Amazon Ambassador: NYTimes review of: Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon
- NYTimes review of:
Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon.
By John Hemming.
Illustrated. 368 pp. Thames & Hudson. $39.95.
- - - -
By CANDICE MILLARD
June 1, 2008
Although John Hemming has long been a widely respected scholar of the
Amazon --- its forests, rivers and people --- the roots of his knowledge
are much more than academic. When Hemming was just 26, his first
full-scale expedition into the Amazon was cut short when the
expedition's leader, a friend of Hemming's from Oxford, was ambushed by
a group of Panará tribesmen. The Indians riddled the young man with
eight arrows and crushed his skull with a handmade club. Hemming helped
carry the embalmed and canvas-wrapped body out of the rain forest so
that it could be buried in a British cemetery in Brazil. Before he
returned home, however, he left gifts for the Panará at the site where
his friend's body had been found.
Exceedingly rare in the blood-soaked history of Amazon exploration,
Hemming's attempt to end the centuries-old cycle of violence has become
one of the defining moments of his career. In the nearly 50 years that
have followed his first, ill-fated expedition, he has become a powerful
advocate for the rain forest and, even more, for its native inhabitants.
He has visited dozens of tribes, four of whom had never before had
contact with the outside world; served as president of Britain's
renowned Royal Geographical Society; and written several books on South
America, including a trilogy about Brazil's indigenous people that has
become a classic.
Hemming's most recent book, "Tree of Rivers," covers ground familiar to
anyone interested in the history of the Amazon. What makes the book
important and, in many ways, even remarkable, are the breadth of the
author's experience and the depth of his understanding. Throughout,
Hemming scatters modest references to his own extraordinary journeys. As
an aside, while discussing the river's multitude of swift,
rapids-studded tributaries, he recalls that he was once nearly swept to
his death in one. When explaining the potentially deadly diseases that
Amazon explorers and natives alike have long suffered, he casually
mentions that he has twice endured the searing fever and bone-grinding
chills of malaria. Having cut trails through dense, remote rain forest,
and having felt the sickening and very real danger of becoming
hopelessly lost, he understands much better than most the extraordinary
skill it takes for indigenous people to navigate their world.
While Hemming has a deep appreciation for the beauty of the rain forest,
he also understands why explorers fighting for their lives might be
forgiven if they did not often stop to admire it. "Occasionally a shaft
of sunlight pierces the gloom, illuminating huge blue morpho butterflies
or rare colored plants that brighten the prevailing browns and greens,"
Hemming writes. "But the beauty is lost on explorers having to hack
through such foliage. ... After a few weeks of such toil, nonindigenous
men are pale, with clothes torn and boots disintegrating. Their skin is
covered in bites, thorns and festering scratches, and the glands that
filter insect poison from arms and legs are swollen and sore."
Outsiders' helplessness in the Amazon, particularly in comparison with
the deftness of its native inhabitants, is a recurring theme in "Tree of
Rivers." The vast difference between the two groups is immediately
apparent from the earliest European explorers to arrive in South
America. Francisco de Orellana's legendary descent of the Amazon River
in 1541, for instance, is a story less of triumph than of utter
disaster. "These young Spaniards were the finest fighting men in
Europe," Hemming marvels. "They were invincible in the Caribbean and
open parts of the Andes. But as soon as they descended into the Amazon
forests they became helpless incompetents." Although they were traveling
through the richest ecosystem on earth, seven of Orellana's men starved
to death, and the survivors were reduced to eating the soles of their
shoes. "One race blundered around, torn, bitten and starving," Hemming
writes, "while the other slipped through the vegetation in good health
and with a balanced diet."
For thousands of years, Indians have survived in the Amazon much more
effectively and gracefully than any outsider could hope to.
Unfortunately, since the 16th century, their survival has depended
largely on avoiding not poisonous snakes or razor-toothed fish, but
white men. In "Tree of Rivers," Hemming charts the near wholesale
destruction of Amazonian Indians by men who saw no value in the rain
forest beyond rubber and slaves --- and stopped at nothing to acquire
them. Villages were repeatedly attacked, the men kidnapped, the women
raped and the children savagely murdered. Once enslaved, the Indians
were tortured or worked to death.
Tens of thousands of Indians were killed and entire tribes wiped out
during the rubber boom of the early 20th century and the hundreds of
years of slaving expeditions that preceded it. Those who survived either
moved so far up the river's tributaries that no outsiders could possibly
reach them, or they fought back. As early as the 18th century, the Mura,
enraged by the enslavement of some of their own, became, in Hemming's
words, "brilliant guerilla fighters. They used large bows and long
arrows, and by holding one end of the bow to the ground with their toes
could fire missiles with enough velocity to pass clean through a man."
As skilled in strategy as they were in combat, the Mura patiently waited
near rapids, attacking when their enemies were at their most vulnerable
and helpless in the roiling waters.
By the time Brazil established the Indian Protection Service in 1910,
the Amazon's people were, as Hemming describes one group, "implacably
hostile and justifiably suspicious of all whites." Explorers throughout
the 20th century --- everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Hemming himself
--- learned this lesson firsthand as expeditions were attacked swiftly
and silently. The Indian Protection Service attempted to make peaceful
contact with the Amazon's most isolated tribes, but in the end, it did
more harm than good. "The first encounter was often done by skilled and
well-intentioned officers," Hemming explains. "But, almost inevitably,
there was soon a terrible epidemic --- measles, influenza or
tuberculosis --- for which there was no remedy or for which inadequate
medical provision had been made. Also, all too often, when a feared
tribe ceased to fight, its forests and rivers were invaded."
Near the end of "Tree of Rivers," Hemming invites readers to look at the
Amazon through his eyes. As his title suggests, what he sees when he
considers a satellite picture of the sprawling river is the outline of
an enormous tree. "Twigs join branches that thicken as they move down
towards a massive central trunk, which in turn broadens at its bole,"
Hemming writes. The trunk of Hemming's tree is the Amazon, the branches
are its tributaries, the twigs their streams. After centuries of
exploration and exploitation, the trunk of this great river system has
been largely abandoned by its native inhabitants. The branches, however,
are still home to scattered groups, some of whom have had no contact
with the outside world. "Tree of Rivers" is a powerful reminder that it
is our responsibility not only to protect them by leaving them alone
but, if our paths do cross, to leave gifts rather than destruction
Candice Millard is the author of "The River of Doubt: Theodore
Roosevelt's Darkest Journey."
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