Green Acres: Lost in the Amazon

Green Acres: Lost in the Amazon

Percy Harrison Fawcett went to the Amazon looking for paradise. He never returned.


ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETYPercy Harrison Fawcett maps the frontier between Brazil and Bolivia in 1908.

In early 1925, British Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, having convinced himself, based on a mix of archival research, deduction and clairvoyance, that a large undiscovered city lay hidden somewhere in the Amazon, entered the jungle to try to find it. The word “quixotic” has its origins in a story set on the Spanish plains, in the same century when Europeans were first entering South America’s vast, seemingly unending rainforest. Since then, the adjective has often been applied to those like Fawcett–explorers entranced by the promise of riches or fame, as assured in their quests as the Man of La Mancha was that the windmills he tilted at were giants. “I call it Z,” wrote Fawcett of his fabled metropolis, “for the sake of convenience.”

Fawcett, his son Jack and another companion were never heard from again, but their disappearance prompted a parade of would-be rescuers. With the US frontier closed, Africa carved up and the British Empire at its widest girth, “the big blank spaces in the map,” as a character says in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, based partly on Fawcett’s earlier travels, were “all being filled in, and there’s no room for romance anywhere”–except for the opportunity to reprise Stanley’s feat and find a lost Victorian. By 1933 so many film crews, reporters and adventurers were converging on the Amazon in the hunt for the Fawcett party that the Brazilian government, to avoid having to save yet another writer looking for material or Hollywood actor hoping for publicity, put an embargo on future trips.

Fawcett is often called the last of the great explorers, and the man who wrote his eulogy was Peter Fleming, brother of the creator of James Bond. In 1932 Fleming answered an ad in the London Times for “guns” to join a Fawcett search. An Etonian and recent Christ Church graduate, he had no doubt he would be picked. “An Old Boy,” he wrote, “is worth two young men.” The party didn’t find Fawcett, but Fleming’s account of the trip, Brazilian Adventure, became a bestseller. In its introduction, he confessed that he tried to “pile on the agony a good deal; I felt it would be expected of me.” He had, after all, a “free hand” in describing the “Great Unknown”; his predecessors had “made great play with the Terrors of the Jungle. The alligators, the snakes, the man-eating fish, the lurking savages, those dreadful insects–all the paraphernalia of tropical mumbo jumbo lay ready to my hand.” But finding the privations of the Amazon nothing compared with the dangers of London, Fleming opted to write a “strictly truthful” book.

Fleming could be accused of dressed-up Anglo supremacy. “You don’t hit your butler, do you?” he asked a fellow traveler, rebuking him for striking their Brazilian boat pilot. But the quip disarmed a tense situation by appealing to a culturebound sense of propriety, which Fleming held responsible for the fight in the first place: the pilot had patted the Englishman’s back in a show of friendship, but with the pilot being slightly drunk “his gesture…lacked that crisp and manly impetus with which Anglo-Saxons slap each other between the shoulder blades.” It was taken for “pawing,” a “word abhorrent wherever the English language is spoken.” Here then was empire looking back on itself, taking in the high-strung “homoerotic aura” of English public school, as described by historian Peter Gay, with its fastidious pretensions to “discipline, purity, and decorum.” Or, as Noël Coward wrote the year before Fleming left for Brazil, “though the British are effete,” like mad dogs they are “quite impervious to heat.” “Only an alienist,” Fleming admitted, “could have chronicled our activities either seriously or scientifically.”

And yet over the years, the Amazon still beckons and Fawcett still summons. Brazil’s attempt to ban Fawcett-sleuthing failed, and since Fleming, successive missions have tried to establish the facts of the disappearance. The most recent detective is New Yorker writer David Grann, who in The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon depicts Fawcett as close cousin to Hannah Arendt’s “tragic and quixotic fools of imperialism,” essential to empire’s advance yet standing slightly askew to its edifice. Fawcett hailed from the aristocracy, but his father, born in India and a famous cricket batsman, drank himself into destitution. A military commission in Ceylon allowed Fawcett–then a lieutenant–to keep up gentry appearances, though he viewed the colonial officer corps as a “base” reproduction of Britain’s “white ruling caste,” instilling in him a “somewhat Dickensian horror.”

Need of money first sent Fawcett into the wilds of Ceylon searching for treasure, but, as Grann writes, exploration was an extension into nature of the Victorians’ “never ending war” against the world’s physical and moral corruptions. Fawcett was a supreme soldier of this war; Grann, whose own hunt for Fawcett traces a path through the archives and into the Amazon forest, links the colonel’s legendary stamina in the jungle to the discipline involved in repressing sexual urges. Fawcett survived public-school canings, military academy tortures and the Battle of the Somme, which he called Armageddon, forging himself into a “Nietzschean explorer.” Grann also makes a case that rebellion against such strictures, equally Victorian, blossomed into a radical cultural and metaphysical relativism. Fawcett increasingly questioned Anglo-Saxon man’s place at the apex of evolution. Cannibalism, he wrote after the Somme battle, “at least provides a reasonable motive for killing a man, which is more than you can say for civilized warfare.” The explorer became obsessed with the occult, certain of the existence of a more pristine plane of being, which for a while in Ceylon he thought he had found in Buddhism. “I transgressed again and again,” Fawcett confessed, “the awful laws of traditional behavior.”

Sent by London’s Royal Geographical Society in 1906 to help Bolivia and Brazil map their Amazonian border, Fawcett became addicted to the jungle. Grann writes that Fawcett “conducted one expedition after another in which he explored thousands of square miles of the Amazon and helped to redraw the map of South America.” It was during these treks that the explorer came to believe in Z, which he placed somewhere in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. After the Great War, the idea took hold of Fawcett with pounding delirium. He thought Z to be the “cradle of all civilization,” perhaps even the lost city of Atlantis, finding confirmation of its existence in séances and mediums. Like Arendt’s fool, who after tours on empire’s front line couldn’t recover his “English self,” Fawcett grew agitated while in London. The city, he said, was as a “prison gate slowly but surely shutting me in.” At the same time, long periods abroad fortified a crystalline Victorianism, austere and unerring. And though Grann doesn’t speculate on this point, perhaps it was the allure of such purity that explains why so many–one chronicle puts the number at over a hundred–followed lemminglike to their deaths this last true Englishman.

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.

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.

In considering a story like Fawcett’s, one appreciates Peter Fleming’s restraint. It would be easy when telling the tale to portray the Amazon more as a metaphysical testing ground than a social or ecological system, where moral emptiness mirrors human alienation. Compared with the “vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle,” said Werner Herzog, who made two films about jungle obsessives, Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, “we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel.” (Fitzcarraldo is based on the life of the rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald López, who, unlike Herzog, had the good sense to dismantle his riverboat before trying to haul it over a mountain.) “It’s still prehistorical,” Herzog thought. “The only thing that is lacking is–is the dinosaurs.”

But for all its ability to photosynthesize the fantasies and fears of outsiders, the Amazon is a real place. Throughout the nineteenth century, as practically the sole source of the world’s latex, integral to the advance of industrial capitalism, the forest was no more unmoored from time than Manchester or Detroit. Along the great rubber corridor running south of the Amazon River from the Atlantic into the lower reaches of the tropical Andes, the latex boom pressed indigenous communities into what Amazon scholar Susanna Hecht calls “terror slavery,” which included the torture, rape and starvation inflicted by the British-financed Peruvian Amazon Company, documented by Roger Casement in 1910. As native Amazonians died, they were replaced by migrants from Brazil’s drought-prone northeast, who arrived by the boatload, already withered and bonded to pay for the voyage. And the slavery continues: more than 20,000 workers are captured every year in the Amazon, forced to work in wretched conditions, clearing forest for soy and sugar plantations or tending furnaces to make contraband pig iron, forming the first ring in a labor chain linked to the most respectable corporations. Steel made from Amazonian pig iron forged by slaves has been used in Ford and General Motors cars and Whirlpool appliances. Slave-mined gold forms the capital reserves of some of the world’s largest banks. Rather than being a holdover from a lost world, modern slavery is, as an official from Brazil’s Ministry of Labor puts it, a “key part of the globalized, export-oriented economy Brazil thrives upon.”

Grann’s rehabilitation of Fawcett rests on a rich paradox: Grann avoids reducing the Amazon to a canvas of Western fantasies about itself by defending Fawcett’s original vision of the jungle. Fawcett’s case for the existence of Z grew out of his appreciation of the expertise native Amazonians demonstrated in extracting medicine and food from their harsh environment, reinforced by hearing legends of a lost great civilization and reading early Spanish accounts of jungle “cities that glistened in white,” connected by “many roads” and “fine highways,” populated by skilled potters and other craftsmen. The “ethnology of the continent,” Fawcett said, was “built up on a misconception”–the fallacy being that the jungle’s severe ecology limited the possibility of large, sophisticated civilizations. In the years after Fawcett’s disappearance, environmental determinism became orthodoxy. Published in 1971, Betty J. Meggers’s Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, based on decades of fieldwork, drove home the idea that the forest’s extreme biodiversity was deceptive, that what appeared to be rich, dark soil was veneer, beneath which was mostly acidic sand. But recently a new generation of scholars, led by University of Illinois archaeologist Anna Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s great-granddaughter, has contested this view. Roosevelt, also drawing on extensive fieldwork, argues that Amazonia supported “very populous societies comparable to complex chiefdoms and small states known in other parts of the world,” whose farming technologies would allow them to transcend the limits of anemic soil.

Now in her 80s and only recently retired as director of the Smithsonian’s Latin American Archaeology Program, Meggers dismisses those who argue that early Amazonians had built large cities, perhaps home to as many as a half-million people and rivaling those of the Aztecs and Mayans. “The myth of El Dorado,” she says, “just keeps going on and on and on. It’s amazing.” Meggers’s scholarship helped spur early campaigns to save the Amazon, and today she says the idea that the forest’s weak soil could support large populations has allowed developers to “operate without restraint,” accelerating the “pace of environmental degradation.” Revisionists insist that the civilizations they are describing were sustainable. Agriculture was oriented not toward profit-driven export but subsistence, and the sophisticated techniques of soil enrichment they have identified, including the charring of pottery and organic matter, could provide a model for the continual reuse of planting fields, limiting pressure to cut down more and more trees. “It’s not like loggers are revving up the chain saws after reading our articles,” says Brazilian archaeologist Eduardo Góes Neves.

Grann ends his quest with a Fawcett-worthy test of endurance that leaves him siding with the revisionists. Having become separated from his guide, Grann loses his trail and sinks into mud. With reeds ripping his skin and desperation closing in, he is finally rescued by a group of naked children who lead him to his destination: the field site of archaeologist Michael Heckenberger, close to where Fawcett had imagined Z. There Grann is shown evidence of causeways, bridges, settlements, palisades, plazas and roads, “laid out,” says Heckenberger, with a “sense of engineering and mathematics that rivaled anything that was happening in much of Europe at the time.” “Poor Fawcett,” Grann quotes his guide as saying, “he was so close.”

Until recently, stories told about the Amazon tended to emphasize its unconquerable enormity, which has repelled one challenger after another. That’s changed, of course, since the forest now appears to be fragile. Much of what was jungle during Fawcett’s last trek through Mato Grosso is now covered with soybeans, which, along with cattle and logging, are the primary agents of deforestation. The beans are grown for export to the United States, Europe and China and crossbred to survive ever more humid climes, which means there is no limit to how far planters can push into the Amazon. Since the 1970s, 20 percent of the forest has disappeared, and if the current pace continues, another 40 percent of what’s left will be gone by 2050. Slowing this deforestation will be Amazonia’s final test.

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