Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Motorcade for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi passing my window on Constitution Ave.


Friday, September 26, 2014

QotD: "There are jungles unworthy of the name, but these vast Panamanian hothouses are a different matter"

2014.09.26-IMG_1937The pictures in this post are all from the Parque Nacional Soberanía (Soberanía National Park), myself and a colleague from the Harvard Botany Library, headed there with our very stalwart and understanding driver, Edgar. We walked about an hour up and into the park, but took a wrong turn and ended up on Pipeline Road instead of the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center.

We were also expecting a paved road and parking lot. Instead, Edgar had to drive up a single lane pot-hole ridden dirt road for over 2 km.

In addition to a wide variety of plants and fungi, we did hear many birds and did catch a glimpse of to fauna, a howler monkey up in a tree (which we heard before seeing) and an agouti, which dashed across the path on our way back to the car. He left us off to walk and we missed his obvious skill in turning the car around on the one lane road with drop offs on either side.

Because the world is small, we also ran into a group of birders who also happened to be librarians (at least they were medical librarians from Houston and no one we really knew!). As a treat and to reward ourselves for surviving the adventure, we went to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort for lunch. We sat out on the patio and enjoyed the view of the Chagras River while watching the storm clouds roll in.

The jungle is misunderstood. There are jungles unworthy of the name, but these vast Panamanian hothouses are a different matter. They are not the bottomless morasses of deadly snakes and poisonous vapors. Since men have learned how to live in the tropics these terrors have largely retreated to the highly colored accounts of tropical travelers who took one look and fled—to write a book of timely warning to the uninitiated. These jungles are not the haunts of hidden horrors and poisoned arrows. Ferocious tree-dwellers may inhabit the unknown recesses of the upper Amazon, but they do not live in the jungles of Central America and Panama. (p.43)
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What makes up a jungle? Well, that's hard to say. There are mighty trees of cedar and mahogany and a hundred lesser breeds, lifting their heads into the tropic sky. There are palms and giant ferns of course. There are wonderful purple and magenta and crimson-topped trees, whose glaring flat colors fairly shriek at you like the bedlam of a paint box let loose on the sky. Sturdy lignum vitæ trees stand conscious of their high value and rare qualities. Ferns in profusion, vast, variegated and immense, line the banks of streams and hide in the shadows of the great trees. Orchids, of course, winding streams strewn with the flowers and foliage of the dense mass overhead, entrancing water streets and winding Venetian tunnels through forests so thick that the sun never penetrates the shadowed fastnesses below. There are paraqueets, parrots, singing canaries, alligators, bananas, bamboos, singing winds, warbling bluebirds, blackbirds that can render a tune, purples and blues and crimsons and browns, all poured out and mixed together without stint. It is fascinating for a few hours, but after a time you get overloaded and are ready to cry "Enough." It's great, but a little stupefying till one gets used to it. (p.45)
Prowling about Panama by George A. Miller (New York, 1919)


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The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 by David McCullough ... some passages

Before heading down to Panama this trip, I took the opportunity to read The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 by David McCullough (1977). An excellent history of the Canal and those who built (or failed) to build it.

Below are some of the passages that I highlighted.

  • “My dear Lesseps . . . when you have something important to do, if there are two of you, you have one too many.”
  • Like so many before, they had come to Panama with little thought of being stirred by landscapes. That the place could be so breathtakingly beautiful struck them as a singular revelation. “La plus belle région du monde,” de Lesseps exclaimed in a letter to Charles.
  • A Cueva Indian word, Panama means “a place where many fishes are taken.” For the Spanish, Panama became a marshaling point and clearinghouse for the most important crossroad in the New World, the camino real, or royal road, which was nothing more than a narrow, mean mule track cut from Panama to Nombre de Dios, then the one Spanish fort on the Caribbean side.
  • Panama City was Panama. The humidity was not quite so oppressive as on the Atlantic side; there was less rain. The climate was indeed “delightful at evening and in the morning”—just about ideal in the dry season with the trade winds blowing—and on moonlight nights the view of the bay from the Bóvedas, the old Spanish seawall and the city’s “choice promenade,” was one of the loveliest sights anywhere in the American tropics.
  • The plaza was in the exact center of the city and was dominated by the old brown cathedral with its twin bell towers, the most imposing structure on the Isthmus.
  • Days and nights were made a living hell by bichos, the local designation for ticks, chiggers, spiders, ants, mosquitoes, flies, or any other crawling, buzzing, stinging form of insect life for which no one had a name.
  • But no statistic conveyed a true picture of Panama rain. It had to be seen, to be felt, smelled; it had to be heard to be appreciated. The effect was much as though the heavens had opened and the air had turned instantly liquid.
  • The skies, when it was not raining, were nearly always filled with tremendous, towering clouds—magnificent clouds, and especially so in the light of early morning.
  • And then, while the trees still tossed and roared, the rain would be over—in an instant. The sun would be out again, fierce as ever. Everything would glisten with rainwater and the air would be filled with the fecund, greenhouse smell of jungle and mud.
  • “Tell them that I am going to make the dirt fly!” (Teddy Roosevelt)
  • In his notebook that night he wrote a poem describing the moment. It was to be his only published verse, the last stanza of which became famous: I know this little thing A myriad men will save. O Death, where is thy sting? Thy victory, O Grave?
  • The sun was rising from the Pacific, a strange phenomenon, and the rays gave a jeweled appearance to the dew-soaked plants and the leaves of the trees. . . 
  • The city of Panama lay tantalizingly near . . . From our high point . . . the pastel shades of the Spanish tiled roofs were easily discernible; also the animation and movement of the streets. . . . (Marie Gorgas)
  • What made the undertaking so exceptional was its overwhelming scale. “There is no element of mystery involved in it,” Stevens reported to Washington, “ . . . the problem is one of magnitude and not miracles.”
  • Once, just before the canal was completed, the Commission of Fine Arts sent the sculptor Daniel Chester French and the landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, Jr., son of the famous creator of New York’s Central Park, to suggest ways in which the appearance of the locks and other components might be dressed up or improved upon. The two men reported: The canal itself and all the structures connected with it impress one with a sense of their having been built with a view strictly to their utility. There is an entire absence of ornament and no evidence that the aesthetic has been considered except in a few instances . . . . Because of this very fact there is little to find fault with from the artist’s point of view. The canal, like the Pyramids or some imposing object in natural scenery, is impressive from its scale and simplicity and directness. One feels that anything done merely for the purpose of beautifying it would not only fail to accomplish that purpose, but would be an impertinence. Consequently nothing was changed or added. The canal would look as its builders intended, nothing less or more.

QotD: "He stared at the Pacific ... Silent, upon a peak in Darien" - Keats

2014.09.21-IMG_1586MUCH have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
  And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
  Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
  That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:
  Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
  When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
  He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
  Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
On first looking into Chapman's Homer - John Keats

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Needless to say, it was not Cortez, but Balboa who gazed upon the Pacific from the Isthmus ... in fact, it was on this date in 1513 (501 years ago) that Balboa's eagle eyes looked upon the Pacific. Here's a description from a much later book:
"Balboa now set out on what was to be the most famous event of his life. He had been promised the sight of a great ocean to the south, after he had climbed certain mountains. Various Indian oppositions developed, but on the 26th of September, 1513, at about ten o'clock in the morning,  Balboa and his men, from the top of a high mountain, saw for the first time the waters of the vast Pacific. The priest of the expedition, named Andreas de Vara, chanted a Te Deum, with the entire company on their knees. A cross was raised, and the names of the Spanish rulers carved on the surrounding trees." Prowling about Panama by George A. Miller (New York, 1919)


101 years ago today, the first ship steamed through the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal

Colon, near the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal
"No man with a soul for the poetry of mechanics can stand in a control house of one of the locks and see the enormous gates swing back at the movement of a finger without feeling that man, with all his limitations, has yet in his being some image of the Creator. To see an ocean giant rise up slowly in the teeth of gravitation and slip through the gates on to the higher level, is to wonder whether the portals that look so gloomy to us may not, after all, be not exits but entrances to a new and higher level of life. What a text! The ship does not rise by straining but by resting in a narrow place. And no ship ever yet got through the locks without a  pilot. The whole process is as silent as the forces of eternity. There is a lot more, and it bears no copyright. Help yourself." - Prowling about Panama by George A. Miller (New York, 1919)
It was on this date, 101 years ago, that the first ship, a sea-going tug, the Gatun, passed through the Panama Canal's Gatun Locks, just less than a year later, on 15 August 2014, the SS Ancon became the first ship to pass through the entire Canal.

Here's my photo from last year of the Gatun Locks (this is from the base of the lock looking up with a huge ship right above my head!).


And here is a ship in the "narrow place""


QotD: "He strode on squarely under the projecting brim of an ancient Panama hat / Imperishable and a little discolored, this headgear made it easy to pick him out from afar on thronged wharves and in the busy streets.

IMG_20140922_144224He strode on squarely under the projecting brim of an ancient Panama hat. It had a low crown, a crease through its whole diameter, a narrow black ribbon. Imperishable and a little discolored, this headgear made it easy to pick him out from afar on thronged wharves and in the busy streets.
- Joseph Conrad, "The End of the Tether"

QotD: "The Gulf of Panama ... is one of the calmest spots on the waters of the globe. Too calm." Joseph Conrad

2014.09.21-IMG_1581The discovery of the New World marks the end of the fabulous geography, and it must be owned that the history of the Conquest contains at least one great moment — I mean a geographically great moment — when Vasco Nunez de Balboa, while crossing the Isthmus of Panama, set his eyes for the first time upon the ocean, the immensity of which he did not suspect, and which in his elation he named the Pacific. It is anything but that; but the privileged Conquistador cannot be blamed for surrendering to his first impression.

IMG_20140925_184917 The Gulf of Panama, which is what he really saw with that first glance, is one of the calmest spots on the waters of the globe. Too calm. The old navigators dreaded it as a dangerous region where one might be caught and lie becalmed for weeks with one’s crew dying slowly of thirst under a cloudless sky. The worst of fates, this, to feel yourself die in a long and helpless agony. How much preferable a region of storms where man and ship can at least put up a fight and remain defiant almost to the last. I must not be understood to mean that a tempest at sea is a delightful experience, but I would rather face the fiercest tempest than a gulf pacific even to deadliness, a prison-house for incautious caravels and a place of torture for their crews.

But Balboa was charmed with its serene aspect. He did not know where he was. He probably thought himself within a stone’s throw, as it were, of the Indies and Cathay. Or did he perhaps, like a man touched with grace, have a moment of exalted vision, the awed feeling that what he was looking at was an abyss of waters comparable in its extent to the view of the unfathomable firmament, and sown all over with groups of islands resembling the constellations of the sky?

- Joseph Conrad, Geography and Some Explorers

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"The open market where the fishermen come ashore is one of the show places of Panama." - GA Miller

From 2013 visit to Panama City
The open market where the fishermen come ashore is one of the show places of Panama. Pangas and chingas and craft of every sort, except the modern kind, bring in on high tide cargoes of bananas, coconuts, charcoal, camotes, rice, sugar, syrup, rum, papayas, mangoes, lonzones,  chiotes, poultry, pigs, ivory nuts and a score of fruits and vegetables unnameable by the uninitiated. When the tide recedes the boats lie high, if not very dry, and the unloading proceeds apace. It is an interesting and lively scene, and the bicker and barter go on by the hour.

Prowling about Panama by George A. Miller (New York, 1919)

QotD: I had on a Panama hat, soaked with rain and spotted with mud, a check shirt, white pantaloons, yellow up to the knees with mud ...

FYI, I lacked the white pantaloons
I had on a Panama hat, soaked with rain and spotted with mud, a check shirt, white pantaloons, yellow up to the knees with mud ... - John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central-America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Illustrated by Numerous Engravings. London (1841), Volume I, p.127
From Wikipedia:
John Lloyd Stephens (November 28, 1805 – October 13, 1852) was an American explorer, writer, and diplomat. Stephens was a pivotal figure in the rediscovery of Maya civilization throughout Middle America and in the planning of the Panama railroad. In 1839, President Martin Van Buren commissioned Stephens as Special Ambassador to Central America. While there, the government of the Federal Republic of Central America fell apart in civil war. His Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán gives a vivid description of some of those events which Stephens witnessed.
A few years earlier, he had traveled to the Middle East, publishing Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837), one of the best (and earliest) American account of the region (and where I'd first heard of him when writing my book on Egyptian travel accounts, Nile Notes of a Howadji (1992).

QotD: "Great cities have great positions on the map, and Panama began with a situation to which the world simply had to come." G Miller

2014.09.21-IMG_1578"Great cities have great positions on the map, and Panama began with a situation to which the world simply had to come. A dozen different solutions of the transportation problem presented by the Isthmian power and navigation were proposed, but it always came back to Panama. Here is the narrowest part of the connecting link of the continents, and here is the lowest point in the continental backbone. Without lifting her hand or voice, Panama had but to dream and wait till the world should come and pour into her lap the commerce and progress of the modern age. To-day Panama is on the direct line of travel between almost any two great cities at opposite ends of the earth. Melbourne and London, New York and Buenos Ayres, Port au Spain and Honolulu—draw the lines, and they all pass through Panama."

Prowling about Panama by George A. Miller (New York, 1919)

Sylvia Orli, @Smithsonian, @NMNH, Botany Department, reporting on Communication and Outreach at #GlobalPlants

IMG_20140925_113852Sylvia Orli, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Botany Department, reporting on Communication and Outreach

Serena Lee (from Global @BioDivLibrary partner, BHL Singapore/Singapore Botanic Gardens) on how #GlobalPlants can increase membership


@BioDivLibrary swag hanging out at the #GlobalPlants meeting

IMG_20140924_102957The BHL Field Notes books are always a crowd pleaser. Thanks to the BHL Secretariat team for coming up with this idea and getting them made.

Closing day of #GlobalPlants will be reporting out from discussion groups (David Cantrill & @CKMillerjr)

IMG_20140925_091627Today is the last day of the 7th Annual Global Plants meeting here in Panama.

The agenda for the day is reporting back from the breakout sessions from the past two days and reviewing action items for going forward.


  • TOPIC 1: The JSTOR Plants database – suggestions for improvements or additional functionality.
  • TOPIC 2: GAP Analysis-How to Continue the effort?
  • TOPIC 3: Data editing and updating the Plants database – challenges and opportunities.
  • TOPIC 4: New Participants – how can we support them in the post-funding period?
  • TOPIC 5: Partnerships for the GPI project
  • TOPIC 6: Priorities for the GPI community
  • TOPIC 7: Communication Strategy for the GPI Community
  • TOPIC 8: Future Meeting opportunities  

"The architecture of the old churches is a bit disappointing to travelers who have seen the splendid buildings of other Latin lands."

2014.09.22-IMG_1663"The architecture of the old churches is a bit disappointing to travelers who have seen the splendid buildings of other Latin lands. The Cathedral has two modern towers, a clock in one of them, and the twelve apostles in life size on the façade."

Prowling about Panama by George A. Miller (New York, 1919)

So, I'm not sure that I would agree with Miller on this point. I found the Cathedral quite charming, in a bit of a rundown sort of way. The vultures perching on the tower added a little edge to the place.

Likewise, Iglesia La Merced was quite fabulous. There was a lot of construction going on during this visit, but both interior and exterior are charming.

The other two I saw (excluding the ruins of the original cathedral): Iglesia del Carman and Iglesia San Jose, were both closed.

Here are the churches of Panama that I had a chance to take a look at:

Churches of Panama City

Iglesia del Carmen

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Iglesia La Merced

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Iglesia San Jose


Iglesia de San Francisco de Asis

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Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

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