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Secrets of the forest

Using a multidisciplinary approach, book recovers legends and records of naturalists to reveal little known aspects of the Amazon

Araponga | A combination of the terms ará + ponga = resonant bird. Found in the states of Pará and Amazonas, the bird is known for vocalizing sounds similar to a bell, and for this reason, is also called ferrier and blacksmith. It can also be found in the Guianas and Venezuela. The male (see image to right) is completely white. Naturalist Emílio Goeldi (1859–1917) wrote about the bird in 1894: “There the Araponga also chants its blacksmith nursery rhyme, resembling a hammer handled violently countless times, but with decreasing intensity, repelled and attracted by the anvil.”

Reproductions from the book Exotic Amazon: Rarities of the Forest

Despite the first “scientific” expedition to the largest tropical forest in the world having been registered in the 18th century, the Amazon is shrouded in mysteries. But if we consider its size, this could not be any different. It measures about 7,000,000 km2, covering land that belongs to nine countries. With 60% of the forest in Brazilian territory, the biome is located in the North, Northeast and Central-West regions of the country. While science is still not able to describe or explain a significant part of what exists there, there is considerable accumulated knowledge about the forest, as indicated by the library collection at the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará. This is where library technician Olímpia Reis Resque hunted for treasures that comprise Amazônia exótica: Curiosidades da floresta (Exotic Amazon: Rarities of the forest; Empíreo), which allows for a somewhat better understanding of the region that in 2000 was named a Natural Heritage Site by the United Nations for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO).

According to a book from a trilogy initiated in 2011, the 57 entries that comprise the book are the result of the efforts of the researcher of Amazonian history to reveal details about the species most used by the local population. “It was a way I could communicate not only about our fauna and flora, but also our collection,” she says. As the librarian of the institution for 35 years, Resque began her professional career in the museum itself, as an intern, when she was still studying at the Federal University of Pará. It did not take her long to realize that there was no lack of information for her there. With 300,000 volumes, including magazines and books available to the public, and more than 3,000 rare works, the Domingo Soares Ferreira Penna Library, founded in the 19th century, holds the country’s largest collection on the Amazon. “After 40 years visiting the museum on a daily basis, I am still surprised by the collection, which is extremely diverse. I go into the library looking for a book, and I find another that I have never seen before,” she recounts.

Multiple views
As indicated by the brief records provided in this report, there is information from varying perspectives in the book. With the selected species organized in alphabetical order, they reveal the etymology of the words, prioritize naturalist reports, and share legends and treasures of the forest inhabitants. In addition to a literature review, which includes rarities such as Pátria selvagem, a floresta e a vida, mythos amazônicos: Os escravos vermelhos (Wild homeland, the forest and life, Amazon myths: The red slaves), published at the beginning of the 19th century by Alexandre de Mello Moraes Filho (1844–1919), the book includes a glossary of regional terms, such as caruana (good character) and paul (bog), and a short biography of about 50 travelers who have passed through the region, with a focus on a particular woman. Reading the book, one discovers that the English botanical artist Margaret Mee (1909–1988) started her first expedition to the Amazon at age 47 and maintained contact with the local population for the following three decades.

Some of the images that illustrate the book were taken from the museum’s archive and from her own collection of rare works. Some of the watercolors were painted by local contemporary artists and there are illustrations from websites, such as Plant Illustrations. Thrilled with the space reserved for the feminine in the minds of the indigenous peoples and riverside communities, in the last volume of the trilogy, Resque attempts to explore the mother figure. “In the Amazon, there is a mother for everything,” she says. “Jaci is the mother of the moon, Coaraci, the mother of the sun. For the people of the forest, the jungle is the mother of the animals and must not be disrespected.”