the rivers amazon run dry: a book review

The Rivers AmazonThe Rivers Amazon by Alex Shoumatoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came to the author’s second published work well-disposed. He married a beautiful Brazilian woman, as did I, and I had already read and enjoyed his The Capital of Hope, on the Phoenix-like creation of Brasília in an empty expanse of Brazil’s high plains, his third book. The Amazon and such radical Capital moves to Brazil’s vast interior are fruitful areas for a focus on backroads Brazil. Yet this work is a slog and Shoumatoff comes off as mostly charmless – in one of the most charming countries on earth. Pity.

Shoumatoff has perfected the “long fact writing” style and it shows. (Indeed, while publishing this book he became a staff writer at The New Yorker, where writers are paid by the word – with deleterious consequences for brevity of thought.) He is more a nature writer than a travel one and his various works are often portraits of places, not people. The impressive, if somewhat off-putting, fact gathering style is evident in the very first chapter, where there are 33 italicized Latin plant, tree, or animal descriptors, or nearly 3 per page.

Other nature writers, such as Peter Matthiessen, also tend to elevate nature to worshipful levels and lack a compassion gene or two – for fellow humans, if not for animals.

Sadly, writing about the Amazon – for modernists at least – tends to get quite misty-eyed and flows easily into cliché:

“Several years ago, I resolved to celebrate my thirtieth birthday in the Amazon. I would leave civilization for a while, get lost in the jungle, and taste the world pure and uncorrupted by its influence.” [p.vii]

Note up front the possible contradiction: how can civilization be likened to corruption? More specifically, how can civilized behavior be corrupting? It wouldn’t seem to be “civilized” any more.

Yet no motive is given for the birthday wish other than the possible one of fleeing a corrupting civilization. Shoumatoff, one can easily read elsewhere, is a Harvard man, also a Lampoonist, who was heartbroken by the end of a 2 year marriage and escaped to go jungle-diving.

“I proposed to spend eight months in research and preparation, eight months in the field, and eight months analyzing and writing up my findings. The proposal was accepted and I started to work immediately.” [ibid]

Accepted by whom? The Sierra Club? We aren’t told. Another mystery is who his travel companion is. We are introduced in the preface and then the name nearly disappears, even if his presence is implied constantly for nearly half of the book by the pronoun “we.”

“I was fortunate in having Danny Delaney, a friend from my hometown, to go with me. He had just gotten out of the army, where his training as a medic would prove invaluable for me and the many people we would meet who needed attention.” [p.viii]

Sounds good! But I recall barely a handful of several-line dialogues with Danny, whose medical exploits are not mentioned again. As a character, he doesn’t exist.

With the prim persona typical of the long fact writer, Shoumatoff only reveals two engaging personal facts, that the journey “finally ends (with my near death) at the alleged source of the Amazon” and, while in Brasília, “I also met there the beautiful woman who would become my wife,” at the end of the Preface and Chapter 3 respectively. While there is payoff with the near-death experience towards book’s end, there is none with the wife.

In the journey’s first outing, Shoumatoff decides to inspect “ranching in Pará, which is the biggest thing happening in the Amazon.” [p.15] After a lengthy series of transport delays, he and the mysterious Danny stumble with luck on the ranch manager, a Charles Rowcliff from South Africa. Over four hours after dark, they arrive unannounced:

“…then we found ourselves standing on the manager’s porch. If Meester Charles was at all puzzled by our sudden appearance, he kept it to himself. Shaking our hands warmly, he brought us chairs and called to someone inside…” [p.18]

After Shoumatoff produces a letter explaining his mission of “preserving the integrity of ecosystems,” Rowcliff wisely responds, “‘Ah,’ he said with a slow nod. ‘So you’ve come to see how we are raping the environment. Normally visits to the ranch must be cleared in Belem, but since you’re here, you’re here.’” [ibid]

In other words, Rowcliff receives them with warm hospitality, putting them up and showing the ranch operations over several days. Yet Shoumatoff decides to call Rowcliff “Meester Charles” (with the Brazilian-poor pronunciation of “mister”) throughout – which looks like pure condescension to me. What putting nature above people does to naturalists!

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Unsurprisingly, the originators of the “long fact” style are the stiff-upper-lip British travel writers who explored many a wild destination throughout the 19th century, and then cataloged the sights and their discoveries with an empirical style that blossomed in the Between the Wars travel books of the 20th century. The American travel writer style, beginning perhaps with Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad and flourishing mid-20th century, is more interactive and revealing, the narrator not only a character but sometimes the main character (think of Kerouac in On the Road). Shoumatoff is certainly in the former genre.

With the British writers, one gets to know the author’s character through the quality of his tart observations or the quirkiness of his conversations. Yet, leafing through The Rivers Amazon, there is relatively little dialogue, the only extended ones recorded chats with scientists. Incredibly, it is possible to make the world’s wettest and wildest region sound dry.

Nevertheless, Shoumatoff’s precise eight months spent in the field are compelling and revealing – despite a somewhat distancing style – as he is an obsessive experience and fact gatherer.

Besides meeting his future wife at the FUNAI (Brazil’s Indian Affairs) library in Brasilia, Shoumatoff needed permission to visit a remote tribe: “…no one is allowed on Indian land without authorization from FUNAI, which requires impressive credentials and can take months to get. It is not a good idea to try and sneak in, either, as some tribes are in the practice of killing intruders.” [p.38]

(Times have changed and Brazil, as always, is a flexible place, so I once hired a guide to take me to a aldeia, or Indian village, on the remote Bananal Island in Tocantins – without permission. FUNAI and the National Park Service had been kicked off the massive island for being too controlling.)

As required, an anthropologist, a young Belgian named Gustaaf, accompanies the author and Danny for a month visit to a small, remote village only a few hundred kilometers west of Bananal Island.
populated by less than 300 Menkranoti Indians. “Of the nineteen Indian villages Gustaaf had visited, this one, where he had spent most of his time, was his favorite, and the purest and most remote of the contacted Cayapo settlements.” [p.48] Interestingly, this is also the very region which Peter Fleming visits in his hilarious Brazilian Adventure (1932), trying to solve the mystery of Colonel Percy Fawcett, who in pursuit of the Lost City of Z had became permanently lost himself. (Shoumatoff never mentions it, despite including the book in his bibliography.)

Shoumatoff is quite happy that his “was the first ethnobotanical study of Menkranoti.” [p.67] Besides Gustaaf, the only prior visitors were a family of “gung-ho proselytizers” who

“had to leave in 1970 after a malaria epidemic in which 40 Indians were killed, both Schneider and his wife became comatose, the radio broke down, and their eight-year old daughter was left with the medical and missionary responsibilities.” [p.70]

Perhaps due to his romanticizing of the Indians’ “natural state,” Shoumatoff is conflicted: “My feelings vacillated between thinking I had the privilege to be a witness of the life of some of the last humans to be living in a natural state, and listless, enervated withdrawal.” [p.70]

This “natural state” included unfathomable cruelty. To give two examples:

“That afternoon three boys stoned a dog to death. Two held it down, and the third kept on coshing it over the head with a rock. It struggled free and they ran after it, beating it with sticks. It was nobody’s dog, so nobody stopped them.” [p.75]

“The child who died [of diarrhea] was a twin. Her sister had been ‘allowed’ to die some months before, probably clubbed to death by her mother.” [p.80]

Despite such observations, Shoumatoff still praises them for “liv[ing] in harmony with nature”:

“For me, at least, the leaving was emotional. I had learned that people who live in harmony with nature still exist, and after this brief exposure to their existence, my life would never be the same.” [p.82]

(Neither would the stoned dog’s or the clubbed baby’s.)

The author’s other extended jungle jaunt is in Roraima, Brazil’s remote northernmost state that borders Venezuela. He meets a vivacious caboclo (mixed raced) named Peruano, who accepts his money to escort him by river and trail to a remote mission among the Yanomamo Indians. Some of the book’s most humanizing encounters occur on this lark, especially when we meet Peruano’s diminutive, shy wife named Maria, “who moved with the wild grace of a cat.” [p.146] But even here danger lurked:

“Later at the mission I would learn that Peruano had tuberculosis. Unknown to the Aika, and probably to himself, it was probably he who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Indians who regarded him as their benefactor.” [p.154]

After meeting a shaman, Shoumatoff, has another “natural state” epiphany:

“That night, as I lay in my hammock, I felt as if I had accomplished my mission in coming to the Amazon: I had found in Leonça the natural man I had wanted to meet. …I was in an another, earlier time, where people where still part of nature and close to it.” [p.158]

When he finally reaches the remote mission (after all but being abandoned by his Indian guides for the last leg that Peruano refused), he meets one of Brazil’s most famous photographers of Indians, named Claudia Andujar, and the local padre. (I have spent much time in an entire gallery dedicated to Andujar’s work in the extraordinary contemporary art complex in Minas Gerais named Inhotim.)

There without FUNAI’s permission, the author quickly hitches a plane ride with visiting Italian missionaries, but only after lecturing them “that the Christian message was totally irrelevant to the Yanomamo’s sort of spirituality.” [p.172] The arrogance of the young ethnobotanist can astound!

There is also a glaring problem with many foreign travel writers visiting Brazil: few of them manage to dominate Portuguese. Shoumatoff, at this life stage, is among them. On the bus ride to vistit the Pará ranch he admits: “Leafing through my two-way pocket dictionary I made dismal attempts to communicate with the man sitting next to me.” [p.15]

While Shoumatoff makes diligent efforts to learn local languages – especially during the month in the Menkranoti village – he mostly seems to muddle through. Towards journey’s end he meets a young Indian boy, “a puckish-looking seventeen-year-old who spoke about as much Portugese as I did.” [p.151] Is this false modesty or not? It leads one to wonder if the book’s fluent conversations are accurate renditions, or more fiction-like. Credibility is lost.

To his credit, Shoumatoff does recognize the limitations of the Cultured Traveler’s common rants against the evils of development. Firstly, he succinctly states the case for the prosecution this way:

“An archaic, almost completely uncontrolled collection of exploitative activities, most of them inappropriate and doomed to failure, is gradually and relentlessly destroying the largest, most mysterious, and biologically diverse wilderness in the world.” [p.xii]

And then, with the best environmentalist “the sky is falling” attitude, he conjures up the looming doom (based, as always, on the straight line projection fallacy):

“…if the clearing continues at its present exponential rate, doubling every two years, the whole thing could be gone by 1991.” [ibid]

He makes this dire prediction only five years prior to the “expiry date.”

As for the case for the defense, Shoumatoff mentions something many environmentalists prefer to underplay: “There is also tremendous population pressure on the Amazon from adjacent settled areas, where millions live in desperate poverty.” [p.xi]

He also offers the possibility that the Amazon is not the pristine natural paradise everyone imagines it to be: “The archaeologist Anna Roosevelt is gathering evidence suggesting that the prehistoric occupation of Amazonia was a good deal more substantial and began much earlier than previously supposed.” [p.xiv]

Roosevelt’s line of thinking was greatly expanded in Charles Mann’s ground-breaking book 1492, which suggests the entire Amazonian ecosystem was likely guided and civilized by Indian populations beyond number – who were decimated by diseases imported by 16th century explorers. (Mann’s seminal work was written three decades after The Rivers Amazon.)

So it should not surprise that The Rivers Amazon, while beguiling, is largely outdated. Schoumatoff indulges in another of the rote positions of early (and some modern) environmentalists: “As of this writing, 93% of all land in Brazil is still privately owned or otherwise not safe.” [p.114]

As if only government-owned land is “safe”! Schoumatoff even contradicts himself, as in a prior paragraph he admits that the Amazon National Park (like many even today in Brazil) “is a paper park, without guards or enforcement.” Far better than governmental diktat and negligence is what is nowadays called “sustainable development” – on privately owned lands.

It is hard not to conclude that Shoumatoff got lost in a forest of fact-finding and not only missed the bigger picture but a startling number of details. I have never seen a book so riddled with typos and errors (over a dozen). And this despite being the paperback edition of a second edition done eight years after the first.

“For a number of reasons, the original hardcover edition of The Rivers Amazon was riddled with errors in Portuguese, and in the scientific and local names of the flora and fauna. I hope these have all been corrected.” [p.xvi]

Perhaps he was already used to The New Yorkers’s famous fact-checkers and neither he nor the publisher could be bothered.

In sum, this Amazon tale is a historical curiosity, filled with interesting facts but less than compelling.


The Rivers Amazon, Alex Shoumatoff (1979), Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1986 edition

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About Ben

Ben Batchelder has traveled some of the world's most remote roads. Nothing in his background, from a degree in Visual & Environmental Studies at Harvard to an MBA from Wharton, adequately prepared him for the experiences. Yet he persists, for through such journeys life unfolds. Having published four books that map the inner and exterior geographies of meaningful travel, he is a mountain man in Minas Gerais, Brazil who comes down to the sea at Miami Beach, Florida. His second travel yarn, To Belém & Back, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. For more, visit

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