I hoist up pounds of sequined taffeta,
and twist to face the mirror on the wall.
Metallic silver thread and beaded lace
are dancing through the bodice. Satin wraps
around my hips, accentuates my waist,
but does not mask the creases in my brow,
nor ease the tension in my neck. I feel
the pressure build. My temples ache.
The A-line skirt distracts awareness from
the rolls that gather at my side. My mom
can’t pull the corset tight enough. She says
to suck it in. Her disapproving eyes
slant down at hips too wide. The boning stabs
my ribs like tiny swords of steel that hold
my torso captive, daring me to break
away. I gasp for breath as she pulls tight.
The satin stretches down my back. A train,
embroidered, stitched with silver pearls. I look
and find four helping hands to fold and pin.
My bustle starts to tear. Hands one and two
are pulling to the East. Hands three and four
are pulling opposite. With pleading eyes
they look to me. I touch the beaded train,
the tiny tear, and rip it thread from thread.
She was universal as the surrounding air,
Austere in appearance, somber in expression.
Her dark hair bore no adornment,
Her pale face unremarkable.
She was clothed in modesty in a world obsessed with appearance.
The pressure of perfection weighed upon her shoulders.
Overlooked and undervalued, she began the descent into isolation.
Detached from the sounds of hypocrisy,
She battled with identity, finding solace in conversation,
Finding worth in intellect.
Rising above cultural ideals,
She developed a rare beauty, a splendor that made her special,
That made her precious.
Lizzie stood half-naked and shivering on the white tile of the upstairs bathroom. The smell of Pine Sol saturated the 9’ x 8’ room. Ivory marble lined the inside of the shower as well as the sink and counter. A round mirror, only large enough to reflect a face, was nailed to the cream colored wall above the sink. Chrome shined without fingerprints on the shower and sink faucet. A baby blue bath towel hung on the silver shower door handle. A matching hand towel hung on the wall above the porcelain toilet.
The light pink flower on the front of Lizzie’s training bra matched the pink on her boy-cut briefs. Her 15 year old ribs stuck out like her grandma’s old washboard. Margaret, Lizzie’s mother, appeared in the doorway wearing dark low-cut jeans and a brown spaghetti strap tank top purchased in the juniors section at J.C. Penney. She carried a brown clipboard in her left hand, a red ball-point pen in her right, and a yellow sewing tape measure around her neck.
Lizzie and Margaret lived in Bee, Nebraska, a town of 223, and the epitome of the white-bred, small town Midwest. Even in 2010, this was a community where lunch was still called dinner and dinner was still called supper; and, each of those meals has something fried or slathered in gravy. Margaret at 39 years old, 5’5” and 109 pounds, had lived in Bee since she was born and has fought against down home cooking since she was 13. Now, everything that she cooked was baked, steamed, or raw. She would not allow anything with a fat content over 3 grams per serving into the house. Anyone who lived in her house had a strict 700 calorie a day diet. Margaret’s third husband had moved out two years ago after she had cleaned out his candy stash and his bank account.
“Okay, get on,” Margaret commanded.
Lizzie’s slender size 8 ½ feet and 5’7” frame stepped carefully onto the black and silver bathroom scale. Margaret purchased the Homedics Glass Body Fat Scale Health Station three years ago after the last scale’s battery had worn out. The health station measured body weight, body fat, body water, muscle mass and bone mass; and, it came with a lifetime warranty. “Weight?” Margaret asked.
“99,” Lizzie whispered as she folded her hands and bowed her head.
Margaret began to mark in her notebook, but looked up suddenly. She pulled her black, poorly permed hair behind her ears. Her over-tweezed left eyebrow rose slightly. She shifted her weight from her left hip to her right while her emerald eyes glanced and down her daughter’s body.
“Lizzie, that is two pounds up from yesterday.”
Lizzie let out a light gasp causing her sunken chest to rise slightly, but kept her copper eyes focused on the digital numbers below her. Margaret briefly closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and looked back at her notebook.
Lizzie, still shivering, began to rub her bare arms. The goosebumps moved up her arms and down her legs.
Margaret let out a long, disappointed sigh. She set the red notebook on the white marble sink and knelt down at her daughter’s feet. Tying her hair up in a bun, she lifted the tape measure from around her neck and slid it through her fingers. Its original rigidity was now almost completely smoothed flat. She began to wrap it around her daughter’s left thigh.
“What did you have to eat today, Lizzie?” Margaret asked.
“You read the list when I got home from school; and you saw what I had for dinner.”
Margaret let out a long low breath of air, but did not look up from the tape measure.
“Write down 8.34 inches left and 8.29 inches right.”
Lizzie reached forward to grab the notebook and pen, but lost her balance. She stumbled forward, then backward, catching herself on the shower door behind her. Her arms, shaking violently, lowered her onto the tile.
“Clumsy child! Could you try to be more careful? This scale cost me $100.”
Margaret opened the wooden cupboard underneath the sink. She used the baby blue bath towel to wipe the foot prints off of the scale. She turned it over in her hands, and once satisfied, placed it in the cupboard next to the Pine Sol and Windex.
“I do not want to go through the hassle of trying to deal with the warranty people again. Last time was such a nightmare,” Margaret continued.
The tile radiated cold throughout Lizzie’s body. She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. She rested her chin on her knees and stared at the floor.
“Alright. Stand up,” Margaret ordered.
Lizzie took a deep breath and placed her hands flat on the tile. She pushed herself onto her knees. She looked at the shower door and reached upward. Her fingers grasped the silver handle. She planted her right foot on the ground and pulled herself up. Gradually, she turned to face her mother.
Margaret rose to her knees and wrapped the tape measure around Lizzie’s waist. Her eyes narrowed into small slits, and she pulled the tape measure tighter. Sighing, she poked at Lizzie’s lower stomach.
“Are you on your period?” Margaret asked.
“No,” Lizzie answered.
“Write down 18.6 inches; and try not to fall down this time. Are you sure you’re not on your period?” Margaret continued.
“No. I haven’t had one for thirteen months.”
“Lucky you. Still, you look bloated.”
Lizzie picked up the notebook and sat down on the toilet lid. She wrote 18.6 next to the 18.1 from the day prior. She clicked the pen closed and ran her fingers along the metal binding. She flipped through the pages and pages of numbers, containing months and months of weights and measurements.
“Was there something you forgot to write on your food list today?”
“You already know everything,” Lizzie murmured.
Margaret picked the tape measure up from the floor, walked over to Lizzie, and wrapped it around her right bicep and then the left.
“List everything again.”
“Four grapes and two whole wheat crackers for breakfast. Half of a ham sandwich with fat free mayonnaise for lunch. A forth of a cup of whole grain rice and half of a banana for dinner.”
“Write down 5.1 inches for the right and 5.0 for the left.”
Margaret looked skeptically at her daughter’s stomach.
“Anything else? To eat or drink?”
Lizzie slid her left hand through her thinning blonde hair. She looked down to find a clump of dry, brittle strands between her fingers. She did not recognize the color. Her hair had at one time been radiant and golden. Before he moved to Indiana, her father used to compare her hair to the rays of the sun. Now it hardly held any color. It reminded her of the thin strands of fiberglass in the fiber optic lamp on her dresser.
“Lizzie. I asked you a question,” Margaret asked impatiently.
Lizzie continued to stare at the clump of hair. She rubbed them between her fingers, feeling the kinks and knots on each strand.
“Lizzie! What else did you eat today?”
Margaret’s cheeks were turning red. Her left foot had started tapping. Lizzie looked up at her mother and cocked her head to the side.
“Damn it, Lizzie!”
“Salt,” Lizzie replied meekly.
Margaret stood perfectly still. Her chest had stopped rising and falling with her breath. Her intense eyes were glued to her daughter’s face.
“Excuse me?” Margaret asked.
“I added a pinch of salt to my sandwich,” Lizzie responded.
Her mother folded her arms across her chest. Her breath returned slowly at first, then heavier with each subsequent gasp. She shifted her weight to her other hip and now her right foot was tapping wildly.
“Salt?” Margaret asked.
Lizzie hung her head, but her neck looked as though it would snap from the weight of her skull. A tear dropped from her eye and plopped onto her thigh. It rolled slowly to her knee and down her calf to the cold tile.
“God, Lizzie! I knew you were bloated. Anything else today?”
“No, that was it,” Lizzie whispered.
Margaret shook her head and threw her hands into air. The tape measure flew out of her hand into the shower door, falling limply to the ground like a dead snake. Margaret growled in the back of her throat and kicked the yellow serpent. It slid across the floor, landing at Lizzie’s feet and wrapping around her ankles. Margaret’s hand balled into a fist and her index finger extended. Her arm raised in the direction of the door.
“Go to your room!”
Lizzie wrapped her arms around herself and stood. Hanging her head, she walked past her mother and into the hallway.
When Lizzie had left, Margaret reached for the bathroom door and slammed it closed. On the back of the door was a full length mirror attached by industrial strength super glue. Margaret pulled her tank top over her head and moved in front of the mirror. Her B-cup breasts appeared fuller and fuller as she tightened the straps on her Victoria Secret push-up bra. Then, she ran her finger along the horizontal scar from her 15 year old C-section. She pinched the skin below and to the sides of the scar. She poked the little muscle on her thigh. She jiggled the skin underneath her arm. Then, she walked over to the toilet and lifted the lid.
The little town was nestled between two hills and looked as peaceful as a child snuggled between his parents. It looked just like any small town out in the middle of nowhere. The roads were lined with houses showing off their immaculate yards, a source of unspoken small town competition. The one stop light in town blinked proudly over Main Street, which was deserted at the moment, because it was after 9:00. The houses outside of the flashing light were beginning to grow dark. People were tucking their children in and kissing their spouses goodnight, all but one house. One house was in a state of concern; it was not like their daughter to be out this late. Everything seemed to be fine when she had left earlier that evening. She usually called if she was out past curfew, but tonight she didn’t. Her parents tried her cell phone over and again, but all they got was the dead sound of the dialtone.
The field outside of the high school was suddenly attracting a lot more attention than it did on a normal weekday night. Soon, the yellow of the stop light was blending with flashes of red and blue. Her lifeless eyes showed no sign of fear now. Her wrist was bruised from where it had been squeezed too tight. Her leg was bent in the wrong direction from the impact of the fall. Blood spattered her new dress and the one shoe that remained on her foot. The other laid a few yards away with the buckle hanging just as lifeless as the previous owner.
As the police approached they noticed that her body was not alone. A young man knelt beside her, cradling her head in his lap. His face bore the same look a parent gets when their child misbehaves and winds up getting hurt. Even though they should be saying “I told you so”, all they can do is hold them and try to make everything better. He sat there in silence as the flashing lights drew nearer and nearer.
When you think back on things, they never quite worked out the way you had planned them. Well, that’s how that night went. Of course we were going to cause a little trouble, but in my wildest imagination I never thought anything like that would happen. You know us, we never mean anything by it. Just a little fun, no harm done. Anyway, she practically begged us to let her come with us that night anyway. If she wanted to hang with us so badly, she obviously knew what that meant. She should have known what she was getting herself into.
Then there was Jesse, that naïve little twit. Just because his father is the district judge, he thinks he needs to act all pious. Don’t worry buddy, you don’t need to act. Half the town thinks the sun shines out of your, well you know. He just happened to hear us at lunch that day when we were talking about our plans that night.
It’s not like we wanted anything bad to happen to her, but we couldn’t let her hang out with us without a little initiation, you know. Jesse started throwing around words like illegal and immoral. He said crap like “law was in place to protect you, so you should be thankful for it.” Come on, what really is the law anyway? Just some rules that somebody made us to suck the fun out of life. Well, I just brushed it all off and went about my day. I wasn’t really worried about him; he wasn’t going to stop us.
As the police chief approached the boy, his expression did not change. His eyes did not leave her cold face. “Son, you alright?” asked the officer. The young man did not respond. “Son, I need you to back away from the girl.” With the gentleness of a new parent, the young man placed the girl’s head on the hard ground and backed away. The officer looked around, puzzled. “Can you tell me what happened here?” The young man’s piercing blue eyes met the officers, but still he did not speak. “You realize we’re going to need to take you in for questioning?” The young man nodded.
Two local officers drove onto the scene, but hung back for a moment.
“Lordy Earl, we’ve got ourselves a real crime scene here” Jed stated in his small town twang.
“We ain’t got time for your sarcasm Jed, don’t ya know who that is?
“Well, I ain’t ever seen the girl before, but isn’t that? Goodness, that’s Judge Williamsen’s son” replied Jed.
“Yep, that’s Jesse” Earl stated matter-of-factly.
“His dad’s gonna have a fit when he finds out his boy’s seen a murder” Jed almost shouted.
Earl hesitated, then stated with the pace of a turtle strolling through peanut butter, “That’s not why Williamsen’s gonna have a fit.”
“Oh come on Earl! We ain’t really goin’ by the book, are we?”
“There’s a girl laying dead in a field, of course this is by the book Jed. He’s the only one on the scene. He’s covered in blood.”
My day was almost over, just had to get through trig and then onto better things. I hate trig. It’s not even math, just shapes. I mean come on, didn’t we learn all this in preschool? Get on with it, it’s a triangle. See, I know my shapes, now stop your yaking.
The teacher did stop talking, but not to let us out of class. No, this was group work time. Group work? If anything could make trig worse it would be to make me discuss it with people who actually liked it. People like Jesse. Our long-winded teacher just loved to pair me with Jesse. I’m sure she was hoping that he would rub off on me. No thanks.
“Which problem are you on, Paul?” Jesse asked.
“Number kiss my ass,” I snapped.
I knew what I was doing. If I hurt his feelings, maybe he’d leave me alone and I could spend the rest of the class staring at that blonde chick’s legs. She was wearing a pleated skirt. I liked those.
“Paul, I would like to help you, but you have to let me.”
What the hell was he talking about? It’s trig, a stupid class in a stupid high school. I gave him the “dude, you’re such a loser” look and shrugged, “No thanks.”
“Paul, I’m not talking about the homework. I know what you and your friends are planning tonight.”
Was this guy serious? I always thought it was just an act to please his oh-so-respected father. But I think this guy is seriously on crack or something. How was he going to help me? I didn’t need help. We’re not doing anything wrong tonight. It’s my life and I don’t need anybody telling me how to run it. What could he do anyway, run off and tell his daddy? I’ve never been scared of his dad anyway.
He continued watching me with that Sally Struthers save-the-children look. I wanted to ignore him, but for some reason I felt like I had to give him some sort of response. “Jesse, you seriously need to stay out of my business.”
“Paul, I know that you think I have no right to butt in, but I also know you will regret this decision. Please leave her alone. I want to help you do the right thing.”
“Oh, I get it. You’ve got a thing for her,” I said smugly.
“No. That’s not it at all. I just wish you would understand that the decisions you make have consequences. I want to help,” Jesse pleaded.
“Then shut your self-righteous mouth and do my homework.”
The officer had no other choice. The young man refused to speak; he had to take him to the station. The officer took out his hand-cuffs and clasped them as gently as he could on Jesse’s arms. Jesse did not struggle, but held his arms out willingly. The silver of the metal looked foreign on his young hands, but then again so did the crimson of the blood.
By now the officer chosen to respect the young man’s silence by returning it. But when the young man’s eyes full of resolution met the eyes of the officer, the officer gave one last pleading look, hoping for an explanation. When no explanation was offered, the officer led the way to his cruiser. Jesse took one last look back at the peaceful girl and bowed his head in silent prayer. He climbed in the back seat and the door closed on the world.
When the bell finally rang, I practically sprinted out of school. I couldn’t wait to get home and relax. Honestly, we weren’t going to do anything wrong that night, but I couldn’t wait to get away from that self-righteous snob. My brand new, jet black Dodge Ram was parked in the very back of the parking lot. That’s where we always parked and everybody knew it. We called it “Rebellion Row.” Kinda corny, I know, but no one was actually going to call us out on it.
I was just about to unlock my beautiful truck when I saw her. She was leaning up against her baby blue VW Beetle. I guess she figured that since she was going out with us tonight she could park with us too. I was still too frustrated with my “lesson” in trig to care. But then, I saw him. Come on! He was probably telling her that she should know better than to hang out with a crowd like us. We could get her into trouble. Telling her that there’s a better way and crap like that. Whatever, it didn’t matter to me what she decided. If Jesse convinced her to choose the right path, what did I care? Just one less occupied parking space.
The little room had the same atmosphere that the inside of a coffin must have. The walls, floor, table, and chairs were all painted the same monotonous grey. On one side of the table sat Jesse; on the other sat the same officer who had brought him to the station. For 10 minutes after the officer read him his rights, Jesse waited patiently in the cold room. Finally, an officer joined him.
“Jesse, I need you to tell me what happened tonight.”
“Son, there was sign of a struggle. That girl is dead. You were found with the body. Please tell us what went on tonight.”
“Jesse, if you don’t talk you are going to be a suspect in this case. Do you understand?”
I guess Jesse’s little chat with her didn’t have much of an effect, because she showed up right at 8:30 as planned. She looked a little nervous, but we usually had that effect on people. She reminded me of a little kid sitting in the waiting room before her first dentist appointment, excited because everything’s new, but scared because of all the stories her brother told her the night before. If this was the waiting room, tonight the wait was long.
For about an hour, all we did was hang out. A few of the guys decided to rummage through the recycled pop cans, competing to see who could smash the most on their head. I lost interest after a few seconds. Things like that were funny, but I got bored after awhile. I guess some idiot threw away a full can, because when I looked back, one of the guys was on the ground in rolling pain, the other was on the ground rolling in laughter. That might have been the funniest thing I saw all night, but like with most things I got bored again. It was time for something else, ‘bout time to head up to the roof, don’cha think?”
The courtroom was packed to capacity. It had been so long since the town had anything this exciting that everyone wanted to be a part of it. No one could believe that the son of the district judge was being charged for murder. Everyone who knew him thought he was a great kid; but, in a small town opinions change with the change in gossip. Rumors flew that he had gone crazy. People said that there was always something weird about him. Two days prior Jesse was being praised for his service to the community. Today, the community had turned against him.
The room full of gossiping townspeople quieted as the wooden doors opened. Jesse’s frame looked small and delicate in his new jumpsuit of prison orange. His legs and arms were bound with metal cuffs. This once honored student, who had given countless speeches at city counsel meeting, dressed in fine business suits was now walking through the same crowd humbled in his new attire.
Everyone knew his father could not reside over the case, but would be in the front row of the courtroom. As Jesse walked up the isle, he met his father’s gaze and gave a small nod of acknowledgement.
You know when you’re little you want a secret hideout? That’s the best way to describe the school roof. It was like our clubhouse, only less little-kid. We found it one time when we were screwing around by the school. I think we had planned to spray paint something dirty in the grass, but got distracted by the fire escape. We climbed up to the roof that night and have been coming back ever since. We’re not always breaking the law when we’re up there, but that night was special. That night she was there. Like I said, she should have known what she was getting into before she got there. It’s not like we were going to hide who we were.
“Hey sweetie, whatcha’ think so far?” I wanted to test the waters first.
“Well, I don’t know. What do you guys actually do?” Exactly the response I wanted.
“Let me show you.”
She eyed the little package I pulled out of my backpack like it was going to bite her. She didn’t realize how close she actually was. After I got everything ready, I put the elastic band firmly around my arm. My veins were used to this by now, so finding one was no big deal. Within moments the needle was in and I was no longer just standing on the roof, but floating off of it. When I finally looked at her, she was shaking.
“Give me your arm.” I wanted to see how far she was willing to go.
“Honey, you were the one who asked to be here. Give me your arm.”
“Are you deaf or stupid? Give me your damn arm!”
“Jesse was right about you,” she stammered.
There was not much of a trial. No one saw what happened, or at least was willing to come forward with the truth. When Jesse was examined, his silence was still unbroken. Even the prosecuting attorney was so baffled that he probably would have preferred Jesse defend himself over winning the case. However, the courtroom crowd seemed to take his silence for guilt. They began to mock him as he walked to and from the courtroom. They called him a fake. Asked him why he even bothered pretending all those years. They taunted him by asking him why his daddy wasn’t helping him out. If he really was innocent, wouldn’t he just have daddy come to the rescue?
Jesse’s expression did not waiver. He never once returned the insults or defended himself. He took all of the taunting and abuse in great strides. A few townspeople saw this and were convinced of his innocence. They knew that this young man was sincere and began to tell everyone they knew that he was not guilty.
Jesse! Jesse was right!? Why would she bring him up now? I thought that I was free of him for the night, but apparently not. Just his name made my temper flare.
I took her arm with so much force that she gasped in pain. “You need to make a decision right now.”
Her eyes began to well up with tears. I thought she was crying because she didn’t want to chose, but when I looked down I noticed the bruises already starting to appear on her wrist. “He told me this wasn’t a good decision” she whispered between sobs, “now I know he was right.”
I couldn’t believe she chose that loser over us! Well, if that’s the way she wanted it, then fine. But I wasn’t going to let her go without a little parting gift. I reached down to grab the needle, but lost hold of her wrist in the process. She started to run towards the fire escape, but one of the guys got there first, blocking her exit. I came towards her. She backed away.
No matter how many insults he heard. No matter who pleaded. Jesse remained firm in his decision. He remained silent.
“I told you to make a choice. But you know there’re consequences for every decision, right?” She was to the edge of the roof. I grabbed her arm again. That time my grip was not as strong and when she struggled, my hand slipped.
I don’t remember climbing down the fire escape or running home or anything I did the rest of the night. But, I do remember looking back at that girl laying on the ground. She was supposed to get up. She was supposed to go home and pretend like nothing had happened. She didn’t. Then, out of no where, Jesse appeared. Maybe he was coming to stop us. I don’t think I’ll ever know. I watched him kneel beside her and hold her as she took her final breath.
Jesse was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Maybe in a big city, this would have been appealed, but small town excitement tends to overshadow all sense. He accepted the punishment freely and did not present any struggle or argument. Some wept at his comviction, others continued to mock him. Even years later, Jesse is the topic of many town conversations and the cause of many town arguments.
I sat in the front row during his entire trial. I know the story by heart. I saw him give up everything including his life for me; but, I said nothing. Silence. Ironic, huh? Silence is the one thing that most people remember about his trial. Not me. I remember the two almost inaudible sentences that he did utter. As he was being led out of the courtroom for the last time, he looked at his dad and whispered, “Dad, forgive him. He didn’t know what he was doing.”
My hands trembled, partly from nerves and partly from the rickety yellow school bus. I was five years old and on my way to a rainforest. Never having been out of the state of Nebraska, I was unsure of what I would find. I imagined rain pouring down like an April thunderstorm. I saw rivers running so extensively through the forest that we would have to tour in canoes. I imagined stopping in a pool of water so clear I could see the soft pebbles below and looking up at the trees, so thick that a grown man could not wrap his arms completely around. I pictured monkeys and crocodiles that were kind and talked just like the magical creatures in the cartoon, FernGully.
In reality, I never left Nebraska. At 123,000 square feet, the Lied Jungle at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is the world’s largest indoor rainforest, the zoo’s first exhibit in which guests are completely immersed into a habitat (“Lied Jungle”). As I approached the rainforest, it looked like every other building at the zoo. Even the entry way was unremarkable. It was a long hall with gray carpet and white walls decorated with photographs of trees. At the end of the hallway there was a set of sliding glass doors. They opened with a loud whoosh, allowing hot, muggy air to escape and surround my class.
As a child, I had an intense paranoia of drowning, so much so that even a sharp increase in humidity could send me into a panic attack. Imitating a real rainforest, the Lied Jungle simulated water vapor by releasing a fine mist from tree branches (“Lied Jungle”). Along with the intense heat, the increased humidity caught my attention as soon as the doors opened. As I walked further into the jungle, I became frightened by the difficulty I had breathing. I began to breathe deeper, but as my lungs filled, the pain in my chest increased. I had experienced the sensation of drowning, yet as stated in Robinson Crusoe,
Fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself, when apparent to the eyes; and we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about (122).
After a few moments, as it is with most people, my body was smarter than my brain. My instincts kicked in and soon I was breathing normally. It was ironic that I would lose my breath in a simulated rainforest, considering 20% of the world’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rainforest alone, giving it the nickname “The Lungs of our Planet” (“Rainforest Facts”).
I fought the desire to run from the exhibit to avoid another panic attack and began to regain control of my body. As I took note of my surroundings, I felt as though I had been transported to another country. I was enclosed in a glass dome, yet I could see miles of bright sapphire sky. Dirt paths led the way through coconut palm trees, orchids, African sausage trees, moss, bamboo, and Ylang Ylang trees. I had never experienced so much vegetative variety, nor had I seen many of the animal species. Spider monkeys swung from the branches made of fiberglass. A pygmy hippopotamus slept in the tan mud on the other side of thick hand-printed glass while a sloth slept upside down from a man-made vine. Howler monkeys shouted at the intruders and gibbons huddled in a tree above a Malayan tapir. I was amazed at the plethora of new plant and animal species I was encountering, yet the diversity of this synthetic habitat does not compare to the diversity of real rainforests. Of the entire Earth’s surface, rainforests cover less than 7%, yet they account for over half of its plants and animals with some estimates reaching 90% (“Rain Forest”).
It was in this jungle that I truly learned what the word habitat meant. I used to think that habitat meant a home for a certain species of animal. Now I know that it is much more than that. It is an interconnected network of plants and animals that perpetuates survival on both ends. It is a place, a pact, and a community. For example, fig trees and fig wasps could not live without one another. Fig wasps fly from tree to tree performing the pollination that allows the fig trees to remain alive. Fig trees provide a nursery for the fig wasp’s eggs and larvae that are necessary for fig wasp survival. Furthermore, snakewood trees have a similar relationship with army ants. The snakewood tree supplies the ants with shelter in its hollow stems and branches. The army ants protect the snakewood tree by marching out of their shelters and climbing up vines and animals that threaten the tree. (“Rain Forest”)
These interrelated networks do not stop with the plants and animals, because real habitats are not located in glass domes. According to Eric Chivian, M.D., Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School,
Everything we do that damages the environment — from degrading forests and coral reefs, to increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to releasing pollutants into soils and aquatic systems — ultimately ends up affecting living things.
Through pollution and deforestation, the rainforests are decreasing at a rate of 50 to 100 acres a minute and along with them, the plants and animals are also disappearing (“Rain Forest”). Even though stopping this massacre has not been considered to be of high importance throughout history, forests have had am impact on humanity since the beginning of time. Janet Arenofsky is a researcher in forests as well as liturgical texts. She describes climbing trees as spiritual and sensual, so it made sense for her to combine ecology and religion. Through the combination, she has found up to 20 varieties of trees and 328 uses of “tree” and “forest” in texts such as the Bible, Koran, and Talmud. In the Bible, in particular, tree references are found from the beginning of time with The Tree of Good and Evil though the denouement of creation with Jesus on the Cross (Arenofsky, 47-48). Trees play a very significant role in all cultures. Most people do not understand this importance but, there are a number of people who would give their lives for this cause.
One of those men, Francisco Alvo Mendes Filho, fondly known as Chico Mendes, spent his life working to protect Brazilian forests. As an activist and union leader, he sought to change the minds of most Brazilians who saw the forest as quick profit. Cattle ranchers in Brazil chop down forest lands to build pastures and are given tax benefits and direct subsides from the government for this deforestation. In 1988, 30 million acres of forests in Brazil were destroyed. This angered Mendes, who protested the government’s policies, eventually creating forest reserves. This work caused the cattle ranchers to see him as an enemy. A cattle rancher named Darli Alves da Silva decided to take the situation into his own hands, assassinating Mendes in 1988 (“Chico Mendes”).
We all face situations in which the consequences could be detrimental. However, it is how we handle those situations that proves our character. During my trip to the Lied Jungle, I had only regained normal breathing for a few minutes before I began to panic again. In a corner of the jungle, there was a swinging rope bridge. At five years old, it was the most terrifying thing I have ever had to walk on. Strung between large rocks, the bridge swung by a waterfall and crossed over a large pool of water. Thick twine held together water saturated logs used as floorboards and an even thicker rope used as a hand rail. My breath quickened with every step closer to the bridge. I was six inches shorter than the handrail and able to see through the ropes to the water below. Afraid I would slip through, I stood at the entrance with tears in my eyes.
In a single file line, my class began to cross the rope bridge. The children behind me were pushing me to move forward and I had no other choice but to begin to walk. I inched my way onto the first log. Grasping the twine with shaking hands, I took a few more steps over the water below. As I gained confidence with my ability to traverse safely, my steps got larger and larger. Then, the children walking behind me decided that it would be fun to shake the bridge. My heart beat faster and I stopped moving. I was unsure if I would be able to ever reach the other side or if I would fall through the twine to my death.
I knew that I could not remain on the bridge for the rest of the day. I was excited to see the rest of the exhibit. If I stayed on the bridge, I would have missed everything. In the end, my
fear was not strong enough to keep me from experiencing my field trip. Slowly, I reached for the next piece of twine. I took a step. Inch by inch, I made it across the rope bridge.
I have since returned to the Henry Doorly Zoo a number of times throughout my life. Each time, I return to the rope bridge and proudly walk across. It appears much smaller now, yet the same saturated logs and brown twine remain. Walking across, I am reminded of the fear and doubt of that first trip, yet the bridge has become a symbol of courage.
When I think of my experience in the Lied Jungle or of people like Chico Mendes, I remember that there are still many bridges that need crossing before our rainforests are finally save. We have acknowledged the problem and are now stuck in the middle of the bridge, afraid to move forward for fear of the consequences. However, we must continue to persevere. Fear is a colossal deterrent, but can be conquered if we remember that the potential reward is far greater than the potential dangers.
Arenofsky, Janet. “High on Conservation.” American Forests 113.1 (2007): 47-48.
Chivian, Eric, M.D. “Understanding the Link Between Human Health and Biodiversity.”
Defoe, Daniel. “Robinson Crusoe.” W. Taylor, 1719.
Lied Jungle. 2009. Henry Doorly Zoo. 3-8-09.
“Rain Forest.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia (2008): 3-8-09.
Rainforest Facts. 1996. Raintree Nutrition, Inc. 4-20-2009.
“Chico Mendes” Thinkquest.org. (1999): 3-9-09