November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Category — Environment

Laughter Yoga/Marlene Olin

Granite CanyonNational Park Service Photo

Granite Canyon, South Fork 


Laughter Yoga

By Marlene Olin

Seven hundred bucks for an airplane ticket. Seven days scratched out on the calendar. Rock climbing.  Mountain biking. Hiking. I was vacationing with a doppelganger, a me nobody knew.

“We raise goats,” said RayAnn. “We practice yoga.  It’ll be the best week ever. Promise.”

Years ago, in another life, I met RayAnn at college. English majors, we smoked pot and wrote poetry in smoke-filled rooms. We painted our lips white and our eyes coal black. We were the epitome of cool.

Then life happened. After graduation I moved back home to Miami.  Instead of becoming a writer, I married my high school sweetheart  and became a stay-at-home mom. I spent the next twenty years cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, waiting for repairmen, helping with homework, wiping noses, carpooling, waiting for more repairmen, driving to the orthodontist, teaching my kids how to drive. My life had become a Good Housekeeping cliché.

“Come visit the Tetons!” said RayAnn. “Fresh air. Lots of exercise. You’ll get rebooted. You’ll start writing again.”

While I boomeranged back to my hometown, RayAnn had lived like a nomad. She moved from city to city, teaching mostly at community colleges, managing to get two novels published.  She lived the life we had always talked about. One romantic liaison after another. Free and uncommitted.  And her stories always ended on a high note as well.  Against overwhelming odds, her heroines found happiness.  During the six-hour plane ride, I read nonstop.

Sitting on a Dream:  Mavis is paralyzed in a car accident. Thanks to the intervention and very hands-on caring of a small town doctor, she regains the use of her arms and legs.  The climax of the book takes place on their honeymoon.  Cannons fire and fireworks burst.  The book sold twenty thousand copies online alone.

Hotel Hospice:   Lorelei has terminal ovarian cancer.  Lincoln, her only child, is fifteen-years-old and has an IQ of one fifty. A promising violinist, he steals manhole covers in his spare time.   He’s the kind of kid who’s either going to end up playing Carnegie Hall or trolling the streets.  Then grandpa comes to town.  Lorelei’s father abandoned her, beat her mother and stole all their money.  But life’s all about the second chances.  And grandpa has talents no one − NOT EVEN HE!!! − suspects.

“We’ll be landing in few minutes,” says the pilot. “It’s usually a bumpy ride around now.” I shove the two paperbacks into my purse and brace myself.  Below me snow- covered peaks puncture the stratosphere. I suck in air to make the plane lighter and lift myself in the seat.

It’s a small airport.  Lilliputian small.  I get off the plane and walk down a flight of stairs to the tarmac.  The sky’s blindingly blue and cloudless. We’re ringed by the Tetons. They’re so huge they’re one dimensional. For a moment I feel like an actor in a play, the mountains a stage prop, the moon a Cheshire grin.

The people seem unreal, too. Everyone looks the same. Blue-eyed and sun-bleached hair. Tanned and toned. As soon as I find my way to the luggage area, I crane my neck for RayAnn.  I figure she’ll recognize me first.  I’m just an older, weathered version of the college coed I used to be.  Brown frizzy hair.  Splotchy skin.  I might as well be wearing a sign. Jewish Housewife from Miami.

“There you are,” she says.   No, her Facebook page wasn’t PhotoShopped.  RayAnn still looks around twenty. Yes, she competed in an Ironman last year. Yes, she really does raise goats.

“It’s for weed control,” she tells me. “They love thistle.  So instead of using weed-killer, we bring my goats to people’s yards. They eat the bad stuff and leave the good behind.”

We bump along a dirt road and stop in front of a log cabin.  It truly is a log cabin.  Like on the pancake syrup bottle. Somewhere I hear a rooster crow.  The air smells like Christmas.  My skin starts to itch.

“We use the old outhouse as a root cellar,” says RayAnn.  “We’ve got indoor plumbing, the internet, the whole she-bang.”

The walls are covered with new-agey art.  A hand with an eye. A web of yarn with feathers. Though her conversation is peppered with words like spirit and feelings, there are no periods or pauses, no intake of air.  Sentences spill like an avalanche.   We get up at five don’t forget there’s coffee. We feed the livestock grab some gloves at the door. We do our chores before sunrise don’t you love to watch the sun rise isn’t the sunrise awesome?

And she talks as if she has an invisible companion or partner only no one else is there.  No photographs on the fireplace mantel. No his and hers towels.   I’m used to tripping over my kids’ sneakers and finding Rob’s underwear on the floor. There’s not a lick of dust in the house.

“We keep our jackets in the closet and our shoes by the door,” says RayAnn. When I drop my purse on the couch, she picks it up.  “Clutter in the house makes for clutter in the soul.”

She’s become the nature Nazi.  The Fuhrer in the dell. She opens the door to the frig.

“Help yourself,” says RayAnn.  It looks like a bank vault and takes up half her kitchen. “We just eat local.  Local fruit. Local veggies. When she opens the door to the freezer, I could swear I see a hoof. “We’ve gotten friendly with a few hunters.  They stock us in venison for the year.”

I still suffer PTSD from Bambi.  The forest fire. The mother dying. Who could forget? The sandwich I ate on the plane flips.

She directs me to one of the two bedrooms.  It’s Martha Stewart pretty. A bed with a blocky quilt. A bathroom with a claw tub and billowing curtains. “This is wonderful,” I tell her.  It must be fifty degrees in the cabin and as the sun sets, the temperature’s dropping. In Miami, it’s sweater weather. In Wyoming, it’s a typical summer. My teeth chatter.  I crave my flannel nightgown — the one I left home in a drawer.

RayAnn counts down on her fingers. “Monday’s hiking, Tuesday’s biking, Wednesday’s yoga. Once our bodies embrace positive energy, our minds will relax.”

She disappears into the kitchen and I hear cabinet doors opening and closing.  Meanwhile I unpack and take a closer look at the house. There’s not a TV in sight.  Her bookshelves are lined with Sitting on a Dream and Hotel Hospice.  A few Tony Hillermans and Louis L’Amours. What ever happened to Kerouac and Corso? The RayAnn I used to know has become a stranger and this stranger is getting stranger by the minute.  We are stranded in a wooden shed in the middle of nowhere.  We are starting to panic.

Days pass. The two of us develop a routine.   Like a shark, RayAnn needs to get moving. My job is to stay out of her way.  When she’s not tending to her goats, RayAnn’s running up mountains, paddling a kayak through the rapids, riding her bike over moguls of Queen Anne’s lace. Most of the time I stay home swinging in her hammock, listening to the ripple of her creek.  I read. I write.  Even so RayAnn is grateful for the company.  I don’t think she realizes how lonely she is. I don’t think she can hear herself think.

“Summer is great, but just wait until winter. D’you snowboard? D’you ski?”

“I’m afraid of heights,” I tell her.  Afraid of depths. Speed. Falling. Pain. I am the anti-RayAnn. I am afraid of everything.

She looks crestfallen, her mouth like two parentheses, a sad clown kind of face. I toss out a bone.

“But there’s yoga, tomorrow! I’d love to try yoga.”


There’s maybe twenty people in the park.  In the distance, I hear children playing. Ravens as big as cats sit on tree branches, caw.

“Welcome to Laughter Yoga,” says the instructor.  “For the next hour I will be your leader, your guru, and your friend.”

RayAnn is standing next to me.  She’s holding one of her feet directly over her head.  With her elbow out she looks like the letter P.

“It’s great exercise,” she whispers. “Loosens the diaphragm.  Relaxes the back.”

My lips form the letter O.

“Let your mind be drawn to the spirit of the Tetons,” says the instructor. “Become one with the universe.”  We are stretching our hands over our heads then reaching for our toes.  Then waving them side-to-side like cheerleaders. I look around to see if strangers are watching because I feel like an idiot. I’m sure we look like idiots.

“Now loosen the mouth.”  The instructor sticks out her tongue and starts shaking her head. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.  Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.   The last time I heard a person breathing that hard she was in labor.  There’s an old man in back of me.  He’s pushing eighty for sure.  Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.  Then I hear someone hyperventilating. It’s either the old man or me.

The instructor moves onto another exercise.  We are holding hands in a circle, moving in, moving out.  This I understand.  Just when I’m getting the hang of it, she changes direction.  Now the group is moving from right to left like a pile of dominoes.  We are clapping on each other’s backs.  Banging the hell out of each other’s backs.  While I’m pounding on RayAnn, the old man is pounding me.  Only he misses half the time.  Pounding my ass, the air, my head.

Now laugh, shouts the instructor.  She forces a staccato grunt from her mouth and aims it towards the sun.  Laugh! She commands.

I look around.  Everyone is laughing.  Sort of.  The old man is wheezing.  Some crazies are rolling on the ground holding their stomachs. When I look at RayAnn, her forehead is lined, her lips pursed.  Meditation has made her incredibly anxious.  She squeezes her eyes shut, fists her hands, and a series of machine gun rat-a-tats burst out. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.

“The yogina is a riot.  Isn’t she a riot?” says RayAnn.  Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha. “Why aren’t you laughing?  Everybody’s laughing.” Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.

I’m the only one not laughing. I’ve always hated smiling for the camera. It’s fake sincerity. A clockwork orange. Meanwhile RayAnn is chuckling like a robotic Santa Claus stuck on someone’s lawn. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.

When the group is exhausted, when sides ache and half the class has to pee, the instructor winds things up.

“Let your mind be drawn to the stillness,” she says.  We sit in the lotus position, knees crossed, our palms facing up, forefinger and thumb touching.

“Relax the tension. Let your spine rise from the ground. Repeat the word So…ooo…ooo as you inhale.  Then exhale and say hummmmm.”

I look around for hummingbirds or bumblebees but no.  It’s just the sound of a dozen people collectively expelling air from their mouths.  RayAnn tries so hard to relax that she looks more tense. The old man farts.  The air’s so still I can hear the aspen leaves whistle, the grass crunch.

And then it occurs to me.  I’m the lucky one.  My life’s not bathed in Kumbaya but whose is?  I love my husband, I worship my children.  Our home is our nest.  I may not have written the great American novel but I’ve created something of value. While everyone’s quiet, I unfold like a flower and stretch.  Hummmmm.

And then I start laughing.

There is nothing louder than a laugh at the wrong time.  The instructor hisses through her teeth.  Everyone in the class sideglances, sending me death ray stares. Somehow I’ve found a chink in their cosmic armor, put the kibosh on their karma. RayAnn doesn’t speak to me the whole ride home.

We put together the local version of homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eat dinner in total silence.  The goo sticks to my teeth but I can’t say anything, do anything. Finally RayAnn speaks.

“While you’re a guest in my home, I would appreciate if you don’t make fun of my friends.”

We’ve known each other too long for me to bullshit my way out of this. I’ve been hiding in a cloak of sarcasm all week. Covering my insecurities by acting superior and judgmental.  And assuming that RayAnn with her gosh darn small town ways wouldn’t notice.

“I think you’re terrific,” I say. “I think yoga was terrific.”  I’m digging deep now. “And I really love your goats.” I’m practically choking on the words. Not because I don’t mean them but because my palate feels covered in mud. I stick in a finger and extract a dollop of brown sludge.

“That’s disgusting,” says RayAnn.  Her voice is now a high shriek. “Do you know you’re disgusting?”

I stick in my finger once more, circle my mouth, and extract an even bigger dollop. The relief is overwhelming. Physically. Emotionally.  “Did you know this peanut butter sucks?” I blurt. “Did you know that I’d kill for a diet coke right now?”  I pull back my finger and sling the sludge. It hits RayAnn on the stomach, two inches over her belt and clings like a barnacle.  The whole wad stays cemented to her shirt.

She looks down. She stays looking down for a long time. Then slowly she unpeels a grin. Her teeth are checkerboard.  Brown. White. Brown. White.  “I’d give it to the goats but they won’t touch the stuff.”  She takes a fork, impales the brown goo that’s on her shirt, and flicks it back at me. Once we start laughing, it’s hard to stop.

“God, how I hate you,” she says. “I hate your marriage, I hate your kids, I hate the fact that you know just who you are.  You’re just perfect, aren’t you?  I hate the way you’re perfect.”

She’s joking. Sort of. I get up, walk around the table, and give her a big hug. “You may think you hate me but you don’t.”

She smiles and wipes away some tears. “You want a pizza?  I know a place with great pizza.”

Old friendships have a habit of sticking, too.  I’m the yin to RayAnn’s yang.  The cream in her coffee. The perfectly timed caesura.  I hang around a few extra days until it becomes an extra week. My husband and kids say they miss me.  I envision a sink filled with dirty dishes and hampers stuffed with dirty clothes. It’ll wait. They’ll wait. The Tetons are calling. I’m one with the universe. Hummmm.


About the author:

Marlene Olin’s short stories have been published most recently in Upstreet Magazine, Emrys Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, Biostories, and The Jewish Literary Journal. She lives in Miami.

October 31, 2014   Comments Off on Laughter Yoga/Marlene Olin

Lifeblood of Brazil/CNF

Photo 1


The Amazonian Water World

 by Robert Walker


“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus


The barge slogs forward, dodging the silhouettes of the islets that lead to the main channel of the Xingu River.  I stand at the bow, a gray glow filming the banks of the ferry ramp of the small Amazonian town, São Felix do Xingu, now ten minutes behind us.  My two Brazilian colleagues, Eugenio and Rita, are back in our pick-up truck bracing for the 100-mile drive to Vila Central, a tiny hamlet in a region of Pará State called Terra do Meio, covering some 30,000 miles2

Our hope is to find active logging in Vila Central, so we can talk to loggers about the roads they build, which lay waste to the Amazonian forest by opening it to development. How do they choose their routes? How much equipment do they need and how many men? 

And most importantly for us, although something we dare not ask, how do we stop them?

Such questions we’ve been trying to answer for the past three summers of Amazonian field work for the National Science Foundation. Eugenio, whose grant dollars fund our project, is fortyish and of Japanese descent. A former student of mine, Eugenio now holds a faculty position at the University of Texas in Austin. Rita, a few years younger than Eugenio, hails from Salvador, the Brazilian capital of candomblé magic. Rita’s chosen the path of science, however, and is close to finishing her PhD at Michigan State University. As for myself, the comfort of meditating on my past experiences will soon trump the adventure of accumulating new ones. But not today.    

On leaving at 5:00 a.m. to catch the ferry, Chico, the hotel owner, greeted us at the reception desk. “So where you off to?”

            “Vila Central,” Eugenio said.


Brazil Map Hi Resolution

Map made by Joshua Stevens, a Ph.D. candidate in Geography at The Pennsylvania State University. Click on image to enlarge.


A hearty man in his fifties with a shock of white hair, Chico proceeded to give us the lowdown on Vila Central. Its leading citizen, an acquaintance of his who owned the only hotel in town (where we’d have to stay), had killed someone in a bar fight. The brother of the victim wanted payback and hired two pistoleiros, or gunmen, to even the score. And so it was that only two weeks before, there’d been a shoot-out in broad daylight, both hired guns going down before the superior firepower of the hotel owner’s bodyguards. The aggrieved brother had sparked a Kill Bill convergence of pistoleiros on Vila Central, with promises of a reward for whoever could complete the job.

Talk about his old friend got Chico loquacious about the past. He’d started out in Terra do Meio too, but his wife talked sense into him, so they sold their claim and bought the hotel. Chico said the forest was beautiful but deceptive. You never heard gunshots, only monkeys and squawking parrots. You never saw bodies, only trees and colorful flowers. For every murder that made the local papers, another five went unreported. The forest was filled with hidden bones.

A horn blasted outside.  Jefferson, the driver, telling us to hurry. 

As we left, Chico called after us, “Watch out for Carlos Ferreira.  Big time rancher.  His pistoleiros communicate with walk-talkies and any strangers show up, they wanna know why.”

            “How do we know it’s Carlos Ferreira?”  I asked over my shoulder.

            “100,000 head of cattle.  A ranch as big as the world.”


Photo 2

The Xingu River in morning mist.

We’ve driven for four hours over a rutted dirt road, the main thoroughfare through Terra do Meio. Officially dry season, the sky’s nevertheless begun sucking up moisture through shades of gray, from the silver-blue morning to the pewter of massing clouds, with rain. Dry season’s only a little less wet than rainy season in the Amazon Basin. Heat in the humid tropics hardly needs description. Suffice it to say that as we bump along, I pass in and out of thermal stupors. I feel like what water must feel like as it evaporates, a sweaty mass being boiled into humidity.   

Over the past few days in São Felix do Xingu, we’ve gathered intelligence on Terra do Meio. Of specific interest is that a logging firm, Peracchi, built most of the smaller roads around here about ten years ago. These small roads, so-called unofficial roads, are the ones we’re studying. The federal government has crisscrossed the basin with maybe 50,000 miles of “highways,” just glorified tracks of dirt that every once in awhile get graded. This might seem like a big number, but loggers have built ten times that amount, literally shredding large parts of the forest. This is perhaps the single most important factor in bringing basin-wide deforestation to an area the size of Texas.

Unfortunately, Peracchi’s left, so our objective is to talk to other sawmill operators (the reason for our trip to Vila Central), or to antigos moradores, “old residents,” typically poor subsistence farmers who’ve long lived in the region and can be quite informative. It’s proving hard to find them in Terra do Meio, though. Here, almost all the land has been fenced by ranchers.

But now we drive along a rather wild stretch of terrain. We know from our maps and satellite imagery that smaller roads form a spidery network only a mile or two off the one we’re on, and we’re getting damn anxious to find someone to talk to about it. Miraculously, the roadside vegetation opens with a cut. We stop to reconnoiter, then drive in.

The cut widens as the trees rise to a tall, emerald canopy. But this doesn’t last, and we quickly reach a large slash field still smoking in places, burnt debris in broken heaps. The lonely wattle shelter stands two hundred yards away, its dun color blending with the burnt forest behind it. A clothes line tells us that people live there, so Eugenio, Rita, and I get out, leaving Jefferson to tend the vehicle.

On approaching, Rita claps her hands, and an old woman and teenage girl appear at the doorway. The old woman has a face so wizened it looks like it might crack. The teenage girl, no more than fourteen, is dark-skinned, pregnant, and holds a baby boy at her hip. Eugenio explains the purpose of our visit to the old woman. When she doesn’t respond and continues staring off into space, he switches to the girl, who invites us in. We sit as best we can on the hardpan floor, using sacks of rice as elbow props. Rita pulls a bag of candy from her backpack and hands out pieces. It’s dark inside, and a dirty sheet partitions where we sit from the bowels of the house.

Eugenio extracts the satellite image from the map-tube and spreads it on the ground. To the girl he says, “This is a satellite image.  Do you know what a satellite is?”  

Nodding yes, she squats beside Eugenio, and in a moment brings her finger down to the slash field out front, plainly visible on the image.

“This is Peracchi’s land, right?” Eugenio asks.

“Absolutely not,” claims a tired male voice, rising in mysterious utterance from behind the sheet.    

This startles us, and we pause to see what else the voice might utter. Finally, Eugenio asks, “Then who’s land is it?”

“It’s our land,” comes the tired, worn voice again.  

With this, the sheet ripples and an old man staggers out. Dressed in raggedy shorts, he’s close to seventy, and years of tropical light have burned his freckles into cancerous tattoos. 

“I am Jorge, Jorge Silva de Bom Jesus, from Maranhão.”

He shuffles up to each of us, taking our hands in his. “So you want to know who owns our land?”

Eugenio tries to reassure him. “Señor Jorge, we’re just researchers –”

But Jorge cuts him off. “We arrived twenty years ago and claimed this land, as God is my witness. We came when there was nothing but dense forest and jaguars, malaria.” Jorge pauses to swat a fly. “We survived by the grace of God. My poor wife broken down by hardship in Maranhão –”



Robert Walker's Amazon V10N2: My photos are shot with a Nikon D90. Sometimes, I can afford a leisurely approach, as when composing shots of the natural world. The photography of human subjects requires greater care, and empathy, however. Issues of personal security also arise, in which case photographs may be taken in haste from a moving vehicle. On this trip, several indigenous tribes had barricaded parts of the Transamazon Highway passing through their territories, where they demanded a toll for passage. We were warned in advance about this, and told in no uncertain terms to keep our cameras hidden. In such a situation, photography can be regarded as a hostile act, and lead to sequestration.

“My photos are shot with a Nikon D90.  Sometimes, I can afford a leisurely approach, as when composing shots of the natural world.  The photography of human subjects requires greater care, and empathy, however.  Issues of personal security also arise, in which case photographs may be taken in haste from a moving vehicle.  On this trip, several indigenous tribes had barricaded parts of the Transamazon Highway passing through their territories, where they demanded a toll for passage.  We were warned in advance about this, and told in no uncertain terms to keep our cameras hidden.  In such a situation, photography can be regarded as a hostile act, and lead to sequestration.”    


Rita interrupts, backing all the way up to where we should have started the interview. “Señor Jorge, we’re from the university, and we’re here to do research on roads. Who builds them, how they benefit the community. We only have a few questions, but you’re under no obligation to answer.”

Jorge smiles agreeably, showing pink gums, and nods. Eugenio kneels beside the image again. “Señor Jorge, we only want to know about the roads. How they got built, who built them.”

Jorge scratches his head. “Roads?  Why would I have a road?”

Before I realize it, Eugenio’s rolled up the satellite image and standing. Rita and I exchange glances; this isn’t the patient Eugenio we know and love. Still, it’s obvious there’s no useful information to be collected here, so we get up too and take our leave with Eugenio.

Stepping from the shack, we turn to say good-bye, seeing that the family has followed us out. Señora Silva de Bom Jesus wants more candy, and giggles when Rita gives her the bag.

“Where you going?” Jorge asks, like he’s only just now aware of our presence.

“Vila Central.”

“Vila Central!” he shouts. “You can’t go there. Only pistoleiros go there.”

“We’re only researchers,” Eugenio says.

Jorge shakes his head. “You see the hotel owner, don’t touch your belt, your pocket. He’ll get the wrong idea.”

“How will we pay for our room then?” Rita wants to know, worried.

We drive for an hour without saying much. It’s starting to feel like last summer, and the summer before that. In fact, our past two summers in the field have been a bust. Luckily, Rita’s dissertation doesn’t depend on the information we’re collecting. But Eugenio? As an untenured assistant professor, a botched-up project for the National Science Foundation could spell professional doom. And me? I’m tenured, but that’s never stopped Bill O’Reilly from making a scapegoat of someone. 

As recently as five years ago you could talk to anyone out here. You always got a cup of coffee, a slap on the back. But then the Brazilian government cracked down on illegal logging and the recession hit, and thirty thousand sawmill workers found themselves without jobs. Now, anyone with the appearance of a researcher, carrying laptop computers and satellite imagery, is suspect, probably an environmentalist, who loggers blame for not being able to steal as much wood as before. The fact that Eugenio, Rita, and I are environmentalists makes it ethically questionable to deny it if asked, but essential for reasons of personal safety.     

In the midst of my brooding thoughts, I wake to the changing landscape. Giant hands seem to have yanked the trees out, then carpeted the soils with luxuriant pasture grasses that stretch to dark lines of forest on the horizon. And all of this beneath blue savanna skies without the clouds that are massing elsewhere in Terra do Meio. The glint of new barbwire speaks of deep pockets, as do the healthy-looking Zebu cattle clustered around mahogany drinking troughs. Carlos Ferreira. It’s like a tropical Montana with its stunning contrasts of greens and blues.

The odometer shows that the ranch goes on ten miles.  Once we’ve passed it, the blue gives way to thickening clouds.   

Not long after, a small store appears on the edge of an abandoned pasture. We stop for a break and enter. A middle-aged man stands behind a scuffed-up counter, and a middle-aged woman, presumably his wife, sits off to the side, making notations in a spiral notebook. We ask for soft-drinks, which the man retrieves from a rusty ice-chest.

“Where you going,” he asks, on serving us. It’s a question with an obvious answer, since Vila Central lies only three miles ahead.

“Vila Central.”

“You know what’s happening there?” He chuckles like we might be idiots.

“Of course.” Rita says. “But it’s obvious we’re researchers from out of town.”

The man shakes his head. “That’s the problem. The best pistoleiros aren’t obvious. The hotel owner’s already killed two. You’re dead-ringers for what he’s probably worried about now. Government research-type pistoleiros.”

“Is there any logging there?” Eugenio asks.

“Oh yeah. They’ve had a big run on coffins,” the man says, although nobody laughs. 

As we pay and start for the door, the woman adds, “Even if you don’t get killed in the cross-fire, you think those pistoleiros are gonna leave witnesses?”

We climb into the truck and head-off.  But Jefferson hardly gets onto the road before he pulls over and stops. Sitting up front, Eugenio asks, “We gotta problem?”

            Jefferson hesitates, says, “Maybe we should put this off.  You know, for a better time.”

            The words come out hard, but they express my own doubts.

            “There’s not gonna be a better time.”

“We can always come back next summer. Think Sisyphus here,” I say, immediately sorry for making light of our situation.

“There’s not gonna be a next summer.” Eugenio’s referring to the end of the project’s contract period.

“Don’t be so uptight. There’s always a no-cost extension,” I say, which is true, thank god. 

“Eugenio, let’s just head out to the Western Transamazon,” Rita says.

Indeed, we’d discussed this option last summer, on leaving the field with maybe two paragraph’s worth of useful information. But everyone said we’d find what we were looking for in Terra do Meio, namely active logging. The Western Transamazon?  No one even knew if the road still existed.    

“When’s the last ferry back to São Felix do Xingu?” Eugenio asks Jefferson.

“Nine p.m. We can just make it.”

The interior of the truck compresses. I hear Eugenio breathing as I gaze out my window, watching vultures wheel through the gray sky.

“OK, the Western Transamazon it is,” Eugenio says, although not too quickly and in a voice that’s barely audible.        

Rita and I are sitting in the Marabá airport lounge. It’s hot and crowded, and the chairs jab your back. Eugenio’s off at the men’s room, where he’s been for the past half hour. He woke up sick yesterday in São Felix do Xingu, and our overnight bus ride to Marabá was sheer misery for him.   

We’re waiting for a flight to Santarém, to get past our fiasco in Terra do Meio. Our plan is simple, to drive the Western Transamazon Highway. This requires that we fly to Santarém, where we can pick up another truck and a new driver.      

“I think we should go to Belém for a few days. Let Eugenio get his strength back,” Rita says. Belém, the big city at the mouth of the Amazon River, has physicians, hospitals, etc. Rita’s right. You simply can’t fool around with an ailment out here, far from medical attention.

“Good idea, but he’s never gonna go for it.”

Rita frowns at the truth of the matter. “I know.”

“At the very least, we keep a close eye on him,” I say. 


Eugenio rejoins us and sits down. His face has a spectral look, and I can’t tell if it’s from stomach pain or because the toilets are backed up. 

After a minute, I cast a sidelong glance his way and say, “Let’s go to Belém. Just for a few days. You gotta get your strength back.”

Rita piles on. “Come on Eugenio. This could be bad out in the field.”

But Eugenio, project leader, cuts us off. “We’re going to Santarém.”  

Rita and I have yet to pinpoint how Eugenio got sick. I’m betting it has to do with the return from our ill-fated trip to Terra do Meio. As a consolation prize, Chico invited us to go fishing. I declined in order to work on my field notes, but Eugenio and Rita spent the next day heading up the Xingu in a small runabout. Upon their return, they dropped off their catch to be cooked for dinner at a local restaurant owned by one of Chico’s friends, Lúcia.

It was with great expectations for fresh fish that we set off later that evening. The restaurant was a modest place, perched atop the riverbank, with two dining tables in front of a flat screen TV showing the latest Brazilian soap opera. Across from the dining area was a scratched-up pool table still doing good service. This meandering structure was quite open to the elements, and raised on a cement foundation over pounded dirt. The owner, Lúcia, a buxom woman with the energy of a breaking wave, helped us make our cachaça choices at the bar, its varieties set out in mason jars beneath a fifteen-foot anaconda skin.

Cachaça, a cane-based liquor that tastes like sour rum, is a Brazilian national pastime, and Lúcia prided herself with the best selection in São Felix do Xingu. For starters, there were the juice-based mixtures featuring cachaça flavored by all manner of tropical fruits. But there were also the zoological cachaças looking like laboratory specimens, the clear amber of the alcohol discolored by animal fluids. Thus, in addition to the botanical cachaças, we improved our palate with crab cachaça (a very big crab), snake cachaça (possibly venomous), turtle cachaça, armadillo cachaça, and monkey head cachaça. 

Perhaps it was the discovery of a taxonomy of cachaça that had eluded science to this point that encouraged me to drink more than normal, as did Eugenio. Rita remained smart about it and only sipped mineral water. As for the food, this was long in coming, and involved a rather labor-intensive process, with all manner of people walking in and out of the kitchen, girls, boys, men, women.  Lúcia came to our table repeatedly, giving us hope that the food was close at hand, exchanging pleasantries with Chico, and bringing with each excuse another shot of booze.

The food arrived as the evening deepened towards midnight. Rather small plates were set before us, piled with what looked like deep-fried chips. The appetizer. Ravenous, I dug in, allowing myself to suck through the greasy crisps of whatever it was that had been carbonized beyond recognition.

When another serving of the appetizer came our way, I turned to Eugenio and Rita, suspicious. “What did you catch?”

Before they could answer, Lúcia charged our table to ask with chefly pride, “So how do you like the fish?”  

Seven days out of Santarém and 1200 miles from São Felix do Xingu on the Western Transamazon, we’re waiting for the ferry now loading on the left bank of the Aripuanã River, the final crossing on our jog to Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi. We left the small town Apuí this morning a little before 8:00AM. Now it’s early afternoon and the yellow blue sky is glowing. I’ve hiked upstream along a narrow trail. Rita’s down at the ferry ramp, while Eugenio remains in the vehicle with our driver, Paulo, still sick, but mobile. 

On reaching a boulder, I hop up for a look. The water’s the color of brown jade from the amber sands beneath. Just offshore, it spills over a granitic table graced with vegetation that looks gardened. A Mercedes-Benz truck stacked with sawn wood has just boarded the barge, about a quarter mile across the river. This is our first hint of logging since leaving Santarém a week ago optimistic, an optimism that diminished each day with the towns we passed through, none of which revealed even a fleck of sawdust, Ruropolis, Miritituba, Itaituba, Jacareacanga, and Apuí.   But now it looks like maybe, just maybe, we’re close to the logging frontier. I breathe a sigh of relief.


Sawn wood on the Aripuanã River.

Sawn wood on the Aripuanã River.

In fact, we met two loggers in Apuí just before leaving. Ivo, the owner of the place we stayed, Hotel Guarani, introduced us to fellow guests, João and Miguel, while drinking coffee on the breakfast patio. As with Chico in São Felix do Xingu, we’d come to know and like Ivo, and ended up telling him a lot about the work we do. 

“You’re interested in logging,” João said after Ivo described our research in an innocuous way that suggested loggers provide a social service with the roads they build.

“Yes,” came our eager response.

João leaned back in his chair. He wore wire-rim glasses, and his fingernails were manicured. “You know, we get blamed for a lot, but it’s not us.”

“We’re not environmentalists,” Eugenio said, trying to reassure him.

“It’s the rancher who does the damage. Just so he can show productive use to grab land.” João glanced at Miguel, who wanted to eat, not talk. Miguel made up for the muscle mass that João lacked, and was dressed in a pair of worn jeans, tee shirt, and work boots. 

“We’re the ones teaching the government how to manage the forest,” João continued. “We only take a tree or two, so the rest remains behind for the ecosystem.” 

“That’s certainly the way it needs to be done,” Eugenio said.

“You’re heading for Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi?” João asked, whiplashing us with his change of topic.   

“Yes,” we said. 

João picked up his napkin and dabbed his lips as if they were sore. “You’ll see logging there but be careful. The government has made the loggers feel very insecure, so they’ve had no choice but to hire pistoleiros for protection.” 

We arrive in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi at 5:00 p.m. Its unpaved streets release clouds of dust at the slightest provocation, and the businesses look like a spaghetti western set built cheap. We find a hotel, easy given lack of choices. Ours, the “Tropical Hotel,” is a concrete horseshoe pitched around a courtyard fortress-style, barricaded by the front-desk. The rooms have metal doors. I unpack to take a shower.

The water falls from a piece of PVC piping, neither hot nor cold, which is fine by me. As the pockets of hidden heat dissolve from my body, I feel myself condensing into the coolness of my own private rain. But I also feel a new wetness licking my ankles, and look to see the water surging, the sewer regurgitating its contents back at me. I jump out fast and scrub my feet in the sink, then douse them with rubbing alcohol.

We head out for dinner at 7:00 p.m., the only restaurant in town, a cinder block cube attached to a wing of rooms available at hourly rates. We choose an inside table to escape the dusty street, and the patrons drinking beer on the slab of concrete out front that serves as a porch. Dinner sits behind the scuffed plastic of a pint-sized buffet, chunks of vegetable matter, limp spaghettis that look like intestinal worms, and chards of meat floating in ooze. 

We serve ourselves. The waitress, an attractive woman in her thirties wearing spandex shorts and a sports bra beneath a sheer tee shirt, takes our drink order. As I pick through my food, I soon find that what I’ve set aside for the trash bin (or to be recycled through the buffet) forms a larger pile than what’s edible.   

Shouts outside distract us. The slurred profanity of a man, the high-pitched anger of a woman. Our waitress storms in from the front porch and disappears out back, just as a shirtless man materializes at the entrance. About fifty, his black hair glistens with gel, and his once muscular frame has sagged. He dances his bloodshot eyes about the dining room, then leaves, his first step uncertain.

Eugenio looks at my plate, sees me lifting a fork with farofa. “Don’t eat that.  It’s bad.” 

In that I’m already chewing a mouthful, I feel betrayed by the belated warning. Thank you, Eugenio. And you too, Rita. Thank you very much. I discretely empty my mouth into a paper napkin, but the rancid taste remains like a tattoo of formaldehyde.

We finish eating. Paulo, who’s smartly tracked down a street-side grille, drives us back to the hotel. I brush my teeth, then collapse in bed wondering when the nausea will hit. I wake next morning surprised I haven’t spent the night near the toilet. I grab my camera and head out at 6:30 a.m. 

Photo 4 Motel in Santo Antonio do Matupi

Our home for a day, in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi.

Across the Transamazon Highway in front of our hotel, I contemplate a crooked two-story building with a sign indicating the presence of a homeopathic specialist capable of adjusting spines and reading fortunes. Gazing east and west, I note something curious, which is the complete absence of dogs. Most of these small frontier settlements have more dogs than people. Then it hits me. The rubbery meat of the buffet last night. People here eat dog. And their customers, too.     

We begin day one in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi driving its dusty streets at 7:30 a.m.  They lead us past the usual assemblage of raised wooden shacks beneath shady mango trees. Trucks loaded with logs sit in front of a couple of them. Eugenio lifts his camera to take pictures, something we’ve done hundreds of times. But the town has put us on edge, and I’m nervous as Eugenio starts shooting.

When I hear the motorcycle coming from behind, I give the warning, moto. Eugenio snaps his camera down, and we turn to look. Pistoleiros use motorcycles to approach their targets fast, and escape with ease, off-road if necessary. Rita notes with relief that he isn’t wearing a helmet, de rigueur for pistoleiros. Many Amazonian towns have ordinances against them because of the anonymity they provide drive-by shooters. 

Done with our photography, it’s time to get to work. Eugenio instructs Paulo to head east on the Transamazon Highway, where our satellite imagery indicates an easily accessible network of logging roads. Just outside of town, we stumble on an active sawmill, its patio stacked with mocha-colored logs, mahogany, which is now illegal to cut and incurs a very large fine. We turn down the road beside the mill to reconnoiter the primary forest, only a hundred yards away.

As if to punctuate this happy turn of events, a motorcyclist roars past. That he isn’t wearing a helmet puts us at ease. We follow, and once inside the tree line come immediately upon a logging truck allowing narrow passage beside a bushy hedge, several men tending to a tree they’ve just felled. Past the truck, we turn our attention back on the road, a trail really, noticing the motorcyclist again. He’s stopped and turned his bike around to face us, maybe fifty yards away, and there isn’t room to pass on either side of him.

Unsure as to what to do, we inch ahead, and once in earshot he informs us we’re on private property and must leave immediately, which is ridiculous because all of this land, every square inch of it, is terra devoluta, land belonging to the federal or state government that hasn’t yet been declared for public or private use. 

Paulo negotiates a three-point turn, and we come back upon the logging truck, still situated across from the hedge. At that instant, a skidder charges the forest, followed by a pick-up truck, and there we are, trapped. 

Maybe a minute passes, I don’t know. But after what seems like a long time, Paulo puts the truck in reverse and backs up, at which the skidder shoots ahead, its metal claw raised. Just before smashing into us, the driver veers to the side and nearly rolls over. Now the pick-up comes forward and stops, giving us barely enough space to pass beside the logging truck. Paulo shifts into gear and releases the clutch. 

I’m riding “shot-gun,” the irony of which isn’t lost on me, and have a good view of the guy in the pick-up, who’s heavy through the shoulders, in his mid-forties, and wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. Behind him is a dark space where he’s covered the back cabin windows with aluminum foil, creating a void of perfect concealment. As we bump towards him in first gear, and as I prepare my perfunctory smile to be directed his way through a window I plan to keep shut, I keep thinking about what a splendid target my teeth will make, a gleaming bull’s eye through the tinted glass.

The man we face, the logger who’s claimed the land we’re trying to leave, land he has no right to claim, stares through his open window slightly hunched, watching us pass with shark eyes. This man, and his companion in the back whom I conjure out of fear but who certainly exists, are no doubt little concerned about the consequences of shooting university professors, because it would never occur to them that university professors might be out here doing research. The only people snooping around out here would be other loggers. Or worse, government “researchers” of some sort, looking for environmental crimes or land fraud. 

We drive by slowly, under a flag of truce.

Once back on the Transamazon Highway heading into town, Eugenio says, “I think that was probably a close call.”

Coming from Eugenio, the most imperturbable person I know, the admission chills me.  

Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi isn’t a place with the restraints to human impulse you need to build a sense of community. And the absence of law has undermined any willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to strangers. No high school football team. No cops. We manage to escape the logger and his men because he fears reprisal.

But our escape presents an immediate dilemma about what to do. We can’t stay in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi under the circumstances.  Our truck is easily identifiable and in all likelihood the logger has taken us for rivals he’ll have to confront. If he suspects we’re researchers (i.e., “environmentalists”), it could be even worse. Thus, we have two options. Either go back the way we’ve come, or push west for the Madeira River and the town of Humaitá, close to Porto Velho with its airport. Humaitá was our destination at the outset, but we don’t know road conditions in that direction, and now have a friend in Apuí.

We opt to head west and leave, after less than an hour’s worth of research on the frontier it’s taken us three summer field campaigns to discover. Stopping at the hotel for our bags, we clear out by 9:30 a.m. Five minutes later, the forest engulfs us, and soon it’s as if we’ve joined one of the first penetrations of the basin, so wild does it feel. In fact, we’re passing through the indigenous territories of the Parintintin and Tenharim peoples, somewhere hidden in wild seclusion.

Although I revel in the green majesty of the forest, cut through every half mile by streams of crystalline water running over beds of golden sand, I begin to doze from fear-induced exhaustion. It’s as if gravity has sucked me into a dark capillary. I surface to Eugenio’s shout, Macaws!

Paulo pulls over, and we come to rest beside a swamp where Buriti palm trees stand like totem poles, their tent-sized fronds glowing green in the morning light. Husky squawks draw my attention to a rotting palm with a knocked off crown. At the very top stands a majestic blue macaw, its chest feathers with a burst of yellow against the bright blue sky. Another bird clings to the bark with claws and beak, inching to the summit to join its mate.

As they squawk at each other fifty yards away, other macaws fly from the background forest, pulling their huge wings through the air like swimmers doing laps. We’ve already seen a fair number but this is different. These birds don’t know enough to be afraid.

On watching the macaws, I’m a boy again in the woods with my father, feeling the magic of nature with its happy connection to all living beings, which I still know exists and try to show my children, time permitting. On watching the macaws, I want to shout for joy, to express myself in raw wonder. I want to blow bubbles and be bubbles, riding on the wind.

But I settle for lifting my camera and taking pictures until my finger hurts. One macaw, then another, and another. Macaws individually and in multiples, climbing up and down the palm trees, buzzing us so close we can practically touch them. After maybe half an hour of this, I bring my camera down, see that Eugenio and Rita have also finished. We climb back into the truck and after a few exclamations fall into private meditation.     

Photo 5 Macaws

The ever-playful macaw.

Sometime later, we arrive at the landing for the ferry across the Madeira River. On the banks over a mile away, we see buildings in the hazy distance beneath a watchful church spire, all of it dun-colored in the humid light at 4:30 p.m.. We’re going to make it to Humaitá, and knowing we’ll be on the other side of the huge river by nightfall puts my mind at ease. I wonder how many forest bones we’ve driven past today, how closely we’ve come to finding our own final resting spot in a hidden patch of forest.

We bump our way into the outskirts of Lábrea, after slogging 120 miles through mud, the only vehicle on the road out of Humaitá.  Although the Generals of the military regime that opened Amazonia in the 1970s intended to traverse the entire Brazilian portion of the basin, they stopped in Lábrea, where they woke from their grandiose dreams to behold a malarial floodplain of interest to no one but mosquitoes. We hadn’t planned to go there and it makes no sense whatsoever in terms of the project. But none of us could resist the end of the road, even Eugenio who’s still feeling bad.

It was the worst drive of the trip. By 11:00 a.m. the sky had already faded from yellow-blue to the battleship gray of rain, not that it mattered because the Transamazon had already dissolved into ruts two to three feet deep in places. Ahead of us lay tracks where other drivers had fought their way through liquefied clay. Not all made it, and a few abandoned vehicles sat in the middle of the road like animals waiting to fossilize. As the rain began, Paulo engaged the vehicle traction and plowed ahead deliberately, pushing the wheel hard to correct the sliding, digging through the slop, zigzagging to avoid the roadside swamps and always moving forward without a moment’s rest, just grim concentration. When the road finally smoothed out about ten miles from Labrea, we were glad that Paulo was driving.    

Emerging from a drizzle on the edge of town at 4:00 p.m., we see a jumble of shacks strewn beneath what appears to be a sizable monument. As The Transamazon Highway peters out, once and for all, beside a tiny plaza lined by empty vending stands, the monument comes into focus as a twenty-foot concrete statue of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus. 

Paulo parks at the plaza. It’s late afternoon, so I’m content to sit here. But Eugenio and Rita jump out and head for a path leading away from the plaza. In a minute, I get out to follow. The path takes me to wooden stairs and a view across a shanty-town raised on stilts, stretching across the floodplain to the Purus River, half a mile away. I hurry after Eugenio and Rita, who’ve disappeared among the shacks, and find them on the edge of the shanty beside another stairway, this one to the floodplain. They’re both rubbing on insect repellent, which can only mean one thing, that they’re going down, which is outside the rule book because malaria hour is upon us.

I try to catch Rita’s eye. She’s supposed to be watching Eugenio with me, and a bout with malaria isn’t what he needs. But Rita wants to go down, so she ignores me.   

Eugenio says with wonder, “This is incredible.”

“Eugenio, you’re sick for god’s sake.” 

“How many Brazilians have seen this?” he asks, undeterred.   

“Not many, and they all got malaria,” I say.

It’s getting late, and the proper course of action would be to find a hotel. But Eugenio and Rita descend the stairs without hesitation. I stew in my annoyance for a moment, then rub repellent on and follow down the stairs.

Grasses grow in profusion on the muddy soils, but leave a trail that snakes to where Eugenio and Rita are waiting for me beside an uprooted Brazil Nut tree that’s washed ashore. The Purus lies just ahead, and in five minutes, we’re there. 

My first impression is of mud and of ugliness, but the river’s also beautiful in its raw natural power, the cut-bank on the other shore rising 100 feet, looking as if someone has chopped it with a knife, the trees above much taller than the bank, the openings between them with caverns of green light. This isn’t the Xingu or the Tapajós, where water runs through hilly valleys and cascades across gardens of rock. No, the Purus River is a powerful current boiling through sunken terrain, the sideline vegetation reaching high to keep from drowning.   

I rise early, no more rested than when I went to bed.  We head for Porto Velho this morning, where we’ll fly out, putting an end to our third summer of field work. It’s 6:00 a.m. as I walk to the roof of our three-story hotel, to the empty breakfast patio with its view in all directions. Downstream half a mile, ant-sized people walk up and down gangplanks, preparing the riverboats to cast off. Upstream not far from where I stand, humidity screens the river, dividing the Purus into a mundane workaday world where boats are prepared for journeys, and a water world where land dissolves into steam.

I look east back the way we’ve come, across green flatlands beneath gray skies, wondering if they will clear today or melt directly into rain. I’d have never guessed on leaving Santarém that the forest I’ve come to know in the lower basin, with its rolling terrain like ocean swells, would ooze into mud-slicks with upland giving way to swamp and back again, following changes in elevation invisible to the human eye. Here, algal meanders seep into ponds where gigantic Buriti palm trees stand like totemic idols. Then, the land rises, the water drains, and the Brazil Nut trees cluster, their crowns in a high canopy. But the swamp returns with its watery catacombs and palm trees, set beneath steamy overcast.

I now see how deluded I’ve been in my long-standing presumption that the Amazon is just a very big Mississippi River dominated by the land on its edges, land under agriculture, land where children ride bicycles and factory workers produce their goods.   

Because it isn’t.

The gigantic river can’t be separated from the banks of its overflow, the marshes and swamps that ooze in all directions, the super-saturated air. 

I know this now because I’ve felt it in my pores, the cycle that drenches every map point. It starts at dawn as the forest roots suck the deep soil moisture, releasing the morning mists that fill the ravines with fog. Then, the sun boils the fog into clouds and the clouds into thunderheads that implode with torrential but short-lived downpours, so the moisture can replenish the trees before settling back into the soils again, to wait for dawn. 

A muffled clanging draws my attention from thoughts of water to the Purus River itself, where a double-decker chugs by, the noise of its engine like someone banging metal with a hammer. Seeing the vessel underway at sunrise brings me back to the summers of my youth, working fishing boats off the coast of Florida. I remember the balls of moisture, barely clouds, condensing through the morning, low enough to touch, practically, then the sucker punch of heat with the flaring of the thunderheads, the afternoon rain as certain as sunset, each stage a Buddha face in the unity of water. Then I “see it,” what the trip out here has taught me, which is that Amazonia is a water world, an ocean.

But there’s something else, too, which is that as an ocean perched on land, Amazonia is extremely vulnerable.

I’d witnessed the potential for catastrophe far to the east, on a ranch stretching for ten miles. It might have been our timing, which got us there after the sun had burned the forest mists completely off of Terra do Meio by the natural heating of the earth. But it might also have been that the pastures had broken the cycle, meaning the trees weren’t there to suck the water from the soils, so the vapor wasn’t there to form the clouds, leaving the sky a savanna blue, devoid of the moisture that had fed the forest ecosystem for millennia with rain.

My fatigued mind has run with its thoughts, which crash at last on a harrowing question, namely, that if this is happening in Terra do Meio, what about the rest of the basin, so much of it cleared already? Has enough of the forest vanished to push the whole system past its tipping point, to a gigantic briar-patch of fire-prone scrub? Or, do a sufficient number of trees remain to keep our hopes alive, to give us the time we need to walk back from the brink we seem so intent on hopping over?

I don’t have the energy to think about it right now. I need to get to my room and pack, to start scheming with Eugenio about how we can justify a no-cost extension for next year.

But before leaving the roof, I gaze across the Purus River for the deep relief of knowing that a part of the world remains intact on the other side of its muddy water, an ecotone that civilization has yet to transgress. For me, the Amazonian water world isn’t just an intellectual prop on which I’ve based a career. It’s also a siren call to my primitive self, one I resist by turning from the river and bringing my thoughts back to the journey home, to the recognition we still haven’t finished our project and now have new questions that need to be addressed.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.


About the Author:

Robert Walker is Professor of Geography at Michigan State University, with a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.  He divides his time between the U.S. and Brazil, where he holds a visiting appointment at the Federal University of Pará, in the Center for the Environment (Nucleo do Meio Ambiente). Walker was born in Hawaii, grew up in Florida, and has always looked south, not north, for inspiration.  The views expressed in The Amazonian Water World are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.

Contact Walker at

Academic website:

LiveScience Bio:


March 1, 2014   Comments Off on Lifeblood of Brazil/CNF

Nat’l. Geo. / 125 years of Photography


NGS Picture ID:655215© N.E. Beckwith │ National Geographic 

California│1892   Loggers pose with the Mark Twain redwood, felled in California.


Annenberg Space for Photography

Presents The Power of Photography:

National Geographic 125 Years

Interview with Patricia Lanza

by Ginger Liu

To celebrate 125 years of National Geographic magazine’s excellence in photography and environmental storytelling, the Annenberg Space for Photography is curating what promises to be one of the largest multimedia exhibitions of its kind with hundreds of images on display including print, digital instillations and documentary films. The sheer scale of the exhibition, which coincides with October’s National Geographic commemorative magazine, will no doubt warrant more than one visit.

I spoke to Patricia Lanza, Director of Talent and Content at Annenberg Space for Photography, about possibly one of the largest photography exhibitions of its kind.

GL: Congratulations on putting together and presenting what appears to be a rather dauntingly large exhibition of photography and multimedia. The sheer numbers of images on display, the videos and film – to actually whittle it down to 400 historical images from the National Geographic and the 500-plus images in the digital installation must have been a long, yet enjoyable process.

How long has the planning taken?

PL: The planning has taken over a year.


NGS Picture ID:1550098

© 2012 Paul Nicklen │ National Geographic

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Florida | 2012  Highly dependent on warm temperatures to survive, Florida’s estimated 5,000 manatees flee cold waters in winter to congregate at springs and power plant discharge sites. Scores are killed each year in collisions with watercraft, fueling conflict between conservationists and boaters.


PL: The images are in thematic sections:

People/Culture, Environment, Exploration, Icons, America (general themes), and the October 2013 Issue. October is the anniversary month for both National Geographic Magazine and the National Geographic Society, so there will be images from one of the world’s greatest repositories of photojournalism, as well as new material being commissioned for the October issue of the magazine.

GL: Is there any indication from this huge exhibition that the printed edition of National Geographic is coming to a close?

PL: No. This exhibition was a way to show some of the scope and depth of National Geographic’s 125-year collection – not just the iconic images but whole stories. National Geographic is famous for its storytelling journalism and this is a spectacular way of highlighting that.

GL: Will we learn of future developments within National Geographic from this exhibition?

PL: This is a very innovative and forward-looking way to experience an exhibition. No photography exhibition has been done on this scale in this way, mainly because until now, the technology for presentation on video screens wasn’t up to the quality of displaying it on a video monitor. This opens the door for a different way to experience photography of this caliber.

GL: What do you hope people will learn from The Power of Photography: National Geographic 125 Years?

PL: The importance of having a photographic history of all forms of life on earth and beyond; the importance of how photography can alter your way of thinking and start a dialogue, and the importance and immeasurable value of what photography and photojournalism contribute to our awareness and our consciousness.

GL: Thank you for your time. I can’t wait to see the exhibition.


Annenberg Space for Photography Presents The Power of Photography: National Geographic 125 Years

October 26, 2013 – April 27, 2014

Open free to the public, Wednesdays thru Sundays.

Please check website for hours, transportation and parking directions.

Iris Night Lecture Series free to public on first come-first served basis.

All Iris Night Lectures take place in our new Skylight Studios located across the lawn from the Photography Space.

Annenberg Space for Photography


About the interviewer: 

Ginger Liu is a Photographer/Filmmaker/Writer. Based in Los Angeles, she travels extensively and is a long-time contributor to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about her in About Us, and on her web site:


November 1, 2013   Comments Off on Nat’l. Geo. / 125 years of Photography

Tom Bovo/Photography

Digital Photograph©Tom Bovo

The Honeylocust 


A Language of Leaves


There was a period that started in September of 2011 when I had a lot of free time during the day and I filled this time with long walks with my dog. Part of this daily routine involved watching the ground where we walked, so it was easy to observe the leaves that were falling with the approaching autumn. The surprising thing about these leaves was how they changed, both over time and even from street to street, as if one street had a variety that was entirely different that the very next street. Each street had a different set of plants and trees that contributed to a language and dialect of this particular environment, as two countries might have different spoken languages.

I began to pocket some of the interesting leaves I found and brought them home to examine them more carefully. Although they were essentially a flat structure, the process of drying out would twist them into complex distorted shapes and curves that obscured their variety of color and made them uninteresting masses. In order to examine them better, I began to flatten them between two sheets of glass so I could see both their true shapes and their delicate patterns of colors and veins. And then there was the brief time that these leaves remained vibrant and alive — as they dried out, their colors dulled and the pattern of veins within them faded away — and I had to find ways to photograph them before they were gone.

– Tom Bovo


Tom Bovo / The Autumn Leaves


 Upcoming exhibits:

• Language of Place featuring work by Katherine Colona Hopkins, Tom Bovo, and Gail Flanery,  in the Project Space at 440 Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, September 12 through October 20, 2013.

• Genius Loci, a solo exhibit of work by Tom Bovo in the front space at 440 Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, October 24 through December 1, 2013


Tom Bovo is a second generation Brooklyn, NY native. He studied painting and printmaking at Columbia University under noted artists such as print makers Andre Racz and Robert Blackburn, as well as painters David Lund and Leon Goldin. Tom has been working almost exclusively in photography since 1985, doing commercial photography for 10 years. He now concentrates on his own work.

Although heavily influenced by abstract expressionist painters, his photography influences are Eadweard Muybridge, André Kertész, and Diane Arbus.

To see his other works, visit


August 31, 2013   Comments Off on Tom Bovo/Photography

Tom Wilber Reports

Credit: Newstimes Photo

Obama’s upstate tour

inspires anti-fracking activists

President: ‘Fossil fuels finite.

Climate change is real’


by Tom Wilber

Binghamton (August 24, 2013) —  It was tough going for the 400 protesters preparing for Barack Obama’s visit to Binghamton University Friday. They faced traffic from a rush of returning students and a maze of construction barriers, detours, and police blockades. Parking on campus, limited under ideal circumstances, got predictably worse when police closed campus roads at 10 a.m., two and a half hours prior to the arrival of the presidential motorcade.

After getting an early morning start that began with a walk of a mile or more from remote parking spots, with NO FRACKING WAY placards and provisions in hand, the protesters – skewed heavily toward the baby boom generation but also including students – gathered at a designated spot on the motorcade route in front of the university library. They rallied for hours while waiting for the president’s arrival.  They chanted “Yes We Can,” echoing both the president’s campaign slogan, and their intention to stop fracking. The cheers reverberated across quads and walkways at the center of campus that were mostly empty due to security measures, and the animation of the protesters offered stark contrast to the poised vigilance of police and secret service personnel stationed at every turn.

I passed the protesters as I negotiated the series of barriers and yellow tape, hurrying to get to the press check-in at the university union before the cut-off. After getting cleared, I was directed through the press entrance to the venue, where I set up my laptop at a bank of workstations that accommodated about 40 other reporters on the periphery of the action. My view was partially obscured by the risers in front of me, which held cameras for photographers and broadcast outlets. The press pool, easily numbering more than 100, flanked one side of the small hall. The president’s podium was in the middle. Two other sets of risers – opposite and at a right angle to the risers for the press pool – held students and faculty picked from a lottery. In the remaining space a row of folded chairs directly in front of the president was reserved for local officials and dignitaries.

A few hours later, with everybody in their assigned places, a helicopter churned overhead and the presidential motorcade turned onto campus. As the line of motorcycles with flashing lights, SUVs and a large black bus with the presidential seal made their way up the road, the activists by the library seized their brief moment and shouted and waved banners. Some glimpsed the president standing near the front of the bus, but it was difficult to discern a reaction behind the tinted class. It was over in an instant, and several minutes later, the president made his way into the Union from an unseen entrance.

Obama opened the meeting with a short talk about education as the essence of the American Dream. Predictably, he offered no passing mention of the subject that stirred the protest that greeted his arrival, or other protests that had been staged across various points of his two-day tour through upstate New York and Pennsylvania. The questions and answers of the two-hour town hall meeting were themed around equality and access and affordability of the American higher education system. (With due respect to the significance of the educational issues that were the focus of the president’s tour, I will not go into these much here, and leave that worthwhile work to other bloggers and educational beat writers.)

In keeping with the heart of the theme of his second term – working for the middle class – Obama projected an approachable and informal manner throughout his upstate tour, which included spontaneous stops to greet surprised onlookers at soccer-fields, diners, and cafes. And he kept  up that manner at Binghamton University.  “I’m interested in hearing your stories, getting your questions,” he said. “And this will be a pretty informal affair– well, as informal as it gets when the President comes – (to laughter) – and there are a bunch of cameras everywhere.” After calling on a student in an Obama T-shirt, he advised “here’s a general rule in the presidential town hall:  If you want to get called on, wear the president’s face on your shirt.” (The student’s question: How does your administration plan to address the major budget cuts that are happening with Head Start schools around the U.S.? Obama’s answer: As the deficit continues to fall with the economic recovery, he sees more resources for federal funding. But it remains a political fight, and he will fight for worthwhile programs like Head Start.)

Near the end of the meeting, Obama called on a man with something other than education on his mind. His name was Adam Flint, coordinator of a Cooperative Extension program called Broome Energy Leadership Program. Flint began with a bit of context: Fossil fuels might last another generation. And then what? He was worried about his children’s futures, and he was guessing that the president, with adolescent daughters of his own, shared his concern. “Is there any good news for green economy of future?” Flint asked.

Behind that simple question lies a convoluted political dilemma, and the president’s answer reflected this, if little else. On the one hand, Obama said, with record production of domestic fossil fuel “we’ve actually achieved, or are on the verge of achieving about as close as you can get to energy independence as America is going to see.” He notably chose to avoid the word “fracking” – the controversial method of splitting rock with pressurized chemical solutions. This technology, exempt from federal regulation that govern chemicals that go into the ground and waste that comes out of the ground, is largely responsible for prolonging and enabling our fossil fuel-based energy system.

Without mentioning these exemptions, Obama pushed on to the crux of the question: The future. “The bottom line is those (fossil fuels) are still finite resources.  Climate change is real.  The planet is getting warmer.  And you’ve got several billion Chinese, Indians, Africans and others who also want cars, refrigerators, electricity. And as they go through their development cycle, the planet cannot sustain the same kinds of energy use as we have right now.  So we’re going to have to make a shift.”

The shift will require new technology, he said. But immediate improvements can come through conservation measures now within reach that could reduce the country’s energy consumption by 20 percent to 30 percent.  Retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, as well as building new energy-efficient buildings and communities, can create jobs as well as decrease energy dependence. But even a relatively simple approach like this – what Obama called the “low hanging fruit” of the energy question – involves a problem. The problem is rooted deeply in prevailing influence of Big Energy on Capitol Hill, and ideological factors that “tend not to be particularly sympathetic to alternative energy strategies,” Obama said.

“In some cases, we’ve actually been criticized that it’s a socialist plot that’s restricting your freedom for us to encourage energy-efficient light bulbs, for example.  I never understood that.  But you hear those arguments.  I mean, you can go on the Web, and people will be decrying how simple stuff that we’re doing, like trying to set up regulations to make appliances more energy-efficient – which saves consumers money and is good for our environment – is somehow restricting America’s liberty and violates the Constitution.

“A lot of our job is to educate the public as to why this can be good for them – in a very narrow self-interested way.  This is not pie in the sky. This is not tree-hugging, sprout-eating university professors. This is a practical, hardheaded, smart, business-savvy approach to how we deal with energy.”

Obama is dealing with energy in a somewhat different way than his fellow Democratic leader, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Obama has embraced an “all of the above” approach to encourage sources of domestic energy production, including fossil fuels and renewables, and in previous speeches he has identified fracking for natural gas and oil as “a priority.” Obama’s words have been supported by his actions: His EPA has dropped two critical investigations into groundwater pollution near drilling sites in Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania. Both investigations found chemicals associated with drilling in residential water wells, and this finding, if pursued, could have provided ammunition for policy reform and a threat to the industry’s exemptions to the Clean Drinking Water Act. Also, Obama’s Department of Energy has begun permitting facilities to export gas, a move that will encourage more exploration and production at home.

Cuomo, on the other hand, leads a state that sits over a lucrative part of the Marcellus and Utica shales – world class gas reserves. Yet Cuomo has not allowed shale gas development. A defacto-moratorium on permitting is now entering its sixth year, while the Cuomo administration continues to evaluate health and environmental impacts of fracking and the broader consequences of shale gas development.

In the meantime, political action groups both for and against fracking have used the delay to pressure Cuomo. Fracking supporters also appeared with signs  – Drill a Well, bring a soldier home – within view of the presidential motorcade yesterday. That protest, at Otsiningo Park boarding Route 81 several miles north of Binghamton, was much smaller and less visible than the one on campus, and the difference between the two protests illustrates the way things are going in New York state.

Walter Hang, an anti-fracking activist and an organizer of the Binghamton University protest, said the logistically difficult demonstration on campus was a reflection of the organizational ability and commitment of the anti-fracking push from the grass roots that has stalled the development of shale gas at the Pennsylvania border.

“When Obama’s office announced he would be taking a bus tour through upstate, we knew this was a chance to get our message out nationally,” said Hang, a career activist who worked as a community organizer for New York Public Interest Research Group for decades. Hang emphasizes the importance of tactics and execution in political action campaigns. “We’re out-organizing the industry in New York state,” he said.

In addition to well-organized grass roots campaigns in upstate New York, the movement is also getting help from Cuomo’s broader progressive base, which includes a host of institutions and influence from the Hudson Valley and New York City areas strongly opposed to fracking.

Cuomo, seen by many as a rising star in the Democratic party and a possible successor to Obama, neatly sidestepped this chapter of the shale gas controversy. After greeting the president at the Buffalo airport Thursday, he took his daughters back to college while the president made his rounds upstate.


About the author:

Tom Wilber has been in the newspaper business for more than 20 years and has written for the Central New York Business Journal and the Watertown Daily Times. For 17 years, he worked for the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, covering business, health, and environment beats. From 1992 through 2005, he taught various journalism courses as an adjunct at Broome Community College and Binghamton University. He lives with his wife, Julianne, and their two children, Alex and Patricia, in the Town of Union, New York.

His book, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale, is available on Amazon.

This article was published simultaneously on Wilber’s blog,

August 24, 2013   Comments Off on Tom Wilber Reports