“I spread out my map under a tree and made up my mind to go through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia to Florida, thence to Cuba, thence to some part of South America; but it will be only a hasty walk…
I wandered away on a glorious botanical and geological excursion, which has lasted nearly fifty years and is not yet completed, always happy and free, poor and rich, without thought of a diploma or of making a name, urged on and on through endless, inspiring Godful beauty.John Muir — The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913),
Like John Muir, I had a childhood dream, but mine was to live in Argentina’s pastoral Pampas region, painted so lovely in my fifth-grade geography book. I wanted to raise quarter horses and ride the pampas like those gaucho cowboys!
Those Mississippi-childhood dreams faded, though every so often I was wistful to live in the Neotropics, home to exotic botanical specimens I thirsted to see in person, where locals conveniently used large tropical leaves for impromptu umbrellas and where heliconias soared to the moon.
The road less traveled eventually delivered me to Central America and then Ecuador, places where the temperatures never dipped below freezing – unless I desired to visit the peaks of Chimborazo, Cotopaxi or other high-altitude landmarks that dot South America’s Andean spine.
There are times when I enjoy an eye-to-eye inspection of those exotic plants, and by capturing their likeness with pencil or water media, I discover minute details that otherwise might be missed. I always walk away with deeper respect for the plant and its support cast of companions.
There are times when I toss the scientific seriousness aside and allow the personality of the subject to emerge. These always bring great mischievous joy, as if freeing a personality that was trapped by a long-ago wicked spell. Most people can easily spot the human spirit in Ecuador’s Ceibo trees Ceiba trichistandra.
Presently I’m in the tropical dry forest, where for half a year the climate is humid with bi-polar rainfall, depending on moods of the nearby Pacific waters. The rainy season weans into the dry season, and many trees go into a dormant stage.
It is in this section of Ecuador’s coast where the gigantic Ceibo trees join forces with the much-smaller Palo Santo. These two trees leave lasting imprints on those who bond with the flora and fauna of the area.
‘What is that unique sweet smell?’ people might ask. Many times it’s the subtle aroma of a just-bruised branch of Palo Santo. The dried ‘holy’ wood is burned to repel mosquitoes as well as to clean a room of heavy energies or bad spirits.
Recently my friend Luchi and I began work on a painting of a Palo Santo tree, which grows along Ecuador’s Pacific coast. He presented some photos he hoped to work with, and we inspected two trees growing in the hostal gardens. I began the painting as he watched, and then he joined the painting session! Continue reading