After a weekend spent drawing trees with the students and faculty of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia, French botanist Francis Hallé gave a talk on the ecology of tropical rainforests. He has studied tropical plant life in 45 countries for 55 years and was the first person to land on top of the rainforest canopy using a raft suspended from a dirigible.
Hallé said the tropical rainforest canopy is the most complicated place to study botany for two reasons: one, the rainforest is the most biologically-diverse ecosystem in the world; and two, the canopy — because of its lack of humidity and access to sunlight — is even more diverse than the tropical forest undergrowth.
Hallé often uses metaphors to describe the life of the rainforest. “Can you imagine a lovely building of ten floors inhabited by smart and interesting people? Why should we visit only the basement, the parking, the terminal of rubbish and plumbing, the garbage cans, with cockroaches and mice? So we have to find a way to go up. I regret that at the time of Darwin it was not possible to climb the canopy and get up there.”
Compared to the lightness of the canopy, with its scents and butterflies, the undergrowth is dark, musty, and humid. “You can hear the animals, but you cannot see them. Undergrowth animals are big, dark, slow, and extremely shy. There are big cockroaches, spiders, millipedes, toads, and snails, but they are very shy. They turn around the tree trunk to avoid being seen by you.”
In 1975, Hallé and his colleague, Dany Cleyet-Marrel, a pilot and expert ballooner, attempted to fly in a hot air balloon over the rainforest in French Guyana. The trade winds were too strong to collect specimens, as Hallé planned. They needed to build an airfield in order to land on the canopy, and they also needed more financial backing.
Hallé consulted his friend and colleague, an architect from the Versailles School of Architecture, Gilles Ebersolt, to design a canopy raft. Finally in 1989, after the funding was acquired, and the equipment built, Hallé landed for the first time on the tropical canopy. The suspended raft and the materials were light enough that the crowns of three trees could support the entire weight. The 600-square-meter raft can hold 600 kilograms, approximately six scientists and their gear. He has brought entomologists, zoologists, and local botanists. In 1989, Hallé visited French Guyana, and, subsequently, Cameroon, Madagascar, Panama, Vanuatu, and Laos, where he hopes to return in 2015.
“You cannot image how beautiful the night is up there. You have a clear sky, the Milky Way, insects creating light. You have the music of the fauna: the frogs inhabiting the branches, the birds of the night, and monkeys. You have the perfume of flowers. I try not to sleep when I am on top of the canopy.”
After witnessing the deforestation of tropical rain forests his whole life, Hallé seeks to bring attention to the beauty and life of the rainforest canopy. Last year, he completed his first film with filmmaker Luc Jacquet, Il Etait une Forêt, to celebrate the rainforest as it exists today and to help people understand the value of tropical rainforests.
He concluded his lecture with another analogy: the tropical canopy is a large table set for an elegant and delicious dinner. There is exquisite food, abundant flowers, and fine wines. The moment the guests are ready to sit down, an idiot arrives with a chainsaw and says, “Wow, your table has wooden legs. I am interested in the wood.” Without a glance, he takes his chainsaw and he cuts the four legs. The dinner – the canopy – is destroyed and everything is lost.
This guest post is by Lucy Mcfadden, a Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Virginia.