Monday, May 22, 2017


When folks ask me for some of the high points of my recent week-long cruise on the Peruvian Amazon, one of the first things that comes to mind is just the wondrous mystique of that whole vast rainforest expanse. It’s not just the pink dolphins, poison-dart frogs and 15-foot anacondas, or the inscrutable oneness with Nature of its indigenous peoples; it’s also the sheer size and power of the river itself.

(Many of the world’s great rivers count their sources as the confluence of tributaries bearing different names. Our cruise, starting on the Amazon proper, reached upstream into one of its two main feeder rivers, the Marañon.)

Where we were, south and west of Iquitos, the Marañon looked to be fifteen, maybe twenty times as wide as the great Mississippi is back home in Minneapolis. One evening, as we returned to the boat in skiffs after some backwater wildlife spotting, our guide gave us a little perspective on the its contribution to the Amazon’s size.

Pointing to the muddy, flotsam-strewn water swirling around us, he said, “Oh, by the way, right here it’s 250 feet deep.” That, even there at the Amazon’s upper reaches, is 50 feet deeper than the deepest point, near New Orleans, in the entire Mississippi river.

   The Amazon’s total flow volume is 
  greater than that of the next six largest 
  rivers combined.

As I pondered this, the immensity of this river started adding up. The Amazon is fed by some 1,100 other tributaries before it empties into the Atlantic, many bigger than the Marañon—only number 14 among them by length.

This abundance of tributaries and the fact that the area of Amazon’s watershed is twice that of the Mississippi—which itself drains more than 40 percent of the continental US—begins to explain why the Amazon’s total flow volume is greater than that of the world’s next six largest rivers combined.

The Amazon's estuary and silt plume from space. PHOTO: Norman Kuring/NASA
That volume reaches up to 300,000 cubic meters per second (11,000,000 cubic feet per second) in the rainy season, with an annual average of 209,000 cubic meters per second (7,400,000 cubic feet per second). At that rate, the Amazon is responsible for no less than 20% of the fresh water entering the Earth's oceans.

The river pushes a vast plume of fresh water out into the Atlantic Ocean, reaching some 400 kilometers (250 miles) long and between 100 and 200 kilometers (62 and 124 miles) wide.
     This place is home to one fifth of 
     all the bird species on Earth, and 
     one third of all plant species.

As captivating as the Amazon’s sheer immensity may be, there’s more to a sense of place than scale. First off, the Amazon Rainforest is…well…a rainforest. (Okay, it’s hard to avoid the scale thing; at 1.7 billion acres, it’s nearly twice the size of the next largest tropical rainforest, and is appropriately nicknamed the “lungs of the earth.”)

A rainforest this size creates its own weather on a massive scale. The steamy exhalations of billions of plants, cooked out by the powerful equatorial sun, rise each day into the atmosphere. There they’re swirled and cooled, wringing out the moisture as rain. And so it goes, day in and day out.

This daily cycle is mirrored in the region's semiannual rainy/dry cycle of seasons. All life here has adapted to the river's predictable 30-foot annual rise and fall, and the flooding of some 140,000 square miles of forest. Tree trunks and the jungle floor, home for half the year to creatures that walk, crawl and slither, become the realm of fish and marine mammals the rest of the year.

PHOTO: Kevin Cure via Wikimedia Commons

The heat and humidity support an astounding range of plant and animal life. Like a colossal, multi-stage Darwinist coffee maker, the jungle canopy comprises at least four distinct levels, the occupants of each extracting what they need from the light, water and air movement percolating through it.

To one unaccustomed to the combination of heat, humidity and light-devouring density of foliage, the jungle here, even at mid-day, feels like a steam bath during a power outage. (I couldn’t take a decent photo without flash.) One can only admire the species, including homo sapiens, which have managed to adapt so successfully to such a climate.

In an environment this unique, this exotic, the notion of place eclipses that of time. How immediate it seems, the fact that this place was once attached to Africa.

Geologically, the pieces—today’s continents—fit like those of a jigsaw puzzle, and, though I know the supposition has been debated by science, many of Amazonia’s species—from certain types of rodents, to monkeys, to large cats, to aquatic mammals and fish—would appear tellingly similar to antecedents found only in Africa.

Paralleling the geology is the amazing hydrological history of the Amazon. At one time, the river actually flowed from east to west. But with the splitting of the South American and African continents some 120 million years ago, and the subsequent upheaval of the Andes, the flow was blocked, creating first a vast inland sea. Then, fed by snow melt from the new mountain range, the sea eventually burst through to the Atlantic, and the Amazon resumed its flow, this time west to east.

In more recent history, Amazonia has been ruthlessly exploited for monetary gain, from the collecting, processing and transporting rubber, to the messy mining of gold, nitrates and guano, to harvesting the rainforest’s rare woods and medicinal plants, to the clearing of more than eight square miles per day for cattle grazing, coca production and other commercial development.

Iquitos's Iron House - Gustave Eiffel, 1889
The effects of the rubber boom—from roughly 1880 to 1915, and again briefly during World War II—can still be seen in Iquitos, Manaus and Belém, where vestiges of European wealth and sensibility still adorn the architecture. The era's ruinous effects on the population and cultures of the region’s indigenous peoples will do doubt outlast the most durable of those buildings.

Today, the brutality inflicted on this land, on these people, remains raw as the world continues demanding more and more of Amazonia’s natural riches. And it is impossible to marvel at the place’s natural beauty without acknowledging—without feeling—that reality.

Of the many unforgettable experiences of this trip, one stands out for its eloquence in articulating this ineffable sense of place.

So, one evening just as the sun is setting, we’re on our way back to the cruise boat in the skiffs. We’re in the middle of a rather wide part of the river, near where the Marañon and Ucayali join to form the Amazon proper. There’s a spectacular sunset. No, wait, there are two…no three.


Looking around the 360-degree panorama, I see three distinct areas of bright horizon and Turner-worthy peach-pink clouds. And, swear to God, I can’t tell which of them is the one, real sunset. Never have I seen anything like it, and our guide, perhaps inured to the phenomenon, casually points out the genuine article, but cannot explain the imposters.

We head over to within 50 yards of the eastern bank, where a spectacular stand of 12- to 15-foot pampas grass sways in the barely perceptible breeze. Our guide suggests we be quiet, listen and wait. Within a few minutes, a flock of a dozen or so green parrots, jabbering excitedly—flying all the way across the river and right over our heads—alights atop the elegant plumes of the pampas grass.

Then, from a slightly different direction, comes another flight. And then another…and another…and another. For the next fifteen minutes, from all over the surrounding rainforest, for miles around, they come by the scores, the hundreds, to roost for the night. By the time we leave, we have to shout to one another to be heard over the din.

The parrots have found their place here in this tall-grass microcosm of Earth’s greatest rainforest. A few billion other critters, having evolved over eons to thrive here, have found their places too. And so, one would hope, have I.

This precious week has shown me both how insignificant and how powerful I am: insignificant for the rarified millisecond in evolutionary time that I've spent here, hoping to better understand one or two things about this incredibly vast and complex biosphere.

Powerful in the fact that my species, in the way we live, the personal and political choices we make thousands of miles from here, may well hold the key to continuing survival for this timeless place and all its inhabitants.

I am deeply grateful for the chance to better realize the connection...and the difference.

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