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Inside Brazil's Wild Wetland

When the rains stop, the Pantanal dries out—almost. Water lingers in lagoons and bayous, which are choked with fish—a concentration of food sufficient to sustain the region's birdlife through the rigors of courtship and reproduction. Wood storks and maguari storks and jabiru storks; many kinds of herons, limpkins, and egrets; and other large wading birds gather in breeding colonies spread over acres—the din can be heard for miles. Depending on the time of year and the water levels, different species of birds are constantly coming in and departing, some for North America, some for the tip of South America, some for the northern Pantanal, which doesn't dry out as much.

With Victor's help, I was able to identify 125 species of birds. Of the Pantanal's 650 known species, 360 have been spotted on the fazenda, most of them by Victor. Victor didn't speak English, but he knew the difficult English names of all the birds, so evocative of the raucous ornithodiversity we encountered every time we went out together: the toco toucan, the scaly-headed parrot, the rufous-browed peppershrike, the ferruginous pygmy owl. Some of them, like the ibis, had great local names, such as xumbú and curicaca, in Tupi, Guarani, or other indigenous tongues.

Victor doubted that there were any undiscovered bird species still lurking in the Pantanal. It is a mecca for ornithologists, and some of the world's most renowned birders have done species inventories, but no one really knows what's in there. I find this mysteriousness, the notion that there is still, somewhere, such an incomprehensible profusion of life, reassuring.

For instance, little, if any, work has been done on the Pantanal's butterflies, which are even more varied than the birds. Coming as I do from a long line of butterfly collectors—that began in 1830's Russia—I was intrigued. In 1970, I spent time in Jamaica searching for a small, metallic-blue butterfly in the Lycaenidae family (which Vladimir Nabokov specialized in). It had been named Shoumatoff's Hairstreak by my father, who collected the first specimens in the 1930's under the tutelage of his uncle, another Russian-émigré lepidopterist. In the Pantanal, I managed to spot a tattered South American cousin of the monarchs that migrate all the way to Mexico from the United States and Canada each fall. It was a darker orange, almost red, with thicker black veins. The particulars of its seasonal movements are unknown.

I also noticed, sprouting among the cow patties, hallucinogenic mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe. I hadn't taken mushrooms since 1976 (at a Jimmy Cliff concert), but for some reason I picked a dozen, dried them, and carried them with us to São Paulo. We were staying with Kim Esteve, a contemporary art collector, and his partner, Barbara Leary, Timothy Leary's last wife. Barbara said she would take them if I took them first and then we waited 45 minutes to see what happened. I hesitated. These were unquestionably psilocybin mushrooms, but which species?These species vary considerably in the potency and toxicity of their alkaloids. One of Kim's artist friends had a book on the genus with photographs of dozens of members, but none were from Mato Grosso. In the end, we chickened out and flushed them down the toilet. We decided to let more intact minds apply themselves to this unexplored facet of the Pantanal.


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