Rachel Crandell

Retired Teacher, President of Monteverde Conservation League U.S. (MCLUS)

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Arts, Education, Golden Rule, Joshua

Rachel Crandell is a retired elementary school teacher, President of the Monteverde Conservation League U.S., and author. In her efforts as a teacher, environmentalist, and author, she has helped purchase and protect rain forests in Costa Rica, raised money to send children to school, and shared her love of the world by giving talks and taking people on trips. During our interview, she also shared how she practices the Golden Rule, how searching for Godlike qualities led to her work with the rain forests, and how Bible stories have inspired her to choose the good.

What are your goals?
As an environmentalist, I take to heart the Golden Rule which Jesus gave us in his Sermon on the Mount: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Matt 7:12). I think this applies not just to people I know and meet, but to people around our planet who are connected with me through the growing, buying, transporting, and selling of food and resources. The Golden Rule also applies to people of the next generations who will have to provide for themselves and their families from whatever resources we have left for them to use. Native American wisdom teaches that decisions should be based on the consequences for seven generations to come. That is far-sighted and loving. So, I ask myself, "How will my decisions affect others, and would I like others to be making these same decisions affecting me?" That is the Golden Rule according to Rachel. And that, in a sense, is my goal -- to live the Golden Rule.

What do you do to put the Golden Rule into practice?
Among other things, my husband Dwight and I live in Costa Rica three months of the year volunteering at the edge of El Bosque Eterno de los Niños, or the International Children's Eternal Rain Forest, in Monteverde, Costa Rica. It was started in 1987 by children in Sweden who had been studying rain forests and knew some of the problems from cutting and burning habitat. In their simple desire to do something good, they started to raise money to send to a small conservation organization in Costa Rica to buy forested land that had never been cut and protect it.

How do you protect the rain forest land?
It takes people and money. We need to buy trees to reforest the land and pay guards to patrol the outside edges, protecting it from poachers who want to steal parrots or orchids. We need to offer environmental education, explaining why maintaining the rain forest is so crucial to everyone. We need money for surveys, scientific research, and court costs for legal work. As the quantity of land has grown, so have the responsibilities. By 1995, the tiny organization, which was faithful to the children's request to buy land, could not buy any more land because they could not protect it. As Dwight and I served (and still do) at the Visitor's center at the Children's Rain Forest, giving out maps, explaining how the organization and rain forest works, we realized that we needed a land purchase and protection campaign. So we started The Monteverde Conservation League U.S. 501(c)(3), a not-for-profit organization, to enable individuals to help protect the rain forest in many ways.

What type of research is the organization doing?
Unfortunately, we've had to abandon or cut back on programs so we can just hang onto the forest land. But scientists have been studying forest fragments to understand what happens to species when only a fragment of the forest is left. Scientists are still finding species of orchids, frogs, plants that have never been known to scientists before. In the last ten years, they found twelve new species, on one fifty-acre plot of trees, which don't exist anywhere else in the world. Costa Rica's biodiversity is enormous -- volcanoes, rain forests, many different animals which migrated south from North America or north from South America. There's no other place like it in the world. So scientists are trying to inventory what we have, especially since the forests are becoming very vulnerable, as people are getting rid of one whole side of a mountain range, clear-cutting it for cattle or other reasons.

How did you become instrumental in protecting the Costa Rican rain forest?
My love for the natural world has always been a part of me, whether it was being outdoors, going camping as a Girl Scout, watching the animals, or growing and raising our own food. One year when I taught second grade, I decided we'd study tropical rain forests and signed up for a course in tropical ecology to be better informed. I was so impressed by the biological diversity and complexity of the forests. But we were also told about all the problems that face this ecosystem: deforestation, erosion, species extinction, desertification, climate change, pollution of streams with mercury from gold mining, prostitution of native women by miners and dam builders, displacement of indigenous people from their forest homes, etc. I knew I wouldn't be telling my second graders all this. I asked the instructors to share with me some of the good things that were going on in tropical forests. To my dismay, they couldn't think of any.

How did you deal with such negativity?
I prayed. The Bible story that helps me the most when problems seem hopelessly beyond solution is the story about Moses sending out the leaders of all the tribes of the Children of Israel to check out Canaan, the Promised Land, and to report back to the people. They returned in forty days with two different versions of what they found. They all agreed that the land flowed with "milk and honey" (Num. 13:27). But most of them "brought up an evil report of the land," explaining that "the cities are walled," and the "strong" people were "giants … and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers" (28, 32, 33). They bred fear and hopelessness with their report: "We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we" (31). When the Children of Israel heard this, they "wept" and wished they had stayed in Egypt as slaves or else "died in this wilderness" (14:1, 2). But not everyone had the same vision. Caleb and Joshua, who surveyed the exact same Promised Land, saw a completely different path of action. They encouraged the people, saying, "Let us go up at once and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it" (13:30). They affirmed that the land "is an exceeding good land. If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us … fear them not" (14:7, 8, 9).

Joshua and Caleb's view of the Promised Land is much more hopeful.
To me, this story means that if we are faithful, listen for God's guidance, follow God's directions, stick to the path, never waver, trust in God's protection, we can't help but succeed (get to the Promised Land). The Promised Land would have to be a good place if God promised it to His children. Because Caleb and Joshua "wholly followed the Lord" (Josh. 14:8), affirmed the good, and chose to go forward, they eventually got to the Promised Land. It's interesting that the initial scouting trip took only forty days roundtrip, but it took the Israelites forty years of learning the lessons God had to teach them before their offspring could enter the Promised Land. All those who feared the "evil report" perished in the wilderness. To me, the lesson is: we can act with the power which God has given us and make loving decisions that make a difference, or we can diddle around in fear of not being able to make a difference and therefore not make any difference.

You've made a difference. How did you arrive at your decision to help actively?
As I prayed for an answer of how to present the topic of the rain forests to young children, I re-read the words in Psalms where we are told, "Oh Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom has thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches…. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth" (104:24, 30). I just knew there must be good efforts by local people and organizations filled by His spirit working to protect tropical rain forests, to "renew the face of the earth." So, in 1989, I decided to go to Costa Rica. A friend helped me define my spiritual motivation for going, which was to look for Godlike qualities, such as stewardship, caring, nurturing, rehabilitation. I was determined to take a healing atmosphere with me. I found a lot of reforestation projects, refuges for rehabilitating endangered species, scientists studying the forest and its wildlife to better understand how to protect them. The best effort I discovered was the International Children's Eternal Rain Forest, of which I have spoken. The hearts of the Swedish fourth grade children were overflowing. They were like Joshua and Caleb, trusting that their right motives and willing hands would bring good results. When I arrived in Monteverde, money had flowed in not only from Sweden, but from children in several countries who had joined the effort, and 3,000 acres of land had been purchased and protected. Rather than think that the problem was too big and that they "were in our own sight as grasshoppers," they acted with love and trust. I knew my students would want to be part of this great work. So back home we began to raise money and spread the word. Since then I have given hundreds of talks to schools and organizations to help the ripples go out. Today, the Children's Eternal Rain Forest protects 54,000 acres of tropical biodiversity with the help of children in 44 nations and is the largest private reserve in the whole country. In a way, it is a Promised Land, certainly a protected land.

You certainly found good. Would you share how your healing work has expanded?
When Dwight and I retired, we wanted to retire earlier so we could do the type of work that we felt was important. I give educational talks, and I lead trips to the tropics of Costa Rica, Belize, and Peru. I don't use a company. I do all the logistics and charge people what I hope they can afford. I don't make any money on the trips. I do, however, tack on a couple of hundred dollars to give to the places we go (which the tourists receive as a tax-exempt donation). The money goes to the forest or to a scholarship fund for the local children. The proceeds from my children's book, Hands of the Maya, which is now in its fourth printing, also help to send kids to high school.

How did you get your inspiration for your children's book, Hands of the Maya?
During the time I lived with the Maya, I had hoped to hear some of the old stories. But a lot of them are about basic things that are part of the human condition, not suitable for children's books and not publishable in the U.S. So, I just got the inspiration to take photographs in pairs -- with a close-up of the Mayan hands doing a job and the second photo showing the larger context -- making tortillas, thatching the roof, washing a hammock. Twenty-nine publishers said, "No, thank you," and Henry Holt in N.Y. said they thought it would make a great book if I made it a children's book and added a little bit of text. I decided I could write a couple sentences for each picture, put in a map, add a glossary. It won prizes. And so, the Mayan children are being helped.

Are you working on any other books or projects?
Among other books, I am taking photographs now for Hands of the Rainforest, which will be like Hands of the Maya, but focuses on the Emberá people. Another project has arisen, too. The Emberá live in the eastern most part of Panama. They want someone to record their stories because they've never been written down before, and they're concerned that their stories are going to be lost. They see their children busy doing homework, leaving the family to go to school in a distant village. Their story tellers are getting old. Two have died since I've been visiting them. We have to travel up rivers that are difficult to navigate. There are no roads. The men still wear breach cloth; the women do not wear tops; they still body paint. I'm recording the stories in their language, bringing them back on video and audio, and then sending them to a fantastic man who speaks their language as well as Spanish and English. I hope to publish a trilingual anthology of their stories.

Rachel, you truly do live the Golden Rule. Thank you for sharing your inspiration and your work. It gives us many ways to help our world, too.
My prayer is to acknowledge the REAL, the truth about God and His/Her creation which includes all of us as partners for good.

Rachel Crandell writes about her life, work, and experiences:

I have always loved to be outdoors -- camping, hiking, canoeing, tree-climbing. Girl Scouts allowed me lots of opportunities to do those things when I was growing up. I even became a professional Girl Scout with the Nation's Capital Council in Washington, D.C. after college. As a field director, I helped organize troops and train new volunteer leaders. Then, when my daughters wanted to be in Brownies and Scouts, I was their troop leader. Those experiences gave me many opportunities to turn to God for protection and safety for myself and the girls in our troop.

When our children were young, I ran a nursery school at home on our farm in Indiana and raised almost all the food we ate for 9 years -- milk, eggs, vegetables, pigs, etc. I always wished I had been a pioneer lady, and my husband was willing to go along with me. So in the 1970s, we tried as much as we could to pretend it was the 1870s, even though we went to the grocery store in our car for Cheerios and toilet paper. But if our onions rotted in the ground because of too much rain, we would not eat onions that year. We had such a flourishing organic garden that I was able to sell our extra vegetables to neighbors and restaurants nearby. Growing your own food puts you in touch with the land and keeps you outdoors, which I loved. It certainly gave our children an understanding of how the cycles and seasons work because they helped with the planting, the weeding, the harvesting, and some of the food preservation.

Eventually we moved to St. Louis, where I earned my masters degree in teaching and began to teach elementary school. My love for things natural had an even bigger audience with my students. I also served on the board of the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center. We captive bred red wolves and Mexican gray wolves, both endangered species, with the intent to return them to the wild. That was years ago, and now both species live again in the wild. My second graders loved our annual field trip to see the wolves they had been studying at the wolf sanctuary.

When my second graders and I began studying about tropical rain forests, I took a course for elementary teachers at the Missouri Botanical Gardens to learn more about the rain forests. Because most of what I learned was devastating and was not fit to tell my second grade class, I went to a rain forest in Costa Rica to find out what efforts were taking place to protect these forests. I found so many wonderful projects and met so many wonderful people in Costa Rica who were doing good work for the rain forest. The one that inspired me the most was the Children's Eternal Rain Forest, El Bosque Eterno de los Niños. My second grade class eagerly participated in being part of the solution, raising money to buy rain forest land. I was able to talk with students at other schools who also "caught the fire." As a result of the children's efforts from around the world, that rain forest is the largest private reserve in the whole country.

Over the years, I have made over 30 trips to the tropics since that first time in 1989. Now that I have retired from full-time teaching, my husband and I live in Costa Rica part of each year and volunteer for the Children's Eternal Rain Forest. We have created a non-profit sister organization in the United States, Monteverde Conservation League, U.S., to help support the work they are doing to protect tropical rain forest. MCLUS is a 501(c)(3). I also lead groups to Central and South American rain forests every year and still give talks.

I have published a children's book, Hands of the Maya, and am currently taking pictures for an upcoming book, Hands of the Rainforest, focusing on the Emberá. As I have gotten to know the Emberá, who live in the jungle in Panama, and as they have gotten to know me, I have been given the opportunity to record their stories, which have never been written down. They were so happy after the first translation I brought back to them that they wanted me to record more. They sent me up river to go to all their story tellers so that I could record their history. Going up river is not easy, nor is it inexpensive. It also affects their home life. You need a canoe, a motor, 2 men, gas that's $5 a gallon. You need 2 men because the front man in the bow, the "marino," has to watch out for what's under water up ahead so nothing wrecks the propeller. If there are obstacles in the way, you have to get out and push. If I take 2 men for a whole week, they're not home to do the farming or hunting. Also, when I travel, there's a mother in each village who is assigned to be the cook for me. Yet, they wouldn't let me pay. So, we arrived at a situation that blesses everyone. When I go on these trips, I bring with me someone who can afford it, someone who speaks Spanish better than I do. This helps me better understand their concept of family, religion, God, philosophy, etc. In turn, the people who come with me get a view of life that very few people ever get, a "National Geographic" experience. There are no roads; the natives body paint; some of the old men still wear breach cloth (and rubber boots). I hope to publish the stories of the Emberá in a trilingual anthology in their own language as well as English and Spanish.

I have also contributed a couple of stories to an anthology of children's stories from around the world called, Six Inches to England, published by Jeannie Ferber, Andover Green Press. The money from this book has bought thousands of books in Russian to create village libraries in the Ural Mountains. I have other ideas for books that are in the works, one of which is Michiq Daughter of the Andes.

It is a joy to be turning to God each day for answers to the myriad questions that arise. Throughout the years, whenever I find myself in tight spots, I turn to God for guidance. That guidance has shown up in the form of someone who lovingly shepherded me through my trouble. I have made it a lifetime practice to read from the Bible every day. The inspiration and help that I gain from this quiet time each day has blessed me again and again. Often when my Bible isn't instantly handy, passages come to my thought that are exactly the idea I need to know.

Learn More

If you’d like to learn more about the Monteverde Conservation League U.S., of which Rachel is president, the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest and its labor of love, and the Maya scholarship fund, please visit www.mclus.org.

Tour the Tropical Forests

If you'd like to take a tour of tropical forests with Rachel Crandell or find out about the author visits she makes to schools and the talks she gives about tropical rain forests, visit www.rainforestrachel.com.

Email Rachel

Rachel Crandell shares information on the Costa Rican rain forests and the effects of deforestation

Years and years ago, the tectonic plates pushed up central America, which allowed animals and plants to migrate north from South America, and animals in North America managed to get south. There were also resident populations in the first place, so the opportunity for biodiversity is enormous. Costa Rica is only about 1/3 the size of Florida. In this small space are more than a dozen volcanoes, the Caribbean coast, tropical dry forests, tree forests, cloud forests, mountain peaks above 10,000 feet. There are so many unique niches, which means that all kinds of different life exist in Costa Rica.

Almost all of Central America was forested. There are no grasslands in Costa Rica. But there is tremendous pressure on marginal lands for beef, cattle, which presents a problem. If you push beyond the limit of what the land can sustain, the cattle nibble the grass down to roots. The cattle pasture doesn't last very long. Then, the wind blows the soil away, and the chance for new seeds to sprout is lost.

Rain is created by evaporation and transpiration. The forest actually rains up; it's enormous. If you cut trees down for pasture, you get less rain, as there's no transpiration. Most of the soil is lateritic soil, so once the inch of topsoil has washed away by rain or wind, the underneath soil is claylike. The sun then bakes the soil and no grass or trees can get their roots down into this brick-like soil. Once you've lost topsoil, and the temperature and sun are different because of the tree loss, you can't reforest.

The natives used to live in a place for a year, clear ½ an acre, grow gardens, hunt it out, and then move on. This is sustainable because after 50 years, the birds and bats have pooped out seeds like crazy onto this cleared land, and the topsoil has been recreated. But you can't clear the same land year after year. The soil needs time to rebuild. If you have small pieces which you've cleared, even 20 acres, it's possible to reforest. But if thousands of acres have been cleared, no bird or bat looking for nectar or food is going to cross such a large, open area. As a result, the dispersal of the seeds isn't going to happen, the soil is going to erode, and conditions will not be present to allow reforesting. So the bigger the area chopped, the more difficult it is to reforest.

But deforestation also creates other problems. The three wattled bell birds and resplendent quetzal are both gorgeous birds. They both migrate into mountains following fruiting and then come back down again after they've eaten out the area. But almost everything they need to survive on the west side of the country is gone. We're doing the best we can to maintain their habitats. Together with our reserve, there are 110,000 acres total of reserve. But their habitat is vanishing rapidly.