Posted by: floridanature | December 9, 2009

Emotional Ecotones: From a Window Sill to the Amazon

The “Edge Effect” in the world of ecology describes the place where different plant communities  meet. When they do, the variety of animals and plants there increase dramatically since this “Edge” functions like a community junction—or an intersection. This particular juncture of richness is also called an “Ecotone”.

Florida is blessed with a multitude of these Ecotones since the diversity of the subtropics meets that of the warm temperate climate here. We also have emotional Ecotones in our own lives, places where the past abuts up against the present, maybe the future. For deeply nostalgic guys like myself, the past is particularly rich, and like a wild river it flows, carrying its energy with it. Sitting here and typing these words is a present-tense activity. Yet, the words sometimes celebrate the images and experiences of the past.

As for this personal history, I can chronicle a lot of it by simply looking around the room. The two window sills in front of me are packed with the icons of memory, creating an Ecotone of sensibilities whenever they’re considered.

There’s the small hand-carved dugout canoe with its perfectly downsized little paddle. The dugout’s about ten inches long and made from some sort of tropical hardwood. It imitates the larger dugouts that natives who live in and near tropical rainforests still use today. I came across this one in a small village on the Chagres River in Panama, far upland from the Canal. Villagers still use the dugouts on the upper Chagres—for transportation, setting their fishing nets, gathering native plants for medicine,  food, building materials, and drug-induced pathways to the spiritual Shadow Land.

A photo I took on the Rio Chagres in Central America

I’ve also seen dugout paddlers in Nicaragua, Columbia, Guyana, the interior of Brazil, and in Peru upstream from Iquitos—the later on the rivers that would conflux to create the Amazon. In an adjacent Florida Room, I have a life-sized paddle. It’s a work of art, really, as it’s carved out of a single piece of lightweight tropical wood.  Its handle splays out when it reaches the blade, making it nearly heart shaped. The wide, thin blade tapers down to a point. The working part of the paddle is effective at moving water; the point of the blade allows the boater to stick his/her paddle upright in the mud when back on shore. No matter how you cut it, it’s functional art.

I bought the paddle at a village on the Rio Samaria of Peru for three dollars.  It wasn’t a tourist souvenir, since the remote village of fishermen and hunters and gatherers had no such gewgaws. When I first asked the owner in my woefully broken Spanish if he would sell it, he said yes. His native language was of a particular “indian” origin, and he seemed as unsure of his Spanish as I did of mine.  I finally figured he was telling me  to take his dugout out on the river to practice with the paddle to make sure it worked for me, figuring that—of course—I would have my own dugout on my own tropical river back home.

Like the paddles, each dugout was also a work of art, crafted  individually from logs harvested from  the rainforest. I’m figuring the  process was not unlike that depicted by the Dutch engraver deBry  who,  in 1590,  portrayed Timucua creating a dugout along the St. Johns  River ( via LeMoyne, White, et. al.)  The log was first cut, and then the top of it  was carefully burned to make it easier to chop and then carve out the wood inside. The bottom of the hull had no ridge or keel to  stabilize it, and certainly had nothing resembling a rudder. The bottom was simply round, and when I first pushed the  borrowed dugout into the deep, dark waters of the Samaria, I almost capsized. It didn’t take me long to figure how to paddle so as not to risk flipping over: I hunched down as much as I could on my knees to lower my center of gravity, and realigned my Norteamericano paddle strokes to allow for the fact I was essentially sitting inside a log.

There were huge caiman thriving in this river, aggressive reptiles that make our own Florida gators look docile.  I also noticed that four red-bellied piranha the dugout’s owner had caught earlier were lying in the bottom of the hull next to my knees. (Piranha are good eating, albeit with a jerky-like toughness to them.) Capsizing in such a place would probably not be a particularly good thing.

A piranah, smiling

I finally got beyond the village to a place where the river narrowed, to where I was surrounded by walls of thick green tropical foliage with a fretwork of llianas on each side. It started to rain because, after all, this is the rainforest  and the wet season was just beginning. I noticed several cracks in floor of the dugout had been partially sealed by flattening out sardine cans and tacking them atop the cracks. Between the heavy rains and the leaks from the cracks, I was soon sitting in several inches of water. Two of the piranha begin to flop about, rejuvenated with the water.

Around the next bend, I came on another dugout, this one with two fishermen in it. They were both standing up —which was pretty spectacular all by itself, given the unstable nature of the craft. And, they were pulling in a large net full of odd looking Amazonian fish I had never seen before. Clearly, they had learned how to hold their bodies when standing and throwing nets, and in doing so, had developed an athletic skill and balance special to this place on earth. Had they been living in the tundra of the distant north, they would have likely learned to hunt caribou and fish through holes in the ice. But they lived here in Amazonia, and this place had shaped them inextricably—had speciated them, really, just as nature will do to all of us if we fully allow ourselves to live inside of  it.

Natives fishing from a dugout late in the day on the Rio Samaria (Photographer Layne Kennedy took this one a couple of days later.)

The two men were on the opposite shore, and like good fishermen everywhere, they were working the shallows where fish come to feed and to hide. One waved stoically to me and I waved back, doing my best to not make any sudden moves in doing so. I realized I could have been on the St. Johns River 500 years ago and seen the same thing. The  gift of that was both startling and revelatory. As I paddled on, the fishermen were gradually absorbed by the whiteness of the rain, sharp edges of reality giving way to a soft blur, almost as if they lived inside a photographic vignette.

DeBry's etching of Dugout building by Timucua

Soon the rain obscured everything, and I was alone again, just me and the the dark river below. It was as close to the shore as I could get now, and a pygmy kingfisher—a ringer for our own belted kingfishers back home—flit about in the thick foliage understory just a few feet away, barely more than a couple inches in length. Then, just when I figure all was reasonably under control, shards of fruit begin to rain down on me. When I looked up, I saw a white-faced monkey sitting in a high bough of a cieba tree, peeling what seemed to be a mango with its hands.

The mango peels joined the now revitalized piranha which were in a good six inches of water. The powerful little fish—although they had no interest in me— snapped at the fruit shards. I had no real idea of where I was, only that I was absorbed in the wildness and grandeur of this tropical river, and that there was something profoundly vital and alive about it all. My clunky old riverboat had brought me to another world; my solitary journey in the dugout delivered me somewhere else entirely, a place my over-loaded senses could hardly bear. No wonder those who live so close to the earth need myth to explain what their sensibilities cannot.

By now, the dugout was actually more stable than ever due to the ballast of the water inside. Still, I thought it a good idea to not let it lower the gunnels any more as they were now just a few inches above the river. I emptied my water bottle and used it as a bailer, removing enough of the ballast to keep me safe, but not so much that it might lose its value as a counterweight.

And then, a hundred yards or so away, the pink dorsal of a boto, the rare freshwater dolphin,  surfaced and begin to move towards me. I had come to this place especially to see this animal. But I had hoped to do so from the safety of the battered old Fritzcaraldo-era riverboat I was living on for a few weeks.  Now, I was in solution with it, and this unexpected intimacy went straight to my gut. I was no longer the impartial and intellectual gringo observer who could pick and choose what he wanted to record. A large primitive animal larger than my dugout was moving steadily toward me, and fancy western ideas couldn’t do much about that.

Without even thinking, I carefully sink the blade of my paddle into the water and hold it there, vaguely hoping the dolphin would sense it, and swim below it, under my dugout. When the dorsal was just a couple yards away, it sank under the surface, leaving only a trail of bubbles. The boto was under me, and the enormous displacement of water actually pushed my dugout up nearly a foot, where I teetered unsteadily for the longest three seconds of my life.  (I remembered a manatee doing the same thing back home in Florida, out on the Mosquito Lagoon, and I was somehow comforted by this.) I looked to the other side of the dugout and saw the boto’s dorsal again emerge from the water, watched as it moved steadily away, back into its own time. He could have dumped me in a second, had he wanted to do so.

Caiman

The natives here tell stories that mythologize the boto, giving it supernatural powers, even allowing it to morph into a human, when all the conditions are right for that. That mythology had helped draw me here. But now, that I was fully in its grasp, the essential power of the Amazon and its myths took on an entirely new meaning, easily dwarfing any gringo pretense I had brought along. It struck me that true “discovery” was more than being surprised by little secrets in the landscape. The full gestalt included fear and deep respect as well,  stuff us Norteamericanos try so hard to excise from our experiences in nature.

I’m figured the Timucua once knew the full emotional and spiritual sway of all that surrounded them — just as the Amazonian natives fishing from their dugouts do today. It’s this wholeness of nature that so often alludes us back home because it requires us to evoke  the complex puzzle of myth and wilderness again, one careful piece at a time. Objects created to sanctify myth can be imbued with a power far beyond our limited “civilized” range—even if the creators of those icons are long gone from our earth.

Amazonian dugout paddle on wall of my Florida Room

Funny, but I was pondering the objects on my windowsill to illustrate the metaphor of Ecotones, of places where the past intersects with the present and the future. And in the evocation of memory, I’ve blundered onto a moment as alive and compelling as the Now. Maybe that’s part of the mystery of emotionally driven ecotones—you don’t always  know the boundaries of where they begin and end.

I can see the dugout paddle with the heart-shaped blade I brought back from Peru mounted on the wall, not far from where I am sitting.  I’m going to lift it from its mount, and grasp it again, just as I did when I paddled on the Rio Samaria.  I want to see what other stories it might also remember.

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