Letter from Peru — From the November 2019 issue

The Bird Angle

Maladaptive decadence in the Amazon basin

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I slept for a good seven hours on the overnight flight from Spain to Peru, and while I slept I dreamed that I was leading American visitors around a park in Berlin, looking for birds on a hazy, overcast day. There wasn’t much to see until we noticed a distant commotion in the sky. Large raptors were panicking, driven back and forth by something threatening them from above. The commotion moved closer. The clouds parted, an oval aperture backed with blue. In it two seraphim hovered motionless. “Those are angels,” I told the group.

They were between us and the sun, but an easy I.D. Size aside, no other European bird has two sets of wings. The upper wings cast their faces into shadow. Despite the glare I could make out their striking peaches-and-cream coloration. Ivory white predominates, hair a faint yellow, eyes blue, wings indescribably iridescent. Faces blank and expressionless, as with all birds.

Illustrations by Barry Falls

Illustrations by Barry Falls

I had scheduled three days in Cuzco to get over jet lag. The first was spent slowly touring churches. Whoever the Jesuits hired in the seventeenth century to portray the Crucifixion clearly had first- or secondhand experience of torture. Christ looked as dead as Uday Hussein, his welts dark and crusty, knees flayed, and feet, hands, and shoulder joints swollen black.

Many pilgrims feel drawn to the spiritual vibes of the Sacred Valley, a nearby scenic complex of ritual sites built by the Inca. Over a “welcome drink” of orange juice at the hotel bar, I met two veteran shamans from Alberta. I told them about my own experience of shamanism. Six months out from my mother’s death and still reeling, I had accepted a shaman friend’s offer to enter my mind and see what he could do to fix it. I lay on his bed while he unrolled a bundle of talismans, set fires, drank liquor, rattled a gourd, and chanted. I felt much happier than was usual for me at the time, distracted from my troubles and enjoying my friend’s theatrical behavior, even with my eyes closed. An hour later, he emerged from his trance, looking worried. Most people’s minds, he said, consist of an empty space with doorways one enters to encounter spirit animals from a short list of archetypal species that includes the eagle, wolf, and condor. My mind was an overcrowded psychedelic party gone wrong. The guests, dressed in motley, were talking loud nonsense and visibly insane. There was no way out but the way he came in. “You have no unconscious mind,” he said.

That made sense to me, so I told the nice shamans about it. They looked worried. “You need soul retrieval,” one said. “But not with this guy. Get an expert who’s done soul retrievals before. They can be dangerous.”

“Why? Because I might end up with a partial soul, or someone else’s?”

“Yes.”

The next morning I hiked from downtown up to Sacsayhuamán, an Incan ruin made of exceptionally large rocks. (Machu Picchu is mostly small rocks.) Limestone, sandstone, marble, brick, tuff, and concrete ruins weather so fast that people overestimate their ages. Ottoman aqueducts look Roman; Victorian cathedrals look medieval. Sacsayhuamán looks as though the movie wrapped yesterday. The Inca employed local granitic bedrock, forming it by hand with stone tools.

The display on Incan religious praxis at the former temple of the sun made it look jolly, with festive parades of children and llamas. Captions explained that fewer children and llamas were needed to celebrate the minor festival of the sun in June, and more for the major festival in December. The Incan Empire (nearly as large as Greenland), with its unifying language (Quechua) and network of fortifications linked by stairways, was proclaimed in Cuzco in 1438 and lasted until shortly after the arrival of the Spanish, in 1532. Given the combination of thousand-mile stairways for the transport of large rocks, monumental private homes, and human sacrifice, I feel it must have been an illiberal, “my way or the highway” kind of empire, if not quite on a par with Spain.

I saw the same striking scenes all tourists see: Stooped Quechuan ladies in woolen tutus selling pacay pods (“ice-cream bean”) to hotel doormen. Spiffy Quechuan girls in their Sunday best offering trekkers ten-day-old llamas to hold for thirty seconds for a dollar. Artisans painting on cardboard, etching on gourds, furiously knitting hats. Vendors selling corn on the cob with kernels big enough to break off and eat one at a time. Posters advertising bus trips, drug trips, massages, and altitude-
sickness medication. Uniformed children goose-stepping in formation past bleachers full of police captains. Glittery marching bands leaping with arched arms behind men trudging to churches under massive wooden crosses. A convoy of cars decorated with pink and blue balloons, honking its way down the main street to protest a gender education mandate, megaphones blaring “¡Queremos educación, no la perversión!” A family circus outside the covered market, promising an acrobatic act as soon as fifty soles ($17) could be collected from the crowd, whether as donations or candy-bar sales. The dad called out, “So delicious, so nutritious! Your kids have worms? These will turn them into anaconda boa!” Tourists are a minority in Cuzco because there are no cruise ships at eleven thousand feet. It’s nearly as high as Lhasa in Tibet.

All I wanted when I first wrote to Jonathan Franzen—a birder who moonlights as a journalist—in 2011 was some attention for a bird-obsessed NGO. With his help, I debuted as a novelist five years ago, at age fifty. Soon I had serious cash. But poverty had taught me habits of industry and self-denial. My fifth book came out this year; it would be good for my reputation to take a break. Thus the ultimate luxury problem: How do I spend all this spare time and money?

I only know one person who ever faces this problem—Franzen—so I asked him. He suggested birding in Peru.

I refuse to feel guilty about my ecotourism. Every time I fly across the ocean, my carbon footprint for the year doubles, almost as if I had a child. I live vegetarian and car-free in a studio apartment an hour from Berlin. Having regularly been buried under sheets of ice, Germany lacks biodiversity. Its primeval forests have one tree species: beech. Its “forests” are tree farms. The groundwater doubles as fertilizer. Every river has been dammed. Inland shorebirds are gone. Wetland and grassland birds are at risk. Airborne insect biomass has fallen by 80 percent since 1990. In short, Germany is the world imagined in Genesis when God commanded Adam and Eve to fill the earth and subdue it. I enjoy its tame and lovely landscapes. I would rather hike up small mountains with cafés than large ones with cougars. But there are only about three hundred bird species, most of them brown.

The valleys through which I descended from the Andes to the Amazon basin aren’t pristine. Above them lie reservoirs; below, on the Río Madeira, two large hydroelectric projects, Santo Antônio and Jirau. The region’s wild areas are increasingly affected by economic activity. Yet circa one thousand bird species can be seen on the route, mostly because Amazonia was never, ever under a sheet of ice. Possibly it never even got a dusting of snow. Glaciers smothered the Andes, but life had somewhere to go: foothills stretching for thousands of miles, plus two million square miles of low-lying plains. The river has been flowing continuously for nine million years. Pollen in sediment cores shows that the rainforest never stopped blooming.

The most equatorial place I’d been before Peru was Florida, for the 2015 Miami Book Fair. It was twenty minutes by bus from my hotel to the mangrove swamps of Key Biscayne, where I saw pterosaur-like frigate birds. I rented a car and drove to the Everglades. Despite every conceivable precaution, I got seven mosquito bites on my face in one day. The convenience-store clerk at the campground said that in summertime their flocks darken the sky. I had thought Tidewater Virginia in August was muggy and buggy—a well-traveled German friend told me it was worse than anything he’d experienced in West Africa or Southeast Asia—but the Everglades made Tidewater look like Colorado Springs. What did Amazonia have in store for me? According to the U.S. Department of State, yellow fever (“vómito negro”). Luckily there’s a vaccine. But there’s no vaccine for malaria, chikungunya, or the human botfly. The botfly lays eggs on mosquitoes. Sensing the warmth of human companionship,
the larvae hatch and start burrowing.

I envisioned lowland Peru as one of those hot nights in New York when the subway never comes and, when it does, the A.C. is out and the putrid air around you is as damp as your lungs, but with unstoppable mosquitoes. America, land of extremes. America, my baptism of fire. In Peru, I got two mosquito bites total, both on my ass from peeing outdoors. Amazonia hits the eighties every day, too warm and humid to feel comfortable suited up for wetland birding in long pants and rubber boots. But the bugs don’t bother you unless you stand still for a long time, as you might if you were staring at the crown of an eighty-foot tree, looking for a green bird shaped like a leaf at 3 p.m. like some kind of idiot. Then a sweat bee might make an attempt on your sweat. A beetle flying at speed might use your trail as a shortcut. You might turn to watch it, distracted by how the Doppler effect made it seem to downshift as it passed. On the next curve it tips sideways like a motorcyclist struggling to control a sidecar, skidding on air. This is when your guide says, “I’ve got it! Wait, no, it flew.”

I had never once spoken to Ramiro Yabar when I agreed to pay him several thousand dollars in advance. High-end birding relies on word-of-mouth recommendations. I knew that my employee / supervisor would devote himself to my care, patient as a saint. He would ply me with snacks and carry my bags. In return I would follow his instructions, look where he told me to look, and walk in his footsteps to let the snakes get him first.

Ramiro is from Cuzco, via the banks of the Alto Madre de Dios. His father inherited a ranch in the Andes, lost it during land reform in the Seventies, saved up, bought a farm on the river in the lowlands, and turned it into an eco-lodge after researchers from the Field Museum of Natural History alerted him to its wonders. Ramiro majored in economics, but until recently he worked at the lodge. He is passionate about the advantages of land reform. The Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path, he told me, had no chance in a nation of smallholders. Ramiro is a decent and reasonable guy, the kind you can spend all day every day with, twelve days in a row, and never start to hate.

He and our driver, Justo Savaleta, picked me up at the hotel in Cuzco at 6:15 a.m. on May 5 in a white Mercedes van. A quick stop at the Huacarpay wetlands got us yellow-billed teal, puna teal, cinnamon teal (a beautiful duck I’d seen before in Torrance, California), Andean ruddy duck, yellow-billed pintail, white-cheeked pintail, etc., and so forth. My mental image of the Peaceable Kingdom—the utopia that will succeed this vale of tears—definitely involves dumb ducks blithely bobbing. Alert animals seem smarter, but they’re just paranoid from being attacked.

We drove east through sheep ranches terraced by the Incas, over two mountain passes, and into the quaint hamlet of Paucartambo. There we crossed a stone bridge and exited the paved road. On the left, the shoulder fell eighty vertical feet to a river full of boulders. On the right, a wall of loose dirt culminated in the peaks of the Andes. The rainy season was not quite over, and the track we shared with buses, dump trucks, and dirt bikes had been subject to washouts and landslides. On one side were V-shaped incursions of the abyss; intruding from the other, slippery heaps of clay. Justo called out, “Torrent duck!” and there they were: two oblong dots in the river below us, navigating the rapids like kayakers. We pulled over and set up Ramiro’s telescope to watch them haul out and wriggle.

Whenever one of us saw or heard a new bird, Justo would pull over. Because I spent so much time staring straight down at the river, hoping for more torrent ducks or an Andean dipper, I also saw drugs tightly bundled in black plastic and cling wrap behind a log next to the road, but I didn’t say anything. I told Ramiro the next day. He said my instincts had been correct: those were drugs, and silence is golden. The road had one checkpoint, where policemen in grubby shorts tended chickens and turkeys and inspected Cuzco-bound traffic for large quantities of coca leaves. (Farming coca in small quantities is legal.)

We saw the beryl-spangled tanager, which looks like a black-and-white bird behind blue glass even when you’re looking straight at it. Given how some birds look in sunlight, I can no longer imagine “a color not found in nature.” Bird colors combine pigments with microscopic feather structures that tease the eye. They are more vivid than any colors in art or man-made technology.

We spent the night in the lodge at Wayqecha, a biological-research station with well-maintained trails and a canopy walkway, run by Conservación Amazónica. There in the parking lot I saw the shining sunbeam. He never ventured down to the feeders at the lodge, which a larger hummingbird was monopolizing. Ramiro compared the larger hummingbird to capitalism.

The homely gray-and-brown Andean solitaire sang the most piercing, sweet, clear tones I’ve ever heard anywhere, like a coloratura flautist with no repertoire.

The next day we descended from elfin (stunted) forest to cloud forest. There is some debate as to what constitutes cloud forest, if only in my head. The German language distinguishes between cloud forest and fog forest, but English rejects the ugly term “fog forest.” Cloud forests were once held to be rare; a German source from 1993 sites them in coastal Venezuela and Malaysia and nowhere else, a phenomenon of frost-free mountainsides and exceptionally hot ocean air. Had we descended into cloud forest, or was it mere forest, promoted to cloud forest status by an inflationary ecotourism industry? In either case, it was sunny.

We stayed at a commercial enterprise that once boasted its own exclusive cock-of-the-rock lek, before a landslide wiped it out. (A lek is an established site for competitive male display among winner-takes-all polygamists.) We drove to the backup lek nearby. Sadly the birds’ song-and-dance routine never quite got going. A troop of woolly monkeys intervened. The cock of the rock is Peru’s national bird. The feathers on its head are orange tipped with red, creating an overall effect of fluorescent scarlet set off by a black off-the-shoulder gown, gray peplum, and yellow boots. The eyes are borrowed from cheap teddy bears—white with black pupils, perfectly round.

The next day took us down to the lowlands at last. The farming village of Patria welcomed visitors with an advertisement for its chief product: hoja de coca, alimento y medicina para todo el mundo (“Coca leaf, Food and medicine for everyone”). We began to see the ubiquitous russet-backed oropendola, a giant oriole with a two-hundred-watt sound system, and the same black vultures that circle over downtown Miami. The gray-necked wood rail piped its tonal melody in an endless loop. We stopped in Pilcopata so I could buy knee-high rubber boots.

The nighttime soundtrack at Villa Carmen—a lodge like the one at Wayqecha, maintained by Conservación Amazónica to help finance research—was giant coffee grinders, hoarse dogs barking, seals huffing at their breathing holes, and muted sirens. The seals, I learned the next day, were hoatzins; the dogs were rats; the coffee grinders were cicadas; not sure about the sirens. Hoatzins are loud, conspicuous, freaky-looking, fairly common birds best known for having chicks with claws on their wings like archaeopteryx. They’re not shy of humans, because they taste terrible.

Lowland houses lack window glass. In the villages we passed, they didn’t even have screens. Our cabins were screen porches over a marsh. Night falls at six, and all over Amazonia, generators fire up for an hour so cooks can see what they’re making for dinner and people can charge their devices. The air fills with bugs, not in flocks but a diverse assortment, all sizes, like dust.

Villa Carmen was beautiful, but my notes don’t indicate that I saw any birds there I particularly liked. I saw puffbirds, which unlike Africa’s puffbacks lack a puffed state. I saw the great potoo fly over, lit from below, a nighthawk with an enormous frogmouth. I’m playing down the bird angle in this story to the best of my ability. What I mean is, yes, I saw sixty species in one day there, many of them colorful, several rare and elusive, but none that blew my mind. The rufous-crested coquette was a bit of a disappointment. He’s tiny, and like all hummingbirds impossible to focus on with binoculars unless he’s taking long drinks at a feeder. Only once did a hummingbird hover for me, deep in the forest, voguing from one head-cocked pose to another for a good ten seconds. I think it was the reddish hermit, wondering whether my hat was edible.

Justo drove us to Atalaya, a port village on the Alto Madre de Dios. He loaded our bags into a thirty-foot sampan skippered by Carlos Abanti with first mate Willy Maonte, and there we parted. A sign next to the boat ramp warned us to stay away from indigenous peoples living in isolation. Ramiro and I sat in the bow. Carlos and Willy sat in the stern, next to the outboard motor. I never got to know them, unable to chat as I had with Justo about Erich von Däniken and certain parallels between the Sacred Valley and Area 51.

The boat moved smoothly and was not especially loud. Our motion created a cool breeze. The river meandered over shoals and through drowned palm groves, charcoal-gray trunks quivering in the current. The forest hid behind pioneer vegetation, the same canebrakes and cecropia trees over and over. Whenever it got too shallow, Carlos raised the motor. He stopped whenever someone saw a bird. A great black hawk terrorized
a flock of sand-colored nighthawks trying to rest on a gravel bank. The horned screamer, a bellowing turkey with a jaunty unicorn antenna a foot long, did his best to be sexy. There were terns, skimmers, beautiful swallow-tailed kites, and an eerie jabiru stork.

Near where the Manú joins the Alto Madre de Dios to form the Madre de Dios, we left the main channel of the river (it’s always moving around) for a side branch and docked at an upscale commercial enterprise with ambitious food. The handsome man in charge had white rubber boots instead of blue or black, and briefly I envied his Sixties go-go-club look until I remembered that birders don’t wear white. For most species it’s an alarm color, displayed only on wings and tails when fleeing at top speed.

Soon Ramiro and I were ascending a spiral staircase, 155 steps up, to a wooden platform mounted on top of a kapok tree. It permits ten people and there were only two of us, so I felt safe. The kapok trunk was at least nine feet in diameter and rose like a plumb line, branching only when it reached the canopy. Most Amazonian trees work that way; their aim in life is to reach the light, and they don’t waste time on lower branches. A sense of underbrush is provided by shade-loving potential houseplants and vines as thick as thirty-year-old beeches, draped from one tree to the next like bunting. The thin topsoil makes trees vulnerable to storms—that’s why they grow buttresses—and if one comes down, it takes its neighbors with it. Winter and summer are hard to tell apart, so most trees lack growth rings. Kapoks can grow thirteen feet in a year.

The rule of thumb for temperate rainforests is one third live trees, one third snags, one third nurse logs. I saw almost no dead trees in Amazonia, standing or otherwise. Things rot too fast. A dead tree can’t defend itself or maintain a symbiotic relationship with someone who will (ants). Apparently a forest can be unimaginably ancient without having a single organism make it past a few dozen years.

A toucan appeared in a neighboring tree. The glossy black toupee of an aspiring Sicilian shepherd boy sat awkwardly on his reddish mullet. His yellow shirt was set off by crimson chaps. His eyes were those of a chameleon. His bill bore tattooed teeth. His white face had five-o’clock shadow. His feet were greenish. Macaws passed over, tanagers flocked in the branches closest to us, but my gaze kept returning to my friend. He perched there for half an hour, occasionally swiveling to make sure I got an adequate impression of his mind-fucking lacquered hairstyle. I mean, sorry. Evolution, all right, sure, whatever. But this? The curl-crested arac ari looked like he came straight from that bad party in my head.

In scientific terms, he was evidence of something first remarked by Darwin in The Descent of Man: sexual selection, as opposed to the survival of the fittest, a.k.a. natural selection. Sexual selection only works for species that abjure rape culture, including all birds except ducks and sometimes geese and swans. Male mammals have penises and will (for instance) rape baby seals (not all sea otters do this, just certain very bad ones). By allowing competition among males to decide partner selection, penises help mammals evolve to be fit and strong. But in their absence, sexual selection—mate choice by females—leads to something ornithologist Richard O. Prum of Yale, author of The Evolution of Beauty, has called “maladaptive decadence.”

Prum’s main bone of contention is manakins—stubby little birds that mate in leks. The club-winged variety, his pet peeve, uses its wings mostly to make ridiculous sounds. My favorite of the manakins I saw was the fiery-capped, a weak and puny character with a barely audible tweet, a purple-striped belly, and a downy flame-orange helmet. Sexual selection by females made him what he is today, neither an eagle nor a condor. He can’t fly very fast, but why should he? It won’t stop snakes from eating his children.

Global warming isn’t expected to affect tropical birds much directly; they’re warm-blooded and adaptable. A bird won’t just up and die in a heat wave like an insect or a reptile. He flies somewhere new, carrying the seeds of his favorite food in his gut or its eggs on his feet. But cold-blooded predators are moving uphill into places where no bird expects them, and eventually those birds will be in trouble. Or not. Andean birds were refining their artistic practice for millions of years before science was even invented. Who knows what they’ve lived through.

At four in the morning I was awakened by the shaking of my cabin and a series of deep grunts. If there had been bears, I would have been scared, but the spectacled bear is a rare species from the mountains, no more aggressive than its best known exemplar (Paddington). No South American cat is massive enough to shake a house, I don’t think. I examined my surroundings with my head lamp through the screen and saw her trot away: a tapir. Ramiro told me over breakfast that her name is Vanessa. Loggers fed her bananas when she was young, and now she likes people.

On the boat at sunrise, on our way to a famous salt lick to see macaws, Ramiro asked if I’d ever seen a wallcreeper. That was when I knew he’d gotten curious enough to google me. I told him yes, in the zoo in Innsbruck, and left it at that. My debut novel, The Wallcreeper, could be considered a pornographic treatise on adultery—not a topic I wanted to get into with Ramiro. A friend, now dead, described the wallcreeper to me as “a butterfly among the birds,” which it definitely is, by European standards. Before I met the curl-crested arac ari, it was my spirit animal: an opportunist willing to settle anywhere inaccessible rock is warmed by sunshine.

The blind at Blanquillo was big and comfy, with toilets you could flush with a bucket from the rain barrel, buffet tables, and fixed seating for forty. It faces a bluff with exposed clay that birds use as an antacid if the supply of ripe fruit is not at its peak. It’s private, and admission is $90 per person. We waited doggedly to see birds eat dirt. The early shift—parrots and parakeets—didn’t show. After two hours, a red-and-green macaw perched on a tree opposite us. Several more arrived, squawking nervously. After four hours, one climbed down, seized a fistful of clay, and flew off. Another one buried his head deep in a cavity in the bluff and started gnawing, nothing visible but his backside. We saw a total of twenty red-and-green macaws and two blue-and-yellow that morning. It was thoroughly pleasurable. I can’t imagine how I would have perceived it if I still regarded $90 as a substantial sum of money. But I’m a lucky girl and, as my friends say, born stoned. We hiked back to the boat through stands of heliconia, hearkening to the wolf whistles with which the screaming piha punctuates its rendition of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.”

About half an hour downstream from Boca Manú, the river began to have a problem. All rivers that flow down from the Andes carry gold. Because they change their courses so often, the gold could be anywhere in the floodplain. The standard mining setup consists of a loud pump, a heavy hose, a conveyor belt going up, and a sluice box going down. One guy stands in the water, sucking up sediment with the hose, and the other guy tends the machinery. At the end of the conveyor belt, a jet of water separates rocks from lighter material. The rocks fall to the ground in a big pile, and silt settles in riffles on the sloping ramp of the sluice. The gold is invisibly fine, but if you amalgamate it with mercury and burn off the mercury, you can get salable quantities.

The method—with modern accoutrements such as neoprene suits and portable rafts made of plastic—is common in the Western United States, where it stirs up thousands of tons of mercury that settled in rivers during the Gold Rush. It’s inefficient. Miners churn through the same stretch of river many times, turning the banks, riverbed, and environs into sterile pits and ten-foot rock piles. Goodbye, shorebirds. Goodbye, fish. Peru has a blanket prohibition (Decreto Legislativo 1100) on placer mining in active streambeds because it’s an environmental disaster.

It’s not an open secret that illegal mining takes place on the Madre de Dios. It’s an open scandal, the kind of in-your-face lawlessness that brings down the neighborhood. The dredges are homemade and clumsy, as big as houseboats. The police could motor by so easily, cut the hoses, and drop sugar in the gas tanks of the pumps. But they don’t, because gold is expanding the economy and bringing settlers to the borders with Bolivia and Brazil. Where it once had itinerant logging camps, the river now has discos, diners, and towns. The miners’ leftovers float down the river in Styrofoam clamshells, and their mercury vapors poison everything around them.

It started to rain, and the wind picked up. We wrapped ourselves in sheets of plastic, and Carlos motored full speed ahead.

We arrived at the Los Amigos Biological Station, at the mouth of the Río Los Amigos, which does not flow down from the Andes. Miners leave it in peace. It is said that researchers who ventured up it in a boat saw naked people digging for turtle eggs. The people ran into the forest, and the researchers turned the boat around.

The view from my cabin made me think of Church Hill in Richmond, Virginia, before Europeans got there. Maybe in the High Middle Ages, before the Little Ice Age, when Europeans were still happy at home? Across the river and as far as I could see toward the west, there was nothing but forest. The only artificial structure in view was the relay tower that brings broadband internet to Los Amigos from Puerto Maldonado. On clear days you can see the Andes. Watching macaws fly to their roosts across the setting sun, I started to sing “Somewhere” from West Side Story. “There’s a place for us,” I sang to the birds, quietly sobbing. An overloaded boat chugged past, headed upstream, probably carrying combustible to miners.

After dinner I returned to the bluff in moonlight so silvery that the grass looked like metallic snow. Everything from the moon to the trees was a shade of silver or black, but the river still looked brown, as if it could swallow both light and darkness.

I know in tropical forests you’re supposed to notice the diversity, but it’s hard to keep track of things that keep changing. You see a weird leaf, another weird leaf, weird ants, more weird ants, antbirds, antpittas, antshrikes, antwrens, thrushlike wrens, thrushes, wrens, becards, motmots, jacamars, Spix’s guans that hoot like they’re in a bar fight, and then some garden-variety dieffenbachia, and at some point it’s all a blur. What you remember are the constants and the highlights. One constant is the “walking palm,” a.k.a. árbol de las pingas. Its trunk begins five feet off the ground, sprouting from a tepee of roots. Sometimes the roots have spines like a rosebush. Sometimes new roots growing downward from the trunk assume the form of penises, accounting for the tree’s vulgar regional slang name.

After many hours of walking dark, damp forests and paddling oxbow lakes, seeing things I had never seen before and might never see again, I asked Ramiro why I still hadn’t seen any slugs. I was glad not to have seen any. In my worst-case-scenario nightmare visions of Amazonia, they had been like the slugs of the Pacific Northwest, only more gigantic, plus diurnal, with a love for shower stalls and slime that causes a rash. “Sloths?” he replied. I spelled it out. “Slugs? What do you mean?”

“Like a snail with no shell. A naked snail.”

“Snail with no shell?” He seemed to dismiss my idea as absurd, and I deliberately didn’t follow up. I liked the idea of a professional outdoorsman in his fifties who’d never seen a slug.

The food at Los Amigos was brilliant, probably because, although the staff ate in the kitchen and guests in the dining hall, we ate exactly the same meals. I had my first taste of chapo there—hot mashed bananas with cloves—and Peruvian corn pie. Our final lunch, somewhat mysteriously, was the turkey curry my mother always served the day after Thanksgiving, complete with her side dish, mandarin oranges. The cook called it ají de gallina. The other table was occupied by a bearded young man of sensitive appearance, Igor Lazo, whom I’d seen admiring the view. He was the first to arrive from the next group of guests. A student of ornithology, he would spend three months conducting a bird census of the reserve, trail by trail, all expenses paid as a Jonathan Franzen Fellow. I felt a pang of admiration for Franzen’s cleverness in supporting important baseline research that would make it easier to bird Los Amigos.

Two Orinoco geese and a southern caracara later, we left Willy and Carlos and the boat in the Wild West town of Laberinto—the port looked to me like something Clint Eastwood would paint red and rename Hell—and approached Puerto Maldonado by car. The interoceánica highway is nothing like the Manú Road. It has two lanes and bridges rated for sixty tons (twenty tons over the legal limit for highway vehicles in the United States, enough for an M1A1 Abrams tank). We passed through habitat of a kind conservationists struggle to preserve in Europe: structurally diverse hedged pastureland, sparsely populated with cattle, with mosaic plots of low-intensity agriculture. Someone else might have seen it as beautiful countryside. But I didn’t have to project myself back in time to before the Romans or the English to know what had been there before. The ancient world was a few miles away. I had seen it with my own eyes.

In the center of town was a traffic circle with a public observation tower, the Mirador de la Biodiversidad. Maybe it had a view of biodiversity when it was built. Now it overlooked a bustling boomtown in which environmental propaganda occupied every public space. Insistent signage led drivers through the asphalt grid to a mural comemorativo: salvemos la amazonía. Graffiti attributed to Acción Poética Puerto Maldonado declared that “honesty is a weakness that makes you strong.” Around the corner from the hotel, I found a storefront selling everything I might need to set up shop as a pioneer in the forest: Brazilian water-intake pipes of heavy coiled plastic, Chinese water pumps and generators, Swedish chainsaws four feet long. The unwritten propaganda slogan of business as usual: “Live and let die.”

In the morning we flew from Puerto Maldonado to Cuzco under clear skies. Near town I saw logging, forests felled for timber, brush fires—the same transition to herding and farming that I had seen from the car. But the view from the boat had not done justice to the abuse accorded these rivers. Looping tracts of bare red clay traced the oxbows of the Madre de Dios, sucked dry to wash gold. Its tributary the Río Colorado was gone, the channel dotted with tailings, every fork past and present scraped to the bone, destruction a mile wide and as long as the river. Nothing green left standing. Unmistakably illegal, the state ambivalent, Pacific seaports accessible by heavy truck, Brazil a three-hour drive.

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is an American writer based in Berlin. Her most recent novel is Doxology.

More from Nell Zink:

Story From the July 2019 issue

Marmalade Sky

Story From the June 2017 issue

Bonebreaker

Readings From the March 2015 issue

Make Me Live

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