The canopy crane

After a long drive along the edge of the Panama Canal, over the Gatun Locks, and into the forest on a rutted dirt road and then, on foot now, over a bridge spanning a rain-fed creek, walking amid the bellows of howler monkeys which sound how I imagine a two-ton toad would, we came to a hot sunny meadow where we spent several hours trying and failing to catch butterflies while groups of us took turns going up the nearby canopy crane.

Four at a time we squeezed into a small metal cage and with little fanfare were hoisted into the air to dangle magically a hundred and fifty feet above the earth, rising higher and higher and feeling the wind strengthen and the sun brighten as we climbed, seeing also the trees spread out as if stretching luxuriously above the oppressive forest floor, their limbs thrust out like prisoners newly-liberated or a cat waking up from an afternoon nap. From above, the canopy seemed an unfamiliar country to be explored, its own geography and language codified in the undulating cartography of shapes, colours, and textures in the leaves below. Almost every tree we could see, I heard, was a different species. Each a different shade of green, from pale yellow to blue-black. Each a different shape of leaf, from slender petals to glistening fronds. Each a different architecture, some trees growing slender and limbless until escaping the shade and blooming with branches like a hundred foot dandelion; others shaped like inverted pyramids, claiming more and more space until reaching the canopy where they look confident and imperious, these unbelievably huge forest sentinels that seem destined to stand forever because the end of something so magisterial is unimaginable.

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For twenty minutes we hung fragile above the world, birds in a cage at the end of an invisible wire. We flew above and between and through the unfathomable diversity of the tropical rainforest. We approached the complex leafy tangle of a huge evergreen tree and found ourselves face-to-face with an unconcerned sloth. We came close enough to pick fruit. We smelled sticky pink flowers. The city of Colon was a white blur on the horizon. Around it ships floated on the blue jelly of the Caribbean, awaiting passage through the Canal. Between us and them a colourful tapestry of foliage, mottled by the shadows of passing clouds.

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It felt like we were up there forever but when we landed it felt like no time at all. The forest floor was dank and gloomy and all I wanted was to go up in the crane again. Above my head gaps in the leaves framed hexagons of sky. Like a white and blue oil painting: distant, and bright.

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