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John Muir in the Amazon Basin

by Laurel Bemis

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer 1993)

[Editor's Note: a recent graduate of the University of the Pacific, the author prepared this paper in a course offered by UOP's history department, "John Muir and the American Environment." Excerpts here are used with the author's permission.]

John Muir left New York on April 20, 1911 on a voyage that would fulfill his lifetime dream to travel to South America. One of his main reasons for visiting the Amazon basin at this late stage in his life was his desire to see ancient araucaria trees in their original habitat. Nicknamed the "monkey puzzle" tree, its spiny bark prevents monkeys from climbing it. Muir felt that it was one of the most important trees in existence because it has survived many geological periods. He was prepared to travel any distance, by boat and by foot if necessary, to view this biological wonder. Although he was seventy-four years old at the time of his trip, it was alleged that he could still walk twenty-five or thirty miles a day [1] .

On August 27, he wrote in his journal at noon that he was less than two hundred miles from the mouth of the Amazon. It took about an hour of cautious maneuvering by the ship's crew before dropping anchor because of the shifting delta currents which made charts unreliable. The following day, Muir viewed the land surrounding the Amazon for the first time and noted "Many magnificent dome-headed giant trees looming in most imposing grandeur above the crowded multitudes of palms" [2] . That afternoon he arrived at Para and later visited the city park. He wrote in great detail about the various ferns, palms, and lilies of the garden, citing their scientific names as well as intricate measurements of their leaves, height, and other specifications.

On September 1, Muir rose at four o'clock in the morning to begin a boat trip up the great river. In some places the over-leaning trees were so close he could almost touch them. As he traveled he noticed a large number of white-flowered trees, about seventy-five feet in height, and many other trees of the same type with red flowers. Palms grew scarce after about 200 miles above Para. His journal describes the palm-thatched houses of the Indians that could be seen every few miles. Rubber was collected at these small settlements to trade for Portuguese tobacco, coffee, coal oil, calico, and other products. During the night, he reported that a swarm of Brazilian mosquitoes came aboard and "invaded the dining room, where we were seated at the tables, causing lively slapping and clapping, in defending ourselves from their stings. The clapping was so continuous that a stranger might fancy that a speaker was being cheered. The dead mosquitoes were piled on the table-cloth at the side of each plate and each (person) seemed to be anxious to make good use of the sport that he seemed to enjoy it, each claiming a greater number of the game than their neighbors" [3] .

A day later, free of mosquitoes, the travelers passed through a more colorful crowd. "A good many butterflies, moths, dragonflies...are enlivening the air," Muir wrote. He also described the houses which belonged to Portuguese tradesmen, which were large with red-tiled roofs, and had large herds of cattle on the surrounding property. By now the red-flowered tree had thinned out, and white wasp nests were frequently seen hanging from the branches of trees.

On the fourth of September the party reached Itacoatiara near the mouth of the Madeira River. Muir said that the type of malaria in this region was so deadly that some deaths occurred after only three days. The malady was one of the difficulties impeding the completion of the railroad, which needed only fifty more miles. Near the site Muir met and old American ex-confederate, Mr. Stone, who had come to Brazil after the Civil War because slavery was still permitted in Brazil. He raised not only cattle, but a large amount of cacao, and had made his fortune in Brazil.

The next day the steamboat arrived at Manao, which had a population of about 100,00 inhabitants at the time and was situated near the mouth of the Rio Negro. Muir noted the darkness, almost blackness, of the Rio Negro while, in contrast, the water of the Amazon was "tawny-colored" [4] . He compared the color of the Rio Negro to the streams and lakes in Scotland and the low coast areas in the southern states of the United States. When the two rivers merged, the Amazon overpowered the other, but despite the turbulence the Indian crew of their steamer was "extremely strong and able to work with a will."

The jungle's fate in the hands of developers did not seem to worry Muir. He wrote that despite "jarring fevers, dampness of every sort, debilitating heat, etc., thousands of men, young and old, rush for fortunes half crazy, half merry, into this rubbery wilderness" [5] . Taking necessary precautions to ward off the mosquitoes, and exercising moderation in eating and drinking, he said, a person could get rich and then leave for a more suitable climate. His optimistic view perhaps was stimulated by the abundance that surrounded him. Besides the verdant vegetables, he noticed large flocks of white egrets, parrots, ducks, and buzzards along his journey [6] .

On September 12, after several days hard travel by skiff and on foot through the jungle and because of trouble making travel connections, Muir decided that he would return to Para instead of continuing to Iquitos. On September 15, he reached Para and for the next few days, rested by writing letters, reading those forwarded to him, and leisurely touring the gardens. On September 26, Muir left Para on the ship São Paulo and paid his last respects to the Amazon.

In an interview with The New York Times in 1912, after returning to the United States, Muir reflected on the future development of the Amazon region:

...the time will come when this whole region will be transformed into one of the richest garden spots on earth, the seat of a civilization greater and more far-reaching than that found to-day in the Mississippi Valley.... It is simply there potentially. You have a river system on a gigantic scale, greater than anything of the kind elsewhere...And this great body of water....flows through a country whose warm climate disposes it to the highest fertility [7] .

However, he said, most of the people were sickly and made their living from rubber rather than agricultural means. This seemed to him a major obstacle to go beyond mere substance agriculture: "It means hard work to do more than that on the Amazon, and the people there are not of the working kind" [8] . Reflecting the dominant theme of western culture, Muir believed that change would not come to the Amazon region until foreigners began development there in the next two to three centuries. In order for this change to take place, he said that three things were needed: "Drain the swamps, dike the river so that its ebb and flow will be under complete control, and kill the mosquitoes....To carry out this programme on the Amazon would need, of course, a stupendous amount of enterprise. Just to clear away a sufficient number of trees for the work will be enough to keep the future settler busy" [9] .

After traveling a thousand miles by steamboat up the Amazon River, Muir was finally able to view the araucaria in its natural state. But his enthusiasm for this single species stands in contrast to his limited view of the Amazon as an ecosystem. In 1912, Muir would have no conception of the forthcoming rapid industrialization and deforestation around the globe, which would lead to the theory of the "greenhouse effect." In addition, the leaching of Amazonian soils from overproduction and poor maintenance of the earth was not studied at the time because large-scale agriculture "slash and burn" methods had not reached the proportion that they have today. Muir also found the scenery "somewhat monotonous" because "there are no mountains, except toward the western edge of the continent, where the Andes loom up. But, in the eastern part, you steam along for hundreds of miles between two solid walls of tropical verdure, rising to a height of a hundred feet or more. Very impressive--but, as a scenic feature, lacking in diversity" [10] . Therefore, although Muir enjoyed and was fully impressed by his trip to South America, for him it does not compare to the grandeur of the Sierra. At heart, John Muir was always a mountain climber.

John Muir, like his predecessors, Bates, Wallace, and Humbolt, explored the Amazon without commentary on its ecological significance. During the time they explored the region, the native flora and fauna were still abundant. None could foresee the drastic changes which would take place on a global scale during the next several decades. Muir, himself, was far more concerned with saving Hetch Hetchy than the wilderness preservation of a jungle thousands of miles away. Indeed, Muir recognized the beauty of the Amazon, as his journals reveal. However, he also envisioned a potential for growth. His proposal about diking the Amazon River was not meant as a catalyst for total destruction and industrialization of the area. Instead he favored the limited development of what he considered to be a great resource. Perhaps the first, true ecologists of Brazil were the native scientists and reformers of the region. Over the years they, more than anyone else, could see the gradual destruction of their land as a result of weak government regulations, foreign exploitation, personal greed or ignorance.


  1. Anonymous, "John Muir returns. Botanist Hunted the 'Monkey Puzzle' Tree in Brazil," The [New York] Morning Sun, March 27, 1912.

  2. John Muir Papers, microfilm, University of the Pacific, Reel 30, frame 04636, page 9.

  3. Ibid., p.10.

  4. Ibid., p.25.

  5. Ibid., p.26.

  6. Ibid., pp.24-28.

  7. Anonymous, "A Future Paradise for Mankind in South America," The New York Times, April 21, 1912, sec. 5, p. 12, cs. 1-8.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

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