Old earth, new view

JOHN BEMROSE November 23 1998

Old earth, new view

JOHN BEMROSE November 23 1998

Old earth, new view


Three top travel writers can still evoke wonder


For a century or more, travel authors have faced a major problem. What can they write about now that the last corners of the earth have been

visited and reported on ad nauseam? Is there anywhere that National Geographic

hasn’t saturated with déjà vu?

Despite such obstacles—or because of them—travel writing has probably never been better.

Gifted authors such as Britishborn Jonathan Raban, the United States’ Paul Theroux and Canada’s Ronald Wright seem to relish the challenge of making some over-exposed culture or landscape seem new and mysterious through the sheer power of their prose.

It also helps that the world keeps changing. The traditional cultures of places such as Thailand and Tahiti are under constant pressure from global economic forces, and although such nations are far more western-

ago, the conflict between old and new is in itself a fascinating subject. And then there are the dictators. Lamentably, there are still many places in the world ruled by guns and fear. In a strange way, however, these are a boon to the kind of travel writer who likes to generate suspense by flouting authority. Such books may even

do some good, as they carry details about the oppressed society to a wider audience.

All these approaches crop up in three recent travel books by Canadian authors. The most engrossing, Wade Davis’s The Clouded Leopard (Douglas & McIntyre, $29.95), demonstrates a basic but often-forgotten point: that the character of the traveller is every bit as critical as where he travels. Vancouver-based Davis, 44, is an ethnobotanist by training, which means he studies the links between plants and the cultures that use them. He has ingested hallucinogens while hunkering with medicine men in the Amazon rain forest (an experience described in his compelling 1996 study of that region, One River, nominated for a Governor General’s non-fiction award), and studied the orgiastic celebrations of the Vodoun religion on Haiti. But while his scientific background may have helped prevent him from becoming a mere collector of sensational experiences, Davis’s writing also shines with warmth and moral concern.

Many of the 15 essays and articles in The Clouded Leopard have been published previously in magazines, but taken together they make a rich celebration of what Davis fears is being lost to the homogenizing march of western culture. In “Dreams of a Jade Forest,” he interweaves his own knowledge of Borneo with the story of Bruno Manser, a Swiss shepherd who in the 1980s joined one of the island’s aboriginal tribes, the Penan, in their struggle to resist the big logging companies levelling their rain forests. Manser lived in the wild, going barefoot, mastering the Penan language and learning many of their arcane survival skills. The Borneo government, angry at his success in drawing international attention to the deforestation, put a price on his head. The Penan responded by keeping Manser on the move in the forest, within a large, travelling cordon of their warriors. After Manser escaped from Borneo in 1990, Davis met him in Hawaii and and wrote

his essay with its mysterious, Joseph-Conrad-like evocation of a European “gone-native.”

If there is one quality that shines through Davis’s best work, it is wonder—and his ability to make his readers feel it, too. For example, “In the Shadow of Red Cedar” describes the great coastal forests of British Columbia—where he has worked both as a logger and a scientist. And through a careful blending of poetic insight and science, he summons the forests’ extraordinary complexity. A western hemlock, Davis writes, “supports branches festooned with as many as 70 million needles, all capturing the light of the sun. Spread out on the ground, the needles of a sin-

gle tree would create a photosynthetic surface 10 times the size of a football field.”

Such passages contain more than mere facts. Whether he is writing about the Inuit of Baffin Island or the rare Clouded Leopard of the Himalayas or the shamanic healers of the Amazon, Davis manages to generate an urgent sense that the natural world and the traditional peoples who live most intimately with it must be saved. And not just because they may be a source of knowledge or profits, but more importantly because of the miracle of their own, inimitable uniqueness.

A moral purpose runs, as well, through Under the Dragon (HarperCollins, $37.50) by Vancouver-born, London-based Rory MacLean. The author of the much-praised Stalin’s Nose, a whimsical account of his travels through Eastern Europe, has now turned his attention to the long-suffering country of Burma, which is officially called Myanmar. The book tells the story of a journey that MacLean and his wife, Katrin, made last year to a land that, for most of the postwar period, has been brutally governed by its own army. During the popular uprising of 1988, 5,000 people were killed, and since then, daily life has been overshadowed by fear.

Ostensibly, MacLean and his wife were looking for a particular kind of traditional Burmese basket, to match one that had enchanted them in the British Museum. But their search through Rangoon and the Golden Triangle area was really only a pretext for exploring the culture itself. MacLean is an unusual travel writer: he rarely describes— except in a brief, perfunctory manner— landscapes, animals, cities or costumes. What interests him is the Burmese people, and particularly their struggle to survive under the dictatorship. But he could not directly report their stories, because to do so would risk exposing them to the vengeance of the authorities. So he hit on the rather unusual solution of combining his factual account with three short stories that evoke the Burmese tragedy.

In one, a 14-year-old called Ni Ni is a beautician who lives alone with her father. When her father is killed in the troubles of 1988, and the dictatorship levels her house to make way for a road, she drifts into prostitution and dies of AIDS. There is a certain manipulative pathos here. But all in all, MacLean’s fictions make an effective, oftenmoving counterpoint to his real-life adventures, including his bleakly comic visit to a drug lord. The drunken lout promises to find MacLean the basket he and Katrin are looking for, but ends up boring them with his bragging and terrifying them by shooting his gun at odd moments. It is perhaps significant that MacLean does not offer him the protection of a fictionalized account.

Another Canadian traveller, former Bay Street financier Christopher Ondaatje, con-

tinues the pursuit of his hero, Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton, in Journey to the Source of the Nile (HarperCollins, $39.95). Ondaatje, the London-based brother of poet-novelist Michael Ondaatje, previously wrote about Burton in his best-selling Sindh Revisited, which traced Burton’s early career in India. The new book picks up Burton’s story in 1856, the year he and another British explorer, John Speke, set off into east-central Africa to find the headwaters of the world’s longest river.

Those early adventurers travelled mostly by foot—when they weren’t laid low by disease and had to be carried on litters by their African porters. Ondaatje’s party of five, on the other hand, rode in the relative comfort of two Land Rovers. Ondaatje’s aim was to unearth the routes of Burton and other explorers of the region—not always an easy task, since the names on the early maps had often been supplanted by more modern ones. Interestingly, Ondaatje discovered that the original names often still enjoyed a local, oral usage.

As with his previous Burton book, the best thing about Journey to the Source of the Nile is Ondaatje’s own color photographs. If he had ever run out of luck as a broker (a multimillionaire, Ondaatje, 65, has divested himself of his active business interests to

concentrate on his travels), he could clearly have earned his living as a photographer. His images of African faces and landscapes are beautifully composed, and often memorable. On the other hand, his prose has always been workmanlike. Yet whenever his accounts of setting up camp or bumping down dusty roads in the Land Rovers become tedious, he usually has the good sense to quote from the writings of Burton or Speke. Perhaps the most gripping passage in the book is Speke’s recollection of how he

once presented the native king, Mtesa, with a rifle. Eager to have the weapon demonstrated, Mtesa gave it to one of his pages and ordered the boy to go out and shoot somebody with it. The servant obliged, then returned to report his success to the delighted king.

Ondaatje seems relatively uninterested in political and social troubles that would probably set MacLean fuming. On the other hand, Ondaatje can see the beauty of landscapes to which

MacLean might well be blind. And neither of them approaches Davis’s awareness of the global threat to the environment and indigenous cultures. Yet in passing, both authors offer fleeting glimpses of what Davis calls “a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.” If Davis is right, it could be that more travel writers will discover the human and natural diversity they depend on is in tragically short supply. □