To the Rainforest Room


The Allure of Easy Cheese

I’m in favor of Authenticity.

Maybe I should rephrase that.

I want everything in my life to be Authentic. I want to only eat Authentic Food and only have Authentic Experiences. When I travel, I want to travel authentically (hot air balloon, camel, steam railway). I want to meet Authentic People (family farmers, I think, are authentic people you meet in the Polka Barn at the Iowa State Fair, members of lost tribes, chain-smoking hairdressers named Betty). I want to think Authentic Thoughts.

Actually, Authenticity baffles me. I first wrestled with the notion about ten years ago, when I was researching a book about a purported anthropological hoax. The Tasaday were “discovered” in 1971 in the southern Philippines leading an authentically Stone Age existence. They lived in isolation in the rainforest, had no metal or cloth except what had been given them by a local hunter, wore leaves, carried around stone axes, and, most authentically, lived in caves. The Western world fell in love with them and soon the Tasaday graced the cover of National Geographic and were the subject of countless breathless news accounts. No one could be more authentic than the Tasaday until 1986, when a freelance journalist from Switzerland hiked unannounced into their forty-five-thousand-acre reserve and was told through a translator that the famous Tasaday were nothing more than a group of farmers who had been coerced by greedy Philippine government officials into pretending to be cavemen.

My task was to unravel the mystery, to discover whether they were in fact a bald hoax or a modern-day version of our Pleistocene ancestors.

Before giving you the definitive answer, I’d like to interrupt this essay to bring you a word about Easy Cheese. If given a choice between the inauthentic (Easy Cheese!) and the authentic (cave-aged cheddar cheese from Cheddar, England, where it was invented a thousand years ago), I usually go for the authentic, unless of course I want Easy Cheese because sometimes that’s what you want. This problem dates back to when I was in boarding school in 1974 and someone handed me a Triscuit (Original Flavor) topped with a vivid orange floret extruded from a can. What can I say? It tasted great. How can we hope to live authentically when we have been compromised by prior experience?

With that out of the way, we may proceed.

The Tasaday were neither Authentic Cavemen nor a hoax designed to fool the naïve public. They were, in fact, a poor band of forest dwellers whose ancestors had fled into the rainforest a hundred and fifty years earlier to escape a smallpox epidemic. They became Pseudo-Archaics (a term used by Claude Lévi-Strauss) and lived more or less unmolested until they were “discovered” and made poster children for authenticity, chewed around for a while in the imaginations of the fickle public, and then shat out onto authenticity’s midden.

From time to time, I read sentiments like this: “For a few hours I lived in an alternative Africa, an Africa governed by a quiet glee and an innocent love of nature,” and I think your quiet glee, buddy, your innocent love of nature. This sentence, by the way, is an authentic quote from an actual essay that appeared in a recent travel anthology. When I read it, I could get no further. I wondered what the writer thought he was doing experiencing his quiet glee in this alternative Africa? This sentimentalization of “Primitive Man” in harmony with nature seems akin to a hunter praising the pristine beauty of an elk head he’s shot and mounted. The hunter can move but the elk can’t. The authenticity tourist can and will depart the rainforest, leaving behind his tourist dollars and those irrepressibly authentic Africans twittering their gleeful songs on their kalimbas.

Nature declawed, stuffed, mounted. What then do we really want from the Authentic Destinations of our imaginations? And how do our perceptions of them differ from the Real Thing? When we think of an unspoiled place, how much do we need to strip away before we reach the desired level of authenticity? Strip Hawai‘i of its inauthentic fauna and you’re left mostly with bats.

The idea of an authentic place implies an unchanging one, which also makes it an impossibility.

My experience with the Tasaday has rendered me hyperaware of the aura of desperation and melancholy surrounding our common need for the Authentic, especially in regard to Place and People. Call it a sixth sense. If I were a superhero, this might be my special power, though it might also be my singular weakness, my kryptonite, which was, after all, the only thing that could kill Superman, a chunk of authenticity from a home planet he could barely remember. And no wonder — because neither he nor his home planet ever existed, except in our minds, where they continue to exist, and powerfully so.

And so I present for your further confusion, if not edification, three rainforests.


Lied Rainforest: Omaha, Nebraska

Overlooking the second-largest waterfall in Nebraska, I wish that I could meet the plumber of this fifty-foot marvel. I asked to meet the plumber, but my request, I guess, was not taken seriously, and so I’ve had to make do with the director of the Henry Doorly Zoo, Danny Morris. I suppose I had some doubts about visiting one of the world’s largest indoor rainforests before I showed up (yes, there are others). So what if a paradise tanager settles on a branch here? It’s still Omaha outside.

Why would anyone go to the bother of bringing the rainforest to Nebraska? It’s my theory that Nebraska has developed a severe case of landscape envy.

Arbor Day: invented by a Nebraskan.

The only man-made national forest (Halsey National Forest) is in Nebraska.

The word Nebraska originates from an Oto Indian word meaning flat water.

People of my generation will remember with fondness the weekly TV show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, starring Marlin Perkins, which ran from 1963 to 1985 and gave most Americans their first exposure to the conservation movement. Perkins might not have been from Nebraska (though he was a midwesterner), but Mutual of Omaha, the show’s proud sponsor, certainly was. It may be the most logical thing in the world that a state as mono-diverse as Nebraska would be infatuated with exotic flora and fauna. If the rainforest is the closest thing on Earth to the Garden of Eden, to which we always hold out hope for our eventual return, Nebraskans may simply be looking for a shortcut.

Perhaps that’s what drove the Henry Doorly Zoo’s former director, Lee Simmons, to bring the rainforest to Omaha. Simmons had traveled to many rainforests around the world, because a zoo such as Henry Doorly typically has a research component to its mission. In fact, in the actual disappearing rainforest of Madagascar, the zoo’s staff and interns have discovered twenty-one previously unknown types of lemurs. One day, Simmons and others, including Danny Morris, taped two whiteboards together, set a perimeter, and started drawing things they’d like to have in their rainforest, including of course, the waterfall and a swinging bridge, de rigueur in any rainforest worth its mist.

Yes, it was planned, and yet planned to look unplanned, so that you might experience the rainforest as authentically as possible without the fear of lawsuits. In the jungle you hardly know what is in front of you and then you turn a corner and see a waterfall or monkeys in a tree, and Simmons wanted to replicate that sense so that you’ll never be sure what you’ll find. Yes, of course, it’s simulated, but at the same time “accurate.” Simmons sent his “tree artists” to the Costa Rican rainforest. “You could tell the difference when they got back,” Morris says. “Their trees were a lot better.”

Consequently, in the Lied Rainforest there are no surprises, and yet everything is surprising.

The white noise of water cascading from the waterfall is designed to mask the shrill voices of schoolchildren on their outings, as well as the many life-support systems required by the ninety or so subtropical species living within its 1.5 indoor acres. The eighty-foot tree in the center of the rainforest, cutting through its various levels, is made of polyurethane-reinforced concrete and is hollow, acting as a giant air duct, recirculating warm air from the ceiling of the eight-story-tall rainforest in the winter and venting it in the summer. The paths, a mixture of dirt and rock wool, which acts as a stabilizer, are roto-tilled. Walk up an artificial cliff to Danger Point, lean against the bamboo fence, and it wobbles to give the impression that it might give way at any minute. It won’t. The bamboo is set on steel pegs. Gibbons, hidden in the foliage, hoot like kids. Scarlet macaws perch on palm logs beside the epoxy tree they’ve vandalized by chewing on its branches. Bats fly free in the building, and arapaima, grown from twelve inches, loll in their pools, resembling manatees.

All of it seems authentic in most respects but happily inauthentic in others. At six p.m. or so, when the zookeepers open the doors of the holding pens, the animals are there waiting patiently to go in for the night, clocking out, as it were, for supper. And no one’s threatening to put a road through Lied jungle. No one’s mining for gold. If we lost as much of the Lied Rainforest today as we will of the Amazon, the Lied would be gone by tomorrow. And that, of course, is a large part of the point.

“You can watch all the National Geographic and Discovery Channel you want,” Morris says as we pause in front of a curtain fig with its labyrinth of roots that kids can climb through. “But you need to smell it, hear it, and feel the heat. When you put all that together, it makes a more lasting memory.”

So what if this tree is in finely fitted segments that are keyed for easy removal and reassembly?

Morris frets that, in the age of Google when everything is at our fingertips, nothing is actually touched, and the idea of the rainforest will become ever more remote to Nebraskans, as will the notion of anything authentic at all. He’s noticed fewer field trips from the local schools (Morris himself started at the zoo over thirty years ago as a volunteer Explorer Scout). And the zoo staff has been talking recently of adding to the exhibits a Nebraska Farm because so few Nebraskans have ever set foot on a real farm.

But doesn’t the word authentic lose all meaning if applied too liberally? What is an authentic cup of decaffeinated coffee? An authentic polyester suit? What are the essential properties of an authentic family farm? An authentic family farm would seem to need — now I’m just speculating here — a family running it, rather than the well-meaning staff of a zoo. But that might just be me.

Morris and I walk effortlessly from the rainforest canopy to the riverbed, across three continents, passing pythons and other creatures we wouldn’t likely see in the real rainforest and would actually hope to avoid. In this rainforest, the one thing you must not do is step off the path, but if you do step over the little rope you might just turn a corner and find something completely unexpected: an EXIT sign above a garage door big enough to drive a truck through.

We walk across a bat guano minefield, through a smaller door next to the garage door, and come upon a wide tunnel ringing the complex that seems straight out of a James Bond film. We’ve dropped into an entirely different realm now. The green EXIT sign, the garage door, and suddenly we’re confronted by, what? No evil henchmen, no jungle drug lab, but wading pools, animal toys, a reverse-osmosis system, and doors that seem like metaphysical portals: one says “South America,” another, “Malaysia.” It’s here in these rooms, the holding pens for the animals, that the pretense of authenticity drops away. These rooms are the Lied Rainforest equivalent of the actor’s dressing room and Morris enters respectfully, not wanting to encroach on the animals’ down time, but also concerned that a Francois’ langur monkey might snatch my glasses. But the black monkey with its bulging abdomen regards me from its wildness, sees that I am of no importance to its world, and ignores me. Somehow, this moment of disregard strikes me as the most authentic of the day.


Arajuno Jungle Lodge: Ecuador

From a motorized dugout canoe on the Arajuno River, I see a mostly unbroken screen of foliage on either bank. A woman does laundry on one muddy bank while her naked toddler squats and plays. A couple of men run a machine in the water, dredging for gold. They can make up to $150 a day for about six grams. The river flows swiftly after several days of rain. A young man perched in the bow of the canoe, barefoot, wears a muddy t-shirt and shorts. He sees the same scene every day, and yet he seems mesmerized by it, as though the river is someone he has recently fallen hopelessly in love with, or perhaps he’s daydreaming of his real beloved, waiting for the right spot where he can get a signal on his cell phone and text her. We pass a young man in the river fishing with a net. Ten years ago, before my companion in the canoe, Tom Larson, arrived, the man might have used dynamite to fish instead.

A wheelbarrow and two giant bamboo saplings that Tom is donating to the community of Mirador for erosion control lie in the canoe beside us. The canoe is the local taxi service, so we’re also joined by a woman in her twenties who has been to the market. We pull up to a heavily forested bank — her stop. The woman, a Kichwa Indian like most of the locals here, gathers her belongings: a backpack, a large white sack, a live chicken she dangles by its ankles in front of her. Two children and another woman descend the fern-lined embankment to give her a hand, one child reaching into the canoe and grabbing the real treasure, a liter bottle of Coke.

We pull away again and soon pass a sight that seems nearly as incongruous as a garage door in the middle of a jungle. A billboard protected with a thatched roof sits in a mostly denuded spot on the sandy bank, a few desultory banana plants growing beside it. The billboard shows a local official nicknamed Ushito, smiling broadly and giving the thumbs-up sign. Behind the trees, barely out of sight and parallel to the river, bulldozers have recently carved out a muddy track that will someday be a road connecting indigenous communities that until now have been connected mainly by the river. The road is one of Ushito’s campaign promises. And today is Election Day. In jungles like this, roads tend to lead to deforestation, formerly inaccessible tracts of old growth being too tempting for illegal loggers to ignore. But labeling them “illegal loggers” makes them sound foreign. For the most part they’re locals, though the buyers they’re selling to are not.

When we reach Mirador, invisible from the shore, the bamboo plants are unloaded with the help of the canoe’s pilot and a couple of local boys. Tom, wearing his typical uniform — Arajuno Jungle Lodge cap, t-shirt, cargo pants, and sturdy rubber boots — instructs the men in Spanish what to do with the bamboo. The fastest-growing bamboo in the world, these saplings, already seven feet tall, will grow into bamboo Godzillas in a short while.

In his mid-fifties and wearing wire rims, Tom speaks softly and has the bearing of someone who has nothing to prove but can easily prove anything he wants to prove, a lifetime of conservation knowledge always at the ready. When Larson first landed in the area in the late ’90s and purchased the eighty-eight hectares that became Arajuno Jungle Lodge (sixty-five hectares of primary growth and the rest secondary), a multihued paradise tanager landed on a nearby branch, and Tom took this as an omen. This is paradise, he thought. A former U.S. National Park Service employee and Peace Corps official with a master’s from the University of Idaho in environmental interpretation, Tom Larson has been trying to balance the books between paradise and “progress” ever since. Over time, the Arajuno Jungle Lodge has transformed from a personal project to save a small swath of rainforest to an eco-lodge and now a nonprofit foundation dedicated to helping the locals earn a living while not destroying their birthright in the process.

Hence, the fast-growing bamboo that we’ve transported to Mirador, which not only controls erosion, but can be used as building material and its young shoots eaten. Several days before my arrival, some university students from Canada and the U.S. planted this same variety of bamboo on the western edge of Tom’s eighty-eight hectares as a clearly visible boundary. “You’ll probably be able to see it from satellites when it’s grown,” he says. His property abuts the Jatun Sacha Reserve, two thousand hectares of rainforest, where on any given day you can find people cutting down trees (and through which cuts yet another road, this one eight kilometers long, despite a toothless legal ruling saying it shouldn’t be there). Tom’s bamboo boundary is in part to let everyone know quite clearly that this is Tom’s part of the forest. No one, no one local at least, would cut one of Tom’s trees.

In the Make-of-It-What-You-Will Department: Tom Larson was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.

The center of Mirador is deserted when we arrive after a short hike along a muddy and tangled path. Tom thinks perhaps they’ve formed a minga, a work party, and are off helping someone build or paint something. A field of grass defines the place, surrounded by a sparse and unevenly spaced ring of huts, some thatched, some roofed with tin. Tom points out the local school. A couple times a year, a group of students from the U.S. comes to Mirador and adjacent Santa Barbara to do projects. This year the students painted the school. Tom leads me across the field to check on some solar panels languishing inside the small building. The residents used the panels, donated by a Spanish group several years ago, to power their cell phones, but the storage batteries have since died.

Along a muddy path cutting through waist-high grass, we hike back to the river and hitch a ride in a canoe across to Santa Barbara, where Tom wants to show me the results of the aquaculture project he initiated. Tom started the project because, well, the dynamite blasts were “scaring the shit” out of the eco-tourists at his lodge. First rule of eco-tourism: keep dynamite blasts to a minimum.

What would it take to stop you from blasting the river? he asked the locals, and they said they’d stop dynamiting the fish out of the water if they had their own supply of fish. So Tom, in partnership with the Peace Corps and with help from local residents, built twelve fish ponds in four communities. The Arajuno Jungle Foundation and the Peace Corps supplied the first five hundred fingerlings of cachama (a native fish) and tilapia (the ubiquitous supermarket fish), plus two one-hundred-pound bags of fish food. After that, the communities were on their own. Tom sent out word that anyone caught fishing with dynamite would never get assistance of any kind from Arajuno. Dynamite fishing has been reduced by 90 percent, he claims. Additionally, the Arajuno Jungle Foundation (whose board is made up exclusively of Nebraskans) built the water system for the ponds with Peace Corps assistance and built another system to bring water to the village.

When you imagine a rainforest pool, it’s almost certain that you do not imagine the fish ponds of Santa Barbara. These utilitarian holes have been gouged between huts with planks and muddy paths running between them, PVC and hoses snaking all around. One woman wears a t-shirt with the smiling face of Ushito! She scatters fish food on the still surface of her pond, and hundreds of two-month-old fingerlings swim to the surface — all tilapia, because cachama fingerlings cost more and are somewhat more difficult to care for. The people in Santa Barbara don’t really seem to worry that cachama are indigenous (and thereby authentic) while the tilapia are not.

A couple of ponds look dirty. One that wouldn’t hold water has been turned into a muddy volleyball court. Another is empty because its drunken owner fell out of his canoe and drowned.

In the center of the village, we sit with a few local men and chat. The most talkative is Jaime, who has a reputation as a drunk, but he’s a good-natured drunk. He offers us chonta, the red palm fruit that appears once a year, about the size and shape of a Roma tomato, and begins thanking Tom profusely for helping them with their fish and saying how proud he is of his community that they have stopped dynamiting the river. Jaime, who appears to have been swilling local hooch all afternoon, gives me the thumbs-up sign. So do his companions. “Ushito!” they all yell in unison.

Back at the Arajuno Jungle Lodge, I’m enjoying an afternoon of quiet glee, swinging innocently in a hammock overlooking the river. Tom flips through a copy of The New Yorker I brought with me. He asks if I’d like to watch Pink Floyd’s The Wall sometime this week? Sure. Why not? That’s what I came to the rainforest for. The guide who brought me here from Quito, Jonathan, who grew up in Ecuador, but whose parents are American, lolls like me in a hammock.

“You hear that?” Tom says.

At first I don’t, but then a faint whine separates itself from the birds and the river. “That’s the sound of progress,” he says.

Jonathan looks up, listens, says, “There’s three of them at least,” meaning three men working chainsaws somewhere in the forest.

“I used to stop what I was doing when I heard chainsaws and investigate,” Tom says, bringing beers for all of us to two long picnic tables near the hammocks. “But why should I put my head on the chopping block when they’re not going to do anything anyway?”

By “they,” he means his neighbor and much bigger reserve, Jatun Sacha. By “chopping block,” he means getting shot or blown up. He’s found dynamite on the hood of his car before. Last year, a park guard was shot. A bullet grazed his head and when the police came to arrest the gunman, they found themselves in a standoff with the man’s many armed supporters, most of them from Santa Barbara. The police turned and ran.

“I’ve gone to Jatun Sacha how many times?” Tom says. “If you go on any Thursday they’re cutting down trees to sell at the bridge in San Pedro on Friday. I’ve told Alejandro, ‘I don’t even mention this to you anymore because you never do anything.’ ‘I don’t do anything,’ he says, ‘because I can’t do anything. The police don’t do anything. The Ministry of the Environment doesn’t do anything.'”

Alejandro, whom I’ve met, is the director of Jatun Sacha. With his shoulder-length hair, thin mustache, and tired eyes, he looks a bit like Don Quixote, which is probably not an entirely inappropriate comparison. Jatun Sacha sold the right of way for an oil pipeline to run through the reserve, and, in exchange, two community internet centers were constructed that allowed eighteen people to finish high school. He’s doing the best he can. And by “the best he can,” I mean he wins Pyrrhic victories.

But if the notion of compromise isn’t native to the rainforest, it has certainly taken hold here, kicking notions of authenticity from the nest. The tourist who clings desperately to the latter might console himself briefly with the idea that authenticity is a man-made concept (like Easy Cheese!). Before this was a rainforest, it was an ocean. Was it more authentic then? Notions of authenticity themselves are a kind of invasive species.

In any event, there’s no way to keep commerce and its insatiable appetites at bay for long. A new international airport in Tena, fifteen minutes from Arajuno, is slated to open soon. Ushito’s road will continue being built across the river, but won’t likely be finished before the next election. Once the road is complete, Tom contends, the forest will go.

“If I were to oppose that road,” Tom says, “my name would be mud around here.” Instead, he effects what positive change he can. His teeming fish ponds are stocked with giant cachama and handia as well as native turtles he plans to restock in the river. And Arajuno bustles with projects for the community. A ceramics workshop. A workshop to train rainforest guides. A project to create medicinal plant gardens for indigenous communities. Even a French chef, training local women to cook meals using native plants for eco-tourists at the various lodges in the region. My imagination takes flight and I envision pan-seared cachama with a chonta ragout. In this way, it’s not just bellies that get fed, but fantasies, too, what we might call the Paradise of Cell Phone Coverage for the people of Santa Barbara, and what we might call the Paradise of Accessible Inaccessibility for the rest of us. A Paradise of Roadless Places with a way for us to enter. A Paradise of Contradictions.


The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area Rainforest and Scenic Railway: Katoomba, Australia

The Indiana Jones theme song welcomes me to my third and final rainforest, as I and about sixty other tourists, the largest contingent from China, crowd into a funicular that is open on all sides and covered with a green, cagelike mesh. To gain access to the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area Rainforest and Scenic Railway, I purchased a ticket in the gift shop that entitled me to plunge, via the steepest funicular railway in the world, down to the forest floor and ride the Sceniscender, the steepest cable car in Australia, back up whenever I have seen enough to warrant the price of admission. And that will be whenever that invisible gauge in me that craves authenticity hits full.

I consider this a Bonus Rainforest, like an offer in which you buy two rainforests and get the third for free. Truthfully, I stumbled upon it. An hour ago, I was in suburban Australia, on a pleasant and tame street in the town of Katoomba, in a house overlooking a garden. But now I am caged and strapped into my seat on my way down the side of a mountain. In the spirit of adventure, I’m even wearing my Arajuno Jungle Lodge souvenir cap.

I’m visiting Katoomba on a retreat of sorts, the nature of which isn’t important, except that it involves spending most of my time indoors, chatting amicably with a group of Australian writers, most of whom ask me daily if I’ve had the chance “to take a stroll down the path to the overlook!” Not one of them told me there was a rainforest there. You’d think this was something one ought to mention. Admittedly, one of them did describe it as “like the Grand Canyon but with trees.”

Until now, Katoomba has seemed like another tourist town the likes of Park City, Utah, or Asheville, North Carolina, with sloping streets, pleasant houses, grocery stores, boutiques, and restaurants, and quaint architectural landmarks, in this case the grand Carrington Hotel, built in the late 1800s. To learn why it has the feel of a tourist town, go down Katoomba Street to Echo Point Road until you find yourself, almost without warning, facing an overlook as impressive as any in the world. Suburbia suddenly ends and a kind of prelapsarian fantasy begins as you gaze out upon seemingly endless miles of mountains, replete with rainforests and waterfalls and the giant stone pillars known as the Three Sisters. It is indeed like the Grand Canyon but with trees.

If someone had just uttered the magic word rainforest, I would have dropped everything to experience its majesty.

The exhibit, if we might refer to nature that way, can be found at the end of the funicular ride, where, upon disembarking, I find myself on a boardwalk surrounded by railings to protect the flora and fauna from me, as one sign admits. The forest floor is dominated by gum trees and a Chinese tour group with a harried, flag-waving guide who wants everyone to stay together. I want to get away from them, not because they’re Chinese, but because they’re human, and one of the reasons I go to the rainforest is to get away. I don’t want to hear Chinese or English or French spoken. If in Ecuador, I want to hear the three low whistles of the undulated tinamou, a floor-dweller the size of a pheasant, answered by the longer and higher whistle of the little tinamou. If in Omaha, I want to hear the roar of a fifty-foot waterfall drown out hordes of schoolchildren. Here, I’d like at least a kookaburra with its almost stereotypical jungle call, the avian equivalent of Ooh ee ooh ah ah, ting tang walla walla bing bang.

I run down the boardwalk, pursued at a brisk pace by the Chinese. Signs along the path identify various plants, but I hardly have time to note them. I stop briefly at a blueberry ash, with its cluster of drooping white flowers, and also at a gray mound, a giant termite’s nest, “home to a million termites or white ants.” Ahead of me, a man speaks softly into his digital camera’s microphone while jogging at a good clip and pointing the camera at the forest canopy. His efficiency and his lung capacity impress me, and I run after him just to see if I can keep up. His wife, also jogging, glances over her shoulder at me, seemingly alarmed, and I fall back. I would love to chat with them to ask why they’re jogging as they film, how they think they’ll remember this experience, but I’m too out of breath.

At a crossroads, one sign points to the Sceniscender, which will lift me away from this place and back to suburbia, but I’m not ready to be lifted. TO THE RAINFOREST ROOM, another sign proclaims, pointing in the opposite direction, and I think yes, “Tally ho! To the Rainforest Room!” I imagine a jungle glen, a stream, a twittering canopy in dappled light.

Ahead of me is an octagonal, open-sided building made of the kind of wood you’d build your back deck out of, with twelve benches and a trash can in the middle. I sit down on one of the benches across from three young Australian women and one man, taking a breather.

“I think she’s pretty,” one of the women announces.

“No, not at all,” the man beside her says.

“I think she’s pretty in a European way,” she says.

“No, not at all,” he insists.

A sound separates from the conversation — faintly in the distance, not a chainsaw, but a plane, its insect whine claiming the empty space it glides across.

The Australians stand up to leave.

“I’d come back here,” one of the women says.

“Not me,” says the man. “No toilets.”

I spot, a little way up the path, a flag waving frantically, drawing closer.

Half an hour later, the Sceniscender lifts me and about fifty other people back to the familiar world. We ride up and out of the jungle — past the Three Sisters, past a defunct roller coaster that was built over the gorge but never officially opened — and are delivered directly into the maw of the inevitable gift shop. Here, I can purchase any number of didgeridoos, placemats, and coffee mugs decorated with aboriginal art, stuffed toy wallabies, and outback hats. I resist.

Stepping out into the parking lot, I find myself thinking about how often our idea of what’s real differs from what’s actually there. And about how certain concepts persist in our consciousness long after they’ve disappeared. When the Dutch killed the last dodo on Mauritius in the 1600s, the idea of the dodo did not cease to exist. It became the poster bird for all creatures that are too stupid to save themselves. Still, any loss over time becomes more bearable. I can’t authentically experience a dodo, but I can imagine it. I can Google a dodo, and in this sense get closer to a dodo than most people did who were alive when dodos still existed. And though dodos no longer walk the earth, I saw a real dodo foot at the British Museum when I was eleven.

Maybe everything authentic eventually winds up an exhibit. Worse, maybe everything authentic eventually winds up depicted on a shot glass in a gift shop. Maybe the very idea of authenticity implies extinction. For the record, I’m not in favor of extinction. Here’s one test: if you want to replicate it but can’t, it’s probably authentic. So maybe authenticity is something to be wished for, catalogued, but never owned. Something we can’t quite pin down, but nevertheless yearn for. Something that, for a while anyway, can keep at bay the nightmare of a globe covered with polyurethane trees and inhabited by wild animals who clock out every evening.

Robin Hemley is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and many other awards, including the Nelson Algren Award for Fiction from The Chicago Tribune, and three Pushcart Prizes in both fiction and nonfiction. He has published 11 books and his stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and many literary magazines and anthologies. Robin received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and directed the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa for nine years. He is currently Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Writing Program at Yale-NUS in Singapore.


  1. The truth sparkles through this superb treaties on authentica. I chuckled as I admired the authentic desert landscape recreated for my convenient observation here in Arizona.

  2. What was Mistah Kurtz (in “Heart of Darkness”) in quest of? What did he encounter? Is there any darkness left?

  3. Henry — Wiki’s article gives some light and some darkness on Conrad’s novel.

  4. This was a quite brilliant article. I wonder, though: where do you go from here? Because it made me feel paralyzed, a feeling I often feel whenever I examine my laughable suburban assumptions about the world. I say paralyzed instead of corrected, because I don’t yet know how to balance the yearning I feel for a good world with the reality of that world. It often seems as a white, wealthy, global norther (insert any other epithet here), I can only mess things up, even when I try to un-mess the mess my predecessors made. So we can be witty about authenticity, but how do we act when both acting and not acting feels wrong?

  5. Ashley — That you read Orion is a good sign. That you made this comment on Orion is an even better sign that you are interested in learning more, so that any actions you might choose to take would be truly helpful, and not useless or counterproductive. Part of moving towards activism is to learn to see what is really happening in the world, as opposed to the cosmetic versions that your government, mainstream media, and corporate advertising and spin are busy feeding people. Tune in to Democracy Now, Truthdig, and other investigative websites to get a clearer understanding of what our problems are, and what various folks are doing to help. Out of that enquiring process you will find the things you can do to help. Welcome aboard, and happy hunting!

  6. Your article was spot on.
    The rainforest in Omaha at the zoo is truly amazing and should be on the must see list for all interested in the greater world.
    A trip to see our old high school friend’s Arajuno Lodge in Ecuador is on our must do list. Tom Larson truly is working to make that piece of Earth a better place for the natives and to carve out a piece of utopia for himself and he loves to share it with others. We encourage everyone to plan a trip to his ecolodge-he tells us we won’t be disappointed and that it is doable even for 50 something lightweights from Nebraska.
    Linda and Bill, Panama, NE

  7. To be authentic is to work with your hands, observe the results, think about & evaluate the results over time, adjust, do again, share your results. Authenticity is indeed very personal, and I have a hard time evaluating other people’s work as authentic but Tom Larson’s life at the Arajuno Lodge seems close to me.

  8. Thanks for those authentic stories! Well, I also escaped the light gravity of Sydney once on the train to Katoomba on a rainy day last November, and in the pouring rain I elected not to do the funicular but rather headed out on what looked like a reasonable 10 mile round trip hike off the escarpment. Didn’t see a soul the whole day practically, and had a good taste of some heavy hiking (slippery rocks!) and some truly rugged terrain (speaking as an experienced hiker from the US west). I did end up at the base of the funicular, but it had closed at 4 pm, and the boardwalk consequently was deserted aside from a couple ill-equipped folks in dress clothes. I left a sizable puddle in the restaurant I stopped at late in the evening on my way back into Katooomba, along with shedding a leech on the floor of the train back home, and found a boot full of blood from the hole he left in my leg. It was raining, it was a forest, it was what it was, a rain forest. All life-forms distort the surrounding energy field, more or less. If it’s not Ye Olde Gift Shoppe, it’s a guy with an AK-47 or, well, just a hungry blood-sucking annelid. Life cannot alter the fact that, by sheer presence, it changes the world.

  9. Loved this article so much I was inspired to write about it:

    Here’s a piece of that:

    We did end up driving further north and camped in the dunes on a lonely beach. But while I pulled my paddle again and again through the North Atlantic that weekend, I thought a lot about authenticity, mostly in terms of working landscapes. The reason Chebeague Island hadn’t appealed to me – had disconcerted me even – was because it was devoid of the people who, upon working a place, leave their thumbprint firmly upon it. Lobster traps and buoys may be no better a gauge for “realness” than Walmarts and gas stations – or, for that matter, than vacation homes and yacht clubs – but they are decisively indicative of an industry that engages with the place from which it and it alone has emerged.

    On the Maine or Alaskan coast, maybe this means fishing. Wrangell, Alaska was at first an ugly place to me filled with ugly buildings. But then it became a real place, full of people who tip their bartenders with crab legs and tell Tlingit stories to get through the winters and drink cheap beer on their boats in the neverending summer nights. When I got to the town of Sitka later on, it seemed so prettified as to not fit in with the logging-scarred, fishy-smelling landscape I’d come to know. …

    “Stepping out into the parking lot,” Hemley writes, “I find myself thinking about how often our idea of what’s real differs from what’s actually there. And about how certain concepts persist in our consciousness long after they’ve disappeared.”

    In the margin, I scrawl, “I’m as guilty as anyone. I like to travel, and when I travel, I want to see something that makes the time and expense worth it: I want to see something ‘real.’ So, maybe, I have this image in my head of what a ‘real’ place looks like – based on history, books, movies or stereotypes – and this concept persists, coloring what I choose to see, where I focus my camera lens. Does that eventually make the other stuff I see fake? And if so, do I end up blocking it out, putting on blinkers, creating my own myopic version of reality?”

  10. A lovely article, but I do have one quibble. While your experience of the temperate rainforests of the Blue Mountains sound very disappointing, I am surprised that you didn’t venture even slightly off the tourist path to see the same rainforest at any one of dozens of other less-touristy spots. Surely if you are as interested in authenticity as you claim you would go to that much effort?

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