MALEVOLENT WILDLIFE: Oh, The Amazon is Calling

There’s a danger zone, not a stranger zone
Than the little plot I walk on that I call my home
Full of eerie sights, weird and skeery sights
Ev’ry vicious animal that creeps and crawls and bites!!

On the Amazon, the prophylactics prowl On the Amazon, the hypodermics howl On
the Amazon, you’ll hear a scarab scowl and sting zodiacs on the wing

All the stalactites and vicious vertebrae
Hunt the stalagmites while laryngitis slay
All that parasites that come from Paraguay in the spring
Hmm, hmm hmmm ( On the Amazon, Don McLean)

Humans may regard the malevolent animals of the Amazon as a biological miracle or a pestilential horror. They are likely to regard us merely as a square meal. …

Charles Waterton. "A proper 18th century English naturalist does not wear a crew cut. He also does not pretend to be a dog and bite his dinner guests under the table. He never rides a crocodile. He never punches out a python. When visiting the Vatican, a proper naturalist does not scale the roof of St. Peter’s. The Pope should not have to tell him to remove his gloves from the lightning rod this instant. It is unseemly for a naturalist to traverse South America entirely barefoot. And it is downright unheard-of for a naturalist to put one specimen’s head on another specimen’s body for the express purpose of making fun of the Protestants. But Charles Waterton, known to all as The Squire, was not a proper naturalist."

August, 9, 2010: A former British army captain became on Monday the first known person to walk from the origin of the Amazon river to its mouth, after enduring “50,000” mosquito bites, attacks by hostile Indians and tropical disease in his nearly 2-1/2 year odyssey. Ed Stafford, a 34-year-old from Leicestershire, England, dived into the Atlantic Ocean after taking 859 days to walk the length of the world’s second-longest river, starting at the peak of Mount Mismi in Peru in April 2008.

The Thames is two hundred and nine miles long, a distance almost exactly the same as the width of the Amazon at its mouth. Everything about the Amazon is on an equally extravagant scale. It drains an area only slightly smaller than the continental U.S., and every second it sweeps seven and a half million cubic feet of water out to sea with a force that rolls back the Atlantic Ocean and freshens its waters for one hundred and fifty miles. The discharge at the mouth of the Amazon is twelve times as great as that of the Mississippi and more than twenty-five times that of the Nile in flood.

As one would expect, the Amazon valley possesses a rich and varied wildlife: more species of insects, shrubs, plants, and trees than any other part of the world, more kinds of fish than the Atlantic Ocean, and great numbers of birds, reptiles and mammals.

"This fascinating, lucidly written book is widely regarded as one of the greatest reports of natural history travels. In 1848 Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace went on an expedition to the Brazilian Amazon. Wallace returned in 1852 but lost his collection in a shipwreck, Bates remained in the Amazon for a total of 11 years returning home in 1859. During his time in the Amazon he sent back nearly 15,000 specimens of mainly insects, 8,000 of these were species new to science, a hugely significant contribution to zoological discovery. Bates spent three years writing the account of this journey which was published in 1863 as The naturalist on the river Amazons, with some accompanying illustrations by the noted zoological artist, Joseph Wolf (see artefact of the month for December 2006). The book is an eloquently written compendium of curious natural facts and observations on Amazon life before the rubber boom, revealing the amazing zoological and botanical richness of the region. Anecdotes include Bates confirmation Maria Sybilla Merian's disturbing report of large spiders which can eat small birds. He also mentions sloths and marmoset monkeys both of which can now be seen in the newly opened ZSL Clore Rainforest Lookout."

…Stafford has aimed to use the walk to raise awareness about the threats to the Amazon rain forest and its people, using a portable satellite video to blog about his trek. He had planned to complete the walk in about a year, but the journey was prolonged by floods that forced him to walk a roundabout route that was 2,000 miles longer than the 4,000-mile (6,400-km) length of the Amazon, which is exceeded in length only by Africa’s Nile river. …

Although its insects, fishes and plants grow to surprising sizes, there are no great mammals in the Amazon to rival the giants of other continents. But its range of malevolent wildlife is unique. There are the jaguar, alligator,vampire bat, sting ray, candiru, piranha, bushmaster, fer-de-lance, parrot and coral snakes, and annaconda, plus a bewildering number of poisonous and irritating insects, from the Mygale spider, whose bite can be fatal to a human being, to the sauba ant, which can destroy human possessions with extraordinary speed. In between these extremes are poisonous ants, centipedes, caterpillars and scorpions, painful wasps, piums and motuca flies, chiggers and “betes rouge” – and, responsible over the years for more hu

suffering than the rest combined, that ever-present killer of the tropics, the mosquito.

…A statement from Stafford’s media team said that the Briton had been: “wrongly accused of murder on two separate occasions, been imprisoned, had concrete stuffed in his mouth by hostile tribes people, been chased by Ashaninka Indians with bows and arrows, been stung by hundreds of wasps and watched as his guide ‘Cho’ removed a botfly from Ed’s head with superglue and a tree spine.”

It said he had endured “50,000” mosquito bites, lived on a diet of piranha fish, rice and beans, and dodged a variety of snakes, electric eels, scorpions, and ants, as well as contracting a skin-disfiguring disease. …

Adam Gabbatt:Stafford hoped his feat would raise awareness of the destruction of the rain forest, but said he is "no eco-warrior". "The crux of it is, if this wasn't a selfish, boy's-own adventure, I don't think it would have worked. I am simply doing it because no one has done it before." Stafford said he has seen vast areas of felled jungle during his journey. "It's the people in power who are benefiting from the extraction of the natural resources here," he said. "That's why there are corrupt politicians and laws that aren't enforced and loads of unconstrained deforestation still going on." Stafford and Sanchez Rivera survived on beans and rice, although they supplemented their diet by catching and eating piranha fish.

Many of the villains of the Amazon live in its waters, and it is worth pointing out at once that the alligator, piranha, sting ray, electric eel, and candiru taken together do not offer the same danger as, for instance, the African crocodile. They may occasionally claim a human life, but their main victim is the human imagination.

…Famed British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes was quoted as saying in the statement that Stafford’s feat was “truly extraordinary.” “No one has ever done this before and the pundits considered the route impossible,” he said….

When foreign naturalists began working in South America, early in the nineteenth-century, they were quick to describe the dangers of its wildlife. Henry Walter Bates, the English naturalist who collected a staggering total of 14,712 different species during his eleven years in the Amazon valley ( 1848-59) , had several adventures with alligators.

The fierce piranha goes mad at the smell of blood. A school of these fish can reduce a large animal to its bare bones in seconds.

…Snarling equinox among the rocks will seize you
And the fahrenheit comes out at night to freeze you

Wild duodenum are lurking in the trees
And the jungle swarms with green apostrophes
Oh, the Amazon is calling me

On the Amazon, the pax vobiscum bite
On the Amazon, the epiglottis fight
On the Amazon, the hemispheres at night all slink where the agnostics drink…

Once, when camping with some friends on a sandbank, he awakened in the middle of the night to see, a foot beneath his hammock, a huge alligator that had stolen ashore to seize a poodle belonging to one of his companions. The bathing place at Teffé was infested with these creatures, but after a time Bates grew accustomed to them and wrote: “I used to imitate the natives in not advancing far from the bank and in keeping my eyes fixed on that of the monster, which stares with a disgusting leer along the surface of the water…” Whenever an alligator became too bold, the men of the village would hunt it down in canoes and kill it with harpoons.

Christopher Danzig:Just a few years later he ventured to South America, where he spent two years trekking into the heart of the Amazon jungle and exploring ancient Incan ruins in the Andes. His 1927 book, Jungle Paths and Inca Ruins, chronicles the expedition. In its pages McGovern describes shooting and killing a 28-foot anaconda that charged his boat; living on monkey meat and great fuzzy caterpillars; and one group member's drowning. He spent time with indigenous Indian tribes in the Amazon basin and took part in one tribe's sacred Jurupari rites. The ceremony, which supposedly banished evil spirits and cured illnesses, featured eerie trumpet music and a hallucinogenic drink.

There are many accounts of the alligator at its most menacing, lying in wait for an unwary or drunken Indian, but bate’s friend Richard Spruce, the English botanist, gives us the corrective. He was watching the pirarucu fisherman of the lower Amazon who harpooned their quarry in lakes swarming with alligators, and he noticed that when one of the fish was speared, the men would jump into the water alongside the alligators to land it, even if it was still pumping out blood. There seemed to be a gentleman’s agreement  by which the alligators never attacked the fishermen  and in return were given the offal when the fish were cleaned.

…All the hippodromes that lie concealed in mud
Hunt the metronomes that live in swamp and flood
Then the kodachromes run out and drink their blood, poor ginks

While velocipedes among the weeds will scare you
And the menopause with hungry jaws ensnares you

Frenzied adenoids infest the hills and slopes
Everyone avoids the deadly stethoscopes

Oh, the Amazon is calling
Yes, the Amazon is calling
Oh, the Amazon is calling me-ee!!

One of the early naturalists treated the alligator with flippant disrespect. This was Charles Waterton, a Yorkshire squire who made four expeditions to South America between 1812 and 1824, and whose eccentricities led him to go barefoot in the jungle, regardless of stones, thorns, and insect bites. Waterton once caught a huge alligator on a shark hook baited with a rodent. As his Indians drew it up, struggling, into the shallows, Waterton sprang onto its back , seized its front legs “as a bridle,” and in spite of all the reptile’s efforts to dislodge him, remained there until he had been subdued. “Should it be asked how I managed to keep my seat,” he later wrote, “I would answer- ‘I hunted some years with Lord Darlington’s foxhounds.'”

If Alexander von Humboldt was the paragon of a scientifically reasonable European naturalist in South America, Charles Waterton was his opposite. If Humboldt was the hero, Waterton was the joker. Whether The Squire was simply an aristocratic eccentric or a dangerously unhinged, bat-shit crazy lunatic, well, you decide.

Born to a Catholic noble family whose lineage included eight saints and four historical figures found in the works of Shakespeare, Waterton’s hyperactivity and rambunctiousness defied his blueblood upbringing and pushed him toward naturalism and exploration from an early age. Though he never discovered any species, or even bothered using the scientific names of the ones he studied, he was a keen observer of animal behavior. Basing his explorations around his family estate in British Guiana, he contributed to Europe’s understanding of neotropical fauna, and published a wildly popular memoir of his travels called Wanderings in South America that inspired a young Charles Darwin and, later, an even younger Alfred Russell Wallace to set sail for the continent.

The Squire’s eccentricities were innumerable. When a doctor told him to put his injured foot under running water, he went to Niagara Falls. He was a devotee of the medical practice of bloodletting — considered obsolete quackery even in his day — and wanted so badly to be bitten by a vampire bat that he maintained a habit of sleeping with his big toe uncovered to bait one. (He never succeeded.) He fell in love with his wife at first sight… at her baptism. She was the daughter of an Arawak princess and a Scottish nobleman and colleague, and at the infant’s baptism he fell in love and decided there and then that she was the girl he was going to marry. After that, he planned his expeditions so that they traveled through her small Guianan village, so that he could visit and check up on her. When she was seventeen, he took her away to England and married her. She died the next year, giving birth to their son. After that, and for the rest of his life, he always slept on the floor with a thin blanket and a wooden block for a pillow, out of equal parts grief and guilt. In Waterton’s later years, he established the world’s first nature preserve around his English estate, and became one of the world’s first opponents of pollution when chemicals from a nearby soap factory began affecting the waterfowl. He kept his propensity for walking around his grounds barefoot and climbing both trees and walls without ladders (which he deeply distrusted.)…

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