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Amazon Ambassador: NYTimes review of: Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon

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  • Teresa Binstock
    NYTimes review of: Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon. By John Hemming. Illustrated. 368 pp. Thames & Hudson. $39.95. - - - - Amazon Ambassador By CANDICE
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 2008
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      NYTimes review of:

      Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon.
      By John Hemming.
      Illustrated. 368 pp. Thames & Hudson. $39.95.

      - - - -

      Amazon Ambassador

      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 PanarĂ¡ 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 PanarĂ¡ 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
      behind us.

      Candice Millard is the author of "The River of Doubt: Theodore
      Roosevelt's Darkest Journey."


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