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One River Paperback – August 5, 1997
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Best known for The Serpent and the Rainbow, Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist interested in the native uses of plants, especially psychotropics. He finds many such plants in the travels he recounts in One River, especially coca and curare. (The first, famously, is a curse in the First World but is a necessity in the Andes, where it promotes the digestion of many kinds of food plants.) Framing Davis's narrative is an account of the dangerous World War II-era Amazonian expeditions undertaken by his mentor, Harvard biologist Richard Evans Schultes. Davis describes a few hair-raising encounters of his own, making this a fine book of scientific adventure.
From Publishers Weekly
The prodigious biological and cultural riches of the vast Amazon rain forest are being lost at a horrendous rate, according to the author, often without yielding their secrets to the Western world. During his years in the South American jungle, ethnobotanist Davis (The Serpent and the Rainbow) has done much to preserve some of these treasures. He tells two entwined tales here?his own explorations in the '70s and those of his mentor, the great Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, beginning in the '30s. Both men have been particularly interested in the psychoactive and medicinal properties of the plants of the Amazon basin and approach their subject with a reverence for the cultural context in which the plants are used. The contrasting experiences of two explorers, a mere generation apart, starkly demonstrates how much has already been destroyed in the rain forest. Although Schultes probably knew more about Amazonian plants than any Western scientist, he was constantly learning of new ones and new uses for them from native experts. Davis graphically describes the brutal clash of cultures from Columbian times to the present, often so devastating for indigenous peoples, that has defined this region. At times humorous, at times depressing, this is a consistently enlightening and thought-provoking study. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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In addition to introducing us to the Americas (not just South America), the author manages to tell us the what and the why. For me, this book, more than any other historical work, provided me with many "ah ha" moments.
I'm grateful to the author for writing this tome, and to the men and women who experienced the triumphs and tragedies throughout.
This is a long book, nearly 500 pages and is a serious commitment but well worth it as you will not experience anything quite like it unless Davis's other book is better (I have not read it yet). I only have a few complaints about the book and those are regarding omissions in some available photographs that Davis mentions in the end and a lack of maps for much of the area covered in the book. There is one small map on page 125 that shows the route of travels but it is too small and difficult to use. I resorted to a copy of International Travel Maps - South America North West to see the detail that I needed as I followed the travels of Schutes, Davis and Plowman.
Davis is an excellent writer and he has a way of conveying a sensitivity to the lives of all that he encounters. That along with his insight into the cultures that he experiences and the knowledge and history that he brings into this makes it a unique, rich read.
Weaving the author's own experiences together with his mentor's, and perhaps the foremost ethnobotanist of all times, Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, we gather a sense of how critical the natural world is to humanity.
Beginning with Schultes' first field studies of peyote use among the Kiowa Indians in 1930's Oklahoma, then Mexico to study the importance of mushrooms in native traditions, it is subsequently off to the Amazon for twelve years studying everything from medicinal and ritual uses of plants; describing new species; his involvement in the discovery of higher yielding, blight resistant rubber varieties for World War II efforts; navigating uncharted rivers, the list goes on.
Bucking death on numerous occasions, Schultes was an extraordinary person pursuing his ambitions and dreams.
The author's own experiences in the 1970's with his friend and colleague Tim Plowman are vivid and well descript. His colorful writing style closely approaches a Tony Horwitz flair.
My only misgivings were the overall length of the read. This could easily have been two separate books. One being a biography of Schultes and the other on author Davis' own risky ventures in South America.
Davis creates portraits of these men with such detail, warmth and respect (while usually letting himself slip into the background) I was found myself cursing when he would switch eras and researchers. In the past, any discussion I've heard on hallucinogenic drugs has been delivered by garrulous stoners with the reverence of true believers, but Davis is able to use the sensational subject matter as an entry-point into the vanishing culture and people of the Americas.
I don't want to hyperbolize but I couldn't this book down. Well-written (the only minor complain is Davis' choice to detail seemingly every one of Richard Evans Schultes many achievements) this book makes botany riveting. Who knew.