One of the delights of our literature in recent years has been its expanding range. Not only are small Ontario towns explored, but also floating teapots and cabbages off coastal Ireland, the winds of North African deserts, nineteenth-century servant life and psychology, the circus in Bombay, and the inhabitants of Noah's Ark. A title by Ronald Wright illustrates this best: we've become a nation that's both Home & Away.
Wade Davis is definitely away. Ten years ago he created a major flurry of interest with The Serpent & the Rainbow, an account of his search for the zombi potion of Haiti, a book more novelistic than ethnobotanical, and one that, unfortunately, got him compared to Indiana Jones, the cartoonish Hollywood explorer allegedly based on Roy Chapman Andrews-a palaeontologist, camel-rider, explorer of the Gobi desert, and a marksman who once used distant, threatening, Mongolian brigands for target practice. (Research among indigenous peoples has evolved somewhat since then.) Maclean's, not long ago, called The Serpent &the Rainbow self-dramatizing. Later, it was made into an atrocious Hollywood film by the schlock-and-splatter master Wes Craven.
Davis collided spectacularly with the criticisms that creative non-fiction, or fact-fiction, whichever we prefer to call it, can encounter. When I was asked to review One River I went back and read the earlier book again, and decided that my original opinion was correct: The Serpent & the Rainbow is a wonderful run, sometimes melodramatic. True, it does begin with a needless account of crossing the Darien Gap on foot, in order to prove Davis's worth as adventurer, and that early chapter did make me wonder if he'd just finished reading Mathiessen's The Snow Leopard. But then it settles down into an outlandish, interesting, yet scholarly voyage through a very alien culture for a boy from British Columbia.
One River is a far more mature book, equally exciting, yet elegiac. Anyone who can thrill and scare and sadden with an account of searching for leaf-blight-immune rubber trees makes big points on my scorecard.
Essentially, One River is a very personal account of ethnobotanists, two in particular, Richard Evans Schultes, and his most promising student, Tim Plowman. It mirrors the travels of Plowman and Davis in the seventies with those of Schultes thirty years earlier.
Schultes is the heart of the book. A brilliant but eccentric botanist, this director of the Botanical Museum at Harvard wandered the jungles of the Amazon for thirteen years starting in 1939-a six-month leave of absence that extended into perhaps the last great plant hunt of the century. Schultes has what Davis calls the "taxonomic eye". When most people look at a clearing they recognize what they know. Schultes recognized what he didn't know, and that usually meant a new species. Nowadays, if a botanist discovers a new species, his or her reputation is assured. Schultes discovered more than three hundred.
Also, he was an originator of ethnobotany. His motto appears to have been "Trust your informants." He often travelled the jungle, armed with a copy of Homer, his linguistic skills, and his immense knowledge of plants, and perhaps accompanied by a local boy to translate if things got complicated. Fighting off beriberi or malaria, he explored the wildest regions, encountered the most unencountered tribes such as the Kogi and the Waorni, and humbly inquired of their knowledge. Needless to say, this approach made him welcome, where others had been killed. His trust saved him many times, and only endangered him once, according to Davis, when he nearly drank a bowlful of curare handed him by a tribesman who had spent years building up his immunity to the deadly substance and assumed that a knowledgeable man like Schultes would have done the same.
I first heard of Schultes in the late sixties; an obscure academic then, his report on the famous magic mushroom, the teonanacatl of the Aztecs was passed around by those interested in the malo hongos (as we knew them) of Mexico. It is strange that a Harvard professor of that era was one of the leading researchers into peyote, yagé, and mushrooms, etc. It is especially strange when that professor was a formal conservative who refused to accept the American revolution and considered himself a British subject. This is the same man who took William Burroughs along while exploring yagé in the Amazon, a journey Burroughs wrote about in his now famous letters to Allen Ginsberg.
There is a hilarious picture of Schultes included in the book, taken after a night of peyote. His companion Weston La Barre, who later wrote The Peyote Cult, looks wrecked, as does even the native leader-but not Schultes, his tie clip neatly in place. A miraculous image for anyone who can remember jet projectile vomiting after consuming peyote buttons on some lonely mountaintop in the sixties. This was a man who believed in the rule of law, yet was also a libertarian when it came to individuals' use of their own bodies. He was also one of the forerunners of the dictum that a poison is only a medicine of the wrong strength.
His horticultural explorations illustrate this theory, as well as much else in the magic life of plants. For plant enthusiasts who can remember that first breathless discovery of heliconia, or watching an old Ukrainian nurseryman fondling the variegated leaves of a rare bambusoides, this book is a treat indeed.
Part of the joy of One River is in the relationships with aboriginal peoples. Schultes's trust, and later, Davis's and Plowman's, pay off. For instance, Schultes encounters a potion made up of three plants, each one toxic, yet in combination not. How this was discovered by these people is hard to imagine. At the same time, the text doesn't fall victim to the pablumic faith in everything native, as does David Suzuki's recent and embarrassing Wisdom of the Elders.
Equally important is Plowman's assignment to explore the consumption of the coca leaf among the Andean peoples. The leaf is nothing like the substance processed down for North American druggies. It's a mild stimulant, with an essential place in the culture of these peoples, useful for enzymes that supplement their high-starch diet, socially acceptable, mythologically necessary, part of the fabric of their lives as coffee is part of ours, even more so because they need it as a source of calcium. Soon after this research, these people were reduced to ruin, their land and rivers poisoned by the American "zero tolerance" policy, which had nothing to do with their lives, but much to do with the socio-economic failings of the American corporate universe.
Davis follows the travels of Schultes, parallelling them with his own travels with Plowman in a pickup known as "The Red Hotel", often tracing the same routes, yet branching off. At first the structure of the book is disconcerting-combining ancient history, plant knowledge, modern politics, and the techniques of jungle travel-until you realize it's constructed like a river: branching, moving, a home for the wild diversity of life on this planet. It's a beautiful river, elegiac, violent, humorous, historic, lush, and dangerous.
Plowman died of AIDS in 1989. Schultes's great contribution to rubber research was cut down by an ignorant bureaucrat in Washington, leaving the rubber supply of the world susceptible to the introduction of a leaf blight fungus in Asia (though one suspects that not all the rubber tree plantations are quite such easy victims as Davis claims). The book ends with the memory of one last hallucinatory night shared by Plowman and Davis following in the footsteps of Schultes at the well of yagé, closing with an elegant paragraph bringing these histories together like the "branches of a river flowing into one."
Perhaps the only weakness of the book is that last yagé trip. It seems too meaningful: Davis, with his novelistic sense, is trying to close the circle. I would have appreciated a little more detail on Schultes's and Plowman's later years. But this is a minor hiccup in a work that eclipses other botanical texts that have become modern classics for laymen, such as A Species of Eternity; it's also a travel book that equals the works of Bruce Chatwin and Ronald Wright-a moving, exciting hymn to human dreams and to lives like a river.
Brian Brett writes and gardens on Salt Spring Island, B.C.