Farewell, My Lovely Island

The view at the top of the tower on BCI, with watercolor. The purple blooming tree in the foreground (and the painting) is Dipteryx panamensis.
The view at the top of the tower on BCI, with watercolor. The purple blooming tree in the foreground (and the painting) is Dipteryx panamensis.

It’s funny how much I love high places, from the canopy walkway in the Amazon to the Canopy Tower Lodge in Gamboa (more on that terrific place in my next post) to the wondrous canopy tower of BCI’s Lutz ravine, where I spent most of yesterday improbably clinging to a 157 foot tall swaying scaffold structure and trying to draw and paint in the air. It was my last brilliant day here and I loved every minute of it.

I find it's easier (and probably safer) to climb the metal scaffold in my stocking feet. Since algae tends to grow on metal and it can get a little slippery, bare or stockinged feet gives you the best grip for your money.
I find it's easier (and probably safer) to climb the metal scaffold in my stocking feet. Since algae tends to grow on metal and it can get a little slippery, bare or stockinged feet gives you the best grip for your money.

I’ve come up this tower at least once or twice every BCI trip and have done a bunch of drawings here. Usually my trip down is hurried because of sudden storms or spider monkeys, both being good reasons to clamber down as soon as possible. One does not wish to be in a tall metal tower in a lightning storm, and one should be wary of aggressive territorial primates whoever they may be, and spider monkeys don’t like to share or play nice. Howlers are another story. I once spent an hour up in this tower sketching a lone male who climbed onto a branch just feet away, looked me over, shrugged, and went to sleep. It’s a measure of confidence when a wild animal accepts you well enough to curl up and snooze in your presence. I was flattered beyond belief.

Yours truly is a type of primate who enjoys the arboreal lifestyle.
Yours truly is a primate who enjoys the arboreal lifestyle.

When I’d had enough searing up top from the tropical sun and the clouds overhead were taking on a deeper gray tone than I liked, I began slowly heading down. Climbing up or down, you have to be slow and deliberate. Consider every move, every hand and foothold before placing your weight. Make sure you have all four limbs in contact with the metal when you shift your weight. Move like a sloth, not like a monkey. Which is not to say that you can’t relax and enjoy the view. Halfway down, I decided to try a big drawing. It would be possible to set one up and complete it within an hour or two. It involved bungee cords and I brought along a lot of bungee cords. The easel I left on the ground. The scaffold itself would be my easel.

This is how you get things done in the rainforest tower: bungee cords! The 18"x25" drawing board has a bungee attached at either end and hooked under the pipes. I drew standing up on the small platform. This is about 75 feet up. I was drawing a beautiful monstera vine on the trunk of a great tree.
Extreme Plein Air drawing in the BCI canopy tower: bungee cords are a must. My 18"x25" drawing board has a bungee attached at either end and is firmly hooked onto the pipes from underneath. I drew standing up on the small metal platform. This was about 75 feet up, not even the half-way point for this tower. I was drawing a beautiful monstera vine on the trunk of a tree and keeping an ear out for spider monkeys (which did indeed show up the moment my feet touched the ground).
A bit dizzying: my Lutz tower workspace. Everything held in place by bungee cords, including me.
A bit dizzying: my Lutz tower workspace. Everything held in place by bungee cords, including me.

As I began drawing the thought did cross my mind that I was possibly doing something dumb and risky, one of those “hey, look what I can do!” last-words-of-a-crazy-artist-before-they-hit-the-ground things. I drew fast but kept my mind on my position in space; no sense actually falling for art.

See? Safe as houses. A bungee wrapped around the pipe and hooked onto my belt loop. I could draw in perfect comfort.
See? Safe as houses. (Sheer madness) A bungee cord is wrapped around the pipe and hooked onto my belt loop. I could spend hours drawing in (completely boneheaded peril) perfect comfort and sensible safety .
The subject.
My subject.
My drawing. Not finished, but the monkeys were coming.
My drawing. Not finished, but the monkeys were coming.

I really hate to leave BCI, which is what I’m packed and ready to do, but at 3:40pm me and my luggage will be on the afternoon boat to Gamboa, where a taxi will take me to a hotel near the Tocumen airport. Tomorrow I’ll be home in Oklahoma, sorting through all the drawings and paintings and photographs and sound files I’m bringing back with me. And playing with my cat. And thinking about my next trip to the tropical paradise of Panama’s Barro Colorado Island, home of science, beauty and art.

A Pachycondyla ant waves bye-bye till we meet again.
A Pachycondyla ant waves "bye-bye till we meet again, and where do you want me to drop this particle of food?"

Postscript: this was a silly and risky thing to do, folks, and please please don’t follow my horrid example. I realize that I should have been wearing a climbing harness to do this little sketching stunt, and in the future, I promise I will! And if you’d like to see how this drawing turned out, please see the new page, Panama Plein Air: The Large Drawings.

12 thoughts on “Farewell, My Lovely Island

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Beautifully, and scarily, written. That’s an incredible effort to get a drawing. I’m still trying to get myself to do ‘pleine air’ drawing let alone ‘extreme pleine air’! It does give a wonderful sense of what it must have been like to be there.

  2. Vilma says:

    Hi, I am a panamanian biologist, and I have been many times on Barro Colorado.
    I felt you got the life and beauty of the green leaf, and plants. It is really beautiful
    thansk for share that with us.

    naturalist guide
    vilma

  3. Becky says:

    Oh my! It is indeed a fortunate thing that you are such a tiny little girl — bungee cords at 75 feet? We need to talk! And you are afraid of flying? Hats off to you, my friend. I would double the price on the drawing you did at that altitude! One more gorgeous drawing. Thanks so much for posting!

  4. Pam says:

    I’m speechless. I keep typing words and deleting them as they just aren’t hitting the mark. Bravo for braving heights and being ale to function at the same time, not to mention the beautiful work produced! Bungee cords for safety. Mine would have had to be bridge jumping quality. Please, talk to Becky 🙂

  5. tracy says:

    Its been a real joy to enjoy your trip through your blog, Debbie. Your drawings are wonderful but the scaffolding looks insane, however many cords you had tied on!

  6. TR says:

    I just heaved my entire dinner thinking about dangling on that tower. I am always certain there is an unseen force pushing me toward the edge.

  7. Clare says:

    Once again I’m grateful to visit the tropics vicariously through you. The Pachycondyla ant, are those the ants known commonly as “bullet” or “24 hour” ants? And I’d really like to know more about Spider Monkeys, and the behaviour that would chase someone our size away. The natural thought would be that they would be afraid of a primate the size of a human.

  8. Judy Butler says:

    I have visited your site every day since you have been on this trip. I can hardly wait to see what you have posted each time. Thank you for sharing with all of us. Much the inspiration.

  9. Vickie Henderson says:

    I love seeing your sketchbook against the scene you painted. Fun to see what you selected in that beautiful and vast view. Amazing, the courage that excitement and passion bring along. Your sketches are all the more inspiring knowing they were made from scaffolding! Don’t bring any of those food tote-ing critters home with you!

  10. sarala says:

    You have such a lovely blog. Your travels and art are so exciting.
    I was in Barro Colorado Island some 35 years ago when I was a kid. The wildlife and vegetation were amazing. I wish I had clearer memories but I was just a kid.

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