Wednesday, February 27, 2002
By Wade Davis
Special to the News
There was a half-moon, and I awoke to the sounds of the forest: cicadas and tree frogs, the piercing notes of a screech owl, the caw-caw-caw of bamboo rats. At one point I thought I heard a jaguar but wasn't sure. I looked about, saw smoke weeping out of the thatch of Kowe's house, heard soft voices and the swoosh of a feather fan bringing a fire to life. Someone was singing on the other side of the village, a far-off nasal chant, difficult to distinguish from the other sounds.
Entering the book, One River, one begins a dangerous and captivating journey. Wade Davis, an ethno-botanist, describes the layered complexities of the Amazon Rain Forest, the strange and hallucinogenic mushrooms, the lethal toxins of snakes, and the life-saving medicines distilled from them. The profound and complex structures of native cultures fit precisely into the fabric he weaves. He is not sparing when he relates the cruelties visited upon the natives by some "civilized" people, but he also notes the kindnesses of others. His telling of the treatment of the indigenous people by the "rubber barons" is more ghastly and revolting than any horror story. It is a fact, nonetheless, that explains much of the suspicion and hostility the native people have for outsiders. The text of his rich landscapes enter one's head like photographs taken at just the right light, focus, and backdrop.
"The rising sun touched the flank of the mountain, casting long shadows across almost imperceptible undulations on the earth. The shadows drew in toward dawn, quivered at the last moment, and gave way to a river of sunlight that poured partially over every slope . . . to the northwest the mountains fell away to the sea and the shimmering on the horizon was an open expanse of the Caribbean."
Upon finishing the book, the reader realizes that besides his having been happily transported by Davis' masterly prose, he has also become well-versed on the botanical riches of the forest, the history of ethno-botany from the 18th century to today, become conversant with the jungles of the Amazon, and persuaded of many of the conclusions Davis has made about its future.
Margaret Euwer lives in Parkdale. She wrote this review for the "Beloved Books" feature in the Feb. 27 Kaleidoscope.