August 16, 2018
I remember when I was a kid, in 8th grade in Mr. Frederick’s science class, when we first started having units on Earth Science. I mean, we had learned about nature before, but this was the first time I remember having a unit only to dive into earth science. Anyway, part of that class was learning about different biomes and ecosystems and I remember when we talked about the rainforests and the plant and animal communities that live there. I remember looking at the diagram Mr. Frederick drew on the board, with layers of trees covered in layers of clouds, all full of animals, and I thought man wouldn’t it be cool to work there. That perception has kind of stuck with me, and I am reminded of it every time someone at home asks me about what it’s like here in Peru. I often get asked about the coolest animals I have seen, the most terrifying encounters with certain species, the craziest looking creature I have come across, etc. People say you’re so lucky you get to work with animals or you’re so crazy for running around in the forest with snakes and bugs everywhere. When I started taking photographs, these are the things that I wanted to learn how to capture. I wanted to be the best wildlife photographer out there, and study awesome animals.
Now, having spent more time in this environment, I am becoming less and less interested in the animals and the crazy things going on in the forest. My whole life, I never once thought about the people that live in the rainforest, and the connections that they must have to the forest around them to have survived for so long in such a harsh place. Living here, these are the things that start to pop out that capture my interest. The people here in Sucusari are just like us in the US in many ways. They have a great sense of humor and spend a lot of time making fun of each other What you start to notice, is that the jokes often are about nature or animals. If all you do is eat and sleep, you’re like the laziest sloth up in a tree. If you eat your pasta quickly you’re like the giant anteater with its long tongue sucking up ants. If you walk quickly and you’re a good hunter, you’re the jaguar moving through the forest. As my Spanish becomes better and better, I enjoy sitting and chatting and learning from the Maijuna more and more. I am more interested now in taking photographs of daily life in the community and in the forest instead of seeking out troops of monkeys. My focus has definitely begun to shift from wildlife to culture.
When I think about what drives this change, I think it is walking through the forest with people one-on-one. We walk in silence. The Maijuna will often stop, for no reason apparent to me, and declare that they smell one species or another. They stop for sounds that seem insignificant and ignore sounds that make me turn or jump. When they look around, their eyes see things that are invisible to me. When you ask them about the forest, they will tell you that it is alive. “Alive” is a word that doesn’t translate well across cultures. Alive to us means is has cells, and is growing or moving or interacting in some way. When the Maijuna say that the forest is alive, they are not talking about the trees growing and animals moving. They mean that the earth itself, the rivers, the entire system is living and shaping how we perceive it. It’s full of sentience and feeling that we cannot see or understand, but they are able to read the ground and the plants like a map. When we stop to rest, also in silence, I often notice them looking up into the trees like they zoned out. I wonder what they are thinking about in those moments. What would I think about if I could see the things they could, or perceive the forest how they do?
The rainforest is not just a place full of fantastic wildlife. There are systems and connections here that we are never exposed to; knowledge that goes back thousands and thousands of years. When people ask me “What was the coolest animal you got to see??” I want to answer that that’s not even close to what I am actually studying. I am trying to unravel and understand just a small piece to this network of connections between people and place. I am beginning to see that the coolest experiences often have nothing to do with animals, they’re hidden in a conversation in someone’s kitchen or lying in a hammock on a rainy afternoon.
Interesting conversations also arise whenever we talk about things that I do in the United States. One particular example that came up recently was SCUBA diving. I was at a mineral lick with Jairo resting after a long walk and he asked what other places in the world I had been to. I started rambling on and mentioned that I had been to some places to dive, but then I realized that was likely a strange concept. He asked me to explain and I said, well, you kind of have a machine with a big tank of air that lets you breathe through tubes deep under the water for a long time. He was fascinated. He said “Wait, wait. You go under the water? How many meters?” When I replied 20, 30, however many meters you want he took a quick breath and said “What! You can breathe that far under water? Aren’t you scared? Isn’t it dangerous? Are there fish?” I said yes, I can show you some photographs and pulled out my phone. He was enamored. He started firing off questions. “Why is the water blue? What are you wearing on your face? What are the big things on your feet for? Why aren’t your legs covered up? Isn’t it cold? How much time are you underneath? Five minutes? Are there whales that can eat you?” We started talking through SCUBA diving from the very beginning. The water in the ocean isn’t like the river water, it’s blue and clear. The mask on my face lets me see! The big fins you wear help you swim faster. Right away he says “Like a duck! Right?” We kept chatting and going through every photo I had on my phone of SCUBA diving, then headed back. Two days later, during dinner, Jorge stopped by and said “Brian, a quick question for you. Jairo said you have photos of swimming under the water. Can I see?” This curiosity comes up often when I least expect it, talking about things that seem commonplace and normal to us. I guess, at the same time, I am constantly asking annoying questions about every little thing that the Maijuna do or say as well. I once mentioned that in the US, once per year, all of the leaves fall off of the trees at the same time, and the forest is no longer green. That caused quite the barrage of questions. Always an intelligent conversation to be had when two different worlds come together!