The Book Page/Bouquinerie

Olympian paints vivid picture of Amazon

This Thing of Darkness, Elder’s Amazon Notebooks, by Norman Elder, foreward by H.R.H. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. NC Press Ltd., Toronto, 1979, 148 pages.

By his own admission, Norman Elder has always been a bit crazy. In 1971-72, and again in 1975, despite the 80 per cent odds a veteran jungle man gave him of coming out alive, Elder journeyed deep into the Amazon rain forest to live with the primitive Maruba and Ticuna Indians.

Elder has recorded his adventures in a slim volume called This Thing Of Darkness, which, despite its title, is a highly illuminating account of a fleeting confluence of cultures as different as man has yet evolved. It is also a self-portrait of one of the last true amateurs: artist, architect, photographer, writer, filmmaker, borderline mystic, and international equestrian gold medallist (1959 Pan Am Games), Norman Elder.

“Real fear was new to me,” he writes of an instance when he and two exhausted Indian companions seem hopelessly stranded in their dugout canoe in a torrential jungle downpour.

Before it had always been a rush, like a big snake, like an alligator, like parachuting . . . like the final jump of an Olympic equestrian event. I had always tried to push adventure to its limit, to test death. But now I felt fear deeper than I had ever known it . . . The world was suddenly serious, as my Indian companions lay motionless and the water ran down the low dead vines.

Day-to-day the rains were the least of it. There were his unpredictable and potentially deadly hosts. There was malaria, parasites, the rivers with their alligators and piranhas, and the jungle with its jaguars, vampire bats, venomous snakes and spiders. And always there were the insects.

I was peppered from head to toe with itching and oozing sores inflicted by an incredible array of gnats, mosquitos (sic), spiders, bees and flies. As though the insect world had conspired to drive me mad, the constant attacks wore me down and eventually caused me to lapse into periodic states of frenzy, hallucination and hysteria.

The core of Elder’s craziness is perhaps the essence of the authentic adventurer. It is a detachment that allows him to view himself as a subject — and potential sacrificial victim — in an elaborate experiment of his own devising. He is as much an object of his acute curiosity as the other creatures of the jungle.

Thus he turns his motion picture camera on and steps in front of it to wrestle a five-metre anaconda that comes close to choking the life out of him before it is killed by an Indian companion. Examining his foolhardy gesture after the fact, Elder regrets that he has been responsible for the needless death of the snake.

Elder loves snakes, and he is intrigued by spiders, although he’s seldom sure which kinds are venomous and which are not. Nor is he thoroughly grounded in any of the other disciplines that compel him. As an anthropologist, linguist (he tends to rely on a kind of ESP), and even as an artist and photographer (the book contains more than 60 pages of colour photographs in addition to many sketches by the author), Elder is far from expert.

Elder’s is not the systematic contemplativeness of a Charles Darwin. His is all-encompassing curiosity bordering on recklessness. What makes Elder and his writing (which is vivid: Elder is a writer) a valuable witness is his unswerving empathy with the jungle and its people and his objective distance from himself.

“The Indians know more about their world than we do about ours . . . Our people are too neurotic to be sure of their own behavior. In the jungle, people have defined roles to play, a defined relationship to each other, a community to belong to, and a world that is filled with meaning and solid reality.”

Elder, however, is no jungle romantic, no closet Tarzan. He is nauseated by the foul-smelling living conditions; he is appalled by the Indians’ cruelty to animals.

What remains though is a picture of a, for the most part, inhospitable, impenetrable, and inflexible world destined to crumble at the slightest outside pressure, but a world nonetheless of inestimable value in its own right. It is this in Elder’s account that transcends self- indulgent adventurism. He is the consummate amateur. D. McD.

Pas de version française