Essay: Why are dead people more interesting than dead plants?

Essay: Why are dead people more interesting than dead plants?

A fall 1998 essay published in DoubleTake magazine under the title 'Botanist finds dead trees'


On the morning of August 12, 1996, I became fascinated by a series of photographs which appeared on the front cover of the Extra, the most widely read newspaper in Ecuador. The pictures were of a woman who had hung herself from a beam in her living room over the weekend. The Extra's photographer had arrived before anyone could cut down the body, and his pictures of the woman, which took advantage of a variety of perspectives and moods, occupied most of the front page of that morning's edition.

Above the fold was a close-up of the dead woman's face, magnified to such an extent that anyone who passed a newsstand that morning could see that her eyes were closed, that her eyebrows were arched in a hopeful way, and that the swollen, purple thing between her lips was her tongue. The electric cable she had knotted under her chin ran up towards the top of the page, and the lay-out made it look a little as though she had hung herself from the masthead.

Farther down the page was a photograph showing the woman hanging in her living room. The article inside reported that she had been preparing to go to a party when she decided to kill herself, and in the second photograph she was wearing a lilac colored jacket and a matching skirt, lipstick, eyeliner, a wristwatch with a leather band, and a wedding ring. Her hair was perfect. The only thing that was missing were shoes, and her toes, which were pointed, were not far off the cement floor.

Her motive wasn't clear, but the Extra's reporter had picked up a rumor from the neighbors that her husband, a truck driver named Freddy, had been seeing another woman. So the headline that morning, which took up the rest of the front page, read: 'Good-bye Freddy!'

I usually get my news from one of the other papers when I'm in the city, but that morning I carried a copy of the Extra with me to breakfast. Inside that day's edition there were four other corpses to look at—a security guard who had been shot to death in a stick-up, an old man and a child who had been run over by cars, and a police officer who had been crushed in a traffic accident. All of them were photographed close up, on the bloody pavement or on a stretcher in the morgue, and each picture was accompanied by a few paragraphs describing how the dead person had died. There were three other deaths for which stories but no photographs were available: two drownings ('Murderous River!'), and a fatal fall on the deck of a swimming pool ('The Last Bath!').

When I finished the paper I sat for a moment watching people pass on the street outside. I had just returned to Quito the night before from a lowland forest in Amazonia, where I work as a plant ecologist, and the pictures in the Extra were some of the first trappings of civilization I had seen after a long stretch in the woods. It's a curious enough experience, on your first morning back in the city, to read through a conventional newspaper. It always takes a moment to comprehend that you're no longer in a place where the daily news is mostly about trees. It's a kind of culture shock that I'm pretty well accustomed to by now, but the photographs in theExtra that morning left me more disoriented than usual.

I spent the rest of the day at the herbarium, sorting through plant specimens. The collection rooms were mostly deserted. As the afternoon wore on, I found myself more and more distracted by the faint sounds of traffic outside the windows, where housewives were stringing themselves up in their living rooms. Before leaving the office at the end of the day I looked up the Extra in the Quito phone book and dialed the number. For reasons I'll explain later, I thought it might make me a better botanist.

The Extra is a Guayaquil paper, but it maintains a tiny office in Quito. The Quito staff consists of seven people: an editor-in-chief, two reporters, two photographers, one sportswriter, and a driver. They work out of two small rooms in the rear of a building which stands just down the block from the Oficina de Investigaciones del Delito, Ecuador's equivalent to the FBI. If the arrangement is a coincidence, it's a lucky one. The Extra's reporters get most of their leads from the police, and on slow days they can wander across the street to fish for stories.

On the morning I visited the offices, the rooms in back were mostly abandoned. Two police officers had been killed in a gunfight in a northern neighborhood of the city some time before dawn, and all of the paper's staff were out getting the story. Patricio Carrera, the youngest of the reporters, had been left behind to answer the phones. He took me upstairs to wait in the editor-in-chief's office, and as we sat waiting he answered some questions about the paper. In the next room the police radio crackled now and then with voices, and occasionally Patricio would break off what he was saying to listen. Whenever the phone on the desk rang, he picked it up and said: "No, he's at the morgue."

Patricio was still an apprentice. They didn't let him write the big stories, like homicides or car wrecks. His most recent article was about a public fountain where shoeshine boys swam on sunny days ('Pool For the Poor!'). The last few days he had been working on a feature about a platoon of policewomen, but that morning one of the other papers had published something along the same lines and he had decided to drop the story. Every once in a while, when the other reporter was busy, Patricio got assigned to something 'stronger.' When I asked if working with corpses had taken some getting used to, he shrugged off the suggestion with the casual stoicism that prevails among the Extra's staff.

"Not really," he said. "The important thing is to do your job."

Half an hour later the others got back from the morgue. They had been following the police story since dawn and now, under deadline, each of them went directly to his desk and began to work. When Patricio told the editor-in-chief that the editors in Guayaquil were planning on printing the preliminary article that he had faxed down to them earlier in the morning, the editor-in-chief, who is a young, nattily-dressed reporter, glanced anxiously at his wristwatch and picked up the phone.

"What are they, crazy?" he said. "This is a front page story. We have pictures."

Cradling the phone receiver on his shoulder, he sat down at his computer and began typing up the story. He worked rapidly, without notes, and the ease with which he typed out the first paragraph made it seem that he had composed it in his head on the way back from the morgue. In the next room one of the photographers was downloading pictures from a digital camera onto a laptop and editing them before they were sent down by modem to Guayaquil. Each time he finished editing a picture he saved it as a new file and wrote the name of the file on a piece of paper, until he had a neat list:

  1. Lieutenant's wife

  2. Outside the morgue

  3. Relatives 1

  4. Relatives 2

  5. Carrying the coffin

  6. Dead sergeant 1

  7. Dead sergeant 2

While they worked I wandered around the office. The rooms were sparsely furnished. There were desks for each of the reporters, a few Macintoshes, a cabinet where they stacked all the Quito papers from that week, and some dusty philodendron. In the room where the police radio was squawking, a chalkboard stood in the center of the floor. On one side of it was taped a photocopied sign that read: 'Impossible things we accomplish immediately; difficult things we leave for tomorrow....' On the other side someone had copied down a glossary of the two-digit codes the Ecuadorean police use when they talk on the radio. There were numbers to signify shots, airplane crashes, car crashes, car thefts, murders, kidnappings, jail breaks, fires, cadavers, bomb threats, and many other catastrophes. There was one number which simply meant 'death.'

Most days, when an intriguing code comes over the radio, someone at the Extra makes a note of the street address. If the editor-in-chief is around, and if he decides that it seems like a promising story, one of the reporters and one of the photographers put on their jackets and walk down to the street, where the driver keeps the car ready to leave at a moment's notice. The driver tries to get them to the address before the ambulance arrives, while the bodies are still lying out in view, because that way they don't have to make a second trip to the morgue for pictures. Sometimes the addresses are in Quito. Sometimes they're a few hours out of town. Occasionally a story will take all day to report. Then, driving back into the city after dark, the staff stay up late in the office to put together an article.

Only the sportswriter works on a different schedule. That morning, as everyone else was hard at work on the story of the murdered policemen, the sportswriter shuffled in and sat down at one of the desks to type up a story. The sportswriter is a rotund man with a merry smile, a drinker's nose, and cloudy pupils. He is twenty or thirty years older than everyone else on the staff, and he has grown oblivious to the charged atmosphere in the Extra's rooms. Most days it doesn't interfere with his work, because he puts his stories together from what he reads each morning in the competitors' papers. He wears a three-piece suit of brown pinstripe, and when he works he puts on thick reading glasses. That morning, after wishing me a good day, he sat down at one of the Macintoshes to type up an article on soccer. The editor-in-chief had invited me to look around while I waited, so I opened a folder on another Macintosh and perused the titles of past articles: PASSIONATE CRIME, HEROIN, DROWNED CHILD, DARING THIEVES, MISSING MOUNTAIN CLIMBER, HE DIED OF GANGRENE....

I study trees. Ecuador's lowland forests have the highest tree diversity in the world. In the national park where I work you can find a thousand species of trees in a five acre patch of woods. There are somewhere between two and three thousand species of trees overall, and only a small fraction has ever been studied, so that everything that is known about most of them fills a paragraph or two in a taxonomic monograph. No one knows which insects pollinate them, which animals eat their fruits, whether they grow in swamps or on hillsides, which time of year they put out flowers....

When you work in such a poorly known landscape there's never any shortage of news, and a large part of my research, in the end, bears some resemblance to journalism. Not all of the news is about natural history, though. Each time I return to the national park where I work there are more houses and fields where there used to be trees. Roads have cut deeper into the forest, and people have cleared the trees that used to stand along the roads, and more people have followed them. The most astonishing forests in the world are disappearing, and they are disappearing unexplored.

What distinguishes that sort of news from the sort of news that appears on the front page of the Extra every morning is just that—the Extra's news appears on the front page of the paper every morning. I had always assumed that news about the destruction of tropical forests was simply too gloomy to make good press. That explanation made sense to me until the morning I stood on a street corner in Quito and watched one person after another pick up a copy of theExtra at the newsstand, tuck it under their arm, and head off to work with the hanged woman's face peeping out from under their elbows. Then it no longer made sense to me, and it made me wonder if maybe the Extra couldn't teach biologists a trick or two about reporting extinctions.

Later that morning the editor-in-chief came out of his office and looked over the short list of questions I had written up for him. He had loosened his necktie, like a movie reporter, and his hair stood up as if he had been running a hand through it. He leaned his back against one of the walls in the room, crossed his arms, and talked fluidly for half an hour.

"The Extra's been publishing for at least twenty five years," he said. "You can look through the archives to see what the old papers look like. It hasn't always been focused primarily on sensational stories, or what we call police stories. It used to be that the police stories only had a page of their own, but now it's all we do. I've been here for two or three years, half of that as a reporter and half as editor-in-chief. When I first got out of journalism school I said that there was one paper I'd never work for, and it was the Extra. I thought it was bad journalism. But you know how it is, in a country like ours sometimes you have to put your idealism to one side and make a living. I ended up working here, and now I love it. I can't imagine working anywhere else. Think about how a journalist for one of the other newspapers spends his day—a journalist for the Comercio, for instance. He goes to the same press conferences, interviews the same government officials, and then goes back to the office and writes up the same story that he wrote the day before, and the week before, and the month before, with the same sources. Can you imagine? That's not how it is here. You can say it's morbid, but at least it's interesting. Every day there's a new story. Every day you talk to different people, you see a different part of the city. Every day you're confronted with a story that you have to make sense of. You run across some remarkable things. We were doing a story down in the southern part of the city, where someone had drowned in one of those river gorges and their body was lodged in some rocks. Someone told us there was a gringo living in a cave nearby. It was true. We interviewed him, and published an article. He was from Austria, but he had been living in that cave for years. You get stuff like that all the time. How can you not love it?"

He held up a cautionary finger. "It's not that I love other people's suffering. People say we take advantage of suffering in a cynical way, just to make a profit. Part of that is true, because it's the bloodiest stories that sell papers, that's what people want to see. That's not my business, that's their business, and that's the owner's business. My business is making sure we tell the stories in a simple, truthful way that everyone can understand, even people who can't read very well. There's a difference between yellow journalism and sensationalist journalism. Yellow journalism is full of lies, you make up any story that will sell. That's not us. We're sensational. With sensational journalism, we choose the most striking stories and then tell the truth about them.

"The result is a better description of people's day-to-day lives than you get in any of the other papers. In fact, there's a long list of authors who use stories like ours as the raw material for their novels. Look at García Márquez, a book like Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Look at Rubem Fonseca, the Brazilian. If you want to know what the lives of ordinary people are like, you aren't going to get it from these other papers. They have their strengths, we have ours. No one thinks about the community services we provide. The police used to hassle us when we were first starting up, but so many cases have been solved because of people who read about a crime in the Extra and came forward with new information that now they prefer to help us out. A lot of times the corpses we photograph in the morgue haven't been identified. When we put them in the paper, someone recognizes them, and a lot of them end up getting identified. Then the dead person, instead of being buried in some unmarked grave, receives a Christian burial. You see? We're one of the only papers in Ecuador that stands up for the man on the street. We remind people that the world is a dangerous place, that you've got to keep on your toes. We ran a story on an extortion racket in one of the markets here in the city, with pictures of the person who was responsible, and the person showed up the next day with some friends and wanted to burn down the office. They wanted to lynch the photographer. So we do have an impact.

"Sure, people get mad at us all the time. They come in here complaining about how so-and- so's picture is in the paper, or how so-and-so's name is in the paper, and if they're really upset then I show them the documentation we wrote the story with. I keep the papers there in my desk. We never run a story unless we have documents to back it up. If we have the documents, no one's going to stop us from writing the story. With pictures it's a different question. If we go to a place where there's a dead body and people ask us not to take pictures we respect that. We don't sneak around trying to get a photograph. It's only common sense. If you're not respectful, you won't get any story at all. The crowd can turn on you. One of the photographers has been chased around a few times. They broke one of his cameras.

"I think there are basically three reasons why people like reading the Extra. The first is simple curiosity. Maybe it's a morbid kind of curiosity. Everyone has it, to some extent. You can't deny it. You see a big red headline, you see a picture of a person who's been shot, and you want to know what happened. It's natural. The second reason is a kind of self-recognition. These are mostly lower class readers. What's a poor guy on the street going to make of the news in the other papers? It doesn't mean anything to him. It's an entirely different universe from his, all this politics and economics and international affairs. He can't relate to it. But he can relate to the Extra. He can look at the Extra and see his own reflection. Those are his people in the stories. The third reason people buy the Extra is just the opposite. These are middle class readers, or even upper class readers. They look at the stories in the Extra and for them it's a way of washing their hands, it's a kind of catharsis. They can say, 'Look at that trash. Look at those people. I'm not like that. It's people like that who are dragging down the country.' You see?"

The reporters were sitting around the office that afternoon when a patrol car called in on the police radio to report a death somewhere in the southern part of the city. Patricio went in to tell the editor-in-chief, and one of the photographers began putting things in a shoulder bag. When Patricio came out he put on his bluejean jacket, checked the breast pocket for his pencil and notepad, and combed his hair. A minute later we went down to the street, where the driver was washing the windshield, and got into the car.

The driver took us south in the light afternoon traffic, bypassing the old section of town on a highway that skirts the crooked streets, until we were passing through the lower class neighborhoods south of the Panecillo. Now and then he consulted with Patricio for directions. In the back seat, paying no attention to the traffic, the photographer was fiddling with his camera.

As we got farther south the buildings grew lower and shabbier, the apartment blocks fewer, and at last we turned off into one of the poor neighborhoods on the fringe of the city. Between the houses of unpainted cinderblock there were bumpy fields in which pigs or goats were staked out to graze. Then the asphalt ended, though the houses stretched on and on, and the driver made his way along dirt tracks that were lined by deep ditches or piles of sand or gravel or cement blocks. Once Patricio rolled down his window to ask directions, and a man pointed down a street that was so criss-crossed with ditches that it looked impassable.

"Can you get through there?" asked Patricio.

The man scratched the back of his neck. "Sure," he said.

Eventually Patricio spotted a crowd of people gathered in one of the fields between houses, and the driver parked in an adjacent lot. By then it was about four in the afternoon, and the sun was powerful and hot. As we walked over to the field someone asked which paper we were with. The photographer told them the Extra. Patricio had explained that the best way to win people's confidence was to keep your mouth shut and stand around like everyone else, and now he made his way politely through the crowd until he was standing over the corpse.

The dead man was sitting in the middle of the field, with his back up against a hummock of grass. Someone had covered him from head to toe with a pink bedsheet. His upturned feet made two little peaks in the sheet, and in his lap lay a pink baseball cap. A young woman was sitting on the hummock next to him in a protective way. One of her cheeks had a long scar running across it, and the other looked bruised, or dirty, and both cheeks were wet with tears. She asked Patricio if we had brought the ambulance, and when Patricio told her we hadn't she went on sniffling and wiping her nose on her t-shirt.

With the daughter's permission the photographer removed the sheet and took a few pictures of the dead man. The crowd moved a little closer, and the women held their shawls over their mouths as they looked. Most of them were lower class mestizo women, with sunburned cheeks and gold-capped teeth, dressed in long skirts and sweaters, with shawls thrown across their shoulders. In some of the shawls babies were sleeping. All of the women wore baseball hats, except for one woman in rollers, and most of the hats bore the names of American sports teams: Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Colorado Rockies. One woman's hat said 'Chicago Bulls' on the front and 'Polo Sport' on the side. They peered at the dead man with interest, and after the photographer took a few shots and the daughter covered the body with the sheet again some of the women withdrew giggling softly.

The photographer, having accomplished his part of the business, struck up a conversation with a sardonic-looking man wearing dress slacks, a brown camouflage t-shirt and a blue cap.

"Well," said the man, "that wasn't much to look at."

"No," said the photographer. "You see a lot worse."

"Oh, sure," said the man.

"Nothing like yesterday," said the photographer.

"I can imagine," said the man.

For a moment they stood in silence.

Then the man said: "What did you see yesterday?"

"Guy fell three stories," said the photographer. "Brains all over the street."

"Oh, sure," said the man, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "This is nothing."

The women stood in little groups, sometimes chatting, sometimes whispering, glancing at the dead man and his daughter. Now and then someone said something funny that made everyone laugh, and then even the man's daughter had to smile. Children ran in between the women, chasing each other excitedly. A dog had been harassing an enormous sow in a field across the street, and when the sow began chasing after the dog a ripple of laughter went through the crowd, and people shouted encouragement to the sow. Soon it became clear that the solemnity we had found on arriving was the result of a temporary misunderstanding. The crowd had taken us for the medical examiners. Once the word went around that we were not, a kind of carnival atmosphere returned to the scene. All the kids were sucking on lollipops. Every fifteen minutes or so a car came struggling up the road, and everyone turned to see if it was the ambulance. No one knew what sort of ambulance they would send. Even the meanest looking cars and trucks held people's attention until it became clear they were not going to stop, and then they went back to their chatting.

Finally the man's daughter asked one of the neighbors if she could use the bathroom. By then the crowd had gravitated towards the patrol car, where a policeman in grey fatigues sat wearily behind the wheel, answering Patricio's questions. When the daughter came back she went over to the patrol car too, and for a long time the dead man sat alone in the field, the wind ruffling the pink sheet.

No one was paying him any attention. Not far away two boys were tickling a puppy. A dog walked past the dead man's upturned feet. I watched to see if the dog would sniff him, but it went straight past without stopping. After a while, because I am a botanist, my attention wandered to the plants growing nearby. On top of the hummock the man was leaning against was a shrub they use in the Andes for fence posts, called 'milky' because of its white latex. Not far from his right hand, which was clutched in a fist, there was a common thistle growing in the grass. In a corner of the field was a short Sambucus nigra, which is a common tree in the wealthier neighborhoods of the city, and peeping over the wall of a neighbor's garden was aBrugmansia, its languorous flowers moving gently in the wind. I counted seven or eight species I knew.

Over the murmur of the crowd you could hear dogs barking in various parts of the neighborhood. A few blocks away, someone was hammering a nail into a board. The sun had lost some of its strength; sometimes it passed behind the clouds that were beginning to gather over the mountains. Above the rooftops of the cinderblock buildings you could look east and west and see a patchwork of fields, green and tan and gold, rising up the slopes of the mountains. Far in the distance, sunk in clouds, sat a tiny snow-topped volcano.

Eventually Patricio came over and gave me the story he had pieced together. The dead man had spent the previous night drinking in one of the houses adjacent to the field, where the neighbors said they sold liquor without a license. In the morning hours he had ordered a soup to sober up on and had choked to death on a potato. (The headline in the Extra a few days later read: 'A Tasty Broth Killed Him!') The people who had sold him the liquor and the soup, fearing the consequences, had dragged his body out into the field, where he had been sitting ever since.

Just then a group of women came walking up the road, led by an old woman who pushed herself along ahead of the others. The old woman walked up to the sheet with a stern look on her face, as if she had a mind to scold someone. The crowd had gathered around the dead man again to see what the widow would do, and people were murmuring, "Don't touch him, don't touch him, don't touch him...." The old woman snatched up a corner of the sheet and looked underneath, and suddenly her face changed. She touched the dead man first on the shoulder, then on the arm, and then on the face, and when she touched his face she must have felt something horrible because the corners of her mouth suddenly pulled down and she began moaning miserably.

By the time the ambulance arrived they had taken her away. People began to jostle for positions around the dead body so that they could watch the coroner work. The coroner was a youngish man in a rugby shirt. He looked overworked and disgusted. He touched the man's face and tugged at his arm, which was as stiff as a piece of wood, and then he stood back and rapidly filled in some spaces on a form. All of the giggling had stopped. The women held their shawls over their mouths again. The dead man's daughter moaned all through the examination, and several of the other women who had been laughing earlier began crying too. The coroner gave an order and the two orderlies put the dead man on a stretcher, carried him to the ambulance, and shut the doors. A photograph of the orderlies putting the dead man on the stretcher later appeared with the article when it came out in the Extra, accompanied by the caption: 'Efforts to resuscitate the victim were in vain.'

We left a few minutes later. Everyone in the car was in an apologetic mood. They felt they had let me down.

"Tomorrow we'll get something good," promised the photographer.

The Extra's office is not far from one of the herbaria where I work, and over the next week I stopped by every day or so to see what the staff was up to. One afternoon I accompanied them to the funeral of one of the murdered police officers. It was held in a windy cemetery on the outskirts of the city. The entrance of the cemetery was lined by an honor guard with drawn sabers and polished riding boots, and after the coffin was lowered into the ground a platoon of men in camouflage uniforms shot off two bursts of automatic weapons fire. Another time we went to a press conference. It made the photographer roll his eyes. "We never go to press conferences," he muttered. "What are you going to get from a press conference?" Towards the end of the week, when they went off to do a story on child labor, Patricio invited me along only half-heartedly, as if he were embarrassed that he couldn't offer something a little bloodier.

But if it was quiet in Quito, there was plenty going on in the rest of the country. That week in the Extra there had been another front-page hanging to read about, an electrocution, a fatal fall into a drainage ditch, a bus wreck, a suicide by poison, and a handful of murders, one by a woman who had killed her husband by dousing him with a pot of boiling oil. One afternoon, looking for some escape from the macabre, I went down to the archives to page through older editions; but the first paper I looked at, from November 1978, had a headline that read 'He Killed His Mother-in-Law by Stabbing Her 19 Times!'

Sitting in the shabby outer room of the Extra, waiting for bad news to come over the police radio, I began to feel disheartened. In the forest where I work, there is nothing sensationalistic about the way trees are felled. They don't fracture their skulls falling into drainage ditches, or douse each other with boiling oil. They simply fold their leaves and come falling down. Many of the campesinos who clear patches of forest can't afford to use a chainsaw, so they work with axes. The biggest trees take them several days to cut down. When a big tree starts to fall, first its leaves rustle gently, as if a breeze has come up from somewhere and is blowing through its branches. For a long time it's difficult to tell that anything has happened. Then from the base of the tree comes a sudden snapping and groaning of wood, and the woodcutters, dropping their axes, run for safety. The trunk, which a moment earlier seemed to be only swaying to one side, begins to fall in earnest. The leaves all fold together, the branches twist to one side as if caught in a storm, and something makes you catch your breath until the tree crashes to the ground and lies still. For a few last seconds the leaves continue to flutter, and then they too hang motionless, and everything in the clearing is quiet.

Early one morning a few days later I caught a bus back down to the lowlands. I had bought a Comercio and an Extra before taking my seat, and as the bus made its way down the Andes I read through the news. On the front page of the Comercio was an article about a cabinet meeting of the country's new president, an article about a medical scandal in which 21 diabetics had been infected with the HIV virus, and a picture of two teams playing wheelchair basketball at the Paralympics in Atlanta. On the front page of the Extra there was a picture of what remained of a man who had been kidnapped and burned to death outside of Guayaquil. There was a young girl sitting in the seat next to me, and halfway through the Extra I began to worry that she might look over and see the pictures. I folded up both of the papers and put them away, and for the rest of the trip, which passes through some beautiful stretches of forest, I watched the trees go past outside the window.

Essay: The sadness of loving trees

Essay: The sadness of loving trees