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MAGDALENA: River of Dreams by Wade Davis book review

  • Written by  Robin Hanbury-Tenison
  • Published in Books
MAGDALENA: River of Dreams by Wade Davis book review
01 Nov
by Wade Davis • Penguin RandomHouse

Here is a towering revelation of the magnificent, tragic country of Colombia. One of the most biologically rich and most diverse states in the world and yet, throughout its turbulent history, it has been ravaged by savage conflict and rapacious commercial abuse, culminating in La Violencia, the period of violence that lasted for ten years from 1948 to 1958. During that time, 200,000 people died horribly, two per cent of the population, only to be followed by 50 years of guerrilla kidnappings and drug wars that devastated the nation.

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It would be easy to give up on somewhere that has suffered so dreadfully, both socially and environmentally. Yet Davis manages this complex story brilliantly, mixing his knowledge of environmental complexity with a historian’s grasp of the big picture. The perceptions of some of the great naturalists, including Alexander von Humboldt, are introduced to parallel some of the most horrendous examples of man’s inhumanity to man, especially the intense cruelty perpetrated on the indigenous people during the rubber boom. Throughout, Davis’s deep understanding and affection for the people and the environment sweep the reader along.

At one point, he quotes Humboldt: ‘Nature is one great republic of freedom. Everything is interconnected.’ The great central river of Colombia, the Magdalena of the title, is successfully used as the thread to tie this epic story together. Once the lifeblood of the nation, today it’s desperately polluted with human and industrial waste, and dark with the silt from deforestation. It looks beyond hope of salvation, but, as with the country itself, extraordinary resilience is revealed. 

Here, Gabriel García Marquez, Colombia’s greatest writer, is quoted as saying that the river has been transformed from paradise to wasteland, but ‘forests can be grown back and animals be reclaimed, even from the abyss of extinction’. 

Magdalena is littered with astonishing stories, often recorded first-hand by those who experienced them, of reconciliation and forgiveness. These tales are cleverly woven together so as to contrast the depths of human failings and cruelty with the richness of the natural world. Some of the descriptions of the torture and other atrocities suffered by the inhabitants
of this diverse nation are the stuff of nightmares.
Yet Davis manages to switch between horror and grace with a flowing narrative that echoes the flow of the river. 

 Magdalena is also full of detailed information on so many subjects of which I, myself, am woefully ignorant. Davis’s eclectic range of interests, each scrupulously researched, range from lyrical descriptions of the immensely varied wildlife, plant life and insect life to music, myth and troubled history. For example, we learn that the great liberator of South America from Spanish rule, Simón Bolívar, did much of his campaigning and fighting up and down the Magdalena. A contemporary of Napoleon, he liberated for all time lands far greater than Bonaparte’s continental empire, which endured for but a decade while Bolívar’s legacy continues, for better or worse. 

Humboldt became a close friend and advisor of Bolívar’s when they spent time together in Paris in 1804. As a result, he was, as Davis writes, ‘perhaps the only major revolutionary hero whose political ideology was fundamentally informed by natural history. He did not distinguish between the destiny of nations and the fate of nature’. If only some of the world’s most powerful leaders today would adopt the same approach! 

Davis asserts that the relationship between Humboldt and Bolívar is key to the story of Colombia. Bolivar himself asked, before embarking on his great liberating campaign, how could a continent ‘so abundantly endowed… be kept so desperately oppressed and passive?’ In victory, he declared before Congress: ‘Nature is the infallible teacher of men.’

Could politicians and scientists not come together in the same way today to deal with the current looming apocalypse? Instead of the senseless violation of nature, inspired by greed, might we not take a cue from Bolívar and make environmental protection a symbol of national pride rather than a political issue? It manifestly hasn’t worked in South America so far, but the heroic optimism that shines through this book and the people we meet in its pages give a glimmer of hope that, as we face the very real possibility of the extinction of life as we know it, we might come to our senses. 

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