Pepper Trail: Oregon and the Amazon
It’s a spring Sunday morning in Ashland. I’m sitting in dappled shade along Hamilton Creek, keeping half an eye on my son and his friend scrambling over the rocky banks, and musing on human and natural life here and . . . there. “There” in my present imagination -- the place where my mind goes when it isn’t here -- is the Amazon. A week ago, I returned from a cruise up that unimaginably mighty river, and its relentless waters seem to be flowing through me still.
Folded in the embrace of an Oregon spring, I’m dizzy with the softness of nature’s touch. The leaves of the snowberries are tender and tremulous, the wren songs that fill the woods are sweet, and the breeze that brushes my cheek is cool, then warm, like a questioning caress. Soon enough the heat of July will curl the leaves, subdue the stream, silence the birds – but today, nature speaks only of youth and hope, of life on the verge of being lived.
On the banks of the Amazon, there are no such moments of transcendental innocence. There, nature sings songs of experience. The Amazon is about what life can do, given the world enough time. For a naturalist, the spectacle is exhilarating, mystifying, awe-inspiring, and ultimately very, very humbling. As my companions and I nosed our small boat up narrow creeks and into the flooded forest, there was so much to see that I literally didn’t know where to look. There an iridescent blue Morpho butterfly flapped buoyantly just above the water. Here perched a trogon, a dignified bird soberly dressed in red and black, which suddenly opened its beak and barked like a dog. Up ahead, gigantic fruits hung down from a sprawling vine; but wait - was that the sound of monkeys crashing through the trees? Suddenly a pair of macaws flew over, their harsh shrieks ripping apart the still air – and what’s this?! -- a spider the size of my hand has dropped into the boat from an overhanging limb, and . . . You get the idea.
In the rain forest, nothing is as it seems, and the sheer abundance of life compounds its mystery. My normally irrepressible urge to classify and to understand was quickly defeated, but rather than causing frustration, this fostered wonder. Life in the tropics is so various, so fluid, so intertwined, that it is fundamentally beyond our power to specify. Like the Amazon itself, it changes faster than it can be described.
Knowledge and wonder, innocence and experience: the worlds of Oregon and Amazon encompass every aspect of humanity’s relationship with nature. In the Amazon, people are still surrounded by the wild. Despite the horrific destruction that has occurred in certain areas, 80% of the Amazonian rainforest is still intact. There are no bridges over the Amazon River, no dams on its main flow, almost no roads connecting the towns on its banks. The people of the Amazon, no matter what their culture, are under no illusions about their relationship with the environment: they depend on it, absolutely. This intimacy is not always successful, but it is a real relationship, born of and sustained by necessity.
In Oregon, on the other hand, nature is surrounded by people. Here, even the biggest roadless area can be walked across in a few days, and the most remote wilderness can be reached in a few hours of driving. Most of us live lives thoroughly insulated from nature, and our relationships with the environment are misbegotten as a result. The knowledge and respect for nature that comes from daily life lived with the wild are all but lost, replaced by attitudes that are too often simply projections of our own dreams and fears.
Such fantasies are difficult to sustain in the tropics. The Amazon’s intricate dance of life and death is endlessly fascinating, but romantic it is not. And yet, the river does offer its grown-up epiphanies. There was a day on the lower Amazon when we set out to explore in the late afternoon. The low sun glanced off the river and filled the air with golden light. A vivid rainbow arched over the mouth of the small black-water tributary we were entering, and the green reeds behind flared into incandescence. Two river dolphins, as softly pink as seashells, rolled their backs out of the muddy water in front of our boat. Flocks of parrots streamed toward their roosts, announcing their readiness for slumber with ear-splitting screams. With startling speed, the sun set bloody behind the knife-edged silhouettes of palms, and as abruptly as a conjurer’s trick, the air filled with bats. I felt as alive as I have ever felt, as alive as the Amazon, worthy to add my human voice to that cacophonous chorus of life.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned along the Amazon is this: we are part of nature - not its audience, its interpreter, its lover, or its victim. The spark that unfolds the trout lily and ignites the orchid, that quickens the jaguar and empowers the grizzly bear, is the same spark that flashes in human laughter and glistens in human tears. The wild places of this earth are our homeland. In all their variety, from extravagant savagery to disarming sweetness, they nurture us, and we must preserve a place for them if we are to remain fully human. Traveling between Oregon and Amazon, I have come to know that the preservation of wilderness is the preservation of ourselves.
Footnote: Pepper Trail is an ornithologist and writer who has studied the behavior and ecology of birds throughout the Neotropics and in the tropical Pacific. He has led nature tours on the Amazon for the Explorer and the Smithsonian, as well as trips elsewhere in Central and South America for Clipper Cruise Lines, the Oceanic Society, and others. He lives in Ashland, Oregon.