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A Land of Ghosts: The Braided Lives of People and the Forest in Far Western Amazonia Americas South America Peru David G. Campbell Rutgers University Press

20th June 2013 History Books 23 Comments

“A fluent and highly intelligent book.” — Joe Kane, Orion Magazine

“No writer I know so seamlessly and beautifully blends insightful science with powerful language. A Land of Ghosts is a staggering elegy for peoples and other species broken on the rack of dubious progress, a travelogue of the most engaging sort, and a testament to the acute sensibilities of one our greatest scientist-writers.” — Robert Michael Pyle

“[The Brazilian rain forest] is . . . marvelously described and movingly evoked . . . Campbell offers what feels like a lover’s last, lingering look.” — New York Times

David G. Campbell is a teacher, ecologist, and explorer who has worked on all seven continents. The author of the highly acclaimed The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica, he is a recipient of the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award, the PEN Martha Albrand Award, the Burroughs Medal, and the Lannan Award for Nonfiction. Dr. Campbell is a professor of biology and the Henry R. Luce Professor in Nations and the Global Environment at Grinnell College.

For thirty years David G. Campbell has explored the Amazon, an enchanting terrain of forest and river that is home to the greatest diversity of plants and animals to have ever existed, anywhere at any time, during the four-billion-year history of life on Earth.

With great artistic flair, Campbell describes a journey up the Rio Moa, a remote tributary of the Amazon River, 2,800 miles from its mouth. Here he joins three old friends: Arito, a caiman hunter turned paleontologist; Tarzan, a street urchin brought up in a bordello; and Pimentel, a master canoe pilot. They travel together deep into the rainforest and set up camp in order to survey every woody plant on a two-hectare plot of land with about as many tree species as in all of North America.

Campbell introduces us to two remarkable women, Dona Cabocla, a widow who raised six children on that lonely frontier, and Dona Ausira, a Nokini Native American who is the last speaker of her tribe’s ages-old language. These pioneers live in a land whose original inhabitants were wiped out by centuries of disease, slavery, and genocide, taking their traditions and languages with them. He explores the intimate relationship between the extinction of native language and the extirpation of biological diversity. “It’s hard for a people to love a place that is not defined in words and thus cannot be understood. And it’s easy to give away something for which there are no words, something you never knew existed.” In elegant prose that enchant and entrance, Campbell has written an elegy for the Amazon forest and its peoples–for what has become a land of ghosts.

“A fluent and highly intelligent book.” — Joe Kane, Orion Magazine

“No writer I know so seamlessly and beautifully blends insightful science with powerful language. A Land of Ghosts is a staggering elegy for peoples and other species broken on the rack of dubious progress, a travelogue of the most engaging sort, and a testament to the acute sensibilities of one our greatest scientist-writers.” — Robert Michael Pyle

“[The Brazilian rain forest] is . . . marvelously described and movingly evoked . . . Campbell offers what feels like a lover’s last, lingering look.” — New York Times

A Land of Ghosts: The Braided Lives of People and the Forest in Far Western Amazonia


In this impressive, funny and moving work, Joe Kane tells the story of the Huaorani, a tribe living in the deepest part of the Amazonian rain forest in Ecuador. The Huaorani have only in the last generation been exposed to such items as the wristwatch. But the modern world is reaching them quickly; for better or worse–usually worse–they live astride some of Ecuador’s richest oilfields. Oil production in the Amazon has opened the forest to colonization and industrialization, often with alarming results: about 17 million gallons, of raw crude, more than in the Valdez spill in Alaska, were spilled from a Amazon pipeline between 1972 and 1989. Kane, who lived with the Huaorani for months, immaculately reports on the tribes’ connections with the old world and its battles with the new one. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Savages is a firsthand account, by turn hilarious, heartbreaking, and thrilling, of a small band of Amazonian warriors and their battle to preserve their way of life. Includes eight pages of photos.


  • 23 responses to "A Land of Ghosts: The Braided Lives of People and the Forest in Far Western Amazonia Americas South America Peru David G. Campbell Rutgers University Press"

  • Freda Buntin
    1:52 on June 21st, 2013
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    A Land of Ghosts is a splendid journey through Amazonian Brazil. Infused with enlightened historical, ecological, and anthropological perspective, Campbell stands alone in his ability to fuse eloquent science writing with a tale of adventure. At times haunting, this book reveals the deep causes of rainforest destruction in the region. However, this book presents these causes in a unique way, and, at least for me, marks a new style of conservation advocation. Indeed, a refreshing one. If you have any interest in tropical ecology, and like works by such authors as David Quammen or Tim Flannery you will love this brilliant work.

  • Jenae Brody
    2:51 on June 21st, 2013
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    I found this book very readable and as I was reading it I started to feel like I knew the Huaoranis and feel their pain. Joe Kane may be an anthropologist but he does not write in a manner that makes you think that the Huaoranis are his study subjects. By the time I finished the book I felt like I had been there with them and certainly understood them much better than before. I also became very aware of the horrific destruction caused by the oil companies.

  • Alphonso
    6:22 on June 21st, 2013
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    This book delivered much more than I expected. The author is a scientist, not just a traveler. Each observation went several steps deeper into the biology and history than typical with this kind of book. The story was made much richer by these details.

    It is true that the vocabulary was a bit advanced. However, I never bothered to check the dictionary, and it didn’t hurt the narrative.

    Highly recommended.

  • Scott McNamara
    10:10 on June 21st, 2013
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    I enjoyed this book very much because it gave a great overview of a tribe that was being affected by oil industries. The destruction of the rainforest to have a few dqys of gas is not worth it. I just visited the rainforest in Ecuador, and it was definitely something to preserve. A great movie with the same story is “Trinkets & Beads.” It is a bit exspensive to rent, and very hard to find, but extremely worth it. Read the book, then see this documentary.

  • George A Wallace
    11:20 on June 21st, 2013
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    In Savages, Kane conveys the dire importance of understanding and respecting the traditional practices of the Huaorani Indians of Ecuador. Kane examines through personal experience their struggle to maintain identity, land, and dignity in the face of oil companies, missionaries, and economic progress. The author demonstrates journalistic reporting at its very best and assures the reader a sincere and responsible account of the matters at hand. This book should be read by anyone interested in the future of humankind

  • Randell Vijil
    15:58 on June 21st, 2013
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    Kane gives a very sympathetic yet never condoning view of a people that comes an incredible long way to take up the challenge of the most powerful industries in the world: the oil industry! The author relates his experiences with great humour reflecting one of the most outstanding characteristics of the Huaorani: they seem to be able to lough a lot inspite of it all! A most touching yet also entertaining book.

  • Morgantheaxe
    16:34 on June 21st, 2013
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    Modern day botanist Dr. Campbell’s account of thirty years in this remote Amazon rainforest is both a captivating read of adventure and more importantly a daunting paradigm of what has happened to this esoteric land.
    Every molecule of the natural, physical and anthropological world is magically transformed with zesty and passionate prose. The author’s own escapades with jaguars, caimans and deadly snakes, to legends of tribes with tails and spirits with backward feet leaves the reader mesmerized.
    Blend historical blunders of rubber exploitation, cattle farms, slavery, the Trans-Amazon Highway, etc. with the resulting decimation of native populations by disease and dilution of heritage, this book is a soothsayer of how humankind has not been so kind.
    Everyone and everything loses from self-righteous and mindless practices such as occurred here. The outcome are ghosts with haunting apparitions from the past.

  • pu$
    20:37 on June 21st, 2013
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    Have you read Kane’s Running the Amazon? Here’s another good one. It even won the Bay Area Book Reviewers Assoc Award in 1995. Kane travels to Ecuador to live for a while with the Huaorani tribal people as their Stone Age culture bumps against the 20th Century.
    The Huaorani eventually befriended Kane, but at the beginning, it was just as likely that they might murder him, as they had fairly recently killed a missionary and several others they considered enemies. Something about Kane made them feel comfortable – lucky for him.
    Kane intersperses magical vignettes of tribal life with historical and sociological information in a way that makes his book imminently readable by ordinary readers like me as well as my scholars and sociologists.
    It’s a good one.

  • Walter C. Jerry
    22:10 on June 21st, 2013
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    Before reading this book, I knew nothing about the Amazon and wasn’t that interested. Now, even though it’s been half a year since I finished the book, I find myself thinking about Moi, Enquiri, Judith, and the rest. Joe Kane also did a good job explaining the very complicated situation with the oil companies. I was inspired to hit the library for more books on the Amazon and the people there. It’s also inspired me to check in with Rainforest Action Network and write a few letters. One of my favorite books ever.

  • AliceWalden
    0:10 on June 22nd, 2013
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    I had to read this book for a geology class in college and it definitely raises some interesting points about oil companies, labor abuse laws, poverty, monopoly, and how the people of the land are affected by drilling. The book is all over the place at some points, however, as pages upon pages of detail are given about a boat expedition leading to nowhere while important facts about the oil companies are limited to concise paragraph descriptions.

    While I enjoyed the book overall, I wish Kane would have focused more on the importance of what he was tring to say. I understand he had to be objective, but there’s not much to be objective about involving the wipeout of an entire culture. Reccomended for those interested in environmental science and human rights.

  • hiitch
    7:52 on June 22nd, 2013
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    Joe Kane, author of best selling ‘Running the Amazon’, has tackled a subject often thought of as being the job of anthropologists and the like. As a reporter, Kane has done a good job of relaying details such as the environment the Huaorani live in and the details of the oil industry that looms over their part of the Ecuadorian Amazon. As mentioned in another review, the anthropological insite Kane offers in response to Huaorani culture and how it has changed and adapted to its situation leaves something to be desired. That said, I do not find this to be a problem. Kane is writing for an audience that would probably find most anthropological scholarly texts dry and unintersting, but he has managed to explain the conflict that has arisen due to oil exploitation in the rainforest, all the while demonstrating the effects this exploitation has on humans in the area. I wa spleased to see that Kane demonstrated how the Huaorani have formed a sort of resistance to the destruction of the environment they call home by using conduits provided by external political groups, thus demonstrating how the marginalized make themselves known. The book is engagingly written and Kane, while unable to hide his anti-corporate and anti-oil exploitation sentiments (with which I agree), has made a worthy case for the halting of oil exploitation at the level it was (and still is) being carried on in the Amazon.

  • Howard Cusato
    9:41 on June 22nd, 2013
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    Although this book gives a clear warning about the effects of “Civilized world”‘s greed for oil, it is somewhat too much fictionalized to be fully credible. It’s a pity, because the basic idea is good.

  • Alxe wppTT
    11:59 on June 22nd, 2013
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    Though there are many books that describe nature in the Amazon, David Campbell definitely is among the top writers on it. In this book he offers, from start to finish, a very interesting mix between storytelling with lyrical qualities and scientific analysis with social commentary.

    He is a scientist, focused on botany, and his knowledge of all aspects of science related to the forest are outstanding. We learn about the strategies employed by frogs to reproduce, or by snakes to identify prey, or by trees to attach polen to beetles. While learning about the science behind such activities and how they evolved, the author leads the reader through his travel log, meeting people and species and learning much about the history of the region he is visiting.

    Besides all the interesting science, the author also provides a very deep character description of the people who live in this remote frontier. The stories range from rubber tappers left over from a period of abundance, to old indians who became westernized, to occupants moving there from the south due to government incentives. Each has a story and a way to deal with the challenges of the forest; some have a way to prosper in the exact same circumstances in which others fail. Some characters are presented as integrated in the forest, some as aliens beaten by the forest, some as leaders beating the forest.

    Most amazing than all the history, social aspects and science however are the narrative abilities of the author. The book is a work of art, as it becomes clear that every word has been hand picked and every metaphor was chosen to provide the reader with the correct image, texture, taste, sound and smell of the forest. Reading is an experience of immersion and is to be savoured as very few books provide such a deep experience. It becomes quite clear to anyone reading the book that the author has a deep connection with his subject, much beyond science.

    This book is the very best description of the Amazon I have encountered, written with gusto. It is the kind of book you will wish you had written. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the region, in nature writing or in popular science.

  • Kirkland
    12:18 on June 22nd, 2013
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    This excellent book by Joe Kane will put you right into the jungle alongside the Huaorani Natives of Ecuador. A sensitive and objective look at the plight of the local tribes whose lives have been forever changed by the quest for oil.The author travels around the jungle with an unforgettable cast of characters whose antics will touch you and get you laughing.This book is highly recommended as enjoying reading which will keep you thinking long after the book is finished.

  • Lola Patcher
    16:53 on June 22nd, 2013
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    He paints the Huaorani people in a very human light. The Huaorani are a people very misunderstood; they are portrayed by others as vicious, savage, and ignorant people and are exploited by powerful outside forces. This book has opened my eyes to a culture that I never knew existed, one which I now love and am deeply fascinated by. I would whole-heartedly recommend this book to anyone looking for more than an adventure. Be prepared to have your horizons widened.

  • Bernard Huff
    18:29 on June 22nd, 2013
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    This is a terrific book. And what a vocabulary! I had to refer to the Oxford English Dictionary at least once on just about every page.

  • Faye Elfers
    20:27 on June 22nd, 2013
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    Although this book has been criticized by people with a background in anthropology, as a practicing anthropologist (with research expertise in media studies), I beg to disagree. Certainly, the book has weaknesses, and the fieldwork it is based on was flawed. Yet it presents a balanced view of Amazon peoples — if one reads carefully one finds that they are NOT merely portrayed as “noble savages.” Moreover, the book has a chance of reaching a FAR greater audience than most anthropology works ever do. I aspire to write as compellingly as Kane; it’s about time anthropology had more of an impact on the world. I have done research and writing that is critical of journalists and journalism, but I’m aware that anthropological fieldwork is far from perfect, either. Instead of taking pot shots at a nuanced, in-depth view of the geo-political problems of indigenous peoples, we should celebrate the possibilities of collaborating with journalists as careful and sensitive as Kane.

  • ThunderBolt
    0:44 on June 23rd, 2013
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    This book should be listed as a book of poetry. Every word has been perfectly chosen. It reads like honey. Campbell captures what working and doing research in the Amazon is really like. He knows and understands the Amazon better than any person I know.

  • Sarah Callen
    2:36 on June 23rd, 2013
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    Joe Kane rings true. His clear intelligent writing style brings the world of the Huaorani alive. He lived and travelled with them and gained their respect. He brings alive their toughness, compassion, and respect for their environment. It is as close to a another people as the reader is likely to get.But Kane wanted to tell the larger story, the story of the economic and politcal forces arrayed against the Huaorani. At this task he fails. He didn’t fail in the facts or in bringing the story to its inevitable conclusion. He fails because he bores us. The first priority of art is entertainment. And his book became dull in long sections dealing with local and international politics and money. We know money corrupts and power wins in the end. Teach us something we don’t know- entertain us with more stories and insights into the Huaorani

  • RedSeed
    5:43 on June 23rd, 2013
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    I first read this book about two years ago and have since given copies as gifts to friends and have passed my own copy about to many colleagues. I work in the oil industry and I believe that this book is a MUST READ for all foreign workers in the Amazon region. My field of work involves protecting the interests of the local people and the health of the environment and I can assure the previous reviewer that while the oil companies have much to answer for historically that there is a small army of us working on the inside and who have found Savages to be one of the best books around. Joe Kane writes in journalistic style presenting events as they unfolded and he sheds light on several issues relating to foreign activity in developing countries that are seldom thought about by those who participate in the “invasion”. Mr Kane’s writing had me in fits of laughter at times and at other times I was in tears. By the end of the book I felt that I almost knew the people whose lives were discussed and I certainly closed the cover with a new understanding and questions that I had not asked myself before. Anyone contemplating a trip to the jungle of Ecuador, or other Amazonian nation, should make a point of reading this book. It is factual, interesting and tells a real life drama that describes the beginning of what will probably be the final days of the isolated people of the Amazon. It will be up to you as the reader to form an opinion on the situation as Kane doesn’t do it for you. He does however raise the interesting question that may not be answered easily – what rights do isolated people have to remain isolated and completely unaffected by the development of the world? Read Savages for yourself and see if you can answer that question.

  • FranSix
    7:20 on June 23rd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    June 18, 2002

    This is a well written book, but not an inclusive
    piece of research. The author writes of his
    experiences in South America with skill and passion,
    but a reader should come to the story with the full
    knowledge that he is reading the work of an interested
    observer and not that of an anthropologist, or
    sociologist, or even much of an activist.

    Still, I’d recommend this book to someone who wouldn’t
    normally be interested in the subject matter. It’s a

    pleasurable and moving read. Author Joe Kane seems
    more interested in the people he met during his travels
    than in cleansing or condemning his various subjects.
    Persons truly interested in the puzzle that is big oil,
    bad politics and embattled natives in South America,
    however, will probably finish `Savages’ with as many
    questions as answers.

  • Ed Carroll
    9:29 on June 23rd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    If you enjoy armchair traveling, like superb writing and a good story – this is the book. Mr. Campbell’s intimacy with this part of the world, it’s history and the story of the people who live there, is beautifully told. A pleasure from start to finish.

  • Laine Ardrey
    14:35 on June 23rd, 2013
    Reply to comment

    This well-researched book shines because of the author’scourage in much on site time with first hand experience andobservation under conditions most of us would not risk. All in orderto present the outside problems being presented to an ancient,indigenous people, the Huaorani Indians of Ecuador who live in aremote region of the rainforest being exploited by various oilcompanies that have little regard for the cultural effects on thepeoples occupying for many eons this area. Additionally, the effectson the animal life, the numerous polluting activities and the bringingin of many settlers to abuse and exploit this beautiful land all forthe sake of a few more days of oil production in the world makes onequestion the ability of the human species to conduct themselves in amoral fashion. And, of course, it was interesting hearing more aboutthe activities of Ali Sharif, a world’s expert in permaculture, oftenmentioned in this book. Similar to The Beak of a Finch, this book isa must read for those interested in the environment, social justicecauses, anthropology, and other fields, including just general funreading about something outside of one’s usual frame of reference. Somany people are giving of themselves to become one more shining lightout there giving energy and hope to others that I am touched by theirsacrifices for this planetary home of ours.

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