Thursday, April 10, 2008

Running on Fumes

I see smoke.
A woman down the road tells me that her husband was bitten by a Fer-de-lance and died quickly. She said this as she stood by an empty washing machine washing clothes by hand in a galvanized tub. The locals say that 'you die right on the spot.' They saw one crossing the road the other night and the next day the neighbors set the woods on fire. Fires burn all over the landscape here, on the same scale that they burn in Florida in late spring, but with much less hysteria. In fact, not much more than a passing glance. What gets attention are busses, and the eyes are almost always fixed on the horizon, scanning it for a bus that never comes. An abandoned car sits in the field that burns.
This is savanna down here, pine, palmetto, and oak, designed to burn in the dry season. But fire here barely leaves a mark. It seems the grass is greening up right behind the flames. Within a few weeks, there is no trace. This is not like the Rocky Mountains, where the Lodgepole pines will memorialize some conflagration for 20 years before they tire of it and lay down. There are innumerable burned tree stumps in the Great Lakes forests, the ink stained fingerprint of a murderous fire, some maybe a hundred years old. It is more like the fires in the Great Plains, where some lightning shocks the prairie and the wind whips up and the grass sheds flames thirty feet high running fifty miles an hour, outracing cattle and horses and rabbits and firefighters, but behind the flames, about two weeks away, is green grass. And, centuries ago, three weeks behind the grass were the herds of bison.
So the machinery is still here - the components and the processes; the Fer-de-lance, the Jaguar, the Harpie eagle, the fires - sort of like that abandoned car that now burns with the grass and palmetto and oak and occasional plastic bottle. A few hours ago, portions of it could have been salvaged, why, it might have even started up with a few adjustments. It was all there. But the fire takes out the brake lines, vacuum lines, spark plug wires, gasoline lines, and in a whumph! there goes the gas tank too.
I look out across the savanna and I see the machinery is still here, why, I can see smoke. Wait a second... Ah, my mistake, it's a smokestack. Enterprise, not fire, consumes the tropics. How far back does one have to go to a time when there wasn't mention of coral bleaching, slash and burn agriculture, caliche, alien species, cattle ranches, gemstone mines, oil wells, paper mills, access roads, poaching, drug plantations, fish farms, and species extinction on the hour, every hour? It seems like yesterday. Salvage? No, run for your life. We have stripped the machinery, stripped it of fire, flood, pollinators, carnivores, watersheds, wetlands, and corridors, and any minute now we'll hit the keystone species and whompfh! there goes the ecosystem.