by Janet N. Gold
As I sit at my computer today on a fog-shrouded morning on the coast of Maine, I can close my eyes and still recall the feeling of being a small human presence in the vibrant rainforest surrounding Posada Amazonas, a rainforest of plant and animal life so integrated and alive that my human presence sometimes felt like an intrusion.
In 1996 the Posada Amazonas was barely a dream, the embryo of a vision, when Eduardo Nycander of Rainforest Expeditions, a Peruvian ecotourism company, signed an agreement with the Ese-Ejá community of Infierno in the Tambopata River region of the Department of Madre de Dios, Peru, to cooperatively build and manage a rainforest lodge on land the community agreed to set aside as a reserve, where no hunting, farming, logging or mining would be allowed. The Ese-Ejá, who today number approximately 6,000, were at first reluctant to sign this agreement, which, as many suspected, would alter their traditional way of life in ways both welcome and damaging, but eventually consensus was reached and volunteers from the community helped construct the main building and the first guest rooms. Stones were hauled by boat from Puerto Maldonado, carried one by one up the steep riverbank to build the steps and walkway to the lodge. They wove the thatch roofs, built a canopy tower and cut trails in the rain forest. Two years later, Posada Amazonas was ready for eco-tourists.
On July 8, 2015, Kim Henderson, Paula Heartland and I–3 writers curious to experience the magic of the rainforest–together with a climate change group sponsored by ACEER and led by Prof. Paul Morgan of West Chester University, traveled to Puerto Maldonado and down the Tambopata River to the Posada Amazonas. There we meditated, wrote and hiked; we listened to the rainforest’s sounds; we watched the comings and goings of monkeys and agoutis, macaws and oropendolas. Our writing group, sponsored by ACEER and facilitated by Kim, joined the climate change folks for some of their hikes and lectures and while these were unquestionably valuable, I realize that the biological and botanical facts I learned about the countless interconnections among the plants and animals and humans of this ecosystem were a mere introduction to its astonishing complexity, and, as often happens with facts, may be forgotten, while the deeper lessons absorbed through skin and senses and spirit have become a part of me. One of those insights is that the Posada Amazonas is now as much an integral part of the surrounding rainforest as the poisonous spiders and resplendent long-tailed birds, the walking palms and processions of leaf-cutter ants, the Brazil nut trees and capuchin monkeys.
Many of the human members of this community are Ese-Ejá. Luis, one of the volunteers who helped build the lodge, first worked tending the Posada bar for 6 months. He then went to Lima to study English—5 months of English, English, English—English all day long. He used to hunt in this forest with his uncle, now he guides us on walks in the rainforest, alert to every sound and movement, still pleased and surprised at every monkey or capybara siting, every toucan and scarlet macaw.
That agreement signed in 1996 was for 20 years. As year 20 approaches, the community realized that they are not quite ready to assume full responsibility for the lodge, so the agreement has been extended to 2019. It continues to be a process of growth and change, gains and losses. The entire Ese-Ejá community benefits financially from the earnings of the Posada (they receive 70% of the profits, Rainforest Expeditions gets 30%); they also must confront the inevitable challenges brought by contact with a different world: they must navigate a culture of technology and consumerism, rubbing up against the ethics and aesthetics of urban cultures as they interact with their Rainforest Expedition partners and the many tourists who come to experience their world. Their ancestral language, for example, is falling into disuse. Luis speaks some Tacana, more Spanish, enough English to be our guide. Parents are not always able to pass the language on to the next generation, but now there are teachers who help the Ese-Ejá children learn their grandparents’ language.
On our last day at the Posada, as our guides Luis and Rodolfo settled us into the boat that would return us to Puerto Maldonado, there was a feeling of loss and leave-taking, a rising sense that I might never return to this piece of the planet where in so few days I had come to love the gray and green tangle of its plant spirits. Getting to Posada Amazonas is not easy and that is one of the reasons for its magic. Keep it hidden, I thought. Keep it safe and untrammeled. But as we stepped off the boat in Puerto Maldonado, Luis’s last words to us were: Tell people to come visit us, tell them about the rainforest.
How to live with this seeming contradiction, this desire to keep the rainforest unspoiled and the realization that my human intrusion into its complexity is what moves me to want to keep out the human hand of destruction? In the few and precious remaining wild areas of our planet, in the rainforests that we humans have not yet cut through or cut down, perhaps we can become the eyes and ears and hearts of witness. The eyes that linger on the slim, pale shafts of light that filter through the wet shades of green; the ears that hear the voices of the beings of the forest and understand that we are just one more life form here; the compassionate hearts that feel the fear of the leaf-cutter ants when the tree is felled that provides the leaves they carry back in single file to their underground nests, the leaves that decay and provide just the right medium for the fungus to grow that is their sustenance.
I am grateful to ACEER and to Kim Henderson for providing me with this opportunity to visit the rainforest in the company of people respectful of its beauty, its sovereignty and yes, its fragility. May others have this opportunity, and may they enter with humility, walking lightly on the forest paths, eyes and ears and hearts open to its life.
As a writer, I am acutely aware of language’s limitations to express our deepest truths, especially prose. So I share this poem I wrote about a rainforest experience.
In the Rainforest
What silent sound
What breath beside
Which green dream
No, not possible, he said,
No, she insists:
What does it mean, she wonders,
White jaguar spirit
She walks on,
Janet N. Gold