Into Colombia’s Mountains: an Artist’s Journey

Debbie Bankert 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 18, Issue 2

 

A series of columns that highlight the work of members pursuing and promoting an educational awareness of native plants through individual initiatives and projects.  Here Debbie Bankert, an ASBA grant recipient, offers an account of an unusual and ambitious endeavor. The result is an artist’s journey into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Colombia. The quest? To document the endemic and endangered plant species in Colombia. Not a task for the faint of heart, it is another example of a member being passionately involved with the documentation of rare and endangered species, making for a greater understanding of plant conservation and ecological challenges worldwide.

A road twists on the flanks of a tropical mountain, filled with jagged rocks, fallen trees and treacherous depths, meanders through small waterfalls and leads to the most spectacular views amidst one of Earth’s rarest ecosystems. The trek, taking 2.5 to 3 hours in a four-wheel drive vehicle, rises from the sea to over 7000 feet in a little over 15 miles.  Upon arriving at El Dorado’s Lodge, the cloud forest removes its green veil to reveal a breathtaking display of tropical color, views of mountain ranges and cities, which lie in the far distance below. 

The El Dorado Reserve, located in a Galapagos-like mountain range cut off from the surrounding Andes, prevents endemics from migrating and so boasts rare teeming life and beauty. While interest has been given to birds and other fauna, plants in the 2200-acre reserve have not been assessed for more than 50-100 years. These endangered species, threatened by the failure of human husbandry, are largely ignored, with lack of services, finances and interest. 

Working as a 2009 & 2011 ASBA Grant recipient, I research endemic and endangered plants that reside here, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Colombia, SA, and capture their portraits in paint. The El Dorado Reserve, one of 18 under the careful management of ProAves, Inc., exists for the conservation of birds and other wildlife and plants, while promoting ecotourism.

My guide, an ornithologist with an interest in botany, and I have chosen the bromeliad family as a focus for study and documentation. Different epiphytic and terrestrial bromeliads are found in several forests, which demonstrate great changes from one elevation to the next. Various trips, planned around blooming seasons and prevailing seasonal weather systems, are necessary for proper identification.

Knowing what actions or collection methods can be used with a given species is essential before going into the field. We are able to collect plants and parts using permission granted by the Colombian government to ProAves, Inc., our legal sheltering agent. Whenever possible, we re-plant specimens around the Lodge and cabin areas.  They are thriving, provide delight to visitors and leave natural habitats untouched and well protected.

I had to quickly learn methods for observation and collection in the field, while maintaining personal safety and protecting at-risk habitats and species. The underbrush is extreme, so that one must use caution, and still many places are so steep and overgrown that they are totally impregnable to human traffic. 

Currently, I am working on a watercolor of one of the Puya bromeliad species that is difficult to reach. It grows only on steep slopes, and scooting on my derriere while hanging onto the underbrush is the only means of reaching it. Planned strategies are essential! I learned to measure with a flexible old sewing tape that allows me to maneuver around plant parts more easily than a rigid ruler. Toting an array of colored pencils I am able to create accurate colors in the field, to inform final color choices in the studio. Clear shipping tape was a huge success! I taped down flower or bract parts on sketch pads, preserving details and color. For rare plants like the Puya, I collect only a single flower, and dozens of photos, for details. 

My first trip in November, 2009, allowed me to capture several bromeliad varieties, in graphite and colored pencil. I quickly learned that finished paintings would have to be done at home, as the climate in that season is too humid for watercolor. On a subsequent trip in February, 2012, weather conditions were much drier and allowed opportunities for watercolor. However, favorable weather conditions brought birders from across the globe, and the Lodge teemed with activity. So, whether from problems of dampness, being overrun with birders, or the tediousness of applying thin layers of color hoping for sufficient dry time, I found that final work was better managed in my Virginia studio.

Days begin early to avoid being caught in the descending clouds, rains or thunderstorms. The early daylight filtering through forests left me amazed by changing colors, depth of field and differing scenes within the same location.  Guzmania pallida is a watercolor where I wanted to capture this ethereal feeling, showing deep darkness paired with bright light within the same frame.  In Tillandsia sigmoidea and Santa Marta Parakeet (the parrot is also endemic and endangered), a more spectacular bromeliad is shown. Found in abundance on the higher ridges, it’s seldom found on lower ones.   The specimen I used was found on a lower ridge in high grasses laced with rusting barbed wire. This area is in an invasive Mexican pine forest that is wreaking havoc in the delicate ecosystem. 

We pursued my desired specimen through a tunnel created by plant life that opened onto a precipice. Overlooking trees that appeared as small broccoli far below, the trail was difficult due to the steep decline down the mountain side. We quickly collected the documentation needed, retracing our steps, hurrying to avoid approaching cloud cover. 

Another challenge is being on “visual overload” at day’s end, which is challenging. However, the rhythm of keeping my nights available to journal, mornings available for exploration, and afternoons for sketches and artwork is seductive and makes up for the challenging circumstances. The days spent in the rhythm needed are idyllic in this little-known paradise. And I find that with my next trip planned, my anticipation grows, and the difficulties simply fade.

  • Guzmania pallida, Parallel Dimensions, watercolor on paper, ©Debbie Bankert 2009;
  • Debbie working on the porch at the Lodge
  • Debbie and her guide assessing a viable approach to a perched terrestrial bromeliad
  • Once the cloud cover breaks, the views are breathtaking