Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Riverbones: Stumbling After Eden in the Jungles of Suriname by Andrew Westoll

This book is difficult to describe. On the one hand, it is historic and delves into the politics and ecological problems in clear prose, but on the other hand, the author seems to show himself as self-satisfying, drunken though compassionate, irresponsible in his personal relationship, and not the type of person who would be writing this book. I found it difficult to reconcile the two.

Andrew had been to Suriname before, as part of a team of researchers working in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve studying monkeys. He left Suriname after a few months to return to Canada, but Suriname never left him. Several years later, he abruptly leaves once again, this time leaving a fiancé behind, and heads off on his obsessive need to return to Suriname. With no real goal in mind except to explore the heart of the country, he immerses himself completely. When he hears of the extremely rare and most protected tiny blue frog, okopipi. This one tiny shining frog becomes even more of an obsession and he will not leave Suriname before he finds it. His stay in Suriname extends far beyond his original timeset. This sets the background of the story.

Suriname as described is most certainly an Eden, but as with all versions of Eden, there are snakes. Snakes in human form, political form, internal warring, deception, conglomerates who poison the ground and the water, and also poisonous snakes, in fact some of the most poisonous in the world exist in this country.

One of the largest man-made lakes in the world buried the jungle canopy and misplaced 43 Maroon villages, scores of dead bodies of villagers, animals, and the once buried. As the waters rose, a group of SPCA volunteers under Operation Gwamba made the largest animal rescue in history by rescuing with little more than “normally used to capture raccoons in the subburban alleyways of Boston.” Young (23 yr old) Walsh and his team “saved 2,104 three-toed sloths, 1,051 nine-banded armadillos, 479 red howler monkeys, 161 pygmy anteaters, 36 tapirs and 3 jaguars, just to name some of the larger animals.” This was done over a period of 18 months. It is hard to imagine wrestling frantic deer, boars, giant armadillos into dugouts! The rescue itself took a terrible toll on the workers with everything from infected bites to dengue fever. The grim reminder of the drowned jungle are the tops of the trees, the canopy, now dead and standing like ghostly sentinels all through the lake.

Suriname is dying. There is barely a spot in the jungle or plain or lake that is not full of poison; workers do not have any protection against the poison they work with, their drinking water is poisoned, everything they do poisons them more, from the clothing they wear and wash in the poisoned water, to the food they cook, being washed and stewed in poisoned water. Shamans have cures for a lot, but they must remain hidden and their secrets which could save many in the world will die with them. Children are often born deformed or blind, and there seems no end to what is happening. There appears to be no answers. The young people of the “cities” drink their type of beer, dance to reggae, and seem to have forgotten what oral history they may have heard. I can understand the author’s feelings and would not be surprised to find he returns to Suriname once again. Over all an excellent book, but with so much history I would rather not have him dwell so much on being hungover when has initiated trips into the wilds. I found that a bit of an annoying aside. It made me feel as though he was afraid of being thought a hero. His interaction with the Surinamese is remarkable otherwise. Difficult to put down, I would prefer to give it 4 1/2 stars for the sheer amount of legend, myth, history, zoology, botany, and political information researched and well-told.

No comments: