If you have not yet read this book, obviously I haven’t beaten you over the head with it hard enough. Author and journalist Douglas Preston talks his way into an expedition to Honduras to find a fabled lost city, and finds a lot more than he bargained for. Some excerpts from my LARB review:
Fifteen years after his first failed overland expedition to find the White City, Elkins read about the use of lidar by archaeologists, a new technology that uses lasers the way sonar uses sound waves. Elkins, with the help of documentary filmmaker Bill Benenson, arranges for an airborne lidar survey of the least-visited corner of the Mosquitia jungle. The instrument, stabilized by a kind of top secret electronic gyroscope borrowed from the US military, pings lasers at the spaces between leaves to reflect back the features of the ground beneath them. The rain forest has a lot of leaves, but the lidar confounds even that dense canopy and discovers the Lost City (and maybe two lost cities) just three days into the mapping process.
I could see Sartori’s spiral-bound notebook lying open next to the laptop. In keeping with the methodical scientist he was, he had been jotting daily notes on his work. But underneath the entry for May 5, he had written two words only:
T1 (the expedition’s name for the location of their discovery, still a closely held secret for fear of looting) hosts an ecosystem that will try its best to kill you six different ways in the first 60 seconds after you step down from the helo, but that first step is like taking a time machine back to the Cretaceous Period.
All of it is now under threat from Honduran ranchers clear-cutting the forest to create new grazing land for their livestock. From the air Preston sees:
vast areas of the mountainsides had been cleared, even on slopes of forty to fifty degrees […] I could see that the clearing was not for timbering; it appeared that few if any trees had been taken out, and were left lying on the ground to dry out and be burned, as evidenced by the plumes of smoke rising everywhere. The ultimate goal, I could see, was to turn the land into grazing for cattle — which dotted even the steepest hillsides.
What has priority here? The old-growth forest hosting a uniquely untouched ecosystem teeming with jaguars and spider monkeys? The livelihoods and futures of the people living in the area now? Or the excavation, exploration, and documentation of Honduran history and culture going back half a millennia? The fer-de-lance, the steer, or the historian?
Read my review in full here.
And do your reading self a favor and order the book here. It’s my favorite book this year so far. Come on. Who doesn’t love a treasure hunt?
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.