July 15, 2009

The Primeval Rain Forest, Not

On the tracks of Colonel Fawcett's last expedition, writer David Gann paid a jungle visit on anthropologist Michael J. Heckenberger, author of The Ecology of Power: Culture, Place and Personhood in the Southern Amazon, AD 1000-2000,

Heckenberger writes of our tendency to view Amazonian Indians as natürvolkern—archaic and unchanging—who live in either (a) Edenic paradise or (b) "green hell." (For the latter, see Werner Herzog's memoir of filming Fitzcarraldo, published as Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo.)

It's the old virgin/whore dichotomy again, which we perpetually apply to the natural world.

A few observations, tangential to Heckenberger's thesis but more interesting to me:

• The natives probably seemed Edenic to the first naturalists, who saw the area beginning in the 1700s, after European diseases and, in some places, the slave trade, had reduced populations considerably. Native populations bottomed in the mid-20th century. Actually, Col. Percy Fawcett was right: there was a lost civilization, but its monuments were horizontal--dikes, roads, canals, moats, earthworks--not vertical.

• Those higher populations had affected the landscape considerably. The author observes,

Today, I would not assume that any part of the forest is "pristine" without a detailed examination on the ground. In place of small paths in the forest and minor openings related to plaza villages and gardens, I now envision tree-lined causeways, well-maintained, broad roads, large patchy tracts of agricultural fields leading out from the towns and villages ... and an equally well-constructed wetland environment, including major transportation canals, managed ponds, improved fishing, drinking and bathing reservoirs, raised causeways, wells, raised fields, and road systems, among other features.

In archaeology, he notes, "Amazonia has just appreared on the intellectual horizon."

I wonder if the activists who write enthusiastically of Amazonia as "the lungs of the Earth" and so on would falter if they could not think of it as a pristine region inhabited by natives "living in tune with the Earth." Can we value that nature that is not "pristine"?


LabRat said...

If I ever scrape together enough brain cells at the same time, I have a hell of a rant on how the trend in environmentalism has been increasingly toward seeing humans and nature as entirely separate, as though "nature" were a thing behind an invisible glass wall that can be sometimes viewed but never breached.

Wouldn't count on it happening anytime soon at this rate, though.

Chas S. Clifton said...

One of the best fictional descriptions of the attitude that you describe comes in John Crowley's novel Beasts, as I recall.

LSP said...

Excellent point - Fawcett's a fascinating character too; interesting that environmentalists ignore his archeology. Of course it doesn't fit in with their picture of things...

M.L. Miller said...

I'm surprised to see a mention of Beasts as I wrote about it in this blog post:


Lately it seems I think about that novel a lot, because I fear too many people aspire to such a world.

That said, at times it feels like the long human history in the Amazon is being used as an excuse for deforestation.