The immensity of space
One of the most influential books that I have ever read, The Fate of the Forest by Susanna Hecht, opens with the following epigraph:
“It is entirely impossible in the Amazon to take stock of the vastness, which can be measured only in fragments; of the expansiveness of space, which must be diminished to be appraised; of the grandeur which allows itself to be seen only by making itself tiny, through microscopes; and of an infinity which is meted out little by little, slowly, indefinitely, excruciatingly. The land is still mysterious. Its space is like Milton’s: it hides from itself. Its amplitude cancels itself out, melts away as it sinks on every side, bound to the inexorable geometry of the earth’s curvature or deluding curious onlookers with the treacherous uniformity of its immutable appearance. Human intelligence cannot bear the brunt of this portentous reality at one swoop. The mind will have to grow with it, adapting to it, in order to master it. To see it, men must give up the idea of stripping off its veils.”
Euclides da Cunha, Brazilian journalist and amateur geologist, author of Rebellion in the Backlands (Os Sertões) wrote these words in 1904.
This first blog post is an homage to these words, and a reflection on how they encompass the essence of what the Calha Norte portal is attempting to achieve. This quote has guided me throughout much of the work behind creating this platform. I think it is only just to begin this blog with a conscious exploration of its significance.
The first thing that I love about da Cunha’s description is that it succeeds in capturing the mystery of the Amazon forest. Those who visit the Amazon are often struck by the magic that seeps from every leaf, every branch, every droplet of rain. The legends you hear from locals will raise the hair on the back of your neck, partly because in this mystical ambience you feel that even the most extravagant might possibly be true. Isolation and the unknown breed superstition and mystique, and the Amazon offers all of this in spades. This mystique is also intrigue, it draws the visitor in, fascinates them with uncovering the secrets of this rich and fertile land.
The line, “Its space is like Milton’s: it hides from itself” refers to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Da Cunha draws on his cosmic sense of space to describe the tension between the sense of an immutable, uniform order which overcomes the onlooker as they gaze out over a seemingly endless sea of green, and an overwhelming sense of disorder in the cacophony which hides beneath its foliage. Can this natural world be known?
This tension may be the heart of our confused human relationship to nature and the environment. On the one hand it is external to us, it allows itself to be “measured in fragments”, to be “meted out little by little”. And yet, on the other hand “human intelligence cannot bear the brunt of this portentous reality at one swoop”, perhaps because understanding ourselves in relation to it confuses our ability to create intelligible fragments. Da Cunha, as a good 20th century naturalist, believed in the intelligibility of nature through science. He advocated a fragmentation of this grand, overwhelming reality into classifications easily readable by the human mind. Yet, he understands that in this manner “infinity” can be “meted out” only at the most “excruciating” pace. In other words, although he saw this method as necessary he also recognized the limitations of it. We will never be able to understand the immensity, the infinite diversity of this mystical region through science, fragmentation and classification alone. If we are to understand the immensity as it is, “The mind will have to grow with it, adapting to it, in order to master it. To see it, men must give up the idea of stripping off its veils.”
In a broad, philosophical sense, the discovery maps on this website are mostly a collection of veils, from which you can pick and choose. Will you study this region through a conservationist veil, focusing on how deforestation has decreased in municipal areas since the creation of national parks? Or will you peer under the veil of human development to see that many communities that live within protected areas are forbidden from commercializing resources from the land they live on, and in consequence are barely able to scrape together a subsistence lifestyle?
Da Cunha’s reflections are mostly related to a holistic understanding of the natural world, but much of the data on this site looks more at human diversity in the Amazon than the region's biodiversity. Much has been done to render the natural world comprehensible through modern science, but the real goal of this site is to break down the stark separation between the human and the natural world. In reality, they are one and the same. Even though the Amazon might seem like an immutable, pristine sea of green, most of it has at some point or another been altered by human activity, and continues to be, sometimes for good reasons, more often on larger scales with devastating consequences.
Through these maps, I am attempting to offer the user a more humanistic veil through which they might look at the Amazon. Despite its mystique, and its daunting spread of seemingly endless green, the Amazon is inhabited by an astonishing diversity of people, with different motivations, livelihoods, and relationships to the land around them. These people are the focus of this portal, as much as the land they live on.
By choosing to look through a human veil, I must consciously acknowledge what is being left out. There is not much information on biodiversity in the maps, this may be a direction into which the project could grow. It would be good to keep track of endangered species numbers within protected areas in order to monitor how much these areas truly prevent poaching – these are some figures that I would like to see on this site, but which I haven’t been able to collect yet. Still, I strongly believe that in the conscious act of choosing lenses, we can better focus on one aspect, without forgetting that this aspect does not exist in isolation, but is constantly in interrelationships of flux with an infinity of other factors around us.
And so, da Cunha’s words ring true: to understand the portentous reality of the Amazon, we can only see through limited fragments. But if we recognize that what we are seeing are mere layers of a far more complex whole, perhaps we inch a little bit closer to that magnificent whole.
Our minds have still not grown enough to perceive reality through all its veils simultaneously, but we continue each in our humble ways to “mete out infinity, little by little”.
In full conscience of the importance of this endeavour, this website, and all the work behind it, represent my own humble contribution to an understanding of the region. All I can offer for now is another lens through which to interpret the veiled reality that is the Amazon, but I hope that in offering a reflective lens, which recognizes its limitations as learning opportunities in themselves, I can embody da Cunha’s words in full conscience.
The space is still immense, what you can find on this site is nothing but the tiniest droplets of it. Still, hopefully, what you experience here may offer a small window into the complexity of the whole; a self-conscious veil through which you might glimpse infinity.
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Hannah Reardon is a Montreal-based researcher trained in Political Science and Anthropology.