Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Beaming The Beginning

How many of us have stories that would go with us to the grave, were it not for the unguarded remark or the encounter with the one person whose interest allows the story to come out. Such was the serendipitous moment that got Loren McIntyre to speak about his experiences. He was travelling down the Amazon in 1987, in the company of Petru Popescu - novelist and screen writer who had fled Romania in 1975 - and Jean-Michel Cousteau, environmentalist-explorer son of Jacques. To these fellow travellers, he mentioned his experience of communicating without words.

Loren Alexander McIntyre was born in Seattle Washington in 1917. He studied Latin American culture at the University of California in Berkeley. He spent World War II in the US Navy, going around the world to China, Japan, India, Brazil. After the war, he was assigned to the Peruvian Navy as a gunnery advisor. He later graduated from university in Lima in Ethnology, and became fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. Through the US Aid program, he travelled extensively in Peru and Brazil, recording everything in photographs. His first article was published in National Geographic magazine in 1966; the feature on Bolivia included 47 of his photographs. In his lifetime, he has published hundreds of features, and many books, on Amazonia.

Petru Popescu fled Romania when he was 31. In 1987, his interest was piqued by McIntyre's revelation that members of the Mayoruna tribe had communicated with him by thoughts beamed directly to his mind. Popescu spent the next three years researching, interviewing and corresponding with Loren McIntyre to develop the story that became Amazon Beaming, which was published in 1991. Popescu was already living in Los Angeles. McIntyre was working in Brazil and finally settled in Arlington Virginia with his wife Sue.

The story begins in 1969 when McIntyre goes into the Amazonian forest on assignment for National Geographic. He's not quite sure what he will find, but his party of three goes by light aeroplane along the Javari - one of Amazon's tributaries. They are well-equipped for an expedition, with camping, film and photographic equipment, trinkets for natives, canned food. One of the three got sick, and McIntyre insisted that the pilot take him back. He would wait at the river camp where he hoped to make contact with the stealthy group of naked Indians that was watching, keeping their distance.

On his own in the forest, McIntyre follows the group until he has lost the river. Then, he has no choice but to stay with the tribe, hoping they would lead him back out. Some have tattoos as well as labrets - spines through piercings in their upper lip - that look like cats' whiskers - jaguar people. McIntyre spends two months with the tribe at a time when they are on a ritual journey "to the beginning." They have no language in common, but McIntyre is befriended by an individual he deems the headman. Barnacle seems to understand McIntyre's thoughts. McIntyre perceives messages which beam to him with the force of complete thoughts. Some of us are friends. Later when his watch is destroyed and he has spent his frustration running in circles - a spell that Barnacle undoes by running circles in the opposite direction - he receives the message, the face of time.

He travels with them, back in time it seems, through ritual fasting, body painting, hallucinogenic potions, frog licking and dreaming. His concept of time changes. He perceives that the beginning is always within memory. In the deep forest, with no horizon, time is not linear, it envelops you. Later, having lost all his photographic equipment, film, notebooks, everything that connects him to the world of civilizados, he is flushed out of the forest on monsoon flood waters. He is glad to be alive, but equally certain that his friend of the forest is not.

Two years later, he leads the National Geographic expedition to find the furthest source of the Amazon river. This journey takes a group of three explorers  - McIntyre, Richard Bradshaw and Victor Tupa - to the Continental Divide. To the west of this crest, the Pacific; far to the east, the Atlantic. This ridge in the Andes is over 18,000 feet above sea level. Here the clouds touch the mountain to make rain or snow; here they expect to find the ultimate source. Here begin the many tiny rivers, cascades, ponds or springs flowing in a continuous stream to the mighty Amazon.

Unsure of how far they would need to go, the three adventurers plan to travel for twelve miles on foot around the Choquecorao (a long crest called "golden sling.") They are subject to the cold, oxygen deprivation and risk death. For McIntyre, there is certainty in this mission. He has a vision of the tribal ancestors who crossed the landbridge from Asia, trekking the mountain ranges through generations and  eras before their descent to a home in the deep forest.

He is connected to something primordial through the experiences with Barnacle and the Mayoruna tribe. He arrives at the beginning of the world's mightiest river, in a desolate uninhabitable landscape. He reaches the end of the tribe's ritual begun in the impenetrable bush. It didn't matter that it took another 16 years or so before he was credited as the explorer to go to the furthest source of the Amazon, a tiny perpetual lake fed by snow melt that has since been named Laguna McIntyre.

Based on the measurements of their trek, it is confirmed that the Amazon is still the second longest river in the world after the Nile. It flows through Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Guyana. However, the discharge that drains from the crest of the Andes through the deep forests to the Atlantic Ocean, is greater than that of the other top ten rivers altogether. 

In crafting a book that must certainly be one of the contemporary world's great adventure stories, Petru Popescu allows McIntyre to tell the story in his own words. The narrative switches between McIntyre's recollections and the Popescu's framework of deep research which provides the context of McIntyre's story. Though it is the adventure of one person, Amazon Beaming is vast and epic; it spans a continent, and the time and thought from primitive to civilized.

In the Epilogue, McIntyre returns to the Javari. It is 1976, over 17 years after first contact, but Barnacle still lives in his thoughts.  He anticipates the possibility of re-finding his tribe of Mayoruna but they have disappeared. Instead he finds many mixed children, tribesmen becoming civilizado; he finds disease and destitution. The sense of loss is haunting: we will never be that wild again. 

Aerial photography was one of the greatest assets in the quest to find the source. The Mayoruna believed that the source was "in the sky." It was not just a metaphorical concept, as McIntyre came to realise: the river on land is constantly fed by the river in the sky.
Go directly to this link to be able to zoom in to this view over the Amazon:
 "popcorn" clouds in the afternoon are the result of forest respiration.

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