Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2021-22 Project Fellows.
About two and a half years ago, in the early stages of writing a book about the coevolution of Earth and life, I began planning a reporting trip to a remote research station in the heart of the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil. The station, known as the Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (ATTO), comprises a series of metal containers that function as laboratories, as well as several research towers equipped with scientific instruments that sample the air. The station’s most famous feature, the one everyone wants to see (and climb), is a 325-meter tower—the tallest structure in South America. Scientists from around the globe visit ATTO to study the relationship between the rainforest and atmosphere, including how the forest alters local weather and global climate. I was hoping to accompany some of them to learn more about these fascinating interactions.
By late 2019, I was scheduled to visit ATTO the following March. Then, in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began. After weeks of anxiously monitoring the situation, I decided to cancel the trip. Shortly thereafter, the research station officially closed its doors to media and remained closed to most visitors, including many scientists, for the greater part of the following two years. In the fall of 2021, shortly after I began a 9-month appointment as a Knight Science Journalism Project Fellow to support my book, the station began preparing to resume some of its usual activities. Earlier this year, thanks in large part to the patience and generosity of the ATTO staff and several visiting researchers, I was able to reschedule the trip.
Getting to ATTO was an adventure in and of itself. In mid-April, I took a series of connecting flights from Portland, Oregon to Manaus, Brazil. From there, several scientists and I drove about four hours northeast: first on highways with massive potholes that cars and trucks had to swerve to avoid, then on rural dirt roads that had repeatedly flooded, forming mud pits and small lakes. We continued the journey by boat, traveling another two hours along a tributary of the Amazon River to a small, unassuming dock. Two signs in Portuguese marked the site as part of a protected area where it was illegal to fish, hunt, forage, cut down trees, or trespass. We piled our luggage and gear into pickup trucks and drove another 45 minutes on rough dirt roads into the rainforest, finally arriving at the research station. The camp was centered around a kitchen, mess hall, and a screened room filled with hammocks where everyone slept. A few trails and boardwalks linked the camp to the research towers and container labs.
Although I was immensely relieved and excited to have made it to ATTO, I knew there were more hurdles ahead. First there was the daunting prospect of climbing the tower. In addition to being intimidatingly tall, it had no foolproof barrier to prevent someone from falling. It was essentially a wide-gapped staircase enclosed in a sturdy but highly porous scaffolding. To ascend the tower, one had to carefully navigate the staircase while tethered to a spiral railing. Even with a harness and safety gear, it was possible to misstep, fall through a gap, and break a limb. In some cases, visitors had been paralyzed by fear part way up, requiring convoluted procedures to safely return them to the ground. Although I’d never been particularly afraid of heights, I’d also never climbed such a tall, barebones structure. I worried I might start to panic somewhere along the way.
Another challenge was the constant threat of inclement weather. Weather in the Amazon rainforest is mercurial. During the wet season, you can be certain it will rain, but knowing precisely when it will rain and for how long is next to impossible. Several times during my weeklong stay, the skies seemed to open without warning, unleashing torrents of astonishing intensity. When it’s raining hard—and especially during a thunderstorm—the tower is even more dangerous than usual. I knew that if it remained too cloudy and rainy during my brief visit, I might not have a chance to climb the tower, and that if it started to rain as we were climbing, we might have to turn back before reaching the top. After the second consecutive day of frequent and heavy rains, I was quite anxious.
Fortunately, the following morning was clear and sunny. I joined a group of visiting scientists for a safety tutorial near the base of the tower. We strapped on climbing harnesses and hard hats and entered our information in an electronic log. As soon as I started climbing, adrenaline and exhilaration replaced all fear. It took approximately an hour to reach the top, with a few stops along the way to rest and check on various instruments. Standing on the observation deck, about 300 meters above the forest canopy—literally halfway to the clouds—we could see a vast expanse of relatively pristine rainforest stretching all around us.
Unlike a glimpse of distant terrain through the awkwardly small oval of an airplane window, the view from this height was entirely unencumbered, yet not so far removed as to feel unknowable, inviting contemplation. When I’d walked through the forest earlier on the trip, I’d been overwhelmed by its lushness and intricacy—its dense green knottiness. To appreciate it, I had to choose an individual organism and focus on it: a particular tree, fern, bird, or butterfly. Here, the scope was so much wider, and inescapably so. I felt as though, for the first time, I could genuinely see the rainforest as an ecosystem—as an immense living network forming the skin of the planet. I could see, more clearly than ever before, how at that scale living creatures were not simply shaped by their environments, but also had the power to alter and define their environments—the power to change a continent, or even Earth as a whole. It was a visceral reminder of the elasticity of perspective and the importance of routinely shifting one’s point of view. In that respect, writing and traveling are much the same: they are both ways of improving one’s understanding of the world by learning to see it a little differently.
Ferris Jabr is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Scientific American. His book about the coevolution of Earth and life is forthcoming from Random House.