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A Storied Path: On Mark Plotkin’s “The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know”

Los Angeles Review of Books

FOR THE LAST three decades, the Amazon’s critical importance to the health of our planet has flowed in and out of societal consciousness like an intermittent stream, its current sometimes gathering force in the realm of public affairs, and at other times nearly disappearing into the sand of oblivion. As Mark Plotkin’s The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know details on nearly every page, concern for the Amazon Basin, with its unsurpassed biological and cultural diversity, should not be treated as a fad, coming into fashion and then disappearing like granny dresses and collarless Nehru jackets. It should not take the intentional burning of hundreds of thousands of acres of rainforest to reawaken Americans to the brutal fact that something essential to the future of life on this planet is at stake.

Perhaps the fault for not being able to sustain interest in conservation lies not just with the increasingly short attention span of Americans and Europeans. It may be that scientists and journalists have been too zealous in bludgeoning readers with a barrage of statistics and facts that fly in one ear and out the other like bullets in a narco-corrido. Thankfully, Plotkin takes another approach to sensitizing the public to the enormous social and ecological issues tightly wrapped around that single word, Amazon. In a mélange of over 60 vignettes that are almost like short stories by Chekhov, Kafka, or McGuane, Plotkin provides us with dramatic narratives, astounding images, and paradoxical ironies to reflect upon and tease apart. Shudder and shriek over this bit of natural history regarding a bloodthirsty fish barely two inches long: “[I]n search of human blood, candirus are reputed to swim up the human urethra, where they allegedly fasten themselves by spreading a series of backward-pointed spines, as if opening a tiny umbrella that then locks them in place, causing indescribable pain and sometimes death.” (Anyone ready for a swim in candiru’s riverine habitat?) Through such remarkable revelations, readers can’t help but become engaged in piecing together the intricacies of the mosaic that becomes the Amazon writ large.

Each vignette begins with an impertinent question, such as “Who were the conquistadors, and why was Lope de Aguirre considered the worst?” Plotkin creates this particular question in order to tell his readers about the treacherous and sometimes stupid gambles the Amazon’s first imperialistic explorers took in floating down the world’s greatest river. For instance, in contextualizing the manic Spaniard Aguirre — the protagonist in Werner Herzog’s chaotic film from 1972 — he notes that

Spanish rulers had an additional motivation to encourage expeditions into the Amazon: idle conquistadors were a violent and rebellious lot, and only exploring and conquering new frontiers could exhaust this dark energy. […] [But] taking horses into rainforests where there were no trails was monumentally foolish.

He draws us into imagining how circles of explorers must have huddled around campfires, weaving yarns as humankind has done for millennia. We also, along the way, briefly glimpse the faces and tails of freshwater dolphins and manatees, and learn how hopelessly wrong the first anthropologists were in describing the rainforest management capabilities of indigenous cultures and their supposedly meager influence on “an impenetrable wilderness.” According to remarkable sleuthing by the likes of Anna Roosevelt, William Balée, and the late Darrell Posey, it now appears that some Amazonian cultures modified between 12 percent and 40 percent of Amazonia into an anthropogenic “food forest” by enhancing chronically nutrient-poor soils with a pyrolyzed charcoal soil amendment now known as biochar.

Such glorious stories cannot merely come from diligent “book-learning,” although the author is careful to include references to recent discoveries in archaeology, ethnobotany, forest ecology, hydrology, linguistics, geography, and natural resource management that explode old scientific truisms about this South American landscape complex. One such set of discoveries calls into question the Bering land bridge hypothesis of Asian settlement of the Americas — in 12,500 to 14,000 BP — on the basis of older archaeological as well as human genetic evidence of South American inhabitants who preceded the Clovis and Folsom Paleo-cultures of North America. Delving deeper into this text, readers may be humbled by how wrong-headed most historic colonial assumptions and even 20th-century science were about the waters, soils, flora, fauna, and most of all, the people of Amazonia. The author has particular fun in recounting how Harvard University sent an expedition to the Amazon organized by the racist and creationist Louis Agassiz to disprove the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution through natural selection.

Because Plotkin has devoted two-thirds of his life to collaborations with other cultures and scholarly disciplines, he knows the history of colonization, exploration, and community-based conservation of Amazonian landscapes like the back of his hand. He and his wife, Liliana Madrigal, not only founded the Amazon Conservation Team two decades ago, but earlier led pioneering projects in rainforest conservation for World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International. Their departure from the global conservation organization groups to further test their own well-honed set of community-based strategies for land management and indigenous sovereignty initially caused a stir in Washington, DC, but has provided tangible benefits to both indigenous and Afro-Latino “creole” communities ever since, serving to set the standards for all conservation projects in the Amazon.

No shrill, doomsday prognosticator crying out from a padded chair in an Ivory Tower, Plotkin viscerally draws you into both conservation and human rights so that you are informed enough to make your own decisions about them. But you also come away with a sense of the enormous efforts already being taken to safeguard the indigenous rights, environmental health, and biocultural patrimony of Amazonian communities in the face of the daunting pressures being placed upon the region’s natural resources.

To be sure, the tragedies of cultural survival and biodiversity loss revealed in this book are not exclusive to the Amazon or to rainforests in general. There is as much need to extend this kind of storytelling and solutions-based action to the deserts, wetlands, and coral reefs of this planet, where just as many distinctive lives are at stake. But as he has done in his other books and films like Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice and Medicine Quest, Plotkin blazes a path for others to follow: a storied path that can help us both re-story and restore the precious places persisting on this planet, despite all odds.

Gary Paul Nabhan is an agricultural ecologist and ethnobotanist based at the University of Arizona.

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