Ivan T. Sanderson — Chapter 4 — Canopy Life

Ivan Sanderson was intrigued by the canopies of the rainforest. The thought of this living entity, this “continent” suspended above the ground kept bothering Ivan. He could set traps up there and at the same time admire its awesome beauty all right, but he could not observe the daily animal and insect life in the canopy as easily as he could watch their counterparts going about their business on the ground. No, Ivan must get a closer look. He must live up there! It was not until his fourth and final expedition, however, that this dream would become a reality.

This last expedition (1939-1941) entailed visits to Mexico, Honduras, British Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua. It was here in Nicaragua that Ivan made the decision to build an “aerial camp” in the jungle canopy. He started off by taking his schooner as far up the Rio Kuringuas River as was feasible. He then tore up the boat’s floor boards for building material. Ivan, his wife Alma, and their assistants now began to look for a convenient place in the jungle where they could begin construction work on a platform that would support their camp. They soon found an enormous tree, the branches of which intertwined with those of several others, thus making a woven area above the ground that was a perfect location in many respects for the platform, with but one exception—this spot happened to be situated at an altitude of 120 feet above the forest floor.

Life in the canopy was no safer or less troublesome than on the ground. An approaching thunderstorm would drive both Ivan and Alma crazy, since the reflective foilage at that height made the flashes of light appear to be right in front of their eyes, regardless of whether they were lying down, sitting up, or standing up. At around 4:00 P.M. one day, a storm struck while the collectors were lounging up in their treetop home, and Ivan "very unsensibly" stayed up there to observe what a storm was like in the canopy. The huge tress began to sway and thrash about, and some of the group’s personal effects were tossed out and strewn over several acres of ground. Birds whirled out of control above them, having been caught in an updraft.

The entire expedition, as a matter of fact, came to a thunderous conclusion after the group had forged their way back to the waiting schooner on the Rio Kuringuas.

Ivan and Alma were sitting in deck chairs beside the river while the floor boards and other paraphernalia were being put back in shape aboard ship. At that moment an earthquake struck. It was December 1941. Just a year prior to this, the couple had experienced an earthquake of moderate proportions in Mexico City while trapped inside a stone building, with tons of plaster (the construction material that was supposed to have held the whole shebang together) falling down on them. Now, however they could observe what a big earthquake could do to the open forest.

Actually, no one really knew what was going on at first, They were both sitting around, quietly cleaning their guns, when suddenly they both began to drop things. Looking up, they could see that the trees were gently swaying, in the absence of wind. A strange pulsating sound then emanated from the earth, while everything in sight shot up into the air for a few feet, throwing Ivan and Alma from their chairs onto the ground, the ground itself now shifting from side to side with such force as to make standing impossible. Vertical waves, like the kind you see on any body of water, swept through the forest, beneath the river, and under the couple, lifting them about five feet with every pass of a wave. About eighty of these waves rolled under them, which was followed by another shifting of the earth sideways, and then the ground once again became solid enough to stand on.

The Grand Finale came when all was quiet and seemingly over with. A huge section of river bank opposite them, about 40 feet high and over 150 feet long, gave way and slid down into the water, generating a sound that deafened the entire group for some days thereafter. Meanwhile, half a mile upstream from camp, a quarter-mile section of river did just the opposite, having been thrown out of its bank in one great mass and washing out a full square mile of jungle when it returned to the earth.

Although the expedition, the boat, and the river could have disappeared forever, leaving wild speculation as to what became of them back in London, a survey by the group revealed the ironic fact that, other than the big splash up the river and the bank that collapsed, there was absolutely no evidence that some titanic force had just finished shaking the jungle. Everything ran as normally and as smoothly as it had before the quake.

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