Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Exploration and metropoli in the Amazon

This is a really cool video of Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist who has worked a lot in Colombia. He tells about the 16th-century Orellana expedition down the Amazon river, and the dense agricultural populations they encountered living in the forest. Davis is a foremost expert on the Amazon and the Andes, which makes it sort of surprising to hear how bad his Spanish pronunciation is!

Anyway, Davis tells about the post-Conquest change in Amazonian population patterns from dense farming villages to sparse slash-and-burn farmers and hunters. This is a field that is being investigated more and more, and we are thus reversing the old common storyline that the Amazon rainforest is and has always been a deserted, fragile area unable to support human settlement. National Geographic did a good special on the lost cities of the Amazon a while ago. That said, I feel like both Wade Davis and National Geographic sometimes get caught up in swashbuckling adventure centered on heroic explorers, as opposed to the nuanced, complex treatments of culture that they also often treat us to.

It turns out that I am currently reading a book called The Country of Cinnamon, by William Ospina, that gives a fictionalized account of the Orellana expedition. It seems to hew pretty closely to what's known of the historical facts, but it's also a great read. I feel it captures the mood of what it is to be American, to be caught between rooting for the European conqueror-heroes (our fathers?) at the same time as we lament the destruction of our maternal indigenous civilizations, and yearn for a reckoning in which the Indians will rise again. The book reads a lot like Heart of Darkness, and explores the same theme: the descent into madness of Europeans plunged into a strange new setting, with none of the rules of home to guide and bind their behavior. However, The Country of Cinnamon doesn't make the fatal flaw of assuming this is how man acts when he is alone in a place where society doesn't exist--Ospina makes it clear that the Spanish expeditionaires go mad and become barbaric not in the absence of civilized society, but because they are uncapable or unwilling to recognize the humanity and the validity of the new society they are traveling through. That is to say that unlike Conrad, who uses the Africans merely as a mystical, animal prop serving as a backdrop to Kurtz's barbarity and madness, Ospina subtly switches between (or at least recognizes the existence of) the viewpoints of the scared, brutal Spaniards, the perplexed mountain Indians accompanying the expedition, and even the scary, mysterious Amazonians who are new and unknown to Spaniard and Andean alike.

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