One River reads like an adventure story, a character sketch, a history, and a PhD dissertation. How Davis is able to hold so many disparate strands together so well is a true marvel. That he is an excellent writer surely helped but so did his choice of topics-all quite fascinating.
Rarely does one pick up a book, especially non-fiction, that cannot be set aside. This book glues itself to your hands and you won't be able to shake it until you've finished. Then you'll wish there were more.
In the broadest terms, One River is a biography of Davis's mentor, Richard Evans Schultes. I had become familiar with Schultes's work when researching hallucinogens. Well-known in that particular field, he is renowned generally as the godfather of ethnobotany. Tracing any strand in modern botany you'll find him again and again. He was incredibly prolific and a born adventurer. Many species of plants are named after him because his colleagues so highly respected him.
Davis recounts his personal experiences under Schultes-the strange days at Harvard, the mission Schultes sent him on to study cocaine in 1970s Columbia-and then proceeds to unravel his hero's own story. One needs to read the book to appreciate the twists and turns of this plot but let's just say Schultes has taken all drugs, lived with all new world tribes, and regularly voted for Queen Elizabeth II in presidential elections. In spite of his noted eccentricities few scientists could claim such respect or accomplishment.
In the early 40s he was employed by U.S. government to find and/or cultivate a new world source of high quality rubber. A decade of work almost resulted in a better rubber that would enrich the people of Central America and ensure the U.S. a constant supply of this industrial mainstay. Please read almost... a single guffaw by some legislators destroyed all this work and left us in the lurch of depending on Southeast Asia for our rubber, a precarious situation to be sure.
Throughout the book, the main backdrop is the Amazon. One of the reasons I had trouble putting the book down was because it transported me to that exotic place. Though I was doing my same old routine, I could jump into the narrative and feel like I was on an intrepid vacation never sure what the next bend in the river would bring: menacing or friendly natives, a new species of orchid, other wanderers, a potently hallucinogenic plant?
For a thoughtful and engaging read one can do no better.