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Dangling Woman

I dangled in mid-air. Was it 50 or 100 feet above the jungle floor? In that immense landscape, what difference did it make? I felt as small and helpless as a beetle on her back.

Not five minutes before, I’d been climbing up the hollow insides of a strangler fig tree, buckled into a harness, attached to a safety line and wearing thick leather gloves to protect my hands. Getting myself from the inside of the tree out onto the platform called for a tricky maneuver making me mutter that this so-called Canopy Tour was no amusement park ride. Out on the platform, high as the average howler monkey, I watched my husband latch a gizmo to the overhead cable, sit back into his harness, push himself off the platform and – swoosh – in three seconds his feet touched down on Platform #2 about a hundred feet away. Nothing to it.

The platform guy detached me from the safety rope and showed me how to attach my gizmo to the cable. “Keep one hand on it for balance,” he said, “and the other hand lightly on the cable to brake yourself.”

żListo?” the Platform #2 guy called. Ready?

Listo,” my guy responded and instructed me to sit back into the harness and step off the platform.

In two seconds, there I was, halfway between the two platforms, dangling a fatal height above the jungle floor. Stuck.


It was August, 1996, rainy season in Costa Rica.

I was running away from home into the rainforest, but was only substituting one kind of jungle for another. For a year I’d been involved in a work project to reinvent a fractured system of services to families with troubled kids. Our team had a blueprint more or less, but for months we’d been chugging our frail steamer into uncharted waters – into a poorly understood landscape of politics, economics, and polarizing belief systems about why kids go wrong. In fact, we were not only navigating our way through it – like old-time colonialists, we planned to change the course of a river or two without figuring anyone would mind. It was passionate work, although on any given day my senses were all tuned to the sputtering engines or the sunken shoals before me and when the work day ended I filled the void with TV shows and endless videos to blot out the possibility that we might be drifting in endless circles. All night long talk radio fueled my answer-starved brain until it was time to jump out of bed and fire up the engines for another day.

Exhausted at last, I grabbed my husband and ran off to Costa Rica. I left behind the TV, the videos, talk radio, and the incomprehensible socio-political ecology of youth services to commune with Nature. We headed for the Monteverde Cloud Forest, high on the central spine of the country, for my first jungle foray.

I wanted the rainforest to assault my senses. I wanted to be dazzled by riotous vegetation, menaced by vines growing before my eyes, thrilled by the sounds of unseen creatures slithering, crackling, and snapping their way toward me.

But, gee whiz, the rainforest was too busy that day to entertain me with Hollywood stunts. Perhaps if I’d managed to scare a small yellow viper into biting me and then fell off the trail in a dead heap, the machinery of the jungle would have sprung into action to put my carcass to good use, but meanwhile it was silent and still and indifferent.

We wandered for miles, our guide moving slowly, describing how each element – tree, vine, fungus, bird, butterfly, flower – worked in concert to form a thriving and self-sustaining whole. I seized on the eco-complex-connectedness of it all in the fervid and confused way only an amateur is capable of. It became the answer to everything. If I could just master the secrets of bio-emergent-chaos-theory stewardship, I’d be able to rearrange those errant rivers in my own biosphere.

I wanted the design of Nature to comfort me and then I wanted it to educate me but now it gave me nightmares. Without the constant chatter of talk radio, there was no holding back the tide of problems to solve on that leaky steamer lost in the jungle backwaters of my mind. Days of co-evolution and evenings of Chilean wine led to nights of snagging psychiatrists in self-managed teams circumventing sunken information systems untangling families from negative feedback loops pulling the tinpot designers into twisted roots of writhing half-drowned trees…

My eyes snap open.

Every morning in the cloud forest I wake up to the drumming of rain on the roof and every morning I wake up annoyed that the utter harmony of Nature has set off such chaos in my change-weary mind.

Today, when the rain stops we head for the Canopy Tour, a hundred feet up, where the real drama of the rainforest is supposed to take place. I latch on, climb, unlatch, re-latch, step off. I expect to fly the route of the secretive quetzal to her nest, but no, instead I dangle, a miserable fly caught in the web of life.

My arms start to ache from my death-grip on the cable.

The Platform #2 guy calls instructions to me: “Turn… around.”

I pivot so that my back is toward #2.

“Put… your right hand… behind the hook.”

I do.

“Put your left hand… behind your right hand… and pull yourself across.”

So this was it – no flying, no swooshing. For me, amid this fluid celebration of diversity and interdependence, for me, it’s hand over hand combat with pulleys and cables. Like the system rearranger at work, like the vexed colonialist in the jungle of my dreams, I do battle with the way things are.

Published in Rochester Shorts Magazine, May 2001