Letter from Peru

bright blue and black bird in forest
Andean Motmot

“Conservation is sometimes perceived as stopping everything cold, as holding whooping cranes in higher esteem than people. It is up to science to spread the understanding that the choice is not between wild places or people; it is between a rich or an impoverished existence for Man.”

DR. THOMAS LOVEJOY

redish pink flower with Peruvian mountains in the background
The view from Wayqecha Cloud Forest Research Station.

After hours of rigorous driving, I was grateful for the steady pulse of the car radio’s Peruvian pop music. Our intrepid driver Leoncio and I began to bop in tandem while he drove like a Hollywood stunt car driver— adroitly swerving out of the way of big trucks and kamikaze Andean drivers. We climbed to 13,000 feet and then dropped into the fabled cloud forest of Wayqecha and finally arrived at the Wayqecha Cloud Forest Research Station (WCFRS.) At 8600 feet, Wayqecha is at a similar elevation to our small farm in Woody Creek, so it was an easy elevation transition. My husband Daniel and I are mountain folk and have explored much of the American high country, but viewing the Andean altaplanas for the first time was beyond our imaginations.

But let me back up. 

During pre-vaccine Covid, scientist and author Adrian Forsyth was, like me, housebound several thousand miles away in Washington D.C. One day Adrian was online researching his next book and spotted an image of my painting, Anaconda, and was intrigued by both the subject and the style. This painting still lives in our house and is part of a body of work inspired by a group of Pablo Neruda’s poems. His poem Some Beasts inspired the composition, and I penciled in my favorite stanza at the bottom of the image. 

“If we can discover the meaning in the trilling of a frog, perhaps we may understand why it is for us not merely noise but a song of poetry and emotion.”

DR. ADRIAN FORSYTH

And in the depths of the all-powerful water,
like the circle of the earth,
lies the giant anaconda,
covered with ritual mud,
devouring and religious

Adrian’s timing was propitious. During the pandemic, I was treated for cancer and was essentially under house arrest until the vaccine liberated me, so I welcomed this interesting new connection. The pandemic was raging, the national political vitriol kept reaching new lows, gun violence was escalating, the inequity gap became a chasm, and new data showed that we had underestimated how swiftly the Arctic ice caps would melt and oceans would rise. The population of my hometown exploded, and the exorbitant real estate prices transformed the town and community, pushing out those who could no longer afford the high cost of living. I felt a situational depression creep in like a fog. I grew cynical and felt hopeless.

Daniel and Ukuku

“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.” 

DR. E.O. WILSON

Adrian and I met on zoom and discovered intersections. We both knew Dr. Tom Lovejoy — Adrian was a close friend and colleague — and my mother Jessica and Tom were good friends. Tom wrote me the loveliest email when my Mom died, and we subsequently invited him to speak in Aspen. Tom came and spoke eloquently about his work on biodiversity and the threats to the Amazon and the planet. I will never forget one question from the audience: “ Why does it matter if we lose a species or two? Isn’t that just what happens?” I cannot remember Tom’s answer word for word, but he diplomatically explained that we do not know how connected we are or exactly how one species upholds another, so an unchecked level of species devastation would be catastrophic for the planet. And, he added, for our future as a species. He then joined Daniel and me for a long, hilarious, and boozy dinner. An invitation followed–each year, he invited us to his Brazilian Amazon research station, and each year, we let life get in the way. Kids. Dogs. Career. Loss. Rinse. Repeat.  In 2021 Tom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died a day ahead of his friend and colleague, Dr. E.O. Wilson. I never said goodbye. 

Adrian and I dodging a down pour.

Then another email slipped into my inbox. After the heavy loss of close friends and exceptional scientists, Adrian was grieving and doing his own soul searching. He wanted to honor Lovejoy and Wilson’s legacies and decided he needed to create more opportunities for indigenous women scientists. He had the perfect mentor in mind — scientist Ruthmery Pilarco —who is researching the Andean or spectacled bear. This elusive threatened bear species is one of the keystone species that will help us understand the impact of climate change. Adrian wondered if we were interested in supporting his initiative to make local women true field scientists. We didn’t hesitate, and Ruthmery recruited the first Lovejoy Fellows.

“It is nothing short of scandalous that we probably only know one out of every ten species on earth, let alone where they are or various aspects of their biology, and … unless we really know what there is, and where it is, we’re gonna make some mistakes without even knowing we’ve made them.”

DR. TOM LOVEJOY

Eleven months later, we went to meet the first “class” of Lovejoy Fellows: Susan Rodriguez, Norma Giovana, Sandra Garrido, Luz Sanchez, and Yessenia Chamba. Each had their own special focus, from lichen to ants to bear scat seeds, and they worked tightly together, forming their own family while training under Ruthmery. They welcomed us, laughed easily, and their dedication to field research and to their planet reduced us to tears. Here is a video about one expedition pre-dating the Fellows’ arrival ( the most recent video is not yet ready to be released.) These spirited young women restored my equilibrium. Their enthusiasm, optimism, and dedication to science inspired us to keep moving because the Lovejoy Fellows will be a force. I cannot wait to meet the next class.

The Lovejoy Fellows, Ruthmery, Narcisco, Norma, and Ukuku. Oh, and yours truly.

N.B. This, and other adjacent projects, will always need love, so please email me if you want to learn more.

Well, for example, rather than judging someone by their income, a civilization that would be great to me would be one in which our material necessities for food and shelter are met. But then it would have good music, good art, good literature. Those things cost nothing in terms of natural resources. They’re products of the human brain. They don’t deplete the planet, yet they make a wonderful society. So, it’s our own brain that is the ultimate resource for civilization. Be nice to each other, use your brain, and produce good things that we can enjoy. That doesn’t destroy the planet. It’s sport utility vehicles, gigantic houses, meat three times a day. Those things, stupid things, destroy the planet, really. So, if we can get rid of the primitive aspects of our culture, we have a sustainable world just waiting for us.

DR. ADRIAN FORSYTH

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