CALL OF THE WILD: Magic Realism of the Fang and Club

Most of us regard the malevolent animals of the Amazon as a biological miracle, essential for the survival of the planet, their health a sacrosanct reflection of our attitudes towards the environment. However, being actually plunked down into the Amazon River basin, we are more likely to view them as a pestilential horror, while they are likely to regard us a simply a square meal. …. Is it chaos and creation, intelligent design or perhaps that Darwin chap and Alfred Russel Wallace were was not completely baked crazy from the heat. In any event, most humans have a profound antipathy for spiders and snakes, especially of the giant, venomous and carnivorous variety, despite rumors that they may be more placid than they appear…

" Lately, fish has been some thing of an obsession with Meinel and rightly so since it must reflect the impact fish have had among the culture of the Indian tribes who live along the Amazon."

Like Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” there is a sense evoked by the Amazon and its denizens of human and animal tribe, of a return to primordial instincts and a confrontation with dark tones, and potential cruelty and violence as a reflection of the environment around; though it takes place in the near arctic, the dynamic between the animals and humans is strikingly similar and familiar:

“The Law of the Club refers to the method humans use to extract obedience from a dog; the Law of the Fang refers to the method dogs use to subjugate other dogs. Buck learns about the law of the fang when Curly, one of the friendlier sled dogs, makes advances toward another dog. This other dog rips open her face, then jumps aside to avoid retaliation. Curly is then killed by thirty to forty dogs. Buck learns life in the Klondike is violent, survival belongs to the alert, and leadership belongs to the most cunning.”

"Headmen can be violent warriors who are oppressive despots, or more astute leaders experinced at conflict resolution. Kaobawa as a headman stands at the mild, quietly competent end of the spectrum. He has had six wives - and temporary affairs with as many more, at least one of which resulted in a child that is publicly acknowledged as his. When Chagnon first met him he had two wives, Bahimi and Koamashima. Bahimi had two living children, others had died. She was the older and enduring wife, as much a friend to him as a mate. Their relationship was as close to what we think of as 'love' in our culture as any seen among the Yanomamo. His second wife was a girl of about 20 years, Koamashima. She had a new baby boy when I first met her, her first child. Bahimi was pregnant, but she destroyed the infant when it was born - a boy in this case - explaining tearfully that the new baby would have competed for milk her youngest child, who was still nursing. Kaobawa claims he beats Bahimi only 'once in a while, and only lightly'...."

…The sting ray which the Indians greatly fear, is dangerous mainly because of the difficulty of seeing it as it lies, perfectly camouflaged, on the bed of the river. The ray will not attack unless molested; but it is often trodden on accidentally by users of the river, and the punishment for disturbing it is frightful. It launches a barbed stinger into the intruder’s flesh that leaves a jagged wound when withdrawn, but the pain is quite disproportionate to the wound. The victim rolls about on the ground, convulsed with agony. The pain is accompanied by intense cold in the wounded area and in the groin. The sting is seldom fatal, but it is often a week before the victim can set his foot on the ground again.

The denizens of the Amazon forests are, mercifully, less formidable than those of its waters. There is the normal tropical quota of poisonous snakes, among which the bushmaster, the fer-de-lance, and the cascabel are the most deadly, but the only dangerous mammals are the jaguar and the peccary, a wild hog. The jaguar prefers the flesh of dogs to that of men and will attack only when cornered or desperately hungry. The ferocity of the peccary has probably been overestimated, although a herd could destroy any adversary with ease. The anaconda, king of snakes, may also be less viscious, as well as a great deal smaller, than has been maintained.

"Having subdued its victim the snake then takes on the long process of consuming the large caiman. With an elastic-like jaw that allows it to open its mouth almost vertically the snake has the ability to swallow animals much wider than it, but it takes a lot of time to swallow the caiman. After finally finishing off its meal the snake usually finds a place to rest and digest it. "

Charles Waterton was the first to describe the anaconda, and he did so with a characteristic lack of restraint:

The camoudi snake has been killed from thirty to forty feet long; though not venomous his size renders him destructive to the passing animals. The Spaniards in the Oroonoque positively affirm that he grows to the length of seventy or eighty feet and that he will destroy the strongest and largest bull. His name seems to confirm this: there he is called “matatoro” which literally means “bull-killer.” Thus he may be ranked amongst the deadly snakes for it comes nearly to the same thing in the end whether the victim dies by poison from the fangs which corrupts his blood and makes it stink horribly or whether his body be crushed to mummy and swallowed by this hideous beast.”

"Yes, I know, given the woman’s head on the stick on the cover of the February 1958 issue of For Men Only magazine (shown at left), the title I used for this post is a terrible, tasteless pun. But I happen to like terrible, tasteless puns — and pulp art with heads on sticks. And, aside from having a wild example of the latter (by an uncredited artist), there are a couple of full-page ads in this issue of For Men Only th

how how men’s adventure magazines actually did help some men get ahead in life. "

“Although boys spend most of their time with their mothers, they quickly learn that there are status differences between males and females. From an early age, boys are treated with considerable indulgence by their fathers. Boys are encouraged to be ‘fierce’ and are rarely punished for beating girls in the villages, as their fathers beat their wives. Many Yanomamo make statements like ‘Men are more valuable than women …boys more valuable than girls.’ Female children assume duties and responsibilities in the household long before their brothers are obliged to participate in comparable useful domestic tasks. Little girls are obliged to tend their younger brothers and sisters, and expected to help their mothers in other chores such as cooking, hauling water, and collecting firewood…”

"Some men seem to think that it reasonable to beat their wife once in a while as if the objective is 'just to keep her on her toes'. Most physical reprimands meted out take the form of blows with the hand or with a piece of firewood, but a good many husbands are more severe. Some of them chop their wives with the sharp edge of a machete or ax or shoot them with a barbed arrow in some nonvital area, such as the buttocks or leg. Some men are given to punishing their wives by holding the glowing end of a piece of firewood against them, producing painful and serious burns. The punishment is usually, however, more consistent with the perceived seriousness of the wife's shortcomings, more drastic measures being reserved for infidelity or suspicion of infidelity. It is not uncommon for a man to injure his sexually errant wife seriously and some men have even killed wives for infidelity by shooting them with an arrow."

… Books on the Amazon abound with stories of similarly monstrous snakes. The anaconda is a thick snake with, as Henry Walter Bates puts it, ” a most hideous appearance, owing to its being very broad in the middle and tapering abruptly at both ends.” It is difficult to judge the length of a snake, especially one of such a peculiar shape. The American explorer George Miller Dyott was properly realistic when he described an encounter with an anaconda by moonlight. The snake looked, he wrote, “every inch of forty feet, which meant that he must have been nearer twenty.”

Every traveler to the Amazon has heard stories of gigantic snakes from forty to eighty feet in length, but these monsters have consistently eluded the naturalists. Even when someone claims to have killed such a formidable serpent, there has always been some pressing reason for not bringing back the remains. Colonel Percy Fawcett, for example, said he had shot one of sixty-two feet, which he did not regard as being exceptional, and another traveler, Algot Lange, wrote that he had killed one fifty-six feet in length and over two feet in diameter.

"Fawcett ran across the giant snake in 1907. He was drifting along the Rio Negro with his Indian crew, when he spotted the snake. Fawcett reported that a great triangular head appeared at the bow of the boat, and when he shot the creature in the spine the body of the snake thrashed the water all around the boat. With great difficulty Fawcett convinced his crew to approach closer to the bank where the great snake lay. The Indians feared that the injured reptile would attack the boat or that its mate, as often happened, would come to destroy the hunters. Fawcett then stepped onto the shore and cautiously approached the snake. According to Fawcett, the snake measured 45 feet out of the water and 17 in it, for a total of 62 feet."

“By the time girls reach puberty they have already learned that their world is decidedly less attractive than that of their brothers. Most have been promised in marriage by that time. Girls have almost no voice in the decisions reached by their elder kin in deciding whom they should marry. They are largely pawns to be disposed of by their kinsmen, and their wishes are given very little consideration. In many cases, the girl has been promised to a man long before she reaches puberty, and in some cases her husband-elect actually raises her for part of her childhood. In a real sense, girls do not participate as equals in the political affairs of the corporate kinship group and seem to inherit most of the duties without enjoying many of the privileges, largely because of age differences at first marriage and the increase in status that being slightly older entails. Marriage does not automatically enhance the status of the girl or change her life much. There is no ‘marriage ceremony,’ and the public awareness of her marriage begins with hardly more than comments like ‘her father has promised her to so-and-so.’ She usually does not begin living with her husband until she has had her first menstrual period, although she may be ‘married’ for several years before then. Her duties as wife require her to continue the difficult and laborious tasks she has already begun doing, such as collecting firewood and fetching water every day.”

"Where women are captured during fighting, or are simply kidnapped, their feelings may carry little or no weight. All women fear being abducted by raiders and always leave the village with this anxiety at the back of their minds when their village is at war. They take their children with them, particularly younger children, so that if they are abducted, the child's future will not be put in jeopardy because of the separation of the mother. They are therefore concerned with the political behavior of their men and occasionally goad them into taking action against some possible enemy by caustically accusing the men of cowardice."

A respected naturalist like Alfred Russel Wallace believed Dr. George Gardner’s account of huge anacondas, although he himself had never seen one longer than twenty feet. When gardner, a botanist, was staying in the province of Goias, near the headwaters of rhe Araguaia River, his host discovered that a favorite horse was missing from its pasture, and all efforts to find it were fruitless. At length a “vaquero” saw the body of an enormous bloated snake stuck in the fork of a tree:

Josh Alan Friedman:Martin Goodman was also a very good title man. They believed in Big Emotions selling magazines, and they were right. I began as assistant editor of Focus, a small-format magazine, a quarter the size of say, The New Yorker. It was a sensationalized version of a successful one that Look had introduced called Quick, which you could also stick in your pocket.

“It was dragged out to the open country by two horses and was found to measure thirty-seven feet in length; on opening it, the bones of a horse in somewhat broken condition, and the flesh in a half-digested state, were found within it, the bones of the head being uninjured; from these circumstances we concluded that the boa had devoured the horse entire.” ( 1849) Gardner does not make it clear whether he was present when the anaconda was measured, but one must accept or reject his narrative, without quibbling about the length of the beast, for a thirty-seven foot snake would surely be the smallest that could swallow a horse.

"A huge, undiscovered animal lurking in the Amazon rain forest? When pigs fly, you might say. But recently, Dutch biologist Marc van Roosmalen spotted a new species of peccary—a type of large wild pig—in the Rio Aripuanã region of southeastern Brazil. The newly christened giant peccary shares few similarities with its two relatives, the white-lipped and collared peccaries, both found in the same area. For one thing, the new peccary doesn't eat like a pig—instead of snuffling on the ground for seeds and roots, it munches on fruits that grow in dry, wooded areas...."

You never fail to see the common vulture where there is carrion. In passing up the river there was an opportunity of seeing a pair of the king of the vultures; they were sitting on the naked branch of a tree with about a dozen of the common ones with them. A tiger had killed a goat the day before; he had been driven away in the act of sucking the blood and not finding it safe or prudent to return the goat remained in the same place where he had killed it; it had begun to putrefy and the vultures had arrived that morning to claim the savoury morsel.

Mark Power:Javier Silva-Meinel is becoming better known these days after several New York shows and a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work about Andean ritual practices. Much of his work has been in with Indian tribes in the Amazon Basin. His work is distinctly different from his predecessors in that he’s not a documentarian, more a Magic Realist, with a stress on the symbolic and the mythic, firmly in line with the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the photography of other Magic Realists such as the Mexican photographer, Flor Garduno.

At the close of day the vampires leave the hollow trees whither they had fled at the morning’s dawn and scour along the river’s banks in quest of prey. On waking from sleep the astonished traveller finds his hammock all stained with blood. It is the vampire that hath sucked him. Not man alone but every unprotected animal is exposed to his depredations; and so gently does this nocturnal surgeon draw the blood that instead of being roused the patient is lulled into a still profounder sleep. There are two species of vampire in Demerara and both suck living animals: one is rather larger than the common bat the other measures above two feet from wing to wing extended. ( Charles Waterton )


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