A Dying World

Both these books are about the use of native plants by people living in the Amazon basin, but beyond that they could hardly be more different. One River is an adventure story, a biographical account of two plant explorers, Richard Evans Schultes, Oakes Ames Professor of Economic Botany at Harvard, and his student and kindred spirit, Timothy Plowman. Wade Davis, another student of Schultes and a traveling companion of Plowman, describes the experiences of the two scientists as they explore uncharted jungles, encounter unknown tribes, and find botanical specimens whose existence had been unanticipated. Schultes is likened to his hero, the great British botanist Richard Spruce, who for fifteen years in the 1850s and 1860s explored some of the same parts of the Amazon. Nigel Smith’s book, while competently written in standard academic language, is a comparatively dry documentary without any stories of personal discovery. It is particularly concerned with the Amazon of the future, whereas One River revels in an Amazon of the past that now, in the 1990s, has all but ceased to exist.

The upper Amazon visited at mid-century by Schultes and Plowman is wild, remote, and virtually inacces-sible, sparsely inhabited by small tribes speaking mutually unintelligible languages and practicing shamanistic rituals employing concoctions made from plants unknown to science. The lower Amazon described by Smith late in the century is a thoroughly tame place inhabited by mestizos who have lost all vestiges of their indigenous roots and who are integrated, albeit marginally, into the modern global economy. It is an Amazon in which the forest and its teeming life have long since been extinguished to make way for croplands and livestock. One has to stretch the imagination to fit the two pictures together. Yet such striking juxtapositions help us to grasp the reality of the Amazon today: it is a continent-sized region at the crossroads between a mysterious and often violent past and a mundane future in the modern economy.

Most of the post-Columbian history of the Amazon is one driven by the greed and bigotry of ruthless exploiters and opportunists—conquistadors, priests of the Spanish Inquisition, plantation owners who made fortunes from slave labor, and, finally, the participants in the unbridled mania of the rubber boom. The Amazon attracted people with an overbearing cultural arrogance combined with a remarkable capacity for ethical blindness, an attitude based on the irrational and untenable pretext that Indians were subhuman. Few of them treated their horses as badly as they treated the Indians, yet most failed to grasp the hypocrisy in that inconsistency. Priests were hardly better than the fortune-seekers in their intolerance. Whereas the exploiters butchered or enslaved the Indians as subhuman beings, the priests demanded that they accept the edicts of the Catholic Church imme-diately and without question. Those who resisted were placed in stocks, whipped, or worse.

The first Europeans to experience the vastness of the Amazon were the soldiers of fortune who, in 1542, accompanied Francisco de Orellana on a quest for El Dorado. The…

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