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Are Brazil nuts really from Brazil?

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. 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. 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.

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, 2-pound coco can be deadly.

I learned to harvest Brazil nuts from Sofía Rubio and her family, who have a 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/.

Cutting-Coco_VojtaIn 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 from my novel Tambopata:

Michelle plunged the four prongs of the stick around the coco, swung it over her shoulder and tapped it on the basket rim, but it wouldn’t break loose. 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 two-pound ball to drop onto her head mid-swing. She finally got the hang of it on the third try.

“Hermosa!” 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.”

 

Who is Julián?

Blog3_ImageJulián (pronounced Hoo-lee-AWN) is a Peruvian housebuilder from the town of Puerto Maldonado on the Tambopata River. He is building a traditional cabin at the ecolodge where Michelle is staying during her harpy eagle study. Michelle barely speaks Spanish and Julián doesn’t speak English, so there is a language barrier between them. Nevertheless, they build a friendship based on a mutual love of nature, and Julián awakens parts of Michelle that have lain dormant and unexpressed during her twenty-five-year marriage to Derek.

Derek is Michelle’s rock and her anchor to all that is normal and safe. Julián, on the other hand, makes Michelle aware of her own, inner wildness and her love of animals and nature. As Julián shows Michelle the beauty of the rainforest, she gradually becomes attracted to him in a way that threatens her marriage.

The manner in which these feelings play out becomes the central theme of the story, and I won’t disclose any spoilers. However, here are two excerpts from the novel that provide a glimpse into Julián’s character.

She raised her eyes from the cart to the man. Fate had concocted an exquisite blend of indigenous and Hispanic features to create a face of unquestionable charm. He was older than she had originally thought—perhaps in his mid-forties. As before, he wore a long-sleeved shirt of an indeterminate tan-turned-gray color with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The lean muscles in his forearms twisted under his skin as he tried to explain that crisneja was made from the leaves of the palmiche palm, woven onto special sticks like so, and tied with strips of bark…. She scarcely understood a word of his Spanish, but she could hear the lilt in his voice, feel the warmth and humor in his eyes, and see the motion of his slender hands as he demonstrated the process of weaving thatch. He raised his eyebrows as if 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 feathers that brightly colored birds called manakins use to attract females.

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She stared at Julián, wondering how an apparently typical construction worker would happen to know the voice of a cryptic bird that lived below knee level in the Amazon rainforest. “How did you learn this, Julián?” she asked in Spanish.

He grinned, shrugged his shoulders and began to explain, but once again she became lost in a string of incomprehensible Spanish and felt like a two-year-old child. With patience he tried again, simply and slowly, until at last, she picked up the main threads of his story. His father had taught him about animals when they harvested Brazil nuts each rainy season. He had shown Julián tracks in the mud and explained which animals had passed that way. For birds, he taught Julián to recognize over one hundred vocalizations. Interestingly, Julián had mastered the identification of tracks and calls long before he had seen most of the animals that made them. Eventually, over the course of his life, he accumulated sightings that linked the tracks and calls to the visual appearance of their makers.

    Intrigued, Michelle began to redefine this person called Julián. Before this moment, he had been a house builder, and nothing more. Before this moment, she had assumed that nothing in his universe could have overlapped hers. Now, as she listened to him, it was as though she had opened a hand-hewn box filled with treasures, one that she couldn’t wait to explore.

 

Such is the allure of this Peruvian man!

 

Eventually, Michelle meets Julián’s family and accompanies them on their annual harvest of Brazil nuts. Read about Michelle’s nut-harvesting experience in my next blog.

 

The lure of the harpy

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. The eagle 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 eagle. Each time I flipped through the book, I would turn to that page first, and each time, the eagle’s magical essence 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.

Blog1_Harpy_Vojta.JPGDecades 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!

My twenty-five years as a wildlife biologist 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. She 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 Tambopata.  I hope readers will vicariously feel the excitement of watching the largest eagle in South America raise a chick from nestling to fledgling. In Tambopata, the harpy eagles function as characters rather than backdrop. They influence the behavior of the protagonist 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 nest tree just one hundred feet away.

 The fledgling leaned forward, searching for the right balance. 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 to its perch. The chick crouched into a begging pose, craned its neck backward, and began to cry.

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Many people have asked if I am Michelle, the harpy eagle researcher. The answer is, No. Although I have allowed Michelle to see harpy eagles through my eyes, and although she shares my respect for nature, Michelle has a much greater reputation as a raptor biologist, and she plunges into a lot more trouble. Here is a description of Michelle:

 In contrast to the elegant vestments of the eagle, Michelle worked in standard jungle attire—lightweight, olive-green clothing and calf-high rubber boots. She preferred to go hatless, claiming that the brim obstructed her view. She wore her hair in the style of her graduate student days—a long braid trailing down her back, though the original flaxen color was now heavily streaked with silver. She possessed a natural kind of beauty, with broad cheekbones acquired from the Swedish side of her family and gray-blue eyes that reflected a deep appreciation of the natural world. Her slim, athletic build spoke of a lifetime of outdoor pursuits.

So…how does Michelle get into trouble? In my next blog, I’ll introduce you to Julián, the man she met on her way to the harpy eagle nest.

 

Deep in the tropics of Peru…

Tambopata

 

A novel of one woman’s choice to follow her heart into the Amazon rainforest

 

JungleScene

Hunched forward on a camp stool, Michelle Greenwald spun the knob of the scope and brought into focus a creature more mythological than real. Obsidian eyes glared from a ghost-gray face and a crown of dark feathers radiated skyward, like a shaman’s mask. Even from her distance of a hundred feet, the power of the animal was palpable. The female harpy eagle—almost the size of a wolf—gripped a branch with dagger-sharp talons. The woman’s hair follicles tingled and her pulse quickened—the primeval reaction to a predator.

 

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

Michelle, a biology professor in her mid-fifties, travels to the Amazon to study harpy eagles and meets Julián Olaya, a Peruvian man in his forties. When he identifies the call of a highly secretive bird, it triggers the beginning of a nature-based relationship that gradually extends to other birds, secretive mammals, and the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. In spite of their language differences, she and Julián share a connection with nature that she has never felt with anyone else. Michelle’s attraction to Julián gradually becomes an obsession that affects her marriage and the entire trajectory of her life. Eventually, Michelle discovers a secret that Julián attempts to hide from her, and in the end, she is forced to make a final, painful choice between the Peruvian man she loves and the rainforest itself.

Where did I get the idea for this novel? My next blog explains how I found myself beneath a harpy eagle nest in the Amazon rainforest.