The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know by Mark J. Plotkin. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; 2020. Softcover, 256 pages. ISBN: 978-0190668280. $16.95.
Mark J. Plotkin’s, PhD, new book The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know begins with this brief excerpt from a 1799 letter by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) describing his first journey into the Amazon rainforest with his colleague Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858), a French explorer and botanist: “Bonpland keeps telling me he will go mad if the wonders do not cease.”
Plotkin then guides readers on their own journey into Amazonia, and the wonders do not cease. I have been fortunate to visit Amazonia nearly 100 times, and reading Plotkin’s accounts of the magnificence of this world floods me with memories and continues to provoke thought and questions about its future. It is this approach — asking questions — that forms the framework of the book.
The book is structured into six broad thematic areas, including Geology, Soils, and Vegetation; Rivers; Amazonian Biota; Indigenous Peoples; History; and Amazonia’s Uncertain Future. Within these categories, Plotkin poses 67 questions and then addresses them. The table of contents presents the questions and directs readers to the appropriate pages, which makes it easy to navigate the book. Questions include: What is the geological history of the Amazon? Why are bromeliads known as the aerial aquaria of the Amazon? What are Amazonia’s most formidable predators? When did the first humans arrive in Amazonia? What is the impact of overhunting and overfishing in Amazonia? And most importantly: How can Amazonia be saved?
Most of these questions and answers permit Plotkin to step the reader through the immensity of Amazonia, and the superlatives do not stop. He notes that the flow volume of the Amazon River is more than the next eight largest river systems combined. In discussing the extensive terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity found in the forest, he mentions, for example, Peru’s Manú National Park, which has more bird species than the entire United States and more butterfly species than all of Europe. On and on, the author describes the amazing Amazonia with passion and skill.
Plotkin has a gift for taking complex scientific, anthropological, socio-economic, and political concepts and translating them into a direct, clear explanation that invites the reader to join in the wonder of the region while also reflecting on how to address its tenuous future. It must be said, though, that at times Plotkin asks some unusual questions: Do vampire bats drink human blood? Is the tiny candiru catfish as terrifying as its reputation?
The 67 questions are skillfully arrayed throughout the book. Indeed, I found picking and choosing questions of interest and then going to that portion of the book was a wonderful way to explore Amazonia, and, at least for me, was more enjoyable than reading it from beginning to end. In addition, starting on page 201, notes for each chapter allow readers to delve more deeply into different subjects.
One can think of the broad themes of the book as scenes on a vast tapestry and the responses to the 67 questions as the threads used by Plotkin to weave the marvelous story of Amazonia. Readers can gaze at one part of the tapestry and later explore another portion, each time coming away with a better understanding of the nature of this extraordinary ecosystem.
For most of the narrative, Plotkin responds to the questions in a third-person voice, blending facts with his gift of storytelling. This certainly works well. Occasionally, though, he reverts to a first-person voice. That is when the book really comes alive. It takes on the feel of a conversation or a question-and-answer session between Plotkin and the readers. These portions are more reminiscent of the style of his book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice (Viking, 1993).
While the book does indeed serve as a current guide to Amazonia, especially as it relates to current threats and efforts to protect the ecosystem, it is not a field guide per se, with comprehensive lists and descriptions of the flora and fauna. Nor is it a primer for students or the public in the style of John Kricher’s The New Neotropical Companion (Princeton University Press, 2017), and it does not pretend to be. Rather, Plotkin vividly informs readers across an array of themes to explain the interconnectedness of this ecosystem, its importance, and the stake we all have in its protection.
Reading the book, a recurring question came to me: Given the many questions that could have been asked and answered, how did Plotkin arrive at the specific 67 in the book? It would be fascinating to know the decision-making process that led to these 67 questions being selected. That said, after reading and reflecting, a few questions of my own arose: What is happening to empower girls and women in Amazonia? Where will the next generation of conservation leaders come from? What skills will they need? What is the current status of primates? Are more botanical medicines and supplements awaiting discovery and commercial development? Would internet connectivity in remote Amazonian villages be a benefit or curse to residents? I have no doubt that readers of this book will have their own questions. Does this portend a Volume 2?
One would hope!
In the conclusion of the book, Plotkin saves the most important question for last: How can Amazonia be saved? His careful analysis is both sobering and hopeful and can be summed up in these powerful thoughts:
If the driving force behind all decisions that affect the great rainforest [is] merely maximizing short-term economic return to global elites, [then] the Amazon is doomed…. However, if we can modify our goals and our approach to encourage sustainable harvest and production and long-term planning while incorporating societal well-being … then there is most definitely hope.
This book will inspire readers to embrace and empower that hope.
Roger Mustalish, PhD, is a professor emeritus at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and adjunct professor of environmental health at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the immediate past president and current vice president of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER).