One River is an epic read, and not just because of its hefty (wide) 491-page length. If you have never read anything by Wade Davis, you may be surprised to learn an ethnobotanist is almost akin to being Indiana Jones. In between harrowing tales of near plane crashes, thousands of km-long canoe journeys, and surviving tropical diseases like malaria and beri-beri, the book tells the story of Davis’ explorations in the Amazon region as well as those of his PhD supervisor before him. One part biography and one part autobiography, both Davis and his supervisor, Richard Evans Schultes, were true explorers, discovering and documenting thousands of plants ‘new to science’, as Davis puts it. Because of course none of them are unknown plants: indigenous people in the region had been using most of these plants for sustenance, medicine, and other purposes long before Europeans made contact. In the 1930s and 40s, at a time when there was widespread racism against indigenous people, Schultes (and later Davis) were eager to learn from the various peoples they encountered on their travels, especially about the usage and source of hallucinogens. The main thread throughout the book is the search for the different preparations for yagé (a plant that at once causes vomiting along with disturbing hallucinations) and coca among the various Amazonian peoples they meet along their journeys. Davis’ writing is poetic and very descriptive. I can’t help including one of my favourite paragraphs in the book:
“Language is the filter through which the soul of a people reaches into the material world, and for the Mazatec, in particular, communication was not limited to the spoken word. The language had four different tones. Every conversation had its own key, which was determined by the one who initiated the exchange. In solemn moments words broke into meaningless syllables, songs became chants, sounds resonated in low humming prayers that might go on for hours. On less propitious occasions the Mazatec conversed by whistling. The whistles were not just sounds with generally recognized significance; they comprised an entire lexicon, like a vocabulary based on the wind” (p. 101).
All this is not to say that One River is a rip-roaring read 100% of the time. There is a particularly dull bit in the middle where Davis chronicles Schultes’ work during WWII in trying to find a reliable rubber source in the Amazon basin. However those moments are few and for the majority of the book you will be lost in Davis’ botanical world, caught up in imagining yourself experiencing such daunting adventures.