Field of Science

Curtain Call for an Old Friend

This magnificent tree is called the curtain fig; it’s huge and may be several hundred years old. Curtain fig is not the common name of the species (Ficus virens), but the name of this specific tree. It’s a strangler fig, a type of fig that starts growing in the canopy of another tree. Its roots grow down and around the host tree, and its canopy grows upward, and ultimately the fig can engulf, kill, and take the place of its host. In Central America strangler figs are called matapalo, tree-killer. This fig apparently grew vertically killing its original host tree, and then fell against a neighboring tree, subsequently taking it over as well. Roots dropping from the diagonal trunk produced this curtain of roots that rises about 18 m from the forest floor, and from this emerges an immense crown of branches above the rainforest canopy.

Curtain Fig lives in a patch of rainforest near Yungaburra on the Atherton Tableland in northern Queensland Australia. I first saw this tree over 25 years ago, and shortly there after I met the fellow in the funny red felt hat at the lower right. And he in his own right is a magnificent fellow. I am thinking about this because I just learned this funny-hat-wearing fellow, my friend and colleague Tony, is dying of lung cancer, a rather ironic fate for a confirmed non-smoker.

Tony and I teamed up twice to conduct field research on the reproductive biology and beetle pollination of rain forest trees, and I spent months, some of the best times of my life, at this side working in the rain forest. I, even with the PhD, was the rain forest student, and Tony my learned mentor. Tony is simply one of the best field biologists ever. His keen eye for observation, and his equally keen intellect made him a largely self-schooled guru of field biology and rain forest natural history. And his attitude was even better than his knowledge. Tony approached his life and work with simple joy; he did biology just for the sheer pleasure of doing it, so it was just a bonus that the Australian CSIRO paid his salary.
He has a sly sense of humor. His almost child-like air of innocence and his often feigned naivety allowed his wit to prey upon those who thought themselves sophisticates or his educational betters, but , it was never mean humor. In fact there was nothing mean about Tony. Oh, and did I mention his singing voice or his rain forest tucker? No, and with good reasons, but I was often serenaded exuberantly and fed anyways. And who else would drive an hour out of the rain forest, at night, to the nearest civilization just to satisfy a sudden urge for ice cream? Only a wonderfully crazy fellow in a floppy, red felt hat, would think such a pilgrimage for an ice cream bar perfectly reasonable.

Tony played hard and worked hard, and his physical life took a toll upon his body; parts just wore out. That together with Parkinson’s has brought this great bear of a man to a near halt. The cancer will merely deliver the coup de grace. His life used up the rest, but it was used very well. My life is richer for having Tony as a friend and colleague, and it is with immense sadness that I write this reflection.

Curtain fig lives on, but for Tony, it’s just curtains.

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