In Mother of God, starving for adventure, 18-year-old Paul Rosolie struck out for Peru—aiming to spend his college break helping research mammals in the Madre de Dios (“ Mother of God”) region of the Amazon rainforest. What began as one trip soon became a life’s mission as Rosolie connected emotionally and spiritually with the people, animals, and nature of the forest.
Now the head of Tamandua Expeditions, a wildlife research and conservation center, the naturalist and explorer (and now first-time author) spends his time educating others on the importance of the Amazon. Rosolie shares with us the truth behind his unbelievable adventures (from escaping an uncontacted tribe to riding an anaconda), the consequences of losing the Amazon, and the key to saving the forest he loves.
Bookish: Some of your craziest and most harrowing adventures—riding a giant anaconda through floating grass, jumping from log to log across the rushing Amazon to escape a flood—were not witnessed and not photographed. Did this raise eyebrows with anyone as you were pitching Mother of God?
Paul Rosolie: Surprisingly, no one questioned any of the events that I wrote about. I try to document everything I can, but sometimes in the heat of the moment, it’s not possible. I never expected to find that giant anaconda on the Floating Forest, and did not have a waterproof camera at the time–so that event went undocumented (it all would have been different if I had had a GoPro back then!). I also didn’t expect to run into an uncontacted tribe, and in that situation you don’t care whether people believe you; you just want to get out of that moment alive.
Thankfully, most things in the book are verifiable. Even riding giant snakes. In 2011, I had volunteers with me and found another tremendous anaconda, which was so large that it overpowered and dragged seven people into the Floating Forest. So they can back me up on big snake stories. And of course, it is interesting to note that with all these giant snake encounters, not one has ever retaliated with violence to being grabbed by us humans—pretty amazing. As for hoping log-to-log down-river, that’s just a bit of local river transport in the Madre de Dios, nothing special.
Bookish: You had a lot of environmentalist heroes like Steve Irwin and Jane Goodall to help you learn about conservatism, and many local guides to teach you about survival. Did you have anyone who helped you learn to write about the river, the jungle, and your own emotions?
PR: It took me a long time to learn to read; like, way longer than most other kids. So my parents would read me stories when I was young. They put in hours each night reading the original Sherlock Holmes and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as Jane Goodall stories, James Herriot, R.D. Lawrence, and others. So, my language skills developed early, as well as a sense of narrative and description. Then when I got older, with ambitions of writing, I began carefully reading my favorite authors with a critical eye, studying how the masters do it. Unfortunately, I still cannot spell for anything.
Bookish: Your book portrays an Amazon that’s in more trouble than anyone would think. Even now, the long-planned, but often thwarted, Amazon Highway threatens to destroy it. What happens if the world loses the untouched places you write about? Is ecotourism enough to protect them?
PR: If the world lost the Amazon it would lose one-fifth of its fresh water and another one-fifth of the oxygen in our atmosphere. Functionally speaking, with the number of people on Earth today, we cannot afford to do that. We would lose medicines, cultures, animals, plants, and so much color and exciting life. I know that intrinsic value holds no water these days, and we have to justify the existence of all things—but I disagree with that sentiment and believe that animals exist for their own non-human reasons and have a right to exist. As do indigenous cultures, and even rivers. That system was there long before us, and we owe our life to the things it produces.
As for ecotourism being the answer, it’s not. Ecotourism is a small part of the answer for some of the localized issues, in a crisis that is systemic. Yes, it helps support national parks and employ some local people, but we need policy to control beef and soy farming (the current largest threats to Amazonia), and myriad other issues tackled to truly halt the destruction. People don’t realize that we depend on the living world for healthy lives–clean water, clean air–these are things we cannot do without. So it comes down to that we need to control corporations and governments and not allow them use the Amazon (and other natural resources) like an ATM machine. ‘Cause eventually the funds will run out, and we’ll be the ones feeling the consequences. To quote Carl Sagan, “Anything else you are interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water.”
We need education so that people understand what is at stake, and how we can enrich ourselves by keeping natural systems intact. We need large-scale policy and law to protect natural resources and systems, and we need ecotourism and numerous other grassroots initiatives.
Bookish: You love the jungle and the isolation it affords you, but you’re a New York and New Jersey guy. How do you feel when you come back to “the real world”? Is it difficult, and do you have any tricks, to break out of the jungle-savvy mindset you have in the Amazon, when relocating to a more industrialized place?
PR: Well, it is funny. In the jungle I am far more present, and focused, and alive. It’s impossible to describe the heightened awareness and presence I feel stalking through the vines beneath that green cathedral ceiling at 4 a.m. behind a red brocket deer or jaguar. If only I could be there and still have access to family and friends, I’d never leave.
It’s certainly a bit of a shock after months in the jungle to find yourself in JFK airport, and then in NYC, with all the noise and bustle. But in truth, I often enjoy the transitions. Usually when I am on the way to the jungle, I can’t wait to get away from my schedule, and constant communication, and all the other dizzying burdens of civilization. I can’t wait to explore and learn and swim and breathe clean air. However, after months in the jungle, I can’t wait to see friends and family, edit photos/video, and catch up, and see my dogs.
Food makes it easier too—after a few months without ice cream, pizza, or home-cooked meals, you start to only think of food. That is another perk of coming home to New York, usually 20 pounds lighter—you have to catch up on all the favorites!
Bookish: Just about every survivalist on reality TV tells you never to drink murky river water unless your life depends on it. Yet you made friends with the locals by drinking the Amazon. You didn’t get sick but, still, is this a wise choice for the ecotourists you lead on expeditions?
PR: Well there are lots of things in this book that I would strongly suggest not following my example on. Don’t jump on an anaconda. Don’t ignore a life-threatening illness because you are in love with an anteater. But in terms of drinking, I happen to have a tin can for a stomach. I can eat and drink just about anything and not get sick. But that is actually besides the point for the question since the rivers in the west Amazon are very clean. Most rivers would be clean to drink if humans didn’t pollute them. That water is mostly glacial runoff from the Andes Mountains. As long as there are no humans around (which usually means sewage, and/or gold mining operations) it’s usually OK. That “murky” look is caused by clay, which is actually pretty healthy for you. It is important to remember that 20 million people live within the Amazon, and they all drink the water, too. The streams in New York used to be drinkable as well, once upon a time.
Only sometimes, in the rainy season, when things are really churning and flooding, I will hold off on the river and only drink from clear forest streams. But for most of the year, you can just swim and gulp in the west Amazon rivers!
Bookish: The fate of your organization, Tamandua Expeditions, is always precarious in the book. How is it doing lately?
PR: Things are looking up! We are beginning to get some help in terms of funding, as well as more visitors, and even a university program. Now we are working to make the station a beautiful education center. We are continuing to keep it moving forward. It has become a place where local people, travelers, and scientists from all over the world can collaborate, and where wildlife and the ecosystem are the focus. It is a place where people can live off the grid and be surrounded by extreme nature. Experiencing and learning in that environment, surrounded by so much life, is something special.
Back in the day, it was just me and JJ [ Juan Julio Durand] defending the place; it was a lot of work, and a lot of stress. Today it is really exciting to see other people getting inspired and getting their hands dirty to protect this place. It’s good not being the only one carrying the torch, and I think that we are soon going to have a world-class conservation and education center and wilderness reserve.
Bookish: Do you have a follow-up book planned?
PR: I wanted to take some time off from writing after Mother of God was finished—writing is a very intense process for me. But my next project is too exciting to delay working on, so I am working on that now. I don’t want to get too specific, but the clandestine migration of tigers across India is a story that needs to be told, with some truly unbelievable characters, events, and realities.
Paul Rosolie is a naturalist, author, and award-winning wildlife filmmaker who has specialized in the western Amazon for nearly a decade. As an author Paul’s mission is to blend adventure and conservation with the aim of reaching a broader audience, and including more people in an ecological call to arms. His first book Mother of God has received praise from environmental leaders such as Jane Goodall, Bill McKibben, Jeremy Hance, and adventurer Bear Grylls.