Life, Death and Rebirth on the Amazon

In the breathtaking jungle of Peru’s Land of Mirrors, Nina Burleigh confronts the unfiltered beauty—and danger—of nature and begins making peace with her own mortality

by Nina Burleigh
Photograph: All photographs by Adrian Gaut

Twilight lasts but a few moments near the equator. Billions of insects hissed, buzzed, sawed, their sounds interrupted only by the last coos and twitters of birds headed to their perches. At full darkness, we turned on the flashlights and aimed them at roots and water lilies, seeking the telltale golden glint of the caimans’ eyes reflecting the light. We spotted a number of them, their heads utterly still as they waited for an unsuspecting fish or mammal to come within range of their jaws. Our flashlights also picked up a pair of golden dots watching from above—an owl standing sentinel atop a dead tree, its darting eyes reflecting our beam like a pair of tiny searchlights, scanning the ground for dinner. Beneath us, the black water whispered against the metal bottom of the skiff. We lowered our waterproof flashlights under the surface, illuminating the eerie night world of sighing grasses undulating around tree roots.

Suddenly a massive white orb appeared behind the scrim of green—the full moon. As we traveled onward, the moon flitted from one side to the other of the narrow waterway as the tributary meandered east and west. I was never more mystified at how the guides, all GPS free, found their way out of these green water mazes.

Completing the Cycle
The greeks spoke of the passage into death as a ride on a boat into an underworld where the dead would drink the waters of the river Lethe and forget their earthly life. I might wish that my own transition from life to death would feel like that ethereal moment on a tributary of the Amazon: painless, hallucinatory, ecstatic. Now home in New York, I know I only skirted the edge of that secret place. I saw enough to understand how muddy and forbidding it is, how man and beast alike submit to the rule that we are born and will die without leaving a trace. No dead animals last on the jungle floor, David Grann writes in The Lost City of Z. Insects and carrion birds transform the dead into something alive again within hours.

Birth, life, death, oblivion and birth again. That’s the jungle. What if I had gone in deeper or been born there? Would I have been one of the lucky thrivers, or would I have been left behind? Would I have been pregnant at 14, mother of seven and toothless by 40, then sleeping through the night at 50, utterly tranquilo? Perhaps, like Eugenia, I would dream peacefully in the hour of the wolf rather than spend it wrestling to accept the fact that I am from the earth and to the earth I will return. Because in the jungle, the sweeter part of submission is the solace of witnessing how every death feeds a new, green life.

I do know there is a deeper place in the forest than any I have yet seen. I don’t want to go there until I absolutely must. But it frightens me a little less now.

Nina Burleigh is an investigative journalist. Her most recent book is The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox.

Next: Putting the Past to Rest in Ireland

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First published in the March 2014 issue

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