Tambopata Hydrosols: An Olfactory Exploration of Place

Tambopata Hydrosols is an evolving olfactory exploration of place. Conceived in Madre de Dios, Amazonas, the project connects with local knowledge in temporary locations to gather scent material and associated narratives as we journey through South America.

Findings from our investigation will be presented at various SW-based organisations in Autumn 2016 - Spring 2017.

Part 1: Trelex Amazonas Residency Peru March 2016

From Puerto Maldonado the Chloropotera navigated the swollen Rio Tambopata southwestwards, upstream against the current and towards the distant Andean sierra. We passed flood-devastated plantations of banana and papaya and caught sight of distant clandestine miners feverishly labouring in search of golden particulates with improvised, silt-sifting mechanisms. Then our first acquaintance with those which would become a constant during the weeks ahead; the howlers and capuchins, guacamayos, palms, vines, palo balsa, caña brava, unidentifiable merging vegetation straining upwards to the solitary, majestic Bertholletia exelsa (radium-emitting, they tell us). And then we’re engulfed in darkness and primary rainforest. Tambopata de verdad, immediate sensory overload and a welcome of open hearts, laughter and cool flannels from the Rainforest Expeditions community.

During those early days we floated between a conflicting world of jungle opulence and violence, observing a smattering of enthusiastic, long-lens tourists in virgin permethrin-impregnated shirts and a community of dedicated researchers – some of whom appeared to be assimilating the characteristics of their subjects; long limbs, flickering eyelids, heightened nocturnal animation.

We followed dark paths that meandered to nowhere and traversed the haunted lake. We shifted our gaze skyward following the mid-morning trajectory of the snake-like Anhinga bird to the canopy and beyond and then deep into the soil to the tangle of roots and mineral deposits. With our senses pre-conditioned by decades of exposure to European temperate familiarity, the expectation was of a scented bombardment – an exotica emanating from kaleidoscopic vegetation: floral, pollen, nectar, the sweet and the seductive. We searched with our noses and encountered damp, decaying ambiguity, decomposition, muted and transient micro-fragments originating from distant, anonymous sources. In his commendable work, ‘Tropical Nature’, Forsyth (1984) offers us a succinct explanation for this:

“Tropical plants avoid wind pollination because this scattershot method of gene dispersal is effective only if there are lots of targets nearby. Since there will probably be few individuals of the same species nearby, a plant casting its genetic fate to the wind faces a high risk of losing its investment”

Thus the impetus of our emerging inquiry now focused on what lay beneath. For this we’d adapt new exploratory techniques gleaned from a revelatory field trip with leading rainforest scientist Dr. Varun Swamy: in-depth genus identification, rubbing, scoring, snapping, pulverizing, peeling any potentially scented material. We followed clues found in a fading photocopy of Gentry’s Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants. We immersed in extended conversations with those that had an intimate knowledge of the rainforest through a lifetime of close contact – the chefs, porters, guides, members of the Infierno community – all generous with their wisdom, revealing personal botanical perspectives shared in a gentle vernacular. With our improvised apprenticeship now complete we were ready to fully immerse in the intoxicating neotropical world of aromatic possibility.

Our initial forays yielded encounters with fast-flowing latex, rancid M.citrifolia (with apparent life-prolonging properties), barks of stale garlic, the sour odour of the Pluthereum (identifiable by the ant community that reside within its stems prior to castrating the host to prevent flowering in order to reinforce the stem structures) and the Aniba with its urgent turpentine-esque tone. The proximity to our subjects was not entirely without risk – on more than one occasion we were injected with a searing toxic alkaloid delivered with stealth and guile by the Pseudomyrmex dendoicus. An identical alkaloid has been used in Ese Eja communities to castigate those partaking in misadventures of infidelity.

The jungle kitchen was alive with industrious activity. Food and associated provision had to be transported upstream by boat, overloaded carts heroically hauled through the rainforest, stored, prepared, presented, consumed, cleared, cleaned - herculean tasks deserving of universal admiration. We noticed a rare lull in activity during the early afternoons due to the religiously observed football game (participation encouraged). The head chef granted us access to the kitchen during this time for the purpose of ‘the advancement of artistic research’. We found heat and ice (scant supplies due electricity rationing), pitted and bruised steel saucepans and metallic bowls of varying sizes. Collectively these components created a rudimentary, yet effective distillation system capable of facilitating the infusion and suspension of aromatic molecules within water. With basic chemistry and infinite organic source material we’d be able to capture olfactory representations of the rainforest in the form of hydrosols.

Our selection methodology involved collecting samples from top to bottom - high canopy to sub-rainforest floor. Motivated in equal measure by material diversity, olfactory output and narrative potential the following samples were collected (with the support of researchers and volunteers) and converted into hydrosols:

Guacamayo nest substrate - mixed mineral/vegetation (29m)
Philodendrum spp. - flower/leaf (18m)
Banisteriopsis Caapi - vine (15.4m)
Uristigma/Matapalo – bark (15m)
Spondias Mombin/Ubo - Fruit (0m/9m)
Piper – leaf (4.8m)
Aniba Rosodora – leaf (4.4m)
Theobroma Cacao – fruit (3.8m)
Citrus Reticulata – Leaf (3.2m)
Theobroma grandiflorum/Copazu – fruit (2.7m)
Urera Baccifera – leaf (2.2m)
Croton lecheri/Sangre de Grado – bark/sap (2m)
Cotton T-shirt/3 days unwashed – fabric (1.6m)
M.Citrifolia/Noni – fruit (1.4m)
Floresta Super Extremo – chemical (1.2m)
Gallersia Integrifolia/Ajosquiro – bark (0.8m)
Unknown Funghi (awaiting identification) (0m)
Collpa Claylick clay (mineral) (-7m)
Rio Tambopata water (- 9m)

(figure in brackets denotes sample distance in meters from rainforest floor)

The collection from Tambopata represents the initial stage of an evolving project, a work in progress. The aromas we carry with us are transient, temporary - some gradually fading as a result of time, fluctuations in temperature and altitude. Others will maintain their vigour. Our journey will now take us onwards to the Altiplano, Atacama, Atlantic and beyond where new narratives will emerge and the distillation process will continue. And as we leave the jungle we learn that a hydrosol laboratory will be developed to become a permanent resource at Rainforest Expeditions.

Our gratitude and thanks go to:
Rainforest Expeditions
Trelex Residency
Kurt Holle, Nina Rodin, Abi Box, Millagros Saux, Jesus Duran, Dr. Varun Swamy, Katherine Torres, Julian Herrera Sara, Claudia Torres Sovero, Patricia Deza, Richard Vargas Jara, Liz Paipay, Clifton Carter, Jesse Beck, Sabino Quispe Jaen, Cesar Carrasco Moroco, Eric Franz, The Hval Family, Misael Valera, Tony, Dino, Lana Austin, Danny Couceiro, Jorge.