A Coruja: Dispatch from Brazil – Brasil Raiz

Coruja Buraqueira Photo by Lucas Garcia on Unsplash

The Owl (“a coruja” in Portuguese) is at her southern home in Guaecá, which is just about her favorite place on the planet. You can read about it in last year’s Gratitude. It hasn’t changed. It is as far from Weston as you can imagine, not only in geography but in daily life. A Coruja is taking over the Owl for a week or so to give readers a look at something other than New England. Scroll on by if you have no interest.


Brasil Raiz or “Brazil at its root.” Basic Brazil. Brazil 101. Perhaps the easiest to understand of a complex and rich country–the part that I take for granted but am reminded of every year. Animals, giant leafy plants and trees, bugs and snakes. It’s Brazil at its most natural, the adventures outside of city life.

Cover warning: if you have an innate fear of snakes, you will want to skip this post.

When I lived in Brazil from 2008-2014, we bought a lovely house with a garden in the neighborhood of Boaçava in São Paulo. São Paulo is one of the world’s largest cities with 11 million people (officially, though the unofficial population is probably more) but our small neighborhood was an oasis–200 houses, a central park, limited access. This is where the owlets grew up from ages 1 1/2-7 — both protected from and open to urban life. The house’s small garden netted many an interesting animal, spider or insect for the kids to view–wild parakeets, leaf-cutter ants, fuzzy caterpillars and elusive spiders.

Meet my little friend…and her kids…

The caterpillars turn out to be dangerous–their fuzz containing venom for self-protection–so a first lesson for my kids was to not pet them. Also on the not-pettable list are two spiders you do not want to meet–the armadeira (which lifts its front legs like a fighter, yet is weirdly translated as a wandering spider in English) and the aranha marrom or brown recluse. You can read of some of those adventures, including meeting caterpillars, scorpions and armadeiras in my former blog Brazil in My Eyes.

Because I am who I am, I decided to learn more about the “bad guys” by taking a class at Instituto Butantan, a place that defies classification. Is it a research institution that develops 80% of all vaccines for the country? Is it the home of museums of microbiology and biology? Is it an educational institute — the place of snakes and spiders and classes about all of it? Or is it one of the most beautiful urban parks of São Paulo? In short: Yes. And it remains a favorite spot of one Owlet–the one who plans to study biology or zoology– so of course we had to visit during our two recent days in São Paulo.

Newly painted headquarters.

Butantan is one of the rare places I have recently been that is better than when I first visited. You know what I mean–often one returns to one’s hometown, favorite spot, foreign city only to discover it feels smaller, sadder, more crowded or less cared-for than you had remembered. Not so Butantan–newly painted, organized, better-lighted, and more accessible than ever. More and better signage about the beautiful patterned snakes, about the wooded trail and a shop that sells stuffies of Covid molecules, snake-imprinted t-shirts, colorful books and presents. Explanatory signs tell about Vital Brasil, the immunologist who discovered the serum used to treat bites of venomous snakes; the work of removing venom from snakes, the large cages of monkeys who work to test the vaccines which is the hardest area to visit. And a favorite spot with animal mosaics–now with a rose garden growing up all around.

And that is just outside. When one enters the Biology Museum, there are cages of gorgeous snakes, creepy-crawlies and stinging scorpions. The green tree python my son has loved since a small child hangs seemingly on the same branch as 9 years ago–he looks the same as when we left the country for Weston.

I swear he has not moved in NINE years

The new cages and lighting emphasize the intricate patterns of the dozens of snakes–I would like a shoe company to take note and create a line of shoes of different snakes (NOT REAL SNAKE SKIN–a manmade facsimile, in case you think I am heartless). Why yes, my shoes are jiboia-patterned or cobra-cipó, or whatever–do not mess with me. I would buy them all. Even the chunky frogs deserve a pattterned facsimile.

Newly arrived are tree frogs and bull frogs and spiders; there are now fewer scorpions and the mesmerizing stick insects are gone, perhaps they were put outside in the arboretum.

Sapo-cururu. I call him “chunk”

While the signs are new, and the English translations updated, Butantan is determined to stick by its spelling of “lenght” [sic]. I thank them for this because inwardly I smile every single time I stop in front of a cage.

The wooded trail outside the Biology Museum is newly leveled and lined by trunks. Visitors wander a meandering path in a delightful arboretum where most trees are inventoried and numbered. New trees are constantly planted to make up for trees removed for construction of new buildings and areas on the main campus. Benches and a nature playground are inviting–though I cannot help wondering if any of those museum bugs and snakes and spiders escaped and no one is talking…

The enthusiasm and interest my now-teenage Owlets feel about animals and mini-beasts is directly attributable to their proximity to them in Brazil. Would it be so in Weston and things would be different–there are still so many people who have never stepped onto the Conservation trails, never stopped to check out an anthill, and live in fear of ticks and mosquitos. I have hopes that this will change – Dr. Susan Erickson, the K-8 Science Curriculum leader, gets the kids out in the woodlands and the incomparable Drumlin Farms preschool is out year-round. Some day we’ll appreciate what we’ve got just as much as Brazil does. Minus the venomous stuff.

Now three hours from the city, and along the Mata Atlantica, nature comes even closer. This morning I had just one of the many “nature at my feet” moments here: my mother-in-law and retired biologist Marisa and I almost stumbled over a giant snail that was on a mission to find its next meal. We stopped and marvelled at its slow pace carrying its giant shell, waving its tentacles as it scans its environment. Marisa calls this snail a “praga” or pest–the African giant snail imported to this country by folks looking for giant escargot to eat but finding it unpalatable, and in the end dangerous as it transmits a number of sicknesses. We watch it for minutes as it slides across the grass.

Caramujo gigante africano – photo credit: cousin Cece

We walk on, then stop again to watch small ants building and building a multi-chambered anthill. Tiny, numerous, they scurry around and over the hills they build one grain at a time.

Anthill with teeny tiny ants (formiga lava-pé)

Further on, we marvel at giant leaves, sand dollars (the wonderfully named “bolacha do mar” or sea cookie) and the swooping of sea birds. There is no place I feel closer to nature than here.

Brasil raiz.

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