Explorers have always fascinated me and reading about them has always been a satisfying experience. I join them in deep forests or atop lofty mountain peaks. With them I wade through swamps and across icy rivers. I meet local natives, some friendly, some not. And my mettle is tested by wild carnivores, poisonous snakes, disease-spreading insects and plants I dare not touch.
All vicariously. I lounge in a comfortable chair in my air-conditioned home and read the stories about and often by those valiant men and women out there braving the elements. Vasco Balboa climbing over mountains to reach the Pacific. Henry Hudson exploring the estuary we now know by his name. Sakajawea guiding Lewis and Clark west into the Rockies. Charles Darwin crossing the Andes and Alfred Russel Wallace suffering Indonesian diseases. Roald Amundsen and Louise Boyd in the Arctic. Mary Kingsley and Richard Burton in Africa.
I only know those people from their stories, but this summer I have been similarly living with explorers I know.
A new book edited by Kevin Winker titled "Moments of Discovery: Natural History Narratives from Mexico and Central America" (University Press of Florida) is a collection of personal accounts of their travels in the Western Hemisphere tropics by twenty naturalists. I am honored to consider three of the writers personal friends. Their accounts of their travels, mostly to add to our knowledge of Central American birds, are simply wonderful. I will try to give you a flavor of their writing with an edited paragraph or two from each.
Bob Andrle, former acting director of the Buffalo Museum of Science: "One morning Harold Axtell and I were walking on a well-worn trail in lowland foothill forest west of Sontecomapan. Suddenly a five-and-one-half-foot fer-de-lance crossed the trail. We used the shotgun barrel to move the snake into position for some close-up photography, and it struck once or twice but otherwise remained quite docile."
"During the night I was awakened by a snuffling sound. Our assistant called softly from his shelter, 'Tigre, tigre,' in a somewhat alarmed tone. Thinking that it was probably an ocelot or margay, I called softly, 'Tigrillo?' He replied in a strained and now excited voice, 'No, Roberto, tigre grande, tigre grande!' We had a visiting jaguar."
Steve Eaton, emeritus professor at St. Bonaventure University: "With backpack, poncho, binocs, camera and a little food I began the hike up to the camp along the road. The flood had come down through the town, wiping out most of the houses on the east side of the stream, and just above the town it had taken all of the road out, but there was just enough room to walk around the edge of the hard volcanic rock.
"Here I saw my first collared redstarts. This pair of beautiful warblers was hawking and peering for flying insects in the trees adjacent to the road. They depressed and laterally spread their tail feathers before launching out after their prey. It looked as though they were using tail action to flush the insects into the air for capture, but perhaps it was to indicate to its partner 'that's my bug.'"
Charles Sibley, who died in 1998, was a world-renowned ornithologist who spent several years at Cornell: "Seth ran a stop sign without seeing it. The highway patrol officer who stopped us asked what we planned to do in Mexico. Seth gave a brief description of our intentions, trying in vain to make it sound like Big Science. When Seth finished, the cop exclaimed with undisguised scorn, 'Well now, ain't that a helluva hard job!'" That phrase became our theme when we were coping with heat, dust, bad water, getting stuck in the sand, and other misadventures.
"We arrived back at the border at 2 a.m. The inspector shined his flashlight into the truck and there, sitting on top of its box, was the porcupine. 'What the hell is that?' asked the inspector. 'A porcupine,' Seth replied. 'Well, you can't bring that into California.' 'Oh, yes, we can.' 'How do you know?' 'Because I helped write the regulations.'"
I am enjoying reading about the achievements of these naturalists while letting them suffer through the misadventures they describe so well.-- Gerry Rising