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Off The Map

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 6, 2012

Suriname Wildlife, as depicted by Maria Sibylla Merian, the German artist and naturalist in the eighteenth century.

I arrived last night in Paramaribo, Suriname, to join an expedition in search of new species, in the unexplored southeastern corner of the country, deep rainforest on the northern border of Brazil.  It’s a big expedition, including 20 or so scientists from all specialties, and also requiring lots of logistical advance work.
A Cessna Caravan will ferry us out Thursday from the capital city of Paramaribo maybe 175 miles south to our jumping off point at Palumeu.  Then on Friday, we’ll travel by helicopter over the Kasikasima outcrop out to our first research camp, where an advance party should have cleared a heli-pad out of the forest.  After nine days there we’ll traveling down along the Palumeu River to a second camp for a six-day stay.
But there are lots of uncertainties in this kind of trip.  We’ll also be out of internet contact till the end of the month, though it may be possible to send Twitter messages out via satellite phone (you can follow me @RichardConniff).
Meanwhile, I’m taking in Paramaribo, and thinking about early explorers like Maria Sybella Merian, an eighteenth-century artist, who painted one of my favorite images of Suriname wildlife (above), a blend of fantasy from the Bestiary era with the astonishing real-world finds of the Great Age of Discovery.
Also thinking about John Stedman, a mercenary who came here in the eighteenth-century as part of a Dutch expedition to suppresst runaway slaves.  I wrote about him in The Species Seekers:

Stedman

Stedman’s colorful memoir was a bestseller of 1796, under the ponderous title Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America, from the year 1772 to 1777. The book was partly a picaresque adventure tale, told on the ribald model of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. It was also an indictment of slavery, though the author was hardly an abolitionist.  And, oddly, it was a celebration of South American wildlife.

The mix of elements could be jarring.  Along with an account of how a planter’s jealous wife had slit a slave girl’s throat, stabbed her repeatedly in the breast, and tossed her into a river with hands bound behind, Stedman also offered his readers loving descriptions of spider monkeys, flying squirrels, cockatoos, and coatimundis.  One illustration, by Stedman’s friend, the poet and artist William Blake, depicted a slave hung from the gallows, still living, by a hook jammed under his ribs, and the next showed

Spur-winged water hen

“The Toucan and the Fly-catcher.” After “Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave,” the reader could contemplate “The Spur winged Water hen” and “the Red Curlew.”

Taking delight in the natural world was a way of coping that suited Stedman’s “incurable romanticism,” according to the historians Richard and Sally Price.  His descriptions of the natural world were vivid enough that they may have served as a source for Blake’s famous verse “Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright/In the forests of the night …” (Stedman wrote of a “Tiger-cat,” or jaguar, “its Eyes Emitting flashes of lightning.”)
Everybody’s a little nervous about the expedition ahead, but also excited.  At lunch today, one of the scientists was talking about having once previously had a chance to visit a place like this, so untouched that the animals came close, curious, and unafraid, not knowing yet what humans could be.

One Response to “Off The Map”

  1. vdinets said

    Just out of curiosity: how do you get on an expedition like this?

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