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A Lost World

Roger Harris

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.

From The Lost AmazonClick to Enlarge Image

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 never see."

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 mist.—Roger Harris

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