Learning to think like a river: Stories of the Amazon

(Planet Forward)

The Amazon River is born amongst the mountains of the Cordillera Rumi Cruz, high in the Peruvian Andes. She is not called the Amazon yet. Instead, the Quechua there call her Hatun Mayu, “the big river.” She is still young and runs swiftly through steep valleys as cascading rapids and waterfalls. After 435 miles, she joins her sister Apurímac, “the divine oracle,” to form the Ene, tumbling down over rocky cliffs and shallow channels strewn with rocks that have fallen from the mountains above.

After becoming the Ene, more and more of her sister tributaries, voyaging from the vast, craggy backbone of South America, join and transform her time and again. She is reborn and renamed with the meeting of their waters, becoming Tambo after meeting the Perene, Ucayali after the Urubamba, and finally the Amazon after the Marañón.

She has matured by the time she reaches the Brazilian border and is no longer prone to the capricious nature of her youth. She is less deterred by the twists and turns of life, choosing a more level-headed course through the verdant lowland forests.  More of her sisters, like the Putumayo and the Japurá, join her in her journey, but by now she is their elder and she will not change for their sake. She remains the Amazon, like the fierce Hellenic women warriors of ancient Greece who are her namesake.

The Barasana people live on her banks here, near the border with Colombia. By traversing her waters, they are able to commune with their forefathers, who did the same for centuries before them. They believe their distant ancestors traveled from the east in canoes borne by giant anacondas. The snakes transformed into rivers. Their tails became headwater streams in the distant mountains and their open mouths emptied into the ocean far to the east. The first people settled near these life-giving rivers.

Near Manaus, her sediment-laden waters, colored like coffee with cream, finally meet those of the Rio Negro, stained inky black with tannins from decaying organic matter. This long into her journey, the Amazon is slow to accept her sister’s embrace. They differ too much in pace and temperament. The Amazon is still in a hurry to reach her destination and marches eastward faster than her sister. She is deep and cold. The Rio Negro, however, moves slowly, relieved to conclude her shorter journey from the Colombian highlands. She still roils with the hot passion of youth. They run next to one another without mixing for almost 4 miles before the Amazon relents, taking on her sister’s burden and carrying onward.

The meeting of the waters of the Amazon and the Rio Negro
The meeting of the waters of the Rio Negro (right) and Amazon River (left). (Photos by Tomasz Falkowski/SUNY-ESF)

The River gives gifts to all she passes on her long journey east. Fishermen pull their lives from her waters, plumbing the River’s murky depths. They toss in another line and hope against hope that she will offer up another gift so they may live another day. Will she deliver a deep-bodied tambaqui? Or perhaps they will be fortunate and manage to hook a giant arapaima, which can grow up to six feet long? More likely, though, the frenzied piranha will devour the bait before anything else.


Fisherman on the Amazon.

Sheet metal roofs of stilted houses built on her banks glint in the afternoon sun. It is the beginning of the dry season, so they stand high above the water for now, but her channel will swell with the winter rains, raising the water levels right to their doorsteps. The rising tides will also deposit sediment across some 69,498 square miles of várzea forest — the seasonal floodplain. The river’s caress will revitalize their tired, old soils with an influx of valuable nutrients that will sustain a diverse array of plants and wildlife. Children play on her beaches, laughing as they haul buckets of water to fill moats dug around sandcastles. Boats ferry passengers and cargo up and down the River. She becomes a highway, home, workplace, and playground, like veins radiating throughout the Brazilian lowlands.


Flooded forest: While it may look like a stagnant swamp, the river's current is still flowing.

The River is the lifeblood that sustains Brazil, and in large part, the entire world. She gives us the gift of life, and how do we thank her? In trying to wrench precious metals and fossil fuels from the earth, we poison her waters. We take more fish than she offers, threatening several more species with extinction. We shackle her with dams, disrupting finely tuned hydrologic and nutrient cycles, and thwarting fish movement. We burn forests for farmland, choking her waters with eroded soil. The deforestation is also undermining her very existence, as half of her water is produced from evapotranspiration within the Amazon basin itself.


A ferry transporting cars and passengers upriver.

Despite our affronts, the River takes our faults with grace. She is a sin-eater for the world, like the freshwater dolphin, who walked onto land and impregnated young women, thus assuming the transgressions of colonial missionaries. Her waters absolve us of our sins, but for how much longer? The River counsels us in the gentle lapping of waves and the whispers of warm breezes. She teaches us patience, to think of the long-term and consider it broadly, to give more than we take, to run fast when we can but never pass up a chance to rest, to accept that things will always change, to leave things better than we found them. Can we hear these lessons? Will we listen?

By now, she is old and weary. She flows slow and full and deep. Tired of her load of silt, how she longs to disencumber herself where she meets the brackish waters of the sea. Finally, after traveling 4,258 miles, she reaches the Atlantic. Every second, 273,361 cubic yards of water flow from her mouth. Here, she takes her respite, laying down her silt over 501,932 square miles of the ocean floor. After her rest, she will be lifted into the heavens and travel across the river of stars. She will fall in the distant mountains and start her long journey once more: a mighty river reborn in a raindrop.

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