I spent an entire week in Amazonia.
I consider myself a well informed person with an active imagination. Of course I knew a bit about the Amazon, and had a mental picture of what it would look and feel like. I knew it is disputably the longest river in the world and by far the river with the greatest volume. It’s discharge is as much as the next 8 rivers combined, 2 of which are its subsidiary tributaries. The largest Island it encompasses is just a little smaller than Denmark.
Since being introduced to Astronomy when I was around seven, I have found my imagination to be consistently grander than reality. What’s a hurricane when compared to Jupiter’s red spot,essentially a storm system much larger than earth that’s been raging for centuries. What’s an earthly river when compared to ‘rivers’ of stars flowing into (or from) a spiral galaxy not unlike the milky way(*). When I was eight, I asked my cousin what’s the furthest she could see. She told me that if she stood on the terrace of her house, she could see her father’s village. I thought that was possible only with the help of generous amounts of childhood imagination, but that didn’t matter – she had fallen for my trick. I triumphantly told her that I could see millions of km – the stars.
So, when I thought about how I would feel when I saw the Amazon, I didn’t think I’d be amazed, just impressed.
But I was dead wrong.
I was blown. Overwhelmed, even.
I ‘look’ at astronomical phenomena as a bunch of physical processes. If I (more or less) understand the process, I can imagine the look of it. However, we humans do not have the qualia to match these phenomenon. They occur on a much grander scale, both in space and time. We can’t sense them with our human senses so all we have is a picture of them in our mind’s eye.
One difference with the Amazon is that we do have the qualia to feel it. I ‘lived’ the Amazon (albeit just for a week) in a way that I will never be able to ‘live’ Jupiter’s Red Spot. Another difference is it’s dynamism, ephemerality and sheer ruthlessness. I tend to think of the afore mentioned astronomical phenomena as fantastic in scale but mostly homogeneous (although they are not). Similarity, I expected to see a big river with lots of water and some exotic animals. I didn’t expect to get a glimpse of the fractal structure of the competition for survival and the delicate balances of various forces that support one life while snuffing out another.
The Amazon changes course every wet season, and with that the stories of the forests along its banks and the animals that live within are irrevocably altered. The forests that happen to be on the outside of the meander are decimated. Those that happen to be on the inside are supplied with rich nutrients from far up-river and end up thriving. Huge trees stripped of vegetation and bark lie on the banks evoking images of the elephant graveyard from jungle book. This continues until the meander gets curved enough for the river to completely cut it off forming an ox-bow lake that slowly dries up over the next several decades but not before providing nuanced ecological niches. Histories of the microcosms on either side are subject to the caprice of the river. It’s difficult not to have the eerie feeling that you are in the presence of a fickle, humongous living thing.
School geography has given me an inaccurate understanding of the Amazon. I expected the density of vegetation to be because of the fertility of the soil. Actually, Amazonia has poor soil with the good stuff going just a few meters deep. As a result, the roots of plants do not go deep enough to support great heights and so, we have various adaptations such as pop and buttress roots. The heights you see the trees achieve is because of competition for sunlight. Very often a tree gets too tall for its roots, and falls down dragging the surrounding vegetation with it. What was a well covered spot (only 1% of sunlight reaches the forest floor) now becomes anybody’s game and plants spring up almost immediately competing for the sunlight. The big trees win often enough, but they can be strangled by others who save energy by not starting with a strong supporting structure like a stem but hijack the big tree’s instead. The strangler fig sometimes envelops a host tree so thoroughly that the host dies off, allowing the fig to grow with a bizarre hollow stem that insects love. Sometimes, the same plant will try several times to succeed after failing. I saw a what looked like a young sapling emerging from a fairly thick stem. A tell tale sign that the plant had previously grown for long enough to become a stem, then lose the game to another plant and so start dying before being given a new lease of life (in this case by the flooding river) before starting to grow again.
This plays out at several scales. At the centimeter scale, one species of ant may hunt another another. Big spiders can eat small birds and even small snakes. Small birds like humming birds manoeuvre well enough to compete for nectar with insects. At the mega fauna scale you have giant otters competing with caimans competing with the Harpy eagle competing with the jaguar, all of which are top of their respective food chains. The harpy eagle is the master of the air. The jaguar is the lord of the land. The giant otter is the king of the water but only in the day, while the Cayman takes over in the night. Then there’s the anaconda and the electric eel that fit in somewhere. While this competition is more visible to us humans at super-meter scales, its is more ruthless at the sub-meter scale leading to scary adaptations.(%)
It’s pertinent to understand why I didn’t end up swimming in the river. I had enough motivation to do so: my new found love for swimming, bragging rights for swimming with the piranhas. The big things were not scary enough to deter me – the current can be estimated by looking at the water surface, sting rays (yes, the sting rays usually that are usually found in the sea, but that’s another post) can be shooed away by splashing around in the water as you enter, caimans avoid human areas for fear of being hunted, anacondas and jaguars consider us too big to be worth the effort of hunting and piranhas avoid eating us for the same reasons that we do not eat rats (we are perfectly good food for them, but they have other culinary preferences). However, the centimeter sized orifice fish scared me out of swimming. It usually swims up the gills of a fish, sucks some blood and once it is full just swims out of its mouth. For a fish, that’s no big deal – its the human equivalent of getting bitten by an uninfected mosquito. For a human being however, all orifices are one way streets, and the said fish can only swim in one direction because once it’s in, it deploys suitably angled barbs! Our only defence is to wear tight swimming trunks (and not those board shorts that seems to be fashionable these days). And although I carried along both the fashionable and unfashionable variety of swimming trunks (so that I can wear both together and be simultaneously safe and fashionable), it was not a risk I was prepared to take. The locals regularly swim in the water though, and our guides told us that it was perfectly safe as long as we don’t pee while swimming, since the minerals attract the little monsters.
So, it’s insect vs insect, branch vs branch, tree vs tree and river bank vs river bank.
The ecological complexity I mention is without even invoking examples of symbiotes and their mutual competition. Once you do that, the biological arms race becomes even more multi-layered and fascinating. Also, all this my insight is from watching what was at most a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of the river (and the guides and reading an excellent book about the wildlife of Manu National Park by Marianne, who owns the tour operation). I don’t know when I’ll get to see the business end of the Amazon, but when I do, I expect to be amazed.
In cities all over the world and even in the so called wilderness of Europe and North America we have established our near undisputed hegemony (with stiff competition from rats) and beaten our natural environment into homogeneous insipidity. It takes travelling to places like this to get a glimpse of nature(#) in it’s variegated splendour. I hope we manage to keep it this way.
(*) Actually, the milky way is actually a barred spiral galaxy. Till recently, it was considered a spiral galaxy.
(%) The small stuff is what got the better of me eventually. During this trip, I began considering myself as tough. I knew I had a decent amount of mental strength, but after hiking 200 km (a good portion of it at high altitude) at a good pace and swimming 20 km without feeling tired, I started thinking of myself as physically tough too. But the clouds of mosquitoes, sand flies, black flies and sweat bees sent me scampering back to civilization. I can see myself scaling high peaks, travelling very long distances on snow, even swimming 10+ km without resting given time to train, but the forest beat me comprehensively. This time.
(#) Increasingly popular theories that the Amazon was actually intensely managed by its human population state that before the Europeans arrived with their diseases the forest supported about 5 million human inhabitants. Read the book called 1491 by Charles C Mann