and they tended not to be experts at identifying plants, so there was no global picture of how the species, sizes, and spacing of forest plants varied from place to place. Over the next 25 years, Gentry, a scientist with much energy and enthusiasm, and less patience, put that right. He became an expert at getting hold of small amounts of money to fund short expeditions, and he toured the world collecting what came to be known as Gentry plots. He enlisted his colleagues and students in the project and employed locals and their children to measure, collect, and process samples. When he went somewhere to give a talk, he would make time to survey any nearby forest. In total he gathered data from 227 plots on six continents, from Germany to Chile and Madagascar to Australia, measuring and identifying 83,121 plants. He also carried on his work on plant taxonomy, collecting more than 80,000 specimens for the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Gentry’s database showed how forests varied with factors such as latitude, altitude, and rainfall. But the project was always more than an academic exercise. Gentry also worked for the environmental organization Conservation International, and invented his surveying technique partly as a quick and cheap way to get a snapshot of forest diversity, to record the loss of species, and to provide information to plan conservation policy. His surveys helped reveal the impact of people on the natural world. In 1975, for example, he visited the Centinela Ridge in the Ecuadorean cloud forest and discovered more than 100 species new to science. The next year the ridge was cleared for timber.

On August 3, 1993, Gentry was back working in the mountains of Ecuador. He missed his flight out of Quito and chartered a small plane to take him and his team on one more collecting trip. Flying through a cloud bank, the pilot misjudged his altitude, caught a treetop, and crashed. Gentry, the pilot, and one other researcher were killed. Before he died, Gentry broke the plane’s windows with the poles he used to collect tree samples, allowing another passenger to escape.

The Way to San Jose

The day after visiting Santa Fe I fly south to San Jose in Costa Rica, swapping the New Mexican desert for tropical green. There I am to

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