West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Part V, the last

After a few hours on the river, we ended up back at Puerto Infierno, which was resolutely not living up to its name. Even the second-growth forest around the docks and the souvenir stand looked full of promise and mystery, and the green shade under the mango trees was delicious. We caught a taxi back to Puerto Maldonado and found a halfway decent hotel, and set out to explore the town.

About half the streets of Puerto Maldonado are paved. The others, in the dry season, throw off a constant fine grit that adheres to everything, kicked up by the constant passage of motorbike taxis. The town is at the confluence of the Tambopata and the Madre de Dios, and John took me down to a park overlooking the two rivers. Blaze-orange pylons, strung with flags like a used car dealership, mark the place where a bridge will soon be built over the Madre de Dios, the last link in the Interoceanic Highway across South America. This bridge will be the floodgate for illegal logging, illegal gold mining, settlements, poaching—the end of wilderness. I had heard about the project, but seeing it first-hand, so close to completion, struck me like a physical blow. It was hard not to see those bridge pylons as gallows. I feel at once so fortunate to have seen this part of the world while it was still wild, and so desperate to do something to keep it that way, and so powerless. People need livelihoods: if it comes to a choice between cutting the last tree and letting my family starve, I know what I’d choose. And who am I to impose my developed-country values on other people who are struggling to survive? But it seems such a desecration to see that forest, that primeval, ageless, self-renewing miracle, give way to gas stations and fast-food restaurants and the craziness of more-more-more that infects our society. I think about that moment of joy, alone in the canoe. That’s what wilderness gives us and no city will ever provide.

One other story that comes back to me now as I write this: the first night at the lodge, when we were exploring the dark forest. So many marvelous creatures came to light, and such diversity; entomologists are good at spotting the small and often startlingly beautiful denizens of the world. John told me about a group of students he had brought to the lodge some years ago. He asked them, “why are there so many different kinds?” This question, in some form, has been asked by scientists and philosophers for centuries, and we still don’t have a good handle on it. But one of the students answered, “porque se puede!” Because it’s possible. As good an answer as any. And as good an answer, I suspect, as we will ever have.

This trip has given me much to think about. Hope and beauty, and the sense of transcending the limits that I imagined around me. And at the same time, the sense that time is running out for the Amazon forest. How is it possible to balance personal happiness in the face of such an impending loss?

This was something that John and I spent a lot of time talking about. He has suffered his shares of slings and arrows, and ended up, I think, the happiest nihilist I’ve ever met. He doesn’t have much hope for humanity in the long run, but in the short run he has a keen appreciation for the wonder of being alive. On the way out to the lake, we stopped to look at the nest of a harpy eagle, now abandoned. He said the female had been seen at the nest calling for a mate for several years without success, and then she vanished. Harpy eagles are hunted here, for no good reason. (One of the guides had told us that a friend of his had killed one, at a logging camp where they were working. He said the bird was the size of a child. He had kept one of the talons, but he lost it somewhere.) John and I started talking about life and love and loss, there in the forest under the empty nest, and to my embarrassment I found myself crying. Thinking about the harpy eagle, the bad decisions in my past. He touched my shoulder. “Life is beautiful,” he said gently. “Look around you.” And it was. And it is.


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