I heard flowers that sounded, and saw notes that shone.
~~Louis Claude de Saint-Martin on Union with God.
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.
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.”
In June, the sunflowers are in bloom in South Georgia. In Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold finds himself reminiscing about a fishing idyll on Alder Fork in A Sand County Almanac:
“In the fresh of the morning, when a hundred whitethroats had forgotten it would ever again be anything but sweet and cool, I climbed down the dewy bank and stepped into the Alder Fork. A trout was rising just upstream. I paid out some line–wishing it would always stay thus soft and dry–and, measuring the distance with a false cast or two, laid down a spent gnat exactly a foot above his last swirl. Forgotten now were the hot miles, the mosquitoes, the ignominious chub. He took it with one great gulp, and shortly I could hear him kicking in the bed of wet alder leaves at the bottom of the creel.”
“Another, albeit larger, fish had meanwhile risen in the next pool, which lay at the very ‘head of navigation,’ for at its upper end the alders closed in solid phalanx. One bush, with its brown stem laved in the middle current, shook with a perpetual silent laughter, as if to mock at any fly that gods or men might cast one inch beyond its outermost leaf.”
Leopold continues his reminiscence, and closes with:
“I shall now confess to you that none of those three trout had to be beheaded, or folded double, to fit in their casket. What was big was not the trout, but the chance. What was full was not my creek, but my memory. Like the whitethroats, I had forgotten it would ever again be aught but morning on the Fork.
“The same logic that causes big rivers always to flow past big cities causes cheap farms sometimes to be marooned by spring floods,” Aldo Leopold writes in his opening to his chapter on April. “Ours is a cheap farm, and sometimes when we visit it in April we get marooned.”
Later, he continues, “The enthusiasm of geese for high water is a subtle thing, and might be overlooked by those unfamiliar with goose-gossip, but the enthusiasm of carp is obvious and unmistakable. No sooner has the rising flood wetted the grass roots than here they come, rooting and wallowing with the prodigious zest of pigs turned out to pasture, flashing red tails and yellow bellies, cruising the wagon tracks and cow-paths, and shaking the reeds and bushes in their haste to explore what to them is an expanding universe.
“Unlike the geese and the carp, the terrestrial birds and mammals accept high water with philosophical detachment.”
Continuing on the subject of the April floods, Leopold writes, “The spring flood bring us more than high adventure; it brings likewise an unpredictable miscellany of floatable objects pilfered from upriver farms.”
Among those pilfered items are boards: “Our lumber pile, recruited entirely from the river, is thus not only a collection of personalities, but an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests.”
“I know of no solitude,” he writes, “so secure as one guarded by a spring flood; nor do the geese, who have seen more kinds and degrees of aloneness than I have.”
Another April sign announcing the coming of spring is a small flower.
“Within a few weeks now Draba,” Leopold writes, “the smallest flower that blows, will sprinkle every sandy place with small blooms.”
He continues a bit later: “Draba plucks no heartstrings. Its perfume, if there is any, is lost in the gusty winds. Its color is plain white. Its leaves wear a sensible wooly coat. Nothing eats it; it is too small. No poets sing of it. Some botanist once gave it a Latin name, and then forgot it. Altogether it is of no importance–just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well.”
“Each April before the new grasses had covered the prairie with unburnable greenery,” Leopold writes, “fires ran at will over the land, sparing only such old oaks as had grown bark too thick to scorch.” And thus a battle between the forest front and prairie was ignited, each vying for each other to take over the land.
Later, he continues, “But the average battle line between prairie and forest was about where it is now, and the net outcome of the battle was a draw.
“One reason for this was that there were allies that threw their support first to one side, then to the other. Thus rabbits and mice mowed down the prairie herbs in the summer, and in the winter girdled any oak seedlings that survived the fires. Squirrels planted acorns in fall, and ate them all the rest of the year. June beetles undermined the prairie sod in their grub stage, but defoliated the oaks in their adult stage.”
“In the 1840s,” he later writes, “a new animal, the settler, intervened in the prairie battle. He didn’t mean to, he just plowed enough fields to deprive the prairie of its immemorial ally: fire. Seedling oaks forthwith romped over the grasslands in legions, and what had been the prairie region became a region of woodlot farms.”
John Muir grew up during this era, and in his Boyhood and Youth he writes:
“The uniformly rich soil of the Illinois and Wisconsin prairies produced so close and tall a growth of grasses for fires that no tree could live on it. Had there been no fires, these fine prairies, so marked a feature of the country, would have been covered by the heaviest forest. As soon as the oak openings were settled, and the farmers had prevented running grass-fires, the grubs [roots] grew up into trees and formed tall-thickets so dense that it was difficult to walk through them, and every trace of the sunny [oak] ‘openings’ vanished.”
“I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May,” Leopold writes.
“The show begins on the first warm evening in April at exactly 6:50 p.m. The curtain goes up one minute later each day until 1 June, when the time is 7:50.”
“The stage must be an open amphitheater in woods or brush,” he continues later, “and in its center there must be a mossy spot, a streak of sterile sand, a bare outcrop of rock or a bare roadway.”
And then: “Knowing the place and the hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival. He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.
“Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. . . . Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.
“It is soon too dark to see the bird on the ground, but you can see his flights against the sky for an hour, which is the usual duration of the show.”
Leopold concludes: “The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land.”