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Sunday, January 17, 2010
FEAR OF FAILURE
I will tell you a truth about explorers. Eventually they always find what they are searching for. The amazing part is that a lot of them have no idea what kind of quest they are actually on. And in early June of 1925, as intrepid explorer Percy Fawcett strode into the Amazon jungle, followed closely by his 22 year old son and a friend, Percy thought he was seeking the lost city of “Z”. He was wrong, but he still made it half way there. He found the “lost” part.
Colonel Percy Fawcett was “the last of a breed of explorers to venture into blank spots on the map with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose.” His true life adventures in the jungles of South America inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World”, and the cheesy Hollywood movie based on it. He was also, at least in part, the basis for the character of Indiana Jones. And for reasons that beg explanation, at the age of 58, Percy, a trained and accomplished engineer and surveyor, became obsessed with a ten inch tall stone figure of a bearded man.
The figure had been given to Percy by H. Rider Haggard, the author of “King Solomon’s Mines”. Haggard had purchased it in Brazil. “There is a peculiar property in this stone image,” wrote Percy, “felt by all who hold it in their hands. It is as though an electric current were flowing up one’s arm, and so strong is it that some people have been forced to lay it down.” There were, of course, a few things wrong about the statue. The figure was bearded, and a bearded native-American is about a common as a bearded Amazon catfish. Also, the figure was carved out of basalt, and there is no basalt in the Amazl basin. But Percy was determined.
First, he took the figure to the British Museum, where he was politely told, “If it’s not a fake it’s quite beyond our experience.” Now, you might have expected Percy to understand that bit of ‘science-speak’ to mean “it’s a fake”. But Percy was no ordinary engineer. According to Richard Holmes, in his book “Tommy; the British Soldier in the Western Front”, during the winter of 1916 Percy was assigned to direct counter-battery fire along a section of British trenches. “The only counter-battery shots which he would allow were those against targets clearly visible from British lines - or those he had personally detected on his Ouija board.”
I had better let Percy explain what he did next, because you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. “I could think of only one way of learning the secret of the stone image,” wrote Percy, “and that was by means of psychometry.” Yes; he consulted a psychic.
Holding the statue the medium had a ‘vision’. He saw “a large irregularly shaped continent stretching from the north coast of Africa across to South America”, complete with “processions of what looked like priests” dressed like the mysterious bearded figure. Then, the medium said, “…the whole land shakes with a mighty rumbling sound (and) …disappears under the water.” Percy now asserted, “…the connection of Atlantis with parts of what is now Brazil is not to be dismissed contemptuously.”
Now, a skeptic might contemptuously point out that any good con artist would know that Percy had written several articles about the kingdom of Atlantis for ‘The Occult Review’ magazine. But while spoil a wonderful mystical adventure with facts?
Atlantis was the invention of the Greek philosopher, Plato. He weaved a tale of a great kingdom, where pure reason ruled supreme. This facist utopia was destroyed only by a natural disaster, in, said Plato, a single day and a night. It was romantic, and absurd, and you could forest a planet with the trees turned to pulp for books identifying the location of the real Atlantis. And Percy, examining clues he had collected in ten years of exploring the Amazon, was certain the psych’s “reading” had merely confirmed that a colony of Atlantis was somewhere along the upper Xingu River, in southwestern Brazil And Percy knew exactly where to find it. “The central place I call "Z" -- our main objective -- is in a valley surmounted by lofty mountains. The valley is about ten miles wide, and the city is on an eminence in the middle of it…”
In the early spring of 1925 Percy, his son Jack, and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell, began their march into the Mato Grosso, Portuguese for “thick woods”. Before entering the unknown Percy sent a last letter to his wife, Nina, assuring her of his confidence. “You need have no fear of failure,” he wrote. He did not say anything about safety.
They crossed the upper Xingu (Shing-goo) River and the Rio Ticantins, and entered the domain of the Kurikuro, the Matipu and Nahhkwa peoples, all Carib speakers, survivors of first contact plagues, and victims of civilization and slavers, and deeply mistrustful of white men. For weeks the explorers fought tropical heat, poisonous snakes, biting insects, and preditors who did not fear humans. When Percy’s party entered the camp of the Kalapalos tribe, the natives noted that both of the younger men were limping and ill, and that the “old man” looked very tired.
The Kalapalos tried to convince Percy to turn back, or at least rest with them for a few days. But so close to his goal, the explorer insisted in pressing on. The villagers followed the men’s campfire smoke receding into the jungle for five evenings, and then…nothing. Young men sent to follow the trail came to the last campsite and reported that the jungle beyond was undisturbed. It seemed as if Percy and his two companions had simply vanished off the face of the earth.
Percy had left strict instructions behind, that if his expedition should fail to reappear, no one was to come looking for them. It was too dangerous. So of course, over the following decades, the jungle was invaded by 13 separate expeditions searching for Percy. More than a hundred men died looking for the man who took practical advice from an Ouija board. Occasionally a compass or other tool would be discovered in a villager’s hut, and linked to Percy Fawcett. But the men were never found. Nina Fawcett was convinced her husband had been captured by an Indian tribe, and claimed to have received telepathic messages from him as late as 1934. But she died a widow, anyway.
Like all such mysteries, there were a thousand solutions offered. Fawcett was killed by the Kalapalos, or another tribe deeper in the woods. The entire party died of injury or illness, or animal attack. They were kidnapped and held for decades in the jungle, eventually becoming chiefs or priests. Or they descended into the earth and spent their days living with a subterranean society. Eventually, none of it mattered.
I am sorely tempted to simply say they were fools following a fool’s errand, seduced by a myth of their own creation, searching for mysticism in a prosaic universe. Eventually everyone who had been fascinated by Percy Fawcett’s story grew old and forgetful and passed into the great unknown themselves. And with time the story became not even worth the re-telling. Until…
America archeologist Michael Heckenberger has recently found some 20 pre-Columbian settlements in the area where Percy Fawcett believed “Z” was located. Each of these cities, connected by causeway highways across the jungle floor, supported between two and five thousand people, giving the entire area a population of perhaps 100,000 people. All in all, it would appear that Percy Fawcett's only mistake was that he had underestimated the Indians of the Amazon, and over rated Plato.
Percy Fawcett failed because he was so intent upon finding a piece of European history in South America, that he missed his great city of "Z", even while he climbed the walls of its moat. And those amongst us who have not been similarly mistaken, have not failed, but we have not really risked much, either.