Saturday, February 23, 2008

David G. Campbell: Land of Ghosts

This was an extremely difficult book for me to read. I'm not a strictly "fluff" reader, and I am no stranger to tough subjects (see recent reviews of "The Rape of Nanking" and books on the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), but from the first few pages of this book it was clear to me that I have an existential fear of deforestation, species becoming extinct, disappearing of the Amazon, and general environmental degradation. It sounds trite, but David Campbell's scientific journey into them mostly charted Amazon to count and classify and otherwise study trees in a certain area over time literally made me physically ill. I think it was about page 8 when I realized that it would take me a long time to get through this book (normal people might have put it down, but readers of themacinator should know by now that I never put a book down and that this is a "C" book in my "reading unread books A-Z" which made it doubly tricky to put it down):

I am no futurist, but I accept that the loss of the Amazonian forest will deplete the soils, create worldwide changes in climate, and result in an extinction of species as great as that at the end of the Cretaceous Era, sixty-five million years ago, when the indifferent heavens- a collision with an asteroid or comet and the subsequent darkening of the sky with smoke and dust- caused about 50 percent of all species to disappear. Life on Earth, I'm sure, will eventually survive the human catastrophe, too. Earth is a forgiving mother with a long memory. Yet after the Cretaceous collision it took ten or fifteen million years for new players to evolve and replace those that were lost... Human history is but a microsecond on Earth's time scale; as far as we're concerned, we are changing the world forever. (p 8-9)
I took a religion class once with a Jungian professor. She told us that for her generation, the most scary existential thing to think about was nuclear war. According to her, it caused all sorts of millennial feelings and writings and cults. Well, when I read this kind of book about environmental destruction, I feel the same kind of existential dread that I imagine she was speaking about: total fear of the end, in a sort of physical way.

This book is about more than doom and gloom: Campbell paints pretty pictures of the Amazon, discusses minutia of some interesting flora and fauna, and gives us snapshots into the people living in the forest. Although the book is not particularly a page turner- more like the opposite- he describes his work as a taxonomist beautifully:

The children of northern India are taught the story of a monk... who devoted his life to reciting the countless names for God. He believed that God was manifest in every part of the world, living and inanimate, even in the shadow of an insect on a blade of grass. God had as many names as there were kinds of plants and animals- and Sanskrit had a word for most of them. The monk never finished naming all the names. A journey of that magnitude could never be accomplished in a single lifetime. Like that monk, taxonomists give names to all of life's creation. indeed, for Linnaeus, the naming of species was an act of worship. For him each name, each description, was a prayer, one of the names of God (p 144).


Campbell is much more optimistic about his project and the world in general than I am. He and his team spent time on the river collecting samples of each plant that they encountered to disperse among labs and museums in order to keep them on file. Near the end of the book, the people he stays with are involved in a mass "slash and burn" project in order to create farmland and grazing land in order to have food to survive. I'm not sure how Campbell left these years of study with his optimism intact, but he did. The forest is dissipating, whole cultures are going extinct, and as he writes, "This is the immolation of Eden" (p 204). If this was a better book, I would recommend it to everyone, in order to encourage activism. As it is, I'm just going to encourage the activism: DO SOMETHING! Even if it's just acting locally, I don't think we've got many chances left.

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