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Are Brazil nuts really from Brazil?

Are Brazil nuts really from Brazil? Do they hang from a tree like walnuts? I found the answers to these questions in the Amazon region of Peru when I learned to harvest Brazil nuts, or “castañas” as they are called by the locals. I couldn’t help but incorporate this fascinating nut into my novel, for both the ecology of the tree and the way the nuts are harvested are truly astounding.

Yes, Brazil nuts are from Brazil, but they also grow in all regions of the upper Amazon in places where mature rainforests can still be found. And yes, they hang from trees, but not individually like walnuts. They are clustered together like sections of an orange, inside a hard shell that looks and feels like a cannonball.

There are only two creatures that can open one of these cannonballs or “cocos” –the agouti (a native rodent) and humans. The agouti gnaws through the hard shell with sharp incisors, whereas humans hack into them with machetes.

You can’t find a nut more organic than the castaña. People have tried to grow them in plantations, but with minimal success. The yellow petals of the castaña flower are curved tightly inward, protecting the nectar and pollen. Only a group of native bees can tease their way through these petals, and because these bees only live in dense rainforests, that is where Brazil nuts grow.

Instead of bringing the Brazil nut into domestication, we have to go into the wild and meet this nut on its own turf. But first, we need to wait until the cannonballs fall from the trees. A falling, 5-pound coco can be deadly.

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I learned to harvest Brazil nuts from Sofía Rubio and her family, who have an inspiring small business of harvesting and selling Brazil nut products under the name Shiwi http://canopybridge.com/members/shiwi-2/Listings/ . Once a year, Shiwi offers an educational experience to interested citizens who want to learn the entire process of harvesting, drying, and cracking the nuts: http://www.conservamospornaturaleza.org/noticia/conoce-la-ruta-de-la-castana-junto-a-shiwi/.

In March of 2016, I was the only international participant in the Shiwi educational experience. Along with twelve Peruvians, I traveled by small skiff down the Tambopata River for three hours to a section of the Tambopata National Reserve where the Rubio family leases the right to harvest nuts from the Peruvian government. Our living situation was primitive, but the rewards were many, from being awakened by howler monkeys in the morning, to hearing ghost stories around the campfire at night. During the day, I shouldered a large basket made of jungle vines and searched under the Brazil nut trees for the cocos. I learned to pick up the cocos with a three-pronged stick called a pallana. I also got to try my hand at whacking the cocos open with a machete. I managed to retain all of my fingers in the process!

 

Here is a description of harvesting castañas in my novel,  Life After Ceviche:

Michelle plunged the three prongs around the coco, swung it over her shoulder and tapped it on the basket rim, but it wouldn’t break loose from the stick. She tapped twice more before she felt it drop into the basket.

“Don’t push the coco too far into the pallana,” Julián advised. “Just enough to pick it up. That way, it will fall out easier.”

Michelle nodded and looked for another coco. She wedged the second one too firmly again, afraid that a loose grip would cause the five-pound ball to drop on her head mid-swing. She finally got the hang of it on the third try.

“Bacán!” Julián said. “You’ve got it. You can head over that way, and when your basket gets too heavy, just dump them in a pile over there.” He pointed to a cleared area with a scattering of coco shells from the previous year.

Michelle struck out, eager to help with the harvest. After a short time, she got into a rhythm: walk, jab, swing, tap. Walk, jab, swing, tap. Her basket grew heavy—forty pounds she guessed—so she waddled over to the drop-off site. Tipping her body sideways, the cocos tumbled over her right shoulder like a bunch of cannon balls.

When Michelle returned to the pile with her second load of cocos, Julián was seated on the ground waiting for her, a coco between his legs.

“Now for step two,” he said. “Time to open these cocos.” He whacked the hard ball with his machete, twice on one side, twice on another, and the coco split in two. He set down the machete and pulled the two halves apart, revealing the treasure inside. Michelle stared in awe at the tight cluster of Brazil nuts, their hard, ribbed shells nestled one against the other like sections of an orange. 

“Amazing!” Michelle said, her eyes wide. Julián laughed and poured the nuts into a large, woven plastic bag, eighteen nuts in all. He scooped up another coco, placed it between his legs, and hacked again. Michelle watched the way he moved his left hand away each time the machete descended. Still, it looked like dangerous work.

“Now it’s your turn,” he said, looking up at her, his dimple flashing. She gasped.

“Are you serious, Julián? I’ve never used a machete before.”

“Never too late to start,” he said. “This machete is shorter than the ones we use on the trail. Here, sit down and I’ll show you.”

 

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Christina Vojta observing a harpy eagle nest

The Allure of the Harpy

January 31, 2018

In my tenth year of life, I met a harpy eagle. Not the real deal, but an image found in a library book, Animals of South America, that nearly sucked me into the page with its bold, black eyes and shaman-like crest. The creature looked more mystical than real, an impression that was partly due to the age of the photo (circa 1950), and the fact that it was black and white and slightly blurred. No matter. I couldn’t take my eyes off that photo. Each time I flipped through the book, I would turn to that page first, and each time, the magical essence of that being absorbed me. When my mother told me that I had to return the book to the library, the harpy compelled me to open the book again for a final, thrilling glimpse.

Decades later, I took a trip to Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru with my husband, hoping that among the other wonders of the Amazon rainforest, we would see a harpy eagle. Alas, my dreams were thwarted. Although we had a marvelous time, no harpy eagles came forth to greet me.

Thus, a year later, when my husband said he saw a job announcement for a research assistant position in the Amazon of Peru, studying monkeys and observing a harpy eagle nest, I thought he was kidding. It sounded too good to be true!

Twenty-five years as a wildlife biologist and a life-time of outdoor experience enabled me to qualify for this work, especially since I had conducted my own research on the northern goshawk, a large, forest hawk of North America. I applied for the position, and to my extreme joy, I was hired.

I had the pleasure of working for Dara Adams, a Ph.D. student from Ohio State University. Dara was investigating monkey behavior in response to the presence of predators, including the harpy eagle, and wanted to learn if five species of local monkeys altered their behavior when near an active eagle nest. She also wanted to know which of these monkey species found themselves at the end of a pair of eagle talons, being carried into the nest to feed the eagle chick.

I spent half my time searching for groups of monkeys and recording their numbers, behavior, and distance from the eagle nest. The other half was dedicated to watching the eagle nest and recording feeding behavior and the types of prey that were fed to the chick.

My experiences from that summer have become the foundation for the harpy eagle study in Life after Ceviche.  I want you, my readers, to feel the excitement of watching the largest eagle in South America. I want you to get to know both the adult eagle and its chick, and learn how the chick develops as it moves from nestling to fledgling. To achieve this, the harpy eagle female and its chick are not simply background decoration in my novel, but function as characters. They influence the behavior of the protagonist, Michelle, and drive much of the action of the first part of the story.

A gnawing hunger interrupted the chick’s attention, followed by an urge to return to the nest where food could be found. Rocking from leg to leg, the chick prepared for the longest flight of its short life, from the massive ceiba back to its shihuahuaco home. Back to the nest, just one hundred feet away.

 The fledgling leaned forward, searching for the right balance for flight. Wings had to be opened. Legs had to push off. It all had to happen at once. It was complicated. Maybe someone could simply bring the food here, to this perch. The chick crouched into a begging pose, craned its neck backward, and began to cry.

Michelle heard the chick. “Well dang, there you are, you rascal!” she whispered. “You aren’t even in the nest tree. You’re out exploring the neighborhood! You’re going to be no end of trouble from now on, I can tell!”

Am I Michelle, the harpy eagle researcher? The answer is, No. I have allowed Michelle to see harpy eagles through my eyes, and she shares the same love and respect for nature that I do. And we both spent our time in the rainforest, with our “right eye pressed against a spotting scope as if nothing else existed – only the scope, the eye, and the object in view.” But Michelle has a much greater reputation as a raptor biologist, and plunges into a lot more trouble. Here is a description of Michelle:

 In contrast to the elegant vestments of the eagle, the biologist worked in standard jungle attire—lightweight clothing of olive or tan and calf-high rubber boots. She preferred to go hatless, claiming that the brim obstructed her view, and adding that it was pointless to wear a hat since the dense jungle was forever cast in shade. Threads of gray had begun to appear in her multi-hued blond hair, but she still wore it in the style of her graduate student days, a single braid trailing halfway down her back or sometimes over one shoulder.

 Her wide cheekbones were acquired from the Swedish side of her family, along with gray-blue eyes that reflected a deep appreciation of the natural world, inherited from her grandfather. She did not indulge in her appearance, yet all who met her saw beauty in her radiant hair and in her slim, athletic build, acquired from a lifetime of outdoor pursuits in the mountains, canyons, and rivers of the West.

So…how does Michelle get into trouble? Well…the harpy eagle is not the only character who carries the story. In my next blog, I’ll introduce you to Julián, the man she met on her way to the harpy eagle nest.

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Deep within the tropics of Peru…

January 18, 2018

Deep within the tropics of Peru, mosquitoes circled like miniature vultures around the lone woman. Hunched forward, steady as a living statue street performer, her long, blond braid trailed down the slope of her back.  Her right eye pressed against a spotting scope as if nothing else existed – only the scope, her eye, and the object in view. Hovering insects could not break her deep concentration. Nor could songs, squawks, and trills from tropical birds that under other circumstances would have piqued her interest. With self-discipline honed from years in the woods, she commanded every fiber of her body to hold steady, to wait, to be patient. Several minutes sloughed into history while the biologist continued her frozen stare.  

Whoosh— a large shape plunged into the ironwood tree one hundred yards away. The biologist spun her finger on the spotting scope and brought into focus a creature that seemed more mythological than real. Obsidian black eyes, ghost-gray face, a crown of white feathers radiating skyward: a shaman’s mask. Even from a distance, the power of the animal was palpable; it locked her gaze and held it, almost against her will. The hair on her scalp raised and her pulse quickened – the primeval reaction to a predator. The creature was an adult harpy eagle, royal giant of the Amazon – the 3-foot tall raptor that impaled primates with dagger-sharp talons and ripped them open for lunch.

 

Harpy eagle chick looking at camera

These opening lines of my unpublished novel, Life after Ceviche, lure you into the Amazon rainforest of Peru, where temperatures soar with the eagles and mysterious birds give birth to caterpillar-like offspring.

The Amazon rainforest also spawns human emotions that range from fear to awe. Human encounters become complicated when they are between a man and a woman who speak different languages and who view the rainforest from different cultures.

In my story, Michelle Greenwald, a seasoned biologist and university professor, travels to Peru on an international grant to study harpy eagles. Opportunities and conflicts emerge when she meets Julián, a native Peruvian who is building a traditional cabin for the eco-lodge where Michelle is staying.

As events unfold, Michelle is drawn deeper into the Amazon, and eventually, she must choose between honoring her twenty-five-year marriage or following her heart.

My next blog will reveal a few things about me. What motivated me to write a novel that takes place in the Amazon?  Am I Michelle?

Tambopata River

Who is Julián?

February 12, 2018

Julián pronounced (hoo-lee-AHN) is a Peruvian housebuilder from the Amazonian town of Puerto Maldonado. He doesn’t speak English and Michelle barely speaks Spanish, so there is always a language barrier between them. Nevertheless, over time, he brings out parts of Michelle that have lain dormant and unexpressed during her twenty-five-year marriage to Derek.

Derek is her rock, her anchor to all that is normal and safe, and her promise of steadfast love. Julián begins to represent her own inner wildness, her link to animals and nature, her desire for the exotic and the unknown. She discovers the beauty of the rainforest at the same time that she discovers the allure of Julián, and these two attractions become intertwined and inseparable.

How these feelings play out become the central theme of the story, and I won’t disclose any spoilers. However, I’ll tease you with the following excerpts.

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Photo credit: José Carlos Alarcón Ugaide

The first excerpt is taken from Michelle’s second encounter with Julián, when he and two other men are preparing to thatch a traditional-style cabin they are building for the eco-lodge. She has just asked them what they have in the cart they are hauling.

“Crisneja,” the first man answered. “Para el techo.” He pointed to the framing for the roof, and Michelle suddenly understood. Thatch for the roof. She peered into the cart and noticed that the leaves were each as long as her forearm and had been cleverly woven onto strips of thin wood about three feet long, the wood now forming the edges of each roll. 

She raised her eyes from the cart to the man. Fate had concocted an exquisite blend of indigenous and Hispanic blood to create a face of unquestionable charm. He was older than she had originally thought, perhaps in his forties. As before, he wore a thin long-sleeved shirt of an indeterminate tan-turned-gray with the sleeves rolled to his elbows. The lean muscles in his forearms twisted under his brown skin as he gestured to explain that crisneja was made from the leaves of the palmiche palm, woven onto the sticks like so, and tied with strips of bark…. She did not understand a word of his Spanish, but only heard the lilt in his voice, felt the warmth and humor in his eyes, and saw the motion of his slender hands as he demonstrated the process of weaving thatch. He raised his eyebrows to ask – do you understand?  – and his smile brought forth appealing cheekbones and the flit of a dimple in his left cheek, seductive and alluring. Michelle thought of the fleeting yet flashy display of small bright feathers that male manakins use to attract females.

The next excerpt describes what takes place after Julián identifies a bird for Michelle:

Michelle stared at Julián, speechless, wondering how this roughened house builder would happen to know the voice of a cryptic bird that lived below knee level, out of sight in the Amazon rainforest.

“How did you learn this, Julián?”

He grinned, shrugged his shoulders and began to explain in Spanish, but once again she became lost in a string of incomprehensible words and felt like a two-year-old. With patience he tried again, more simply and slowly, until she understood that his father had taught him many things when they harvested Brazil nuts each rainy season. His father had taught him about mammals by showing him tracks in the mud. For birds, he taught Julián to recognize over 100 vocalizations. Julián mastered the identification of tracks and bird calls long before he saw most of the animals that made them, but eventually over his life he accumulated actual sightings that linked the tracks and calls to the visual appearance of their makers.

Fascinated, Michelle began to redefine this person called Julián. Before this moment, she had pegged him as a house builder, and that was all. Before this moment, she had assumed that nothing in his universe could have overlapped hers.

But now, as she listened to him, she felt she had opened a hand-hewn box and found a stash of treasures. She wanted to ask him about animal tracks she had seen and bird calls she had heard on the trail to the eagle nest. And beyond that, beyond her own questions about animal identification, she was eager to learn more about this man. She wanted to hear stories of his childhood and learn more of his indigenous knowledge. She wondered if he had ever seen a jaguar, or a tapir, or an ocelot, and if so, whether those encounters were special for him. She wanted to learn about his family, where they lived, and what traditions they followed.

Yet strangely, she also wanted to flee. She felt awkward sitting next to him, even somewhat vulnerable. She blamed part of her discomfort on the language barrier, but deep inside, she knew there was something else. Something she should not be feeling. She was fifty-six, married, and not looking for trouble. She began to gather her things.

“Muchas gracias, Julián,” she said. “I must go now. I must do computer. I will see you later!” she said in simple Spanish.

“Sure, see you later,” Julián said, and his right cheek flinched. “Have a nice evening.”

She caught one leg one the bench as she rose from the picnic table. It wasn’t easy to walk away from this man.

Such is the allure of this Peruvian man!

In my next blog, you’ll learn about harvesting Brazil nuts, an activity that Julián’s family does each year. Do Brazil nuts grow on trees like walnuts?