So entertaining that I found myself laughing out loud and following my husband around saying, "Listen to this! He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with many thousands of wild species, including at least one species of mite living on his head. Rating details. Book ratings by Goodreads. Goodreads is the world's largest site for readers with over 50 million reviews. We're featuring millions of their reader ratings on our book pages to help you find your new favourite book. Close X. Learn about new offers and get more deals by joining our newsletter. Sign up now.
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For most of human history and prehistory, we lived in small, illiterate communities. We began in the savannas where we foraged and hunted. We collected the animals and plants and named what we found. Slowly at first, some individuals or communities left on foot, following game or chance, or maybe just fleeing other people. They traveled along routes about which we continue to speculate. With time, they forgot where they had been. They carried no record of their past with them, beyond what survived in myth. Any story or name not mentioned in a lifetime disappeared.
Every year the front line of villages moved farther out. It was a slow wave of bodies and livelihoods. Individuals in that front line found, with each move, new animals, new plants, and more generally, new life. Collectively, humanity revealed pieces of the story of life. Because nothing was written and languages, as we spread, diverged, each discovery was local, each lesson learned repeatedly. Communities landed on the new landscape like a reader landing on a random page in a book.
They found themselves surrounded by but a few paragraphs of something much larger. They set about translating those paragraphs. In each place, on each page, people would have to give names not only to all the wild beasts, but also to the plants, the fungi, the beetles, and the ants, and anything else that was to be used, avoided, or simply discussed. On these organisms and their new names they hung knowledge, stories, and belief. That was the first great wave of discovery. It is a forgotten part of our scientific story. Long before Columbus or Magellan, much of the world had been found.
Seldom do we consider what those first great explorers in small, fire-lit communities understood of Earth. While drinking an espresso and reading People magazine, it is hard to imagine our kin ever ate shoots and leaves, that they ever knew most of the animals and plants by name. We see the nameless green of the trees, and of the unclassifiable weeds among the sidewalk cracks. Insects bat at our screens and we swat them without partiality. We imagine now that the natives of no relation to us were ignorant or at least simple, but a few generations ago, we were those people.
We all lived in small communities, hunted, and foraged. We shat in the woods. Clear views of how we once lived and what we once knew are illusive. History has left us potsherds and ruins, but little in the way of records of the knowledge our ancestors had of the species around them.
Contemporary communities where people gather and hunt or even farm can, however, be models of parts of the past. In many such communities, people still record little, know mostly what they have heard and remember, and name new things they find. As long as we are careful to remember that they are also, in important ways, different from ancient communities, we can use these contemporary communities to understand aspects of how life might have been in the past. In these communities, we can find something of who we once were.
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Having a measure of what we once were and knew is necessary if we are to understand how far we have come and how far we might go. One could go almost anywhere in the world to find communities of people living off the land in ways that require traditional oral knowledge of the species around them, knowledge our ancestors would have needed. I started in Cavinas, Bolivia. The road to Cavinas is long and in most places not a road at all, but instead a river or a footpath. To get to Cavinas our first big step would be to get to Riberalta, the biggest city in the northern Bolivian Amazon.
From Trinidad, we took the long bus north. We were traveling in what was to be the dry season, but the water had not yet drained out of the land. The floods still clung to grasses, forest and, as would soon be relevant, to the roads. The going was slow. A bus ride that was to take one day took several. Mosquitoes flew in the windows, fed on us, and flew back out. The heat came in and stayed. Day came and was replaced by night, once, twice, and then a third time. For several days, the bus passed through what remains largely unbroken forest and savanna, a landscape populated with a billion insects, a dozen primate species, caimans, anacondas, and the occasional forlorn cow.
During that journey, the bus made a single planned stop in a one-hut town majestically named Sheraton. Of course, that excludes the stops for flat tires, broken axles fixed with rope , and a six-hour period during which the driver of the bus tried to get it unstuck by hitching it to horses, cows, and then, all at once, a truck, two horses, and a cow. In retrospect, the trip was a kind of earned joy. During those days though, it was nearly all miserable. As we rode into Riberalta, the roadsides turned from forest to agriculture, to the point where we could almost have been driving through any Midwestern farmland—but Riberalta is not Iowa.
Despite the cows and crops, it is isolated, tropical, and wild. Seen from above, Riberalta is a kind of settled island, surrounded by forest and water. To its north is the Madre de Dios River, which bends and bows its way back up to the Andes. The Beni River drains the long, flat, seasonally flooded plains of Bolivia, on which a large civilization once rose and, somewhat mysteriously, fell.
The rest of the surroundings are forest, punctuated by small fields, pastures, savannas, and more rivers all draining into the Madre de Dios River, which itself drains into the mouth of the Amazon some two thousand miles away. Within the city are small houses, many of which are still roofed with thatch, and a single city block with paved streets.
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Each night the wealthy of Riberalta a relative kind of wealth get into their cars or onto their motorcycles and circle the single plaza, cruising. The poorer, motorless masses look on, faces powdered with the ever-present ether of ancient red dust winnowed from the mountains by time. Our backpacks still on our backs, we had to flex our stomach muscles to keep from tipping backward with the weight of our books, shoes, and clothes at each bump in the road. At the hotel, we moved into a first-floor room beside the Beni River, unpacked our things, and proceeded to sleep for the first day and a half.
We would stay here, our home base, off and on over the next several years.
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Our room had its drawbacks. But it was also so close to the Beni River that we woke up the first night, and each subsequent one, to hear the brown water tumbling by beside us. We dreamed of rivers. Rivers, like the Beni, carried the first Amazonians around the forests. Rivers flooded the lands where agriculture emerged. The rivers saw it all and carried it with them—the wild cries of animals or the fragments of words, the residues of dozens of languages being spoken on the banks as people went to the water to wash, to fish, or even just to admire the reflection of their moon.
We needed to go upstream, to see what was farther in, beyond the roads. We needed to go upstream to get to Cavinas. Upstream, from the perspective of the people of Riberalta, the forests are populated more densely by myth than by humans. Some of them can turn into jaguars, so we should be careful if we go.
The scientist in me is annoyed by stories about man-jaguars, yet there is undeniable mystery left in the deep forest, mystery enough to lure me farther in.
Every Living Thing : Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys
Science requires skepticism, and yet discovery, more often than not, requires a temporary relaxation of that skepticism. To discover something, you first have to believe it is possible. I wanted to see what lurked between the far-off trees, where a little bird seemed to call out my name.