The World’s Lungs

By Elizabeth Dodd

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Almanac: Essays Here and There


In the Amazon basin, you feel you are in the center of everything. You are not, of course. But for a while it feels that way. Wet heat above the rivers, trees lifting the water as high as leaves can reach, samaúma, ceiba, kapok, 300 feet up. Tilt your head back, looking for red howler monkeys you heard calling at dawn, for the sloth and her infant clasped tight to her fur. All around you, moisture rising: more than half of the rainfall along the Amazon returns to the sky, to turn again, falling—warm rain.

Red howler monkey
Red howler monkey.
Photo by Dave Rintoul.

And with the breath: pulse. Eight months of the wet season, four of the dry. Clouds swell like hills above the lateral line of dark river, dark trees. Lightning throbs in the distance, so far you can’t hear thunder shake the sky.

Where the Rio Negro and the Salimões converge far from their plunge down the east face of the Andes, rainfall averages 78 inches a year. Ten or 11 inches in the wettest months; only two in August, the driest of the dry. Over a span of years, that pulse quickens, then slows. Sometimes the winds crossing the Pacific fall slack and the surface waters warm five or six degrees above usual. That’s the El Niño Southern Oscillation, the ENSO, when weather patterns shift, ocean fish migrate or die, and a wave of effects crests through the world’s systems. While heavy rainfall pummels parts of North America, Brazil heats under decreased convection. The rainforests dry. Sometimes they burn. Then in the months following an ENSO event, the landscape exhales its long sigh and, in what’s called the “biosphere-atmosphere gas exchange,” more carbon dioxide enters the hot Amazonian sky.

Eight months of the wet season, four of the dry.

I’m here with a small group of students, doused with insect repellent and sunscreen, thinking of breathing. Thinking of breath.

High water mark on tree
High water mark on tree.
Photo by Dave Rintoul.

River Sea

Late May and the river still inches up. On the boardwalk to the cafeteria (screened walls face the Rio Negro, a few oscillating fans stir the thick air) water slaps against the planks. The next day, it sloshes over the surface and someone rigs up another catwalk, scrap lumber and two precarious stair-steps, so we’re suspended above the suspension; we’re crossing between here and there, then and now, 15 meters of floodwaters under the forest’s deciduous shade. A caiman the size of a kayak drifts in the weeds, Devonian. Parakeets scream and click like an electronic flock.

All around, in the flooded forest, the trees are still marked with last year’s record depth.

Rain spatters and stops, spatters and stops.

“The River Sea,” the Amazon has been called. The name fits when you look across its huge width, and when you gaze back in time, too. In the Jurassic, as old Gondwanaland fractured into multiple continents, this was the region we now sometimes call the Amazon Lake or Lake Pebas.

Slap, slap. As I cross over the boardwalk, the water rocks against the railing, splashes beside my feet.

Pre-Cambrian Me

There’s hardly any stone along the Amazon. Clay soils and shale line the river and underlie the standing canopy of trees. One day in a state university lab in Amazonas, I listen to a student describe her research to develop new paving materials since, under the pummeling tropical rains, clay heaves and buckles asphalt within months of construction. As below, so above: the buildings are roofed with red tiles. Bare ground around the campus walkways is the color of wet terra cotta pots. No sandstone. No granite.

What do I know about soil and stone? Not much, just details and outlines seined from unfocused reading. But here’s this: granite, the literal bedrock of continents, hasn’t been found beyond the body of Earth. None on Venus; none on Mars; not even on our Moon. But on our planet, granite’s chemical lattice of feldspar and quartz, fine-grained and buoyant, floats its way slowly through heavy basalt.

Caiman floating in the river.
Photo by Dave Rintoul.

This way landmasses rose up from the seas.

Oceans had gathered across the planet before the earth was a billion years old, but the rise of granitic continents doesn’t show up for another 400 million years. Why the time gap? What had changed?

A team of geophysicists and geologists suggest it was life on the planet. Instead of the most ultra-archaic terrestrial life that clustered around ocean vents or grew deep within the self-swaddling heat of the young planet’s density, feeding itself on energy from within Earth’s core, something new was under the sun. Photosynthetic life, greening the skin of the blue planet. The intelligent spark of mutation and selection began to change the world.

Life exhaling oxygen, crumbling and wasting the older basalts.

Gravity’s drag on the newly-loosed mineral dust, the film and slime of expired life.

The palm-press of sea depths, ages of weight.

So the first seeds of granite were sown by the earliest plants. In the crucible of the chloroplast, water and carbon dioxide and sunlight become carbohydrate and oxygen: [H2O + CO2 + hυ = CH2O + O2]. Like legumes of light, those plants fixed oxygen in the air and carbon in what would become soil. I remember the thrill of learning it in junior high: we all breathe in what plants are silently sighing out. It seemed like the most perfect, sustainable balance.

Now I think, all life on the earth’s thin surface is an integument between lithosphere and atmosphere; or maybe it’s really the level below lithosphere, the asthenosphere, that uppermost molten ring across which the crust floats and collides.

All life on Earth: an integumental self.

Rio Negro
The Rio Negro.
Photo by Dave Rintoul.

Reactive Oxygen Species

In, then out. Oxygen rusts us all. Formed at the core of every star it’s the third most plentiful element in the universe; reactive, it nibbles the molecules of the world’s bodies. OIL RIG, I remember: Oxidation Involves (electron) Loss, Reduction Involves (electron) Gain. Particles, particles: added. Shed.

In any aerobic body the mitochondria, our own reverse version of chloroplasts, churn out energy for each and every cell, releasing reactive oxygen species or free-radicals. These atoms are a kind of molecular hunger, highly reductive, sucking electrons from their miniscule habitats. Within the cell, antioxidants stanch this loss.

The fruit table at breakfast: acerola and açai juice—fresh-squeezed antioxidants—and dark orange guava. The vessel of the body taking in air.


Pppppppffffff. Dolphins enter the backwater furo from the open river. Pppppppffffff, pppppffff. They’re surfacing, exhaling, circling in.

These are botas, Inia geoffrensis, the pink river dolphins that have moved through these waters since before the Andes Mountains stood up from the sea, cloud forests draping their stony waists. A research-and-outreach crew welcomes visitors who want to spend time with the animals and when we arrive a staff member nods bom dia, straps on flippers, and takes a bucket of fish with him into the water. Each day, some dolphins decide to arrive. Buoyed by a life vest positioned like a tutu around the waist, treading our poor water-ballet in the river, we wait till the dolphins flick into our midst.

The dolphins approach
The dolphins approach.
Photo by Olivia Eller.

“Don’t reach for them,” cautions the guy with the bucket. “Let them come to you.”

For a while, they do.

Their foreheads bulge; their mouths (“beaks,” they are called, as if they’re not mammals at all) look thinner than the muzzle of a fox. When they dive in the dark water they seem to disappear, two minutes, three, till they surface again—oh, just brushing my side!—to take the outstretched fish. Our guide lists their adaptations for life in the varzea: unfused vertebrae let them to slip and glide among tree trunks; the beak, thin like an anteater’s snout, can pry fish from shrubs submersed in the flood. I catch very little of this—he’s speaking in Portuguese—and I keep waiting for those gifted moments of contact, a dolphin nosing my thigh, rising just past my hand.

I want them to touch me. I want the shiver and slide when their skin slips across mine. I want to feel the oxytocinal flush of their notice

Their fishy breath sprays when they surface to breathe.

Middle-Miocene, maybe 15 million years ago, the continents were awash with water. In South America the Paranense Sea linked Atlantic with Pacific, bringing dolphins and turtles to the inland coasts. With the Andean uplift and the seas’ regression, the shapes of the continent’s rivers changed (“a clockwise rotation of the paleodrainage,” say one group of researchers). But the dolphins stayed put. Worldwide, in the Pliocene seas, those older cetaceans evolved into today’s snub-nosed species. But in a few great river systems (the Amazon, the Indus) the animals remained isolated from their changing kin. They “‘escaped extinction’ by adaptation to their current riverine habitats,” the researchers conclude.

River dolphin
River dolphin.
Photo by Olivia Eller.

Do they dream? I can’t imagine a life without dreams’ mosaic of experience and emotion. Many of my dreams involve searching through water—uncertainty, vulnerability, discovery in that other, first element. Once I dreamt of a pelican plunging into murky water where I was submerged. While I watched, the bird turned its dinosaur head to see me, as if my ancestral soul had stepped out of my body to consider my worth. What was the judgment? The dream didn’t say.

And—do they speak? At home in the small room of my study and its fiber-optic line to the collective mind, I can’t find any publications about riparian dolphins. But I do find a paper describing the cultural drift of their cousins, orcas: “As with human languages, cetacean vocal elements typically become modified in a gradual and largely random manner over time.” I read this several times, thinking of accents, dropped consonants, lost declensions. The languages I know have lost structural complexity over time—the disappearance of the subjunctive in English, the dropping of the formal “tu” from Portuguese in favor of “vôce,” the pattern of cast-off letters in French marked by the little down-dog of the circumflex (fenêtre, hôpital, forêt). The ceiling fan whirls overhead as I try to imagine speech older than rivers, older even than seas. Once I sat on a beach in Puget Sound as orcas passed by gaspingly close; once, from a small boat’s deck, I watched members of the family called J-Pod breaching all around us. A writer I know, Eva Saulitis, has studied the impossibly tiny group of orcas who live in Prince William Sound. She says their calls are a language unlike that of any other pod—they’re a separate species, she’s sure of it, now headed toward silence as their tiny community dies out, continued death ripples from the wrecked Exxon Valdez.

“I think probably it doesn’t come down to dialects, but more likely to group knowledge,” thinks Hal Whitehead, from Dalhousie University. “For example, knowing where to go to get food to survive an El Niño event.”

When the bucket is empty, the group in the water begins to spread out. I take off my life vest and dive under the surface, eyes open in water the color of tea. I breach; I dive. The dolphins depart. A black-collared hawk flies overhead hoping for overlooked fish.

Increasingly sophisticated modeling predicts what one researcher calls both a “catastrophe” and a “collapse” of the Amazonian ecosystem. The Hadley Centre in the United Kingdom predicts permanent El Niño-like conditions in the Pacific Ocean: this means the Amazon basin will be much hotter and drier. Rainfall could decrease by as much as 60 percent, bringing the totals around Manaus equivalent to those of my grassland home in mid-eastern Kansas. And temperatures would rise from the typical 89-90 degree Fahrenheit days to something more like 104-116. Triple digit, under the direct, equatorial sun that can—I swear it—burn your skin through your shirt.

Journal page
Page and drawing of Phil Fearnside.
Graphic by Ellen Welti.

One day in a small Manaus classroom with uncomfortable desks and noisy air conditioning, while yellow-and-gray kiskadees fidgeted in the leafy branches just outside the windows, I listened to Phil Fearnside (a tall wraith of a soft-spoken man with a gilded-age mustache) lecture on climate models’ implications for planetary climate systems. It was the first time I’d heard the phrase avoided deforestation. The term is one of resignation, I think. Deforestation is, by now, expected unless “avoided deforestation” is pursued as a specific policy to “mitigate” global warming.

Carbon shifts in, then out of the world’s woodlands. It has done so since trees evolved more than 300 million years ago. During ENSO years, rainforest sheds carbon; formerly, recharged growth could suck those atoms right back into new woody tissue and unfolding leaves once regular wind patterns returned. But with permanent El Niño conditions the forests could never rest and recover.

No longer beneath deciduous canopy, tropical rivers’ discharge has already risen by 25 percent, rushing the rainfall away and changing the pace of seasonal floods. Evapotranspiration slows when crops or pasture replace the former trees. Soil temperature increases, air movement slows, and the great bodies of clouds that move moisture throughout the tropical sky fail to form above the treeless landscape.

If words are elegies to the things they name...
              If words are elegies to thoughts...
                                          Words, the dear, familiar
shapes breath takes as it leaves
             throat and mouth... The changes, no longer
                           whispers, drift like cloud
shadows cast free
             from clouds themselves.


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—, Dennis K. Bird, Norman H. Sleep, and Christian J. Bjerrum.  “No climate paradox under the faint early Sun.” Nature 464: 744-747.

Saulitis, Eva.  Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss among Vanishing Orcas.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2013.

Vasconcelos, Sumaia Saldanha de; Philip Martin Fearnside; Paulo Maurício Lima de Alencastro Graça; Euler Melo Nogueira; Luis Cláudio de Oliveira; and Evandro Orfanó Figueirado. “Forest fires in southwestern Brazilian Amazonia: Estimates of area and potential carbon emissions.” Forest Ecology and Management Volume 291 (1 March 2013): 199–208.

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Elizabeth Dodd’s most recent book is Horizon’s Lens: My Time on the Turning World (University of Nebraska Press). Catch up with her at

Header photo by Dave Rintoul. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.