3rd Place: The Pit in the Woods

SAGE Magazine is thrilled to award Nigel Pitman’s “The Pit in the Woods” third place in our 2013 Environmental Writing Contest. 

[Note: Names of the children in this story have been changed.]

One afternoon, back when my daughters were too small to think for themselves, the three of us left the research station where we lived in Amazonian Peru and took a short ride down the river to the town of Boca Amigos. The town sat on the bank of the Madre de Dios, and when the current was high you could pole a boat across the soccer field and tie up at one of the houses. That afternoon the river was low, like a glass half-empty, and after beaching the canoe we climbed up the dry riverbed into town. It was a tiny place – only about ten families lived there year-round – but whenever I visited there was always someone waiting on top of that bluff. They weren’t waiting for me, though. They just liked to stand and watch the river go by.

“Paying us a visit, Doctor?” said the mayor, shaking my hand.

“Hello, Juvenal.”

The town that day was full of strangers. In the middle of the soccer field, half a dozen men in shorts and rubber boots were pushing a water pump the size of a car towards the river on a crude wooden sled. They put their shoulders to it, moved it a few steps, and sank to their knees, groaning. The rest of the town – a dozen houses nailed together with planks and corrugated zinc – was quiet. As we headed down the dirt track to the schoolhouse, heads started poking out of windows, women waved hello from their kitchens, and kids came running after us.

We had made plans with the schoolteacher to spend the afternoon at the one-room schoolhouse, but we discovered that she had padlocked the school and left town. For a while I slouched on the steps of the schoolhouse, surrounded by children and wondering how I was going to entertain them for the next few hours. I was supposedly running an environmental education program – one of those programs that look so uplifting when the sun is out and the kids are in armadillo costumes, mugging for the cameras – but the truth is that I wasn’t very good at it. I was always hoping that someone else at the station, someone who had an actual talent for that kind of thing, would notice my ineptitude, move in on the territory, and gently take over. It never happened. Every Friday afternoon, just when the weekend seemed within reach, I began to suffer the dull anxiety of what to do with the kids on Science Saturday.

In attendance that day were seven regulars: Paciencia, whose name suited her perfectly; Yessenia, who liked to climb trees; twin girls named Zarita and Pepita; two whirling dervishes named Miguel and Porfirio; and Salvador with his red football. Salvador was around twelve at the time, and the oldest of them all. He couldn’t talk, apart from groaning, and it wasn’t clear how much he could hear. I never knew how much he understood of what was going on around him, but I could tell he liked being together with the other kids, and he liked holding hands, and he liked being hugged. Sometimes the adults in town lost patience with his odd behavior, and shouted at him or knocked him down, and afterwards he stumbled around crying until his face was covered with snot. Someone at the station had given him a little red football, and wherever we went that day he hugged it to his chest.

To buy some time, sitting there on the schoolhouse steps, we ran through the weekly news. It was a recurring feature of our Saturdays. My news was stuff like: “Yesterday a new researcher arrived from Switzerland – she’s an ornithologist – you’ll meet her next time you visit. She’s going to spend the next year studying Blue-and-gold Macaws – and she knows how to play the guitar.” Their news tended to be stuff like: “Juvenal finally caught the ocelot that was eating the chickens – I got to watch my dad skin it!”

After we had exhausted current events, we sat a while longer on the steps. The kids had started to look at me curiously, the way kids look at the not-very-good magician at a birthday party. I racked my brain. There was a beautiful oxbow lake behind town, where we sometimes went swimming or rowed around in search of giant otters, but no one was in the mood for swimming, and the canoe had a hole in it. I could have shown them something cool in the children’s encyclopedia we had brought as a gift – pictures of a shark’s jaw or a diagram explaining what lightning is – but one of the girls had run off to give the book to her mother for safekeeping. The kids were getting bored, and I could feel them starting to slip away – and whatever happened on those Saturdays, that was the worst feeling of all. When one of the kids suggested we take a field trip to the cemetery, I had to admit that I didn’t have any better ideas. It seemed like a new low, though. I thought: Really?

“Is it a long way?”

“No! It’s a short walk!”

“Well, is it interesting?”

“I haven’t been there in a while!”

“Who wants to go?”

They all wanted to go. Well, how bad could it be? It was somewhere back in the woods behind town, and the kids and I always found interesting things to do in the woods. Besides, everyone likes a nice walk.

“All right, children,” I said. “Today we’re visiting the cemetery.”

***

I wasn’t always so clueless. Over the years we had done plenty of clever things on our Saturdays together: made papier-mâché masks, built orchid boxes, gone on treasure hunts, played Red Rover, and so on. Most weeks there was some researcher at the station who was happy to show the children what ant legs look like under a microscope, or how birdsongs get turned into sonograms, or what soil cores are and how you collect them by twisting a giant corkscrew into the ground. We learned to identify melastomes. We made signs for a nature trail behind their school. We worked on map skills. We watched an ornithologist band songbirds. We looked at each other through binoculars.

On most Saturdays, the station boat brought the children up from Boca Amigos to spend the afternoon at the station, where my wife met them with donut holes and lemonade. Other times we went down to Boca Amigos. Some of the researchers at the station jumped at the opportunity to make the trip into town, since they sold beer in Boca Amigos. Other researchers preferred not to take part on those days, because they sold so much beer in Boca Amigos that on the weekends it turned into a sort of hellish place.

When the first settlers had arrived there twenty years earlier, they had built their houses right on the riverbank. The arrangement guaranteed a certain civic dynamism, because the current eats the riverbank away at a rate of about a centimeter a day. The houses that were closest to the river were always a few months, weeks, or days from falling into it, and the houses that were farther from the river got closer to it by the hour. This was fact, not magical realism: the Peruvian government refused to incorporate the town because it wouldn’t stand still. If the first settlers had planted a flagpole in the center of town, by now it would be sticking out of the middle of the river.

Here’s how the moving-town thing played out in the economic sphere. The man whose house was closest to the river sold the most beer, because the first thing the gold miners saw when they came into town were the girls in red bikinis on the Cusqueña posters tacked to his wall. For a few months that man was king, and the ground underneath his house grew thick with bottle caps. His bar had a commanding view of the river and a nice breeze in the afternoons, and his bank account – which was a Tupperware box buried in a secret place in the woods – filled up fast. But soon enough his floorboards began to list a little, as the river nibbled away at the foundation of his establishment, and from that point on everyone knew he was finished. A few weeks later the rising sun would find the man’s house and the Cusqueña girls fallen into the river, with his next-door neighbor looking sweet on new riverfront property. By then, the unlucky man would have sold off his last cases of beer, moved his family to a plot of land in the back of town, and started the wait for his next shot at the good life.

Many of the miners who came into town on the weekends spent their days on open-air barges anchored out in the middle of the river. A huge and shatteringly loud pump that sucked up mud from the river bottom occupied most of the floor space in these barges. The rest was hidden under a long trestle, on whose surface tiny particles of gold accumulated. Wedged between the pump and the tubes and the trestle, the miners tried to make a life of it between their two eight-hour shifts. There were no nuggets in that river, which meant there was no chance of getting rich quick; the more hours you worked, the more money you made. I once asked a miner how long it took to get used to sleeping next to the howling motor – one of those motors that kept me, a kilometer away, awake some nights. He said that the first 72 hours had been rough. After that, he had fainted.

The convenient thing was that the bars in Boca Amigos accepted gold as payment. The miners could bring the gold they pulled out of the river into the shops in Boca Amigos, and the shopkeepers would weigh it on a little electronic balance hooked up to a car battery, making a note of their credit. Wrapped in a scrap of dirty newspaper, their gold pieces weighed about as much as a couple of quarters, but were worth five hundred times as much. The parties started on Saturdays – which is to say, on Science Saturdays. Towards the end of the afternoon, by the time we had wrapped up our day with the kids and were starting to think about heading back up the river, the benches in the shops and bars had begun to fill up with bone-tired miners in shorts and rubber boots. They sat there nursing their beers, watching satellite TV, and eyeing the children.

I call them shops or bars, but really they were just people’s houses. When you ordered a beer in Boca Amigos you sat down to drink it in the proprietor’s dining room, as he helpfully pushed the plates and schoolbooks to one side to make space. The TV and the stereo were set at ear-splitting volumes, because the miners were deaf. On the nights that the men sat up late, drinking beer and playing cards, a half-wall separated them from the place where the children were sleeping under their fuzzy Tinkerbell blankets. It used to worry us. Once, looking through the digital camera of a man who lived in Boca Amigos, I came across some photographs of two of our favorite little girls. The pictures had been taken in their bedrooms, in the middle of the night, at the height of one of the miners’ parties. The photos seemed perfectly innocent – the girls were wearing pajamas and looked as though they just wanted to go back to sleep – and it may be that they were taken in perfect innocence. Just thinking about those pictures, however, makes me feel like going to live on a rock in the ocean, with seabirds.

One Saturday, we held a birthday party for the twins at the station . They sat down in the place of honor, before a figure-eight-shaped cake that my wife had frosted half in chocolate (for Pepita) and half in vanilla (for Zarita). Someone told the girls they had to make a wish, and the idea made them pensive. Everyone shushed the noisy kids, to give the birthday girls a chance to think. The twins glanced at each other and turned back to the candles with shining eyes. Long after they should have made a wish, they still sat there like statues. I think they sat there for half a minute. Eventually the other kids started to mutter, and even I got anxious from waiting, and finally the twins smiled in an embarrassed way and leaned over the cake and blew out their candles.

***

Behind the schoolhouse that afternoon we picked up a trail that the children said led to the cemetery. It had been cleared recently and was as wide as a car, even though we were hours from the nearest road. The trail passed through some scrubby farm plots and then back into patches of forest where candy wrappers brightened the leaf litter. The older children were nervous and excited, and the younger children were quieter than usual. Both my daughters wanted to hold my hand, and whenever I let go to count heads or hold someone’s hand, my younger daughter gripped my leg.

Gold mines cut a swath through upper Amazonia. Photo credit: Rob Williams/Frankfurt Zoological Society

Gold mines cut a swath through upper Amazonia. Photo credit: Rob Williams/Frankfurt Zoological Society

“Don Nigel, do you know how to get to the cemetery?” asked Paciencia.

“No, I’ve never been there. I thought you knew the way.”

“I do! Don’t worry, I’ll show you. I haven’t been there since Don Justo died, though.”

“Don Justo who drowned in the river?”

“That’s right. His body was all white when they found him. He’d been in the water for two days…. His skin was all white! I saw his foot, his white foot, and it scared me.”

“There’s a woman and her baby in the cemetery,” said another girl. “She was having a baby in the clinic and she died. The baby died too. They both died.”

We stopped on the trail.

“Children,” I said. “Here’s a question for you. Who knows what happens to us when we die?”

“We go to heaven,” said one of the girls.

“That’s right,” I said. “Maybe. What else?”

“We become little angels.”

“You already are little angels. But what happens to our bodies?”

“The little worms eat us.”

“Well, yes. Our bodies end up like that old log there – little by little they turn back into dirt, and plants, and other stuff. But what about the other parts of us – what about all our ideas and memories? What about everything we think and feel and remember? What happens to those?”

“That’s the part that becomes an angel!”

“That would be neat,” I said. “But you know what? The truth is that no one really knows. Not even the smartest people in the world know. People have lots of different ideas about it. But it’s still a mystery….”

Zarita suddenly cried: “Last week they took a satellite image of heaven! They showed it on TV! They located the exact place where heaven is – in a picture that was taken from outer space!”

Her sister joined in: “A man who died came back to Earth and said it’s just like they say! He was in heaven and then he came back! He was on TV! Everyone’s listening to what he has to say!”

“Everything is white, it’s full of clouds!” shouted her sister.

“It sounds really nice,” I said. “Look, children. I want to ask you a favor now. When we come to the cemetery let’s all be quiet. No loud talking. All right?”

“So we don’t startle the little dead people,” explained Paciencia.

“Just to show some respect,” I said.

A little farther on we came to a place where someone had sunk two deep shafts into the dark brown earth of the floodplain. The pits were just wide enough for a person to fall into, and just deep enough that it would be a struggle to get them out. One of the pits was old and half full of water and aquatic plants. The other pit was freshly dug and dry. All the children wanted to look in and see what was at the bottom.
“Stay away from the edges!”

“Don’t worry, Don Nigel. We’re not going to fall!”

“Children, let’s keep walking…”

Past the pits, I counted heads again.

“Paciencia,” I said quietly. “Was that the cemetery?”

“No,” she said. “Those are just holes. A caiman lives in there….”

“What are they? Who dug them?”

“The miners dug them.”

“Were they looking for gold there?”

“Who knows? Sometimes they just dig holes! That new hole they dug will probably fill up with water too.”

The older children ran ahead. We found them waiting at the next bend in the trail, whispering and pointing. A few steps off the trail, lined up on the floor of a shady clearing, were six oblong mounds of dirt. There were no headstones, but in each mound stood a wooden cross, decorated with a plastic wreath. Someone had recently tidied up the dirt around a couple of graves with a shovel. The graves sat at the edge of a low bluff, surrounded by forest. It seemed like a peaceful place to spend the rest of eternity. At least, the portion of eternity that remained until the river cut its way into that part of the floodplain and carried away the bodies.

At first the kids had huddled together, wide-eyed and silent, but now they started to run around and laugh like they always did. I stood looking at the cemetery and absently shushing the children. After a few minutes, I called them over and asked them to be quiet again, and we all held hands while I said a boring prayer. The children said “Amen,” and ran back to the trail. I followed after them, racking my brain for something to do on our way back to town. But the children had run off in the opposite direction, deeper into the woods.

“Zarita! Why are you going that way?”

“We want to see what’s over here!”

So I followed them. The trail emerged onto a field where corn grew haphazardly among charred tree stumps. Coming through the corn were two more miners I didn’t know, short stout men with the broad smiles of Andean peasants.

“Can we visit your camp?” asked one of the children.

“Of course you can visit our camp, my darlings. Go right ahead, it’s just a little farther….”

In the direction they had come from, I could hear the dull throbbing of an enormous pump at work. I thought: Really?

And we continued down the trail.

***

What should I have been teaching the kids that day? We didn’t have environmental education classes when I was a kid, and thinking back, it’s hard to pinpoint what it was that got me interested in nature. Sometimes I suspect that the summer I spent working in a law library did the trick. I can almost believe that some teenagers who spend the long summer months wheeling dollies of the Columbia Law Review through the stacks eventually go on to become lawyers, but really I suspect that it’s a great way to turn someone into a tree-hugging hippie.

The point of the program I was running in Peru wasn’t to turn the local kids into radicals, of course. Someone else, it turns out, had already taken them a little ways down that road. For a few years before our program had begun, a Peruvian NGO had run an environmental program with the kids at Boca Amigos. Among other things, the NGO had declared most of the forest behind the town a Children’s Forest. The idea was that any decisions made about that forest would have to be approved by the children. During those years, the kids had made costumes and painted banners and held marches in which they wore the costumes and waved the banners, which is to say that by the time I got to them they had already been catechized.

As far as any additional environmental education went, I was happy to limit the curriculum to basic ecological literacy: an understanding of where the things we used came from, where they went when we were done with them, and what this arrangement meant for the plants and animals that depended on those places. In that part of the world, the answers to these questions were fairly simple. Almost everything we bought was trucked down from the Andes, the same way we had arrived ourselves. And almost everything we used ended up in the river. There was no recycling program within 100 kilometers of us, and if one day you organized a campaign to pick up trash along the river, you’d send the bags you filled to the dump on the floodplain in Laberinto, which was slowly being eaten away by the river. Reduce, reuse, river.

I guess I also wanted to communicate to the kids, on those Saturday afternoons, some small sense that a few of the things going on in the place they lived were not, in a broad sense, good. I wanted to tread lightly, though. For one thing, I felt very conscious of my position as a foreigner who lived in a tidy compound up on the bluff, criticizing the locals who lived in shacks down on the floodplain. I hadn’t forgotten the time one of the kids asked if my father was a millionaire, or just really rich. Also, I thought about how annoying it would be if some enlightened Norwegian insisted on coming over to my house on the weekends to lecture my girls on everything that’s wrong with the United States. I mean, I would probably feed him poison.

So I wanted to spare them the worst of it. But the question bugged me then, and it bugs me now: how much do you tell children? My wife and I have gone fairly easy on our daughters, but some nights the older one wakes up whimpering from a dream about “a machine that is destroying the world.” My own feeling is that you can tread as carefully as you like, and it just doesn’t matter, because in the end there is no escape from these two facts: that all of us, no matter how sensible or responsible we think we are, belong to a cult; and that the principles of your particular cult get passed down to your kids whether you like it or not. The cult my wife and I belong to – the one made up of people who study nature for a living – believes that things are in an extremely bad way and are probably going to get worse. You know how towards the end of summer afternoons, all the kids running around the backyard wear those purple Kool Aid mustaches around their mouths? My wife and I – we’ve got those mustaches. And if we think our girls can’t see them, or aren’t sneaking a taste of our cult’s especially bitter flavor of Kool Aid now and then, we’re doing an extra-good job of fooling ourselves.

In the end, what I most wanted to do on Science Saturday was engage with the children. I wanted us to do fun and interesting stuff, and I wanted us to get to know each other. I wanted the kids to spend a few hours a week seeing things they might not otherwise have gotten the chance to see, with people they might not otherwise have gotten the chance to meet. Most of all, I wanted to give them a few hours each week in a safe, secure place. Some weeks it turned out better than others.

***

Coming towards the mining camp, we entered a stretch of forest where hacked-off branches had been piled up along the edges of the path. All the tree trunks were striped with machete cuts. Pepita, trotting at my side, said, “I remember Don Pedro. He had a farm a little farther up the river. He had a lot of orange trees on his farm, and every time we visited he gave me an orange. I’m remembering him because he’s in the cemetery too…”

Soon we came to a small clearing where some miners had thrown together a low shelter of plastic sheeting, sticks, and bamboo. There was no one around. We continued on in the direction of the noisy pump, and a minute later we came to another clearing with four of the same stick-and-plastic shelters, where cans of tuna fish and tomato sauce were stacked helter-skelter among mining equipment, and mosquito netting hung over the plank bunks. In one of the shelters, two hard-faced women stood scowling over a gas stove.

The kids were all right, though. As a matter of fact, they were participating in an enriching educational program under competent adult supervision. The pump was getting louder. I grumbled to myself as we got closer to the roar, and at some point along the way, bending over to say something to my daughter, I realized that I could no longer hear my own voice. I shouted – and I couldn’t

Two pumps sit surrounded by muddy water. Photo credit: Frances Buerkens

Two pumps sit surrounded by muddy water. Photo credit: Frances Buerkens

hear that either. It was as though somewhere a few steps back we had stepped across a threshold beyond which all the oxygen had been sucked out of the air and replaced with noise. The older girls were running ahead, a few steps away but suddenly out of earshot. Simple Salvador stood looking up at me for guidance, his mouth fallen open and his rotten teeth showing. I picked up the kids near me, grabbed his hand, and went forward towards the mine.

We came into the last clearing of all, where a few days earlier the miners had felled all of the trees and burned them to cinders, leaving a bare open plaza surrounded by forest. Sunk into the middle of the plaza was a pit as deep and as wide as a house, and at the bottom of the pit, three mud-covered men stood around a pump screaming soundlessly at each other and blasting the muddy walls with a high-powered hose. A short distance away, a fourth man was wrestling with a heavy block of wood in the mud. Over at the edge of the clearing, slurry ran over a wooden trestle.

“Look over there,” I screamed at the girls. “That’s where the gold is coming out!”

But all they could see was mud and felled trees, and they couldn’t hear me anyhow. The smallest of them were trembling with fear, trying to protect their ears with their hands. Close at hand, right at the edge of the pit, the trunk of an immense tree the miners had felled lay across the pit like a catwalk. Before I knew what was happening, the older girls had found their way up onto the trunk and were balance-walking along it, mugging at the men far below. I shouted and waved my arms, but they paid no attention. A second later they had run down to the other end of the trunk and vanished from sight.

I couldn’t just turn around and go back the way we’d come, writing off a couple of kids as missing in action. But it seemed frankly abusive to keep the rest of them there. So I did something foolish. I herded everyone over to the fallen tree at the edge of the pit, and pushed and pulled until all of us had an ideal perspective from which to observe the operation: all of us sitting together on top of the trunk, my arms around everyone, and that pounding noise around us all, our legs hanging down as we watched the miners blast away below us. In the effort to get all of the children onto the tree trunk, I had momentarily forgotten about the older girls. Suddenly they reappeared and came sprinting back along the trunk, screaming with delight and carrying a hat they had filled with yellow-winged seeds. The seeds floated around us in the air and drifted down into the pit, and the kids followed their flight with fascination. Down below, the pump roared away and the muddy river kept flowing. The men looked up at us and one of them said something that made the others smirk.

***

On our way back to town, a chilly wind was blowing through the forest and fields. My younger daughter started to cry because she was tired of walking. The older kids, looking forward to dinner, skipped along ahead of us on the trail. In town, I bought two chocolate milks at one of the stores, where you could also buy little bottles of elemental mercury. Salvador looked so insistently at my girls sucking on their straws that we bought him a chocolate milk, too, and helped him get it open. He sat in one of the chairs with his knees up to his chest, hugging his red football and drinking the milk.

The day was coming to an end. We said our goodbyes and headed down to the river. Along the main street, the kids of Boca Amigos were climbing the stairs to their houses, and some of them paused to wave at us from the top step: Thank you! See you next week!

It didn’t seem like a great place to be a kid, but then again maybe it wasn’t so bad. It’s easy to feel some outrage about parents who give their disabled kid a kick now and then, or put their daughters to bed in the back room of a noisy bar. It’s easy because it helps us forget our own shortcomings as parents. These children, our children – we pat their little heads and lecture them on good behavior and distract them with all the stuff we tell them is edifying or interesting or otherwise important, while somewhere out of earshot our roaring machines grab all they can from the children’s forests, and rivers, and oceans. Every night we tuck them into bed in a house that is shabbier than the one we grew up in, and that will be even shabbier when they wake up the next morning. Those gold miners are in on the scam, and so are the enlightened Norwegians. So am I. And so, gentle reader – wherever you are, god damn it – so are you.

Sometimes I think that what I really should have been teaching those kids was: don’t trust anyone over 14.

“Taking leave of us, Doctor?” said the mayor at the riverbank, shaking my hand.

“Goodbye, Juvenal.”

Out on the river the sky was gray, the wind was cold, and the station on its high bluff looked a long way away. I wrapped my arms around my younger daughter. On the seat next to us her sister was looking tired in her huge life jacket.

“Girls,” I said, “Right now Mom is preparing a warm bath and a hot dinner for you. Just think about that – dinner will be ready the minute you walk in the door.”

“I don’t think I can climb the stairs, Dad,” said my older daughter. “They’re too high, and I’m too tired.”

“You can do it, little birdie.”

“Hold me tight, Dad,” said my younger daughter. “Hold me tight because my legs are getting cold.”

Nigel Pitman

Nigel Pitman is a scientist working on the ecology and conservation of South American forests. He is currently a Senior Visiting Scientist at the Field Museum and a Research Associate at Duke University. His work has appeared in Science, Ecology, Orion, and DoubleTake.

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One Comment

  1. michelle milne says:

    i love it Nigel. congratulations!

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