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Learning and Surviving in the Land of the Harpy Eagle

ABA Blog,
Birding Book Reviews,
April 23 2016

A review by Julia Zarankin

On a Wing and a Prayer: One Woman’s Adventure Into the Heart of the Rain Forest, by Sarah Woods

Bloomsbury, 2015

272 pages, $27-hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14556

The problem with falling in love with wildlife, and with birds in particular, is the distressing accompanying narrative about the state of our planet, climate change, and habitat devastation. Becoming a birder implies a closer-than-desired acquaintanceship with the darker side of our natural world and, in many cases, the irreversible damage that we humans have inflicted upon it. To discuss birds without lamenting losses of numbers, imperiled species, and looming conservation problems is naive. Becoming a birder is not for the faint of heart.

What is remarkable about the award-winning British travel writer Sarah Woods’s On a Wing and a Prayer is that, without glossing over the environmental destruction in the wilds of the rainforest, she remains awed-and dare I say, optimistic. Woods’s world is one of wonder, and her narrative vividly demonstrates the fearlessness required to travel solo through the rugged terrain-with its attending wildlife splendor-of tropical American jungles.

While exploring some of the last large-scale jungle wildernesses, in Panama’s Darién National Park and in the Amazon, Woods takes the reader on a riveting journey that is much more than a travelogue: The book weaves together natural and colonial history, the current political climate, indigenous lifestyle and mythology, conservation trends and fiascos, wildlife observation, and self-discovery. Add to all that a personal quest to see Panama’s national bird, the “unicorn of the rainforest,” the elusive and formidable Harpy Eagle, and you have a barebones synopsis of On a Wing and a Prayer.

Make no mistake: This book is an impressively ambitious undertaking. In fact, the scope of Woods’s travel narrative is both its greatest strength and its weakness. As I read the book, I found myself wanting to regale everybody I encountered with curious jungle facts: pink dolphins swimming in the Amazon, the bathroom habits of two- and three-toed sloths, “trust games” between capuchin monkeys involving poking dirty fingers into one another’s eyeballs for up to an hour, fearless packs of white-lipped peccaries whose asphyxiating stench matches guerrilla fighters on the jungle terror scale. The experience of Woods”s prose is immersive. Her writing is vivid-perhaps, at times, crossing over into the sentimental-and the pace rarely falters. By the end of the book, I felt that I’d been transported to a place entirely other.

However, as I immersed myself in Panamanian jungles, Amazon journeys, venomous snakebites, stories of shape shifting, birth and death rituals, and drug cartels, I was no longer sure what held the book together. Woods writes with tremendous exuberance, and though it certainly kept me flipping pages, occasionally I found that exuberance unbridled, veering off in countless directions at once. The Harpy Eagle quest that frames the book would have been the logical thread to tie the strands together, but, sadly, it disappears part way through, only to make a dramatic reappearance at the end.

I hesitate to call this loss of focus a weakness, though, when Woods’s meandering narrative so effectively mirrors the actual chaos of the jungle. Nothing ever goes according to plan. In the Darién-Panama’s best-preserved rainforest, with more than 530 bird species, including the world’s largest concentration of Harpy Eagles-the tourist will witness the collision between modern commodities and indigenous customs, drug trafficking, and guerrillas. And yet all the human dangers, no matter how great, pale in face of the landscape’s untamable fauna: The wild animals, killer bees, scorpions, poisonous snakes, leeches, rabies, fungus, mosquitoes, and ticks that lurk here should be at the forefront of the traveler’s mind.

Everyone who comes here is blazing a trail and stepping, in some way, into an unknown. Even on the better-known paths, the leaf litter is so deep that a boot will sink down a good few inches with no clue of what may be lying beneath. In poor light, the mile-long trailing vines can ensnare, throttle, or choke. Breathing the air of the Darién is like inhaling steam. Exploring jungle wildlife requires a heightened level of mental and physical fitness.

Like the landscape Sarah Woods describes, the author herself has an untamable wild streak. Her mode of travel is obsessive, entirely immersive, and not without its share of danger and drama: a venomous snakebite, unnamed gray worms burrowing under her skin, a gun barrel pressed to her temple, near-catastrophic plane and boat trips. In spite of all that, Woods never sinks into cynicism: “I have always traveled in the belief that there is more good in the world than bad.” Her bravery, leaps of faith, and wonder at the natural world propel the book forward with excitement and energy, making up for the convoluted storyline.

Woods treads dense and wild terrains where few people would venture alone. One of the most surprising and moving episodes she narrates is a visit to Isla Coiba. Now a national park, the island was once known as Panama’s Alcatraz, and was home to the country’s most dangerous criminals. As it turns out, the island’s remaining prisoners “are every bit as hospitable as Coiba’s large population of nesting Scarlet Macaws,” and have now become first-rate bird rehabilitators.

Woods discovered the world of birds as she traveled through the rainforests. “I’m a professional traveler and an amateur birder, devoted to seeing the world and the wildlife that calls it home.” The sense of marvel she experiences at the sight of every new species captures the essence and thrill of birding. “Time is suspended when I watch a mother feed her chick, a birthing seal deliver her pup, a coral spawn, or a hawk fledge in South and Central America’s glossy, green jungles. It calms me, quiets me, soothes my restless spirit, and drives me on in my quest to voyage, explore and discover.”

There is absolutely nothing naive about Sarah Woods’s outlook on climate change and habitat loss. She doesn’t shy away from writing about the perils of deforestation, spraying, farming, and plowing highways through forests; we are in the midst of a catastrophic, calibrated destruction of rainforests that will have devastating consequences for the health of our planet.

On a Wing and a Prayer is a testament to boundless curiosity and the virtue of constant learning about the natural wonders that exist in our midst. I also read the book as a wake-up call: The jungles we’ve grown up with “as armchair travelers, visitors, or readers” are seriously under threat. The fantastical landscape that Woods has so vividly captured is in danger of becoming just that: a fantasy.

In a former life, Julia Zarankin was a university professor specializing in Russian literature. Today she lives, writes, teaches, and birds with gusto in Toronto. Her recent writings have appeared in such publications as Ontario Nature, The Threepenny Review, Antioch Review, PRISM, and Maisonneuve.

Recommended citation:

Zarankin, J. 2016. Learning and Surviving in the Land of the Harpy Eagle [a review of On a Wing and a Prayer, by Sarah Woods]. Birding 48 (2): 69-71.