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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?.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Land of the Lost Ironies: He Borara: Chapter 3

            “It’s not always like this,” Chuck says as he completes the last of some running strides to catch up with Lac, who has charged ahead of him on their way back along the trail that first delivered them from the riverbank to the shabono. After talking with the Yanomamö men for a couple of hours—and being forced on half a dozen panic-stricken occasions to quietly await the outcome of a quick investigation of some section of the encampment wall—they’re now heading back to the rowboat so they can cross to the opposite bank of the Orinoco. “I mean, I’ve heard them talking about raids and fights like this before, but we seem to have walked right into the middle of some dangerous tension.”

Lac resists interjecting, “Obviously.”

They walk several more paces before Chuck adds, “I think it was just a matter of some seriously bad timing.”

The missionary’s tone is apologetic. Lac, ignoring the invitation latent in the ensuing silence to absolve him, wonders why Chuck is forbearing to use what they both just experienced as an opportunity to preach on the depraved state of man in the absence of Jesus. “You came here to study their way of life,” Lac imagines him gloating. “I came here to teach them a new way of life—to save their souls. After what you just saw, you tell me which of our missions’ ought to take precedence.”

As they thread their way along the trail through neck-high sawgrass, though, the only voices to be heard belong to the monkeys high in the distant canopy. Their whooping howls feature in the raucous theater of Lac’s agitated mind as long cylindrical tubes extending from their o-shaped faces, waving about against the deepening blue of the sky. Somehow, the image inches him closer to the brink of fury, as if the howlers were a chorus of obnoxious street barkers. He spent so much time preparing, planning so meticulously, anticipating every eventuality. What he walked into back there—that shouldn’t have happened. He shouldn’t have been the first to waddle through that entrance. The men would have recognized Clemens, so he would have been in danger a few seconds less, those crucial few seconds while Lac himself was a twitch away from being turned into a porcupine. He shouldn’t have arrived empty-handed. Proffering gifts in his outstretched hands, he would have posed less of a threat, and hence been less likely to provoke a preemptive attack. Most importantly, he shouldn’t have left his shotgun with the rest of his supplies and equipment back at Tama Tama.

The grass and tall weeds vanish abruptly as the two men plunge back into the dark understory, as barely any light from the sun makes it through the dense foliage overhead, even from directly above this pathetic excuse for a trail. The gnats, whose biting had never really seemed to abate, nevertheless return to their greater numbers and heightening frenzy as the men continue their march back toward the river.

“You okay, Shackley?” he hears Clemens say behind him.

Stopping to turn around and face the missionary, he opens his mouth to complain about being so grossly misled, but catches himself before saying a word. “I can’t say I was ready for that,” he admits instead. “It’s making me wonder…” He trails off, leaving Clemens to guess what it is he’s wondering, before turning back to continue along the meager trail.

Returning to his full, aggressive stride, Lac feels his unvoiced ire shifting toward the more deserving culprits, the ones whose knowledge and expertise he counted on, admired even, whose every word indelibly lodged itself in his brain, whose example shaped his every lofty vision of his own career. If anyone is to blame, he thinks, it’s my professors. It’s Dr. Sabine. It’s Dr. Hiddleson. All of them. They should have at least warned me of the possibility that the wild Indians would be hostile. All this crap about cultural relativism and not being the evil white man, the lone ranger lording it over the savages, the colonizer, the imperialist, the goddamned racist—they’ve got us so browbeaten and guilt-laden that we completely forget that the fucking Indians are human too, in every sense of the word. And sometimes humans kill other humans.

            He cants his head to call over his shoulder, “Okay, Clemens, tell me something. You’ve been wandering around in your rowboat on all these rivers and tributaries for more than fifteen years looking for uncontacted Indians.” He stops and turns before asking, “How often do they shoot arrows at you and chase you off?”

            “You hear lots of stories,” Chucks says as he draws near to where Lac is standing. “And it’s not just arrows. Some of the tribes bash each other’s heads in with clubs.” The trail is hardly more than a strip, not wide enough for them to walk two abreast. Chuck steps into the underbrush to sidle around Lac, saying, “I’ve actually only made first contact with one group—and you just met them.” Setting the pace now, he continues speaking over his shoulder, as Lac did a moment before. “When they first saw me, they were definitely scared. I think they were too shocked and, well, curious to respond violently. I was probably lucky. The other missionaries are always talking about close calls.” Ducking under a tangle of lianas, he grunts and takes a fortifying breath before continuing. “The thing is, it’s hard to say if you’re ever really making first contact. The Yanomamö already had machetes and axes when I got here. They were worn down to the nub, but they were also being used quite a bit. You have to remember too it hasn’t been that long—maybe a generation—since the rubber barons were down here killing and enslaving and torturing thousands upon thousands of the Indians. The Yanomamö may have traded for those machetes with the Ye’kwana. But even now there are often run-ins between ranchers and Indians. Loggers too—they’re probably even worse.”

            “You think they’re hostile to outsiders because of earlier attacks? That’s not what we walked into back there, was it? You said the fight was with another Yanomamö village.”

            “That’s true. And I can’t say what a war party from another village would have done to us. Maybe nothing. Of course, we may have been killed in a crossfire even if they weren’t trying to shoot us—they dip their arrows in poison when they’re hunting. I guess my point is just that it’s different out here. We may as well be a million miles away from any working justice system. It takes a certain kind of person to go into the jungle in the first place. Once you’re in it, well, it may be that you go a little crazy because it gets so intense—the discomfort, the constant threats, the endless insults to your person, the boredom—and you’re so far removed from anything you’re accustomed to. Anyway, it’s hard to tell how time in the jungle will affect a man. It changes people. I’ve even seen it happen to men with the New Tribes, good men. And God knows what the Indians have been through. I can’t say I really know much about how violent most indigenous tribes are before they meet anyone from civilization—I figure you’d know more about that than me. Either way, out here you have to be on your guard around people of pretty much any sort.”

            Lac detected no hint of sarcasm in Chuck’s suggestion that he ought to know more about what the Indians are like. It rankles nonetheless. Shooing the bareto away from his mouth, he inhales sharply, calming himself. The missionary’s words send his mind traveling back to a time when he and his dad were hunting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, along with his older brother and his uncle.

Lac would have been around thirteen, he figures, and after a few days wandering through the forest he was starting to get bored—in spite of the weeks of lobbying it had taken to get his dad to agree to let him tag along. At one point, as he was going about whistling and clownishly dancing around, he lifted his gaze to see the three older men crouching alongside a fallen tree. His dad shot him a look that struck him like a hard palm to the temple. Lac immediately fell silent, dropped to his knees, and crawled toward the cover of the wide trunk. Peering over it, he saw two men, both with rifles slung over their shoulders, making their way along a valley that was barely visible in the distance. Lac watched them for several moments until his dad pulled him down by the back of his vest.

“What’s the big deal?” he whispered.

His dad lifted his finger to lips, a gesture as peremptory as any command issued beside a raised hand. They waited in near complete silence for what seemed to Lac like an hour, until the men had long since disappeared into the forest. Even after he and the older men started moving again themselves, Lac sensed that a decision had somehow been made to keep silent, and to give the two strange men a wide berth. After what felt to the teenage Lac like hours, but may have been little more than twenty minutes, he opened his mouth to begin peppering his dad with questions. That’s when Uncle Rob swatted him hard on the back of the head. Lac turned to face his uncle, opening his mouth yet again to complain. The look on his uncle’s face was no less peremptory in its command to keep quiet than his father’s had been. They walked on, barely making a sound beyond the crunch of leaves and the snap of twigs beneath their boots, until the sun was nearly down and they wordlessly agreed to begin setting up camp, Lac fuming all the while.

“Those two men,” Uncle Rob said to him as they worked together running a rope for the roof of their tent. “Did you see their clothes?”

“Not really. They were wearing old jackets I suppose.”

“They were wearing tatters. Which tells your dad and me they’ve been out here for a long time.”

“So what?”

“So we’re in a different world out here. We’re a long way from any roads or any phones. It’s hard to tell what a man will do when he can be sure no one will know he’s doing it. Those two guys, we may have waved to them, shouted our hellos, and they may have waved and said hi back. Just as likely, though, they’d play friendly until they got close enough to shoot us. Then they’d rifle through our pockets and backpacks looking for money or anything they could sell. Men start to forget all about the rules when they’re a hundred miles from any police, a hundred miles from all the things that might remind them who they are. You gotta be careful who you just walk up to when you’re this deep in the forest.” 

Lac hasn’t recalled this exchange, or thought about Uncle Rob, since he was still a teenager. At the time, he’d remained sulky, thinking his dad and uncle were being paranoid. Or delusional even, pretending to be commandos on some secret mission. How the two men they saw traversing the valley would have reacted upon being alerted to their presence remains an experiment yet to be conducted. But Charles Clemens of the New Tribes Mission, who ought to be plenty qualified to remark on the matter, apparently agrees wholeheartedly with old Uncle Rob that you gotta be careful who you just walk up to when you’re this deep in the forest, or in his own words, that out here you have to be on your guard against people of pretty much any sort.   

Those times with his dad and brothers out in the Michigan wilderness had seemed so distant, from another lifetime. The last thing he expected venturing into the rain forest of Venezuela was to be reacquainted with anything from that period of his life. While the nostalgia is less than pure, he does manage to avoid delving into the myriad complications marring his reminiscences of that time, when he was both bullied and protected by men who were larger than life, when he still had the entirety of his adult life beckoning him onward with promises of boundless possibility. The memory effects a transformation, stripping away the dread that has been hanging from the trees like some pestilential fungus, suffusing the air with its spores, infecting his thoughts and weighing down his every step through the scrub. An actual breeze weaves its way through the shadowy undergrowth, a cleansing stream of thick, oxygen-rich air. For the first time in days, Lac experiences afresh the exhilaration of being beyond the reach of the workaday world, the thrill of impending discovery, the lure of the unknown on the other side of this thick teeming wall of green. The cooling and smoothing of the air speaks of their closeness to the river, but Lac feels like the breeze could almost be coming in response to a shift taking place in his own mind.

As they drag the rowboat from where they’d tucked it amid the latticework of kapok roots, Lac forgets his reasons for locking his thoughts away from the missionary, as though the farther away from the familiar world they travel, the more useless their so-called education proves, and the more pointless their competing agendas seem.

“When I was a kid,” he begins to say as they slide the rowboat down the bank through the suctioning mud, before being interrupted by a caught shoe. Bracing himself on the side of the boat, he lifts it free, producing a loud, almost comical gagging sound. “When I was a kid,” he begins again, “I loved adventure stories. I didn’t care if they were true or if they were fiction. Back then, there didn’t seem to be such a sharp distinction between the two. I was just as excited about Expedition Fawcett as I was by The Lost World. In college, though, that all changed. It was reading Darwin that made me want to go into anthropology.”

He glances over at Clemens as they swing the boat out into the water to see if the voicing of this blasphemous name induces any contortion of his sweat-soaked, washed out visage, but his face registers little aside from an intense focus on the delicate task at hand. “After Origin of Species,” Lac continues, “I turned right away to Voyage of the Beagle. After about a year I damn near had the whole book memorized. Then one of my professors used the section where he writes about the Indians of Tierra del Fuego as an example of nineteenth century racist attitudes.”

Clemens, with a hand on each gunwale, is already lowering himself into a seated position. It’s Lac’s turn to step aboard. His shoes trail thick streams of mud through the air, and his last awkward lurch sets the rowboat to tottering precariously. “He called them ‘poor wretches,’ Lac says as they steady the rocking, “with ‘hideous faces,’ whose ‘violent gestures were without dignity.’ I remember going through a crisis after that class. It was the last time I ever opened that book. I never read anymore adventure novels or expedition chronicles again either. Unless you count Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski.” 

The missionary hands him a paddle; the journey across the river will be too brief to warrant the use of the outboard. A few strokes on either side and they’re a quarter of the way to the opposing bank. Gazing mystified at the swirling eddies produced by each dip and pull of the paddle, Lac hears Clemens say, “You know, for me it was David Livingston and Albert Schweitzer.”

“Of course it was,” Lac says, chuckling. Clemens laughs along with him. “The irony,” Lac adds, “is that guys like Darwin and Livingston stand as icons of this evil imperialist drive to subjugate and enslave, but they were both staunch abolitionists.”

As they approach a clear spot on the bank, Clemens takes up the theme. “Schweitzer too. He wrote that part of his mission to build the hospital in Gabon was to make up for the crimes Europeans had committed against ‘the coloured races.’ A lot of his writings were criticisms of colonial oppression.”

We look back with such disdain for these doctors and missionaries and activists who did so much for indigenous peoples, Lac thinks, sussing out all the markers of their deep-seated racism, all the while declaring that our civilization’s supposed history of moral progress is but a myth. And no one notes the contradiction.

Their first task after hauling the rowboat up yet another soggy embankment is to find a clearing in the scrubland where Clemens says there’s an old hut they can hang their hammocks in to keep them out of reach of the ants and various other crawling insects. As they slog on, spiritlessly swinging their machetes, exhaustion beginning to set in, Lac turns his attention to the loud buzzing in the back of his mind, the insistent clamoring shame of his monumental error. He remembers once lying awake in his dorm at U of M and trying to mentally catalogue the elements common to all of his formerly beloved adventure tales, an exercise in cynicism and budding disillusionment. You start with a mystery and a hero. The mystery takes you to an exotic locale, leading to an ominous arrival. Now the quest begins. Along the way, you have an inventory of lethal threats, a certain fraction of which the characters will subsequently encounter—the disease-bearing insects; in the water, the piranha, the electric eels, those nightmarish, urethra-burrowing candiru, the anaconda; in the jungle, the venomous snakes, the wild boar gnashing and goring with their tusks, the jaguar, the hostile Indians. The characters nearly succumb before the mystery is finally unveiled and the object of the quest—the people of the lost civilization, the legendary monster, the secret medicinal plant—arrives on the scene to rescue them. But somehow the mystery then becomes a moral dilemma. Now that we know it’s here, how will we absorb it into our lives—without destroying it? Without destroying ourselves. But it all somehow redounds to the benefit—the development, the edification, the entertainment—of those of us carrying the torch of western civilization.

            Lac stops to watch Clemens hacking his way through the brush, engulfed by the darkening green immensity. Even if you decide to quit now, he thinks, you’ve still got quite an ordeal to go through before you make it out of here. Swiping away some of the sweat from his forehead and flicking away the bugs in one practiced motion, he takes again to the path carved out by the missionary, shrugging to adjust his pack. He realizes they’ve barely made it twenty yards from the top of the riverbank.

Before reading Darwin his freshman year at Sault Ste. Marie, Lac had perused scores of books about jungles and animals and geography, but they all unfurled as papery lists of lifeless, disconnected facts and details. In Darwin’s hands, on the contrary, every living creature on earth burst vividly to life on the page. His had been a synthesizing mind, not one geared toward mere observation. Origin unfolds as part chronicle of an idea’s incubation, part systematic weighing of evidence, and part exuberant celebration of the wondrousness of discovering how one simple theory could explain such infinitely diverse complexity. Lac absorbed it greedily, letting the points, the systematic style of reasoning, the character underlying it all, letting all of it permeate his thoughts, transforming them.

“I want to do something like that,” he’d said to himself after reading the final page and clapping the covers shut. This was the beginning of his self-imposed discipline, his ceaseless efforts to marshal his attention and corral his thoughts. First, master the details, and then progress to searching for the thread that binds them all together, the dynamic principle that sets them all in vital motion.

 But there was something else about Darwin’s style of thinking and writing and arguing, something he would come to associate with the project of science more generally. Lac had all his life felt bound to Port Austin, to Northern Michigan, to the struggles with his dad and his brothers and sisters, the smothering weight of the future’s most pressingly practical of considerations. Darwin’s was a mind unbound, a playground for fascination unfettered. Whereas most people’s curiosity before the natural world flashes for a fleeting moment before thudding into the wall of daily banality, the soaring wonder of great scientific minds again and again breaks through, like a freight train charging forth along the twin rails of pattern-seeking and prediction. The future-directedness of science was for Lac simultaneously a ticket to an unrestricted world and an escape from the mundane, a way to brush up against the eternal, the sacred even. People he knew growing up sought solace and spiritual uplift by muttering their futile prayers while kneeling beside their beds or by going to church and being led through the mindless motions. But religion obsesses over the past, trapping you there. Science looks out over the horizon, beckoning like a liberation. That’s the part he kept firmly in his grasp even after turning away from Darwin’s grand view of life at his professors’ behest.

“This is it,” Clemens says. “A guy from the Malarialogìa built this a few years back. It should keep the bats out of our hair.”

Lac scans the area, his eyes lighting on the ramshackle hut in a clearing in the brush. “The sun will only be up for a little while longer,” Chuck says as he clears the last of the sparse branches and vines in their path. “Not much point in trying to do anything but sleep after it gets dark.”

Inside the modest but blessedly empty hut, the missionary pulls his hammock from his bag and removes it from its rubber bag. Lac catches a whiff of the old sweat and stale wood smoke odor coming off the mildewed cotton. Recoiling, lifting his hand to his nose, he thinks: Even the damned missionaries are filthy down here.

“When we get back to Tama Tama,” Clemens says, “I’ll try to write up a list of common words and phrases. It took me months to start really picking up the language, but I can at least help get you started.”

Lac doesn’t tell him the issue is moot, because he won’t be returning to this place. Even now, he’s working out the logistics of his return trip to Puerto Ayacucho. Still, he can’t help wondering why this missionary is being so patient and helpful. It dawns on him, as it should have weeks ago, that Clemens knows he’s supposed to be writing a book, his dissertation, on the Yanomamö’s culture—a book that can be passed around to any other New Tribes missionary who follows him into the jungle in search of souls wilting for lack of Christ’s nourishing light. Disgusted, Lac finishes tying his own fresh hammock to the support posts and lies down, just in time to hear his kindly bald companion’s snoring begin in earnest. It’s not quite dark yet.

“Strange bedfellows,” he mutters, looking up at the underside of the thatched roof, wondering why he didn’t take a minute to check it for vermin but too exhausted to get up now. His legs and feet throb. His skin tingles and aches from the constant sweating and swelling. He can’t remember the last time he was this uncomfortable. But all the bodily insults are a mere backdrop for the chaos swirling in his mind. In spite of it all, however, he knows in a few moments he’ll be as deeply asleep as Chuck. Placing a cracker in his mouth and sipping from his canteen to wash it down, he smiles at the realization that he’s almost too tired to finish chewing. 

Continue reading: The Sleep of Reason: He Borara Ch 3.1

Also check out:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco

He Borara: Chapter 2: Pandemonium

Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"

Check out Napoleon Chagnon's original account of when he first met the Yanomamö (see particularly the section "The Longest Day: the First One" beginning on page 2).