A Tropical Vacation of the Mind

Drawing of Dipteryx Tree Roots, Panama

It’s in the low teens here today, with light snow and hard wind. My friends in the Eastern states are grounded by huge drifts and colder temperatures. The plein air artist Jim Coe is the only one I know who’s ecstatic over the weather. Snow, after all, is his bread and butter. He’ll be the crazy guy out in the woods pushing paint around a canvas. I wish him warm hands and good light.

I’m fairly sure that for the rest of us the wintertime blahs have set in, and I’m all ready for a tropical vacation, if you are. It’s easy to book immediately if you have a good imagination and a little Flor de Caña, a very fine Nicaraguan rum. We can’t get it here, but always snag a couple of bottles at the Panama City duty-free shop on our way home. And judging from the level of this bottle, it’s been way too long since our last trip to Panama. Grab your binoculars and sketchbook, we’re heading south for a little field study and tropical warmth.

Liana, Barro Colorado Island

First we’ll step out into the humid air of Barro Colorado Island, home of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s field station in the middle of Lake Gatun, an island created when the Canal was built and the surrounding forest was flooded. The island is a mountaintop with its feet in muddy water. It’s one of the most heavily studied tropical forests in the New World. The accomodations are comfortable, the laboratories are state of the art, and there’s even a webcam. Evenings at the bar are not to be missed for the schmoozing with bat specialists, ant specialists, primate specialists, National Geographic photographers and roving crews of field assistants. Not to mention the spectacular sunsets over the canal, fly-ins of Mealy parrots, the settling-down-for-the-night of spider monkeys in Ceiba trees, and the fly-out of the bats that roost in the overhead lights. The bar, by the way, is the formally designated lab balcony with a couple of benches, hammocks, chairs, and a table or two. A good place to drink Cerveza Balboa and talk some science before dinner.

Tropical Science in ActionOngoing tropical research on Barro Colorado Island. Left to right: Steve Yanoviak, Mike Kaspari, Robert Dudley. Read about their discoveries in the field of gliding ants.

But first, a walk in the forest. More mañana.

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