the Lodge at Pico Bonito
I first fell under the spell of tropical forest when I was in my twenties and set off to spend three months in the Amazon. In those days, among biologists, it was known as a good gig—room and board at one of the first jungle lodges, the Explorers Inn in Southeast Peru, in exchange for a little guiding and a modest research project.
So I got myself a South American bird book (which weighed about three times as much as my North American guide) read a little about tropical ecology, and decided that my research project was going to solve the mystery of the relationship between certain canopy fruit eaters and seed dispersal. I had been working at a botanical garden and had years of experience as a park naturalist in BC. Piece of cake.
It took about two weeks for it to dawn on me that I had been seriously deluded. First, to put it simply: in a 4 square mile piece of a coastal BC forest, 2 or 3 species (of conifers) dominate the landscape; in a tropical forest you could easily find 200 species of trees and that doesn’t even count the tangles of lianas, the ferns and orchids encrusting trunks, the great aerial pools of bromeliads, the under story of heliconias, herbs, and grasses. This is something like opening a mixed chocolate box—it’s better to have a key.
I had neither plant keys, nor botanists to consult. I would walk the dark forest floor, gazing up at the sunlit canopy, picking up strange fruits and flowers, with no idea what I was looking at. Sometimes a mixed foraging flock would wash around me and shake down the forest and I would flip through my bird book trying to get all the field marks before they rushed off again. Then I would simply lie on the trail on my back with my binoculars plastered against my face. I had a biologist’s existential crisis—if I couldn’t name things where did that leave me? Was taxonomy dead? Eventually I became lethargic, undisciplined, entranced. I would set off, telling the other naturalists that I was going to do research and simply wander the trails, watching.
Every time I’ve set foot in a tropical forest since, I start resolved and am seduced again. I lose my edges, start to melt into the whole thing.
This week though, it was different. I was on task—I was with BIRDERS—at the Pico Bonito Lodge, one of my favourite places in the world. The lodge nestles at the edge of a huge protected area, which cloaks the high steep flanks of the Pico Bonito Range. Looking at the wall of this forest from below is like looking at a beautifully stitched tapestry, rich with the many textures of the trees, occasionally embroidered with flowering canopies. Waterfalls feed rivers, which pause from time to time, in clear cool pools.
My companions were a mixture of writers, local guides, biologists, and eco-tour company owners. Neither a fleeting feather, nor a faint call was lost on them. I followed them happily, though often I felt like one of those foreign correspondents, slowed by their feed—mine being the time it took me to actually find the birds in the dense layers of forest. The final list was long and included some uncommon species. All in all a respectable piece of field work. Yet, it still feels more like love than science.