/ Third Place, 2023 Plentitudes Prize in Nonfiction /
A tree just fell.
It must have been really close by; I startled at the snap- it sounded like a gunshot, followed by a thunderous rolling crash.
One would think that an event like this would set off a deafening series of distress calls from the “alarmists”- those jungle residents, such as monkeys and Violaceous Jays, who make it their job to notify everyone else of any disturbance, of the presence of a human, or of any other oddity which disrupts their day. But they have nothing to say about this. Surely, though, if I go over to investigate, I will be not-so-subtly reminded that I am of greater disturbance to them than was the falling tree.
The jays will accomplish this by perching quietly until I am just upon them, then exploding into a racket not unlike dumping a drawer full of silverware onto a stainless steel table, all the while slapping their wings against the leaves and branches in a percussive attempt at “Wipe-Out,” in Dolby® surround sound.
The monkeys have their various shrieks, hoots, and hollers to advertise their displeasure. But they have even a more specialized method of tattling on trespassers. They promptly drop what they are doing, or, to be more exact, they throw whatever they are doing. If you are lucky, what they are doing is eating, and you will simply be the target for some half-chewed fruit rinds. If you are unlucky, you will gladly sacrifice your day’s supply of drinking water to rinse out your hair.
Once you have been properly informed of your intrusion, and duly punished, you are then subject to their scrutiny. From behind seemingly every leaf, a little doll-like face peers out and snickers at you, then disappears back into the leaves with a maniacal grin.
They monkey troops pass by my blind each day as I watch for “my” Micrastur forest-falcon parents to deliver food to their chick. I am set up in a blind below and about 100 meters east of the nest cavity they have chosen. Many animals pass by me in my blind without noticing me. Hidden here, I am the jungle equivalent of a fly on the wall: able to watch happenings uninfluenced by my presence. I am invisible in a world of dense and perfect wilderness. I feel so small in here, so insignificant. Pure. Clean.
But that feeling does not last. They have started working again down by the river. Above the screaming macaws, the whistling tinamou, the scolding ant-birds, the chirping tree-frogs, and the constant chant of agreement from the cicadas (“Si! Si! Si!” they say), I hear the rhythmic kek-kek-kek of the dredge motor telling me that the gold-miners are back at work. I can feel the vibration under my boots as the soft earth suffers and absorbs each pounding blow; I hear the echo of the kek-kek-kek off the trunk of every tree. The sound is foreign here, mechanical, and vulgarly human.
But again, to my surprise, nothing from the alarmists.
I envy them at this moment, for they can never imagine that what they are hearing is of far greater danger to them than anything that they, their parents, their ancestors, even their species has ever known.
They do not know, as I do, that this is the sound of Eden - the lives and deaths of millions of generations of plants and animals, thousands of years of soil and sun, deposition and decay; that which Mother Nature took her lifetime to build; being bitten off, chewed up, and spat back into the river as so much choking silt.
They cannot understand, but I do, and for this I am bitterly ashamed of my species.
Surely we will preserve postage stamp-shaped parcels of the Amazon, but to me that makes about as much sense as placing a dying patient on life support while refusing to treat or even acknowledge the cancer.
Another tree just fell, and I realize now that this one, like the first, came from the direction of the gold-mining. I wonder what will happen to all the years of energy stored in that tree – all the birds’ nests, caterpillars, tree frogs, bromeliads.. What will happen to all that life?
If it fell back into the jungle it will be reborn: a nursery log for mosses and fungus, larva and seedlings, a feast for termites, a shelter for inhabitants, and a buffet for insectivores. If it fell toward the mine, it will be just another bleached skeleton in a baron, sterile desert of toxic mine waste.
The real price of gold is this:
Raptors shot out of the sky for hunting rats near miners’ huts; rivers choking to death on the silt of their own displaced banks; forests slashed and burned for easy access to mine sites; scars in the jungle that will never, ever heal; less and less animals in a diminishing forest; toxic mercury in the water, in the air, in the fish, in the birds, and even in the people. All of this for a “precious” metal, a substance no one needs to survive.
From just above and to the right of my blind, a cautious Micrastur forest-falcon calls out four gentle syllables “cow, cow, cow, cooooww?” He is telling his lifelong mate, who is guarding her precious chick in the nest which I am here to study, that he has returned and that he will be bringing her whatever luckless rodent he has killed for her and their chick. I have been watching this couple so long that I understand their secret language. They have special alarm calls, special begging calls, one call that means “come here” and another that means “I’ll come to you.” The chick only knows one word: “COW!” “Feed me!” which she demands almost incessantly.
“Cow-cow – Cooowww!” The female answers the male. I am guessing that means something like, “Its safe, now bring me the food!” She timidly pokes her head out of the cavity and gives me an intimate glimpse of the beauty that first brought me here. Her mate waits exactly 11 minutes – which is apparently the amount of time necessary to determine that it is, indeed, safe, despite his mate’s reassurances. He glides over and disappears into the cavity with the back half of the rodent, and “cows” of excitement come from the chick.
Nearby, there is an abandoned gold mining camp – it has the typical trappings of their camps: collapsing huts, broken beer bottles, cans with the lids sticking up, plastic food containers, empty soda bottles, and RATS – Black Rats and Norway Rats that hitched a ride to the jungle from the city with the miners’ boats, and have established populations in and around the mining camps.
I have seen “my” forest-falcons, many birds of prey, in fact, as well as snakes, ocelots, pumas and jaguars hunting the rats among the debris of the abandoned camps. Knowing that, and knowing that the rat “my” mother forest-falcon and her chick are now consuming most likely came from the mine site, somehow renews a little hope. Hope, perhaps, because they are adapting to, even exploiting, a changing habitat- as if their hunting in these sites somehow represents the jungle reclaiming as part of its own that which had been taken by humans. Perhaps just because I know “my” parents and their chick are well fed today and will likely survive to see tomorrow. That is one day closer to a successful nesting season for them. A successful nesting season means one more life in this intricate and fragile web.
Micrastur forest-falcons may mate for life, and as far as we know, they remain faithful to their nesting tree. They will return here each season to raise their young as long as they both live, and as long as this tree stands.
For their sake, and the sake of all the birds, the monkeys, the plants, the tree frogs, and the insects, for the sake of all the life here that continues to enchant this jungle, I can only hope that the miners find no gold here, and continue upstream.
Postscript: The nest tree was taken down in 2008 by miners as part of a slash and burn to clear the land for mining. The area is now unrecognizable to me, and I once knew it so well. It is now a desert of sun-bleached sand and pyramidal stacks of stone. I stand here now in the harsh equatorial sun where the nest tree once stood and spread its branches, shading the soil and the saplings, protecting its forest and its future. I feel a raw and aching loss known only by those who have loved and endured the death of the innocent. I suspect, but am not sure, that this pair has moved inland and is nesting near the intersection of trails “Avispa” and “Cocha Lobo”, deeper in the forest away from mining. The chick was last seen alive and well, far south of the River Los Amigos.