To lose–if One can find again–
To miss–if One shall meet–
The Burglar cannot rob–then–
The Broker cannot cheat.
So build the hillocks gaily–
Thou little spade of mine
Leaving nooks for Daisy
And for Columbine–
You and I the secret
Of the Crocus know–
Let us chant it softly–
“There is no more snow”!
~~Emily Dickinson, c. late summer 1858
We were supposed to head to Parque Nacional Soberanía the day after we exhausted ourselves hiking at Parque Natural Metropolitano and then walking to Casco Viejo. Fortunately, we had to postpone our trip by a day because it was raining so hard. It gave us some much needed time to rest and we enjoyed an excellent meal of sushi and maracuyá sangria.
The next morning, we were up early and on our way to Soberanía with our guide, Miguel Ibarra (@nature_guide_panama on Instagram of Panama Road Trip Adventures. I highly recommend him!), one of the most accessible tropical rainforests in Panamá.
We hiked down the Pipeline Road, mostly in search of birds as the park is home to 525 species and holds the Guinness World Record for most species sighted in a day–nearly 400. I was lucky enough to be the first to spot a southern mealy amazon parrot perched high in a tree.
I was fortunate enough to be able to grab a photo through Miguel’s telescope. My husband, Frank, was lucky enough to grab a shot of this anteater crossing the Pipeline Road:
We also saw agoutis, caiman, and heard howler monkeys, among other things. But what I found truly interesting was the termites, which are essential to the rainforest biome.
Recent research has discovered that termites are actually modified roaches with the oldest fossils being found in the Lower Cretaceous period (145-99 million years ago!), which makes them the oldest social animals currently alive. Who knew?
These Central American termites is the second largest species in richness but less researched than the termites of Africa and Europe. In the rainforests, termites build large mounds, usually on trees. These termites are particularly adept at breaking down the cellulose from dead wood in the soil because they have the highest gut Ph in the world at more than 12. This makes it possible for the termites to explore the thick humus layers under tropical rainforest canopies. We also got to see the unique relationship between bees and ants, which nest near each other.
This striking flower is not actually a flower but bracts, or modified leaves. Tiny, star-shaped flowers will eventually grow from the center of the red leaves. The plant is also known as Hot Lips, Mick Jagger Lips, or, as Miguel updated it, Angelina Jolie Lips.
Did I say that we also saw lots of toucans and hummingbirds? Butterflies, frogs, and caterpillars? A dead caiman with a basilisk or Jesus lizard (because it can walk on water) resting on its exposed belly? A live caiman carrying a plastic grocery bag full of intestines?
We decided that day that if we just saw one unexpected thing (three that morning) each time we went out, it would be enough. Dayenu.
Our first full day in Panama, we headed out early to hike in the Parque Natural Metropolitano. This more than 650-acre park protects vast expanses of tropical semideciduous forest within the Panama City limits. More than 250 bird species have been spotted here, and animals such as agouti, sloth, and tití monkeys can be seen as well as lots and lots of leafcutter ants.
I found the history of the park interesting, as well. Not only was it the site of an important battle when the US invaded to oust Manuel Noriega (ironic considering he was in the employ of the United States for years), but it was also used during WWII as a testing and assembly plant for aircraft engines. You can still see many of the concrete structures slowly being subsumed by the forest.
It is August and while Aldo Leopold turns his thoughts toward one of nature’s more temperamental artists, I reflect back on the August in which I was fortunate enough to have an encounter with a young fox.
“Like other artists, my river is temperamental,” Leopold writes. “There is no predicting when the mood to paint will come upon him, or how long it will last.”
He continues shortly, “The work begins with a broad ribbon of silt brushed thinly on the sand of a receding shore. As this dries slowly in the sun, goldfinches bathe in its pools, and deer, heron, kill-deers, raccoons, and turtles cover it with a lacework of tracks. There is no telling at this stage if anything else will happen.
“But when I see the Eleocharis [note: of which there are 250 varieties so no photo as Leopold isn’t specific], I watch closely thereafter, for this is the sign that the river is in a painting mood.”
While at Bonaventure Cemetery early one morning, working on a new photo project, I was peering through the infrared camera when I noticed an animal behind the statue I was photographing.
It took me a moment to register that it was a fox. She scooted away before I could take a photo, but was curious enough to return–tasting the coffee in Frank’s mug, sniffing my hand, relaxing in the grass, posing for photos, until she got bored and disappeared into a giant sago palm.
I went back to work, and a few minutes later she reappeared with an enormous lizard clenched in her jaws. She displayed it proudly before trotting off to enjoy her breakfast. It was an encounter I will never forget.
Back to the river–three weeks later:
“The artist has now laid its colors,” Leopold writes, “and sprayed them with dew. The Eleocharis sod, greener than ever, is now spangled with blue mimulus, pink dragon-head, and the milk-white blooms of Sagittaria. Here and there a cardinal flower thrusts a red spear skyward. At the head of the bar, purple ironweeds and pale pink joe-pyes stand tall against the wall of willows.”
Leopold warns us not to return for a second viewing as in all likelihood the colorful painting will have disappeared, having either been dried out from falling water or scoured away by rising water.
July has come to Dane County, Wisconsin, and Aldo Leopold begins the chapter with his daily (good weather) ceremony on his 120-acre farm:
“At 3:35 (a.m.),” he writes, “the nearest field sparrow avows, in a clear tenor chant, that he holds the jackpine copse north to the riverbank, and south to the old wagon track.”
Leopold then continues to describe the daily symphony of birdsong as they all call out their territories, ending with a bedlam of birdsong at dawn as grosbeaks, thrashers, yellow warblers, bluebirds, towhees, cardinals, make their claims. When the bird songs are no longer decipherable, Leopold heads out for his morning walk with his dog.
They never know what will turn up on their walk, Leopold notes. It could be a rabbit, a coon, or a mink; perhaps a deer returning to the thickets, a heron caught in the act of fishing, or a wood duck trailed by her ducklings. A tractor roaring to life recalls them to the fact they are not alone in this early morning world, and they return home for breakfast.
Most of the chapter on July is dedicated to the once ubiquitous prairie plant know as Silphium or Compass plant (because its leaves have an east-west orientation).
“Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm,” Leopold writes.
This cemetery is ordinary, he says, except, “It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pinpoint remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers.”
Leopold spies the blooms on July 24, a week later than normal, but when he drives by again, on August 3, the fence has been removed and the corner of the cemetery mowed down, along with the Silphium. He then laments the world in which, “Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days.
He compares the number of wild plant species growing on this farm to those that grow in the suburbs and the university campus where he works–226 versus 120–the price of progress. We are confronted by two alternatives, he writes: “either insure the continued blindness of the populace, or examine the question whether we cannot have both progress and plants.”
“We grieve only for what we know,” he writes later.
“Why does Silphium disappear from grazed areas?” he asks, then posits, “I once saw a farmer turn his cows into a virgin prairie meadow previously used only sporadically for mowing wild hay. The cows cropped the Silphium to the ground before any other plant was visibly eaten at all. One can imagine that the buffalo once had the same preference for Silphium, but he brooked no fences to confine his nibblings all summer long to one meadow. In short, the buffalo’s pasturing was discontinuous, and therefore tolerable to Silphium.
“It is a kind of providence that has withheld a sense of history from the thousands of species of plants and animals that have exterminated each other to build the present world. The same kind of providence now withholds it from us. Few grieved when the last buffalo left Wisconsin, and few will grieve when the last Silphium follows him to the lush prairies of the never-never land.”