Wednesday, 2 August 2017

No.47 - Back to the Amazon

All photos: Dan Wylie
"The Amazon is dying!” trumpets one of the endless stream of online petitions. Corruption, greed, collusion between politicians and moguls hungry to cash in on beef or minerals or electricity ... Not much has changed over three centuries in that quarter. But at the same time – this time of global environmental crisis – many voices are being raised in a kind of love for ‘Grandmother Amazon’.

What a change this is from the attitudes of earlier European travellers, ethnographers and missionaries who, in their smug and self-sacrificial way, gave themselves over to trying to haul remote and isolated ‘Indian’ tribes bodily into modernity.  Those intruders, coming from an industrially-developing Europe which largely thought of wilderness as a blight to be conquered or held at a safe aesthetic distance, found the Amazonian jungle terrifying. And they took their fear out on the hapless indigenous peoples, even as they enslaved them to leach the forests of rubber.

Michael Taussig’s gritty and unsparing book, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man, relates the cycle of violence against both nature and natives in the colonial Amazon:

[T]he image of stark opposition and of otherness in the primeval jungle comes forth as the colonially intensified metaphor for the great space of terror and cruelty ... working its way in the ancient forests of the tropics ... such that the brutal destructiveness imputed to the natural world serves to embody even more destructive relations in human society.

In the 1820s (just as Thomas Pringle & Co were settling in another wilderness in our own Eastern Cape), the British explorer Charles Stuart Cochrane experienced the jungle as a riot of predatory violence:

[E]ach shrub or tree weakens or destroys its neighbour, by its excess of produce, which is greater than the space will admit. One plant springs up to destroy its predecessor, and is doomed to the same fate itself by the growth of its successor. It appears as if a war existed amongst plants, similar to that which devastates the human world, and prevails even amongst brutes and insects. ... Why it should be so – what great or good object is gained by it, we know not; we only perceive that all are under some irresistible influence, and impelled by some invisible power.

And this thirty years or more before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

A hundred years later, responses remained often the same.  The Colombian Joaquin Rocha descended into the Amazon basin from the Peruvian Andes. Down in the jungle, he wrote:

The silence hangs heavy, broken only by the clanging clamour of the torrents, the growling of tigers, and the swarming of infinite vipers and venomous insects. In [the village of] Descanse begins the plague of vampire bats that extends until Brazil, treacherously sucking in the hours of dreams the blood of men and animals. There also, by the side of Brassymum galactodendron whose trunk when incised yields milk as delicious and nutritive as the cow’s, grows the Rhus juglande folia whose mere shade puffs up and scars the careless wanderer. There one begins to suffer the privations and calamities of the wilderness, that in the Caqueta and the Putumayo grow so as to at times make of life there scenes whose horror could figure in the Dantean pages of Purgatory and Hell.... There the person in perpetual contact with this savage wilderness becomes just as savage.

A strange mix of  botanical accuracy and revulsion.  It was the lack of controllable order that seemed to space visitors out most.  The indigenes had to be subjected to the same order, too (or elevated into it, as some thought of it).  The result, as Roger Casement was almost simultaneously documenting in both the Congo and the Peruvian Amazon, the impact on local populations was vicious to the point of genocide.

Oddly, at much the same time as Rocha was quaking in his boots, and Casement was irritating the British Government with the grim truths of colonial invasion, the great English Modernist writer Virginia Woolf was composing The Voyage Out (1915). The characters in this early novel voyage to a fictional holiday resort on the South American coast; most of the ‘action’ consists of intricate conversations about one another, but at one point some of them do take a boat trip up a major river into the forested hinterland. As one might expect from a writer who had never been there, the descriptions of the jungle are rather generalised. At first, this forest which, Woolf writes, had scarcely changed since Elizabethan times, overwhelms:

They seemed to be driving into the heart of the night, for the trees closed in front of them, and they could hear all around them the rustling of leaves. The great darkness had the usual effect of taking away all desire for communication by making their words sound thin and small ... The trees and the undergrowth seemed to be strangling each other near the ground in a multitudinous wrestle; while here and there a splendid tree towered high above the swarm, shaking its thin green umbrellas in the upper air.

And one character, Hirst, bursts out:

“It makes one awfully queer, don’t you find ... These trees get on one’s nerves – it’s all so crazy. God’s undoubtedly mad. What sane person could have conceived a wilderness like this, and peopled it with apes and alligators?”

But other characters do find glimpses of beauty in the forest, moments of meditation, fabulous butterflies. This party of displaced and introverted English makes a boat trip to an “Indian village”, evidently rather set up for the titillation of foreign voyeurs. A sad and depleted community, the scene saddens them, makes at least one character even more aware of the essential fragility of their lives.

Much the same happened to me when I descended on the Amazon almost exactly a century later in 2013. I had the advantage of a jet liner that landed me in Manaus, a city of half a million right in the middle of the Amazon basin. I shacked up at little tour outpost on a tributary of the Amazon itself, with a dining room mounted on great floating logs and reed-walled cabins. I was mainly there to research caimans for my book on crocodiles – which I did to the extent of going out with a guide at night, boating among the reeds with eyes gleaming back in our torchlight, until we caught a little fellow who had to suffer the indignity of being manhandled by everybody and photographed before being released. 

Like Woolf’s characters we also dropped in on the obligatory ‘Indian village’, watched women weaving house walls from palm fronds, lamented the thinness of the scabrous dogs, and felt obliged to buy a necklace adorned with a piranha jaw. It was all rather dispiriting and faintly artificial – a sense of a kind of “slow violence” (the phrase is Rob Nixon’s) inflicted on a reluctant people.

With motley international companions I also boated through various channels in the complex waterways, looking for grey and pink dolphins in the ochre waters, sloths and howler monkeys in the trees, jacanas in the water-lily beds. The river was in flood, so we could kayak almost through the lower canopy of the huge trees – what they call the varzea – where all horizons and directions and depths are lost in a shimmering maze of bewitching reflections melting into more reflections.

And we walked in the jungle. Unlike my predecessor travellers, I absolutely loved it. For all the sweat-drenching humidity, the startling thorns, and stinging ants, and tarantulas we coaxed out of their burrows, and the possibility of jaguar and anaconda (I didn’t get to see either, sadly), I felt utterly at home there. I was raised in forest – albeit nothing so gigantic as this – so my soul was prepared, despite the radical differences in vegetation. I couldn’t stop taking photos of light through palm fronds, and luminous fungi, and fringes of feathery leaves, and marvellously symmetrical creepers snaking up the massive buttresses of towering trees. We slept out, in a row of hammocks under a reed lean-to: I could scarcely sleep for the multiplex, layered sounds of the forest’s insects and frogs and creaking night birds and subtle whisperings of wind and nearby water. Struggle and competition there surely is out there, but also a riot of symbioses, mutualities, supports and sharings. What I could hear of it through the snoring, that is: I just wanted to be alone out there, in the not-silence.

Back in Manaus, I attended part of a jazz festival in the incongruously huge, gold-domed opera house – an opera-house in the jungle! This of course was the subject of Werner Hertzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, in which the hero Fitzgerald humps the materials for an opera-house over a jungle-encrusted ridge between rivers to construct his dream (wholly unnecessarily, in real life). Hertzog captured the experience of filming Fitzcarraldo in another film – a meta-film – called The Burden of Dreams, in which he had this to say about the jungle:
There is some kind of harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle.
            We in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel.
            And we have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the ... stars up here in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted with this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgement. ... fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away...

Some love. Obscenity and fornication – really? I suspect the problem was that the jungle, unaccountably, failed to stroke Werner’s overweening ego.

Likewise even the most lyrical and insightful of all Amazonian ethnographers, Philippe Descola, whose book The Spears of Twilight relates his time of living with the fabled Putumayo people. He cannot but feel rebuffed, his very sense of self disintegrating, if he approaches the forest wearing European artistic lenses:

Submerged in its green monotones, nature here is not of the kind to inspire a painter. Only at twilight does it deploy its bad taste, in line with Baudelairean aesthetics, exceeding the artifice of the gaudiest of coloured images. The inhabitants of the forest become exceptionally agitated during this brief debauchery of colour. The animals of the daytime noisily prepare for sleep while the
nocturnal species awaken for the hunt, their carnivorous appetites whetted. Smells are also more definable now, for the heat of the long late afternoon has given them a consistency that the sun can no longer dissipate. ... [T]he sensual organs are suddenly assailed at dusk by a multiplicity of simultaneous perceptions that make it very difficult to discriminate between sight, sound and smell. Thanks to this brutal onslaught on the senses, the transition between day and night in the forest acquires a dimension of its own as if, for a brief moment just before the great void of sleep takes over, the human body is no longer separate from the environment.

When acres of clear-felling (for rubber and hamburgers), pollution from mining operations (mercury turning up in the tissues of caimans), and proposals to build dozens of dams on Amazonian tributaries, this sense of being overwhelmed is waning. The ecological consequences of decimating the “lungs of the world", and the planet’s highest reservoir of biodiversity, are one thing. We are also destroying the very sense of mystery on which our psyches seem to long for, like an inner Eden.  Michael Taussig is sensitive to its fragility, but even his perception is shadowed by a sense of threat:

Yet all around in the forest nothing is fixed. The rain is beating. The water drips off the shining leaves in the dark forest. Rivulets form into streams and rivers gather force to form the muddy Amazon swirling past the Italian marble and Polish prostitutes of rubber-rich Manaos ... Onward swirls the river to the sea close by where Columbus’s boats met the heaving chop of the currents of the Orinoco, one of the four rivers of Paradise...

What have we come to, when the very health of our planet is perceived as alien to us...


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