Schultes was an odd choice to become a sixties icon. His politics were exceedingly conservative. Neither a Democrat or a Republican, he claimed to be a royalist who professed not to believe in the American Revolution. When the presidential election results are published in his local newspaper, The Melrose Gazette, there is always one vote for Queen Elizabeth II. A proud Bostonian, he will have nothing to do with one New England Family. He will not use a Kennedy stamp, insists on calling New York City’s Kennedy Airport by it’s original name, Idlewild, and will not walk on Boylston Avenue in Cambridge, now that its name has been officially changed to John F. Kennedy Boulevard. When Jackie Kennedy visited the Botanical Museum, Schultes vanished. Rumour had it that he hid in his office closet to avoid having to guide her through the exhibits.
Take a lot of plants, trees, seeds, some of them hallucinogenic, some known, lots unknown, a dog, Botany’s answer to Indiana Jones, his brightest student and another wide eyed yet equally capable student, Rubber, Orchids, Coca, a cast of incredible and wonderful characters and a sizeable chunk of South America and slowly drift down the Amazon river, from one end to the over, from one tributary to the next, and you have, well you have a lot more than One River, I have to say.
Much like the river of the title, I imagine anyway, this is a big, sprawling book that seems to be a biography, a travelogue and a study of medicinal and hallucinogenic plants mashed in a great mortar and pestle and pressed onto the pages. Ostensibly dedicated to the memory of Tim Plowman, Wade Davis has written a detailed biography of Richard Evans Schultes (who has become a hero of mine on the basis of this book), as well as the histories of rubber and Coca and their impact, the lives and roles of Indians in the Amazon basin and beyond, and their incredible knowledge and understanding of the world around them. Along the way he travels with Tim, throws in the histories of Richard Spruce, a bit off Alfred Russell Wallace, the Inca’s and even a little bit of Peyote.
What this meant was that while reading, I drifted in and out of interest. Just when I got into the life of Richard Schultes, we were back with Wade Davis. Just when you remember what Davis was doing the last time we were with him, we were back with Schultes, or spinning off with a detailed history of whatever it was that Davis was talking about at that point. In complete naivety I came to the book to read about the Amazon and despite thinking I would enjoy the travelogue parts, it is in fact the biography of Schultes that I grew to love, a man with a passion and curiosity for plants that drove through almost any obstacles that nature or man placed in his way which I could only admire more and more throughout the book. Davis also gives detailed history or everything relevant to the narrative. Indeed, the exploits of the rubber barons, particularly Julio Cesar Arana were horrific, and made uncomfortable reading, yet still fascinated me, particularly after all those years of hard work were ended by petty shortsightedness of the US government.
It is the sheer breadth of the book that makes it feel like an encyclopedia while reading. The Latin plant names, and technical botanical terms which at the same time piqued my interest in botany, but not quite enough and so kept me at arms length. The switching between Schultes and Davis would have been easier to keep pace with without the additional history of subjects related to where they were or what they were doing, this all made One River feel like three different books.
Until I finished. Then it became a great book, filled with seemingly endless information on the Amazon rainforest, and it’s human and flora inhabitants and the adventure for their discovery and their impact on medicine, and in the case of cocaine and rubber, on society and technology across the whole world.
By this time Waterton was familiar with the work of Brodie and Bancroft, and one morning he decided to experiment with their technique. He began by injecting the poison into the shoulder of a female donkey. In ten minutes the creature appeared to be dead. Waterton, being rather accomplished with a blade, having bled himself on at least 136 occasions, made a small incision in the animals windpipe and began to inflate its lungs with a bellows. The donkey revived. When Waterton stopped the flow of air, the creature once again succumbed. Resuming artificial respiration, he nursed the animal until the effects of the poison wore off. After two hours the donkey stood up and walked away. This treatment marked a turning point in the history of medicine.
It wasn’t until towards the end of the book that I thought of the Indiana Jones comparison for Schultes, and I’m pretty sure it’s a comparison he himself would of not appreciated, maintaining as he did in the book that he hadn’t known any adventures. Yet his journeys up and down rivers and through jungles far outstrip giant rolling boulders and alien crystal skulls. Travelling for days to get treatment for Beriberi and malaria, then continuing with his collecting showed an almost stubborn refusal to let these inconveniences to get in the way of the job in hand. He believed and appreciated the knowledge and expertise of the native indians, making great efforts to understand them and their worldview, which was sometimes completely alien to what he knew and understood himself.
These traits influenced both Davis and Tim Plowman, who spent his life researching Coca, before the narcotic derivative took over the known world and forever tarnished a nutritional stimulant used by people for thousands of years before it became a good time drug for everyone. He actually managed to trace it’s evolution throughout the different locations in South America.
Coca had been found to contain such impressive amounts of vitamins and minerals that Duke compared it to the average nutritional contents of fifty foods regularly consumed in Latin America. Coca ranked higher than the average in calories, protein, carbohydrate, and fiber. It was also higher in calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin A, and riboflavin, so much so that one hundred grams of the leaves, the typical daily consumption of a coquero in the Andes, more than satisfied the Recommended Dietary Allowance for these nutrients as well as vitamin E. The amount of calcium in the leaves was extraordinary, more than had ever been reported for any edible plant.
So in the end I struggled, I forced myself to finish it before the new year, but it was worth it all. Now that I’ve finished I will delve back in to various bits, particularly one of the final chapters which contained interesting history on the Inca’s. If you like travel writing, you’ll like bits of this, if you like history, you like some of this, if you like biography, you’ll like most of this, If you like botany, you’ll love this. If you like to read about a real life adventurer (Don’t call him Indy) then you’ll definitely love this.
The best way to Oaxaca from the capital was to take the train; there was no road. If a train was scheduled to depart at seven in the morning, you would phone the station at ten and ask when the seven o’clock train was leaving. “At one,” might be the response. That meant you began to pack at three and make your way to the train station around half past four. At six, with tremendous fanfare and not the slightest indication of concern or embarrassment, the dispatcher would ring a bell, signaling the conductor, whose high, piercing whistle left the platform whirling with commotion. At seven in the evening, or slightly before, the train would make it’s way slowly out of the station.