Review: Sarah Chayes on Wade Davis

In an excerpt from her review in Book Post, Sarah Chayes follows Wade Davis as he meanders down the history of Colombia’s Magdalena River.

When Pope Francis elevated the celebration of St. Mary Magdalene to one of only about twenty feast days in the Catholic calendar, the Vatican recalled that it was Magdalene who “so loved Christ” that she stood watch as he was nailed to the Cross, remained by his tomb that first awful night — alone among all his followers — and was first witness to the Resurrection. Wade Davis, throughout his magnificent new book about the river in Colombia that was named for this saint, remains attuned to the implicit allegory.

Washing away the blood of innumerable victims, the river has stood watch through the country’s repeated traumas. The Magdalena, Davis argues, made the very nation of Colombia possible. And it is with and through the resurrection of the Magdalena that Colombia itself may be truly reborn.

If ever there was a ballad composed in the fullness of a lifelong affair, it is Magdalena: River of Dreams. Davis landed in Colombia, his preface explains, as a Canadian schoolboy on a trip organized by a Spanish teacher. Under the indulgent eyes of his village host family, he fell wildly in love. He returned six years later on a one-way ticket, and has never looked back. If the Magdalena made Colombia possible, Colombia may just be what made Wade Davis — this generation’s most extraordinary anthropologist — possible.

Written over five years, by way of five extended journeys to and along the river, Magdalena follows the course of its namesake, from its indecipherable source in the folds of parallel mountain ranges in Colombia’s far south to its union with the Caribbean Sea. The river is the braided spine of the book, defining the narrative’s direction. Yet that narrative does not focus as much on the Rio Magdalena itself as, say, Davis’s River Notes focused on the Colorado. Instead — as advertised in a second subtitle — this work is really “A Story of Colombia.”

That story is told by way of the places Davis chooses to tarry, and especially through the passions and preoccupations of the string of remarkable men and women who guide him. Davis’s approach engages readers with the country’s rich prehistory and turbulent history in repeated touches. Like an oil painter, he lays down a first reference to a historical figure or a dramatic episode, then returns, often several times, adding depth and nuance.

The great German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, for example (recently reconsidered in Andrea Wulf’s 2016 biography The Invention of Nature), appears early in the book as the mentor of a self-taught nineteenth-century botanist. Then, pages later, he is consulted for an eye-witness description of the bogas, the community of escaped enslaved Africans and their descendants who lived deep in the forest and plied the river as irreplaceable boatmen. (By way of a rough analogy, see Cassandra Newby-Alexander’s Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad.) Only toward the end of the book does Humboldt take center stage as the tutor to the man perhaps most responsible for modern Colombia: Simon Bolivar.

Approaching El Libertador from that direction, Davis’s candid and searingly ambivalent treatment sheds light on this little-known fact: Bolivar “was perhaps the only major revolutionary hero who was fundamentally informed by natural history.” As he wrested Latin America from Spanish rule, writes Davis, Bolivar embraced “nature as the literal antidote to tyranny, ecological harmony as a blueprint for political and moral truth … He did not distinguish between the destiny of nations and the fate of nature.”

Humboldt is just one of a string of naturalists who figure in these pages, beginning with Davis’s friend, William Vargas. From a shoeless, plant-obsessed boyhood, Vargas made his way via a local priest and the army — and a chance encounter there with an eccentric botanist — to university, to become “a national treasure … a tropical specialist who knows the flora so well that if a plant is unknown to him, it is almost certainly new to science.”

By means of vivid depictions of scientists like Vargas at work, Davis breathes light and life into science itself. He illuminates not just the reciprocal influence between home-grown Colombian scholars and their European counterparts, but also the rich terrain where modern science meets indigenous ways of apprehending the natural world. Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer (see Braiding Sweetgrass) is a North American pioneer in this exuberantly fertile landscape.

Sarah Chayes was a reporter for National Public Radio from 1996 to 2002, when she left journalism to help in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, which she had covered, and was subsequently a fellow studying corruption at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author, most recently, of On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake. She is at work on a book bout the Potomac River.

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