Review: Wade Davis’s “Magdalena: River of Dreams”

by J.R. Patterson
Wade Davis Magdalena Review

Wade Davis – Magdalena: River of Dreams (The Bodley Head, Vintage UK and Knopf US 2020). Hardback, pp 401

Reviewed by J.R. Patterson

Rivers provide an irresistible literary fodder for the writer: the story comes pre-made, with a beginning, middle, and end, and there is usually enough whitewater and quirky characters along the banks to provide some easy action. All a writer needs to supply is something to fill the inevitable miles and miles of flat, listless drifting of the kind readers dread. To fill those stretches of weak current, books about rivers have tended towards theatres for vainglorious stunts. The ‘source to sea via me’ variety is almost a genre unto itself, with each new iteration finding new ways of getting introspective bookworms downstream (think ‘The Nile by Paddleboard’ or ‘Down Thames in a Whisky Barrel!’). 

If, as a longstanding National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Wade Davis feels too established for such tomfoolery, he’d be right. After nineteen books of travel, photography, and ethnography, he’s earned the right to take a more sensible, although no less adventurous, tack. In his latest book, Magdalena: River of Dreams, Davis sidesteps the pratfalls of modern travel writing by doing nothing modern at all. Mixing history, reportage, and solid prose, Davis proves it is possible to be personal without being confessional. 

Davis is no stranger to rivers, having written about the Amazon (One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest), the Colorado (River Notes) and the Canadian Stikine, Skeena, and Nass rivers (Sacred Headwaters). Fine as they are, those journeys aside, it’s Davis’s longstanding connection to Colombia which raises Magdalena above mere voyeurism. 

If the Andes are Colombia’s backbone, the Magdalena River is its femoral artery, pumping the lifeblood of the South American nation as it tumbles from the uplands of the páramo up to the Caribbean, where it bleeds a curlicue of brown silt into the crystalline waters. Other writers have touched on the river (Christopher Isherwood lightly in The Condor and the Cows, Michael Jacobs heavily in The Robber of Memories), but never has a writer done so with as much authority as Davis. His first visit to the country, as a fourteen-year-old schoolboy in 1968, introduced him to a country that became from then on like a second home. In 1974, he returned, vowing not to leave until Richard Nixon was no longer president. For years, he scrabbled trough the brush, conducting anthropological surveys under the tutelage of the legendary botanist Richard Evans Schultes. He became a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia in his hometown of Vancouver, Canada. He wrote books. In 2018, Davis’s decades of charity work, research, and writing dedicated to the country led to the nation conferring upon him an honorary citizenship.

On the premise of showing the importance of the Magdalena to the integrity of Colombia, all along its 950 mile length, Davis instead charts a sea change in the way the river has historically been perceived in Colombia. Time and again, he is reminded by those he meets that Colombians as a nation “have turned their backs to the river.” Yet, those same encounters reveal a people invariably ready to protect and defend the future of the water. 

As Davis moves with the flow of the river, the story eddies us back and forth through time with history and present-day politics, gracefully condensed and simplified. Davis is no stranger to digressions, and their sheer number–into drug-trafficking, music, muleskinners, air travel, hippopotamuses, etc.–while interesting, can feel like he has strayed from the path. But such is the gravitational pull of the Magdalena; always, the tributary curves and the river reappears, an inimitable part of the story. Incredible as it sometimes seems, there is little in Colombia that hasn’t been touched by its water, and what can read like Davis simply indulging his vast store of knowledge is in reality a herculean effort of restraint. 

Wisely, Davis travels with a fluctuating cadre of activists and conservationists, swapping them like relay-race batons as he moves along the river. His fame in Colombia shows through as he hobnobs with the likes of singer Carlos Vives and botanist William Vargas (Colombia being a country where botanists command the respect of rock stars). On another level, well-known luminaries Simón Bolívar, Pablo Escobar, Gabriel García Márquez swirl through the text. He meets locals too, seamlessly incorporating their lives into the prose, and using their stories to amplify the effects of regionally famous and influential souls such as assassinated presidential candidate Jorge Gaitán, and the guerillas Manuel Marulanda Vélez, founder of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and Ramón Isaza, founder of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).

It’s because of, rather than in spite of, his love for these locals of Colombia that Davis is prone to fits of sappiness. Never does he meet a wicked soul, nowhere is he bothered by torrents of mosquitoes, not once does he lose his boot in a puddle of mud. The people he introduces us to are gracious, insightful, and clever, perfect emissaries of the land of color y cariño, color and tenderness. Several times, he finds himself “prostrate at the gates of awe.” He even gives the criminals recounted in stories (he meets none to our knowledge) their moments of grace, such as the guerillas who, while holding a town hostage, become so entranced by a game of soccer, they ultimately “leave the town and the people in peace.”

Not that Davis shies away from the horrific truths of the violence that has wracked Colombia for decades (or centuries, as the violence meted out by conquistadores weighs just as heavily on the country’s conscience). He spares no detail in describing the brutal and merciless tactics employed by the paramilitary factions and the national military against the overwhelmingly innocent population. The threat of danger is palpable in the book, both as a psychological rent in the land, and as a physical reality. “There has been violence here since before I knew myself,” an eighty-eight-year-old tells him. “Every boy is born with a gun on his shoulder.” 

“We were afraid to eat the fish,” another woman tells him, referring to the river into which the paramilitaries threw mutilated bodies as a warning to others. “They had turned this beautiful river into a slurry of death.” This was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when “corpses were as common as driftwood.” 

Although a peace deal signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and FARC (a deal which provided then president of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos with a Nobel Peace Prize), allows Colombians to enjoys a relative peace not experienced for decades, the conflict is far from fading into the annals of history. In Bocas de Ceniza, a town at the mouth of the Magdalena, a man tells Davis that only the day before, he had “fished two bodies out of the river, a man and a woman wrapped together in a carpet.”

Davis is careful not to lay the blame for the violence at any particular pair of Colombian boots whether governmental, paramilitary, guerilla, or narco (one’s boots of choice being a way of signifying where one’s sympathy lay). If he blames anyone, it is the casual drug users, whose consumption and desire for highs has brought the country immeasurable grief. 

Still, Davis takes pains to state that while violence, drugs, and criminality has tarred Colombia, most Colombians remain defiant of what he calls the country’s “dark clichés”. It is telling, Davis writes, that “in a nation of 48 million, the number of actual combatants at any one time…never surpassed 200,000.” It is only to people’s credit, Davis says, that through the troubles known as La Violencia (The Violence), “the nation has maintained its civil society and democracy, grown its economy, created millions of acres of national parks, and sought meaningful restitution with scores of indigenous cultures.” It’s no overstatement to say that many nations which have never fought a single day of insurgency, let alone sixty years of civil war, cannot match that. 

That Colombia has only just begun to “fall together while the world falls apart” drives Davis’ exuberance. That’s a good thing, because, while the people Davis encounters extol the virtues of the Magdalena, it is at perhaps its lowest ecological point in history. 

When Europeans arrived, their accounts reveal a river “so rich and abundant that fish could be caught by hand,” while turtle eggs could be gathered in the thousands. By the turn of the twentieth century, when wilderness of the interior was considered “a limitless resource”, some forty million cubic yards of forest were felled along the river. From steamships burning those felled logs, “men shot herons…manatees, blue turtles, ocelots, and jaguars,” and “children cut open the bellies of iguanas, replaced their eggs with manure, and tossed them back into the river.” Today, fish stocks have collapsed by 50 percent in thirty years. 

Deforestation, pollution, and dams tax the river to a breaking point. At the Caribbean, the river is “brown with silt, too toxic to drink, contaminated by human and industrial waste, which flows into it from every town and city in a drainage that is home to forty million Colombians.” Of the fisherman who line the banks, “not even the hardiest among them would dare drink the water.”

The threat of is not idle. Other rivers, such as the Río Bogotá, a tributary of the Magdalena, are already biologically dead, choked by miles of sewage, industrial toxins, and garbage. As an Arhuaco friend of Davis explains, “To destroy a river…would be to destroy ourselves.” Just as Colombia has been ahead on the rights of its indigenous inhabitants, so too may it lead the way in ecological recovery: in 2016, the highest court in Colombia granted the Atrato River rights not dissimilar to those given to human beings. 

Thus, Davis has produced a book as welcome as it is timely. The man himself is largely, blessedly, absent from his journey. His confidence with both his place in Colombia and the language (he is fluent in Spanish), means he is able to almost remove himself from the text and allow the river to take its proper place at the center of the book. Correspondingly, gone are the melodramas that accompany much travel writing–there are no ‘kidnappings’, humorous (humorless) ‘misunderstandings’, or grandoise contemplations on the meaning of travel, all of which only add wet literary blankets to a pile already a mile deep.

It’s risky for any book to try to be exhaustive. Lengthy passages about manatees and botanics make the journey longer, but they are digressions to be enjoyed, absorbed. “Rivers,” as Davis says, “are the soul of any land through which they flow.” As a warning, Magdalena calls for a vital exorcism. As a read, it is a pleasure. 


Wade Davis – Magdalena: River of Dreams (Vintage 2020). Hardback, pp 401

Reviewed by J.R. Patterson

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Last Updated on 28 September 2020 by Travel Writing World

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