The Lost City of Z by David Grann (Doubleday, 2009)
Before I talk about this book, I have to talk about the maggots.
I read nonfiction books about interesting things that strike my fancy because I like learning everything I can about our world, and I write about them here because I figure there’s a chance somebody else might want to learn those interesting things too. Knowledge is a good thing! There is no bliss in ignorance; there is only ignorance.
I really, really, really could have done without learning in gruesome detail how maggots can infest living flesh and the fine details of how the afflicted person has to pick them one by one out of their own rotting wounds to survive.
I didn’t need to know that.
On that note: the Amazon.
I’ve always had an offhand fascination with exploration in the Amazon. Not the sort of fascination that makes me want to go do it myself—I am a prickly cactus flower from the mountain west; I am not made to endure insects or humidity or piranhas—but the sort of fascination that lets me stand back and marvel at all the amazingly stupid and dangerous things people have done chasing treasures and ghosts in unforgiving jungles. It’s an interest that has evolved over time to focus less on the stories of vanished cities and mysterious civilizations and more on the endless scientific challenges of studying the history of the Amazon basin. The region has caused so many archaeologists and anthropologists to throw up their hands in despair. How do you learn about those unknown civilizations if 90% of their descendants were wiped out by European plagues and the jungle itself has eroded and buried the ruins left behind?
The Spanish conquistadors and the missionaries they brought with them in the sixteenth century wrote about large, well-organized populations of people all throughout the region, but by the time anthropologists of the twentieth century were forming their own opinions, the story had changed to one of small, isolated, Stone Age tribes barely surviving in the jungle’s “counterfeit paradise,” one of the most dangerous natural environments on the planet. More recently a lot of research has been trending back toward some middle ground on that spectrum, allowing for both the small, isolated tribes and a long history of large populations and widespread infrastructure. Just the fact that there are these extremes of interpretation prove there are so many unanswered questions about human history in that part of the world.
The Lost City of Z is about Percy Harrison Fawcett, the man who inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (although if he ever found any dinosaurs, he kept them to himself) and was generally regarded as the last of old school Victorian explorers, with all that entails both good and bad. Fawcett vanished in the Amazon in 1925. He was looking for his own El Dorado—there are as many El Dorados as there were men who died searching—that great mythical city of untold riches long rumored to be hidden away, intact and untouched, somewhere in the vast jungle. The biographical chapters trace Fawcett’s life through his early explorations, through his years on the western front in WWI that sharpened a powerful yearning for the lost city into pure unrestrained obsession, through his final journey and into the aftermath, as the mystery surrounding his disappearance persuaded a huge number of ill-prepared adventurers to follow in his footsteps. (Most of them died too.)
The story is so vividly told it’s easy to imagine hacking through the jungle alongside Fawcett and his companions: everything around green and loud, damp and hot, swarming with mosquitoes and ticks and vampire bats, and incredibly difficult to survive in spite of the suffocating press of living things on every side. Many non-native explorers died of starvation, because food is deceptively scarce, and even those who could find enough to eat were usually done in by illness, injury, or violently defensive indigenous tribes. Fawcett was considered an oddity for his way of dealing with the people he met, which was uncharacteristically rational for an Englishman of his time: He put his weapons down and his hands up and tried to make friends rather than enemies.
The narrative goes a bit easy on Fawcett in places, in the way that stories of this nature always go a bit easy on men whose obsessions lead them to endanger others (including, in this case, Fawcett’s own son) and often leave destitute wives and children behind. But there is, I think, some degree of self-awareness in this approach; the author counts himself among those foolhardy followers as he retraces Fawcett’s final steps. That journey isn’t terribly interesting until the later chapters when he’s actually on the ground in Brazil, meeting the same tribe rumored to have killed Fawcett and his companions.
The contrast between the Amazon of Fawcett’s time and the Amazon of today is stark and affecting. Where there were miles of jungle requiring days of hacking and chopping in 1925 there are now swaths of clear-cut ground, but just a few miles farther along and the rain forest is as impenetrable and unwelcoming as it ever was. Where Fawcett’s contemporaries and would-be rescuers went looking for savages and cannibals, the authors finds people who, far from being primitive, isolated, and ignorant, know perfectly well that their way of life has no easy place in the modern world and are doing what they can to preserve their traditions and history in spite of challenges from every side.
In that context men like Percy Fawcett who loom so large in imaginations elsewhere are barely a blip, an interesting but ultimately unimportant sidebar in the tribes’ oral histories: the curious story of that time when Grandma was a little girl and she remembers three white men passing through the village and never coming back.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s well-written and engaging, a good biography of both the man and the land that commanded so much of his life, and it makes me really, really happy I’m not a wandering Victorian Englishman picking maggots out of a suppurating wound on my own leg.