The Final Journals of Dr. Peter Lurneman (Journal I)
By Luke Neima
After several months of debate we have decided to publish the succeeding text, a reproduction of the final field journals of Dr. Peter Lurneman, ScD, former Professor of Investigative Plant Ecology, PhD, HonDSc (Oxon) FRS, in the hopes of laying to rest the controversy surrounding his discovery of the Hemiavi Pseudoschiopsis in the Chaco Boreal. Despite occasionally touching on matters personal rather than scientific, these journals deserve a place in the annals of science.
Dr. Lurneman read Natural Sciences at Oxford from 1974. His first research and his PhD were in dendrology, and he is best known for his work on fractal disseverance in the Quercus Copeyensis. After retiring in 2006, Lurneman undertook a series of private expeditions that developed cryptobotanical hypotheses; the papers that followed are more sociological than his earlier work and address a variety of topics, including the cow-eating trees of Padrame, the Austras Koks and the vegetable lambs of Tartary. He is well known in the horticultural community for his attempts to correlate mythological accounts of flora in indigenous literatures with findings in the field, and for his occasionally elastic interpretation of professional ethics while on expedition.
Early in the following text Lurneman describes an unidentified bite — potentially a new species of Phasmatodea — that may have impaired the lucidity of his later observations. These latter entries are nonetheless included for their potential interest to scholars of entomology.
The alarbo likely does not exist, but what legend, however disfigured by time and telling, does not have a grain of truth to it? For the Ayoreo people the alarbo is the tree of origin, a tree that speaks, the tree of tongues. An organic, self-contained tower of Babel.
J. Wilbert correlates it with the abrexlá, a cousin of the bottle tree, or perhaps the quebracho blanco. According to Izoceño Guaraní legend, the quebracho blanco was the world tree that bridged the realms of earth and sky. Men would climb it, crossing from earth to sky, and return with honey and fruit, but women and children were not permitted to climb. A jealous wife, fearful of what her husband might be getting up to in the realms of the sky, burnt it down while the men slept.
I am now several hours SW of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, well into the Kaa-Iya of the Gran Chaco National Park. I was dropped off on the Ruta Nacional, close to the Laguna Concepción, at around nine this morning, and thereafter made good progress into the wooded regions. As hoped, by making my way down from the highway I was able to avoid contact with the National Park Rangers.
When the Natural History Museum informed me that they had suspended their expedition out of concern for the remaining indigenous peoples, I knew that I would still be coming. Though it may be hard to justify my presence here, it would be worse, I believe, to yield to political pressure when given the possibility of expanding the boundaries of science. Each small step into the naked bush, recorded, observed and mapped, elongates the platform of scientific knowledge, contributing to a chassis from which the great minds of tomorrow will be able to peer, if only abstractly, far beyond the present limits of human perception.
I broke camp at first light, ate a substantial amount of porridge, oiled my machete, covered myself in insect repellent and then proceeded south all day. From the dampness still present in the ground it is clear that there has recently been heavy rainfall, but my jungle boots have proved exceptionally resilient.
Along my way I discovered a few peculiar bulbs, and took a libidinous delight in plucking them out of the ground and pushing them into my pockets. It gave me a flush of pleasure to be bent down over the dirt, coaxing them out. Have I been away from the field for too long?
Finding, at around four, a suitable area to spend the night, I strung up my hammock, fly-sheet and mosquito netting between two lapacho trees. In the last of the light I reread Metraux’s account of the Chiquitano creation myth:
'The sky and the earth used to be in opposite places. The sky told the earth, “Why don't we trade places? All these people leave their dung on me, and I can't stand the smell.” The earth said “Okay, let's change.” Since then the earth has been below, the sky above.’
There is something about the legend that resonates with me. I took immense comfort in the thought of it, and found myself smiling all through supper – dehydrated curry and rice heated over my paraffin camp stove. Despite the brightness of the moon I fell asleep quickly, lulled by the rustling trees and the remnants of the day’s heat curling up from the ground.
Being alone here in the Chaco makes me feel whole in a way that I have not for a long time. The sun at its zenith spalls fauna in preparation for the ordering of my mind; at dusk night covers the world over again, teasing me towards tomorrow.
Taking my porridge this morning I ran the scents of the Sahara through the fingers of my mind, and it feels like only yesterday that I was waking there. Each expedition seems to begin exactly where the former left off, bracketing out all that has passed in the intervening years.
The same thing occurs when I enter a hotel, or an airport. As I pass through the rotating doors I also move through a portal in my mind, brushing away quotidian thought to reveal a well-known room just off the main chamber of my consciousness. The space within it carries its own peculiar chain of associations — habits, memories, frustrations and expectations that form an intricate network of experience entirely unconnected to my day-to-day life.
I gathered many specimens today. A species of mimosa castanoclada, or a variety of the species. Long, pink filaments infloresce around a small white sphere, with flecks of white at each stamen. A jatropha excisa sp, not yet in flower. Also several thorny quiabentia pflanzii sp. The variety of fauna in the area is remarkable. It puts me in the mind of Henry Walter Bates, who collected thousands of new species of butterfly during his hourly walks around his residence in Brazil. Near dusk I began to observe bulnesia sarmientii, which are found only in the most arid portions of the Chaco. Fortunately I have enough water to last me several days.
Someone was walking around the encampment last night. I woke around midnight, hearing noise. At first I thought it was a monkey or puma, but upon sitting up I saw a human figure silhouetted against my mosquito netting. I was alarmed, possessing nothing with which to defend myself, and remained motionless until the figure receded. After some time I heard footsteps leading away from the encampment.
Nothing was missing this morning, but I remarked several indications of a foreign presence. A frightening experience, and one that makes me doubt the wisdom of venturing out alone. The fact that my presence may have been noticed is distressing – if the park authorities are alerted they will no doubt send a party after me. I must make my way farther inland.
The true folly of a solitary expedition lies in the wasted opportunities for specialists in other fields. I should have brought along an entomologist. The insect that bit me seemed to be a species of stick insect. At first I thought it was a thorn, but when I motioned to remove it two long wings unfolded from the carapace and the creature took flight, precluding further examination.
It bit deep into my lower calf, where there is now some swelling and discoloration. I doubt it was venomous, and I am in any case too far abroad to make turning back to Santa Cruz viable. Experienced a slight bout of dizziness, but I think this may be due to omitting lunch. If I feel any worse I will use the sat phone to call for help.
The bite has swelled slightly, but otherwise there are no adverse effects. I went for a small hike, but decided it was safer to stay close to last night’s camp. Collected a gnaphalium sp., musk scented, a delicate, diminutive plant. Also an anacyclus sp., leaves bipinnate and linear, scape elongated, with one flower. Near the campsite I foraged some fruit from a bromelia, which I recognized from Chiquitano legend.
I allowed myself the afternoon to rest and read. I can’t help but admire Metraux’s concision, his restraint in retelling the native stories:
‘Tawkxwax found an old mortar. He said to it, “Where are your owners?” The mortar ignored him, and started to sound “Tom tom tom.” The mortar was split in two. Tawkxwax sat on it and his testicles slipped into the rent. The mortar shut and pinched them. Tawkxwax couldn't walk, and he asked himself, “What am I going to do? If I had an axe here I could break the mortar.” An axe fell from the sky and landed beside him. Tawkxwax split the mortar. In the place of his lost testicles he put the fruit of the caraguatá, or bromelia.’
That Metraux can remain so dispassionate, regardless of the content, inspires me. A consummate professional.
This evening observed the bite – it has swelled into two overlapping triangles. The shape reminds me of something. Appears jaundiced. A sloth moved slow and lonely into my line of vision as I examined the inflammation: Each line approx. 3.4 inches length, 0.4 width, 1.2 height. I am of course worried. I feel fine, but the swelling should have gone down by now. I am taking anti-histamines, but I regret not bringing antibiotics.
I have not come across a source of water for the past few days, and if I do not find one by tomorrow I will have to seriously consider turning back to Santa Cruz. In the meantime I have been supplementing my supplies with the iletsáx which, although not plentiful, does contain some water.
Returning to Santa Cruz is a serious risk. If someone were to realise that I’ve been travelling through the Kaa-Iya without a permit — and between the state of my clothes and the contents of my rucksack that would not be difficult — I would likely be ejected from the country. Perhaps I could attempt to reenter the Chaco from Paraguay, later in the year. But I doubt that I would have any more luck finding funding now than I did during my attempts to organize the present expedition. It might be years before I could return.
Today I walked southeast for twelve hours without stopping. I woke up and felt compelled to move, so I forced down several bowls of porridge, packed my kit and was away within half an hour of dawn. I moved without thinking, making my way through savannah after savannah of the tall grass, some of which grows taller than a man upon another man’s shoulders.
I sometimes feel that the whole of my life has been a slow process of withdrawal from society. From my boyhood I felt myself apart from the games of my peers, slightly displaced, and as I grew the feeling only intensified. The other boys would keep away from me, and I, in turn, would keep away from them. I luxuriated in solitary pursuits, in thought, reading and abstraction.
I left for university believing that I would find my place in the world, a realm where everyone lived solely within the bounds of their own mind, developing lines of thought that, while founded on theories, concepts and research from the outside world, took on a life of their own within each scholar’s interior. I was wrong. The pettiness of scholarly completion, the incessant games of inclusion and exclusion, only drove me farther into myself.
In those days the outside world grew hazy. I would find myself sitting in the library, or lying in my bed, without any awareness of the motions that took me from one place to another. I lived entirely in my head, spending whole days accumulating and organising information, collating and weaving separate pieces together, attempting to create new wholes.
Occasionally, I would emerge from my thoughts and find myself lost in the middle of a road. My mind would recoil, and I would stare blankly at the names of shops and the shapes of buildings and have no idea what to do next. Gradually, the need to act would realise itself, and I would accost some poor passer-by for directions; they would look upon me with polite bemusement and direct me to my destination, invariably only a stone’s throw away. Upon arrival a patina of familiarity would smother everything, and I would descend again into my reflections.
I had to grapple with myself for long hours before I could express my ideas in the words of academia. I hated the formality of scientific language, the gaps in its vocabulary, the missing resonances that were only too apparent in my own mind.
If it wasn’t for the tireless efforts of my wife, I don’t believe I would have gone on publishing. I can still see her, shaking her head and pulling the metal clip of her fountain pen back with her teeth, working her way through my journals, struggling to pull my words into shape. So concrete, so capable.
Sometime after midday the terrain began its transition from savannah into thorn forest. The larger thorns can grow over four feet in length, and though I continued my progress inland I was considerably slowed. An hour before dusk I made out a string of mistral trees in the distance, which are unusual for the terrain. As I suspected, their presence indicated water. I’ve set up camp in a copse, close to a stream.
Despite the length of my march I feel remarkably clear-headed. My legs ache, and I know that they will be worse tomorrow, but if ever I were to find the alarbo it would be here, deep in a territory that is rarely explored even by the local people. I feel like a moment in history, suddenly suggesting itself to a place hitherto free of the landmarks of time.
My entire body aches. I lie in my hammock between two stout algarrobo at the south end of a semi-circle of mistrals, where the contained green of the leaves is of an intensity I have never before experienced. A sensation of deep repose dapples the ground within the grove, which is free of thorny shrubs, almost as if the location had been cleared in anticipation of my arrival. Louder noises occasionally pierce the sustained muttering of insects and birds: the howl of a monkey, low but vibrant with urgency; the grinding of the agouti, cracking into its supper.
On my first expedition, in Amazonia, I mistakenly set up my hammock between two triplaris gardneriana, and in the middle of the night I was attacked by ants. My guides burst into laughter as I rolled along the forest floor, attempting to remove the heads affixed to my body at the mandible. They told me that I had chosen to sleep in the novice’s tree, and almost wept with the pleasure they took at our reversed circumstances — the rich white expert, rolling in pain at the feet of three local men.
It was then that I began my research into local accounts of flora and fauna. I realized that a wealth of scientific knowledge had been sequestered away in the catalogues of myth and legend. There was a story for every plant or animal, and, once I had internalized them, these tales lit up the landscape with significance.
As I gaze from my hammock into the grove, the mistrals seem to be glowing. In days gone by, the Guaraní say, these trees could walk. They could be driven along by people shouting or making a noise to frighten them. They would hop and fly like grasshoppers, until one day the raven decided to fasten them to the ground. And then the trees lost their power, which had once been so useful to men.