What virtue resides in wildness? Through most of history wilderness was regarded as an evil, inimical to human prosperity. Only in the past century or two (since perhaps the Romantic movement and the Industrial Revolution, two sides of the same coin) has the developed world had the relative luxury of finding beauty in the untamed.
David Grann's The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon tells the story of Percy Harrison Fawcett, a hard-core British explorer who survived countless hazards until his luck finally ran out in 1925 (when his party vanished without trace deep in the jungle). Grann's fascinating account impresses upon us the fact that while we now see the Amazon as a fragile victim of heedless deforestation, as a quasi-Garden of Eden, the region in its original state was in fact an appalling nightmare for non-native human beings. It is hard to think of any area of the planet, polar regions and deserts included, whose climate, topography, fauna, and flora conspire more ferociously to the detriment of human welfare.
Therein resides its sublime attraction for some, I think--its very alienness, that is. Like an unbowed predator, the ocean depths, or the endless emptiness of space, it refuses to make room for us, enjoying instead its own inscrutable integrity. The glory of the Other exists not despite, but because, it can never fully be made hospitable.
Here is a sample of Grann's story (and you thought your summer camping trip went poorly):
Manley was the first stricken. His temperature rose to 104 degrees, and he shook uncontrollably--it was malaria. "This is too much for me," he muttered to Murray. "I can't manage it." Unable to stand, Manley lay on the muddy bank, trying to let the sun bake the fever out of him, though it did little good.
Next, Costin contracted espundia, an illness with even more frightening symptoms. Caused by a parasite transmitted by sand flies, it destroys the flesh around the mouth, nose, and limbs, as if the person were slowly dissolving. "It develops into...a mass of leprous corruption," Fawcett said. In rare instances, it leads to fatal secondary infections. In Costin's case, the disease eventually became so bad, as Nina Fawcett later informed the Royal Geographic Society, that he had "gone off his rocker."
Murray, meanwhile, seemed to be literally coming apart. One of his fingers grew inflamed after brushing against a poisonous plant. Then the nail slid off, as if someone had removed it with pliers. Then his right hand developed, as he put it, a "very sick, deep suppurating wound," which made it "agony" even to pitch his hammock. Then he was stricken with diarrhea. Then he woke up to find what looked like worms in his knee and arm. He peered closer. They were maggots growing inside him. He counted fifty in his elbow alone. "Very painful now and again when they move," Murray wrote.
Repulsed, he tried, despite Fawcett's warnings, to poison them. He put anything--nicotine, corrosive sublimate, permanganate of potash--inside the wounds and then attempted to pick the worms out with a needle or by squeezing the flesh around them. Some worms died from the poison and started to rot inside him. Others grew as long as an inch and occasionally poked out their heads from his body, like a periscope on a submarine. It was as if his body were being taken over by the kind of tiny creatures he had studied. His skin smelled putrid. His feet swelled. Was he getting elephantiasis, too? "The feet are too big for the boots," he wrote. "The skin is like pulp."
Only Fawcett seemed unmolested. He discovered one or two maggots beneath his skin--a species of botfly plants its eggs on a mosquito, which then deposits the hatched larvae on humans--but he did not poison them, and the wounds caused by their burrowing remained uninfected. Despite the party's weakened state, Fawcett and the men pressed on. At one point, a horrible cry rang out. According to Costin, a puma had pounced upon one of the dogs and was dragging it into the forest. "Being unarmed except for a machete, it was useless to follow," Costin wrote. Soon after, the other dog drowned.
It is a compelling read--mayhem recollected in tranquillity, and by proxy.