This year is the fortieth anniversary of my trip to the Amazon rainforest as a participant in an expedition organised by the U.S. Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California. I have been asked, as one of the few survivors of that era, to write about those times and say how my academic view of Nature was affected by the Amazonian environment at a time when its wildness was coming under increased pressures of economic development.
Getting to the heart of the jungle
The gathering point was Duke University, where our leader, Knut Schmidt-Neilsen was a professor of biology. From Duke in North Carolina, we made our way by air via New York to Belém, one of Brazil’s busiest ports, about 60 miles upriver from the Atlantic ocean. The river here is called the Pará, part of the greater Amazon river system. Belém is built on a number of small islands intersected by channels and other rivers. Founded in 1616, it was the first European colony on the Amazon. Belem sits at one of the two mouths of the river; the other, and larger one, is 200 miles farther north, exactly on the equator. Between the two mouths is the huge island of Marajo. The magnitude of the Amazon is unimaginable; it delivers more fresh water into the ocean than all the other rivers of the world combined. Its flow extends a hundred miles into the Atlantic before becoming mixed with the salt water of the ocean. Inland, the river does not have just a single channel but takes many courses depending upon the season of the year when it drains the flood waters from the eastern slopes of the Andes mountains.
We took a light aircraft from Belém about 800 miles inland, following the Amazon westwards to Manaus to join the research vessel Alpha Helix. We cruised just above cloud level which provided a birds-eye view of the vastness of the river embedded in a flat tree-clothed landscape, intersected by numerous river channels, for the most part with no sign of human habitation. As we came closer to Manaus we could clearly see ‘the meeting of the waters’. This is a visual expression of the river a few miles upstream from Manaus. From the air you can clearly see the warmer and darker water of the Negro river running side by side with the yellow silty Solimões without mixing.
From 1890 to 1920, Manaus was a rubber boomtown. Brazil was the ecological home of the rubber tree and the country had a monopoly of rubber latex. For a relatively short time the plantation owners became extravagantly wealthy and the town prospered. Immigrants from north-eastern Brazil, fleeing drought and poverty, flooded Manaus, seeking riches in the rubber trade.
In contrast to the hand to mouth existence of its workers, the upper class created the Teatro Amazonas, an opera house opened in 1896. It is still a notable landmark of 19th century European city culture of the time. By 1884, construction was ready to begin under the Italian architect Celestial Sacardim, who planned for the theatre in the Renaissance style to be state of the art and to include electric lighting. Work proceeded slowly and intermittently over fifteen years. Roofing tiles came from Alsace, while from Paris, came furniture and furnishings in the style of Louis XV. From Italy came Carrarra marble for the stairs, statues, and columns. Steel walls were ordered from England. The theatre has 198 chandeliers, including 32 of top quality Venetian Murano glass, all elaborations of human ingenuity fast tracked from European times when the first flint was spit to make a cutting tool. The stage curtain, with its painting the “Meeting of the Waters” created in Paris by Crispim do Amaral, depicts the junction of the Rio Negro and the Solimões. The first performance occurred on 7 January 1897 with the Italian opera, La Gioconda, by Amilcare Ponchielli being performed in an oasis of the European Renaissance surrounded by unexplored rainforest known as the green hell. This was a hinge of human history; a symbol of the conquest of Nature through the march of European civilisation.
By 1920, synthetic rubber and the growth of British plantations, resulting from the smuggling of the Brazilian rubber tree to Malaya, caused a drastic plunge in the price of rubber, and Manaus declined into poverty.
Today Manaus is a free trade zone and the financial centre of North Brazil. When we arrived, this zone had recently been inaugurated by a Brazilian nation determined to convert its wastelands into a productive asset. They had started with the river itself and it was commonplace to see handfuls of gold dredged from the bed of the Amazon changing hands in the hotel foyer. Already, cattle ranching had begun and soil erosion was adding to the silt burden of the Solimões. In the 1960s the main links were by river and air. Talk about superhighways has now come to pass. The north-south Trans Amazonian highway passes through Manaus and there is a connection from this arterial road to Belem.
At Manaus, we joined the research vessel Alpha Helix and headed upstream for the expedition’s destination, a small island at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Rio Branco. Here there is a meeting of the waters in miniature. The two rivers have contrasting chemistries, offering two fresh water ecosystems in which to study the various ways aquatic organisms have adapted to these differences. Evolution in freshwater was the theme of our expedition.
The Alpha Helix
The Alpha Helix was a modern, ocean-going, research vessel with laboratories, which provided both standard and specialized equipment. The ship was constructed and equipped so that was it was possible to place a biological research laboratory in any part of the world. Through the aid of this vessel physiologists and biochemists could carry on research programmes, with both sophisticated laboratories and other logistic support, in geographical areas where many investigations would otherwise be impossible.
The idea for this ship and its design originated with Dr. P. F. Scholander of the Scripps Institution, and at his suggestion it was designated as a National Facility, for use of scientists from the United States and elsewhere. It was built with financial support from the National Science Foundation and was managed by Scripps. Our team was drawn from the USA, Canada, France, Denmark and Brazil.
The boat was a converted Pacific tuna trawler about 130 feet long. Its hull had been strengthened for use in Arctic ice, and was air conditioned for use in the tropics. It had modern navigation and communication equipment, and in addition to the well-equipped laboratories, it carried collecting gear, and prefabricated shore laboratories, which could be set up and used to increase the research capacity of the ship. It also carried a number of small workboats powered by outboard motors and a 24-foot cabin cruiser for more extended side trips. The design provided a large, fully equipped laboratory on the main deck. For our purposes a small flying boat was also available to deliver mail, although during my stay it was seldom airworthy.
In this relative comfort, isolation, and exotic environment, ten scientists at a time could obtain a productive period of experimental work on organisms not easily available otherwise, as well as the stimulating company of their colleagues, all specialists in their own areas. Imagine ten scientists sitting around the breakfast table discussing yesterday’s observations and last night’s experiments. Before starting the day’s work they step out on the rear fantail of the Alpha Helix, which is covered with aquaria and cages of animals and specimens brought in during yesterday’s collection. Then back into the air-conditioned lab for their experimental and analytical work. The morning activity is interrupted briefly by lunch, and the lab work or animal collection continues until just before the evening meal when again, imagine ten scientists in deckchairs gazing westwards towards the setting sun as it sinks through a towering mass of thunderhead clouds, each lost in his own thoughts. Dinner was followed by a seminar and further work in the lab. Apart from visiting the group that was allocated the prefabricated hut on the sandbank, there was no going ashore for walks through the jungle, which was impenetrable. I managed to join up with a bat expert from the University of Florida and was thereby able to visit clearings by the river at dusk where the bat nets had been set up. This was the height of the rainy season and the river was at its maximum height. Looking back, a small error in navigation or a failure of the outboard motor could have had us totally lost, drifting in a mass of islands looking in vain for the small pinpoints of light that indicated the presence of the Alpha Helix, the only haven in hundreds of square miles of a watery wilderness.
The “Alpha Helix” was in a very real way a measure of Americas economic success from four centuries of decimating its northern woodlands and prairies. As a generous but extravagant gift to the world it was an unsustainable gesture to pure science. Cocooned in my air conditioned segment of United States urban culture, living on thick steaks and frozen vegetables, every so often I had to remind myself that the life expectancy of the local Brazilians in their small riverside clearings was in the mid forties. The nearest hospital was a days journey down river and for most of the native inhabitants of the Amazon there was no access to medical services at all. One of our local animal catchers with pneumonia was cured overnight with one or two shots of our antibiotics. If we were not there he would, more likely than not, have died.
The Rio Negro
Even at noon, the river was so black that at a depth of a few inches light penetration was only one-tenth as bright as light on its surface. At two feet it is only one-hundredth as bright; at six feet. there is no light at all. Fish had evolved a non-visual communication system that consisted of making a language based on electrical clicks. One of these fish caught in our nets turned out to be a new species of fresh water stingray.
Unlike the Amazon’s clear-water tributaries, the Rio Negro does not originate primarily in mountains flowing rapidly through relatively narrow channels, but meanders sluggishly across flatland, jungle and swamp areas. Each year at flood stage it overflows its banks, while draining some 253,000 sq. miles. A Texan told me, that its tributaries covered an area almost as vast as that of his home state. In the process, its waters dissolve untold quantities of plant juices and tree sap. These function as a natural insecticide and are responsible for the river being relatively free of water dwelling insects.
My first impression of the forest was something of a let down. I expected to see a riot of tropical flowers, parrots and at least hear the howls of spider monkeys. Superficially it resembled quiet, neglected overgrown British woodland. However, the insects did not disappoint. They were everywhere and provided a quiet, steady background of humming, squeaking and chirping throughout the day.
On closer inspection almost every tree was a different species. This points up the biological diversity of the region, which is staggering when you concentrate on a local study of any group of animals and plants in detail. Settling down to butterfly collecting for example, it is usual to see around 300 different kinds in a day. On a good day you might count between four and five hundred, and you would not have to travel more than a third of a mile in any direction to see them. Although there are many species, there are not many individuals. This accounts for the jungles low visual impact. Although it is possible to collect more individuals of a given family of butterflies in a day than the total number of species in the whole of North America, the bag would comprise no more than half a dozen specimens of the commonest species and a single specimen would represent most of the rest. Butterflies, bats and rodents are particularly diverse and represent a surge in biodiversity that occurred in response to a regional burst of evolution of plant life.
My short stay on the Rio Negro changed my academic mind-set and future career path. I went to the Amazon as a technology orientated biochemist to work on the chemical evolution of Amazon freshwater stingrays. As it is presently understood, rays go back through the fossil record some 400 million years, surviving at least four global mass extinctions that caused the loss of 80% of the planets larger animals. Taxonomists and others endlessly debate the particulars. Although they pre-date our own evolution by hundreds of millions of years, our distant relationship with the rays can be traced through our blood chemistry.
The evolution of life from a single starter cell, something like a bacterium, is written in the composition of the fluids of our cells and the blood that bathes them. Their chemistry tells us that we are descendants of aquatic vertebrates and are able to survive on land because we can make the substance urea to package our waste nitrogen for excretion. In contrast, our aquatic ancestors used ammonia for this purpose, a much simpler but more toxic substance for land dwellers because of the limited amounts of water available to flush it out of the body. The freshwater rays of the Amazon are a key species in these respects, because their marine cousins have high levels of urea in their blood which stops them becoming dehydrated in the high salt environment. Its function is to keep the body fluids in balance with the high concentration of sea salts in which, as obligatory ocean dwellers, they are immersed. It was my task to unravel this mystery. My conclusion was that a common ancestor of the rays with a salty blood, first evolved in the sea, where it excreted ammonia. A new form evolved which entered freshwater and coped with the lower salt content of rivers by lowering the salt content of its blood. It then learned to make urea and was able to return to the sea using urea to concentrate its blood back to the level in other marine animals. The rays of the Amazon were the outcome of a fourth bout of evolution and had been able to re-enter the river system, no doubt adapting to the massive flows of fresh water into the ocean environment, by ceasing to make urea.
Regarding the ecology of these fish, even today there is still a lack of adequate information on their life histories for most species of the family, which prevents precise assessments of their conservation status. In general this highlights a gap in the ecological knowledge of the expedition because all of us were either biochemists or physiologists. The ecology of the river was a closed book. Now, there is direct evidence of human impact on the rays, including habitat degradation from river damming and mining, as well as the ornamental fish trade, pressures that have led to a growing concern for the survival of several species. So far, five of Amazonias freshwater rays have been cited in the international Red List as threatened species.
This was my main project, but I also took the opportunity to find out why turtles are able to survive, buried in mud at the bottom of the river without oxygen, and studied what triggered the legendary ferocious behaviour of the Red Piranha. In both of these projects I was slipping away from laboratory experimentation towards the realm of ecology.
Surprisingly, because of the limited time available for preparation and execution, the trip was very productive in terms of the research, but more importantly in the long run it began a process of connecting me with a greater scheme of things. Sitting high in the prow of the Alpha Helix, gazing through the incoming multicoloured storm clouds towards the Andes, I learned to see myself as part of a gigantic web of life. I began to lose the fetters of the western worldview, which since the first Neolithic farmers has regarded humans as separate and above Nature. We do not really need close proximity to jungles to appreciate this, but it is easier there in the presence of so much to wonder at. Losing ourselves in the heady aroma of sun-warmed bracken of a Welsh hillside, paddling through the lap of ocean waves or delighting in watching small birds chatter and play, can loosen the narrow worldview and bring us closer to Nature and to a more fundamental human nature. At the core of oneness with Nature are the spiritual, ethical and moral questions about who we are and how we want to live in the world.
Becoming more myself
Looking back I can see that I was really only becoming more myself because, although I could not articulate it at the time, my boyhood collections of bees and butterflies made when cycling through the Lincolnshire Wolds was really my fundamental mind set. It was diverted into studying the mechanics of life through an academic education, which stressed the importance of working at the new chemical frontiers of biology with the best mentors that you could persuade to take you on
In Amazonia I was but a tiny speck out-numbered by Other Beings. They carried the message that people should always be conscious that they are part of the natural world, inextricably tied to vast complicated biophysical systems that sustain their lives. Although I hardly touched the forests time scale of life there were signs everywhere that it was in constant flux. A seed germinates and a stunted seedling battles for decades against the dense shade. Then the buttress roots of some ancient tree fail and it falls, letting a shaft of light strike the forest floor. The long suppressed seedling suddenly enters into the full vigour of delayed youth, grows rapidly from sapling to maturity, declines into the uncertainty of senility through many centuries, dropping millions of seeds upon the rotting debris of its own ancestors, only one of which ripens another generation.
Any other way of looking at Nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from it is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behaviour. Being in the Amazon forced me to quickly recognize and honour nonhuman Nature as a world we did not create, a world with its own independent, nonhuman reasons for being as it is. The interests of people cannot be identical to those of every other creature of the earth. To take the opposite attitude is bound to foster irresponsible behaviour. In reminding me of the world we did not make, the Amazon raised profound feelings of humility and respect. These are lessons for confronting our fellow beings and the earth itself, helping us set responsible limits to human mastery. Places with wild things are, symbolically at least, where we should focus our education and discover practical ways to try to withhold our power to dominate.
Wallace Stegner once wrote of:
the special human mark, the special record of human passage, that distinguishes man from all other species. It is rare enough among men, impossible to any other form of life. It is simply the deliberate and chosen refusal to make any marks at all. . . . We are the most dangerous species of life on the planet, and every other species, even the earth itself, has cause to fear our power to exterminate. But we are also the only species which, when it chooses to do so, will go to great effort to save what it might destroy.
Up until the 1960s the myth of Amazon was encapsulated in its vastness. It is so immense in all respects that it appeared that we could somehow leave Nature untouched by our passage, but this is an illusion. As living beings, we cannot help leaving marks on the world and the more people multiply the bigger the marks. Our dilemma is to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave. In the broadest sense, the Amazon teaches us to ask whether the Other must always bend to our will, and, if not, under what circumstances it should be allowed to flourish along with our interventions. In the 1960s, destruction of the regions wildness was already evident in the large-scale logging, damming and dredging, with no thought for the Other. But this was just a continuation of what had begun when the first Native Americans crossed through Panama about fifty millennia ago. When Europeans founded Belém, thousands of years of slash and burn had made its mark through incorporating the forest into the human food chain.
When we contemplate the wildness of other beings of land water and air we find their Otherness compels our attention. In forcing us to acknowledge that they are not of our making, that they have little or no need of our continued existence, they recall for us a creation far greater than our own. In the diversity of the Amazon, we need no reminder that a tree has its own reasons for being, quite apart from us. The same is less true in the gardens we plant and tend ourselves: there it is far easier to forget the Otherness of the tree. Indeed, one could almost measure wilderness by the extent to which our recognition of its Otherness does not require a conscious, willed act on our part. Wildness is more a state of mind than a fact of Nature, and the state of mind that today most defines wildness is wonder. The wonder is that we are part and parcel of the Earth, small but numerous pieces of its cycles, successions and dependencies.
Musing about these things on the prow of the Alpha Helix, I felt I was close to the life of the native South Americans, most of who had long ago been dispossessed of our island anchorage. Yet I was in a place where the white-tailed deer browsed the life of trees into its own life, reincarnating the wildness of the trees in its own form. The hunter killed the deer, its entrails fed the trees where it died; at home it feeds the hunters body, and in feeding his body the trees and the deer feed the one billion bacteria that inhabit three inches of his gut; they feed the one million spirochetes that live in his mouth; they feed the brontosaur-like mites that thrive by devouring the secretions on his eyelashes.
From the trees his womenfolk took branches to make the basket that carried the forests berries home. When he died, his friends and family buried him, and he fed the trees and the berry bushes that feed the quetzal birds that spread the seeds. He fed the children of the deer that fed him and his body’s inhabitants, and that will, in turn, feed his children. This great feeding body is still the world, countless parts and parcels that evolved together, mutually, relating in the endless dance of evolution. We are all the dust of old stars. We are the form that wildness bred to become conscious of its Self: nothing more.
I flew out of the Amazon knowing that we have to educate to honour the wild, the Other within and the Other that even in our domestic habitat still exists next door. It survives in the exotic mossy microcosms of the cracks in the pavements as much as the exotic that lives three thousand miles away, where even forty years ago it was already ceasing to exist. Before I left for South America I was in discussions with the Wellcome Foundation to head up a pharmacological team in their Beckenham laboratories. I was also in contact with the University of Guildford about its vacant chair of biochemistry. Back home I realised my real interest was in the coming of age of ecology, a phrase that was first used by the media in 1970. Early in that year a photograph taken from outerspace showed our world as a cloud-enshrouded ball surrounded by endless empty blackness. By that time I had accepted the chair of zoology in Cardiff, a department overflowing with ecologists, and was developing new cross-subject courses and research strategies for living and working on an overcrowded planet. This area of conservation management that was in its infancy in the 1960s has determined the destination of many of my students. My own research shifted from the study of how hormones interact with receptors in their target organs. Our organs are miniature
versions of the Amazon Basin and I began to investigate how cells in organs know their neighbours and whether or not they should be, say a muscle, a nerve cell or a cancer cell. This led me to define a new field, which I called cellular ecology, which applies to the growth of embryos, cancers and the aging of organs. By interfering with the signals passing between cells that control this balance of partition of the bodys resources it was possible to change the cellular composition. In particular, it was possible to stop cancer cells growing. This idea of internal complexity now dominates the modern view of a tumour; we now believe that many, and perhaps all, malignant tumours have at least two classes of cells: cancer stem cells and the bulk of the tumour. But, the tumour recruits other cells to assist it. Depending on the tumour type, these could include cells to build new blood vessels and fibres, which become the tumour body. Other interactions may depend on the tumour type. Again, this was a more or less direct outcome of my time on the Alpha Helix.
Another, totally unexpected experience that stuck to me was the protective attitude of the native Amazonians towards animals. Even those that were dangerous or poisonous were not treated as enemies. In the 1980s I was invited to become a member of the government council that was tasked with setting up a national organisation to care for the Welsh environment. I was able to develop a research programme aimed at understanding how individuals define their own
value orientations toward wildlife and biodiversity, how these value systems have been shaped by regular interaction with nature within a rural setting, and whether these rural residents view their value systems as distinct from other population groups.
While insights into the complexities of rural environmental values are interesting in an academic sense, they are also highly relevant from an applied perspective. Specifically, land managers would be wise to be recognise the local values associated with species richness and biodiversity, thereby better allowing placement of management costs/benefit discussions within the most appropriate management framework for local residents. This attitude of care does not only apply to wildlife but also the management of the large amounts of wastes we add to the global food chain in town and farm. In other words, consideration of place-based value systems should be incorporated into discussions of land management practices and policies that support biodiversity over the long-term. This is the main theme of cultural ecology, a subject which developed out of work I did with the Cambridge University Examination Syndicate in the 1980s to bring wildlife and habitat management towards the centre of the school curriculum.
I moved on to chair the UK Conservation Management Consortium, where I am setting up demonstration citizens heritage networks to show how it is possible for communities to use the internet to share information on their heritage assets and communicate their findings and management plans. In this context, values that individuals associate with wildlife and biodiversity are many. Some individuals view wildlife through a utilitarian lens, emphasizing nature’s material benefits as derived by humans. From a very different perspective, individuals may attach a spiritual reverence for elements of the natural world emphasizing an ethical reciprocity between humans, other creatures, and Nature more generally.
Communing with wildness
Looking back to those days when environmental threats had first begun to expand beyond the fear of nuclear war, which in the late 1950s was a real possibility, to include the impact of car emissions, solid waste, toxic metals, oil spills and even heat, it is obvious that reason has not compelled us to respect and care for wild Nature, and we have no basis for the belief that it will in the future. The theory of evolution connects us to the natural world, explaining how and why we are a part of Nature. The idea of progress through economic development, on the other hand, projects a series of short-term political programmes for increasing family wealth. There is no long-term destination. I remember whilst carrying out research at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory just prior to the Amazon trip, hearing talk about the limited capacity of the worlds oceans to absorb human-produced carbon dioxide. Now global warming is accepted as the major threat to the economic well being of our descendants. All the science of climate change was in place in the 1960s, but it had not been connected with the destruction of civilisation based on burning fossil carbon.
Philosophical arguments are notoriously incapable of compelling human beings to alter their behaviour. We are left with the vital importance of residency in wild Nature to produce knowledge of that wildness as the most practical means of preserving the wild. What we need now is a new tradition of the wild that teaches us how human beings live best by living in and studying the wild without taming it or destroying it. Such a tradition of the wild existed. It is as old as the Upper Palaeolithic when human beings were always living in, travelling through, and using lands we now call wilderness; they knew it intimately. It is the tradition of the people that first populated the Americas, a tradition that influenced Taoism and informed major Chinese and Japanese poetic traditions. Most of us, when we think about it, realize that after our own direct experience of wildness, it is art, literature, myth and lore that have contributed most to our love of wild places, animals, plants, even, perhaps, to our love of human wildness, which is now only expressed for most people in sex. It was the sum total of myth, folklore and sheer beauty of ducks, swans and geese that converted Peter Scott from hunter to protector and artist-recorder, making him the patron saint of conservation. For in wildness we respond to the sights and sounds aeons older than any of us. These wild legacies stir the imagination to produce the language we so desperately lack, the medium so necessary to communicate a shared vision. This is the role of art, literature, lore, myth, and fable. The valleys of the Ganges, the Nile, and the Rhine yielded their art based on local Nature that was created by people who lived there. Most of Amazonian art is on a lesser scale and was made of perishable materials such feathers from many species, including the scarlet and blue and yellow macaws and toucans, and materials including snakeskin, plant fibres, bark, nut shells, insect casings, seeds and plant fibres. I have only seen native art in museums, where it is portable and intended to decorate, enhance, and empower the human body. It also represents Nature, totemic animals, deities, myths, and culture heroes. The environment is expressed in the brilliant luminescence of headdresses, masks, and ornaments decorated with bird feathers, delicate pottery used for serving food and drink during festivals and rituals, fibre and wood dance costumes, and fine textile tunics. Some of the decorated costumes and ornaments were worn by shamans during curing rituals, chiefs displaying power and authority, initiates participating in rituals into adulthood, and hosts and guests of community feasts. Most of these cultural roles for art are extinct. In 1990, there were 220 distinct native groups in the Amazon basin, by 2005 only a hundred or so groups remained, about 100,000 people, who were still practicing traditional lifestyles. The rich surroundings of the forest dwellers provided all their needs. They have been replaced by landless settlers from the urban slums with no knowledge of how to handle a jungle without trees.
This gap in our social evolution reminds me that we are now part of an urbanised international community and need a new art of “becoming and being through Nature This phrase defines the process of Experiential Ecopsychology. To take this path towards Nature, Sylvie Shaw says we need quiet reflective moments to:
. open up a path of communication to the wider world where we can get in touch with our inner Natures and begin to understand who we really are. In this way, being through Nature is a time of healing and restoration. “Becoming through Nature” assumes that the earth has something to teach us about ourselves and our relationship with it.
Engaging with the process of picturing Nature in literature and art is to gather attributes of ourselves highlighted in the hardness of rocks, the slipperiness of fish, the piercing eye of an eagle and the animalness of a fallen tree. These pictures say we are just one among many other beings sharing a minor planet. The metaphors then become messages for replacing talk of maintaining our authority willy-nilly over Nature, by a gentler more self-effacing ethic towards managing our authority in favour of other beings of land, water and air.
I will finish with the music of Heito Villa-Lobos, regarded throughout the world as the foremost Brazilian composer of the 20th century. Villa-Lobos used his creativity and the unlimited cultural resources of Brazil to discover new textures and rhythms in music, and adopted Impressionistic techniques and Brazilian folk music. Villa-Lobos was a troubadour; through his exuberant imagination he was able to express the sentiments of an entire nation, which was made up of immigrants from Europe, the Negro slaves from Africa, and the indigenous natives. Uirapurù (The Enchanted Bird) is based on several Amazonian myths about a legendary bird that sings an enchanting song deep within the rain forest. The Indians considered it the king of love and young men would seek it in groups. In Bachianas Brazilieras he makes the human voice mimic the chatter of birdsong in the forest. As Tres Marias is the smallest of a group of three short piano pieces. They were composed in his later years when he was deeply involved in music education, and reflects his concern with children and how to communicate with them sharing their joys and aspirations. The collection is based on a well-known folk story in Brazil, which is roughly translated as follows:
Once upon a time, there were three little girls, the three Marias of the earth, who romped and played in the countryside of Brazil. They were happy and gay and the best of friends. Always smiling, they travelled the path of life together. So that this trinity might be served as a perpetual symbol for humanity, they are preserved as eternal stars in the heavens to brighten the way for other children of our planet.
The Alpha Helix was well stocked with records of Villa Lobos music. Whenever I hear it I am transported back to the Rio Negro where I experienced in a rational and very direct way that separation, the boundary between ourselves and other people and between Nature, and ourselves is illusion.