Henry Rollins: The Amazon Rainforest Is an Orgy of Life

Henry Rollins: The Amazon Rainforest Is an Orgy of Life
Photo by Heidi May

I have never given the word “biodiversity” much thought. I can’t remember a single time I’ve ever used it in a sentence. But for the last four days, it has been on my mind constantly.

I have been living on the Manatee Explorer, a small tourist boat that takes passengers up and down the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. Every day, we get up around 0600 hrs., eat, put on our rubber boots and lifejackets, disembark onto a smaller boat and go exploring.

While I am sure that the places we are visiting have been chosen carefully to give us the best eco-bang for our buck, every moment has been extraordinarily beautiful. Varieties of monkeys, caimans, a Peterson Field Guide’s worth of birds: toucans, macaws, vultures, kingfishers, hawks, eagles, parakeets, herons. The vegetation, as you would expect, is wonderfully out of control. It is an orgy of life.

This is where biodiversity comes into play. There are clumps of trees that are of the same kind here and there, perhaps because that’s where the seeds dropped and didn’t get eaten immediately by something else. But for the most part, what we have been hiking through and boating past is a riot of species scattershot everywhere.

And then there are the rivers. Daily, we leave the Napo to go up other rivers of different types. White water, black water, rivers the color of blood. All have different contents coming from different places and are hosts to different kinds of life.

Two days ago, we pulled into a quiet bit of river, almost lake-like, the water seeming not to move. The motor was cut and we just sat; the bird sounds started as soon as the motor sound trailed off, like a cross-fade.

One of the guides pointed to some rings that had appeared in the water. Two dolphins surfaced, a mother and offspring, mostly gray, but the mother showed some pink on her sides. We watched them arc out of the water and then disappear. They are so rarefied at this point that they could not survive in saltwater. Unsurprisingly, they are endangered.

Everywhere you look, there are trees down. Even the bigger varieties are shallow-rooted, apparently from the clay beneath the topsoil. It doesn’t take much to knock them over.

I am sitting on the back of the Manatee right now. The view is an uninterrupted line of trees, cross-tied with vines. It seems impenetrable.

We hiked through mud to get to a massive tree with a metal staircase built next to it, which allowed us to walk all the way to the top and onto a platform. One of the guides, Raoul, talked about some of the species that live on the tree. About 50 varieties of ants alone. Vines and plants, their seeds dropped by birds or wind, land on branches that have so much sediment that they can actually grow there. Moss, lichen, bats, snakes, lizards, insects of all kinds, parasites that feed off the tree and, of course, the birds.

Raoul’s explanation of how all these species interact knocked me out. I was thinking to myself, “This is an ecosystem unto itself,” when Raoul said basically the same thing. That’s when I really got it.

Naturalists can list all the species on the tree. They can speculate as to how everything got where it is, and how it all works together. The data derived is incredible, but what makes it miles over your head is that this is a system so perfectly integrated, with so many moving parts, that it is far more complex than any computer, language or system of government.

This illiterate gathering, which does not rely on tax breaks, lawyering or other artificial forces, should awe and humble anyone who is lucky enough to see it for themselves.

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There are no “disasters” here that are not man-made. If a square kilometer of forest collapses on its own, there is nothing tragic about it. The wind did one thing, the rain did another, one tree started moving and pulled down all the others, because they’re connected by vines. A frenzy of life will ensue in the vacancies created almost immediately.

More than once, we have been walking under a canopy and heard a shuddering crash in the distance. It’s just the forest doing its thing.

We got an opinion as to how welcome we were when we were walking and saw a male squirrel monkey that had spotted us. He seemed unhappy at our presence. Diego, one of the guides, sees things before they happen. There was a small snapping sound and he told us to step back. Down came a branch. It was the monkey breaking it off and throwing it! Diego said next will come the urine. A few seconds later, it did.

The monkey followed us almost the entire time we were there, transitioning gracefully and acrobatically from tree to tree, using its tail like a fifth limb. He had a great method of spanning empty spaces by wrapping his tail around a branch and running forward, taking the branch with him, then a perfect midair dismount and onto the next tree.

I ran a quick comparison between him and myself. He is naked and needs that which is naturally available. If he can’t get it, he’ll either figure something out or die trying — if he doesn’t get eaten first.

Then there’s me. Body vaccinated multiple times, covered in sunscreen and mosquito repellent, long pants and shirt to keep the insects away, carrying water. So far from my cement-covered, car exhaust–filled, hot-plate home. I would throw a stick at me, too.

Big oil is here and making its presence known. As seemingly vast as all this is, it is fragile. Dig it before it’s gone.

Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.


More From the Mind of Henry Rollins:
The Major Labels Are Screwing Up Record Store Day

When You Claim Racism Is Over, You Get a Dylann Roof
Why I'm Not an Atheist


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