While much of my travel to find wood took place in the beginning, my passion to continue making new strides in sustainability has always remained a top priority. The ultimate goal has always been to continue expanding my travel into jungles throughout the world and to find new ways of bringing rare woods back to my workshop in a sustainable way.
Each new place I visit and research brings on many new complications. Forestry practice and what is claimed as sustainable can often be deceiving. I’m currently working on ways to change this, little by little, with the help of local friends and farmers. I hope to share this part of my journey through the jungle with you as it begins in a new place.
My love for Panamá started in a cafe I used to frequent on 10th st. The only thing I knew of Panamá at the time was that a cargo container of mine had stopped in the canal on it’s way from South America to NYC. I also saw a picture of the twisty “Revolution Tower”, which was enough to conclude in my mind that Panamá was an intriguing city. When I booked my flight that afternoon with my Delta Miles, I didn’t know how much of an impact a place could have on my life.
I was happy to be leaving New York for a while. The city was wearing me thin. I was also happy to be traveling with someone who I considered a friend at the time. When we landed in Panamá we were pretty much immediately scooped up by locals. It was the beginning to the start of new friendships and the end of old ones.
Since my first trip to Panamá I have been back over 15-20 times. The beautiful and somewhat craziness of the city reminds me of Manhattan, but the major difference being that if you drive one hour from the city’s center, you can be on the pacific surfing some of the best waves on the coast, in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean sea or deep into the jungle. The city is surrounded by beauty, and although city life can swallow you up, the escape can lead you on a different kind of adventure in each direction.
Every time I came back to NY, I would miss the people the most. Panamá is a small place and once you know one person, you tend to meet everyone. I was lucky enough to meet people who have now become closer to me than most friends back in the states. I found these new friend’s had passion for life, for nature and exploring.
This past summer I was lucky enough to be taken to Panamá’s only organic farm, owned by one of my closest friends, Charbel) and his family. Tavida Organic Farm is a pioneer in bringing produce free of pesticides to local markets throughout Panamá. Their innovations in organic farming have won them numerous awards and the enthusiasm of their owners is spreading. For a country that has the natural vegetation to grow foods all year round, it is sad to say that almost 90% of the country’s produce is imported. Getting the people to realize that buying local is beneficial both for their country and their health is extremely important, and Tavida is the first to take a step in this direction.
The land that Tavida is located on is called Penanomé, which is the capital city of the province Coclé. The drive from the city was familiar until the right turn off the Pan-American highway, about an hour and a half north from Panamá City. We headed through a few small towns before the road turned to dirt and 4WD was not only a necessity but also not a guarantee that we would make it through. The ride was slightly nauseating and slow. When we finally made it through several ditches and deep rivers, I felt like I had never been further away from the city. It was night and it was the darkest night I had seen in quite a while.
After a night of sleep filled with many insects as company and no reliable electricity, I opened the curtain and was overwhelmed by where I was. I was surrounded by dense jungle, an abundance of flowers and I could hear a waterfall in the distance. I was able to hear some priceless stories from Charbel’s Uncle Jose while waiting for him to wake up. We talked about the forest and organic farming and I was happy to learn I had found someone as interested in trees as I was. We decided that with our mutual interest in woodworking and forestry, we could somehow come together and use the land on the farm to plant new trees in the future. Now I had to go and find the seeds. I was given a book from Uncle Jose’s nature-filled library on tree identification in Panamá and when Charbel woke up we headed out to start our search for seeds and sustainable wood.
In two weeks time we had driven more than 15 hours all over Panamá in the search for wood. I wasn’t really expecting to find anything on this first trip, but low and behold, the more locals we spoke with the closer we got. The first few pieces that we retrieved from the forest came from a hunt for a waterfall. We had stumbled upon a local’s house and they were selling various fruits and vegetables. I noticed a large tree that seemed to have fallen over the passageway to their house and next to it, some cross-section cuts filled with mold. I immediately went over and asked if I could take a look at them. It turned out that the tree had fallen from a lightening storm earlier that week, and the wood just so happened to be a very rare wood called zorro. The owner of the land was more than happy to hear our excitement when we asked if we could buy the wood from him. He needed to remove it anyway and was happy to except our money for our first piece of rare wood. He had explained since they were so deep into the jungle, that the intense rain storms often knocked down large trees all the time, making it difficult to run their household and family farm. He promised to notify us whenever this happened so we could come and help him clear them. We also collected seeds for this rare tree, that we could now plant on Tavida’s farm.
The next day we were back in the car with a ton of wood in the truck and we were heading to Cambutal. Another good friend of mine (Amira) lives in Cambutal and I was very excited to see her. The last time I had been in Panamá, I was lucky enough to stay at her home where she supplies all her own food by growing it on her land. When Charbel and I arrived in Cambutal, in typical Panamanian fashion, she wasn’t there. Apparently she hopped a ride with some other locals to go see tide pools a few hours away. She’d be back in the morning. Charbel and I headed down to a hotel on the beach. The hotel had tons of wooden furniture and a woodshop around the corner. It was beautiful wood, but I knew it was all part of the problem with logging. It reminded me why I started my search for sustainable wood. I didn’t want to look at something beautiful and think of the disaster behind it, I wanted to look at it and be able for it to show it’s full life.
By the time night came, I was sick. I had been much sicker before in foreign countries (cholera in Guyana, while searching for wood), but I was really worn down and no medicine was helping. The temporary solution seemed to be beer, a typical Panamanian remedy. Charbel and I found a bar/restaurant a few minutes down the road from our hotel. The music was loud and a bunch of locals were drinking and dancing. We stayed for hours and I listened to Charbel talk to the owners in spanish while I played with some puppies who were rolling around on the beach. I was too sick to even try to have a conversation in spanish but I tried my best to explain what I was doing to the lady at the bar (Flora, the owner’s wife) when Charbel had mentioned my wood. She got really excited and pointed to some stumps that were also from a fallen tree that they were using as tables. They were a cool shape but covered in a ton of dirt, and I wasn’t expecting the wood to look at all good but I was still interested in identifying the tree with my new book. The wood was unidentifiable the way it was. It was super ugly actually, like most wood in the jungle, but this one was particularly gnarly on the outside. Her husband came over and said he could borrow a chainsaw and cut a piece for us tomorrow if we wanted to try to see what species it was. I couldn’t wait to come back the next day and see if we could identify it.
The next morning, as promised, the owner of the restaurant was there waiting with a chainsaw, breakfast and some beers. He cut the first piece open and my eyes were glued. I couldn’t believe the beauty that was revealed. We spent a lot of time using my new book to identify the wood, and finally seemed to all agree that the wood was Maquaro. This was a very rare wood that was native to Panamá – it was a great find. I decided to name the wood “Flora” after the owner’s wife, whose smile radiated like the beauty inside of the tree. I gave the owners all the cash I had and we loaded all of the wood into the truck to be brought back to the farm.
It was a rather slow drive with all of the wood weighing the car down, but we finally reached the farm back in Penonomé and unloaded the wood. We laid it out to dry, which I guessed would take about 6 months. I decided that I would come back and continue the journey for more wood soon, and Charbel would keep searching while I was back in New York. When I have enough to fill a container, I’ll send it all to to my shop in Brooklyn. There I’ll be able to create pieces that show the life of these woods given to us my nature. Stay tuned…