The Lost Amazon

by Wade Davis
ISBN: 1553650786

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A Review of: The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes
by John Oughton

"Botanist" conjures an image of a meek, Mr. Magoo-like scholar inspecting flowers through a magnifying glass. But the specialization of "ethnobotany" (the study of plant use by indigenous peoples) obviously produces far more daring scientists, willing to endure physical danger, isolation and hallucinations to expand their own minds and human knowledge itself. Long-time Harvard professor Richard Evans Schultes, an "extreme" ethnobotanist if there ever was one, and his disciple Wade Davis (whose discovery of the drugs used to create zombies is detailed in The Serpent and the Rainbow), have undertaken adventures that make Survivor episodes look like walks in a park.
Schultes had an extraordinary career. A quotation attributed to him on the Internet: "Adventures happen only to those incapable of planning an expedition" reveals both his rational mindset and wry sense of humour. Conservative in demeanour and style, he first investigated the ritual use of peyote by the Kiowas in the USA, and then tracked down in Mexico the sources of the legendary Aztec hallucinogens teonanacatl, a mushroom, and ololiuqui, morning glory. Much of Shultes's field work was conducted while alone for months, or in the company of local guides. He never carried a weapon to protect himself from people; fortunately for us (and the book reviewed here) he usually packed his trusty 6X6 cm Rolleiflex camera. For the sake of his research he tried the drugs himself-also participating in the ritual songs, dances and ceremonies of his native "guides"-and commented objectively on their effects afterwards. He had little patience for purely recreational drug use or the grandiose views of more notorious psychedelic pioneers like Timothy Leary and William Burroughs, although he did introduce Burroughs to yage.
On the trail of arrow poisons used by tribes in the NorthWest (Colombian) Amazon, Schultes documented the amazing range of medicines, poisons, and hallucinogens among the KoFn and others there. He also tried and collected specimens of the yage vine, rumoured to induce not only hallucinations but also telepathy. He survived attacks of malaria and beri-beri, and a 44-day journey while desperately ill, and once had to decide whether to send himself or his specimens on a crowded small plane back to civilization. He chose his plants; the plane crashed, killing everyone on board.
In sheer number, Schultes's scientific achievements impress: 47 years of research, nine books, 450 technical papers; 24,000 different specimens collected; medicinal uses documented of 2000 species; and even 120 species named after him. He would probably be proudest of the fact that a large area of the Colombian rainforest has been preserved in his name. Davis has already described these aspects of Schultes's work in One River.
Elegantly designed, The Lost Amazon shows another facet of Schultes's genius: evocative, timeless photos not only of botanical specimens, but of the many indigenous people he learned from. Schultes himself, according to Davis, did not view his photographs primarily as aesthetic accomplishments. But the ones selected here by Davis and collaborator Chris Murray are beautiful, sometimes stunning. Reproduced in sepia, with silhouettes of plants as background on many pages, they illuminate the strong, dignified faces of shamans, children and artisans who seem to look into another world. They are not awkward, posing or smiling, but naturally there in each image, in a way that the defeated, colonized subjects of the American photographer Edward Curtis are not. Davis gives a sensitive, intelligent explanation of how the combination of Schultes's choice of camera (a twin-lens reflex, usually held at waist or chest level, taking large, square-format negatives) and rapport with his subjects produces such powerful compositions: "There is an innocence in each of these visual exchanges that tells much about the level of trust Schultes established through his character and his work." Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Schultes was his ability to treat aboriginal people as fellow scholars who could teach him something, in an era when, as one priest sadly told him, "the best that could be said of a white man was that he did not kill Indians out of boredom."
This is a book worth having for its aesthetic qualities alone, but also as a memorial of Schultes (who died in 2001 at 86), and to his native friends, who have experienced such brutalization as the Amazon's resources drew less well-intentioned explorers and settlers. Here is documentary photography at its best, revealing parts of rich and complex cultures few outsiders ever experienced. Davis's commentary on the photos helps us see that world in its own context, as the photographer must have seen it.

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