Three Lessons in Amazonian Biology Summary

Pam Houston


Pam Houston's short story "Three Lessons in Amazonian Biology" takes the author's protagonist, Lucy O'Rourke, to Ecuador. While there, her nature guide, Renato, uses the rich life of the Amazon jungle to teach Lucy about life. Renato believes it is unnatural for Lucy to be living and traveling alone, and he uses the jungle's creatures to prove his point.

Renato doe not understand how Lucy cannot find a suitable mate, so he tells her the story of the pehah bird. The pehah is not an attractive bird, he tells her. The bird's feathers are dull brown. In a jungle as large and full of life as the Amazon, the pehah has a lot of competition. A majority of the birds in the jungle are brightly colored, such as the parrots, the hummingbirds, and the macaws. The pehah, however, has found a way to stand out. Renato demonstrates this by putting two fingers in his mouth and letting out a very loud whistle and the pehah responds with a similar sound. This loud sound helps the bird attract a mate, although the pehah still has to have a lot of patience, as it typically spends three-fourths of its life looking for a partner.

Lucy relates to this story as she recalls several of her failed attempts of finding a boyfriend. Tony, who is one of her ex-boyfriends, calls Lucy while she is still in Ecuador and begs her to come to Michigan on her way home. He is single again and believes the two of them should attempt to rekindle their relationship. However, by the time Lucy arrives in Ann Arbor, Tony has a new girlfriend, leaving Lucy with nothing to do but leave after one night's sleep.

Houston creates a similar pattern throughout this short story. Lucy encounters dangers such as spiders as big as her hand, a thirteen-foot cayman (an alligator-type reptile) that attempts to jump into her canoe, and hotels that have no power or water. Then she juxtaposes her Amazonian adventures with her failed sexual affairs, such as with a hippie carpenter and a single father who has kidnapped his son. The hippie carpenter ends their relationship by concluding that Lucy is not on the same higher spiritual plane as he is. The single father almost strangles her in the middle of their first kiss.

"Three Lessons in Amazonian Biology" was published in the collection Waltzing the Cat, which received numerous positive reviews. Clay Reynolds, writing for the Houston Chronicle, stated that each of the stories in this collection offers a "well made narrative."