Chapter 2. Hold a Blossom to the Light

Chapter 2. Hold a Blossom to the Light

While traveling through the Ecuadorian Amazon as an ethnobotanist, Wade Davis spent some time with the Waorani, known earlier as the Auca Indians. Among the last peoples of the Amazon to be contacted by outsiders, the Auca had made headlines around the world when, in January 1956, they speared and killed five American missionaries—this despite the missionaries' practice of dropping gifts from an airplane before their disastrous attempt at personal contact. The incident was only one in a series of unfortunate exchanges between the Auca and those who intruded upon their territory. According to Davis, who records his own experiences in a remarkable, sprawling work, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (1996): "As late as 1957 there had never been a peaceful contact between the Auca and the outside world."

A couple of decades later, during his stay with the Waorani, Davis accompanied a young warrior named Tomo on a hunting excursion. Highly skilled with a blowgun, Tomo had already, at the age of five, been able to blow a dart through a hanging fruit at thirty paces. As an adult, he could "drive a dart clear through a squirrel at forty feet, knock a hummingbird out of the air, and hit a monkey in the canopy 120 feet above the forest floor."

After selecting a short blowgun (just over six feet long), Tomo led Davis and a companion into the jungle. As Davis tells the story, suddenly

Tomo froze, dropped into an attack crouch, and slipped away from us, moving silently and steadily through a thicket of heliconia until stopping at the base of an enormous tree sixty feet from the trail. In a single gesture he had withdrawn a dart, notched its tip, deftly spun the kapok fiber around the base, and placed it in the mouth of the blowgun that now hovered motionless above his head. His cheeks suddenly puffed out with tremendous pressure, which was released in an instant. A moment later he was lunging through the vegetation, laughing and shouting. By the time we caught up, he held a rufous mot mot in his hand. The bird was still alive. Tomo had managed to reach it before the poison took effect. He dropped the frightened creature into his basket and placed the dart conspicuously in the notch of a tree so that all would know an animal had been taken.

The use of the blowgun is a highly developed art. The Waorani routinely poison the tips of their darts with potent toxins they extract from plants. They notch the darts using the razor-sharp teeth of a piranha jaw, thereby ensuring that the poisonous tip will break off in the flesh of the prey even if the rest of the dart is swatted away. As for the gun itself, its volume is less than a tenth the capacity of the lungs, so "it is not force but control that counts, judging the distance to the prey, the angle of ascent, the proper trajectory." Up to a point, a longer blowgun produces a higher velocity in the dart, but beyond that point resistance in the gun takes over. "Finding that perfect balance, the right length, is what they're always looking for."

2.1. On Reading One's Environment

The skills involved in Tomo's hunting success were those many of us in a more technological culture might envy. But for Tomo himself the envy seemed to run in the opposite direction. "Though a gifted hunter with a dart, Tomo confessed that he, like most Waorani, preferred shotguns."

An odd preference, you might think, considering that most of the shotguns available to the Waorani were "miserable weapons: single-shot breechloaders cursed with weak firing springs that rarely lasted a year." A small box of shells cost what three blowguns did—the equivalent of a week's work (if work was to be had). A four-day journey was required simply to make the purchase. Once obtained, the shotgun might be useful for large terrestrial animals at close range (assuming it didn't misfire), "but for birds and monkeys and anything that lived in the canopy, the blowgun was by far the superior weapon." So what was the appeal of the shotgun?

The Waorani affection for shotguns had little to do with efficiency. It was the intrinsic attraction of the object itself, the clicking mechanisms, the polished stock, the power of the explosion. As one Waorani hunter explained, "It makes such a beautiful noise."

In this regard, are we not all Waorani? It's just that, as we tire of one shiny object, we need another—preferably a more "sophisticated" one, or at least a different one. Walk into any high-tech emporium, from Radio Shack to The Sharper Image, and (if you are at all like me) you will experience on every hand "the intrinsic attraction of the object itself"—exactly the sort of attraction that makes a Waorani hunter prefer a shotgun with its cool clicking mechanisms to the blowgun that has become such an intimate and accustomed part of himself.

This suggests what I think is largely true: the history of technology is a history of walking away from ourselves. We abandon old skills and ways of being. This is not in itself a bad thing. Every individual's life is an endless journey from what he has been to what he is becoming. We are continually leaving ourselves behind, and necessarily so. That's what it means to grow. It is the same with cultures.

The problem, it seems to me, lies in a profound shift of emphasis—a shift that was not necessary. The issue here, however, is difficult to grasp within an already technologized culture.

In mastering the blowgun, Tomo learned stealth and many physical skills. He learned great care, whether in preparing his poisons or notching his dart or avoiding what we like to call "collateral damage." He learned patience and focused attention. But above all, he learned to read his environment through a resonant inner connection with it: only by understanding the ways of the forest, the character and likely movements of his prey, the meanings carried upon the ceaseless symphony of sounds enlivening the jungle—only so could he find success in the hunt using a weapon such as the blowgun.

The crucial point (it will emerge more clearly in what follows) is that Tomo's reading of his environment was thoroughly qualitative. He had to understand what it was like to be a certain animal. He needed to recognize the characteristic gestures of its movement—and, indeed, of all its behaviors—to know it from the inside, so to speak. The decisive detail for a particular hunt, whatever it turned out to be, was very likely available to Tomo without reflection or calculation, because it was implicit in the larger, expressive pattern that he grasped as a unified whole. Such "inner resonance" with one's surroundings is profound, subtle, and revelatory, a prerequisite (though not the only prerequisite) for any full understanding of the world.

The shift of emphasis I am concerned about is the sacrifice of this qualitative attention to one's environment in favor of a strictly analytical and technical understanding. It's the difference between having information about someone, on the one hand, and knowing him, on the other. Knowing gives us a power of direct recognition; we can be more fully open to the expressive qualities of the person or thing—which also means being open to those same qualities in ourselves. We overcome, in the moment of knowing, the barrier between self and other. To experience the quality of a thing is necessarily to experience it, to find its shape and movement and significance reproduced within ourselves. This is what I mean by "resonance."