A Land of Ghosts: The Braided Lives of People and the Forest in Far Western Amazonia by David G. Campbell, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
A Land of Ghosts: The Braided Lives of People and the Forest in Far Western Amazonia

A Land of Ghosts: The Braided Lives of People and the Forest in Far Western Amazonia

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by David G. Campbell

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For thirty years David G. Campbell has explored the Amazon, an enchanting terrain of forest and river that is home to the greatest diversity of plants and animals to have ever existed, anywhere at any time, during the four-billion-year history of life on Earth.

With great artistic flair, Campbell describes a journey up the Rio Moa, a remote tributary of the Amazon


For thirty years David G. Campbell has explored the Amazon, an enchanting terrain of forest and river that is home to the greatest diversity of plants and animals to have ever existed, anywhere at any time, during the four-billion-year history of life on Earth.

With great artistic flair, Campbell describes a journey up the Rio Moa, a remote tributary of the Amazon River, 2,800 miles from its mouth. Here he joins three old friends: Arito, a caiman hunter turned paleontologist; Tarzan, a street urchin brought up in a bordello; and Pimentel, a master canoe pilot. They travel together deep into the rainforest and set up camp in order to survey every woody plant on a two-hectare plot of land with about as many tree species as in all of North America.

Campbell introduces us to two remarkable women, Dona Cabocla, a widow who raised six children on that lonely frontier, and Dona Ausira, a Nokini Native American who is the last speaker of her tribe's ages-old language. These pioneers live in a land whose original inhabitants were wiped out by centuries of disease, slavery, and genocide, taking their traditions and languages with them. He explores the intimate relationship between the extinction of native language and the extirpation of biological diversity. "It's hard for a people to love a place that is not defined in words and thus cannot be understood. And it's easy to give away something for which there are no words, something you never knew existed."

In elegant prose that enchants and entrances, Campbell has written an elegy for the Amazon forest and its peoples-for what has become a land of ghosts.

Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
If the forest seems beleaguered, its human inhabitants hardly fare much better … The Amazon, so rich in plant and animal species, has been cruel to its chief tormenter. It's not at all clear which one will outlast the other, but the forest is disappearing fast. In A Land of Ghosts, Mr. Campbell offers what feels like a lover's last, lingering look.
— The New York Times

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Rutgers University Press
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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PROLOGUE The Odyssey

This is a story from the edge of the human presence on our planet, the far western Amazon River Valley, where the forest envelops the horizon and the sky vaults in indifference to our small ways. It is a tale of men and women on a frontier so vast that they seem eclipsed by it. It is the story of their survival and their despair—and sometimes their triumph. It is a record of scientists who seek understanding of the natural world and of Native Americans who are losing that world, as their age-old culture—and their cosmos—disintegrates.
For thirty years I have conducted ecological studies in the Brazilian Amazon, in particular around the remote headwaters of the Rio Juruá, in the state of Acre, near the Peruvian border. In the course of my journeys there, I have become friends with—indeed, part of the extended family of—the pioneers along the rivers and highways. A wanderer from another continent, I have shared their lives and for a moment was captivated.
I lived among four cultures: the recently arrived colonists from Brazil’s densely populated east who have settled along the Transamazon Highway; the Caboclos, people of mixed heritage who are masters at making a living along the rivers in this intractable land; the local Native Americans; and the university-trained scholars of the Western empirical scientific tradition.
The colonists settle along the moth-eaten edge of the highway—the Transamazonica—growing manioc and coffee and raising a few pigs and chickens in the sandy soils. Some bring the inappropriate farming technologies of Brazil’s arid east to the tropical rainforest; or, worse, some are city folk with no understanding of farming or the soil. The colonists inevitably fail; the forest succumbs to ephemeral small fires; its fertility is transient.
The Caboclos are fiercely defensive of their lonely environment. Of African, European, even Middle Eastern descent—the vestiges of past diasporas—they are mostly Native American. They all speak Portuguese now. Although most have lost their native languages, they have not necessarily lost all their native skills. They know how to eke out a living in the river and forest. Still, they are not masters of their environment. They are seduced by the forces of commerce, especially by rubber-tapping and cattle- ranching.
The Native Americans, who once understood every nuance of this forest and had a name for every one of its species, have become dislocated and confused, coveting Western ways but unable to grasp them. In a generation many will become Caboclos themselves, but in the quantum jump from Native American to Caboclo they will lose their traditions, their culture, and their very language.
Each family along the rivers has its own tale, often tragic, sometimes heroic. The best interests of the different groups are often in conflict in a land where there is no law, a land neglected by an indifferent government hundreds of miles away. As in the North American West of more than a century and a half ago, conflicts in western Acre today are settled by gunfights and knives; feuds endure for generations.

I came to the River for science—to explore one of the great and enduring conundrums of nature: how can so many species coexist in such a small patch of this earthly orb? My colleagues and I try to decipher how ecosystems evolve and are maintained. I suppose, in retrospect, that my particular discipline, botany, was irrelevant. I could just as easily have been an entomologist or an ichthyologist. In any case, this lonely terrain would have seduced me into returning again and again. For me, what was important was to bear witness to this place that is like no other, to be a player in the game of science, and to have a dalliance with knowing—aware all the while that the paradigms of today will be supplanted by better ideas tomorrow.
How privileged I was to experience this place at this moment in history. Had I made this journey 150 years ago, the vistas and ways of life would have been the same, although my tale would have had more danger. As I do today, I would have reveled in the dumbfounding diversity of life forms. Unlike today, however, then I could have done little more than pose questions.
One might imagine that it’s a simple goal to understand the way things are assembled on this planet, the rules of order. Yet the measurement of patterns of species abundance and rarity—and the slow realization that this diversity was generated not by a benign and constant environment but by distuurbance and inconstancy—has been one of the great intellectual quests of our time. How many species can evolve in a small space and be held there? What are those species? Can we ever count them all, describe them? Are they all variations on a limited number ooooof themes, or are they a richly diverse mélange? Why are there any rare species at all? Why haven’t the most successful species pushed aside the others?
The field work necessary to answer these questions is laborious: every tree and shrub on each small plot must be collected, identified, and mapped. The task is all the more difficult because many of the species in the area I study are new to science, or have been described only in an arcane monograph in a specialized library. I now have data from a total of 18 hectares. A hectare is an area of only 100 by 100 meters, and 18 hectares is just a mote in the vast Amazon Valley.
But that small area seems a universe to me. Its diversity is stunning: more than 20,000 individual trees belonging to about 2,000 species—three times as many tree species as there are in all of North America. And each tree is an ecosystem unto itself, bearing fungi, lichens, mosses, ferns, aerophytes, orchids, lianas, reptiles, mammals, birds, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, mites, and uncountable legions of insects. The number of insect species alone—especially of beetles—may exceed the combined total of all the other species of plants and animals in the forest.
From repeated observation and from the patient teaching of the Native Americans and the Caboclos, I have learned to regard each tree on my study sites as an individual: I know its indigenous name, the lore that surrounds it, the medicines that can be made from it, its uses for food or fiber, and myriad other arcane items of its natural history. I know its hitchhikers, the traplining bees that are its pollinators, the bats that disperse its seeds, its parasites, and the lianas that steal its light. I know how the sap smells and feels; how the ocelots have raked its bark and scent-marked it with their urine. I know the generations of pacas that live under its flying buttresses, the army ants that bivouac every few years in its hollow trunk, the tinamou that forlornly flutes from its highest bough. I’ve observed its seasons of poverty, when the land is unyielding and sparse, and of productivity, when the red-footed tortoises and white-lipped peccaries eat its fruits.
The story of each tree is a story of seasons of birth and death, a story as old as Earth herself.
To walk through the forest for a day or even a month is like taking a snapshot of a child and expecting to know what she will look like as an adult or how she appeared as a baby. And so I returned each year to my little patches of forest to learn the destinies of the trees I had so meticulously measured five, ten, or twenty years before. Had they survived? How much had they grown? Were the diversity and species composition of the forest changing? These simple questions, so basic to our understanding of pattern and process, had no obvious answers. I learned that a tropical forest cannot be measured in only three dimensions.
Time—the inscrutable fourth dimension that we measure with clanking mechanical wheels or the vibrations of molecules—is the key to understanding how a tropical forest was wrought, how its diversity is maintained, and what it will become. When I first visited the Amazon, the trees seemed to be immortal; by comparison my life seemed as transient as an ant’s.
But I learned that the vast majority of the trees in my forest plots died as seeds or sproutlings, and a sapling was lucky to live to reproductive age. Some trees were broken by tipsy neighbors or suffocated in the lethal shade of the light-greedy canopy; then their minerals were recycled into new recruits. Today these trees exist only as numbers in my data book. Only a few saplings had the good fortune to sprout in a light gap created by the death of a neighbor, allowing them to invest in a trunk and the woody infrastructure necessary to lurch into the canopy, stake a claim, and win a place in the sun.
These few will become the giants that spread their boughs and cast their seeds over all the others, and I’m sure they will stand long after I have vanished.
The more I explore the rainforest, the more questions I have and the more ignorant I feel. This, of course, is the signature of good science. True, I have identified and mapped every tree and shrub in some small nooks and corners of this vast forest. I understand these microcosms. But my research is constrained by its small scale, which doesn’t reveal the whole any more than a rain puddle is representative of a summer pond full of living things.

In 1974 I was a member of the first team of botanists to collect plants along the brand-new road being constructed between Manaus and Porto Velho, part of the Transamazon Highway system. The road, intended as a sinew of commerce, was the portal for my entry into the forest, into places that had been inaccessible until then. The highway ran straight through the forest, indifferent to rivers and terrain, across highland and floodplain. At first Brazil’s military government kept the settlers and squatters at bay, and for a while the trees grew right to the edge of the road. At the end of the day we would simply pull the Jeep over to the edge of the road and make camp. Our campsites were full of wildlife, because the new road crossed the territories and migratory pathways of the forest animals. One night, near the Igarapé Mutum, we had to sleep in the Jeep, because a jaguar prowled our camp, coughing and scentmarking the Jeep and our boxes of supplies with urine. For weeks the Jeep and our clothes smelled like a cat’s litter pan.
The purpose of our expedition was to record the plant species in the area before the road brought in farms and cattle ranches. We collected plants from dawn until dusk and spent the evenings by the campfire pressing and drying them. In the parlance of botanical collecting, this unglamorous work is known as hay-baling. Yet it was hardly routine: about one percent of our collections were species new to science. Since we collected between fifty and a hundred plants per day, we had as many as seven new species each week. By contrast, the last new tree species in North America—and probably in Europe, too—were collected and identi.ed more than a century ago. Our discoveries were as original as any during the heyday of Victorian biological exploration a century before.

Earth is four and a half billion years old. She will survive another five billion years before the corona of her star expands and envelops the inner, rocky planets. How is Earth doing in her middle age? Pretty well, I’d say. On other planets of the same age life has not yet evolved, let alone intelligent life. They are as sterile and inarticulate as cinders.
Some places on my natal planet are more voluptuous than others. The Amazon River and its forest are the last continent-sized stretch of untrammeled wilderness on Earth and the greatest expression of her biological diversity. The Amazon Valley, in fact, has more species than have ever existed anywhere at any time during the four-billion-year history of life on Earth. Yet just at this moment of peak biotic eloquence, we know that inevitably most of it will be lost. Over the next several decades Earth will lose hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of species. Most of this extinction will occur in the tropical forests and especially in Amazonia. In the course of a generation or two, the Amazon rainforest will be destroyed both as a wilderness and as a functioning ecosystem. It is an old story, stale news by now. Yet the loss of this place, I’m convinced, will be the most egregious event of a generation of atrocities.
Much of the deforestation of Amazonia is being carried out by hopeful innocents. They—the heroes of this book—are pilgrims on a frontier as wild as any that humans have known.
This is not a tale of villainy, like the chronicles written by the ambulance chasers after the assassination of Chico Mendes. Instead, it has all the trappings of a classic tragedy: good intentions gone awry, heroes who don’t know any other way.
The forest along the highway from Manaus to Porto Velho is gone now, having retreated over the horizon on either side of the road. The Igarapé Mutum has become a wasteland. After the road crews departed, the squatters invaded, burning the forest and setting down hopeful little plots. Cattle ranchers, given massive tax incentives by the government, came too. Some of the plant species we collected have never been seen since, and it is unlikely that they ever will be seen again. Our collections will be the only evidence that they existed.
I am confident that my species has the vision and discipline to prevent this wholesale destruction.
Perhaps this book will offer a few morsels of hope by showing that there are people, living far from the highway, who know how to survive in the forest without destroying it. But the forces that want to consume the forest are overwhelming. During the next hundred years Earth’s human population may be too voracious to allow much wilderness to survive. Even if we temper our appetites, only a few scraps of wilderness, each as isolated as Central Park, will remain. We will have forever denied our descendants the chance of living an adventure like the one I describe in this book.
I am no futurist, but I accept that the loss of the Amazonian forest will deplete the soils, create worldwide changes in climate, and result in an extinction of species as great as that at the end of the Cretaceous Era, sixty- five million years ago, when the indifferent heavens—a collision with an asteroid or comet and the subsequent darkening of the sky with smoke and dust—caused about 50 percent of all species to disappear. Life on Earth, I’m sure, will eventually survive the human catastrophe, too. Earth is a forgiving mother with a long memory. Yet after the Cretaceous collision it took ten or fifteen million years for new players to evolve and replace those that were lost. And even then the new life forms consisted of variations on a diminished number of themes; today there are no ammonites, no dinosaurs. Human history is but a microsecond on Earth’s time scale; as far as we’re concerned, we are changing the world forever.
Perhaps every planet with intelligent life must endure this tragic and irreversible adolescence, when her children run amok. After all, as we lose our biological heritage we acquire new traditions. We are now developing a godlike knowledge of physics, from subatomic particles to quasars. Artificial intelligent life is just over the horizon. We know how to enslave the DNA from just about any organism to work for us in the simple and innocuous cells of bacteria. We are making new life at the same time we are destroying the old forms.

My profession has made me a recorder of events that will change humanity and, for a while, the world. Should my descendants in future centuries read these words, they may find them a strange tale indeed, of a time and a place whose life forms are mostly alien to them.
These days I am drawn to Homer, who wrote of voyagers along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean when the land was mantled in forest and prowled by lions, leopards, and wolves, when the sea was graced by the songs of sirens. Describing an island in the Adriatic, Homer wrote:

There is a wooded island that spreads, away from the harbor, . . . forested; wild goats beyond number breed there, for there is no coming and going of human kind to disturb them, nor are they visited by hunters, who in the forest suffer hardships as they haunt the peaks of the mountains, neither again is it held by herded flocks, nor farmers, but all its days, never plowed up and never planted, it goes without people and supports the bleating wild goats.

Those vistas, beasts, and sounds seem improbable today, when the Turks and Greeks eke out a living on a shaven and bruised terrain where only the spiny and sharp-scented herbs disdained by sheep and goats have survived, and where the teratogenic sea yields lumpy, toxic fish and three-limbed pelicans. The people of the Mediterranean have forgotten the ancient tapestry of their land. Their sea runs empty and silent.
Today we know that Homer’s singing sirens were humpback whales, now extinct in the eastern Mediterranean. And we know that lions once ranged as far north as central Europe (indeed, Europe had its own subspecies, distinct from those of Africa and Asia). By Homer’s time the lions had already been hunted to extinction; as enemies of the “herded flocks” of goats and sheep, they were the first to succumb to the shepherd’s bow and lance. Yet Homer mentions lions sixty-two times in his poems; lacking the real creatures, the blind old poet subsumed them into myth, symbols of strength and courage.
Will the Amazon be like the eastern Mediterranean someday? Will the people lose their way and forget the species they once knew? If read a century hence, will my odyssey seem as unlikely as Homer’s? Am I, like the blind old poet, writing a future myth?
For sure, Amazonia has its improbable beasts, its own myths. Homer would have delighted in the stories of six-meter-long anacondas, of angelim trees as tall as the Colossus of Rhodes, of the mythical mapinguarí, a beast with backward-facing feet (it may prove to be a not-yet-described ground sloth). There are plenty of dark and improbable sights in Amazonia—monsters to outsiders, yet commonplace neighbors to those who know the area. But as in Homer’s Greece, there is a dark inevitability here. All of this beauty—this refuge of the imagination—will end soon. In a few years this forest will succumb to flames, the mediocrity of monocultures, nationalistic paranoia, and the grubby quest for gold (a tiresome obsession as old as the New World). My generation will be the last to live in a species-rich world, in a time when most taxa remained to be discovered. And my generation will watch that world end. Our own species is forging the next great earthly extinction, diminishing forever our only homeland. Perhaps never before in Earth’s history (barring extraterrestrial impacts) have the events of a few decades been so important. The changes being wrought in Amazonia will alter the trajectory of life on Earth.
The decisions that we make now, at the cusp of two millennia, will have reverberations five hundred years from now, and five million years.
At least the Greek words for lions and sirens lived on after the beasts went extinct. Indeed, the Greek language became the template of Western tongues. The native Amazonians, though, are losing their cultures and languages at the same time they are losing the biological diversity of their world. The Native Americans have forgotten thousands of the words they once used to describe this forest. It has become a forest without cognizance. Species and the words for those species are going extinct. Both life and extinction have become anonymous. We scientists are forced to decipher pattern and process in a place where most species remain undescribed and their functions unknown. Now we must rename its parts, construct a new scaffolding of taxonomy. We are mapping a New World—using expired Greek and Latin words from another time and another continent as our tools.

I came to the River for science, but I stayed for the beauty. My memories of the species I found—each an invocation of sunlight and water and minerals—and of the play of light in the canopy, the night sounds, the aromas and textures of the forest, the time and space shared with friends on the frontier make up a tapestry of experience so rich that now, years later and thousands of kilometers away, it imbues my papery life with dimension and perspective.
I once wrote a book about Antarctica, a place where form and light are distilled into a few simple, evocative phrases, where only a few species have managed to climb ashore and survive. Antarctica is parsimonious and therefore easy to characterize. It is biological haiku. But how do I describe the inchoate green tapestry of the Amazon Valley, this apex of earthly diversity? Imagine: there are more species of lichens, liverworts, mosses, and algae growing on the upper surface of a single leaf of an Amazonian palm than there are on the entire continent of Antarctica. How do I reduce this voluptuous diversity to words?
Where do I begin?

Copyright © 2005 by David G. Campbell.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

David G. Campbell is a teacher, ecologist, and explorer who has worked on all seven continents. The author of the highly acclaimed The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica, he is a recipient of the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award, the PEN Martha Albrand Award, the Burroughs Medal, and the Lannan Award for Nonfiction. Dr. Campbell is a professor of biology and the Henry R. Luce Professor in Nations and the Global Environment at Grinnell College.

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