Saturday, March 3, 2012

'Relentless monotony, infinite variety, simply green'

You should know I'm not the most adventuresome individual; I kind of prefer my creature comforts. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate a good story about those who were brave enough to face the unknown, like Lewis & Clark did when Thomas Jefferson sent them to look at some property he bought from Napoleon. I've already reviewed books about some forgotten sailors like John Kendrick and Charles Wilkes, as well as a few who went out for ice and took their time coming back like Shackleton in Antarctica and some funny Brits who ate shoe leather in the Northwest Passage. But I think I'll switch gears and look at some books about exploration in the steamy jungles - mostly the Amazon - and I might as well start with The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.

After losing a bid for a third presidential term, Theodore Roosevelt set off for South America. It started out as a speaking tour but soon evolved into a poorly prepared expedition to explore an unknown river that passed through an unmapped portion of the Amazon forest. The River of Doubt, so named because of the uncertainty surrounding its connection to the Amazon River, started in the Brazilian highlands near the border, but dropped through a punishing series of rapids and cascades over 400 miles of dense rain forest. Roosevelt saw it as a sort of therapy to his defeat, but the river and the jungle nearly killed him. Although he was traveling with Candido Rondon, Brazil's most famous explorer, he had allowed friends who were not familiar with the area to plan and provision the trip. Three porters died on the expedition and it's extremely lucky the number wasn't much higher given the quickly dwindling food provisions, hostile indians, sickness and diseases, treasonous porters, and numerous other dangers.

Candice Millard does a great job of bringing the Amazon to life in all its weird beauty. She not only discusses the expedition, its beginnings and preparations and the people involved, but the jungle itself - and this, to me, was the best part of the book. She describes the fish in the river like the dangerous piranhas and the one inch candiru that quickly burrows into bodily openings; the animals of the forest and why the expedition couldn't find enough to replenish their food; the trees that grow there and how they are spread throughout the forest; the indians who constantly monitored their progress and could have silently killed them at any moment. The ecology of the forest made the story so much more full, and helped to illustrate the point of why it was such a dangerous journey - not to mention the constant sickness and disease they all suffered with.

But beyond the ecological information, the history itself was fascinating as well. I'm not especially familiar with the history of TR (I always wondered how he got himself sculpted alongside men like Washington and Lincoln) but I enjoyed learning more about him: his relentless drive, thick head, and (to some degree) thin skin. I was also impressed by his friend, the naturalist George Cherrie, and may look for a biography on him sometime, as it sounds like he led an exciting life as well. Overall, a very interesting book for armchair explorers like myself.

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