When I was a boy growing up in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my schoolteacher mother would periodically and without warning announce to me and my brother that she was taking us on a “nature hike.” This typically meant that we would be conscripted into a platoon of wildlife observers and botanists prepared to witness the wonders of the natural world hidden behind a blade of grass or dangling leaf.
Since most of our nature hikes were made in a public park not far from our home, we soon began to associate “nature hike” with “hike.” The only wildlife we could count on seeing was a stray robin or two. Once we encountered some animal scat, which my mom promised was from a fox — another animal that seemed to exist only in the mythological wilderness that our parents suggested was teeming with National Geographic moments we would discover if only we kept looking for them. I did, I confess, learn to identify dozens of tree species, thus initiating myself into the welcoming society of nerds, a subculture that has remained my most faithful club. But years of mom’s nature hikes never yielded much more than a deer (when we went to an actual “nature preserve”) and some pretty cool spiders and butterflies. For me, nature hikes were something best watched on educational films.
I thought of my mom often last week while tramping through the Bolivian Amazon, enjoying a “nature hike” so full of nature that a mere hundred meters of tiptoeing through the jungle would bring such a surfeit of sensual pleasures that earnest searching was almost unnecessary. The rainforest teems with life, and an experienced guide like the one I had, whose family has lived in the wild for 400 years, can direct unfocussed eyes to look in the right places, where magic happens every moment.
A boy from Fox Point, Wisconsin only sees toucans on a box of cereal. Monkeys live at the zoo. And capybaras (the world’s largest rodent, the size of a Great Dane) exist only in Dr. Suess caricatures. To see all of these splendid animals — and tarantulas and wild boars and dozens of birds so psychedelically colored you would bet their creator was high on mushrooms — is an affirmation of the lesson my mother was attempting to teach me and my brother on our mostly fruitless forays: the natural world is an astonishing spectacle if you know where and how to look.
The big animals, like the rare Horned Screamer (bird) and the jaguar are arresting in their power and majesty. But when you stand still and quiet in the jungle, even the five square feet around you hums with activity. Leaf cutter ants marching through the forest with their emerald loads; termites building gigantic apartment complexes; and “walking” palms moving their tentacle-like roots so slowly you can’t perceive the mysterious (but indubitable) action. The grand mahogany trees, which climb so high you can’t see where they end above the jungle canopy, remind us that the fervid lives we lead, scurrying madly to our jobs and fretting about our place in the pecking order and fantasizing about the next piece of junk we might acquire — all these mundane concerns seem transitory and irrelevant when we stand beside a tree, a living thing, that has stayed in one place for a century, basking in the sun, accepting the pelting rain, and all the time yearning for nothing but the heavens.
When you’re in nature, on a “nature hike,” you’re simultaneously in two universes: yours, and the one that swirls beneath your feet and above your head and behind your back. In this other realm, all that matters is staying alive and procreating. Pachamama, the Earth Mother who, the natives say, bequeathed the whole wondrous circus to us — snakes and rats and mosquitoes included — probably couldn’t have imagined that one of Her species would be so adept at wrecking this vast playground. Nor could the curl-crested alezaris cracking nuts or the tiger herons spearing fish conceive this inexplicable curse we call consciousness. Nature is about living and dying, no more. But when you’re out in the wilderness, far from pavement and steel, email and MySpace, mortgages and paychecks, the absurd complexity of human life is all the more vivid and startling. We are animals, but we are so much more than animals. We live and we die, but our existence is so much more than living and dying, even if, at the end of the day, living and dying is all we can ever do.
I’m grateful to my pedant mommy for instilling in me a sense of awe at the world of nature. And I’m more curious than ever. Now that I’m no longer a boy but still impressionable and eager to learn, I long to take one of mom’s infamous nature hikes, whether it’s in South America or my own backyard.