Panama, the Canopy Family, and My Granddaughter's Butterfly

February 06, 2023  •  1 Comment

You will have to take it on faith that my granddaughter is beautiful. Her name is Julia and she is two-and-a-half years old. Her parents quite rightly determine the circle of people who get to see pictures of her, and the favored circle most emphatically does not include random strangers on the internet. So I will not post a picture of Julia here. But, trust me. She is as beautiful as she is smart, which is plenty. And I am completely objective on this matter.

I invoke Julia's name because of something that happened on a recent vacation. We were in Panama, spending time at the three lodges that go by the collective name of the Canopy Family. The family originated in the 1990s, when the United States left the Panama Canal Zone and returned control to Panama. A Panamanian entrepreneur named Raul Arias de Para acquired an army radar installation the Americans left behind in the forest about 20 miles from Panama city. It was a metal cylinder about four stories high, with a dome at the top that housed the rotating antenna. Raul recycled it, putting hotel rooms inside the cylinder and a common room under the dome. He built an observation platform at the top of the structure, at the level of the forest canopy. Birders and other lovers of nature could wake up, take their morning coffee to the deck, and watch the likes of toucans and howler monkeys greet the day. In the distance, the guests could see ships passing through the Panama Canal. Raul called this place the Canopy Tower.

The Canopy Tower was so successful that Raul then built the Canopy Lodge, in the Panamanian highlands near El Valle de Anton. Then he added a third member to the family, a place in the rainforest near the Colombian border, where the guests stay in (very comfortable) tents. It's called the Canopy Camp. If it sounds like I am writing advertising copy for these places, I am not. But I do recommend them.

One of the best things about the Canopy Family, in my view, is that you have options about how energetic you want to be. At the Canopy Camp, for example, you can take an excursion that begins with a ride in a truck over the Pan-American Highway in Darien Province, then turns off onto a rutted dirt road until it reaches the banks of a wide estuary. There the party is met by a couple of men from the indigenous Embera tribe, whose comarca, or reservation, occupies a big chunk of Darien. They have a motor launch, which takes you up river a few miles until the boat is in a narrow tributary and almost scraping the bottom. Then you walk to a clearing which contains an Embera dwelling. This is basically a platform on stilts with a tin roof and no walls, on which sleep all the members of an extended family.

From the clearing, guests go on a hour-long hike in the forest, up a steep and slippery trail, to an observation blind, about 70 yards from the goal of the excursion--a nest containing a harpy eagle, one of the biggest and most powerful birds in the world.

The harpy eagle is no doubt impressive, but I can't say that I actually saw it. I am terrible at spotting birds. Even when our guide, Tino Sanchez, set up a telescope on a tripod and pointed it right at the nest, I couldn't see it. I am much better suited to the other, less energetic type of birding offered by the Canopy Family, which is sitting on a patio, perhaps with a drink in hand, and observing the birds and animals who come to the feeding stations. That's how I got the shot (at left)  of a bird called the collared aracari, a member of the toucan family. It perched within a few yards of the dining area at the Canopy Lodge, waiting its turn to feast on bananas and melons provided by the staff.

I was actually okay with not seeing the harpy eagle, because I was having a good time talking with the Embera people. I understand that the idea of (relatively) wealthy tourists visiting an indigenous tribe is fraught with connotations of privilege and exploitation. I get that the power in the tourist-native relationship is hardly balanced.  But I don't think the Embera concern themselves much about this.  They struck me as a people balancing between two worlds, the world of their traditional way of life and the more modern world available to the people of Panama. In their traditional world, for example, the Embera got around their watery environment in dugout canoes. They gave birth at home. Not surprisingly, given a choice, the Embera boatmen prefer motor launches. And the mother of the baby in the picture above right chose to go to a hospital in Panama city to give birth. That's the infant's aunt, a thirteen-year-old, holding the baby. She has traditional Embera body paint on her torso. 

The relationship between the Embera and the tourist seemed to me to be symbiotic. They need money to buy those parts of the modern world they choose to use, like motor launches and hospital maternity wards. Hosting tourists who want to see the harpy eagle provides some money. In return, tourists like me get a chance to play ethnographer. Our common language, Spanish, was not the first language for either side. So I am not sure how precise the communication was or how good my amateur ethnography could be.

One Embera woman introduced a younger woman to me as her daughter-in-law. So I asked the younger woman how long she had been married. "We're not married," she said. "We're together. We don't go to church." 

I wasn't sure whether her "we" meant herself and her partner or the whole group. So as others peered at the harpy eagle nest, I asked the local jefe, whose name is Andino, if the Embera were religious. No, he said. Not at all. Didn't they believe in any kind of spiritual world? Oh, yeah, he said, describing a benevolent female spirit who seemed, in his telling, to  preside over and bless the land. Interesting, I said. I mentioned that I had heard that evangelical Protestant missionaries had made a lot of converts among Panama's indigenous people. Oh, yes, Andino said. His oldest son was a Protestant, married to a Nicaraguan woman and working in construction in a city far from the comarca. Lots of Embera were evangelicals.

I was completely confused.

So I really don't know much about the spiritual lives of the Embera people. I think that the Embera tend to tell outsiders whatever the Embera think might induce them to part with a few more dollars. I know that as our conversation about religion ended, Andino expressed admiration for my hat and sunglasses. I wound up giving him the sunglasses.


But I digress.

What happened in Panama that has to do with my beautiful granddaughter began when Tino Sanchez, our guide, started identifying some of the butterflies that were flitting around the lantana bush at the edge of the patio in the Canopy Camp. There was a white peacock. (Pale wings with three black spots, above right.) There was an erato heliconian. (Black wings with red stripe, above left.) These butterflies were not easy for me to photograph. They didn't seem to want to sit still long enough for me to aim and focus. The pictures I am posting here were the lucky shots. For each of them, there were dozens that didn't work.

Not for the first time, I thought fondly of the first butterfly Tino had pointed out earlier on the trip, a variable cracker (at right). The variable cracker is not, despite the name, a Southerner whose views change from one day to the next. It's a butterfly whose defense strategy against predators is camouflage. (It's called a cracker because of the sound it makes when mating, which, alas, I did not hear.) This defense strategy makes it a nice butterfly to photograph, because when a photographer approaches, the variable cracker does not fly away. It sits still on a tree and blends into the bark. The picture makes this camouflage look less effective than it is, because I got very close to take it. Just passing by a variable cracker at rest on a tree, you would have to know what to look for to see it.  Or you would have to have Tino Sanchez to point it out for you. At any rate, compared to species like the white peacock and the erato heliconian, the variable cracker is a pleasure to work with.

But it was the butterfly at the top of this post, the orange one, trimmed with black, that captured my attention, at least after Tino identified it as a "Julia." Its formal, Latin name is dryas iulia. so I supposed it might be pronounced "yulia." But I am going with Tino's pronunciation, because I want my granddaughter to have a butterfly linked to her by a common name.

Like my granddaughter, the Julia is a beautiful creature. It's a medium-sized butterfly, fairly common in its range, from Brazil to southern Florida and Texas. If you are in that area, and can plant a lantana bush, you can probably see one. Like my granddaughter, it flits about quite quickly from one thing to the next, and it can seem skittish about being photographed.

I'm just happy that when Julia is old enough to understand words like habitat, and to want to see her namesake butterfly, the people of Panama and the Canopy Family will be doing their part to make sure that the butterfly and the habitat are still there.



Timothy Clark(non-registered)
Lovely photos, Bob, and interesting history of the Canopy lodges
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