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Radical Adventures Into the Rainforest

01/28/2013 05:32 pm ET | Updated Mar 30, 2013

The rainforests have been called the lungs of the world, and they are home to the greatest diversity of species of any biome. The massive and accelerating destruction of the rainforests for purposes of raising cattle and exploiting mineral resources is an obscene tragedy on a scale beyond description. And so when individuals with the necessary drive, curiosity and courage undertake radical adventures into the rainforest and return to tell about it, it is cause for celebration. And so it is with two extraordinary recent books: Walking the Amazon, by Ed Stafford, and Naked in Eden, by Robin Easton.

In 2007, Ed Stafford was searching with a friend for an excursion into the wilderness that would represent a blend of nature study, an outstanding feat of physical fitness, and an accomplishment never before attained. Without knowing much about what it would entail, he settled upon the idea of walking the entire length of the Amazon River, some four thousand miles, from its origins in the heights of the Andes mountains in Peru, all the way to the Atlantic ocean in Brazil. The river had been traversed its whole length previously by canoe, but never by anyone navigating exclusively on foot.

Planning for the excursion required 15 months of meticulous preparation. Stafford had a background as a captain in the British army and several years experience as a wilderness nature guide, so he was not entirely unfamiliar with the nature of the challenge he had set for himself. Nevertheless, he was trying to accomplish something no one else had even attempted, much less achieved, and which most knowledgeable observers considered impossible.

The Amazon is not a nice, tidy flow of water, secure within banks lined with established paths and trails. On the contrary, the river is an unruly mass, swelling with the seasons, restless in its boundaries, often overflowing and flooding the surrounding countryside. Add to this the perils posed by native populations, sometimes suspicious of and hostile to outsiders; the palpable danger of stumbling across narcotics operations near the portion of the river that runs through Colombia; the threat of arrest by legal authorities ever vigilant about passports, visas and local rights of passage; and these are just the hurdles not presented by the jungle itself.

For Stafford, the rainforest was not a source of wonder and beauty but a formidable obstacle to overcome. To be sure, he was conscious of ecological considerations, careful about recording illegal logging operations, and committed not to consume endangered species for food. But his driven, goal-oriented attitude forced him to regard the jungle as a stubborn foe of sorts, a multiheaded monster that could end his journey with a single poisonous snakebite or a thousand cuts by razor grass.

Somehow, in spite of all odds, Stafford actually completed his impossible expedition. It required 860 days -- well over two years -- most of them accomplished with a single companion and some 80 pounds of gear on his back. At the end of it all, he had acquired "over 200,000 mosquito and ant bites each; about 600 wasp stings; a dozen scorpion stings...; and one Guinness World Record." Within days of his achievement, over 900 articles had been written about it world wide, and soon he was named European Adventurer of the Year.

For a study in contrast, it would be hard to find a greater gulf in experience than that represented by Robin Easton's book, Naked in Eden. The two stories have in common a close encounter with the rainforest, sustained over a period of many months. Both authors endured extreme hardships and exposed themselves to exceptional dangers. Both came away radically changed by their experience. But there the similarity ends.

Stafford's psychological journey consisted of finding within himself the deep determination to persist in the face of severe and prolonged adversity. Easton's journey was of another kind altogether. She was raised in the countryside of Maine, where both her parents were attuned to the rhythms of nature. Her father often took her on day trips into the wild and taught her survival skills and the ability to appreciate the beauty of the rivers, the wildlife and the forest.

Later, as a young woman trying to find her way in society, Easton felt increasingly alienated, uprooted and ill. The rainforest proved to be her salvation. She had married a man from Australia who was sensitive to her moods and needs, and courageous enough to accompany her into the wild. By virtue of his youthful pluck and initiative, they made their way into the Daintree rainforest on the northeast coast of Australia and set up camp in a place completely removed from human beings. At 1,200 square kilometres, the Daintree represents 0.2 percent of the landmass of Australia, yet it is home to 20 percent of the continent's species of birds, 30 percent of its frog, marsupial and reptile species and 65 percent of its bat and butterfly species.

Over the course of more than a year, Easton underwent a profound psychological transformation. Her husband had a phobia of snakes and spent his days in camp and on the beach, but Easton hiked every day deep into the forest. There she communed with the plants, trees, rocks, streams and wildlife and learned to understand herself as well as her connection with the natural world. She felt the trees speak to her and explain the laws of nature and the tragedy of mankind's disassociation from the earth and its inhabitants.

"Naked in Eden" is not just a metaphor. Easton shed her clothes and her shoes and hiked stark naked, mile after mile, day after day, into the heart of the rainforest. She had countless adventures with birds, snakes, marsupials, trees, and all the other inhabitants of the wild. Perhaps the foremost lesson she learned was the all-encompassing lesson of love. She felt the rainforest pulsating with beauty and life, embracing her completely, with no judgment, but radiating love.

Stafford and Easton are both pioneers in a world where everything seems already to be known. Both found their way into the inner recesses of nature, and both came away radically changed by the experience. They are poles apart in the essence of what drove them and what they discovered, but they are alike in bringing back to civilization the clarion call of the wild. We owe them both our gratitude, and we owe it to ourselves to heed the lessons they have learned.

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