We cross the steep terrain down into Manu National Park to where the Madre de Dios will take us to the Manu River. The ride into the park cuts through narrow unpaved road. In moments we are dangled at the edge of the mountainside ready to careen into green space. But we do not. We stop once on our way toward the river, met by blue and orange butterflies who are being chased by a retired American in faded cotton pants that tie at the waist and a safari shirt. He is cataloguing them. I believe he will have work until beyond the grave. As we descend, the air turns sweet, filled with oxygen made ever more plentiful by the lush grasses and ferns growing in abundance. We enter the jungled gate to the rainforest.
I did not know a river is a sleeve into eternity. We have two guides: Jose and Taz. They are fluent in the language of birds, plants and animals. Our boats are long skiffs with wooden planks set across for seats. Two young boys run back and forth along the six inch rails, sticking long poles in the river to test for depth. A man sits at the motor of each boat. We were not aware, when we climbed in at 5 a.m. the first morning, that we would be on the river for sixteen hours. Had we known, would we have agreed? Sometimes it is best not to know one’s destiny, less you decide against it, less you miss the way the linear mind loosens its hold and your thoughts dissolve into liminal time and space. Less you miss the opportunity to be given new eyes to see and new trust to enter your heart.
Sixteen hours. Snowy egrets. Great white herons. Stinky birds. Macaw. Red capped cardinals. Eagle. Cayman. Capybara. Tamarin monkeys. Spider monkeys. Toucan. And always the grey green river, warm water flowing forward deeper and deeper into the rainforest.
The day passes with stories that include those of the Maschco Piro people who live in the forest. Apparently, they are indigenous people who are now protected from development along with the entire park. And yet, they live lives on the brink of extinction. They have shot people with arrows who seek to interact with them. Yet they need machetes. They sometimes seek to know the edges of the world they inhabit. They are as curious as other humans about the world. Perhaps it is possible that their precarious situation shows us more about our own fragile existence than the difference between their way of life and the rest of the world. We might pause for a moment and consider: are we not all endangered by the burning of the rainforest, the unquenchable appetite for beef that causes us to clear land for cattle, the dumping of mercury into the river in pursuit of gold. We see the Maschco Pico as primitive and backward: yet for a thousand years and another thousand they have lived in the rainforest. They have been survivors until, like all of us, there may not be the possibility of survival. Can we mitigate the effects of our own soiling of the earth? That is the question.
The day turns to dusk, the sky lit with orange and red streaks that gradually give to night. Very few stars can be seen as the earlier rain did not empty all the thick clouds overhead. Into the night we motor on with Taz crouched at the helm with his flashlight, scanning the river for fallen trees and sandbanks. Sometimes we run aground in the wedge way of sand until the young boys with us hop into the shallow black water and push our boats back into the stream. We arrive at our camp late, late into the night, and by now, we are all familiar with the inky feeling of the forest. We trudge to our bunks. At first light we will walk to Salvadore Lake, an oxbow lake formed by the looping of the river where giant otters and howler monkeys live in serenity.
Jose tells us at Salvadore Lake that the Amazon River Otter is a keystone species – one who scientists track to measure the health of the ecosystem. There are 67 or 68 otter alive, and they are monitored to gauge the acid in the water, the fecundity of vegetation and the overall health of the rainforest. In past years, the acid rain has changed the chemistry of the lake. There are growing concerns about the ecosystem. But while we float across the lake on our catamaran, peace is everywhere: in the baritone yodel of the large brown howler monkey half way up the kapok tree, in the white heron swinging across the water just above the morning mist; in the head of an otter gliding from bank to bank in the inlet at the far edge.
I am wondering if the world would care if the wild life here and this lake of tranquility ceased to exist. A grief opens up in me. I am gazing upon some private mystery of God whose essence breathes here and whose heart-breaking loveliness I am privileged to see. This moment creates an urgency in my grief at its possible demise. Thank you, I want to say to the silence of the morning, thank you for allowing me to see your beauty. I will remember you in my efforts toward climate justice: for you, for the rainforest, for God who created you. Later that day, when we visit a small community of people who live in the rainforest and who tend a shelter site further up the river, I am enlarged in my understanding: it is not just the creatures and forest trees and ferns that must be saved. It is also the people who live in this harmony, a hard harmony of survival and really brevity of lifespan, but one of dignity and closeness to each other and the earth. Climate justice includes these brothers and sisters of humanity too. I see a society of the rainforest, a community of people, animals, insects and plant life. And I know in deep and abiding ways that God is close here, not separated from this life by the pounding effort to pave over and build buildings, to mass produce everything from food to people, and to consume more than is necessary until the balance of life is disrupted beyond repair.