In late January of 2015, a tree stood wavering on the edge of Detroit’s burnt-out Grixdale neighborhood. A loud, old engine revved. A 100-foot rope tightened. A car strained forward. The tree followed, snapping and dropping into the overgrown yard of an abandoned house. A group of bearded men looked on from the front yard of a fire-ravaged structure across the street. Satisfaction and relief filled them as the final rays of sunlight scattered into the gray horizon. They had lost two ropes and a chainsaw in bringing down the tree, but they comforted themselves with the thought that the abandoned house and the surrounding telephone lines stood unharmed.
They were pretty far from Detroit’s refurbished downtown. Years ago, this neighborhood had succumbed to the rot brought on by the crack wars. Inhabitants fled, homes were torched, and the long blocks, once designed for cars, were left sparsely populated. In 2015, it remained largely abandoned. Sometimes, there were residual flare-ups of violence and theft. Some ways down the road, there remained a crack house. In this quiet, largely forgotten place, however, adjacent to the vistas of empty lots, under the canopy of old-growth trees, there was a new community growing. They lived amongst the neglected red brick houses and chose to call themselves Fireweed, after the pioneer plant species that takes over the landscape after a forest fire. More… “Why Does a Tree Fall in Detroit?”
Once on the water, we could see the rainforest pushing close to the river. The town of Coca, a depot on Ecuador’s Rio Napo, was already slipping away, disappearing behind a bend. It was early morning. There had been a week of heavy rain and trees had fallen into the river as the bank washed away. With the pressure of the current, branches emerged from the brown water and waved up and down, as if saying goodbye. Older branches, now blackened and leafless, broke the surface and then silently disappeared.
After an hour, we began to see wildlife: toucans and parrots, movements in the trees that suggested monkeys. On one log, I spotted four turtles sitting in a row, each with a butterfly on its head. (I took this as a sign, an offering; it turned out to be the standard post-card image from the Napo valley.) I had been on the lookout for caiman, fresh water alligators, which entertained our guides — sharp-nosed men who grew up along this river. The men were from one of the local tribes, most likely Huaorani, Kichwa, or Shuar. They wore t-shirts and baseball caps. More… “In Search of Yasuní”
David Bartholomae has taught travel writing to U.S. students in Beijing, Hyderabad, London, Cape Town, Florianopolis, Buenos Aires, and the Napo valley of Ecuador. In May, 2018, he will be teaching in Havana. He is Professor of English and the Charles Crow Chair of Expository Writing at the University of Pittsburgh. His current project is an essay on Spain’s Camino de Santiago.
A smiling cashier welcomed me in the lobby. His arms were akimbo. He wore a polo shirt that read, “Refugio Herpetológico.”
“Welcome!” he exclaimed in Spanish. “How are you?”
I forced a smile and forked over my 3,000 colones — about $6. He handed me a receipt and escorted me through the gift shop, toward the Refugio’s main entrance. Then he pointed to a trim young man in the corner, also wearing a printed polo shirt.
“This is Marco,” said the cashier. “Your tour will start in a couple of minutes.”
Robert Isenberg is a writer based in San José, Costa Rica, where he serves as a reporter, videographer and photojournalist for The Tico Times, Central America’s most respected English-language newspaper. He is the author of The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage and the… More…