January 19, 2020

Forgetting The Glow

The peanut butter on the side of my plate was clumpy and thick, lacking the preservatives of a familiar, desired smoothness. Here was peanut butter that wasn’t Jif, a product more exotic than Justin’s or the other organic hippie-dippie brands stocked on Whole Food’s shelves.

The waiters in the wood-beamed dining hall seemed too attentive to be working in such an isolated lodge, where they only had to compete with the Yagua people’s mosanto (a drink fermented in saliva) for business. The dining room protected us from the rain and mist outside, from the pink dolphins and sloths that we saw on our boat ride, and from the muddy sloshes of the rushing Yanomono River. Surrounded by such beauty, my mind remained on that glob of mushy peanut butter.

Maybe it was because peanut butter was the only thing “American” about our eight-day trip to the Amazon Rainforest, aside from Peru’s monstrous food portions. Thankfully, however, during our last night hike, I managed to connect with something much greater.

Our group’s tour guide, Willy, led us on the night trail. My boots resisted each step as mud, wet from recent rainfall, stuck and clung to their bottoms. Frogs croaked. Birds flittered in the tops of distant trees.

Our tour guide, Willy, holding a baby frog on a day hike. Photo by Lauren Mokhtarzadeh

The 30 of us were told to stop. I was on the edge of the chain and had to move down to make room for the rest of the group. Not only was I the farthest away from what I was supposed to be looking at, but I was closest to the rest of the jungle, what looked, at that moment, like a thick, deep, deep black. In the whirlwind of my imagination and anxiety, I was sure I was hanging off the brink of some imaginary edge, even though, I realize now, that I was simply close to the jungle’s very heart.

Willy asked us to turn off our flashlights. The white beams of our lights, which struck and sparked floating dust particles as if they were stars, clicked off, one by one, until I could no longer see what was in front of me, who was beside me, or the distance between us.

We tilted our heads down.

Below were neon green roots stretched out in the black dirt like intertwined arms. The tree we were standing around literally glowed, covered entirely by bioluminescent fungus, from its branches to its 15-foot roots. The leaves that fell from its branches lay decomposed on the ground, adding to the brightness of the forest floor. For a moment, I couldn’t differentiate between the ground from the sky.

Glowing leaf. Photo by Aaron Pomerantz

When our flashlights clicked back on and we returned to our mosquito-net-covered, cocoon-like beds, I wondered what had made that tree such an incredible sight. For Willy and the rest of the villagers, the tree, which had been worshipped for hundreds of years as a deity, still holds spiritual meaning. I believe its power for the villagers is much like that of trees in the Jewish tradition and in environmental science classes, or even in polluted cities: trees offer a source of life, even when they don’t glow in the dark.

Comparing the peanut butter of the Amazon to Jif, and the bioluminescent tree to Avatar, I thought about my own amazement. How much of my own reactions to experiencing something totally different, or incredibly beautiful, or even purely evil, are caused by the nature of the experience, and how much by my own biases and previous exposure to similar things?

Is a light brighter if you have, or haven’t, encountered light before?

Like my trip, last week left me astonished. But, instead of the glow of the bioluminescent fungus, I found myself asking “is this real?” in the glow of breaking news reports on my T.V. and laptop screens.

Is the loss of a life more painful if you have, or haven’t, experienced loss before?

Last week was an incredibly heartbreaking week, a week that has somehow managed to stand out in the dark depths of 2016‘s shootings and mass terror attacks: Paris. San Bernardino. Ohio. Jerusalem. Berlin. Tel Aviv. Orlando. Netanya. Istanbul. Bangladesh. Brussels. Lafoole. Falcon Heights. Baton Rouge. Dallas. And now, St. Joseph, Michigan.

Each headline, each shooting, each bombing– each life lost– becomes dimmer and dimmer, less astonishing and less “luminescent,” with another act of violence. Maybe my reaction to violence and terror is dimmer because loss of life has become so common, and life itself has become dimmer. Perhaps we’ve gotten too comfortable in the dark to truly recognize the amount of light we’ve lost and are continuing to lose.

If we cry with the families of Phillandro Castile and Halell Ariel and Jason Josaphat and Officer  Brent Thompson, if we remember them for their unique light, for their infinite potential and not as just another victim of another attack, then each headline– and each life– will stand bright and strong enough on its own to find an effective action to prevent future deaths.

Recalling the wonders of the natural world and the brilliance of each life, each glowing in light like the bioluminescent tree, is what will help us escape the too-familiar glow of red sirens and worse, our own apathy.