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Go with the Flow

Alice Stevens

The word “explorer” feels like an outdated term, redolent of a time when there were blank spaces on world maps, when embarking on an adventure meant perhaps not returning, when there were still great geographical unknowns. And the history of exploration is also not without baggage; it is hard to disentangle from colonialism and Eurocentrism, from the idea that the very existence of a place or a culture depends on whether it has been “discovered”’ by the West. But the word also captures something wonderful about the human condition ‑ a real commitment to discovery and observational knowledge, and a spirit of adventure and possibility.

If there are modern-day explorers, Wade Davis fits the bill. Like the celebrated Victorian adventurers, men and women of both science and art, Davis is as well-versed in history as he is in botany and anthropology. A native of British Columbia, with a doctorate from Harvard, he’s a poet, a photographer and the author of twenty-two books. His work has brought him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Australia, Colombia, Vanuatu, Mongolia, and the high Arctic of Nunavut and Greenland. He has used his time in these far-flung places wisely, aided by an approach to knowledge that is deeply experiential and personal. But what really distinguishes him as a modern-day explorer is his belief in the vast diversity of experience.

His multidisciplinary background makes for good reading. Davis’s books combine memoir, travelogue, history and journalism, bringing to mind Bruce Chatwin or Ryszard Kapuściński. The books are filled with anecdotes and eccentric characters, hearsay, historical sidenotes, notations about the properties of plants and descriptions of local mythologies and beliefs. He is interested in the intangible as well as the concrete, the emotional as well as the spiritual. He often presents history through the characters he meets. His is a deeply personal view of history and brings with it not just the intimacy of his first-person account but the emotion and intensity of his experiences and those who share his journeys. In his 1996 book One River, Davis described how he retraced the travels of his mentor, Richard Evans Schultes, who had spent twelve years in the northern Amazon of Colombia, by himself, researching medicinal plants and mapping rivers with a dug-out canoe and a gramophone.

Davis’s latest book, Magdalena: River of Dreams, could be considered a follow-up to One River. Both display Davis’s deep connection to and love of Colombia, where he became an honorary citizen in 2018. Among other things, the book is a history of Colombian literature, music, society and politics, all told through the story of the Magdalena, the longest river wholly in Colombia, which threads its way through 1,500 kilometres of countryside, from the Andean páramos to the Caribbean coast. Davis presents the Magdalena as a geographical and historical force that shaped a nation, and a character in her own right. The book’s title is not a sentimental gesture but a reflection on how the Magdalena has impacted on the collective Colombian imagination, influencing the literature of Gabriel García Márquez; the rhythms of cumbia, the musical backbone of Latin America; and the political ambitions of its leaders, including Simón Bolívar, who led independence movements not only in Colombia but in Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. 

Davis’s narrative techniques pay tribute to the richness of Colombian culture. His retelling of history from the perspective of the natural world honours the worldview of many of Colombia’s Indigenous Peoples, who personify nature and see human action as just one element in a complex system of natural forces. Both the form and content of his narrative explore Colombia’s literary and musical traditions and unpack how they were influenced by the natural environment. By foregrounding the Magdalena, Davis illustrates how the river’s past and future are that of the country, drawing our attention to the legacy of colonisation and national identity and suggesting new pathways for political action to protect the environment in the second most biodiverse country in the world (Brazil being the first).

While Victorian explorers typically embodied the racism and paternalism of their time, Davis has dedicated his career to amplifying the voices of Indigenous Peoples, from the rainforests of Borneo to the Amazon to the Pacific islands. His book The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World posits as its central question: “What does it mean to be human and alive?” and explores how Indigenous knowledge can help us tackle the challenges of our time. Indigenous communities aren’t relics and the preservation of their cultures is not an academic or anthropological exercise; they have had to adapt to the modern world like everyone else. Reading The Wayfinders, we become aware of the thrilling possibility that there are thousands of spiritual, cultural and ideological systems that have as much to contribute as Western thought and culture to how we respond to this generation’s societal and environmental problems.

The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural paradigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel, it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.

Magdalena further explores how Indigenous cultures can offer us real tools to confront the problems of the modern world. Indigenous communities in Colombia are not just moral leaders in the environmental debate; their traditional ecological knowledge and practices can support sustainable resource management and climate adaptation strategies. Their knowledge is the result of thousands of years of learning from their environment, enriched by Colombia’s linguistic and cultural diversity. Throughout Magdalena, Davis celebrates the diversity of Colombia’s pre-Hispanic cultures and chronicles their contributions to the country’s history. The Zenú, for example, who thrived on the wetlands of the Lower Magdalena over five hundred years before the Spanish arrived in the Americas, designed a unique irrigation system that allowed them to cultivate more than a million acres of wetland, something that continues to confound modern-day engineers.

Whatever the ancestral Zenú believed, however they thought, their constellation of ideas, insights, devotions, and adaptations allowed them to achieve something that has defied us to this day. Though equipped with the latest industrial machinery, contemporary engineers in all their brilliance have yet to determine a way to live in a truly sustainable manner in the wetlands of La Mojana, a challenge that the Zenú civilization confronted and overcame more than a thousand years ago.

Listening to and learning from Indigenous Peoples is vital to navigating an uncertain future and can offer practical strategies for environmental advocacy. Davis’s personification of the Magdalena as a living force aligns him with Colombian communities such as the Kogi and the Arhuaco, who see the land as endowed with consciousness, but also with environmentalists who advocate for the Magdalena’s protection, a demand with Colombian legal precedent: in 2016, the country’s constitutional court granted rights to the Atrato river.

At the essence of the historic decision was a formal recognition that nature itself has legal standing, with inherent rights not dissimilar to those of human beings. A river is not merely a source of water or a channel for transportation but rather a living entity inextricably linked to the destiny of all those influenced or touched by its flow. The well-being of its river is the measure of the health of a community, and both are as one in the eyes of the law.

As well as drawing on Indigenous storytelling, Davis pays homage to the Colombian literary tradition, particularly the magic realism and the elevation of everyday experience of Gabriel García Márquez. Reading Magdalena is an exercise in the suspension of disbelief; Davis weaves fiction and fact so tightly that on occasion you mistake myth for history and vice versa. This isn’t just a literary technique; it reflects how Colombians have used mythology as a way to rationalise and understand the incomprehensible. An undertaker credits his survival during the civil war to supernatural protection by the souls of the dead. The destruction of a town by a 1985 volcanic eruption (the worst natural disaster in South America history) fulfils the curse of a murdered priest centuries before. A community buries the corpses that wash up on the shores of its town, believing that they will be blessed by the murdered souls and find peace or even their own lost loved ones. A musician attributes his luck in life to a “magical flute” that has allowed him to travel the globe.

Davis dedicates a chapter to Márquez’s relationship to the Magdalena and how it shaped his writing. As a young student, he travelled up and down the river by steamboat on his journeys from his home on the coast to his university in the capital. The hot, slow days aboard the boat, the closeness with the other passengers, the changing landscape, and the sylvan beauty of the river itself gave Márquez rich material for his stories. Davis also suggests that, much like the sounds of Colombian music, Márquez’s writing was influenced by the rhythms of the Magdalena.

Few Colombians, and certainly no Colombian writer, have been as closely associated with the river as Gabriel García Márquez. The river was not just the setting but an actual character in two of his greatest novels, Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth, books that are completely inspired by the author’s passion for the Magdalena. All of the themes that informed his work ‑ forgetfulness and love, violence and hope, progress and decadence, fertility and death ‑ are to be found in the eddies and back channels and currents of a river that literally carried him, as a boy, to his destiny, allowing him to enter a world of language and literature where he would discover just what words can do.

Later in his life, Márquez would associate the river with the promise and disappointment of his country’s hopes. For him, the river’s fate was tied to that of his country, and when he left for Mexico, he had little hope that its health could be restored.

When the Spanish arrived in modern-day Colombia in the early 1500s, the Muisca reigned supreme, ruling over an area the size of Belgium. The Spanish encountered incredibly harsh conditions but also paradisiacal abundance; as they travelled up the Magdalena, fish could be scooped out of the river with baskets and the shores were black with caimans. The Muisca’s relationship to the natural world was one of balance, with strict rules for the ways in which land and natural resources were used.

The land itself was perceived as being sacred, a vast and expansive temple, with certain forests and lakes consecrated to the divine such that not a tree was allowed to be cut, nor a drop of water removed.

Gold was also in abundance. The precious metal was considered a conduit for the sun and used routinely in rituals to ensure balance and community well-being. The Muisca bathed in gold dust, threw emeralds into sacred lakes and filled bodies with treasures as part of their death rites. The Muisca may have been the source of the El Dorado legend, and the promise of riches and power was a magnet to aspiring colonialists. The Muisca were conquered by three ragtag colonial expeditions, including one led by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, a possible model for Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Gold, and power, changed hands, and a new model for the land was imposed. Over the next three hundred years, and beyond, everything from slavery to genocide to civil war would be justified by the pursuit of gold (or rubber or cocaine, as time went by).

As Davis explains, the Magdalena has been a witness to and a participant in this history. She was of strategic importance during the war for independence, during which Simón Bolívar famously said: “Whoever controls the Magdalena controls the fate of men.” She epitomised the epic infrastructural and societal challenge of modernising Colombia, where, well into the twentieth century, anything from construction materials to pianos were carried into the country on the back of a mule. Efforts to industrialize the river mouth have been ongoing since 1906 and have cost successive governments millions of dollars, with limited success. She suffered the devastation of the civil war, where some of the worst violence took place along her shores and her waters were a grave to countless Colombians killed in the conflict. Today, the Magdalena’s shores are depleted and her waters are ravaged.

But Davis’s intention is not simply to chart a painful past; his narrative is one of hope. His story is infused with magic ‑ the shrouded mystery of the páramos, tributaries blanketed with green marble, languid towns where time is a suggestion.

Along the waterfront, splintered shutters creak open to reveal shaded courtyards and private fountains, hidden gardens of fruit trees and orchids, calatheas and aroids. At every turn, one encounters echoes of Córdoba in the spring. Elderly couples sip their coffee, already at ease in the wicker rockers where they will spend most of the morning and, quite possibly, much of the day.

Davis populates his story with the environmental heroes of Colombia’s past and present. Botanists, explorers, naturalists, Indigenous communities and even politicians have been protectors and advocates of Colombia’s stunning biodiversity. Davis even suggests that Simón Bólivar, the father of Colombia’s independence movement, was the first revolutionary whose political ideology was influenced by environmentalism. He credits this awareness to Bolívar’s relationship with famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Bolívar drew parallels between colonisation and environmental destruction and integrated ecological balance into his vision for the future. Davis believes that Bolívar’s political legacy could motivate a new generation of Colombians to embrace environmental stewardship and protection, particularly as the country moves towards renewal and peace.

If only Colombians today would embrace this distant legacy ... they might come to see environmental protection not as a political issue or a mandate to be ignored but as the raw invocation of patrimony, with stewardship of nature being recognized as the purest expression of patriotism. 

The Magdalena is still very much alive, despite centuries of contamination and misuse. Davis boldly envisions the restoration of the river, grounded in precedents like the Thames and the Hudson, and a belief in the enduring capacity of nature to bounce back. His hope is that the river’s renewal will parallel that of the country, as Colombia bravely moves towards peace and reconciliation.

In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, a professor from Bogotá is asked what it means to be Colombian. The man replies: “I don’t know. It is an act of faith.” The writing of Magdalena is that act of faith, a decision to choose wonder and beauty over despair. Davis delivers us a world of colour, an antidote to Graham Greene’s “sinless graceless chromium world”. He achieves this by exploring the multiplicity of experiences, cultures and voices to be found in Colombia’s past and present. He reminds his reader that every small town, every tributary, every sandy bank is a world of its own, and there is still magic to be found on the shores and in the waters of the Magdalena.

1/3/2021

Alice Stevens has spent over six years working in Latin America in the fields of international development and human rights.

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