Before we get to Belize, let me tell you a story about how Diana and I met 16 years ago back when she was a reporter for the Fresno Bee.
It starts with my son Atticus who was four at the time. One day he and his babysitter were at a thrift store called La Tienda in our neighborhood. He had parked his red Radio Flyer tricycle at the entrance and while he was looking at books in the back, a volunteer sold the trike! Later that day, I left a note on La Tienda’s front door describing the incident in hopes of finding clues to the sale. Diana saw the note and interviewed us for a feature story. As a reporter myself, I noticed she didn’t take many notes, and she did a lot of observing. It was a little unsettling.
Days later, the story was published. A beautiful vignette of the Tower District community and the inadvertent sale of a beloved trike, which thanks to her story, we got back.
I mention this because I’ve always been impressed by the way Diana reports and writes. Now an LA Times reporter, she won a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 2015 for her coverage of the drought. And her first travel memoir was about the Azores and its relationship to the San Joaquin Valley. So when she was in Belize reporting on her new book, I decided to witness her experience there, to report on the reporter so that I could share her story with you.
We start our story about a month into Diana’s stay. We’re en route to a house that’s on a butterfly farm in the middle of a rainforest.
“Here’s where we come up to our turnoff to Fallen Stones,” says Diana’s partner, Mark Crosse, or simply Crosse as she refers to him. He’s driving the jeep on a steep dirt road that was built by hand.
“This is where I stop and put it into four wheel drive so hang on to your hats,” he says.
Until Diana and Crosse moved into the house on stilts, she says no one had lived in it for years. No one except “a lot of creatures that had made it home.”
“Such as?” I ask.
“Well, all the ones that are still making it home but there were more of them,” she says.
“So what was your first impression?” I ask. She laughs an anxious laugh. Twice.
Aside from scorpions, she says, there were also a number of bats hanging on the walls. Now I’m beginning to wonder.
“I’m going to be sleeping with bats?” I ask.
“No, no they’re not in the house, they’re on the porch,” she says.
But they’re on the part of the porch where we walk,” Crosse chimes in, adding that it’s the only entrance to the house and one must be careful to avoid being pooped on by the bats.
The house was built 30 years ago and belongs to an Englishman Clive Farrell who plays an instrumental role in Diana’s book. Clive loves nature, particularly butterflies. He and his business partner lived here while they started Falling Stones.
Diana and Crosse first travelled this road in 2018 while on vacation. They were staying at an ecolodge and one of the guest activities was a trip to Clive’s butterfly farm.
It didn’t start out well. Diana was in the back seat of a truck (like I am now) and she was thinking she was not the explorer type.
“This is not for me right?”
“Then we got up and we got to the top and you know, I came out of the car and I was just like, Ohhh!”
I have to say when we arrive at the top, I have the same reaction.
The vista is amazing. solid rainforest for miles, no roads, Guatemala somewhere in the distance. And from here, we walk down a flight of stone stairs winding through the jungle. Diana has counted 159 steps. The stones, she’s been told, are from a nearby Maya ruin called Lubaantun.
It’s not surprising. There are Maya ruins all over Belize. Even the church in the nearby village of St. Pedro Columbia is built from stones found at Lubaantun.
Diana tells me to look where I’m stepping and reminds me she saw a giant tarantula just the other night.
One-hundred- fifty-nine steps later, we’re at the house and walking up the stairs to the covered porch.
Watch your head above, this is where the bats live, says Diana. Then she yells and I yell even though I don’t know what I’m yelling about. “It went over your head,” Diana says about a bat I didn’t see.
So what led Diana to share a house on stilts with bats and scorpions? The answer is just a quick trek down a dirt path that winds like a ribbon to the butterflies.
Blue Morpho butterflies whose flapping wings up close sound like rain. Or maybe fire.
“And see how they flash,” says Diana. “There have even been reports like from bush pilots that were flying over the jungle canopy that they could see the flash of them.”
The flash of their wings, it’s kind of like a daytime disco inside this cage and right now I’m thinking of Donna Summer. The blue is so metallic. On the edges of the wings are rows of black dots. Two rows means it’s a female, one, a male.
Many of the offspring here will be sent as pupae to Clive’s butterfly exhibit in England. It’s also where they repackage some of them and send them to zoos and museums all over the world.
But these connections around the globe begin in this cage.
“You start with eggs,” says Marcellinus Shol, another character in Diana’s book. Everyday he and about a dozen other employees walk or push their bikes up that steep road we were on to get here from St. Pedro Columbia.
“You can see the female butterfly laying the eggs. You see over there,” he says pointing out a leaf where a butterfly has just pushed out an egg. Beyond it are many more, they look like gelatinous raindrops: perfect, tiny translucent globes on a sea of bright green.
Every evening Marcellinus collects the eggs in handmade wooden boxes and carries them into a small wooden hut on stilts about 20 feet away. There they hatch into caterpillars and nine weeks later become pupae.
The pupae that don’t get mailed to England are returned to the flight cage where they emerge as butterflies. They hang from sticks in tidy neat rows.
“Every day we have them hatching,” he says.
The ones that hatch in here will breed. And feed on old fruit piled high.
“They go to rotten fruits like pineapple, bananas, mangos. They like to go to juices.”
Smelly juices that belie their winged beauty. But it’s not just this global enterprise in the middle of a rainforest that caught Diana’s interest. It’s the fact that it has survived so long: In 2001, the farm was hit by Hurricane Iris. Shortly thereafter, wildfires destroyed what the hurricane had missed. It took years but the farm was rebuilt. These natural disasters are something Diana understands.
“I don’t want to be somebody that plays the same card over and over again but I am from California and I did live through the drought and I did see as a journalist incredible fires over and over and it did deeply affect me,” she says.
But it’s also just the beauty of this little butterfly farm on the top of a mountain that protects wildlife and gives conservation jobs to a dozen Maya villagers who take such care and precision shepherding butterflies from eggs to caterpillars to pupae.
Like Anselmo Ical who feeds the caterpillars that have hatched from the Blue Morpho eggs. He also cleans out a lot of poop from the boxes. About a pound of poop, he says.
Some are almost to the pupae stage, which takes about two months.
“As you can see here, this one already made the silk. In two or three day’s time, it will become a pupa.”
On my last day at Fallen Stones, I ask Diana about how she’s reporting and organizing her book. She says her writing strategy now comes straight out of Birds of Belize by Lee Jones. The first chapter says when you’re looking at a bird don’t write anything down.
“The minute that you look down at a paper or start writing down what you’re seeing, you’re losing time looking at that bird,” she says. “You know, you just have this one precious fleeting moment to observe.”