Peter Matthiessen and the Scale of the World

Peter Matthiessen’s The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness was the same book in the 1980s, when I first read it, as it was on publication in 1961. In the 25-year interval forces had changed the Amazon, but their effects were not as apparent as they have become now. This means the book is changing too, and my own reading of it.

I first read Cloud Forest shortly after I had spent a year in Panama, including its jungles and seas. Some of the details of Matthiessen’s travels from the mouth of the Amazon, to the Andes, to the western coast, then down to Tierra del Fuego and back to Mato Grosso, were exciting yet familiar. I too had seen the Blue Morpho bouncing in flight like a toy, the quiet dark of triple-canopy rainforest, howler monkeys and sloths in the branches overhead, and pterodactyl-like tropic birds leading the way up rivers. Panama impressed me as no landscape had before, and in Matthiessen I found a fellow traveler when it came to the natural world.

Several things strike me differently, re-reading the book. It owes a huge debt, I see now, to Conrad, who saw the jungle as he saw human nature: “immutable, mute, mysterious, gloomy, brooding, lurking, inscrutable, hazy, incomprehensible, but, above all, dark.” Here is Matthiessen:

“The jungle is remote, rather ominous, on every side.”

“[T]here is something strange in these jungle airs, no doubt about it, something of foreboding.”

“The trees themselves are so tumultuous and strange that one sees them as a totality … the sounds are like sounds from another sphere of consciousness, from a dream ….”

“[T]he tumbled mass of the jungle ris[es] like a great engulfing wave behind them.”

With Matthiessen, as with Conrad, the jungle’s indomitable nature is both impressive and threatening:

“[T]he Amazon remains as sullen and intractable as it ever was,” Matthiessen says.

“In four hundred years the river has changed little; its violent wilderness and the potentially lethal elements in its fauna have remained largely intact.” (He lists these violent guardians: caimans, boas, anacondas, electric eels, sting rays, piranhas, candirus, fer-de-lances, bushmasters, tarantulas, scorpions, stinging ants, vampire bats, etc.)

“Man has literally scratched the surface of this enormous world,” Matthiessen says.

In my current reading, I see too that Matthiessen admits things are changing, though I am not sure he always knew he was:

“[I]n [Henry Walter] Bates’s time, the tribes of the main river banks were already extinct or absorbed by the whites and Negroes.”

“It is difficult to accept that a wilderness of this dimension still exists, that, despite our airplanes and machines, we cannot really enter it but only skirt its edges. This will change, of course, but it will change slowly….”

“Conservation laws in South America, as in nineteenth-century North America, would be inadequate even if there were some way of enforcing them, and one sees the same forces at work here and now which crippled our own wildlife a century ago.”

“[A man affirms] the virtual disappearance of the manatee and river otter and the fact that the caimans are shot on sight.”

“Formerly, he said, large caimans were so common … that at times the airplanes … had difficulty finding a clear path in which to land. The big animals are rare now….”

Birds, “whirling in like locusts on a shoal of anchovies beyond the cove, may be … one of the last spectacles of wild natural profusion left on earth.”

Of course, this process of environmental degradation has continued in the nearly 60 years since Cloud Forest came out, perhaps nowhere more dramatically than the Amazon basin. The World Wildlife Fund calls it the “biggest deforestation front in the world,” and they project that “27 percent–more than a quarter–of the Amazon biome will be without trees by 2030 if the current rate of deforestation continues.”

In those 60 years we still have not understood that we should not presume to live or do business everywhere, and that the scale of the world is not infinite. Maybe the universe created the candiru, Black Palm, and schistosomiasis, like the rattlesnake’s rattle, to warn us away for our own health.

In Panama once a taxi driver took us out past the edge of the city to show us remains of the French attempt to build a canal. We walked into the jungle and strained to see a pathetic gouge in the earth and a boiler from a train or a steam shovel, under riotous vegetation. The jungle seemed indomitable. But elsewhere were miles of dusty clear-cuts for cattle, and a mountain-range of garbage at the dump outside Panama City. The vultures there, no longer shy with garbage trucks and bulldozers, swarmed in natural profusion and roosted like flies.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.