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Heart of PalmsHeart of Palms

My Peace Corps Years in Tranquilla

Dr. Meredith W. Cornett, Ph.D.

Narrated by Sara Morsey

Available from Audible

Book published by The University of Alabama Press

Heart of Palms is a clear-eyed memoir of Peace Corps service in the rural Panamanian village of Tranquilla through the eyes of a young American woman trained as a community forester.

In the storied fifty-year history of the US Peace Corps, Heart of Palms is the first Peace Corps memoir set in Panama, the slender isthmus that connects two continents and two oceans. In her memoir, Meredith Cornett transports readers to the remote village of Tranquilla, where dugout canoes are the mainstay of daily transportation, life and nature are permeated by witchcraft, and a restful night’s sleep may be disturbed by a raiding phalanx of army ants.

Cornett is sent to help counter the rapid deforestation that is destroying the ecosystem and livelihoods of the Panama Canal watershed region. Her first chapters chronicle her arrival and struggles not only with the social issues of language, loneliness, and insecurity, but also with the tragicomic basics of mastering open-fire cookery and intrusions by insects and poisonous snakes. As she grows to understand the region and its people, her keen eye discerns the overwhelming scope of her task. Unable to plant trees faster than they are lost, she writes with moving clarity about her sense of powerlessness.

Combating deforestation leads Cornett into an equally fierce battle against her own feelings of fear and isolation. Her journey to Panama becomes a parallel journey into herself. In this way, Heart of Palms is much more than a record of her Peace Corps service; it is also a moving environmental coming-of-age story and nuanced meditation on one village’s relationship to nature. When she returns home two years later, Cornett brings with her both skills and experience and a remarkable, newfound sense of confidence and mission.

Writing with rueful, self-deprecating humor, Cornett lets us ride along with her on a wave of naïve optimism, a wave that breaks not only on fear and intimidation, but also on tedium and isolation. Heart of Palms offers a bracing alternative to the romantic idealism common to Peace Corps memoirs and will be valued as a welcome addition to writing about the Peace Corps and environmental service.


Heart of Palms is a vivid and warm portrait of a community inside a‘paper park’ in Panama. The best—perhaps the only—way to fully understand the complexities of conservation is by telling stories about people and the land they live on. This book is both a detailed narrative about one village’s relationships to nature, to work, and to each other and a sweet coming-of-age memoir. Cornett’s youthful earnestness and energy come through clearly, as do her hard-won insights about what it means to reforest a landscape where people are eating, living, dying, feuding, making up, and having quinceañera parties.”

—Emma Maris, author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Heart of Palms is a beautiful story brimming with hope—but hope that remains tantalizingly out of reach.... Expecting a fairy-tale assignment, Meredith’s new world—at times wondrous and at times frightening—slowly unravels into complications as her myopia recedes and she begins to fully see the people, politics, and heartbeat of this little place. It would be easy to paper over these setbacks and focus on adventure and observations, but this is a book not about how we want the world to be but how it really is. Courageous and unapologetic, Heart of Palms achieves its promise of hope in illuminating a simple but paradoxical truth: beautiful places are worth saving from people, but nothing can truly be saved without people.”

—M. Sanjayan, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy and science and environmental contributor for CBS News

“Thousands or tens of thousands of people leave the U.S. every year to volunteer in third-world countries. Heart of Palms lays out a realistic portrayal of what they may hope to accomplish. Most of these people will change the world for the better, but in very small, incremental steps, and there will be many frustrations along the way. A good description of the challenges and potential outcomes, such as this book describes, will be valuable to this audience and many others.”

—Mark J. Hainds, author of Year of the Pig

“Meredith Cornett’s Heart of Palms is especially well-written. She has a good eye and ear for the right detail, and there is wonderful restraint in her presentation of others. In addition to the beauty of the very best of the language and description, there is real elegance and economy to the structure... I love its lack of political hysteria and its believable portrayal of people—and a self.”

—James C. Hall, author of Mercy, Mercy, Me: African-American Culture and the American Sixties

“As a long time Peace Corps supporter, I found Meredith Cornett’s memoir, Heart of Palms: My Peace Corps Years in Tranquilla, a fascinating validation of the core concept that led my distant relative Sargent Shriver to champion the Peace Corps in the first place.  Her memoir tells but one of the thousands of stories of the vitally important work Peace Corps volunteers perform around the world; at the same time, it describes the deep and abiding impact Peace Corps volunteerism has on an individual.  I found her story to be a wonderful account of how a young woman successfully integrates herself into a community very different from the community in which she grew up while also showing how profoundly that community affected her.  On top of it all, her detailed description of this very rural Panama community and countryside is breathtaking.  I recommend this book wholeheartedly.”

—Alexander D. Shriver partner, Potter Stewart Jr. Law Offices, P.C.

“The Peace Corps is a volunteer program run by the United States government. The stated mission of the Peace Corps includes providing technical assistance, helping people outside the United States to understand American culture, and helping Americans to understand the cultures of other countries. The work is generally related to social and economic development. Each program participant, a Peace Corps Volunteer, is an American citizen, typically with a college degree, who works abroad for a period of two years after three months of training. Heart of Palms: My Peace Corps Years in Tranquilla showcases what the mission of the Peace Corps is all about and illustrates one Peace Corp worker’s personal experiences in a deftly written and informative memoir. Written with candor, wit, and descriptive insight, "Heart of Palms: My Peace Corps Years in Tranquilla" is a very highly recommended read and would make an enduringly popular addition to both academic and community library American Biography & Memoir collections.”

Midwest Book Review

“Written with candor, wit, and descriptive insight, Heart of Palms: My Peace Corps Years in Tranquilla is a very highly recommended read and would make an enduringly popular addition to both academic and community library American Biography & Memoir collections.”

Midwest Book Review

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University Press Audiobooks
an imprint of Redwood Audiobooks

University Press Audiobooks