“A day, a livelong day, is not one thing but many. It changes not only in growing light towards zenith and decline again, but in texture and mood, in tone and meaning, warped by a thousand factors of season, of heat or cold, of still or multi winds, torqued by odours, tastes and the fabrics of ice or grass, of bud or leaf or black-drawn naked limbs. And as a day changes so do it subjects, bugs and birds, cats, dogs, butterflies and people.” – John Steinbeck.
There is something quite remarkable about coming face to face with wildlife in and around your home. It is that moment when both you and the animal stop, look at each other and share some sort of connection. These are the moments in life when time slows down, when you become oblivious to the outside world, and before you know it you are lost in nature.
This happens to me when I am on the river. Most times animals flee in surprise, but sometimes, certain animals, especially those with the bravado of a fox, come closer. The human brain is an amazing entity that works on a database of pre-existing information. So, when the first thing I registered were black stripes and a round face my brain said, “Mmm. interesting! An extinct Tasmanian Tiger, crossed with a raccoon with the demeanor of a fox living in French Guiana?”
The novelty of seeing two humans paddling down the river on a bright green and gold log was enough to tempt the curious crab dog (Cerdocyon thous) from its den. It was as inquisitive about us, as we were about it. It looked at the canoe and tilted its head thoughtfully as if to say, “I haven’t seen one quite like that before.” Then it took a good look at each of us, made that magic moment of eye contact, and after thirty seconds or so, casually trotted its stout little legs off into the undergrowth.
As its name suggests, the crab dog eats crabs, especially during the wet season. Other times it eats rodents, birds, turtle eggs, tortoises, fruit, eggs, crustaceans, insects, and lizards. About the only thing it doesn’t eat is livestock, but mind-bogglingly, people shoot them anyway. They have a fluffy tale that stays upright when they are excited, but luckily their fur isn’t as exciting, so they have been largely spared from hunters’ sights, unlike others in their genus that are now extinct.
Sightings of rare Amazonian wildlife are never guaranteed, but every now and again you get lucky and see one of The Big Three: the jaguar, the tapir, or the harpy eagle. The jaguar remains elusive to me, which is probably a good thing. Perhaps it is because the neighboring reserve acts only as a static island, too cramped and isolated for such a large predator. The tapir I have had fleeting glimpses of, but it tends to stay clear of humans lest it ends up on their plate. However, the harpy eagle I have seen in all its splendor, and it is not afraid of anything or anyone.
When there is a sudden burst of action with excited yelling and puppies hurriedly being locked away, you know there is something big in town. And big she is! Ferocious too! Which explains why I had not seen any sloths for a few days. I expected to see her soaring through the sky, but harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja) aren’t built for true soaring. Instead, she sat perched high in a tree looking every bit as intimidating as her reputation suggests.
As solitary hunting birds, they usually live deep within the densest parts of the rainforest, so to see one in my backyard was a spectacle for sure. They are the largest eagles in the world, rivaled only by the Philippine monkey-eating eagle. They have a wingspan of two meters, stand at just over a meter tall, and have talons the size of a grizzly bear’s claws.
Their rounded wings and long tail help them to maneuver in tight spaces and make fast turns. They can flip upside down in mid-flight ripping a sloth (which has a strong grip and enormous talons of its own) right off its perch with nothing more than the strength of its claws. In other words, if a sleek and focused harpy eagle suddenly shifts its laser glare your way, it’s time for you to get going.
Despite being an astonishingly powerful bird – imagine legs almost as thick as your arm – it is possibly the most scary-looking of carnivorous birds. It is the harpies that are depicted in Greek mythology as horrid winged women with their breasts hanging out who swooped down to take humans to the underworld. However, in spite of their formidable appearance, they really are quite nice to each other. They form monogamous couples that mate for life, chirp to each other as they build a nest, live together for their twenty-five to thirty-five-year lifespan, and devote two years to care for a single chick.
While a harpy might not be a welcome sight to the monkeys and sloths of the forest, they do play an important role in their environment. Known as an umbrella species, just as several people can be protected beneath an umbrella, it is also possible to protect many species of wildlife by conserving a harpy. In fact, they are believed to be a key indicator of the health of the forest ecosystem. Where there are healthy numbers of harpy eagles, there are also a healthy number of the monkeys, sloths, iguanas, and macaws they prey upon.
Viewing animals in the wild and in the backyard is the highlight of all nature experiences. Glancing up at regular intervals throughout the day to watch colorful butterflies and birds, enormous iguanas making their way to the chicken pen, or a colony of cassava ants making off with half of your garden is a source of great enjoyment. I couldn’t say for certain they gain the same level of enjoyment from having me living in their backyard, but they need to live near food and water, and that is where I live too.
All types of birds rocket through the house, fat birds, skinny birds, black birds, and multi-colored birds, their safety assured by an absence of glass windows and doors. Smaller birds come inside as well, curious to learn what goes on in this gigantic nesting box. Each time they get close I have a strong urge to reach out and touch them, but instead, I remain as still as a post and watch.
Frogs enjoy being indoors too and don’t mind keeping you awake during the night with their incessant guttural croaking. More than once I have gone on a midnight rampage to find the culprits, a futile undertaking as they fall silent the moment they hear me approach.
Living with nature in and around the house might not be to everyone’s liking, but I do appreciate the idea that it isn’t something I have to go far to visit. Nature is right in front of me, and the feeling it inspires is incredible.
When Donna Mulvenna is invited to go to France with her new man, she didn’t expect to find herself in South America, sleeping under the stars, and living an extraordinary and isolated life in the steaming, humid jungles of French Guiana. But that was exactly what happened.
Placing her previous life of comfort into the far distant reaches of her mind, she expected the adventure to last for a few weeks. However, this drifted into a few years, until she felt completely at home in the sweltering heat and anaconda-infested rivers of this amazing country.
In Wild Roots, Donna documents her deep love and respect for the Amazon forest, while making some attempt to depict the awe, beauty and isolation of this always chaotic, often bizarre and constantly frustrating place, so that you can appreciate, in some small way, how it captured her heart.
Written with humour, a respect for nature and a conscious knowledge that we must somehow rebuild our relationship with it, the author shares with you an incredible life and a personal transformation, in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.