How these observations bear on humanity’s place in this jungle—as well as our justifiable behavior within it—remains a fascinating and hotly charged question. Many humans exploit nature’s bloody game of survival to rationalize a wonton exercise of dominance over the non-human world. It’s a jungle out there, we tell ourselves, and thus, to survive, we’ve got to cash in on our evolutionary success by tracking, hunting, killing and eating those members of the jungle that we can track, hunt, kill, and eat. But we know that’s not quite right.
Cockroach - Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica
Spending eight days in the Costa Rican rain forest tends to focus the mind on fundamental questions. Why do some animals emerge at night while others sleep? Why do we press our noses to tarantula holes while recoiling at a harmless snake? Why are sloths known for laziness when they happen to move with the stealth of a bobcat? How did a black and orange land crab that looks like a plastic Halloween toy make the evolutionary cut? By what means does a chunk-headed vine snake, all the width of a pencil, swallow a frog the size of ping pong ball?
These questions have answers. But, while touring the Osa Peninsula—a place that accounts for 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity—I didn’t have them. Which was fine. It’s an easy axiom to forget, but a lack of expertise enhances the power of observation. Pre-existing conclusions obviate the need to explore—be it an ecosystem, an animal, a tree’s ropy grid of interlocking roots—with innocence. Working from a baseline of ignorance, at least for those who find the world’s mystery worth pondering, improves the chances of seeing the world with fresh eyes and new thoughts.
As I was writing the last sentence, a dead roach dropped from the woody ceiling onto my laptop. It’s a reminder of sorts, evoking as it does the hard brutality of existence (albeit not exactly for me, surrounded as I am by a semi-open but luxurious eco-cabin that I’m guessing is dosed every afternoon with a corona of insecticides). But do note that this roach was not only lifeless. It also lacked at least three legs, part of its tail, and a head.
Hence the most unavoidable observation one makes in this environment: matters of life and death dominate. Nearly every moment for non-humans is dedicated to honing the strategies that evolution has bestowed in order to stay in the game and, preferably control it. In a rainforest, winners and losers are juxtaposed with rare intimacy. You wake up to spider monkeys mating with cold efficiency on a tree limb and end the evening shining a flashlight on a rainforest pond, standing stock still as a cat-eyed snake stalks and eventually kills a frog quietly trolling for insects. My decapitated roach offer mere italics to the obvious: as Tennyson put it, nature is indeed “red in tooth and claw.”
Yes, wild animals play. They frolic. They take time off from the preoccupations of survival to relax. But the specter of death—thoughtless but necessary death—is ever present. Even the seemingly benign snapshots of nature that we capture on our i-phones—snapshots with postcard appeal—verify the jungle’s ongoing juggling act of eating, mating, hunting, and hiding. The dramatic vibrancy of this teeming patch of biodiversity is the result.
Paradoxically, the violence looks peaceful. A juvenile anole situates himself on a lone branch under the outermost leaf of the fig tree and you think “how cute.” But he does this not to look cute but to get a little shuteye while the vine snake, emerging from a day of slumber, stretches himself out like soft taffy to scour the tree’s interior for breakfast. It’s an enthralling moment, as we momentarily become omniscient narrator, seeing what the snake cannot. When the vine snake, wizened by trial and error, eventually adjusts to explore the exterior first, the lizard responds by going to sleep in the tree’s dense interior. But the move from the boroughs to lower Manhattan takes time, and the cost of relocation will be blood.
Still, we take the pic of the vine snake and paste it on our blog as the reason we came to the rainforest. Little do we know, as the friendly waiter serves us a cold glass of papaya juice the next morning, that we came to the rainforest not to witness the fullness of life, but rather to see, to rave over, the consequences of death.
It is also true that animals are frequently altruistic, loving, and maybe even endowed with a basic sense of right and wrong. But none of these qualities per se matters when you boil existence to its essence. In fact, it all adds up to one huge red herring. Animals cooperate for the sole reason that they are trying to avoid being killed while enhancing their own ability to kill. So ubiquitous is the law of the jungle that many species will even consume members of their own tribe. There is no censure or praise under this indifferent canopy. The fittest thereby survive and, as a result, the selection is as natural as it is amoral.
How these observations bear on humanity’s place in this jungle—as well as our justifiable behavior within it—remains a fascinating and hotly charged question. Many humans exploit nature’s bloody game of survival to rationalize a wonton exercise of dominance over the non-human world. It’s a jungle out there, we tell ourselves, and thus, to survive, we’ve got to cash in on our evolutionary success by tracking, hunting, killing and eating those members of the jungle that we can track, hunt, kill, and eat.
But we know that’s not quite right. I suspect that we assume this position not because we think we’re integrated into the rainforest in the way that a skink or toucan is, but because we are simply seeking an easy, species-specific excuse to steal the forest’s low hanging fruit. No viable human society, with the possible exception of an academic department, justifies its behavior according jungle rules.
To deny the veracity of this human/non-human relationship is easy—daily life is held together with too much selflessness and cooperation for us to entertain the survival of the fittest fantasy for too long. But doing raises a more difficult question. Untangling it must begin by exploring our understanding of wilderness. When we stand on the precipice of a rainforest, preparing to enter, how do we envision our place within it?
I imagine for some visitors nature provides yet another product to consume. They paid their money and, dammit, they’re going to see their monkeys. They take in wilderness the same way they cut into their Costa Rican steak at the end of the day. Others see themselves as preparing to enter virgin territory, respectful intruders into a mythically sacred and exotic place. But this conception is equally flawed, if for no other reason than the fact that they are there and, by their mere presence, sullying the virginity of the place. The whole notion of an untouched wilderness is thus about as realistic as the noise a falling tree makes when there’s no one there to hear it.
As a species sharing the earth with others, humans have every right to integrate our lives into the rainforest. However, led as we are by the frontal lobe, we bring to this environment our own unique set of possible contributions. Consuming the oxygen generated by endless primary growth, we may not be able to camouflage ourselves, emit a noxious musk, or carry twenty times our weight, but we can contemplate the most responsible way to minimize our impact on finite natural resources. Granted, that choice might have meant avoiding taking a jumbo jet to San Jose, followed by a puddle jumper, to reach this place. But curiosity has its costs. And, if we can walk out with a clearer notion of our relationship with other animal species, maybe there will be some offsets.
And what would that clearer notion look like? That will be the question I’ll address in my next post. But for now, let’s say—despite the endemic violence—that there’s no room in it for our unnecessary exploitation of the animals with whom we share this mysterious space. In that axiom, moreover, lies a powerful message about the way we eat, what we wear, and the products we use.
Read Part II...
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