In the equipment room, at Estación Biológica Pitilla (Costa Rica), there is a sticker on a cabinet that says “bioluminosa” – the artistic signature of Patricia (Pati) Ortiz – with the letters morphing into trees, ferns, wings, insects…everything that Pati loved. Pati died tragically 7 March, 2013, by the San Luis waterfall near Monteverde, when she ran to help a student struck by a falling rock and was herself fatally hit in the head by another rock. I first met Pati in 1997, the first year I started doing research at Pitilla, when my weeks of solitary research in the jungle were interrupted by the arrival a field course of rambunctious Californian undergraduates. Ably sherperding them was Frank Joyce, and his team of TAs drawn from throughout Central and South America, including Pati – from Ecuador. We instantly became friends.
She was a dynamo of energy, enthusiasm and passion for ecology, as delighted in showing students a mite on an opillionid leg as teaching them the Spanish lyrics to songs on her guitar. Over the years, I learnt a lot about tropical ecology by hanging out with Pati and Frank on the annual visits of the field course to Pitilla, backpacking with them to Peñas Blancas, or visiting them at Monteverde. However, I probably learnt even more about how to be a whole ecologist. The extraordinary thing about Pati was that she managed to integrate ecology with every part of her being, whether it was as a scientific researcher, an educator, a filmmaker or an artist. Pati did a MSc at the University of Costa Rica, and when I visited her there she was eager to show me the video she had just shot of an unusually complex courtship behaviour of her study organism – a fly. That video became a short film that was shown to acclaim at film festivals, and Pati enrolled in a New Zealand program to learn the ins and outs of natural history film making.
It was a few years before I saw her again, amazingly once again at Pitilla where she had rejoined teaching the field course. We had both become mothers then and had almost identically-aged children, but nothing else had changed: Pati was still bursting with delight in life and nature. She was just completing a one hour documentary, telling the story of a river from its source on the slopes of Monteverde to its finale in the mangroves of the Pacific coast. At first she tried to simply narrate it, but then decided that she had to put herself in it, swimming up to her underwater camera to point out a caddisfly on a rock. She also composed music in which she overlaid the sound of the river with her voice singing. It was this same river that she would later die next to, the one that she was so much a part of and was so much a part of her. Everything she was comes together in that tragic moment: the rainforest, the river, the teaching and helping others. Pati Ortiz left far more than a bioluminosa sticker at Pitilla, she left the imprint of her joy in nature in me and a thousand more. Thank you Pati.
Pati talks about her teaching at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aOWqSF5lHU
Pati’s “El Rio” water music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EwZEnnyurU