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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, July 31, 2015

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco

He Borara
[Link to printable version.]

        “I just hope,” Lac hears Chuck shouting from behind him, “that when we get there it’s not already overrun by the Salesians.” He turns his head to let the man whose hand is holding steady the boat’s outboard motor see his half-hearted grin. “It’s bad enough,” he adds, “that they’re elbows-deep in every part of the government down here.” Lac nods, prolonging the grin for an added beat before turning back to continue scanning the bank. It’s all the solidarity he can muster just now for this generous and amiable missionary taking him up the river with their two blessedly unobtrusive companions.

The word overrun gets caught up in the current of his thoughts, conjuring in his mind the image of robed monks marching in legions over the map of southern Venezuela into Brazil. But the word that’s been humming through his mind for the past two and a half days—an incessant drone melding with the brain-scrambling vibrations of the aluminum rowboat—is compromised. You can no longer find any bands or tribes anywhere in the Amazon Basin who haven’t been reached by the Salesians, Catholic missionaries with limitless resources and unchecked political influence, or by Chuck’s own evangelical organization, the New Tribes Mission, or by some other outfit out to spread the good news.

All the remaining tribes, he keeps thinking, are compromised to one extent or another, their ancient ways of life corrupted by civilization’s maniacal throbbing lust for gulping down populations entire. Chuck Clemens may be worried about being beaten to the punch by a rival Christian sect—he’s complained of how every time a missionary from New Tribes has to go back to the States for funding after making contact with an undiscovered group, he returns to find the damned Salesians pouring the foundation of a new mission compound in the area—but the fear that’s been gnawing at Lac is that when he finally gets a chance to start interviewing tribespeople, all they’re going to want to do is tell him about Jesus.

His weakly focused gaze glides over the heavy effusions of brush and leaves lining the east bank of the river as they slide past the prow of the boat. He’s never been sea sick before, and that’s not exactly what he is now. But something about the inescapable gasoline vapor emanating in minuscule pungent wafts from the five-gallon barrels lashed to the gunnels, mixing with the stench of human skin that has cycled once too often between drenchings in sweat and drying beneath a salty, oily film, rotting, putrescent, day after day, all this combined with the skull-straining spike in temperature from late morning to early afternoon, the hellish buzzing and rattling of the aluminum craft beneath him, cutting its serrated wake through the milky opaque waters, the painful swelling of his gnat-bitten hands, and the ache borne of his inability to rein back the manic roving of his eyes all throughout that first day—it’s all conspiring to make him feel listless, irritable, his insides nauseatingly aquiver, his skin rising up in searing revolt at the slightest prick—but every individual piece of this chronic discomfort is just this side of tolerable, none of it worth the attention complaining would draw. Everyone who goes into the jungle knows to expect the voracious insects and the bellowing furnace heat. What no one warns you about is the toll the prolonged disruption to your body’s equilibrium will take on your will to prevail over the steady accumulation of so many otherwise manageable difficulties. Real pain that last for mere moments, he thinks, would be preferable to these relentless meager miseries, this ceaselessly mild unease sapping by imperceptible increments the heroic tenacity that was in large part the basis for the notoriety he’d attained back at U of M.
Yanomamo Region Map

He sighs as he moves his eyes at a measured pace over the two Venezuelans beside and in front of him in the rowboat, both with their heads drooping over their folded arms, and then he peers indolently into the gray spaces stretching back beyond the leaves in the passing jungle. During their first meeting back in Chicago, Chuck told him that many of the Yanomamö he knew owned machetes. To Chuck, the relevance lay in the value the tribespeople placed in the tools, meaning they could be offered as incentives whenever cooperation wasn’t immediately forthcoming. He mentioned the fact in passing before going on to explain the tribe’s fraught relations with neighboring groups. But Lac was left silently lamenting the lost methods for clearing paths, the defunct stone tool industry, and, perhaps, the artificial advances he’d have to avoid mistaking for primeval traditions. This last of the world’s uncontacted people—at least, the last living in an environment capable of sustaining a tribal social organization, a level of cultural advancement between those of roving bands of hunter-gatherers and of more stratified sedentary chiefdoms—his best chance at studying a pristine culture, one at a key stage of development, possibly the last opportunity like this any anthropologist would ever have again—and he finds out they’re already walking around with the steel tools all the damned missionaries use to coax them closer to the main branches of the river.

“You feeling alright?” Chuck shouts. “You may have a fever from all the bareto bites. It’s a reaction a lot people have who’re unaccustomed to the area.” Bareto is what the Yanomamö call the gnats. Chuck had explained that the reason the tribes plant their gardens and build their villages so far inland is because the closer you get to the main waterways the thicker the clouds of bareto. The Catholic missionaries meanwhile want their potential converts close to the rivers for ease of access by boat, which for them means maintaining a connection with the civilized world. Trekking through the jungle on foot is an endeavor more painstaking and fraught with peril than your average priest or pastor is game for taking on—Chuck being exceptional in that regard, as Lac has to admit he is in quite a few other regards as well.

“So the gnats are pushing them away from the rivers,” Lac had said, “and the damned Catholics are pulling them back to the rivers with their bribes?” He cracked another of his mischievous half grins. “It’s pests pushing in one direction and more pests pulling in the other.” Chuck laughed along with him, apparently not suspecting that he thinks of the New Tribes folks as only slightly less pestilent than the Salesians. They were both in the Amazon Basin, after all, to further compromise the culture whose traditions he’s come to participate in and observe.

Now, realizing he has yet to respond to Chuck’s question, he breaks his dazed silence by finally saying, “I may be a little sick, but I don’t think it’s anything serious.” If it weren’t for Chuck, he would probably have to spend an entire field season exploring the area before finding any of the Yanomamö villages—that’s assuming anyone would even know they existed. Chuck had first made contact with them back in 1950, when he was traveling up and down the Orinoco and its tributaries, searching for virgin souls in which to plant the seeds of his preferred breed of Christianity. As reluctant as Lac was to reach out to a missionary, as loath as he is to admit it even now, there doesn’t seem anything the least bit predatory about Chuck Clemens’ interest in the Indians. He just really believes all the Jesus crap, feels it’s his earthly duty to introduce it far and wide. He obviously doesn’t have a problem helping me out, Lac thinks, and we’re giving these two guys from the Malarialogìa a ride to help them reach an outpost Chuck says is nothing but two little huts where they try to keep track of outbreaks. So his benevolence must extend beyond the desire to acquire the Indians’ allegiance on behalf of his church.

Lac had hoped he would be able to relax the muscles around his eyes when the sky overhead began to streak over with a heavy layer of gauzy gray, tucking the wet teeming earth away from the vicious sun—hoped the span of overcast hours would let dissipate the stabbing pressure amassing just behind the spot where his brows come together over his nose. For some reason, though, perhaps because he does have a slight fever, his eyes are almost as sensitive to the diffused gray light as they were to the untempered sun and the scattered patches of its shattered reflection on the river. It’s only in view above the treetops sporadically, for a couple of hours at most, he tells himself. With any luck, when it disappears for the day behind the treetops, the darkening of the gray overcast sky will provide some relief.

Orinoco River
            At times over the last three days on the Orinoco, with the basalt mountains surfacing over the gap between the facing forest walls—silent sentinels, massive beyond human scale, blearily fading to blue in the incomprehensible distance—the sunlight on either side glimmering off the million-fold leaves in an illusion of great emerald cascades, at these times he has an unfamiliar sensation, as of a humming vibrant emptiness pervading the air around him, as his personhood melts away into the surroundings, leaving a charged feeling of vacancy, of radiance almost, suffusing every fiber of his bodily substance, his every thought and every perception rendered weightless and endlessly, somehow blissfully, inconsequential. It must be what people mean when they talk about the sublime, he thought after the first of these times.

But at other times the feeling is claustrophobic—the strained, overleaning towers of heavily soaked leaf clusters and drooping tangled festoons of moss-covered vines, the inescapable totality of the surrounding jungle pressing in, looming overhead like an enormous tidal wave violently thrust up from an agitated sea of infested jungle debris, only to be frozen by some horrific magic the instant before it crashes down, blotting them all four pathetically out of existence. During these times, he feels fated, doomed, drowning in the sense that the time and nature of his death have already been settled, the verdict on his remaining days irrevocably sealed, his every action hopelessly bereft of significance.

“Oh my God, Lachlan,” his sister Bess had burst out as he and Laura were departing after their farewell visit, “don’t get yourself killed in the jungle because you’re too damned stubborn to let anything go.” Laura, looking like she might break into sobs, instead laughed uneasily. “Seriously,” Bess added as they turned back toward the truck, “now would be a good time to learn how to recognize a lost cause when you see one.” Lac gave his smiling assent and final assurance as he climbed into the driver’s seat, waving, wishing Bess could have pulled him aside to admonish him in private. Even now on the river he still feels he’s left something unsettled with Laura.

Yet another unwelcome surprise has been that the irrevocability of each stage of their progression away from anything resembling an urban amenity—a toilet, say, or a bed with clean sheets, dry clothes, or a screened-in space of any kind—engenders a dread that drags behind him like an invisible anchor tied around his throat, a suffocating backward tug, a bereavement, almost a feeling of longing. It’s one thing to tell yourself you won’t have a refrigerator for seventeen months; it’s something else entirely to know you’re at least three days of the roughest travel away from a refrigerator if some exigency—or some desperate surging desire—were to make access to one imperative.

He’s spent a lot of the past three days wondering about Laura, about how rare a woman she must be. What other woman would not only abide her husband, the father of her two children, jumping off the map of the known world for a year and a half, but actually be enthusiastic about joining him? The plan is for him to make contact with the people in the village, establish himself as he makes sure the situation is safe, prepare a shelter for them of one sort or another as he begins the initial phases of his research, and then, perhaps in a few weeks, return to meet them at IVIC and escort them up the Orinoco to stay with him for the remainder of the field season. Sixteen months in the jungle with Indians who’ve probably only ever seen a handful of white people—if they’ve seen any—people with only the murkiest awareness that something we call civilization even exists—what kind of woman would even consider it, much less be excited about it?

Bess had something to say on the topic of his plan to have his wife and children accompany him into the jungle as well—or rather she had something she didn’t need to bother actually saying. “I think she’s interested,” Lac had said to her. “How many people can say they’ve lived like that for any length of time? How many people have experienced something like that?” Bess had just looked at him, smiling patiently, ever so subtly shaking her head. Bess, the oldest of his kid sisters, so compellingly affecting wisdom and forbearance the way she does.

All these discomforts and things left behind—but this is where he starts his real career. This is where he becomes not just a student but an anthropologist. A scientist. He casts his mind back to his U of M days, when he sat awed by his professors’ stories about their time in the field, each of them proudly pronouncing his kinship with the people he studied. It was a great honor, at least it sounded like one, to be adopted by the people whose culture you studied. Now, only hours away from arriving at his first Yanomamö village, the possibility is beginning to seem real to Lac for the first time that the people he finds there may not adopt him, may not like him, may reject him outright.

This dread initially arose alongside, and to some degree was overbalanced by, an upwelling of excitement at the prospect of finally seeing—of meeting—the people he’d been planning for so long to study, the people who’d play such an integral role in the future trajectory of his career, as well as its ultimate success or failure. Both the dread and the excitement surged the moment the boy came into view, the slight kid with what looked like old rags draped over his shoulders. He’d climbed out on a miniature archipelago of smooth rocks stretching out into the Orinoco at a spot just downstream from Tama Tama, the New Tribes mission headquarters where he and the two Venezuelans were to stop and pick up Charles B. Clemens. The kid’s rags gradually resolved into an outsized shirt and ill-fitting pair of pants, both garments frayed at every seam and threatening at any moment to disintegrate into piles of thread. As the rowboat neared the rocks, Lac noted first the boy’s hair—black as anything and cut in a neat circle so that it looked like a cap fitted closely over his ears. Or an upturned bowl, as Chuck had described the style. Just as Andres, one of his Venezuelan companions, was greeting the boy in Spanish, Lac muttered to himself, “A Yanomamö.”

The boy pointed up the river when they asked about the mission, but his responses to their other questions never went beyond and no. The Venezuelans joked behind their hands about Lac finally meeting someone in the country whose conversational Spanish was as patchy as his. But Lac was watching the boy’s eyes. He stood a little over five foot but he looked to be in his late teens. The way his eyes moved over Lac and his two companions, he thinks now, so thoroughly unconcerned about how we perceived him, though he was visibly curious, highly alert—it was like he believed himself to be invisible, even as he casually allowed us to engage him. There was a freedom in his bearing and an openness in his expression that Lac was utterly unprepared for. “Wild,” he whispered. “He’s actually wild.” And this was a young man who’d obviously spent time with the missionaries. What would the ones he met deep in the jungle be like?

No sooner had they pushed off from the rock and continued up the river than Lac began to experience a troublesome feeling of professional—or proto-professional—guilt. “Wild” is exactly what someone who’d never taken an anthropology course in his life would call these Indians. Franz Boas, the great man without whom there would be no science of anthropology, the patron saint of cultural relativism, the virtue set against the vice of ethnocentrism, had taught that you can’t truly learn about another culture if you see every practice and tradition as inferior, every deviation from the social norms you were enculturated with as immoral, every element of the technology as emblematic of stunted development. But there it was, something he’d never seen before in people of any nationality, something he hadn’t seen in the Native Americans he’d met back in the States, something he hadn’t even seen in the Ye’kwana, riverine Indians in the region to the north of where they are now. Lac had looked into the young Yanomamö man’s eyes and could see immediately that he was wild. And however unprofessional it may be, he came away from the encounter exhilarated. 
Now, after yet another day in the boat, the dull, uneventful tranquility of the turbid river, which people insist is uncannily similar in appearance to tea loaded with milk, but to Lac looks more like fresh motor oil percolated with fine dirt particles, is beginning to make him feel wistful. There’s something unsatisfying about it, and that feeling of dissatisfaction is in turn making Lac disappointed, disgusted even, with himself. He’s known too long and too well how foolish all the romantic images are that people have about the Amazon and the various other tropical rainforests of the world. The whole reason these regions remain largely unexplored is that they’re so inhospitable. He wanted to get to these places while he still could, because of the questions the people who lived in them could answer about who we are as a species, where we came from, where we may be going. He certainly didn’t expect to find pastels and water colors and mystical creatures beckoning to him to join them in their sparkly treetop dwellings, the pipe dream of so many hippies who imagined life before civilization as some idyll of perfect freedom and blissful unity with nature. The reality is that life in the jungle is hard. Damn near impossible.

But the contempt he feels for the cartoon romanticism that typifies so many people’s ideas of life in a state of nature and the forest that supports it hasn’t kept him from having recurring dreams in which he’s led by mysterious dark figures along a path running through one of the unmapped areas he’ll soon be exploring; he follows along behind them until they reach a rocky trail leading up the side of a waterfall hidden behind spiraling columns of mist. Each time, he awakes startled by the dream’s power to peel back layer after layer of his adult sophistication, confronting him in this long-forgotten naked innocence with scenes and sentiments that in his waking life he’d never be susceptible to. For several moments after he wakes, the tears that welled up in his sleep from the encounter with—with what? He struggles to find words for it. They all ring false, annoyingly inadequate. Frankly, they all sound ridiculous. His waking self can’t come close to capturing the full force of what the events mean to his more sensitive, his utterly exposed dreaming self.

            He once again hears Chuck speaking to him over the sound of the motor. But he’s been struck by a thought. In those damned dreams, he thinks, with all those layers of adult learning and responsibility peeled away—is that what it’s like to be wild?   

            Chuck is pulling the boat up toward a grassy spot on the bank. This is where the men from the Malarialogìa will be disembarking. The infernal noise of the motor abruptly cuts out. Chuck nudges him as they coast up alongside the shore, the other two men standing and setting the boat to bumping and rolling from side to side.  “The village we’re headed to,” he says, “is just another couple miles up the river.”  

Continue reading: He Borara: Chapter 2: Pandemonium

Also read:

The World Until Yesterday and the Great Anthropology Divide: Wade Davis's and James C. Scott's Bizarre and Dishonest Reviews of Jared Diamond's Work

Napoleon Chagnon's Crucible and the Ongoing Epidemic of Moralizing Hysteria in Academia 

Percy Fawcett's Two Lost Cities: An Essay on David Grann's "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon"


bloggermb said...

When will there be more to read?

Dennis Junk said...

I hope to have the next installment published in February. I really appreciate the encouragement.