Matthew Downing

Buttress Roots

We stuffed our adjustable trekking poles, knee-high boots, and all the rolled-up layers of clothes we could fit into packs that felt heavier than Volkswagens. After three sticky bus rides, nine miles of panting up hills, and a perilous ride on a leaky boat with a motor that sounded like a dying man’s last wheeze, we reached the tropical rainforest in Corcovado National Park.

We intended to complete field research on the region’s diverse flora and fauna, but we were only undergrads—what could we contribute? The biological research station where we camped lacked internet and hot showers, but no one missed them. Who needed Twitter when there was a jungle filled with white-faced monkeys and scarlet macaws to explore by day, and ten thousand stars starring down at us each night?

Each day, our love for the land grew, as did our instinct to protect it. Inspired, we badgered our professor, Laura, with questions about what our rapidly changing climate meant for the forest.

At sunrise on our fourth day, Laura took us to a Silk Cotton tree that stretched above the clouds; its buttress roots spread across the moist soil like the highways that connected the cities where we lived. The morning dew smelled like spring, and the birds above us harmonized like a chorus.

Here, Laura told us we already had the science and technology to meet the challenge of climate change. Inadequate science was not our obstacle; governments, corporations, and the powers that ruled the world were the ones that refused to save us. Suddenly, our future ecology degrees felt as helpless and small as a capybara trying to escape a jaguar’s jaws.

Pressing our hands against the Cotton Silk’s gnarled base, we listened as Laura explained how older trees grew faster than younger ones. This growth allowed older trees to use and store more of the carbon dioxide that was contributing to the rise in the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases. Therefore, saving old trees was more effective at combating climate change than planting new ones.

“Protecting what we have is often harder than making something new,” said Laura, her voice as fierce as the hiss of the deadly fer-de-lance snake camouflaged in the dead leaves of the forest’s floor.

She pointed to a gap in the forest on the other side of the tree. Near the beach, tall concrete walls replaced the dense labyrinth of giant leaves and tangled wood we’d grown accustomed to seeing throughout the park. Trees like our Cotton Silk had stood there for decades, but they were gone now, replaced by exclusive bungalows that promised complete privacy to the rich celebrities of the world. What had once been part of a wild and vast ecosystem was now a carved-out section of paradise for those willing to pay a hefty price. Behind the alien privacy walls, generators roared twenty-four hours a day; they pumped electricity into iPhones and plasma TVs and spewed out black exhaust that dug below the buttress roots on which we sat.

Laura took a deep breath, and we all held onto the Cotton Silk a few minutes longer.

“We must stop the greed of the few before the forest is lost to us all.”

Matthew Downing is a writer in Chicago. He lives with his partner, Caroline, and their puppy, Ripley. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Bangalore Review, South Florida Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. You can find his work at