Five Reasons For The Amazon

The mysterious jungle lures the artist and feeds the imagination.
The jungle stirs the imagination and the artist as well- this was drawn plein air in Panama on Barro Colorado Island.

Two adventurous blogging buddies have just returned home from the steaming jungles of Amazonia. JZ has been reporting back from Guyana (they had some kind of an internet connection and I’m lucky enough to be on her email list). Take it from me, folks, it’s some kind of serious nature adventure she’s been having with what sounds like a lot of sweating, giant anteaters and incredible phenomenal birding. TR called me this morning and debriefed me on his own Amazon expedition.

Howler monkey, drawn in Panama last year
Howler is one of your nicer monkeys, but one of your noisier neighbors.

TR’s tales were unnerving enough, and of course he told them with great brio and his usual good humor, for that’s the kind of guy he is, and TR sets the standard for behaving well in times when humor and steady nerve is all that’s between you and some nasty consequences. For starters, he said, I should get acquainted with the Zen approach to getting along with Africanized, aka “killer” bees. They’re attracted to salty sweat (is there another kind?) and will swarm all over you and not sting as long as you don’t push them too hard to leave your freakin’ body alone. Then there are some awesome poisonous spiders, terrifying giant bullet ants (so-called because you’ll swear you’ve been shot if you’re stung) and vicious white-lipped peccaries that may chase you up a tree or dismember you if you don’t make it that far. Don’t get me going on snakes.

Liana embracing a rainforest trunk
Also drawn on Barro Colorado; isn't it cute how the liana is hugging the tree like it really likes it?

TR was in Peru, to the south near Bolivia. I will be going to the northern reaches of Peru, not far from Colombia. There is a field station on a tributary of the Napo River, which itself is a tributary of the Amazon. It’s fairly basic all said, and there may or may not be any electricity depending on the generator situation, there won’t be any internet (sorry, no posts for almost a month). Also, no indoor plumbing- that’s what’s giving me the worst willies, and I’m not ashamed to admit this, is the prospect of getting up in the night to stumble into the jungle looking for the outhouse. That’ll wake me up good, I’m certain of that.

So what’s the story on this Amazon trip? Here’s what:

1) The Don and Virginia Eckelberry Fellowship. The Don and Virginia Eckelberry Endowment was established in 2000 by the Academy of Natural Sciences in 
Philadelphia to support natural history artists by enhancing their access to museums and field sites. Earlier this year I was awarded this prestigious grant, and it’s entirely sponsoring my trip. I’m am utterly, entirely, grateful to the Endowment for making this journey possible.

2) My upcoming show at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. It’s titled, and you’ll get a kick out of this, Drawing the Motmot. On the museum’s schedule to open October 2009, it’ll run until January 2010, DTM is going to be a multi-media art/science/rainforest adventure presentation with drawings from my sketchbooks, writings, paintings, video clips of drawings as they happen and possibly an immersive rainforest atmosphere with ambient sounds of birds, howler monkeys, frogs and whatever else I can record on this trip. I’m hoping it’ll be something like a theme park jungle ride with framed artwork. Stay tuned.

3) I’m working on a field guide. Birds of Trinidad and Tobago by Richard ffrench, is being updated with all new color plates. A small team of bird artists are working on the illustrations, including Barry Van Dusen and myself, under the direction of the great artist John O’Neill, who is painting some really honkin’ plates for this book. Going to Peru will have me sketching firsthand some of the species I’m working on (antbirds, owls, nighthawks) right there in the field.

A pair of barred antshrikes, my rough drawing for Birds of Trinidad and Tobago.

4) My spouse is a science geek, and he has a grant. Mike and his colleague Steve ( I hope you check that link- it’s fascinating) are untangling the mysteries of the ant world, and this trip is a return one for them- they were there last year working on another experiment and came up with this one. They are bright, inquisitive boys and know how to ask sharp questions. Stay tuned for the answers.

5) I want to draw a hoatzin, the world’s weirdest bird. I have ever since I was a wee child that could barely hold a pencil in its grubby paw and was shown a picture of a baby hoatzin using its wing-claws to climb a tree, yes, it has relict claws on the wings until adulthood; and ever since I have wanted to see one of these things for myself, and draw it.

Off to the Amazon. I leave in two weeks. More soon…

11 thoughts on “Five Reasons For The Amazon

  1. Vickie Henderson says:

    What an exciting opportunity. I look forward to seeing what you discover and record. An aside, I went to a wilderness writing retreat this past summer with outhouse accomodations. I was surprised at how quickly I adjusted…I’m sure you will, too.

  2. TR says:

    As long as you wear your wellies and keep your torch handy – any trip to the outhouse should be a great adventure! Don’t forget extra batteries!!!!

  3. Karyn deKramer says:

    Lucky you! I too have had a fascination with the Hoatzin since I first saw a photo of one. Extraordinary bird. I would love to see one in person. As an outdoor enthusiast may I offer a suggestion on the topic of outhouses in the jungle: You will most likely adapt easily. I would recommend tall rubber boots. Easy to pull on when you are half asleep, most snakes cannot bite thru them. Also, have a good look around the facilities, even under the lid!! Best of luck. I look forward to the stories and drawings. Your skill amazes me! -Karyn

  4. zeladoniac says:

    Karyn, you’re a woman after my own heart. Yes, tall rubber boots are a fashion must-wear. I’ll keep them right next to my mosquito-netted bed. Thanks for the good advice, all!

  5. Ken Januski says:

    Congratulations on your fellowship win. I just visited the web site at the Academy of Natural Sciences (the real site is about a mile away from where I sit at the moment) and found this great link on working live from nature. It really does a great job of espousing the virtues of live study.

    I’m always absolutely dumbfounded by your ability to draw all those individual leaves as in some of these drawings. That’s not what I like best about your drawings, which is more the lifelike portrayal of birds and animals and their strong visual quality, but nonetheless it is really striking. I think my mind might implode if I ever tried to see and put them down in such detail.

  6. julie Zickefoose says:

    Love love love the antshrikes!! Perfect attitude. One of my favorite antbirds, those guys, so nice to see them in chocolate and cinnamon flavors according to sex. I’m loving your owl drawings. Your birds are deliciously meaty, Eckelberrian. Yum! Don’t worry about the blogging hiatus. It’s not worth subjecting your laptop to that humidity, anyway, trust me!

  7. julie Zickefoose says:

    I’m sure you have a headlamp, right? De rigeur geekwear for the tropics. Get the most powerful one you can find and you can use it for spotting eyeshine. I wore mine practically the whole time at night in Guyana. Great for those stumbly outhouse trips and nighttime boat rides.

  8. zeladoniac says:

    Yes, I have a headlamp and I’m thinking about UV LED lights just to spot spiders and scorpions in the outhouse. You do know that arachnids glow under UV light, right? That’s ultimate junglewear for the timid geekster.

    Glad you like those meaty birds and yummy owls! And Ken, thanks for the link and the comments on the tree drawing. You may have convinced me it’ll be worth taking the rapidograph rig along to the Amazon. And how lucky you are to be so close to the Academy of Natural Sciences!

  9. Beverly says:

    OMG…an outhouse in the jungle! Well, all I can say is the boots don’t do a lot of good when ya plunk yer naked butt down over a hole over a pit in the ground. Sorry…just sayin’.

    I’d also like to say what a treat it is to find your blog and your artestry! It is no wonder you have been asked to illustrate a field guide!

    Good on ya!!! And thanks to…for this place.

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