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Customer Review

on 3 February 2006
Anyone still doubting the superiority of fact over fiction need only take this book to a quiet corner and start reading. Wade Davis relates the stories of two Richards, Schultes and Spruce, plus his own in their respective excursions in the upper Amazon. Schultes, Davis' Harvard mentor, spent many years there seeking medicinal plants and new sources of rubber when access to Asian resins were lost during World War II. No work of fiction, including Hollywood's almost trifling account in the film "Medicine Man", can match the scope of what Schultes accomplished during his extensive travels. Schultes had the good sense to approach the Native American shamans with respect, dealing with them on their terms and not as a latter-day conquistador. They responded to his inquiries in kind, leading to countless new medicines for treating our "civilized" illnesses. He became a "depswa" - medicine man - sharing their rituals while gaining knowledge. Davis is able to use his close relationship with Schultes to provide an engrossing and detailed account of Schultes' career in the bush.
The second Richard is Schultes' own model. Richard Spruce came to the Upper Amazon from mid-Victorian England. Prompted by an inestimable source, Charles Darwin's account of the Beagle voyage, Spruce entered the Amazon country in 1849. Few of the celebrated explorers in Africa in the same period can match the perils Spruce faced and dealt with. As did his follower Schultes, Spruce avoided the overbearing colonialist image - his desires were achieved by finding new medicinal plants. Spruce dealt with the dispensers of drugs and their tales of visions incurred as an equal. In their turn they imparted valuable information leading to useful medicines. Clearly, both Schultes and Spruce operated as Davis stipulates: "botanists in the Amazon must come to peace with their own ignorance." As Schultes, Spruce and Davis himself demonstrate, the peaceful approach brings substantial rewards in information and experience.
Davis' own, modern, story enhances that of his mentor Schultes, carrying the research and adventure forward. Only the ability to travel further and faster than his teacher separates the two. Davis has a sensitive touch in describing the world of the Upper Amazon, its dense forests and often mysterious people. His grief at the loss of their culture is manifest, buttressed by a strong historical sense of what they once were. Certainly this account belies the image of the "detached" scientist scouring the forest's resources for personal gain. He is there to learn and to teach us. He accomplishes both with a fascinating narrative. This is a book to be treasured and read again. A single sitting with this book is but an introduction to this disappearing world. Read it and discover that adventure is not a lost experience.
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