Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Lost City of Z

History books.
I am so sorry that I've forsaken you for so long.
I got wrapped up in Harry Potter, which, even though they are fantastic and I would have had plenty to talk about, they do not count as history.

I am nearly finished with The Lost City of Z by David Grann. The author goes back and forth between the life of Percy Harrison Fawcett and his own. Percy Fawcett was an Englishman who became obsessed with a legendary city in the Amazon. Much like, El Dorado, the city of Z was a rumor, a possible lost civilization. But unlike El Dorado, there weren't so many stories of gold and treasures. Sure, there were some, but Fawcett wasn't interested in that. Way ahead of his time, Fawcett was a pioneer anthropologist. He believed that the existence of the city of Z would disprove the belief that no civilization could successfully exist in the Amazon. The rest of the world watched as centuries of explorations unearthed the most savage and dangerous peoples. Still living in huts, still hunting with bows and arrows, still sporting nothing but a revealing loin cloth. From the conquistadors up through Fawcett's own travels, the Amazon proved to be impossible to cultivate, civilize or conquer.
But Fawcett discovered not only clues that pointed toward this city, but found tribes of Natives who had indeed been able to survive off the jungle for centuries. The last remnants of the people of Z? Perhaps. But Fawcett never returned from his 1925 exploration. He and his son were lost in one of the most famous disappearance in exploration history. Hundreds of people have tried to follow Fawcett's footsteps to either find him or his lost city. None have succeeded in the latter. Some claim to have found Fawcett's bones, but his story remains so intriguing and mysterious.
What would the implications be if that city were found? Would it have shifted the image of the people of South America? There certainly were vast and rich civilizations in Africa, yet the Europeans and Americans looked down at them as if they were subhuman. Would it make a difference if the city of Z were located? Sure, it would change the landscape of the Amazon. Does it matter now if we set the record straight after all that has been done to the Natives in the Americas? I don't know. I'd like for the city of Z to exist for the sake of Fawcett and those who believed so much in it, who resisted the teachings of the times that said the Indians were savages and uncivilized, for the sake of those who fought against the violence and discrimination of Indians.
More than the implications of city of Z was the crushing realization of what the first Great War meant to the people on Earth. Seeing the reactions of Fawcett was heartbreaking. He, like many Americans and Europeans before the war, lived in a crumbling religious world. Science was taking over and the Victorian era was coming to a close. Already the standards of the world were being questioned. Agriculture was being overtaken by industry. Cities were booming. The new world was on the rise. World War I was the straw that broke the camel's back. A very large and heavy straw. It's interesting that World War I gets overlooked because of the atrocities of World War II. And I don't wish to diminish either one of these terrible events. But the first war threw the world, especially Europe, into a terrible and desperate reality. Fawcett put it best when he said that it wasn't the Native Americans who were the savages. It was the Europeans. It wasn't the Indians who killed explorers for infiltrating their isolated villages. It was the rest of the world blowing each others' heads off because of a shaky set of ethnic and national alliances. It was not only the volume of people killed (as many as 25,000,000) that astonished the world, but it was also the fact that the whole world, not just two sides of a nation or two nations, were battling a losing fight for optimism, for faith, for the world. Was it really that devastating? Fawcett was an excited man who lived life to the fullest, who barrelled through the jungle and would hang on the brink of death because he loved the jungle and the prospect of making important discoveries. After he served in World War I, he would sit inside of his house with his head in his hands, his eyes glazed over without speaking to anyone.
Fawcett eventually snapped out of his distress, but not before his financial backers, including the Royal Geographic Society, were too depleted by the cost of the war to send him. He eventually got back to the Amazon, which was his sanctuary. The rest of the world was not so lucky. Not to be a pessimist, but it's pretty clear that the Great War damaged our self esteem and our belief in human kind that catapulted us into the War to End All Wars that catapulted us into the Cold War which catapulted us into Vietnam which catapulted us into Iraq which catapulted us into George W. Bush who catapulted us into cancer which catapulted us into a computer job in a cubicle.

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