A Lost World
A trip to the Amazon is the adventure of a lifetime. Wade Davis's
The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans
Schultes (Chronicle Books, $35) offers armchair travelers the
next best thing. Schultes, "the father of modern
ethnobotany," explored the Amazon from 1941 to 1953. Showcased
in this volume are many of his remarkable photographs, which sweep
the reader into the rain forest and down the world's greatest river.
The images are interwoven with an account of his life, beginning
with his student days at Harvard, where he later became a professor
and was a mentor to Davis. Some of the text is adapted from Davis's
1996 biography of Schultes, One River.
After completing his doctorate in 1941, Schultes received a
fellowship from the National Research Council to look for the
botanical sources of curare, an arrow poison, in the northwest
Amazon basin. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he turned up
at the American Embassy in Bogotá, assuming he would join the
armed forces. Instead, the government ordered him to return to the
rain forest to look for new sources of rubber for the war effort. He
emerged 12 years later, having collected and classified more than
30,000 plant specimens, 300 of them new species. (He is shown in the
figure at right on a cliff in the Vaupés with a new genus of
African violet he discovered; its name, Resia, is derived
from his initials.) In the course of his travels he encountered two
dozen Amazonian tribes, whose use of plants became the focus of his
lifework. He captured these people and their customs and
surroundings in hundreds of photographs, a legacy stunningly
presented here for the first time.
But this is not just a book for photographers. It's a must for
ethnobotanists and will appeal to any scientist interested in
learning about the challenges of fieldwork in tropical rain forests.
Conservationists, anthropologists and historians will value it for
its depiction of a world that no longer exists.
Indeed, the Amazon Schultes encountered is lost, as the sepia tones
of the photographs suggest. These absorbing images of a world that
seems to be slipping away faster every day are poignant and
compelling, as is this account of Schultes, who died in 2001. The
book must have been a labor of love for Davis, who knew Schultes
well. It's a well-deserved eulogy paying homage to a great scientist.
The volume highlights Schultes's specialty: psychotropic plants,
which the Indians used for healing and religious rituals. Expert on
medicinal plants and natural medicine guru Andrew Weil, another
former student of Schultes, was therefore an obvious choice to write
the Foreword, which testifies to Schultes's status as a
"legendary botanical explorer." Curiously, Weil has little
to say about the photography.
Schultes's images of plants have appeared elsewhere, but most of the
illustrations in The Lost Amazon are previously unpublished
photographs of people—the "ethno" too often absent
from works on ethnobotany. His human subjects seem lost in many
meanings of the word: no longer existing, wandering, absorbed and
abstracted. Yet his images imbue them with dignity and strength, and
ensure that at least they will not be forgotten.
The pictures are vignettes of the Amazon seen through Schultes's
eyes. Some are timeless. The 1951 photo (figure 1,
bottom right) of a Cubeo woman bathing her child at
Soratama, on the Río Apaporis, could have been taken last
year. But today one would never come across a family all in
traditional dress like the one from the Cofàn tribe shown in
a 1941 photo (top left) taken in Conejo, an area of Ecuador
that has since been developed for oil extraction. A 1944 portrait
(not shown) of a Tikuna woman in traditional dress, her
face lined with age, is reminiscent of the famous pictures of North
American Indians taken by Edward S. Curtis and David F. Barry during
the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Schultes's camera peers into a hidden world. One of the most
striking photographs (top right) shows a Cubeo shaman under
the influence of yagé, also called
ayahuasca, or the vision vine (Banisteriopsis
caapi). He seems to be looking right out of the page into your
soul, as if to say, "Who are you?" As Chris Murray points
out in the Afterword, Schultes's photos "demonstrate a deep
trust between the photographer and his subjects" and
"document a sacred part of Amazonian life that most of us would
Davis describes how Indians prepare and administer psychoactive
substances, which for them are indeed sacred. They provide a means
of communicating with the spirit world for quite specific purposes:
healing, or assuring success in the harvest or hunt. Thus Schultes
was amazed to find one tribe who used drugs recreationally,
something new in his experience of the culture.
Through his text and choice of photographs, Davis demonstrates
Schultes's ability to connect with the Indians. But back in the
United States, Schultes was regarded as somewhat eccentric. Davis
observes that he "was as far removed from the pop culture of
his day as a medieval herbalist" and notes that "His
politics were exceedingly conservative. . . . [H]e professed not to
believe in the American Revolution and always voted for Her Majesty
Queen Elizabeth II."
This is a coffee-table book, not a thorough treatment or
comprehensive review of Schultes's contributions to ethnobotany. It
makes no significant reference to scientific literature, and it
lacks an index. But these are minor criticisms, given that the
book's goal is to pay visual homage to Schultes's dozen years in the Amazon.
The Lost Amazon illustrates Schultes's defining years, and
through its pages one senses the spirit of the man. In the book's
final plate, a photo taken in 1951 of a stream running through dense
cloud forest in Colombia's Serrania de la Macarena, it seems as
though his ghost is about to materialize out of the forest
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