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World Beneath A Canopy: Life and Art in the Amazon

The Amazon Rainforest is the world’s largest rainforest, covering an area about the size of the continental United States. But it extends vertically, as well as horizontally. If you looked up from the ground in the rainforest, you would see only a few glimpses of sky, rays of light poke through here and there amid what looks like a ceiling of leaves. Some trees in the Amazon grow to 50 yards, as tall as a 15-story building! These giant trees house many insects and birds, including the world’s largest eagle, the South American Harpy. Scientists call these trees “emergents.”

In fact, scientists have divided the rainforest into four strata or zones based on the living environment. Under the emergents is the canopy, a leafy world that is full of life, including insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, and more. Below the canopy is a cool, dark environment known as the understory. A few animals spend their lives in the understory, but most are just passing through. And beneath that is the forest floor. It is teeming with life, particularly insects. The largest animals in the rainforest, such as anteaters and jaguars, generally live here as well.

Running through the rainforest is the Amazon River. The world’s largest river in volume, it is fed by more than 1000 smaller rivers. The Amazon, too, is full of life, including flesh-eating piranhas, otters, and electric eels.

There are people in the Amazon too, many living much as their ancestors did. These people pass on all of their knowledge, traditions and rituals verbally, because they have no written language. The shaman is an important person in Amazonian societies. He is a healer who holds tremendous knowledge about the rainforest and its natural medicines.

The art made by the people in the Amazon is a reflection of their rainforest environment. It is functional—satisfying either the practical or spiritual needs of the people. Many types of art are produced, including baskets, pottery, textiles, and woodcarvings, but the featherwork of the Amazonians is particularly extraordinary.

Feathers are used to decorate armbands, ear decorations, masks and costumes. They may be used on weapons and utensils as well. The feathers of different birds represent a variety of ideas or spirits, based on the bird from which they were taken and the colors they include. Headdresses display the most fantastic artistry in feathers. The quality of a man’s headdress is representative of his worth. Only the best hunters are able to acquire the best raw materials (feathers) for creating headdresses, and good hunters are respected as good providers.

Whether featherwork or another type of art is being created, the Amazonian artist always considers how it will sway in the wind, reflect light, sound when it is moved, or look from different perspectives. Movement is important in Amazonian art because it is a constant in the rainforest environment. All around them, the people see a world in perpetual motion, and their art is a reflection of the world in which they live.

Source: World Beneath a Canopy: Life and Art in the Amazon by Stevie Mack and Jennifer Fiore (CRIZMAC, 1997)