on April 14, 2004
This will be a very short review on a book that has long been with me. While working on a reproductive biology macaw research project climbing into the canopy of the Amazon each day for 3 months i found ONE RIVER one night piled amongst the research literature. Even though i had the Amazon literally ground into my bones after so many days of hard labor i could not put this book down each night reading by candle. Could one gourge on steak then still enjoy reading about cattle? This is simply a fascinating, and most well written book on arguably the most complex wonderful ecosystem as experienced by a most hard working curiously gifted individual. Do your soul a favor and read this book 5 times!!!
on May 22, 2003
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.
on December 28, 1998
This is one of the best natural history and history of science an culture books I have ever read. I started this after reading another scintillating science book by David Quammen "Song of the Dodo" which I have since read again with great pleasure but "One River" forms a link between science and culture that was untouched in Quammen's tale of A.R. Wallace. The curious link is that Wallace started his journey's as a collector in the Amazon and covered some of the ground that Davis retraced.
Davis does a marvelous job of melding his and Schultes adventures in interlocking chapters. The tale of the mission to secure a supply of rubber during the war and the subsequent loss of the incredible genetic library that Schultes founded and was subsequently destroyed by bureaucratic bumbling is classic and tragic.
A wonderful read, highly recommended.
on April 7, 1999
This book should be a real eye opener for those who have never taken the time to open their minds to other ways of seeing issues such as those exposed in this book. For those who have, then this book will continue to inspire and delight. Besides all this, it is beautifully written, and anyone with imagination can be carried away and moved by the stories, the history, the science, and the sheer poetic content. This will make you realize, if you haven't already, that there are many different and amazing cultures, that there are so many rich experiences to have in our world, and how important it is to preserve and take care of the diversity our world offers.
on January 13, 1998
I wasn't sure what to expect when I started to read this book, having never read anything about ethnobotany, but I was hooked from the first page. Davis writes like a poet and takes the reader on a fantastic journey through South America. The book has certainly made me question our country's drug policies. The use of drugs by the various tribes/cultures (as opposed to abuse of drugs) was such an eye-opener - we are so used to being pounded over the head with the idea that drugs are bad or evil; a scourge on society. One River will give you a whole new perspective on drug use to enhance life and promote cultural and spiritual well-being.
on June 11, 1999
One River was one of the best books I have read in quite some time. As a Ph.D student in Botany, I was inspired by the accounts of Shultes, Plowman and Davis' journeys to the Amazon seeking tropical plants and learning from the people who have been using them for generations.. Davis has a rare ability to mix technical science writing with a deep knowledge of history, culture, and politics and make it flow into a coherent narrative. Any student of ecology, evolution, (especially of plants) will love this book as will people with an interest in the cultures and history of the Amazon basin.
Anyone still doubting the superiority of truth 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.
on August 28, 2002
Born and raised in Ontario, Wade Davis is currently explorer on staff for National Geographic.
His book delivers in its adventure, mystery and beauty. It informs to boot and what’s more this is non-fiction!
One River chronicles not only Davis’ travels in the Amazon but also that of his mentor, the celebrated Harvard Botanist, Richard Schultes who, earlier, spent more than two decades exploring the same Region during the thirties through the forties. Davis keeps alternating between his own accounts and those of Schultes. Despite the mention of dates in each successive chapter, Davis’ tale begins to meld the different eras together in which all these events occurred, creating a sense of timelessness for the reader.
Filled with fascinating characters, amazing discoveries and encounters with tribal cultures that can only be described as mind-altering, this book succeeds in overwhelming the reader with the richness of the Amazon in all of its bio-diversity, its history and its people. Personally, I came away shaken to the core. I guess it happens when the world suddenly gets much bigger than you had previously perceived.
Warning. One River contains occasional profanity and descriptions of hallucinogenic drug taking.
I found that his repeated and detailed descriptions of drug “trips” were tedious and irrelevant to the story. However, this book can still seriously challenge the assumptions that you hold about the world around you!
on March 17, 2001
"One River" will take you on a journey that you will never forget. It will introduce you to one of the twentieth century's most remarkable men--Richard Evans Schultes, as well as one of the world's most fascinating places--the Amazon.
The book is the story of the work of Schultes and two of his students, including the author Wade Davis. It will take you as close as you can ever be to lost cultures and lost ecosystems along with cultures and ecosystems that are very much endangered. Wade Davis is a champion of both human and ecological diversity. "One River" is probably the most eloquent testament to ethnic and biological diversity I've ever read.
As the modern world encroaches on every last nook and cranny of this beautiful earth, "One River" serves as a primer about what once was and about the price we pay as we lose one more species, or one more human culture forever.
This book is an adventure story. It is a story of incredible academic accomplishment. The term academic, with its connotations of being hopelessly removed from the real world does not apply here. Schultes and his students could not be more connected to the real world.
"One River" is the story of man and nature and how the two interact, each forever changing the other. Read this book and then tell your friends about it. While it is hard to make such a claim (there are so many good books), I'd have to say this is my favorite book.
on May 3, 1999
This book is a beyond-detail-rich look at the enterprise of ethnobotany in an extraordinary region of threatened biological wealth, through a biography of one of the field's greatest figures. It is a planet of a book, a book to get lost in like the rainforest itself; I read it in deeper and deeper skims to take it in. I felt like Davis was giving me, not some facts about the Amazon, but a transferred chunk of the reality of the place itself.
Curiously, I was advised that this would not be a good book to recommend to a family member who is very interested in biology and in indigenous cultures - because of all the objectionable hallucinogens in the book, which are typical of the region. (Once all the remnants of the peoples discussed have been converted to alcoholism, doubtless it will become permissible to know about them...) That would be one reason to support this book: it is a window out of our preconceptions, or at least out of the the ones that are uninformed or that don't know they need to *be* informed. This book is worth sitting down with, and worth passing on.