Man, I could go pretty far afield with this one. Maybe ruminate on Eliot, Frost, Merrill, Whitman (again!) and some of the Latin poets—from Neruda to Cuba’s Carpentier and Guillen. Could name some of my favorite living American poets, including Stephen Dunn, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Lola Haskins, and Ann Fisher-Wirth. Fortunately, I’ve known some very good poets in my time —including the three American women, who are all great sports—and have staked more of my heart inside the comfort of a lyric than most guys would care to admit.
But when it comes to figuring out the shadows that dance about behind the silhouette of myth, I repeatedly turn back to Elizabeth Bishop, an excellent poet who is just now beginning to earn the widespread praise she deserves. Bishop, who earned her undergrad degree from Vassar in 1934, was independently wealthy; as such, she was able to travel widely, living for many years in Brazil and then Key West, Florida.
A few years ago, I traveled to the Peruvian Amazon, upstream of Iquitos, to write a magazine piece about the “Boto”, the Portuguese name for the freshwater river dolphin. I had first learned about the Boto when, as a younger man, I watched an episode of Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso adventures as it went in search of this rare, pink-colored mammal in South America. The Boto was compelling, to be sure, with its elongated snout, and its un-fused vertebrate—which allowed it to poke its head out of the water and turn around to look, just as humans do.
Although it was a bit of a throw-back to an earlier era of time when nature and evolution experimented with its world, the dolphin was particularly suited for where it lived. The Amazon seasonally is swollen by a great rise and fall of its waters—sometimes up to 20 and 30 feet—as a result of its rainforest climate. At those times, the river would flow back deeply into the surrounding jungle, and the Boto—who took advantage of its un-fused backbone to twist and turn through the inundated trunks and vines—made a very good living by catching fish back in there.
Bishop, who learned about this odd animal when living in Brazil, also came to understand the mythology that surrounded it. Because of its pink skin and its human-like ability to move its head, the Boto was considered encanto—enchanted. Wonderful tales were told then, indeed, were still being told when I arrived on the river and its upstream tributaries, the Rio Samaria and the Ucayali, and all the rest. The poet wrote of this mystical animal, one that natives believed had great powers. Like with most of her other work, she used exacting descriptions and great subtlety to report on the physical world around her, packing a lot of information into a few lyrics.
And while Capt. Cousteau first introduced me to the Boto, the poet entranced me—just as the Boto could do to the natives in the villages along the Amazon. Bishop wrote of certain men transforming into the Boto—and then, wrote of the dolphin reshaping its own self to become a handsome man. In the stories that are still told, the transformed Boto then walks into a village late at night during a fiesta, after lots of mosato has been consumed and all is right with the world. In those times, the handsome man-dolphin is dressed in a white suit with a white hat. The only way you could tell he was a dolphin at all would be if he removed his hat—because, under it, would be a blowhole. Sometime during the masato-soaked fiesta, the handsome man in the white suit would then select the prettiest girl in the village and take her away to the jungle where they would become intimate. Later, she would return to the party and he would return to the river.
A few lines of her great poem “Riverman” describes the beginning of this transformation:
This man-to-dolphin-to-man myth is intriguing all by itself. But it was so much more than that. The enchanting Boto also knew the secret to a life that never ended. And this unending life was sustainability—in this case, expressed in an abiding need to protect the river because it provided anything a human could possibility desire.
And in a later stanza, Bishop shares this vital knowledge with us:
Look, it stands to reason
that everything we need
can be obtained from the river.
It drains the jungles; it draws
from trees and plants and rocks
from half around the world,
it draws from the very heart
of the earth the remedy
for each of the diseases—
one just has to know how to find it.
And so the poem captured the sacred wisdom of the cultural myth. For a long time, the Boto’s world was protected because of its sacred quality. But if the safeguards were grounded in mysticism, they also sustained the very real physical world that gave life to the people who lived in it.
It’s no accident that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our own “Rio San Juan” right here in east Central Florida. A few days ago, I was on a panel in a “summit” devoted to it up in Jacksonville. It was a venue in which the river was diced and sliced, turned into graphs and charts, much talk about numeric nitrate standards, and TMDL’s, and very little about the river as a vital energy source in our broader ecology, and in our imaginations.
A day or so later, I spent a bit of time here with Jacques’ granddaughter, Alexandra Cousteau, on the St. Johns in Sanford. Alexandra, who is on an extended “Blue Legacy” expedition to bring attention to our fresh and salt water systems, helped with a river clean-up, and provided inspiration, simply be being here.
There were no Botos to be had on this very real Norte Americano event. But there was hope and optimism—a belief that individual people *can* make a difference, if they really want to. That knowledge alone is the antidote to every false-talking politician who wants to exclude everyday citizens from the decision-making process. This antidote is empowerment, a never-ending desire to use thought and action to do the right thing. As Ms. Bishop reminds us: “It stands to reason/That everything we need/Can be obtained from the River..”
After all, “..It draws from the very heart /of the earth the remedy/for each of the diseases.“
One of the most damaging human diseases today is apathy, a malaisse that’s revealed in a loss of hope. It’s a condition in which there are few remedies, because the heart has been disconnected from all the rest of life, and we are left with a reality in which an engineering spreadsheet carries far more weight than a poem, a song, a book.
It’s not enough to simply *care”. If we don’t act on our caring, then we will ultimately vanish as functioning humans—and nothing will be left but the fleeting shadow of a human spirit, and a green puddle of water where the river used to be.
Thank you, Ms. Bishop and Ms. Cousteau, for reminding us it can be otherwise.