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Hold a Blossom to the Light

Stephen L. Talbott

This chapter contains reflections occasioned by the book, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, by Wade Davis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).


While traveling through the Ecuadorian Amazon as an ethnobotanist, Wade Davis spent some time with the Waorani, known earlier as the Auca Indians. Among the last peoples of the Amazon to be contacted by outsiders, the Auca had made headlines around the world when, in January, 1956, they speared and killed five American missionaries -- this despite the missionaries' practice of dropping gifts from an airplane before their disastrous attempt at personal contact. The incident was only one in a series of unfortunate exchanges between the Auca and those who intruded upon their territory. According to Davis, "as late as 1957 there had never been a peaceful contact between the Auca and the outside world".

A couple of decades later, during his stay with the Waorani, Davis accompanied a young warrior named Tomo on a hunting excursion. Highly skilled with a blowgun, Tomo had already, at the age of five, been able to blow a dart through a hanging fruit at thirty paces. As an adult, he could "drive a dart clear through a squirrel at forty feet, knock a hummingbird out of the air, and hit a monkey in the canopy 120 feet above the forest floor".

After selecting a short blowgun (just over six feet long), Tomo led Davis and a companion into the jungle. As Davis tells the story, suddenly

Tomo froze, dropped into an