© 1987
Sue Loram Remembers
Her life embraced art, politics, the threatened environment and a quest for a very elusive Amazon flower. Most of all all Margaret was an brilliant story-teller .

Sue lived in Brasil for eighteen years from 1974 to 1992. She moved from Rio de Janeiro to Manaus a city in the heart of the Amazon forest in late 1979 where she lived with her boyfriend the ecologist Dr. John DuVall Hay. Very quickly she found herself working for an INPA* / WWF project. In 1982 she joined Margaret Mee on a journey to the igapós or flooded forest of the Rio Negro where they discovered some dying flowers of the Moonflower cactus. Sue moved back to Rio de Janeiro in late 1982 where she became one of Margaret's closest friends. Then in 1988 Sue was part of the team responsible for the success of Margaret Mee's final Amazon journey when she painted the opening of the Moonflower. Margaret died in an accident later in the same year and in 1989 Sue joined the same team to visit the cactus again and fix a memorial plaque to a tree. Sue who is now married, lives in Portugal with her long time friend and business partner David Butler-Cole This is one of a series of short, intimate reminiscences of her times with Margaret Mee

Sally Duchess of Westminster, widow of the Fourth Duke of Westminster who had been Englands' richest person was approaching 79 and outside her family was one of Margaret Mee's closest friends in London. Sally Westminster had travelled with Margaret on an Amazon journey in the 1970's and had helped with hospitals and recuperation for two hip operations. Sally herself was not without hip problems and when she turned to Sue Loram on her last night beside the Rio Negro and asked for a canoe trip by the light of the stars, Sue was not sure what to say. Margaret was just days off seventy nine. The trip to find the Moonflower had been a wonderful success and to finish it with a disaster was unthinkable.

What Sally wanted was the impossible. She had asked me to take Margaret and her out on the Rio Negro in our old unsteady canoe in the middle of the night ! She said that she wanted to experience paddling under the Milky Way.

I told her no, in no uncertain terms, making the points one by one on my fingers:

- The canoe is tiny, definitely not built for three people. The slightest wobble and we will capsize, and there are curious dolphins in the stretch of water between the terra firma and the island in front of the hut.  They’ll have a great game rocking our boat!

-      And most important of all Margaret has recently had both her hips operated on, and you, Sally, well it wasn´t long ago that you badly injured your leg in that rafting accident in Fiji !

-      And lifejackets? There’s only one between the three of us. Paulo and Maria had taken the riverboat (where the other life jackets were kept) to prepare for the journey to Manaus the next day and their home was too far way for me to make contact at this time of night.

I looked at Sally and she looked at me. It was crazy. It was irresponsible, but….. then I gave in. It was such a wonderfully clear starry night, and there was not a breath to ruffle the water. I shone my torch onto the dark river to check and there it was, like a millpond.  Sally secured the only life jacket around Margaret and helped her into the fragile canoe.  I quietly asked Sally how she would feel about swimming back to the riverbank should the canoe capsize.  “Don’t be such a nanny, Sue,” she retorted, “ I’ve been in far more dangerous situations than this, and anyway I expect a dolphin will give me a lift back to the shore”.  Yes, I thought to myself, but who would be blamed if something awful happens.  Margaret had overheard Sally’s comments and said “Sue, please don’t worry it’s far more dangerous walking and driving in the streets of Rio than paddling in the Rio Negro. Besides it’s such a gorgeous warm, still night and the dolphins have never been known to harm anyone. They’re on our side.”

Before getting into the canoe, I placed an oil lamp firmly by the edge of the riverbank.  My passengers on board, I gingerly climbed into the canoe and gently pushed off.  Sally jokingly said “I think I heard a “glop” over there, Sue” and she and Margaret started laughing, making the canoe rock dangerously.  I replied, “Please Sally, no more references to that awful meal.  I told you I would do this on condition, you would forget it.  If you make us laugh, we’ll capsize." I admonished her. “ If we talk, keep it serious………” And so we did.

The further away from the riverbank and trees I paddled, the brighter the stars appeared and the fainter the frog and toad evensong became.  It was magical.  We breathed in the pure, warm night air and Margaret and Sally begged me to go out even further.   I tested the water to check the currents, luckily there were none.  This part of the river is best described as a “backwater”, being protected by the long narrow island opposite the hut.  The main river channel, where the strong currents are, was the other side of this island.  Being the month of May, the width of the Rio Negro, where we were, had swollen to around 30 kilometres or so.  Between us and the distant INPA floating ecological research station (where Margaret and I had stayed in 1982) there was an incredible maze of islands where the forest was flooded by up to around 12 metres at this time of year.  It was so easy to become lost in the maze that you should only journey there accompanied by an experienced local boatman such as our Paulo.

Floating on the deep water we looked up in wonder at the shooting stars.  We had a sense of timelessness - no-one dared talk until Margaret said in a whisper “Oh, look down into the river, what do you see?”  There below us were dozens of tiny electric fish flashing like glowworms in the inky black water. We had the impression that their illuminated darting was mirroring the falling stars above us.  We held our breath, drinking in the sensation of it all, not wanting this precious moment to pass.  It was as if Mother Nature was putting on a special light show, a “son et lumière” for Sally’s last night in the Amazon, and it certainly made up for the dreadful supper….….

We were brought back to earth by a slight splashing sound: Uh-oh! I thought here come those playful dolphins and if they start nudging the canoe, we’re definitely going to capsize.  When I looked back towards the hut, the lamp appeared as a tiny dot in the distance.  It was time to go back to safety, but when I started turning the canoe, I heard “Oh no, not yet, please”.

I pleaded with my two dear friends. “Look, we mustn’t go out any further, because if we do, we’re in danger of picking up a current and being swept away downstream.”  A slight exaggeration on my part but they grudgingly concurred; we’d stay just where we were.  After a while, in the following silence, we agreed that this evening would be one of our most treasured memories.  It felt like we had finally come home. 

It was spellbinding and it wasn’t long before our thoughts turned to what is reality, what is illusion and what is destiny.   It made us return once again to our recent amazing experience of being in exactly the right place at the right time for Margaret to meet with the moonflower. 

I remember Sally saying that she had read somewhere that the most obvious illusion we live under is that the colour of the sky is blue. If we care to think about it, we all know - from space travel - that it is really black. Even the Milky Way, encircling the heavens above us, is mostly an optical illusion.  Just then I looked up and said “Look at that falling star, ah but then it’s not a star at all it’s just a lump of meteor burning up as it enters earth’s atmosphere”.  Margaret laughed and said “Reality’s not very poetic is it!”  To which Sally immediately said,  “Dear Margaret, you’re capturing the moonflower the other night was acute reality, it felt like time standing still.  I shall never forget that hushed moment as it slowly opened, releasing its perfume, and watching you sketching and painted it at every stage until it bloomed, and then died right there in front of us.  Now that was reality and pathos, possibly one of the most poetic and romantic experiences any of us present could ever have”.  

Our imaginations were running riot out there under the starry canopy.  I quietly brought up a subject (which I had recently read in Time Magazine) about the ultimate escape from time and death by cryogenics, where space travellers could be frozen for long journeys through the universe and then brought back to life at some distance time.  We looked up into the great expanse of the Milky Way and tried to imagine what the next century would be like.  After giving it some thought we decided no we wouldn’t want to go there….  We unanimously decided we would much rather travel back in time than forward; the future will consume us quickly enough!!  Sally thought that, for Margaret, it would be far better if she went back in time to perhaps around the 1850’s when H.W. Bates was travelling around the Amazon.  Margaret agreed, she said that if she were unfrozen, say 100 years into the future, then there wouldn’t be any tropical forests left, and no rare species for her to sketch, and that wouldn’t do at all.   No, it was definite, we would prefer going back in time, and particularly fancied the idea of joining up with the likes of Bates and Wallace and travelling with them in an Amazon, touched only by nature.

At that moment we detested the thought of returning to civilisation.  Particularly as we would have to pass by all the deforestation and the eerie charcoal ovens. “Tree gas chambers” was what Margaret called them. They were dotted all along the riverbank, spouting smoke as they ate their way steadily through one noble tree after another. Then, we would be faced with the disgusting squalor around the port of Manaus, our destination the very next day.  

It was now time to go back to our hammocks.  Gently turning the canoe around, it was as if the lamp on the distant shore was pulling us back to reality.  Little did I know then that within a year Greville, Margaret’s husband, together with myself and a handful of very special friends would be coming back to this same spot to scatter her ashes on the Rio Negro and nail a plaque to a tree close to where we had Sally’s last supper.  Margaret was right, the Rio Negro is a much safer place to be in than so-called civilisation………

If you would like to go to Sue's third story

*INPA is the world renowned Brasilian National Amazon Research Institute
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