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Green Acres: Lost in the Amazon | The Nation

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Green Acres: Lost in the Amazon

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Roughly 4,000 miles long and home to more than 10 percent of the world's species of flora and fauna, the Amazon contains the largest river system in the world, holding about 15 percent of the earth's river water, expelling 57 million gallons per second. The main trunk and tributaries have been modified over the centuries with canals, footpaths and, increasingly, roads transforming nature's baroque into human rococo, weaving an already bedazzling ecology of waterways and flood plains into an even more intricate set of nested trading systems, connecting nine of South America's thirteen countries and, via Venezuela's Orinoco River, numerous Caribbean nations. Yet compared with the industrial Mississippi, the Amazon, despite its grandeur, remains today largely an artisanal river. Its pilots rely on a lifetime of experience to navigate shifting sandbars, fast-changing depths and a powerful tidal bore that rushes ten miles upriver with a roar described by an early twentieth-century traveler as a "regiment of light artillery on the stampede," leaving the largest of ships aground in its wake. And unlike the delta of the Mississippi, which over the past two centuries has been reduced from a patchwork of barely navigable bayous, islands, sandbars and estuaries to a rationalized sluice, the Amazon's terminus remains variegated, with many metamorphosing routes in and out.

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize...

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Size is one of Amazonia's wonders; it's common to point out that its total landmass is just smaller than the continental United States. But a more useful way to explain its thrall is to think of it as the United States' existential opposite. More than half a century ago Octavio Paz wrote that while all of the New World represented a rejuvenating historical force, the razor's edge of Anglo-Saxon utopianism was honed in North America's unique geography: "pure space, open to human action," which freed men from fighting "against history"--against the class divisions, feudal hierarchies and encrusted traditions that stifled Europe. They instead concentrated their struggle "against nature," formidable though ultimately pliable. Peoples and machines turned forests into farms, deserts into gardens, making the world young again. Native societies that stood in their way were cast out of history, rendered into the "evil that is outside, part of the natural world," like rivers, mountains and other obstacles that must be "domesticated or destroyed." Since "the American reality is the reinvention of itself," Paz continued, then "whatever is found in anyway irreducible or unassimilable is not American."

In contrast, the Amazon--pure space in its own way--has been America's irreducible extreme, a sinkhole enveloping desire and, from El Dorado to Z, laying waste to ambition. "There is nothing on that river but despair," wrote the sixteenth-century Basque rogue conquistador Lope de Aguirre. None other than George Frost Kennan, in a lesser known "long memo" that made the case for extending his anticommunist containment policy to Latin America, compared the dynamism of the US landscape, which allows for an "organic intimacy" with nature, with Latin America's "unhappy and hopeless" habitat. "In North America," Kennan wrote, "the Mississippi drains and serves the great basin of fertility which is the heart of the continent. The Amazon, on the other hand, reaches great fingers into a region singularly hostile to human activity." Where the United States was progress in motion, the revelation of God's will--or History's design--in the world, the Amazon's "overpowering sensation of the absolute," as the Portuguese writer José Maria Ferreira de Castro remarked, was stillness incarnate. The Brazilian jungle is the "last unwritten page of Genesis," Euclides da Cunha wrote.

Many proposals have been floated over the years to develop the Amazon and assimilate it into the United States' domain. Theodore Roosevelt, at the start of an expedition he took in 1914, imagined it reduced to yeoman pastures, its rivers providing "unlimited motive force to populous manufacturing communities," which would evolve into an "industrial civilization," in effect extending the United States' westward wave. Others thought Manifest Destiny flowed south, believing the Amazon to be an extension of the Mississippi. In the 1840s a Richmond newspaper argued that since Atlantic currents carried the Amazon's waters north into the Gulf of Mexico, the river "may very properly be regarded as one of the tributaries" to "this our noble sea," the Caribbean. A few years later, the Virginian Matthew Fontaine Maury, head of the Naval Observatory, thought the United States could avoid a civil war and keep its expanding cotton industry by purchasing the Amazon as it had Louisiana and using it to relocate planters and slaves. "How men from the Mississippi could make things hum along the Amazon," waxed another Southerner.

Is there some sort of cosmic protocol requiring that the enormity of the Amazon be accorded the due respect of outlandish schemes? During World War II, Nelson Rockefeller, as head of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, suggested turning the Amazon into a network of massive canals stretching from the Caribbean to Argentina and giving the United States, via the Mississippi, direct access to South America's interior markets and resources. In the 1960s neocon futurist Herman Kahn (one of the prototypes for Dr. Strangelove) proposed damming the river to create five enormous "Great Lakes," turning the area into the equivalent of South America's own industrial Midwest. Yet as each plan to tap the jungle's resources fizzled, Amazonia came to be seen as a temptress, seducing man to impose his will, only to reveal it as impotent. The jungle even broke Theodore Roosevelt. By the end of his trip, with disease eating at his flesh and despair pushing him to the point of suicide, he was reduced to chanting the opening lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan": "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure-dome decree."

In metaphorical terms, though, the Amazon was more yielding than most places. It could be whatever you wanted it to be: a green hell, an Eden, a pleasure garden. Roosevelt thought it to be largely devoid of people, "entirely indifferent to good or evil," working "out her ends or no ends with utter disregard of pain and woe." For those readers not familiar with the theology that hell is the absence of God, the Rough Rider left little doubt as to the analogy he was drawing: he began an account of his journey with a detailed seventeen-page description of treacherous serpents. Yet at the same time, utopia always seemed to be waiting around the next bend in the river. In 1927 the New York Times reported a rumor that Fawcett had been found alive and well, living in a "veritable paradise," a bountiful land "that has no owner." The wayward Victorian had become entranced by the "sorcerous jungle and wished to know nothing more from the civilized world." Another newspaper endorsed Fawcett's reported "misanthropy" as an antidote to Jazz Age precocity and recommended sending, instead of explorers and scientists, poets and musicians to entice him back.

Fawcett's enduring appeal is that he vanished just as mass society was turning enchantment into kitsch. In their dispatches home, those who went looking for the British explorer continued to emphasize the jungle's treacheries, working the Amazon more firmly into English-speaking popular culture. Yet with more and more people living in cities, pastoral waltzes and wanderlust ballads like "River of Dreams" and "On the Dreamy Amazon" figured the valley as melancholy, not unlike contemporary odes to the Mississippi, achieving, in a way, the yearned-for confluence of the two rivers.

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