and another homemaker in Wisconsin also among them.
Those children are themselves passing that love of nature on to their children, including my niece (a recent UWSP graduate who now works in Wisconsin Rapids) and, of course, Yami’s and my own.
As Wisconsin’s adopted son John Muir told us, everything in nature is connected. Thank you for keeping that connection, Papi, and know that we will cherish it as you fly with the birds.