AN AMAZON LOVE STORY—CONNECTING TO THE INNERNET

Amazon river view.JPG

Ecuador. Equator. The middle of the earth. A place of balance between two poles.

Quito, the capitol we flew into, is perched in the Andes mountains at over 9000 feet. Its location is stunningly beautiful, with snow-capped volcanoes and a front row seat to gorgeous shifting cloudscapes. Ancient indigenous peoples, and later the Incans, considered this place sacred long before it was named an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s easy to see why. Ecuador’s most picturesque mountain, Cotopaxl, is an active volcano whose grand scale, symmetry and snowy summit evoke Mount Olympus. In fact, ancient mythology placed the seat of the gods at Cotopaxi’s peak.

My travel companions and I were called to Ecuador for a deep dive on the Rights of Nature movement. What is “the rights of nature”, you ask? I’ll tell you all about it, but not by recounting the experience of sitting in a university auditorium for three days of indoor presentations and intellectual discussions at the International Rights of Nature Symposium. That’s a story of the mind.

Instead, I’ll tell a story of lungs and hearts.

Arriving at our Quito Airbnb, I became very aware of the altitude. One flight of stairs, and I was winded. It was hard to concentrate. The expression that slowly came to my oxygen-deprived mind was: “head in the clouds”. My whole travel crew lives at sea level back in the US, so even the heartiest among us was vertically challenged. That was reassuring, at least. I felt my heart and lungs laboring, as if they were separate organisms—like three sled dogs straining to pull the rest of my body through deep, heavy snow. My time in Quito was mostly spent in the conference, listening to presentations about how to legally protect and enforce nature’s right to exist and flourish. Much of my free time consisted of lying down to rest my cardiovasculars while daydreaming about the second part of the trip—a four-day Amazon rainforest immersion.

Photo credit: L. Christina Cobb

Photo credit: L. Christina Cobb

Quito taught me what it might feel like to breathe in a future where air pollution and climate change cause a kind of mass asthma or COPD. I was constantly aware of my lungs, and how hard they were working to bring in enough oxygen. Imagine if this physical struggle was the norm, all over the planet, all the time. Climate change is at its core an excess of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, and a deficit of oxygen. Already, ocean oxygen levels are declining at an alarming rate. Climate change is direct evidence of our effect on nature, and a clear assertion of nature’s power over us humans. It is a blunt reminder that whatever we do to nature, we do to ourselves. We have to play nice with nature, because ultimately we depend on her for everything.

The remedies that most helped with the altitude were nature’s medicines: coca tea and chlorophyll pills. But the fix I really needed was a descent to lower altitudes, into the forest of my dreams—the ultimate source of oxygen: The Amazon. 

The Amazon jungle pumps out so much oxygen, your body feels super oxygenated, high on O2. The oxygen-rich air was just the first hint of Amazon magic. As soon as we arrived at the Achuar village of Sharamentsa, deep in the heart of the Amazon, all my senses keyed up to a higher frequency and sensitivity. On our first guided forest walk, I noticed an extra aliveness kick in. I thought, “we’re by far the minority species now”. What a thrilling feeling. When your species isn’t a god-like overlord in a manmade, human-centric version of the world, everything feels so much more…natural. Extraordinarily clear-headed, I felt completely present and at home in this foreign world.

When you’re in rainforest territory, being aware of real life surroundings and being present are of top importance. Instinctively, you want to know which creatures are where at every moment, and whether they’re friend or foe. All around, life in billions of forms—teaming, thrumming, humming, crawling, fluttering and flapping. Trillions of plants and trees of every imaginable form and shade of green. For millennia, this place has thrived like a single super-organism, regenerating in an endless cycle of interconnectedness and interdependence.

Photo credit: Josh Knauer

Photo credit: Josh Knauer

This was total immersion, in an incomprehensibly complex ecosystem that is no less than a massive collective intelligence. A massive distributed brain.

We were tapping into the Innernet. Communications between my friends and I grew more intuitive, less verbal. Extra aware of each other, of our Achuar hosts, the jungle’s spirit; and the energy of the Pastaza River, the Amazon River tributary where our village perched.

Each of us came to the rainforest with our pressing life questions, relationship issues, internal struggles. In short, we traveled with the usual human baggage. Each day, our group vibe became more relaxed, compassionate and flowing. It was as if the forest was re-teaching us how to simply be.

The forest provides, with endless generosity and abundance. The forest gives and gives, without questions or expectations.

Photo credit: Josh Knauer

Photo credit: Josh Knauer

Glimmers of the Amazon’s gifts

Come flit through memories of the rainforest, like a blue morpho butterfly.

First we’ll touch down on the shining dark hair of Domingo Peas, an indigenous activist and bridge builder who guided us on our adventure. Equally in his element leading us shirtless through swampy forest trails, or conference calling with NGO leaders in DC on his iPhone…then using it as a mirror to apply traditional face paint. At his side in the communal thatched meeting house is Angel Etsaa, the local chief and leader of Sharamentsa, the village hosting us. Our ever-present, incredibly knowledgeable tour organizer, interpreter and occasional therapist Atossa Soltani introduced us to the community and the whole adventure. She is Amazon Watch’s founder and now a leader of the Amazon Sacred Headwaters initiative.

The queen of trees

We are led deep into the forest, to a special tree that instantly awed us all. Towering over all the surrounding trees, its crown disappeared into the misty sky. Its massive buttress roots were so high, we couldn’t see each other over their walls, and our voices were muted. This sacred ceiba (kapok) tree is where tribe members come to seek renewal or guidance in difficult times. They meditate and sit with the tree, absorbing its healing energy and wisdom. The tree’s presence was so powerful, I spontaneously began to cry. Pulling myself together, I tried to capture her glory in photos that didn’t at all do justice.

Western science and indigenous beliefs agree—the Amazon is the world’s lungs. This sacred tree, and meditating in its forest home, made that visceral. Breathing in the freshest of air, you can feel the fact that the Amazon forest creates more than 20% of our planet’s oxygen. While it also absorbs enormous amounts of carbon dioxide as a by-product of photosynthesis, since the early 2000’s the Amazon’s ability to absorb CO2 is on the decline due to a rise in trees dying off along with deforestation.

Hidden waterfalls where ancestors speak

Our butterfly reappears on a low palm leaf at the end of the secret waterfall trail we treaded for hours. Here, Atossa explains how water, the earth’s lifeblood, is inextricably linked to the Amazon rainforest too. This arboreal heart plays a critical role in the creation and distribution of rain globally. Meaning deforestation here contributes to drought and extreme weather all over the world. The waterfall we hear behind her voice is not yet visible. Domingo is already there, waiting to guide us through a traditional ritual of purification, preparing each of us to connect with the spirit of a deceased family member through this water portal. Respecting the sacred nature of the experience, I won’t detail it. I will say though, I had a vision of and a conversation with my father that I’m profoundly grateful for. He planted over 10,000 trees in his lifetime and was my earliest inspiration to be a nature protector.

Forest food

The morpho leads us to nectar-filled flowers, interspersed among small scale food forest plots right in the middle of the jungle. The Achuar are hunters and gathers but they’re also deft small-scale farmers who know how to integrate fruit trees, root vegetables and other food plants with the forest. They even enrich the soil with charcoal, a practice being rediscovered by regenerative agriculture farmers in the West.

Plant medicine

Our butterfly goes off to rest for the night, as some of our group prepared for a traditional plant medicine ceremony led by a local shaman. Though tempted, I didn’t feel the time was right for me. Instead, I relaxed in a hammock with another abstaining pal and we communed with the forest spirit in our own way. From the comfort of our hut, we experienced visitations from bats, fluorescent caterpillars, and a wild variety of frogs and insects. When I eventually went to bed and closed my eyes, my conscious mind was swallowed by the almost deafening orchestra of night creature sounds. Then, instead of sleeping, for several hours I saw shifting pulsing geometric patterns behind my closed eyes and felt like I was floating. The next day, debriefing with the shaman, my friends told stories of personal breakthroughs and mystifying visions. I mentioned my experience too, and it seems it may have been a diluted version of what happens with plant medicine. Maybe next time.

It was pouring rain, cleansing the earth of the prior night’s ceremony residue. Our hosts prepared a sublime herbal steam bath. One by one, we took turns leaning over a huge pot of boiling leaves with blankets over our heads. Inhaling the curative vapors to the sound of pattering rain on the hut roof, I was instantly re-grounded.

Our daily diet was a kind of plant medicine too, with an occasional tough chicken thrown in. Prepared by the community’s women, it was delicious and hearty. We were regaled with delicately flavored root veggie, coconut, avocado, banana and plantain dishes, often wrapped in fragrant leaves. We ate separate from the rest of the community, which felt odd at times. But the children were always smiling and full of energy, and their parents seemed healthy and happy too. From our experience, Sharamentsa is an example of genuinely sustainable tourism. At the same time, it truly brought to life the Rights of Nature. 

The Sacred Headwaters of the Amazon & the Rights of Nature

As evidenced by the election of Brazil’s new leader, the future of the Amazon is easily undermined by the whims of national politics. It’s doubly vulnerable to external threats, given the constant push for more exploitation and destruction led by corporations from all over the world. The Amazon headwaters are the source of the Amazon forest’s health, and are critical to the planet’s health. The Amazon Sacred Headwaters initiative works to create protection that supersedes national policies, and is effective across national boundaries. The Rights of Nature can provide such legal protection. It may sound absurd at first glance. But remember, corporations have the same legal rights as people (i.e.,“corporate personhood”). Talk about absurd. There is no logic there, except the logic of corporate power run amok. On the other hand, people are nature, so why shouldn’t nature be given the same rights as people, under the law?

Addendum for my left-brained friends. After this heart and lungs story, is your inquiring mind still asking, “but what is the Rights of Nature?

The Rights of Nature are legal frameworks that recognize ecosystems and elements of nature as entities that have an independent, legal right to exist and flourish. Laws recognizing the rights of nature can be enforced by people, governments, and communities.

When Rights of Nature (RoN) legislation is adopted individuals, communities and governments have the authority to legally defend those rights. It’s a new movement, but there are already some RoN laws in effect. Ecuador’s constitution includes RoN laws, although they are widely violated. Here in the US, Native American leaders of the Ponca Nation passed RoN laws to protect their land from fracking in 2018; and Toledo, Ohio is fighting for RoN legislation to protect their access to safe water. For the latest on the RoN movement, go here.