Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

3 Nov 2013

Dispatches from Amazonia: 3. Beach Combing the Green Sea

Since moving to French Guiana, I have developed a new Sunday morning habit. My wooden bungalow on the Kourou agricultural campus is a 5 minute walk through huddled trees hiding slumbering sloths and sniffling agoutis to the Caribbean sea.

Despite my island origins, I have never lived by the ocean, and I still get a sense of thrill looking out onto an endless horizon. Any curious observer can get an idea of what lies beneath the waves without ever setting foot in the water, by scanning the high-tide mark to find remnants of the deep. Shores closer to home provided whirling mollusc refugia, bivalve shells and barnacle-blistered seaweeds, whilst further afield I have found shark jaw bones or the bleached shrapnel of coral gardens. But to beach comb here is to set your sites in a different direction. 

The Caribbean it may be, but these shores are also the outer lips of the rivers of Amazonia, where pulverising rains turn aquiline blue veins into brown sea serpents, curling out of the river mouths and into the Atlantic. Here, amongst the grains of sand under fronds of palm leaves, the coast is scattered with relics of inland expanses. Not shattered shells, but spunked out seeds of an infinite variety. Flattened banana boomerangs, hard scaled dragon eggs, spurred avocado stones. How can such a plethora of exuberant forms  dominate amongst the driftwood?

A flight above the forest can feel similar to a boat on tidal waters, waves of blue replaced by hillocks of green. An article published in the journal Science earlier this month by members of my lab showed that the Amazon rainforest is home to over 16,000 tree species. Given this mass of competing life forms, it is almost unsurprising to find their gametes littering the surrounding coastlines, dominating over those of the ocean beyond it.

My desk is now surrounded by these well-travelled grains,  which I have diligently collected and cleaned, and hoarded at home. A myriad of minor miracles arrived from the deep of the green sea.