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IMPRESSIONS OF THE RAINFOREST

By Roger J. Harris

You walk between tall columns of giant gray trees, dappled with innumerable shades of green. You taste the oxygen-rich air, heavy with moisture. It imbues you with an inexplicable euphoria. You wander on as though in a dream.

Strange fragrances waft among the compost odor of decaying vegetation. All around, vegetation of incredible lushness spills upon, over and under itself. Vines and lianas cavort, twist and tumble in every direction.

A spot of color might be a flower... then it moves and turns out to be a butterfly. The cicadas' tinny whine pervades the forest, but the sound stops respectfully as you walk close. The insects' instinct for life is strong—they don't know who you are.

An alien cooing spreads through the forest. Luckily your naturalist-guide is an expert on the local wildlife, so he identifies the strange sound as a bird called the Screaming Piha—the names of animals are as weird as the sounds.

You kneel down to peel off the top layer of damp leaves covering the hard clay soil. Countless scurrying motes of life incessantly move toward their inscrutable destinations. Between and within the papery leaves are masses of tiny white threads tendrils of fungi seeking sustenance from the dead. Yet they are part of life, unlocking vital nutrients once held by the living plant, freeing them for re-use. Just a few inches away sprouts a seed. Its roots already push down through the leaf litter. Its small soft leaves reach up toward the precious light.

Where are you? Here in the Amazon, on the banks of the world's biggest river. You're surrounded by endless tracts of tropical rainforest: green in overwhelming abundance—one of the world's biodiversity hotspots - home to more types of plants and animals than anywhere else on Earth.

But what does the Amazon mean to you? Peter Benchley's sensationalist TV series? A mysterious wilderness full of weird animals, yucky bugs and strange people? Until you've been there, preconceptions are mere illusions. Over the past ten years I've been lucky enough to visit the Amazon many times. I've sailed along the full length of the river twice, and led 25 separate natural history and photography tours. Such was my experience, I was inspired to write a book—a travel guide to the Amazon (The Amazon: The Bradt Travel Guide, published 1998, second edition 2003).

Yet, even now, having been there so often and encountered so many bizarre creatures with a biologist's perspective—the Amazon's mystery remains—perhaps because it is ultimately indescribable. Nature's truth cannot be conveyed, only sensed and then fleetingly. Seeing it on TV, even in the best nature documentaries, offers but a glimpse of a greater whole.

So you walk on, along the muddy trail. You observe more closely, trying to take it all in—but it is endless— a surfeit of sensory input. The beauties and intricacies of the forest are infinite. How unjust, how cruel, that we humans should find reasons to pillage this treasury of life. Yet it remains intact in many parts.

In the Amazon you still find adventure and excitement in abundance, especially for our technologically jaded senses. In the words of Francisco Grippa, a well-known artist living in Pevas, Peru, "The forest, the river, the wildlife, the people, they are my inspiration—they are my life." Let the Amazon into your life and visit there while you still have the chance.

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