July 14, 2015

Where the wild things are...

by Carlos A. Botero
[ Nov 2012. An earlier version of this article was posted to my personal blog. Apologies to all whose comments did not make it after migrating the post to this site ]
 
I was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, a city so high up in the Andes that it betrays its tropical nature with some pretty cold weather year-round.  My life in this hectically beautiful jungle of bricks and concrete was almost completely sheltered from the wilderness and as urban as it can be.  Up until my late teens I thought that nature was something that occurred elsewhere, in far, almost magical regions that only filmmakers and explorers had access to.  Yes… I am embarrassed to admit that before I went to college I could have sworn that the number of bird species in Bogotá could be counted in one hand… 
 
I couldn’t be more wrong.  It turns out that Colombia is the world’s most biodiverse country when it comes to birds (ca. 1800 different species call it home too!) AND that Bogotá, my supposedly barren home city, easily boasts over 250 different species of birds, many of which occur in city parks less than a few blocks away from my parent’s apartment!   I just didn’t know… 
 
I stumbled upon the wilderness by accident… after graduating from high school I was heading for a major in Economics but, as luck had it, I was drafted to the army and took instead a 1.5 yrs detour from college.  Part of my army days included a stint in the Sinai, during which I managed to take enough time off to take up diving in the Red Sea and to discover that maybe my ‘thing’ was more biology than economics.  I say maybe because at that time I had no idea what this ‘thing’ was, or what a career in it might mean.  To be honest: it just looked cool… 
 
My first year in college was nevertheless kind of lame.  Not to belittle topics that I now appreciate fully but at the time, spending my days learning about the Krebs cycle and cell mitosis was about as exciting as donating blood… by summer I was beginning to reconsider.  The life of adventure I had envisioned was just not happening… wilderness and nature were not feeling any closer.  
 
I got my lucky break in the summer of 1994 during a month and a half stay at a field station called CIEM in La Macarena, Colombia.  CIEM was everything I had been dreaming of:  it was right in the middle of the largest stretch of Colombian jungle where the exquisite lowland forests of the Andes meet the luscious Amazonian forests.  The station was 6-8 hrs up the river from the nearest town and had no electricity or running water.  Every day there was full of critters, plants, smells and sounds I had never even dreamt of before!  The accommodations were pretty humble… we slept on pressed dirt floors or hammocks (years later… still on the floor but upgraded to wooden boards), and there were no walls in any building.  Baths were taken at the river, many times in the company of stingrays, piranhas, and some pretty impressive fish with teeth you wouldn’t believe!  Our resident caiman lived just around the river’s bend and could often be seen sunning itself while we played in the water.  Ah… it was beautiful!  The spectacle of life was everywhere… animals fought and mated in front of our eyes, things were eating one another, plants grew almost overnight (even over our stuff!) competing forcefully for the few rays of sunlight that filtered from the canopy…  even more, every now and then an amazing 'weirdo' (like this guy) would simply show up out of nowhere and the world would stop spinning for a little while…  life was happening and this time I was there to notice.  Even now, as I write, it is hard not to smile.
 
Coming back to the city after my first jungle experience was a little bit of a downer.  On my way back I spent the 6+ hours of the canoe trip trying to take in as much as I could with my eyes, just in case I was never able to come back... 
 
But then the weirdest thing happened.  Having spent every moment of the day trying to uncover the secrets of a jungle somehow changed the way I saw things… suddenly Bogotá was not just a city of humans but a space I shared with hundreds of wild, interesting critters.  Biodiversity materialized in front of my eyes and city parks and wetlands revealed with a quick extravagant burst a beauty I had never expected.  The paradise of nature documentaries no longer existed in places far away.  I was right in the middle of it.
 
I hope that a similar moment of discovery comes to each and every one of you and that your walks to school or to work are made a little bit happier by a glimpse of the wilderness that surrounds us.  Mr. Sendak:  the wild things are all around us and life is a little bit happier when we notice.

Comments

How fantastic it is finding out this blog! At first, I was just interested in your research articles with no anticipation of meeting such a touching blog. I have to admit that I also had the same feeling when I came back to my university after an 8-weeks field investigation. It changed the way I treated life. From then on, the wilderness in my memories and imaginations are all appearing miraculously in front of my eyes. It's really beatiful.

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