Brazil, River of Stars, at the end of the Transpantaneira.
Love found images.
When I was in Brazil last July, I was really taken with the cocoi herons, which are like a more stylish version of great blues (I imagine them speaking with a French accent).
I love when they spread their wings to dry off in the sun.
This one had a fish.
And then a whole bunch of giant otters came along.
And one of the little dead-eyed bastards stole and massacred the fish.
Moving photos off my Air hard drive has become a neverending saga, because I keep stopping to look at things.
Whenever I talk about going to see specific animals, people ask how I know those animals are sure to be there. They ask about fences or enclosures, or whether the creatures are “tame.” For most people, wild animals — being wild — could be anywhere.
One thing I really learned from my time with Finch was about the notion of habitat. There are so many things I learned about the planet from accompanying him, seeing things through his lenses and knowledge, but one of the most profound is about habitat, about where creatures live, and how to find them. How if you look, if you pay attention, if you are persistent, you know exactly where creatures will be, with astonishing accuracy. What they eat plus who their predators are plus time of year plus subtle changes in habitat give you so much information. I learned about what it means to know where you live.
I remarked to someone the other day that being with Finch was like visiting another planet — a planet filled with polar bears and icebergs and whales you can kiss, and jaguars that are just there, looking fearsome and leaving you alone. What’s under the sea, and the earth, and above it, and what’s on it. Where cocoi herons eat fish, and where and when you can find a blackburnian warbler in Toronto, or where an amazonian kingfisher happily hunts fish on a Brazilian river. Where the grey jays will come and eat out of your hand.
And now I feel a bit like I got spat through a wormhole and am back on earth, mulling over what it is I saw on my amazing journeys.
Searching for the jaguars in Brazil last summer really brought home to me the intense, amazing possibilities of looking for creatures where they live, how a bit of knowledge about why they do what they do, and a lot of persistence, make a kind of miraculous “luck.” We knew that the jaguars live along the strips of river in specific parts of the Pantanal, and we knew they show up more at dawn and dusk, generally, and that they need to come down to the river for water. Add that to guides and scouts who are in touch with each other, and there you are, in your little boat, there you find the miracle.
We saw about a dozen jaguars all together, I think, over our four days, including this one mating with his female. Almost no one sees that.
One thing I found deeply amusing was that even as we were searching for them, even as our little boat gently patroled up and down the rivers, every time I saw a jaguar, I gasped, startled. We were looking for them, and they were there, and it surprised me every time. They were so big, so unexpectedly large and present.
And apparently I have a highly developed startle reflex. I had the same experience when I stalked the mountain gorillas in Uganda a few years ago. We were looking for them — we walked for miles, doing nothing but hunting for the gorillas — the guide said they were just the other side of the clearing — and then as I saw the first blackback male just a couple of metres away, I gasped and drew back, and he pseudo charged me in response.
I was thinking about this notion of habitat because we are planning to see the Chimpanzees in Kibale when we go to Uganda later this month. I am quite taken with the notion of seeing an endangered species in their natural habitat, in the wild, see it as an homage to one of my heroes, Jane Goodall. One of the members of our group is quite nervous, thinking that he prefers them to be “tame,” predictable.
What I learned from being with Finch is that wild creatures are eminently predictable — you know when migrating birds are going to be roughly in an area, and when they aren’t; you know how jaguars and polar bears and whales are going to behave, and how they won’t. You know the snow geese and sandhill cranes will be at Bosque del Apache in February. They’re not going to behave like zoo animals, generally speaking, but if you pay attention, there is no way you are in danger. With the exception of polar bears, very few animals are genuine predators of human beings if unprovoked. You know they stay in their habitat because it doesn’t make any sense for them to stray outside it — it’s dangerous for them, or limits food, or means they cede their territory to someone else.
That’s true for birds and capybaras and their ugly little cubs,
and it’s true even for a bloody sea of caimans. Hard to believe that I actually quite comfortably climbed out of our little boat and shooed caimans off the bank so I could pee, albeit a little nervously.
And it’s true for the much more unexpected creatures, like the tapir we miraculously saw enter a river and swim across right in front of us.
Honestly, I didn’t even know what a tapir *was*.
I’ve been thinking a lot about habitat because I’ve been thinking a lot about home. I was lamenting to a friend that I don’t much feel like I have a home — like I haven’t felt that way for a long time now. “Home isn’t a place with you,” she said, quite reasonably. “Home is who you are — you take it with you.” I do know that I’ve worked at feeling “home” through technology, staying connected with people wherever I am, through what I shove into my overpriced Tumi duffle. That I felt a sense of home at Finch’s house in the Shire even when it also didn’t feel like home, and that the Austin house had that sense of my territory as well. Space I could rest and live and create in. I just wish I felt more of a sense of home than I do right now.
Finch really lives firmly in that tension between traveling and home, which was one of the core faultlines in our relationship. He wants a very very strong sense of home when he is home — his exploration of the world very counterpointed by a place to come home, lay out the gear, rest it and your weary body, eat the things you really want to eat. For him, that home involves a certain kind of female companion, one who makes home, who cooks certain things, keeps home when he’s not there. And despite part of my wanting to, I knew I couldn’t make his home mine. Not my habitat, the Shire, much as I could be a summer visitor, not my kind of role.
I’ve tried to find home a number of places over the past few years, from the overly noisy loft in Kensington to the ill-advised, expensive and short-lived move out west. Never settled in any place long enough to really feel homey. No cats. No one home when I get back.
I know that if I feel it out well enough, I’ll figure out what my habitat is. What my territory is, where the food sources are, what feeds me and lets me thrive. Right now, it’s feeling like more of a question mark than I want it to be. What I do know is that I need a bit of time in my own space to assimilate all of the places I’ve been, to lick my fur back into place, to think about what all of these encounters with wild creatures have done to create joy, how I’ve learned to overcome the fear of lowering myself into the ocean, to stand quietly even when startled, to watch and pay attention.
We spent most of our time in Brazil in the Pantanal, a great stretch of savannah and cerrado forest in southwest Brazil, ranches and humpty backed cows and jaguars and capybaras and macaws and monkeys and parakeets and parrots and crazy huge jaibaru storks.
Chachalachas chattering and fluttering from tree to tree, guans chirruping, flitting among the cows.
Countless herons and ibis and kingfishers and hummingbirds.
And caimans. Just bloody hundreds of caimans. Everywhere, on every bank, and next to the road, idly being lying there, mouths open to cool off, being prehistoric.
There’s one long slow dusty line of a road running down the length of the Pantanal, which proved to be too much for the already rickety keyboard of my flimsy 11 inch macbook air. Before I left, I had some major issues with the thing, when a bit of damage to the screen inflicted when a client knocked it off a podium in February suddenly spread, until it looked like a tiny 3 year old had been unleashed inside my computer with a sharpie.
I actually had to buy a new, shiny computer before I left, for my work, since the Geniuses couldn’t fix the display inside of a week, and I needed to work on a massive lit review, and couldn’t read on the tiny, scribbled on screen. But I thought I’d bring the crapped out one with me to Brazil to download photos and blog a bit, around the screen ooze. Meant to get the display fixed when I got back, to have a travel computer.
And then we drove on the Pantaneira, dust clouded into our lousy Fiat Dobro — the same vehicle whose door had to be tied shut with my belt on the way to the airport after we banged the car around the outback for two weeks — and despite the fact that the Air was in my photo bag, the keyboard was destroyed. Like the line of angry chigger bits that flared right around my waist, all of the keys in the middle of my computer were welted and scraped by the fine dust. After the second day in Brazil, typing on my Air produced unpredictable strings of letters, or nothing — including when I pushed the space bar. Hard to even organize photos, when the attempt to call a folder “pygmy kingfisher” generates pgmkigfissader.
Not being able to write things while I was away created a lot of unfinished strings for me. Like jellyfish trails, opaque and vague behind me. Turns out that I make meaning of things when I write about them, when I craft some narrative that brings images and words together, gives me the meditative space to live into reflective self. It’s like emotional stuttering for me, to not be able to write my way through things I’m experiencing, to see them take shape, not flutters of feeling and sensation and snippets of sentences. And I realized on this trip that I am no longer capable of really writing with a pencil or pen, more than a sentence or two — even if I could have kept from losing all the pencils I brought.
It was something of a revelation, traveling loaded down with kit — heavy duty Canon 7D with three lenses, ipad, kobo e-reader, iphone, compact Lumix camera — and discovering how much my experience is mediated through my technology. I see more because of the binoculars, study the space around me when I shoot photos, “own” the birds when I pull them out of my camera and onto my computer and choose the best images. I joke with Finch about stealing a piece of the birds’ souls, and it really upsets him — he’s always careful to say thank you to birds and other creatures after they’ve quietly sat with him, shown themselves to him. I don’t really feel like a soul thief, but I do feel I “have” them in a new way once they’re in my gaze, in silico, shared.
Now, I find I’m kind of encumbered and feverish after a couple of days when I can’t assemble images and sentences. I am just fine being away from wifi, and the boat trips to Baja and Svalbard were good relief from connectivity. I don’t have to be able to SHARE them. But not being able to craft words, make a story — I don’t feel whole.
There is a fair bit of theory in the realm of narrative psychology about how things become “real” when we can tell them as stories. That saying “I saw a harpy eagle” is not very meaningful in and of itself, without the context that harpy eagles are rare and spectacular, that they are in the “top ten” for many birders of what to see ever in their lives, that they are only seen in thin stretches of south america, that seeing one requires patience, that I am not the sort of person who brings a lot of patience to most endeavours, that I have not been an explorer for hard-to-see birds most of my life, that I not only saw a harpy eagle but named it, spent several hours in its presence over three days, ran around a ranch when the adult was spotted, sat alone in a forest clearing looking directly at this young bird while it looked at me. Found myself a person loving an individual, far away bird. Affirmed a Cate I wasn’t, say, five years ago, who would care about and have such a profound encounter with a bird. Seeing the bird is one moment of grace; weaving together all of the elements that makes it so powerful crystallizes it, deepens what I’m experiencing, grounds me simultaneously in the moment and echoes forward into a reminder that I will need to be grateful for that moment always.
There is, of course, a tension in this — a question about how to stay present to what is in front of you while simultaneously aware of what the story or meaning of this experience is. I have a pretty visceral reaction to some of the ways that things like “bucket lists” are described, where important experiences seem to take on a checklist form, for bragging rights, or people engaging in things so they will be able to say later that they did it. There is always some of this — we do things because we think of ourselves or want to think of ourselves as the kind of person who does things like this. Barnett always described stories lived and stories told (along with a whole series of types of stories unlived and untold and untellable and heard and unheard). I think living in this tension is about holding loosely to stories lived and stories told at the same time — part of truly living and being present to a moment is about understanding, at some level, what is making this moment significant or memorable. And that’s about a context.
Sometimes I wonder if writing and blogging and taking photos is a practice of gratitude for me. Sometimes writing is just about sorting out — what connections are there that I can’t make without sentences and narratives? what ways are there to understand this? what comes together with metaphors and ideas that suddenly appear out of my fingertips when I shape a paragraph? what feels like the best way to talk about this, makes it feel integrated and most whole? And sometimes, the practice of blogging or writing or shaping and sharing is about gratitude — about honouring moments of grace or connection or humanness, about inviting other people to honour them with me. Starting to flick into a question about “what do I most want to remember or share about this moment?” — even as I’m experiencing it — has the effect of deepening it. It deepens even as I’m noticing the immediate, what’s there, trying to look closely at the blue dacnis and white woodpeckers, feel the prickle of grass and irritating whiskering of sweatbees on my skin, hear the full soundscape, the twittering and songs and calls and wingbeats AND the cars on the road AND the siren and bangings from the mine down the valley. Being there is full; and it becomes fuller in the noticing; and the noticing happens partly because of an impulse to capture in some way.
The sound of Black Howler monkeys is like the wails of a storm, a gale you want to close your shutters against. They appear suddenly far above your head in the forest of the fazenda, giving you fair warning as they leap and glide in the tops of trees, follow little tracks and pathways that exist only in their group memory, the way from tree to tree, trails that lead them to the places where the canopy crosses the road.
The female black howlers confuse me at first, and I mistake them for the black-striped tufted capuchins, both the colour of the Americano with a splash of milk I can’t get in this land of black biting coffee. But the faces are dark as they peer over at us, curious. Not nearly as wary as the ones we see later in the north, who chatter fiercely and then hurl a papaya at us. All of the creatures in the Pantanal are less fearful, watching us as we watch them.
Fazenda means ranch, vagely echoing the word hacienda, like so many portugese words sound like a word I know that stumbled and stubbed its toe.
This fazenda is bursting with monkeys and hyacinth macaws, and toco toucans, and the ever present rufous horneros, cocoi herons and other water birds, ferruginous pygmy owls, tropical screech owls and scissortail nightjars, sweet small red brocket deer, and sly caimans calmly sunning themselves right in the road. Capybaras I make scatter like sheep as I trot sweating down the dusty road at midday, determined to run at least a little to make up for all the meat. Crab eating foxes I come face to face with in the road at dusk, both of us unsure as to whether we should keep walking forward.
The streaming wildlife is nested inside a working ranch, brahmin cattle with strange hunched backs who look whitewashed in the sun clustered on every edge. Horses that are mostly kept for dude riding, placid elderly creatures that even I can control. I ride a horse I dub Flossie for two hours, through pastures and savvanah and a forest trail, as jaibaru storks fly across the vast open sunset. I am ten years old and delighted, figuring out how to steer this horse who can barely manage a trot.
The guide wants to practice his English and asks me for a particularly Canadian saying. I can only come up with “it’s cold outside, eh?”. Later I offer a more appropriate idiom — “all hat and no horses.” I reject “all fur coat and no knickers” as far too out there. The English sayings he regales me with all seem to be about warning men not to stray. The grass is greener. A bird in the hand. Something about not going to the candy store if you have cake at home.
Later, I try to leave him a small tip with the fazenda owner, who laughs in my face at the amount Eduardo told me would be appropriate. This place does cost 190 Reals (about $100) per night per person after all, and you can barely wring a tiny bar of soap and a clean towel out of them. The food seems to have been designed as a project in how far you can possibly stretch a Real, enlivened only by the rum-soaked caipirinhas they will make if beseeched. For a price.
But the narrow child’s beds, and dead beetles not swept out of the rooms, and the french woman who keeps taking the single communal bottle of salt to her table, and phone signal only in the one tiny spot near the dining room, where they’ve thoughtfully installed a little pouch you can leave your phone in to receive SMS messages if you don’t want to crouch there — these are irrelevant when you have hyacinth macaws and toco toucans outside your room at dawn. The owner is preserving really important habitat. And you can ride a horse and pretend for a moment to be a pantaneiro.
It’s our last day here, and I slept in until 6. Finch came back to fetch me to take me to Bonita’s clearing. After running around yesterday like mad fools all day chasing after possible sightings of the adult harpy, we got to the clearing this morning to find Bonita contentedly ripping apart an armadillo. The adult had come and gone in the 25 minutes Finch had taken to fetch me. Five white woodpeckers showed up to console us.