Brian Alexander's Rainforest Travels Hardly Go Out On A Limb.
By Gregory McNamee
CERTAIN FRONTLINE soldiers in Vietnam, Michael Herr has written, went off to battle in the jungle whistling the themes to the television shows Combat and The Mickey Mouse Club, making Vietnam the first television war in more ways than one.
Brian Alexander carries a different television talisman into the jungle in Green Cathedrals (Lyons & Burford, $22.95), one of the first books in the genre of so-called literary travel to skirt literature entirely. His inspiration for traveling to seven of the world's rainforests--all but one in the tropics--was, he writes, the old Tarzan serial, its half-hour episodes full of rushing rivers and crocodiles agape, of savage natives and scantily dressed jungle goddesses. None of the usual bookish precedents for adventure travel (Kipling, Masters, London) figure in his pages, which fully bear the stamp of their electronic origins; all short attention span and superficiality, but, to be sure, with bursts of intelligence and interest.
Alexander makes no grand claims for the program of travel that underlies Green Cathedrals. Inspired by Ron Ely's onscreen antics though he may have been, Alexander apparently simply felt the need, as a travel writer, to add the tropics to his résumé. "I felt I could never win the game," he offers, "if I did not, at some point, move my token into a jungle square and follow Joseph Conrad into the Heart of Darkness, where life would be reduced to its essentials, written in sharp contrasts." (That bow to Joseph Conrad, by the way, marks the sole literary allusion in Green Cathedrals, an unusual paucity in a genre normally so full of allusions to every traveler who has gone before, often no matter how germane to the point.)
Just why Alexander undertook his travels to the rainforest we are never sure, apart from the homage to Tarzan. Careening about in places like Malaysia and the Amazon, Panama and the Tongass of Alaska, he offers sketches of faraway, exotic destinations, never linking one place to the next except to point out the obvious: Big trees grow in rainforests, and big trees are falling as the world develops.
These sketches are modest in every way. They're also honest, without the usual posturing and chest-beating. When Alexander is uncomfortable he says so. When the locals displease him he says so as well, and without the studied sneer of a Paul Theroux. When he eats something unpalatable, like the durian fruit of Malaysia, "with its onionlike flavor and athletic-supporter aroma," he confesses to wanting to retch. He takes no foolish risks for the sake of a mere paragraph; résumé-building goes only so far.
These sketches, grown out of magazine articles, feel hurried and pinched as if by deadlines and considerations of space, full of ellipses and sometimes maddening reductions. When writing of a forest sanctuary called Taman Negara, meaning "national park" in Malay, for instance, Alexander observes, "It was preserved on the cusp of World War II. Then Britain was asked, politely, of course, since that's the way Malaysians do everything, to go home." This is perfect travel-magazine formula, jocular and pleasantly informative. It's also wrong, brushing aside a war in which thousands of Malays and British soldiers alike died, few of them politely.
In Alexander's hands, again following formula, the people who wander among Taman Negara's tall trees, the Orang Asli, are extras on a set; about them we learn little more than that "they are roughly equivalent to animists"--whatever that means--and that Alexander finds it amusing that they should throw away their cassette recorders when the batteries die, thinking the machines themselves done for.
Alexander is better when he takes on the pieties of the rainforests' would-be champions, "conservationists reminiscent of weeping religious seers," whose zeal to make the rainforests part of the heritage of all humankind too often displaces the very people who live and work there. When he describes the jealousies and intrigues that are played out among the multi-acronymed agencies scrambling to stake out their bit of tropical turf, he produces some wonderful writing. There are few better send-ups in the literature than his skewering of the "eco-warriors and social development gurus who had met in Bolivia or Ecuador or Peru, people who traveled the Third World, freelancing for NGOs (non-governmental organizations), carting their Jackson Browne song collections from one tiny town to another, living in rented houses all complete with computers and maps and a local girlfriend and maid service, places where First World cash made them the biggest man in town."
Alexander is also strong in his reportage from the little island nation of Dominica, which has been wrestling with hard questions of how to convert its economy from the traditional extractive industries to ecotourism while averting the perhaps inevitable flood of Club Med types, travelers who enjoy cheap holidays in other people's misery. Foreign agencies, Alexander writes, have again been unhelpful--notably our own USAID, which has lately been pouring money into restoring an old Rose's Lime Juice factory for the Dominican tourist itinerary. As Alexander suggests, such intervention can lead only to jungly places becoming "Heart of Darkness with Hollywood cachet and amenities."
But these high points, fine and well-meaning as they are, do not save Green Cathedrals, which seems at root an aimless, unfocused book. As often as he gets it right, Alexander misses or brushes aside the real stories gleaned from his wanderings. Intertribal conflicts among, say, traditional Alaskan Natives and their "progressive" kin, who agitate for mines to open in their stretch of old-growth rainforest so that development dollars can roll in, are left unexplored, although the outcomes of such conflicts will determine the fate of huge swaths of forest the world over.
Alexander does not tell us that the planet's rainforests are being ripped apart for Copenhagen furniture and Japanese stockpiles, for the supposed drugs--a bark tea from one of Dominica's thousand-odd species of vascular plants, for one, that makes LSD pale by comparison--and sexual stimulants and other wondrous stuff they contain. Neither does he tell us that those rainforests are being ripped apart because the people who live in them are poor and hungry, ready to sell their birthright for a moment's respite from the troubles of this world.
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