My father was a Cajun. He grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River about 10 miles upriver from New Orleans. My grandparents lived in the old homestead until they died. Their house was modest but adequate for raising a large family (4 girls, 2 boys). By the time I knew them, they had indoor toilets and window air conditioning units. But my grandmother preferred the screened porch where she would sit for hours in her rocking chair, usually shelling peas or corn or doing some hand work, chatting with whoever would come by. There was a ceiling fan to move the hot and humid air around and it provided a little relief. I remember the large bugs that gathered on the screen outside and the sweat that invariably took over as I sat with her.
The Amazon River (called Amazonas by the locals)is like that, too. It is brown with sediment, very humid and quite warm until the sun comes out and then it’s hot (90+). The creatures are very different and often large – especially the bugs! It’s been years since I sweated so much. Sweat is the body’s cooling mechanism – a kind of breathing of the skin to release the body’s heat.
The Amazon river basin is huge – it encompasses 1.4 billion acres, most of it water and rainforest. And it is home to 10% of the earth’s plants and animals. On a map it looks like a large Tree of Life and it acts like one. This system breathes, too. Early in the morning the mist rises from the trees and it is often hazy, a kind of sweating. The water is absorbed by the sun into large clouds, which, during the rainy season (now) is then dumped in huge sheets of rain into the rivers and tributaries.
I thought that this would be one of the most fertile places on the planet. And, in a way, it is. But not in the way I imagined. All of the water erodes the surface soil (hence the brown river) leaving small amounts of nutrients left. So it is one of the most intensely competitive ecosystems on the planet. Plant and animal life has evolved here, adapting to these conditions and competing for life. Hence the tall trees and vines reaching to get to the sun, and the animal species that are dangerous to humans as well as to other species. Poisonous plants and animals prevail and survive and they are among the world largest.
The people here, both indigenous and Europeans, have mixed together (though there remain some separate tribes in the mountains and jungle forest) and learned to live and even thrive on this river system. They seem to be proud of their heritage and have adapted as much as the other species around them. In today’s world, they have learned to welcome outsiders as tourism helps maintain their economies. They have been genuinely welcoming.
Strangely enough it all has made me think of our evolution as a people and a country and, naturally for me, as a church. Wherever there are perceived or real scarcities, communities of people develop prickly outsides and even poisonous tongues and writings (and sometimes actions) designed to destroy others. For humans the result is often a breakdown of the social (or political) structure when that way of being prevails.
There is a gentler more integral or collaborative way. It is one which is fostered by a system that a breathes deeply, engaging in the work and sweat involved in finding a way through the scarcity. It is one that adapts to the circumstances by living with the resources that are provided and shares them. It is way that does not deny reality but lives right through it, recognizing that abundant life lies through finding the way together. It is one that works together from the inside out, just like the breathing of skin or of the trees. Because we are all connected. The human race is as much a system as the Amazon River Basin is. How we live together affects the whole.
My book companion for this part of the journey has been “The River of Doubt” by Candice Millard, a chronicle of Theodore Roosevelt’s dangerous journey in the Amazon. She recounts (p. 220 e-version) that in 1542, the Spanish Explorer Orellana returned from The Amazon River basin with tales of dense jungles, deadly poisons, and a tribe of vicious women warriors carrying bows and arrows. Orellana named the women the Amazons, after the famed women warriors of Greek mythology, who were said to have removed their right breast so they could more effectively shoot a bow and arrow. The word “Amazon” is derived from the Greek word a-mazos, or “no breast”.
I suspect that Orellana chose the name because they appeared to be powerful and imposing. But then it seems to be the way of the world – strong women (not just physically but also in personality) are often feared. We can see that in the way that women are frequently demeaned or treated as objects to be controlled throughout history in most cultures. Today, many men continue to be intimidated by powerful women, ascribing all kinds of faults to those who dare to speak their mind or act with intention and forcefulness. My observation is that the collaborative, cooperative style that women, tend to prefer, is taken to be weak and ineffective by many men who tend to be more competitive. The Amazon River basin, its creatures and its people have much to teach us about the extent of interrelatedness and our need to adapt to each other and defer to each other in order to continue to thrive. Thankfully, women no longer need to take to the bow and arrow to get their points (pun intended) across. Or do we?