Sandra Knapp reviews Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon by John Hemming, in the Times Literary Supplement:
Images of ants both open and close this wonderful book. In the early chapters the unforgettable opening scene of Werner Herzog’s historically inaccurate but utterly compelling film Aguirre: Wrath of God is evoked – columns of soldiers and bearers descending ant-like down the Andes towards the Amazon river to attempt the search for the mythical riches of El Dorado. The closing chapter describes the incredible richness of organisms found in the Amazon ecosystem, with ants probably the most species-rich group of all. Both descriptions call up teeming multitudes and suggest wealth; therein lies the story of the Amazon itself, one of the most fascinating forest regions on the planet. The fixation of the first Europeans who entered the Amazon with the mythical land of gold beyond measure – El Dorado – led to the destruction of the indigenous people in a greedy search for the wrong sort of riches. All the while, the true riches of the Amazon were destroyed and plundered without consideration of their value beyond mere economics. John Hemming’s Tree of Rivers is not about the Amazon ecosystem itself – so it is not the place to find out the why and how of Amazonian ecology – but instead it is a powerful chronicle of the effects European and European-derived cultures have had on this most diverse and fascinating of river basins.
Hemming has constructed a brilliantly coherent history of man’s exploration of and influence on the Amazon Basin, home to the largest river on Earth, whose drainage area covers a land area almost the size of the continental United States (minus Alaska) and that is so large that for more than a thousand kilometres inland one cannot see the opposite bank.