For fans of The Lost City of Z, Walking the Amazon, and Turn Right at Machu Picchu comes naturalist and explorer Paul Rosolie’s extraordinary adventure in the uncharted tributaries of the Western Amazon—a tale of discovery that vividly captures the awe, beauty, and isolation of this endangered land and presents an impassioned call to save it.
In the Madre de Dios—Mother of God—region of Peru, where the Amazon River begins its massive flow, the Andean Mountain cloud forests fall into lowland Amazon Rainforest, creating the most biodiversity-rich place on the planet. In January 2006, when he was just a restless eighteen-year-old hungry for adventure, Paul Rosolie embarked on a journey to the west Amazon that would transform his life.
Venturing alone into some of the most inaccessible reaches of the jungle, he encountered giant snakes, floating forests, isolated tribes untouched by outsiders, prowling jaguars, orphaned baby anteaters, poachers in the black market trade in endangered species, and much more. Yet today, the primordial forests of the Madre de Dios are in danger from developers, oil giants, and gold miners eager to exploit its natural resources.
In Mother of God, this explorer and conservationist relives his amazing odyssey exploring the heart of this wildest place on earth. When he began delving deeper in his search for the secret Eden, spending extended periods in isolated solitude, he found things he never imagined could exist. “Alone and miniscule against a titanic landscape I have seen the depths of the Amazon, the guts of the jungle where no men go,” Rosolie writes. “But as the legendary explorer Percy Fawcett warned, ‘the few remaining unknown places of the world exact a price for their secrets.’”
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About the Author
Paul Rosolie is a naturalist and explorer who runs Tamandua Expeditions, which uses tourism to support rainforest conservation. He has worked on conservation projects in tropical ecosystems around the world. His documentary, An Unseen World, won the short film contest at the 2013 United Nations Forum on Forests. Mother of God is his first book. He divides his time between New York, Bangalore, and Peru.
Table of Contents
Book 1 The Age of Innocence
1 The Jaguar 3
2 Restless 17
3 Into the Amazon 29
4 Jungle Law 51
5 The Giant 66
6 The Basin of Life 84
7 The Descent 96
8 The Wild Gang 106
9 Anaconderos 116
10 The Floating Forest 137
Book 2 The Battle of the Amazon
11 The Other Side 157
12 The Beached-Whale Paradox 183
13 Storm Solo 197
14 Poaching Poachers 215
15 The Launch 230
16 The Western Gate 244
17 At World's End 269
18 The River 288
A Conversation with Paul Rosolie, Author of Mother of God
What drew you to the Amazon and when did you make your first trip to the region?
I've always been passionate about wildlife and the natural world. Some of my earliest memories are of my parents taking me on hikes in the woods, or teaching me the difference between African and Asian elephants, or how to recognize different tree species. I grew up hiking, camping, catching snakes, and raising praying mantises each summer.
I was always drawn to wilderness and wildlife; watching documentaries and reading books about rainforests were some of my favorite things to do. The Jungle World exhibit at the Bronx Zoo was a major influence on my younger self. Interspersed throughout the exhibit were images and stories of biologists and explorers working in far flung countries with the most incredible animals. I figured if actual jungles were even half as amazing as that, then there could be nothing on earth more interesting. And so the idea of actually going to a rainforest became my dreamto see giant trees teeming with life of every variety, and unexplored regions. To me, rainforests became as wondrous as Tolkien's Middle Earth (another lifelong love!). But of course when you learn about rainforests, you inevitably learn that they are vanishing, and so I grew up with this ticking urgency that I needed to get out there and see these places, and these creatures, before they vanished.
I have always found classrooms dull, and by 10th grade I had had enough sitting around. So, with my parents' encouragement (can you believe that?!) I left high school and started college. Soon after turning eighteen, I started working as a lifeguard and saving money to follow my dream of visiting the biggest and baddest of all the rainforests: the Amazon. I found a small research team with open positions for students in the Peruvian Amazon and convinced them to take me. The region was called the Madre de Dios (or Mother of God). Within the first five minutes of being in the forest, I realized that all the hype I had absorbed as a kid about rainforests was nothing compared to the reality. I knew that the jungle was where I belonged.
What is the importance of the Amazon at this point in history?
It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Amazon. We are at a time when human activities are threatening the systems that make life possible. Our oceans are in terrible shape, forests are being cleared, and as a result we are seeing diminished ability of the planet to provide the free services it always has, such as clean water, air, and abundant resources. These systems rely on the living biosphere, the sum of organisms that comprise the living world. This interconnected global system produces the things we use to live. At the root of this is flora and faunaplants and animals. Today, scientists are documenting extinctions on a daily basis, and we are literally extinguishing the thing that makes our planet unique in the solar system: life.
The Amazon is the largest rainforest on earth. It produces roughly one fifth of the world's oxygen, as well as filtering and purifying one fifth of our fresh water. There are more species in the Amazon than anywhere else on earth. It is literally the climax of biotic diversityevolution's masterpiece. It is the single greatest example of life in known realitythe glowing antithesis to the billions of frigid miles of empty outer space.
Each generation has their strugglemy grandparents' generation had World War II to contend withbut our struggle is different. Never before has an issue defined humanity in such a globally encompassing way as the current environmental emergency. The Amazon, the Congo, Indonesia, and all the other rainforest regions; our oceans, rivers, and other systemsand the brilliant matrix of living organisms that they compriseare too rich a treasure to lose, and today we are risk doing just that. The Amazon defines humanity. Can we protect what sustains us? Can we put life over profit, economy, and mindless consumption? As Carl Sagan said, "whatever else you are interested in is not going to happen if you can't drink the water and breathe the air."
What rare wildlife have you encountered there?
When you walk in the jungle you are surrounded by rare and unknown organisms. You may pass species of spider that have never been seen by another human. Or see an orchid no one has ever seen. As recently as 2013 scientists identified a new species of tapir (the largest mammal in Amazonia). In the west Amazon there are vast tracts of land where the forest is unbroken, where scientific surveys have not been carried out. I have seen many species of rare primate, a very unique seven foot flower, and some truly bizarre insects that I am sure have not been cataloged. I also once "discovered" a species of gliding ants, only to learn later that another scientist had formally described the species only six months earlier!
Could you tell us about your work with anacondas? What is the largest snake you've come across in your travels?
This is one of my favorite parts of Mother of God for the reason that anacondas are such a captivating, misunderstood, and little-known creature. After working in the Amazon for some time I noticed that the giant snakes I thought I'd find were not nearly as common as I expected, and so my Peruvian partner JJ and I began investigating. We found that this species has not been studied in our region, and that they are one of the most important apex predators in the jungle, which means that they have a profound influence on the health of the ecosystem (just like other apex predators like crocodiles, tigers, lions, and wolves). But the search for giant anacondas requires getting into swamps and pushing into some corners of the jungle that human beings are simply not supposed to go. I don't want to give anything away, but we discovered a place that we've come to call the Floating Forest, a unique place in the jungle, where islands of floating vegetation make up an anaconda sanctuary, and where some true monsters live.
As for the largest snake I have come across, well, the Amazon is home to the largest viper on earth, the bushmasteran incredibly deadly and beautiful venomous snake. I have handled one that was 8 feet, 9 inches. But even that cannot compare to a 25-foot( plus) anaconda. I do not have an exact measurement for her, as she was way too strong to restrain (believe me, I tried) but she was well over twenty feet, and so thick that I my hands couldn't touch when I wrapped my arms around her (and I have a six-foot wingspan!). There are anacondas out there that are so big that it is difficult to believeand we are still learning about their conservation status and habits in the forest. But man, are they a beautiful creature. I love them!
Could you tell us about the indigenous tribes from the region?
The Madre de Dios, and really the entire Amazon Basin, is rich with indigenous cultures. They vary from people who live in complete isolation in the forest, to those with hybrid lives, utilizing the forest and the connected economic world for survival. In the Madre de Dios, the vast swaths of untouched forest are sanctuary for some of the last voluntarily isolated indigenous groups that live nomadic lives. These people are often referred to as uncontacted Indians. They are some of the most interesting people on Earth. Many of them have never seen pants, or a spoon, or the wheel, or heard The Beatles, or even heard of the country that they technically live in. For this reason, many people mistakenly call them primitive, but in fact they are modern people living a very complex, albeit difficult to imagine, lifestyle. They have medicines, belief systems, tools, and knowledge that we can only guess at. But they cannot represent themselves. They are from an alternate reality, and when issues come up concerning land use, mining, roads, logging, or any activity in their territorythey cannot weigh in. Because of this, until recently, many people in the government and energy industry were trying to deny their existence and convince the public that the nomadic tribes were a myth. But the tribes are very real, and protecting them is our responsibility. All we know is that they seem to prefer isolation and have been living that way for a very long time. Protecting them is very important.
Could you tell us about your ecotourism projects?
The justification for creating many of the protected areas in the western Amazon was to generate ecotourism. By bringing in responsible tourism, you create jobs for local people (which motivates and educates them about the value of the forest), and you also teach your travelers about the importance of the rainforest and the life within it. To do this, you need only use a small part of much larger protected areas, so it's a win-win. My entire time in the Amazon I have worked with my indigenous partners to bring travelers from all over the world to the jungle. Through Tamandua Expeditions LLC, which I co-own with a partner and long-time friend from New York, we are trying to protect wildlife and forest on an increasingly large scale. Right now, we are providing a way for adventurers, photographers, yogis, universities, and people from all walks of life to experience the Amazon. It is really becoming a beautiful thing. We are still growing, but if we reach our goals, we'll be protecting a massive amount of rainforest, educating and linking people from all over the globe, and having a hell of a lot of fun at the same time!
Guiding with Tamandua allows me to share my love of the jungle with other people. I think it is really important for people to get out of their apartments, get away from their phonesto get dirty, and go to somewhere completely off the human grid. At our stations on the Las Piedras and Tambopata Rivers, we have no electricity and are completely isolated in the wilderness. The stars are brilliant, the water is so clean you can swim and drink the river at the same time. And of course there are the incredible animal sightings. It is true adventure, and it really allows people to see some incredible things, look at the world differently, and learn about themselves and how the world really works.
What motivated you to write this book?
I grew up on adventure stories, both fictional and true-life. I have always loved them. The stories I read as a kid and those I enjoy today have had a profound influence on my ideas, dreams, and motivations. I remember the first time my parents read me The Lord of the Rings, and thinking how badly I wanted to be able to travel the way Aragorn did, and just go wherever I pleased (which today manifests in solo expeditions in various wildernesses, something I view as perhaps my greatest passion). I also remember reading about real people like Winston Churchillwho went searching for adventure as a young manand look where he ended up! Jane Goodall was another favoriteshe traveled to Africa when she was barely twenty, at a time when that was unheard of for a young woman, and she changed the way we view humans and animals. These people motivated me to get out there and really go after what I wanted in life, and so I have always been fascinated with the power of storytelling.
There came a point for me, after a few years of working in the Amazon and other rainforests, when I realized I had seen some things and had some encounters and relationships with animals and places that were pretty unique. Around the same time it occurred to me that of all the great adventure accounts I had read, very few of them were written with any awareness of the natural world. I have tried to write the book that I always wanted to readsomething that could bring out the magnificence and complexity of the jungle and make it accessible to a larger audience.
Over the years, in the various stages of creating Mother of God, I completely fell in love with writing. We are at such a complex, exciting, and crucial point in history, and I think that stories are more powerful today than ever. Currently my time is divided between traveling and researching a different nonfiction project, as well as grappling with the construction of a novel that has been growing in my mind for years and is just now becoming a real work.
Who have you discovered lately?
I love adventure and natural history and was completely awed by John Vaillant's book The Tiger. He takes you to a part of the world few know exists, focusing on perhaps the single most awe-inspiring creature in existence, and introduces you to some truly incredible (and real!) people. What a great adventure that was! I also recently discovered Candice Millard's historical adventure The River of Doubtabout former President Teddy Roosevelt's exploration of an Amazon tributaryanother incredible read I am really getting into Cormac McCarthyhis writing style is mesmerizing, and I think he paints the human-nature relationship in a really dark hyper-realistic light that is totally fascinating. What I love the most about his storytelling is you don't have that comfort that everything is going to be okay in the end. He is not afraid to rip your guts out.
[Candice Millard's River of Doubt was a 2005 Discover selection, as was McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses in 1991].
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The book is a wonderful read. You will have a deep appreciation for Biodiversity and the great need for all of us to support respect and care for the planet's remaining areas that are habitat for great numbers of still-unknown plants and species of animals.
Fate was kind when I found this book, one of the most enlightening and informative adventure tales ever. Loved it. Such a simple review, I know, but I am at a loss for words. I just finished it and wish I still had two hundred pages to go.
A MUST READ autobiography for anyone interested in an exciting and fascinating true live adventure of Paul Rosolie's explorations and dedicated work towards saving what is left of the Amazon Rain Forest. If you loved "My Side of the Mountain" as a kid, oh boy, you are in for a treat with this read. Captivating, difficult to put down; it will change the perspective of the casual nature lover to the ardent conservationist. Get off Facebook, turn off your phone and TV, put down that silly romance novel or "tell all' gossip magazine, and read something worth while. Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey Into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon will keep you on the edge of your seat, but may inspire you to save the future for your children and grandchildren should you choose to become involved, even on a tiny level.