story by Paul Wood
photos by Sergio Goes
Here’s what it’s like to be a fly in Puna who happens to land on one of Sam Estes’ pitcher plants: You come down onto a circular landing pad—the lid of the pitcher—and you notice a tasty nectar around the edges. Slurping up the nectar, you crawl around the edge of the lid to its underneath, which is juicy and dripping with the stuff. The nectar has a narcotic quality that gets you all loopy. Suddenly you are grooving to Fly and the Family Stone.
Then you lose your grip and fall. You land on the pitcher cup’s brim, struggling for footing in a curved valley between steep walls. Your last chance for survival is to get over the brim and get the hell out of there. You scramble. But the brim is coated with gooey wax that eludes your grip and you slip. You clutch onto the inside wall of the cup, but this is lined with a different kind of wax, one that breaks away as you stick to it. Helpless, you fall into the pit. In human scale, this is like falling into a 500-foot-deep well. At the bottom is a lake of peptic enzymes. As you slowly drown, you notice other creatures that have learned how to live down here—mosquito larvae, for example, and certain ants that dive into the water to catch those larvae as food for the colony. It’s a bug-eat-bug world down here, an entire ecosystem, and the pitcher plant itself, with its hundreds of individual pitchers strung along its twisting vine, is a kind of god.