In the final installment of Into The Amazon, LCA heads into the rainforest canopy, overloads the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, discovers a constellation of stars under her feet, then shows you how you can do all this yourself, for science!
I'm suspended over a nearly twelve-story abyss, so far above the forest floor that my brain keeps trying to create a false one out of the tops of normal-sized trees below. (And then abandoning it — a mental adjustment that feels like falling.) The path is narrow, just a long line of 1x10s laid down atop aluminum ladders cradled in nets. Each step sends a shiver down the bridge; every three shivers creates a larger bob that rolls back at you in opposition; every other step earns a sharp crack as plank-ends buck against each other. Ropes creak constantly — you can feel them jumping under your hands.
People who love adventure know that euphoria and terror often go hand-in-hand, but this — one of the longest canopy walkways in the world, strung between 14 emergent trees — is as beautiful as I've seen that dichotomy get. The exposure this far above the canopy is incredible, triggering some fierce primal imperative in my lizard brain to seek shelter. And even though I'm not (usually) afraid of heights, my stomach is in a permanent state of free-fall that's both heightening the colors around me and leaking straight into my knees.
The beauty, the vertigo, the exposure, the drop — it all adds up to a freedom so pure that I'm afraid to examine it closely, because I don't want it tamed. (And it won't be, even after three days up here.) By the time sunset hits three hours hours later — as the mist drops down and the darkness under our feet turns solid — all the wobbly kind of fear has fallen away, leaving only tack-sharp elation behind.
After a brief hike from Explornapo this morning, we've moved into the ACTS (Amazon Conservatory of Tropical Studies) Field Station, which has operated as an HQ for visiting scientists for the last 20 years. Their canopy walkway — spanning a third of a mile — offers easy access to the vegetation, insects, and general ecology of the least-explored layer of rainforest, and canopy expert Meg Lowman is showing us the ropes.
The rules of the walkway are simple: no more than three people on any one bridge at a time, no more than four people on a platform, and watch out for bullet ants.
Named in honor of how much it hurts to be stung by one (i.e. the equivalent of being shot, overloading the "Schmidt sting pain index" at a 4+), bullet ants tend to use the walkway's hand-ropes as a mini highway.
Since it's almost impossible to navigate the ever-bouncing walkway without skimming your hands along both sides, your best course of action is to 1) ramp up your reflexes and peripheral vision; 2) accept that you're almost guaranteed to get bit/stung by something while up there; and 3) be grateful when it's just a trio of wasps.
Confession: I haven't always been this live-and-let-live about insects. Prior to this trip, I was more the shrieking, trembling, call-for-help type (or a smash-first-ask-questions-later, also-while-shrieking type). But something unbelievable has happened out here — a tidy, one-two therapy punch. Step 1, a village full of Brazilian wandering spiders melted my brain; step 2, entomologists filled it with useful information, such as "two pairs of legs per segment means we can be friends."
Night hikes are a good test of that and other courage — mucking through mud so deep it sucks at your shoes while headlamps pick out everything from giant harvestmen, to black spiders with abdomens the size and color of cherries, to snakes that have you desperately trying to remember whether red-next-to-black is "dead Jack" or "friend Jack."
About a half-hour into the forest, the guide tells us to stop, switch off our lights, and wait. The darkness that rushes in is the blackest black I've ever breathed through. You can't see shapes, can't see the tree-covered sky, can't see your own body. I feel submerged, ready to question whether up is really up and whether I'm standing or floating. And then suddenly, there are stars — under my feet.
Green constellations are scattered all over the forest floor, interrupted only by dark stripes where trees must be. More of them appear as my eyes start to collect smaller and smaller pieces of light, the inverted sky below me getting richer with each passing second. It's the most surreal thing I've ever seen, and it's the kind of beauty that breaks you a little, because you know it can't last.
A phenomenon knows as "foxfire" (or "faeire fire") in other parts of the world, the tiny stars are actually fallen leaves that have been invaded by bioluminescent fungi. And not to get too wildly nerdy, but it makes me think of this poem I've always hated, this poem that paints knowledge as a ruiner of beauty, that says knowing how a think works makes it somehow less magical, that implies science is a layer of noise that gets between you and the natural world. For me, it's the opposite. Where a thing came from, how it works, why it works — that's where awe lives.
The next morning we're back on the walkway at sunrise, surprising toucans still tucked into trees. It's a day and night of heavy science — while it's light, we're divided into leaf-sampling teams and assigned to sections of the canopy, sweating buckets while collecting data that will help Meg find out whether any particular level is being eaten faster/more thoroughly than the others.
After a few hours, I grab a beat-sheet and head out with the entomologists, leaning precariously over the sides of canopy walkways to
beat the hell out of gently rustle any promising-looking branches — and then quickly scanning the sheet to be sure I didn't just collect something I need to run from. See something interesting? Just suck it up into your aspirator and wear it like a badge of honor. Who knew necklaces made of surgical tubing are totally not (that) creepy?
Night finds us back at the long tables in ACT's main room, now covered with leaves, graph paper, calculators, data sheets, tweezers, plastic vials, and little ceramic trays of insect bits. There's not a lot of light, which makes the insect-bits a less-than-choice assignment, but it's an industrious scene and beer keeps it merry.
Meg asks the guides to tell us about their lives — how they grew up, what the forest means to them, what working at Explorama has meant to them, where their families and communities are — and then she talks, as we work, about the realities of the Amazon's outlook: the free-for-all of oil exploration; how 80 percent of the logging done is Peru is illegal (a lot of that lumber ends up here); and how critical it is not just to care right now, but to act right now.
The tipping point for Amazon deforestation — the point at which things like soil health, species richness, and carbon storage all begin to break down; the point at which the forest is no longer a functioning whole — is 20 percent. Today, WWF estimates put the current level of destruction at 17 percent.
Being here is one way to help. Bring your money, your muscle, your brain. Buy something, build something, improve something — like the guy on this trip who went home and got to work on a smartphone app for measuring leaves and herbivory. "Even if you come here and just lay around in a hammock all day," Meg says, "you'll be helping." Not that she'd actually let you get away with that, much.
So yeah, this could be you — sweating, boating, hiking, fishing for piranha, swimming nowhere near anacondas, cuddling mosquito nets, wielding a blowgun, swinging from treetops, spotting pink dolphins, getting purified, drinking river rum, caring about a forest, sweating some more. The Academy's Science Travel program is brand-new (it launched with this trip, in fact), but it's already a standout in its field: Each of its expeditions has a mandate to integrate true citizen science — data collection that's vital to scientists' research, and that actually helps to answer critical questions about how to protect life on Earth.
You won't get a string of fancy, four-star hotels; you will get to see amazing places with new eyes, contribute to safeguarding those places, help support local families and communities, and learn things that melt your brain in the best possible ways. Upcoming trips haven't been announced yet (though the Amazon trip will repeat annually), but you can add your name to the mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, full disclosure: The Academy is my 9-to-6, so say hi if we end up in Madagascar together.
I'm going to stop here, because I don't want to write about leaving — I miss the Amazon so much it's almost crippling. I find myself smelling the laundry I brought back, being weirdly comforted by heady smells of river and decay still in them. It makes me happy that there are still traces of mud on my boots. When I can't sleep, I try to imagine a floor of green stars.
I'm never, ever going to shake this place — that's just the way it is. And as fragile as the Amazon is today, it needs more people who can't forget it — more people who won't ever let go.
Photos by Rob Nelson/Untamed Science.
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