On tiptoe, I peered through a side window, looking for the mild-mannered face we had seen in a photo on Gil's website. Instead, I saw a half-naked wildman in surfing trunks, hunched over an old computer. He was glaring at the screen with a ferocious intensity, baring his teeth as he pecked at the keyboard.

With a start, he looked up, a flourish of hair tumbling down his shoulders. He had seen us. I felt the urge to run, but he had already sprung to his feet and was charging at us, shouting over the music. He was offering us caipirinhas ("Do you know what that is? It's our national drink! Do you have them in New York? You do?!") and welcoming us to Santarém, and telling us how excited he was that we had come to the Amazon.


What counts as pollution? Does it have to smell? Does it have to look ugly? What if an environmental problem is caused not by the presence of something toxic, but by the absence of something else?

Welcome to the legendary Amazon rainforest, lungs of the planet, whose future disappearance may cause us certain difficulties. (Just you try living without lungs.) Here, in the lovely riverside city of Santarém, I fell into a world of Amazonian surf bums, drunk soy farmers, bloviating multinational mouthpieces, amiable slash-and-burners, conservationists with chainsaws, girl-chasing Catholic priests, and at least one kitesurfing timber baron hell-bent on preserving a piece of the same jungle whose destruction made him rich. And here, in the environment that most embodies what we all want to preserve, I discovered how the very idea of environmental perfection is itself dangerous.


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