BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Watch out for that tree?

Ah, the dollar store … what oddities you present to me, staring out from your miscellaneous and always changing shelves! Paul Rosolie's Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon was sitting there, not even three years past its publication, and, while not being one of my key reading areas, looked interesting enough (heck, it has a quote from Jane Goodall on the cover, saying it's “An extraordinary book.”) to throw a buck at. This did, however, spend quite a while in the “to be read” stacks before I got to a place in my reading where I needed an escape into “uncharted tributaries”, and opted to add it into the current reading mix.

As is often the case when I sit down to crank out these reviews (and especially after a long gap – I wasn't writing for quite a bit, due to a variety of things, and have a backlog of over a dozen books to get to that I've finished at various times over the past four months), I find myself wishing that I had stuck in more of my little bookmarks. However, this being more of a “story” (if of a biographical bent, with Green over-tones), there were fewer cues to what I would subsequently think were the “important parts” to point back to. So, I'm going to be working off of the recalls I can pull to mind, and scanning through the book here.

I no doubt have mentioned in this space that I've traveled in South America, and the “type” of Mr. Rosolie is not unfamiliar to me … although I was never specifically doing environmental tourism, the locales (and enthusiasts) for that often intersect with the archaeological tourism that was my passion at a time … having encountered Green crusaders (usually complaining about something or another that tourists/locals/governments, etc. either were or were not doing that they fervently believed they should or shouldn't be) in various exotic settings.

I bring this up to explain that my reading of Mother of God was not without some amount of irritation at points … irritation that I'm guessing would not be engendered in others' experience of the book. One of my favorite societal quotes is from the late, great Johnny Carson, who said “It takes all types to fill the freeway.”, and I try to remember that when I start grumbling about “those people” (in whatever context that grumbling arises). This is not to say that the work that Mr. Rosolie and his ilk do is unimportant, he discusses his conservation mission on his web site, and has founded Tamandua Expeditions, which offers “wildlife research, conservation, and responsible volunteer/adventure travel”.

Anyway, Mr. Rosolie was a misfit in the New Jersey environment he grew up in …
As I got older my ambition began to boil and my fight with the education system intensified … Through middle school and freshman year of high school I broke all kinds of records for detentions and suspensions and made my way to each June feeling I had barely survived … As my grades dropped below the point of no return, and my total suspensions for the year hit double digits, my parents suggested I drop out and go to college.
This in his sophomore year in high school. He got his GED before the next school year began and (while he eventually ended up in college) spent all his time trying to find some Green organization that would take on an 18-year-old “untrained high school dropout”, preferably in “the most isolated and remote spot possible” (noting that “everything else was tourism”). Remarkably, he eventually heard from a researcher working in southeast Peru, who was needing assistants. He fibbed a bit, but got set up for spending his winter break down there, a two-day drive into the jungle from any civilization. He immediately took to it (even drinking the river water the first time it was offered) and claims to have soon been getting special treatment by the folks running the research station, and was sleeping out in a hammock in the jungle soon after his arrival (instead of what sufficed for “indoors” at the center).

Needless to say, he'd found his passion. Unfortunately, he has to get back to the States for college. He does start a web site and promotion program for the Las Piedras Station, in the “Madre de Dios” region (hence the book's title), which is successful enough to get him back there again (and again and again).

Now, I had a bit of an internal struggle at this point. The book is very much a “story”, with lots of characters, places, and scenarios, and I could either go into considerable detail, or just give you the broad strokes as I see them, plus highlights … and I'm opting for the latter. If you want the details, hey, go pick up a copy!

There is a lot of information here about the Amazon basin, its flora, fauna, geography, and the threats it is facing. The longer he stays, the more involved he gets, and seems to be always having to push himself to new personal challenges … of the type that tend to leave you dead – a situation that he only narrowly avoids at several points in the story. He still goes back to the U.S. for college, raising money and booking trips when there, allowing him to return to the Amazon. However, during one semester, a professor (who taught a course on “Ecology, Economics and Ethics”) challenges him to go on a trip to India. Aside from the academic value of this, and the opportunity to see elephants and tigers, he meets a young lady there, who is a significant side-track in the story. She's from India, and he decides she's his “soul mate” and proceeds to woo her from half a planet away. They eventually win her family's approval, get married, and she comes over to this side of the world (and into the jungle).

In the early chapters in the book, he copies some of his field notes on the wide array of animals he sees out in the jungle, but a not insignificant portion of the book deals with a few specific critters, including (if not especially) Anacondas. Big Anacondas. Real big ones … he describes a particular encounter with a monster snake:
This snake was as thick as a small cow, and easily twenty-five feet long. … I could see her watching us, sampling the air with a great black tongue, itself the size of any ordinary snake.
He also has notable experiences with jaguars and other forest creatures, but one of the oddest of his story involves a baby giant anteater, which he adopts (or vice-versa), and becomes his constant companion, sleeping with him in his hammock, and going into the jungle with him. There are pictures (so I guess it happened – web joke). However, at one point he gets a horrible tropical disease (I could have done without that picture – his face covered with neon green pustules), and has to be evacuated to civilization for medical attention … during which time the anteater disappears. However, much later in the book a female giant anteater (and her brood) shows up, and acts familiar, giving Rosolie hope that this was his friend, returned to the wild.

One of the “suicidal adventures” involves him going upriver to an “undiscovered” zone that the patriarch of a local family tells him of. He works his way up river, seeing more and more amazing sights (he notes an inverse ratio of the presence of man and the wealth of wildlife), has a risky near-encountered with an “uncontacted” native village, and eventually has to try to find his way back, still short of his destination. It turns out that there is a high iron content in many Amazon basin trees, which can mess with a compass, and he found he was hiking in large circles, and coming nowhere near where he was planning to get. He has a terrifying encounter with a jungle cat that was nose-to-hammock in the middle of the night, and has to try to survive a massive storm featuring hurricane-strength winds … this, on one hand, made the jungle a very dangerous place, and on the other, swelled the river extensively … which ended up saving him, as he was able to jump onto a huge tree that was being swept down the river, and ride it on a break-neck journey of many miles, until he had to head to shore before smashing into a logjam. He'd gotten far enough down river that he managed to encounter a boat, which took him to a jungle lodge, and thence to the relative safety of places he knew.

At one point he's chided by the head of the Las Piedras Station that “Sometime the bad guys win.”, and this was very nearly true for that center. His friends had lost control of it (having been on quite shaky financial ground all along), however, the group that had taken it over eventually found it a financial drain, and his friends were able to reclaim the facility. Unfortunately, they only got back 1,200 acres of the 27,000 acres they'd previously had – with the other owners looking to sell the rest at a hefty profit – possibly to logging interests.

Well, there you have it: adventure, animals, romance, skulduggery, and fighting the good fight. It's all in Mother of God, and I've only skimmed across the surface here (and I think I may have conflated different adventures into one narrative in the above). While I didn't love this book, it certainly had enough going on in it to keep my interest, and it may be something that you'd like as well.

As noted above, this is a relatively recent book (hardcover coming out in 2014, with the paperback following a year later), and both editions appear to still be in print. The on-line big boys actually have the hardcover going for less than the paperback, offering it for over half-off of cover price. The new/used guys have “very good” copies of the hardcover edition for half of that price (including shipping), which would be your best bet dollar-wise, if you can't find a copy still floating around the dollar stores. Unless environmentalism is one of your top interests, I don't think this one's a “buy it at retail” recommendation, but it's an interesting read if you do get your hands on a copy.

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Tags: book review
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