maandag 24 januari 2011

Exploration Fawcett

About 9 months ago I ordered Exploration Fawcett for the sake of completeness: after 19 years of mapping uncharted areas of the Amazon rainforest Colonel Percy Fawcett had picked up enough lore concerning the lost cities of the Amazon, El Dorado and others, that he believed that he knew where to find one. In 1925 he went on a well publicized search for the City of Z in the Xingu area and was never seen again. We now know of the overgrown moats, ditches and roads collectively known as the Garden Cities of Xingu and with hindsight Fawcett seems to have been a visionary force in the rediscovery of the existence of pre-Columbian urbanity in the Amazon. 

Exploration Fawcett begins with him journeying to South-America for the first time and ends with his overview of the evidence for lost cities. It took me a long time to start reading it. I thought it would be tedious reading with undertones of obsessiveness and dullness and the cover didn't help either (and it is a trash book, it does not mention year of publication). It turns out that Fawcett was a headstrong but friendly humanitarian with a Victorian mind over matter and an acute observer. If Indiana Jones was not a film by Steven Spielberg but a book by Jane Austen this would be like it. Amidst the atrocities of the rubber boom Fawcett combines a firm grasp of the situation as a social wrong with a never wavering sympathy for human frailty. His stance on the Indians, believing their belligerence overstated, is incredibly modern and suits him well in his explorations. He is more Ray Mears than Bruce Parry.

The jungle is a place where stories are currency and hear-say is exchange money. Fawcett, ever the military man, tells quite a few stories of garrison humour, but there is even more strange ethnographic material that sometimes seems post-modern (like this earlier quote about cannibalism) but also sometimes seems incredibly pulpy. 
Every year the natives here celebrate a kind of sabbath in the forest. They gather round an altar of stones and brew the native beer, chicha, which they drink in huge quantities over mouthfuls of strong tobacco. The mixture maddens them, and man and woman give themselves up to a wild orgy. This often continues for a fortnight.
Fawcett feels modern in some aspects because he observed things with his own eyes and saw through dogma when he needed to. He made his own choices and this is why he survived. There are other parts of Fawcett that are resolutely distant in time from us: his firm believe in spiritualism that seems so at odds with his deep practicality. But (and I have made this point earlier) superstitions, the belief in active magic, might well be an adaptation of the human mind to cope with the conditions and challenges of life as part of the forest.   

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