|He bends and
pulls up a small plant: culantro, good for flavoring food, good for stomachache.
Another plant is good for the bite of coral snakes; another, with a bitter,
quininey taste, is good for fever. Smooth, gray-white cuipo trees poke
up through the forest, narrow at ground level, swollen as though pregnant
at six or eight feet up, then pillarlike, spreading leaves 80 feet above.
Zarco points out balsa trees; chunga trees, whose wood is too heavy to
float but makes good clubs; black palm, spined savagely with two-inch needles.
Choco shamans, he says, cut lengths of it and brush their fingers over
the spines, making a kind of music, protected by their power from cuts
He points to
a thin palm. "Maquenque!'
He fells it
with two swats of his machete, swats off a two-foot length, then swats
this lengthwise and peels off an outer layer, all the while explaining.
When he first came to the Chagres River basin, he took occasional work
with a company that exported the sap of the nispero tree. This was near
the end of World War II; nispero made a decent rubber substitute. He was
off one time finding trees, setting and collecting sap buckets, and ran
out of food and could find no fruit or game. Hunger made him weak; he fell
asleep. He dreamed of his father, who advised him to find maquenque. Zarco
had forgotten it was edible. His father, in the dream, reminded him.
By this time
he has extracted a yellow-white tube, slick and moist, about three-quarters
of an inch thick. He bites a chunk and chews it, holds the rest out for
me. I nibble gingerly. Palmetto! I've had it in salads, a bit insipid undoctored,
but very good with oil and vinegar and salt.
and pats his stomach. "I find maquenque. New man after that."
he takes hold of a vine hanging between two trees beside the trail at chest
level. He chops out a three-foot length. Water begins to drip from it.
He lifts the vine and drinks, letting the water flow onto the back of his
tongue in the same fashion as one drinks from a wine sack. He passes it
to me. The water tastes a bit barky but is cool and refreshing.
We move along
a ridge. Zarco shows me a beehive in the boll of a dead tree, a four-foot-high
oval termite colony suspended from a branch. A partridge flushes with an
explosive rush, but otherwise we see no game, although sometimes we hear
an iguana rustling to one side of us.
to a rocky brook along whose banks great tree roots lie like serpents.
Our route is steep now, crossing and recrossing the brook; then Zarco steps
a few paces to the right and we emerge into a clearing, his father-in-law's
maize field, which clings raggedly to the hillside. The transition is abrupt:
one moment forest gloom, the next brilliant sunlight. Halfway across the
field, with no appreciable darkening, the sky opens to let down a torrent,
which the ground at once gives back in wraiths of steam.
the jungle on a broad trail. Zarco plucks an unappetizing green pod the
size of a pigeon egg and slices off the top with his machete. He mimes
sucking on it, then hands it to me. Inside is a sweet-tart jelly, lemony
quince. He warns me away from a low plant with round leaves. He cuts the
stem. Out flows a white sap. Zarco's hands scrub at his arms and chest:
super poison ivy. The peripatetic lesson continues until we reach his house.
Our five-mile circuit through the forest has given me some grasp of its
complexity, and much respect for Zarco's lore.
was his father. His school was the area along the Rio Chico in Darien province,
where he was born and grew up. A segment of the Choco nation, whose main
locus is south of the Atrato River in northern Colombia, moved into this
region about 300 years ago, after disease and other effects of the Spanish
conquest had depopulated it of its original inhabitants.
The Choco do
some slash-and-burn farming in yuca, plantain, and maize but are mainly
hunters and gatherers. In the early days they were warlike enough for both
the Spaniards and the Cuna Indians, who made a parallel migration onto
the Isthmus of Panama but stayed north of the cordillera on the Atlantic
coast. The rain forest of eastern Panama is one of the densest on earth.
Darien has a few river-mouth towns but is only now beginning to be developed.
The Choco, who are extremely resistant to the influence of alien cultures,
have maintained their traditional way of life, although it is doubtful
they can do so for much longer.
The Choco have
no tribal organization and are essentially nomadic. In order to furnish
them medical, educational, and other services - and, of course, to integrate
them into the state and open their region to economic development - the
Panamanian government is, of late, encouraging them to form permanent villages.
But normally they group in extended families of from one to three dozen
individuals living in thatch-roof huts set up on stilts a few hundred yards
apart over a wide area; when the area is farmed and hunted out, they move
on to another.
ranged the Rio Chico basin, where his father taught him to fashion the
dugout piragua (canoe), and to manage it on jungle rivers. He learned
to make and use the supple jirawood fishing lance, the bamboo javelin,
the cocobolo stabbing spear, the black palm bow, and three-pronged reed-shaft
arrows, which do not kill by penetration but whose barbed tips are smeared
with the poisonous skin secretions of a certain tree frog.
the habits of animals, to track and stalk. He learned which plants are
edible and which are poisonous, which are good for snake-bite - different
plants for different snake venoms, some brewed and taken internally, some
mashed and applied in poultice - and which are good for stomachache or
fever. He learned the tropical rain forest, the most complex ecosystem
on the planet, amassing a store of practical zoology and botany, what Claude
Levi-Strauss calls "the science of the concrete." Until he had acquired
this body of knowledge and mastered the technology of his culture, no man
would give him his daughter in marriage.
as a student; he married young. He had leadership qualities and acquired
followers. By age 25 he led an extended family of about 30. Needing more
room to support it, he moved northwest onto the headwaters of the Rio Chagres,
near what was then the Canal Zone in the watershed of the Panama Canal.
This region was closer to centers of advanced culture but still wild and
empty, a terrain of rugged hills and steep escarpments, of narrow ridges
and tangled, deep ravines. Here he lived mainly by hunting. He also began
to have contact with the world beyond the forest.
He met and
sometimes assisted employees of the Panama Canal Hydrographic Office, which
monitors river levels in the watershed. Now and then he guided hunting
and fishing parties. In 1952 he met a young student, H. Morgan Smith, who
was on the upper Chagres doing research for the anthropology department
of Florida State University. By then Zarco was fluent in Spanish. He furnished
Smith information on Choco culture, particularly the use of plants. It
was the start of a 30-year friendship.
later the U.S. Air Force established the Tropic Survival School in the
then Canal Zone. The idea was to teach airmen how to stay alive should
they be forced down in a jungle environment. Smith returned to Panama as
the school's founding director. He chose the upper Chagres as suitably
rugged ground for a field training area. Now chief of the Environmental
Information Division of the Air University Library at Maxwell Air Force
Base in Montgomery, Alabama, Smith tells of Zarco's gradual involvement
with the school.
intervals, Chief Antonio or some of his people would appear at the classes
and assist in one thing or another. When we had people lost, they helped
us find them. While Antonio was doing this, he was teaching us very good
lessons in how to deal with so-called primitives. He's the one who taught
us not to use the word primitive to describe human beings."
deepened. Zarco began showing up more or less regularly, passing his Choco
science on to Americans. He taught the students how to catch animals, how
to identify edible plants and tubers, how to get drinking water from roots
and vines, how to stain their bodies with the juice of the jagua berry
to keep off mosquitoes. He helped Smith make a training film on jungle
survival. He played "friendly aggressor" in escape and evasion exercises.
never going to see him," Smith would tell the students, "but if
he steals your hat, you owe him a dollar." Zarco ranged beside the
students, unheard, invisible, harassing them gently to keep them alert
but mainly watching over them. If one became injured or was snakebit, then
he'd bring him out.
he entered into a formal agreement with the air force. He taught students
during the field phase of survival training and established a parallel
program of cross-cultural communication to prepare them to deal with indigenous
peoples. Lack of a common language was, oddly, a benefit. He taught by
gesture, the same means of communication a downed flier would likely be
constrained to use. For me, he recalled the procedure he followed with
his students after they were brought in by helicopter and left on their
find them in the jungle and show them how to get food. The next day I would
bring them to my house."
unused now except for occasional visits, is on a bluff above the river.
Its almond-wood pilings and thatch roof are still sound. There is a mandarin
orange tree beside it, a lime tree and a cashew tree farther down. Below,
a fine sand-spit beach pushes out into the river, and just upstream of
it a set of rips.
show them things about the Choco people and our ways. We would eat together."
were documented in a second film, which is still being used by the military
and some universities. Between 1962 and 1975, when the Tropic Survival
School closed, more than 11,000 students came under Zarco's tutelage: officers
and men of the U.S. Air Force, of other U.S. services, of the armed forces
of allied countries; ambassadors, embassy staff, civilian scientists. Starting
in the early 1960s, astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space-station
programs were trained at the school. Later on in the decade, many of Zarco's
students found practical application for his lessons in the jungles of
Southeast Asia. His lore and his unique gifts as a teacher saved many lives.
His good cheer and self-command won him the respect and friendship of exceptional
men, including Senator John Glenn, Eastern Airlines president Frank Borman,
and moon walker Charles "Pete" Conrad. With the escalation of the Vietnam
War in the mid-1960s, the magnitude of activity at the survival school
dictated that its field training area be located closer to the Canal Zone.
Zarco moved with it. His first wife died nine years ago, and he has since
remarried and started a new family. Since the closure of the school five
years ago he has gone back to living off the land, although he does some
work for the Hydrographic Office.
visits Zarco showed me how to make and use Choco weapons. He showed me
how to build a jungle shelter, cutting five-foot lengths of palm sapling,
setting two pairs in the ground in inverted V's, lashing on a crossbar
with thin vine, thatching this frame with palm frond. It took him about
as long as it takes me to change a tire. The shelter was large enough for
one person and quite dry, even in heavy rain.
He showed me
a plant root the Choco use for toothache. Three minutes chewing on it deadened
one side of my mouth almost as effectively as Novocain. According to Zarco,
the root is therapeutic as well as anesthetic: the abscessed tooth falls
out after a few days, no pulling required. He cured a molar of his own
in this fashion.
of Choco medicine was attested to me by Hydrographic Office director Frank
Robinson. Twenty years ago a Choco saved Robinson’s life with native remedies
after he was bitten by a fer-de-lance.
don't know what he gave me or how it worked. I was delirious for two days.
But when I got back to the Canal Zone, the doctors at Gorgas Hospital admitted
there were things they could learn from the Indians."
though, is facing extinction. I talked with Zarco about this on the evening
of my last visit.
wakes up at sundown: bird calls, the buzz-saw whine of locustlike cocorrones,
now and then a monkey's phlegmy bark. A squadron of parrots flew in from
the northeast, seven flights of two, and settled in a glade across a cove
of the lagoon, adding their treble squawks to the frogs' bass grumbles.
Before setting off for Gamboa, I asked Zarco about the culture of his people.
For the first time he grew grave.
well-organized Cunas, who can bring political pressure to bear on the Panamanian
government and who, some decades ago, obtained a large grant of land as
their reservation, the Choco are entirely defenseless against what we call
progress. The erection three years ago of a dam on the Bayano River in
western Darien forced hundreds to relocate. The construction, now in progress,
of the last link in the Pan-American Highway through Darien will dispossess
many more as the province is opened to economic development.
too, is bleak. The government, concerned about erosion and the silting
of rivers, has forbidden slash-and-burn farming in the jungle and has established
a corps of forest rangers to enforce the ban. Increasingly, besides, well-outfitted
parties of sportsmen, using four-wheel-drive vehicles, are hunting in Choco
regions, competing at an advantage with the Indians.
we live?" asks Zarco.
answer is for the Choco to locate in large settlements where they can receive
formal schooling and learn modern methods of farming - in brief, where
they can become integrated into modern civilization and its economy. That
way they will live, but quite differently from the way they have lived
this. He plans to go to Darien soon to conference with elders in the settlements.
But finding an alternative will require tribal organization and concerted
action, while Choco individualism - an integral aspect of the way of life
Zarco hopes to protect - militates against such action. The likelihood
is that Choco culture will perish.
This, of course,
is the world's way and has always been. Cultures, peoples, species prevail
or perish. Physical features themselves are not immune. The rain forest
is probably doomed to extinction. Already large tracts of jungle have disappeared
and are disappearing in Africa, in Asia, in South America, under the pressure
of settlement and cultivation. In the past, continents have shifted. Mountain
ranges have crumbled. So have civilizations. Our own will go soon enough.
There is no point being mushy-minded about the process.
Irony is inevitable,
however. For 20 years Chief Zarco gave unstintingly of his knowledge and
love to representatives of the culture that is destroying everything he
knows and cares about. That knowledge, built up by painful trial and error
over the course of millennia, will likely be lost in one or two generations.
Yet there are possible scenarios - the Pentagon conjures them daily - in
which Choco science of the concrete would be infinitely more valuable to
those who survived nuking than anything our own science has revealed.
Grief is, perhaps,
permissible as well. I felt it that evening with Zarco. It is possible
to mourn before the event. The world goes its way, and clever men move
with the current; yet I could not help regretting that his culture, so
lately recognized by our own, will surely vanish soon, along with the free
life in the forest, at harmony with one's natural surroundings. I shouldn't
care to live it myself, but I mourned its passing, there at the edge of
the jungle, by the frog-loud reeds, the parrot-raucous glade.
The most memorable
part of my visit with Tony Zarco didn’t make it into the article. I came
to write the piece because Bob Schnayerson, editor of QUEST, had been to
the Explorer’s Club in New York to hear Tony lecture with Morgan Smith
as interpreter. Bob called me in Panama, where I’ve lived since the late
1950s, and I arranged through Frank Robinson to visit Tony. On the afternoon
of my fourth day we were sitting on a fallen tree in a warm deluge. I’d
asked all the jungle questions I could think of, and said, “Tell me about
New York, Tony. I was born there. What do you think of it? What impressed
I think I recall
his answer word for word. “Morgan and I went into a little room, and
the door shut. When it opened again, we were somewhere else.”
all the anthropology I’ve read says as much as that comment about how far
technological society is from traditional society, and how estranged we
are from nature.
I used to mess
in U.S. politics, and in 1982 I found myself having breakfast in Philadelphia
with John Glenn and some other politicians. I told Glenn, “We have a
mutual friend, Tony Zarco.” For the next twenty minutes we listened
to Zarco stories.
me that a man who didn’t understand elevators could make a lasting impression
on a man who had traveled in space.