On our third day in the Amazon we boarded a tiny wooden boat and puttered along a small, muddy tributary of the Rio Madre de Dios. We’d set out to go fishing with tree branch poles and to do a little wildlife watching.
Fishing in the jungle
As we floated our way down the river we came upon a baby sloth, soaking wet, lying on the edge of the riverbank. We surmised that he must have fallen from his perch in a tree into the river. He had managed, somehow, to get himself to shore, a small miracle, but now he was stranded on the muddy bank, exposed to his predators.
Sloth on the riverbank
If you’ve ever seen a sloth move then you know that everything it does is sloooow. Even the turn of the head is sleepy and sluggish. This sloth’s moves were deliberate and even graceful but we could see it would take him a week to climb from the bank of the river to the protective canopy of trees twenty-five feet away.
We watched from the boat as the sloth tried to move himself closer to the forest. He’d extend his long arm sloooowly in front of him, sink his three clawed toes into the mud and pull. But his efforts were fruitless. The mud was too loose to hold him and he’d slip back to right where he’d started.
So our guide climbed from the boat and extended a wooden paddle towards the soggy creature. The sloth grabbed on and our guide touched the paddle to a nearby tree. The sloth hooked onto a branch and pulled himself up.
Our guide extends the paddle
From the boat we watched for an hour as the sloth climbed upward in his newfound tree, testing branches, trying to find a sturdy limb to climb.
From our perspective we could see that the tree he was in wouldn’t work for him. The branches were too thin and the tree wasn’t tall enough to offer protection. He would have to leave this tree and find another. The sloth didn’t know, of course, so he tried one upward route after another, searching for the way that would lead to safety. Sometimes the branch he was on would break and he would tumble downward. Other times he’d climb high before reaching a dead-end, forced to turn around.
The sloth testing his options
We left the sloth as he climbed down the tree, realizing, finally, that he’d have to find another. Good luck, we said to him, as our boat pulled away.
Isn’t this just like life, I thought. We find ourselves in a hopeless situation and then, suddenly, someone extends a paddle. And we grab on, we take it. That paddle, it isn’t a total fix. It isn’t a winning lottery ticket or a magic wish, it’s just a little help, a reprieve. The hard work is still in front of us.
Sometimes, even, the paddle takes us to the wrong tree and we have to work like hell to find another. We curse our bad luck and the exhausting effort ahead of us, without really seeing how lucky we were to find that paddle. What matters is the paddle. It’s a lifesaver, when we take it.
The sloth climbs the wrong tree- but at least he’s in a tree!
It got me thinking about all of the paddles I’ve grabbed onto in my own life, the seemingly hopeless situations that have catapulted me into bigger and better versions of myself. The niggling thoughts and the chance encounters and the new friends and the right words just when I needed them.
Where does the paddle come from? Where do the thoughts and hopes and dreams and the damn, looking back I’m so glad that happened experiences come from? I don’t quite know the answer, but I’m ever so grateful for each time I’ve grabbed on.