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The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness

by Peter Matthiessen

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243478,409 (3.83)8
For twenty thousand miles, Peter Matthiessen crisscrossed the South American wilderness, traveling from the Amazonian rain forests to Machu Picchu high in the Andes, down to the edge of the world at Tierra del Fuego and back. In the course of his journey he followed the trails of old explorers, encountered river bandits, wild tribesmen, and the evidence of ancient ruins, and discovered a fossilized snout of a giant unknown crocodilian hidden in the depths of the jungle on the wild mountain rivers of Peru.… (more)


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Adventure travel writing at its finest, absolutely enthralling, especially when you stop to contemplate the logistics of travel in the Amazon, pre-roads, telephone, etc. A wonderful read, by one of my favorite authors. ( )
  Grace.Van.Moer | Mar 31, 2016 |
The Cloud Forest is an account of an extended trip the author took to South America, spending most of his time in Peru although he also wandered through Argentina and Brazil, and did get as far as Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego at one point. Given the amount of territory he covered, it is perhaps not surprising that Matthiessen spends less time talking about cultures or ecosystems, and more time describing the succession of truly precarious conveyances he was forced to use--rickety buses driven by men with little concern for the safety of their passengers, standing room-only rail cars for trips that would take fourteen hours, flimsy boats manned by inexperienced crews, tiny airplanes piloted with the kind of fatalism that comes from flying over innumerable crash sites. Each time the author climbs into one of these things, one gets the sense he is putting himself in the hands of fate. Presumably, such an attitude was a requirement when traveling in the bush, or one would never get anywhere.

A writer of naturalist inclinations, Matthiessen faithfully records all the birds he sees with the diligence of a birder adding species to his life list, and he is suitably interested, and wary, of fauna with teeth. There is an extended section where he tries to determine the "most dangerous" animal in the jungle, and everyone he asks agrees that it is the Bushmaster-- a pit viper -- but that it is a thing rarely encountered. He does confirm, by personal experience, that it is safe to swim in a river with piranhas as long as one isn't bleeding or sporting any open wounds. But he doesn't go into the natural histories of the species he encounters, so they remain mere snapshots as he floats, or drives, or walks, or flies by.

But landscape he does beautifully, especially when he is describing scenes from the windows of whatever doubtful aircraft he has consigned himself to.

The last part of the book is devoted to a poorly-planned, poorly-executed, and almost absurd "expedition" to search out a giant fossilized mandibula that was rumored to have been discovered on the banks of the Pongo river deep in the Peruvian jungle. It's the kind of trip that would make John Reveirs, the savvy guide from Turn Right at Machu Picchu, shake his head in disgust. Matthiessen seems to have got through on a wing and a prayer and a whole lot of dumb luck.

But he does devote considerable time to describing the indigenous peoples he comes across--most of them in a state of cultural disintegration owing to the effects of industrial forays into the jungle, "modernization" and civilization beating back the forest, and the indefatigable efforts of various Christian missionaries to save their souls. This last group comes in for some very harsh criticism by the author, who finds that those who have been "saved" are almost always left in a worse condition than they had been as heathens. Despite the occasional missionary who seems to have the well being of the natives truly at heart, the general practice seems to have been to strip the natives of their culture, hand them Bibles, force them into clothes, and then take off for the next wild tribe in need of salvation, leaving the newly saved peoples to fend for themselves in a culture they neither understood nor had any place in. Sort of an evangelical version of the slash and burn agriculture that was decimating the rain forest.

This was in 1960, so steps have been taken to slow down the decimation of indigenous peoples -- indeed, Matthiessen makes a point of talking about steps that were being taken even at that point: including one law that made it illegal to murder a native even in self defense. Of course, laws are only as good as your ability to enforce them, and the country Matthiessen is traveling through is utterly lawless. He learned to go armed. But the only thing he shot was a capybara, which he promptly lost in the river, thus losing his chance for something besides yuca for dinner.

As is probably clear at this point, The Cloud Forest is ultimately more of an adventure story than a "travel" narrative. But as adventure stories go, it is pretty impressive.
1 vote southernbooklady | Jun 21, 2014 |
Beautiful and meticulous: a travel book without any manufactured drama, just close and absorbing observation. ( )
  jason.goodwin | Mar 23, 2012 |
Another of Mattheissen's great travel tales. ( )
  waldhaus1 | Apr 23, 2009 |
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For Andres Porras Caceres, my excdellent friend and mentor on the Urubamba, whose wiser head prevailed, and
For Lucha and Alfredo Porras Caceres, whose kind welcome in Lima and at La Honda, in January, March, and May, made so much difference.
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A pale November sky, like a sky on the moon.
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