Panama’s Big Tree Comes to Oklahoma

Trail marker on Barro Colorado Island- don't get lost!
Trail marker on Barro Colorado Island. The Big Tree has its own sign. It's that big.
Thirty feet wide at the base; Panama grows 'em big.
Thirty feet wide at the base

The Big Tree is coming to town. As part of Drawing the Motmot, An Artist’s View of Tropical Nature (please see the sidebar), it’s going up on the wall at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in all its gigantic glory and splendor.

Big action at SNOMNH- unrolling the test strip of the Big Tree. L to R: Frank Wick and Tom Luczycki, Exhibits Department
Big action at SNOMNH- Frank Wick and Tom Luczycki of the Exhibits Department unroll the test strip.

The entire show goes up this week and next in the Brown Gallery at the Sam Noble, splitting the space with Darwin At The Museum, an exhibit in partnership with the University of Oklahoma’s awesome History of Science Collection. Both shows open together October 10.

Yours truly, for scale. All 5'2 3/4" of me.
Yours truly, for scale. All 5'2 3/4" of me.

I’ve spent hours drawing at the foot of The Big Tree on Panama’s Barro Colorado Island, shaded under the canopy of those bountiful branches. Toucans, parrots and monkeys frequent the treetops and trogons and motmots haunt the understory. It’s a tree for the ages. The label caption says it better:

There is something irresistible about a great tree. We wonder at its great age, imposing shape and humbling size. We measure ourselves against the huge trunk, posing with it for a human scale we can grasp.

With greatness, however, come burdens. Big tropical trees become platforms for epiphytes, some trees nearly disappearing under their festive air-plant gardens. Smothered by bromeliad clusters, cascades of orchids, and winding lianas up to a kilometer long, a tree rids itself of hangers-on by dropping limbs or shedding bark. Eventually the top-heavy tree crashes to the ground with half a forest in its branches.

Trees are the life-support of the tropical rainforest. They provide food, housing, shade, protection and perches. They create highways for ants and monkeys and pathways to the sky for sun-loving vines. They make the very oxygen we breathe. Barro Colorado Island, 2009

This Ceiba pentandra emerges from the rest of the canopy, crown covering nearly half an acre. Colossal fins support the trunk where I sit and draw. In the holy circle of the buttressed roots, I commune with the gentle, mighty gods of nature. Barro Colorado Island, 2005
This Ceiba pentandra emerges from the rest of the canopy, crown covering nearly half an acre. Colossal fins support the trunk where I sit and draw. In the holy circle of the buttressed roots, I commune with the gentle, mighty gods of nature. Barro Colorado Island, 2005

Out in the BCI forest last May I fixed my camera to a tripod and took a series of “stitchable” photos of the Big Tree. Back at SNOMNH, the graphics department put the shots together and the results are spectacular. They printed out a test strip last week, inviting me over for the unveiling. The huge tree will stretch 17 feet from floor to ceiling and cover half of one wall of the gallery (we’re using just half the tree’s width to leave room for the artwork) Awesome. Totally awesome.

Capuchin monkeys rove and leap high overhead as I step through loops of lianas dropping from the branches of the canopy giant. I once sat in a Ceiba’s crown on a limb as broad as a horse’s back. Far below me a troupe of these monkeys moved through lower trees, unaware of our switch in altitude. Barro Colorado Island, 2007
Capuchin monkeys rove and leap high overhead as I step through loops of lianas dropping from the branches of the canopy giant. I once sat in a Ceiba’s crown on a limb as broad as a horse’s back. Far below me a troupe of these monkeys moved through lower trees, unaware of our switch in altitude. Barro Colorado Island, 2007

13 thoughts on “Panama’s Big Tree Comes to Oklahoma

  1. zeladoniac says:

    Hi Swallows, it’s doing wonderfully well. In fact, I sense a new blogpost coming up this weekend….please stay tuned:-)

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