THE AMAZON, PART I: Origin of the Amazon Basin
By William W. Lamar

Eons prior to the Panama Canal the Atlantic Ocean brushed lips with the Pacific across a tranquil strait dividing the great landmass that is modern South America. What we call Venezuela and the Guianas formed an ancient Tertiary fortress that blocked the open Atlantic to the north, while what is now Brazil and the rest of the continent, by dint of sheer size, kept the oceans apart to the south. After two of the earth’s plates, in a Miocene crash of epic proportions, dueled to a tectonic tie, the Andes emerged, magnificent and gleaming, from a sea of roiling foam. Millions of years set a massive stage: the strait’s retreating waters revealed a valley whose vast plain came to house the largest, most mysterious, most complex and powerful river system ever known: the Amazon.

Winding over 4,000 miles through the world’s largest wilderness, the Amazon hauls metric tons of silt and whole forests of trees and vegetation, disgorging all this plus 28 billion gallons of water per minute into the sea. Its flow equals one fifth of the discharge of all the earth’s continental waters. Plants from glacial rivers of the Peruvian Andes and wood from impenetrable forests of Colombia can be found swimming together in the ocean a hundred miles east of the Amazon’s mouth, and still in fresh water. Flat as a pancake, the basin scarcely drops more than a couple of hundred feet in all that distance. It drains two and a half million square miles and has eight tributaries larger than North America’s Mississippi River.

The water fairly boils with life. There are 3,000 kinds of fishes in the Amazon, more than anywhere else in the world, and they range from minute tetras that can live in fishbowls to hulking catfishes and scaly Arapaimas that are among the largest fish found outside the oceans. Piranhas, electric eels, and anacondas, infamous thanks to breathless Hollywood films, make their homes here. Caimans, in studded armor like military equipment, doze along its banks. Bizarre snorkel-nosed Matamata turtles and spotted freshwater stingrays roam the bottom. Capybaras, giant cousins of squirrels, munch on floating vegetation, while lumbering tapirs, the largest land mammals on the continent, wade through 6-foot water lilies and plow trails up steep banks. Colossal manatees bob in the oxbow lakes, and pink dolphins, sinuous and slick, frolic and blow, exotic and mysterious reminders that this is the Amazon.

Then there is the forest, more shades of green than we recognize and home to 1,300 species of birds. Dank and redolent with the odor of too much life, it is earthy and humid like no place else. A warehouse of incomparable wealth, yielding a bewildering variety of seeds, fruits, and remedies; this is the world’s largest apothecary. From a cornucopia of edibles and spices such as passion fruit, guava, papaya, bananas, pineapples, potatoes, vanilla, turmeric, ginger, and Brazil nuts; to formidable poisons and medicines like coca, curare, strychnine, quinine, ayahuasca, dragon’s blood, and Virola, the botanical marvels just keep turning up. Flowers, some 30,000 species strong, from pungent frangipanis to exotic orchids, bromeliads and arboreal cacti; and timber, including mahogany, blood wood, palms and balsa, exist in numbers and diversity that defy comprehension. There are nearly 1,000 species of palm trees alone in the Amazon Basin.

As diverse culturally as it is biologically, the Amazon once housed thousands of indigenous tribes. Today about 200 remain as most have been torn apart by the ravages of the colonization process: disease, alcohol, forced labor, forced culture, and war. For five hundred years since the outside world first arrived, the Amazon has been the backdrop for astonishing stories of exploration and courage but also colossal displays of greed and vanity from the heady days of the Rubber Boom to modern-day corporate looting of natural resources. Always, there have been ambitious attempts to civilize that which is seen as primitive, and to control that which is uncontrollable. The wilderness endures, somehow silent even when filled with sounds. It is a presence as thunderous as religion yet ethereal as fog. It seems to be our actions that are relentlessly savage, while the rainforest, deep as time, mocks us.

Continue to Part II