Lyme Regis Botanist’s Hairy Adventures in Amazonia

Ghillean Prance showing the spiny undersurface of the Victoria water lily (Victoria amazonica) Image: S. A. Mori
Ghillean Prance showing the spiny undersurface of the Victoria water lily (Victoria amazonica) Image: S. A. Mori

Sir Ghillean Prance is a qualified outboard motor mechanic who lives in Lyme Regis and has been on 39 expeditions to the Amazon.

He has other credentials (so many, in truth, they’d fill up this entire page, but to give just one example, when he was Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, he was the first winner of the International Cosmos Prize) but he himself has always been proud of his ability to fix boats. Which makes sense. If you’re exploring the regions surrounding the world’s biggest river, you don’t want to find yourself going over the top of a waterfall in a canoe because your motor has failed to start. This accident once occurred on a New York Botanical Garden expedition to the Amazon, and two people were killed.

Sir Ghillean — known for short as Iain — worked for the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) for 25 years, from 1963 to 1988. His new book That Glorious Forest: Exploring the Plants and Their Indigenous Uses in Amazonia is published by the NYBG Press and is an account of his many expeditions. It was written in part when Iain was laid up with his leg in plaster after snapping his Achilles tendon while dancing the samba in Brazil. He was leading a group of eco-tourists at the time. As he rather ruefully acknowledges, what a way to come a cropper, after all the dangers he went through on expeditions!

One guide they hire turns out later to be a German fraudster suspected of murdering five tourists

The PBY Catalina that took the family back to Manaus from Lábrea
The PBY Catalina that took the family back to Manaus from Lábrea

The book is packed with hazards: leeches, snakes, scorpions, piranhas, hornets, aggressive Africanized bees, “intensely painful” stinging ants used by various Indian tribes in puberty rites — and mosquitos. On one trip, he’s infected with malaria so badly he can hardly walk. Another time, for three weeks, it’s so wet his legs get covered in open sores. He’s nearly washed away in rapids. He gets caught with his family in a small World War II plane during a fierce tropical thunderstorm that sees the aircraft suddenly plunging 200 meters then back up again (his children think this is delightful — they scream with laughter, “much to the amazement of our frightened fellow passengers”). He’s held up by illegal gold miners, rough-looking men with guns and pistols in their belts, and only released after a bag is shown to contain merely palm fruits. Plant presses fairly often catch fire. Branches fall on top of people. People fall out of trees. One guide they hire turns out later to be a German fraudster suspected of murdering five tourists.

Clouds pouring over the edge of the plateau of Serra Aracá
Clouds pouring over the edge of the plateau of Serra Aracá

Then there are really scary events, such as an investigation into a snuff called koribó-nafuni, used in rituals by Paumari shamen. No one knew why several shamen ended up being paralysed from the waist down. The answer was discovered when Iain’s expedition collected a large amount of koribó and stored it where they were staying. “After about half an hour, Ferraroni said that he was not feeling well and tried to leave the room himself, but was so dizzy that he had to crawl on all fours. He headed straight for the lake to take a bath. After he laid down to recuperate, he had a bad headache and then that night he talked a lot in his sleep, not one of his normal habits.” A Paumari Indian reported similar symptoms. When the koribó is being taken back to base in the cabin of a small flying boat, the pilot starts to feel sick after half an hour, and has to land on a lake to recover. “We had to confess that he might feel unwell from the fumes of the plants…” The problem? “Chemical analysis later showed an extremely high concentration of hydrogen cyanide in the fresh leaves.” One effect of cyanide poisoning is paralysis.

The hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) has been rescued from extinction by conservation work at Estancia Miranda.
The hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) has been rescued from extinction
by conservation work at Estancia Miranda.

But, for all the risks, the book is illuminated with joy and wonder. It’s rather drily written, but there’s no mistaking the author’s pleasure, decades later, in recalling sights such as “a giant anteater swimming across the river with only its long snout poking above the water like a snorkel”. It’s also very English.

Note, for example, Iain’s satisfaction in conceding just two goals and winning 4-2 in a game of football against some sawmill workers (“It was good to be back in goal, in the position I had played at school”).

Shio-koni-amo (Lentinus velutinus), a fungus eaten by the Yanomami at Auaris
Shio-koni-amo (Lentinus velutinus),
a fungus eaten by the Yanomami at Auaris

Or there’s the investigation into the Yanomami’s names for fungi:

“Most of the names referred to what the fungi resembled such as deer or stingray. An amusing one was shio-koni-amo which translated means hairy arse fungus. You could see the resemblance when you looked at it.”

Rude names notwithstanding, this is an intensely serious book of botany, detailing thousands of collections of plants and dozens of new species and observations. It’s particularly strong on coco-plums, Brazil nuts, lilies and poisonous plants. There’s also excellent accounts of devising — literally overnight — the syllabus for a two-year master’s course in tropical botany and then running this in Manaus, and of helping the founder of modern genetics Theodosius Dobzhansky with his pioneering work into fruit flies. This required the mashing up and transportation to an Indian village of 20 kilos of mouldy bananas (bait for the flies). After they arrive, Iain goes out to meet the locals:

“In no time we were surrounded by naked or nearly naked Yanomami of the Sanuma clan. They were curious about us and were stroking my hairy arms and chest, making their clicking noise of appreciation. When they wanted to see more, I just stripped completely and their curiosity was satisfied.”

The Rondiônia expedition of 1968: standing, Ghillean Prance and David Philco; seated left to right, Luiz Farias, Luiz Coêlho, Kent Dumont, José Ramos, and local guide
The Rondiônia expedition of 1968: standing, Ghillean Prance and David Philco; seated left to right, Luiz Farias, Luiz Coêlho, Kent Dumont, José Ramos,
and local guide

The book ends with a plea

“It is (or was) indeed a glorious forest, but today I am worried about its future as illegal mining, timber exploitation, and deforestation diminish its glory. I urge us all to strive further to preserve the Amazon forest and its wonderful people who depend on the forest for their future.”

That Glorious Forest: Exploring the Plants and Their Indigenous Uses in Amazonia by Ghillean T. Prance is available from Serendip bookshop in Lyme Regis, who have an enterprising policy of getting books from the US and Canada. They also, for example, stock Curiosity by Joan Thomas, a novel about the great Lyme Regis fossil collector Mary Anning, born on 21 May, 1799. Alternatively, That Glorious Forest can be obtained directly from NYBG Press via » NYBGPress@nybg.org ($69 hardcover, $49 e-book).

Review by Jonathan Hudston.

Ghillean Prance
Ghillean Prance

West Dorset has a long and little-known history of links with South America, dating back to the 1590s when Sir Walter Ralegh — bored of living at Sherborne Castle in exile from the court of Elizabeth I and vexed by accusations of atheism — sought to regain favour by leading an expedition to Guiana. Ralegh wrote up his adventure as the discovery of a golden world, an Eldorado, though in fact his journey was beset by troubles. Ralegh’s voyage has been described by the historian Simon Schama as “the prototype of all imperial upstream epics”. It’s passed down through time into the imaginations of such figures as Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness), John Huston (The African Queen), Werner Herzog (Aguirre, Wrath of God and subsequently Fitzcarraldo), and Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now).

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