June 8, 2014

‘Mother of God’ recounts the fate of the under-siege Amazon rainforest

“Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey Into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon” by Paul Rosolie (Harper Collins, 306 pages, $25.99)

“Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey Into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon” by Paul Rosolie (Harper Collins, 306 pages, $25.99)

Beset by the rapacious greed of humankind, the Amazon rainforest is under siege on a daily basis. Naturalist, explorer, and first-time author, Paul Rosolie, guides readers into the jungle for an insider’s view of a world few of us will ever be privileged to visit. He castigates the group of persons he terms “the extractors”; poachers, hunters, drug traffickers, miners, and developers, who profit from the Amazon, without regard for the long-term consequences. His is a sobering account of an ecosystem hanging in the balance, its fate destined to be determined in the next century or less.

As a young boy, Rosolie struggled in school with dyslexia, boredom, and outbreaks of anger. However, he recognized an early love of nature and upon visiting the Jungle World exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, he felt a sense of belonging. An uninspired student, he yearned for a meaningful adventure. After an altercation with a teacher, he left high school at the end of his sophomore year, took the GED, and enrolled part time in college. In January 2006, at the age of 18, he joined a group of student researchers at the Las Piedras Biodiversity Station in Peru. There the author developed a friendship with an indigenous guide who would become his rainforest teacher and fellow adventurer. Rosolie was born in Brooklyn, but he says his life started on the Las Piedras River.

The research station is in the Madre de Dios (Mother of God) region of Peru where the Amazon begins. On a clear day, “it is possible to look west over the boiling lowland jungle and see the snowcapped Andes looming divinely far in the distance. Contained in that single view is the greatest array of living organisms to have ever existed.” It is not certain how the region came to be called Madre de Dios, but the author finds the name to be profound because in his words it is the “womb of the Amazon.”

Rosolie provides insightful history of the region, recounting the lawless West Amazon. Since the 16th century, outsiders have pillaged the region, whether for timber, spices, metals, rubber, medicine, oil, or slaves. Loggers hunting the native peccary and spider monkeys to feed the logging camps rendered several species locally extinct.

The important concept of interconnectivity in the rainforest ecosystem permeates Rosolie’s narrative. When one species is hunted out and decimated, the plant life that animal fed on grows out of control, dominating and altering the balance of forest life. “Each mushroom, each decaying leaf is a world of its own, each a microcosm of fantastic complexity even apart from the whole they support. Yet there is no apart in such a world of cryptic complexity. The towering trees that rise from the barren clay of the basin support thousands of lichens, insects, mosses, fungi, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, and they cannot exist without the specific other life-forms of the biome.”

The jungle enriched the author’s life in many ways, and it also threatened it on more than one occasion. A young orphaned giant anteater bonded with Rosolie and insisted on sleeping on top of him in his hammock, showing affection by cleaning out his ears with her sticky, ten-inch tongue. He tackled crocodiles and searched out oversized anacondas (one as “thick as a small cow, and easily well over twenty-five feet long”), contracted a life-threatening infection, and went on remote solo expeditions that challenged his survival capabilities.

The book’s center photo section documents stories that might otherwise sound like the tall tales of a jungle-smitten imagination. It is unfortunate, however, that only one rough map is included, and it is of the concentrated Madre de Dios area. One tiny inset drawing shows the area’s general location on the continent, requiring readers to seek out other maps for geographic orientation to a region of the world that remains alien and exotic to most of us.

Rosolie continued in college, working and saving for the next trip to the Amazon, often feeling that he was living a double life. In the U.S. he made use of the modern technological conveniences at his fingertips; in Peru he drank from the river, searched out anacondas, and went for excursions exploring the secrets of the rainforest, encountering isolated tribes in places no outsider had ventured into for centuries. Concentrating on his studies in ecology and conservation, he was finally able to connect his education with his interests in the world outside the classroom. One professor in particular challenged him to be more than a “thrill-seeking adventurer” and influenced Rosolie’s development, even convincing him to join a study-abroad group in India. When he returned to the Amazon, he discovered threatening changes, most seriously the forest being burned and razed to make way for a road and houses. His friendship with a local family proved invaluable as he pursued a way to remain and sustain his life in the Amazon.

In a book that is part adventure narrative and part conservation entreaty, Rosolie’s story is both entertaining and revelatory, often reminding us how much we have to lose by passively ignoring the plight of areas of the world we may never see in person. He recognizes a tendency for each new generation to simply accept the current condition of the world instead of comparing it to the ecological abundance it once was and should be. Future generations may only know of the great rainforests by photographs and fossils. Rosolie’s book is a clarion call reminding us that “in conservation the victories are temporary; it is the losses that are final.”

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