Queen's University

The "hopeful" romantic

The Riverbones, the first book by Andrew Westoll, Artsci'00 is a provocative account of his travels in Suriname. Writing the book was an eye-opener for Andrew, and he hopes that reading it will serve as an environmental wake-up call for the rest of us.

Adventurer, scientist, and award-winning environmental journalist Andrew Westoll didn't exactly know what he was looking for in the fall of 2005, when he traveled to the tiny, little-known South American country of Suriname. After all, he was retracing some of the same steps in a journey he'd taken five years earlier, when he first visited the former Dutch colony.

Adventurer, scientist, and award-winning environmental journalist Andrew Westoll didn't exactly know what he was looking for in the fall of 2005, when he traveled to the tiny, little-known South American country of Suriname. After all, he was retracing some of the same steps in a journey he'd taken five years earlier, when he first visited the former Dutch colony.

In 2000, Andrew was 23 and fresh out of Queen's. As a Biology major, he fancied he might pursue a career as a primatologist. With that in mind, he took a “leap of faith”, signing on for a year in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve. He spent the next 12 months working in the reserve, which occupies a corner of the Amazon rainforest that's the largest tract of unspoiled rainforest left on earth.

“There were six of us working on the project,” recalls Andrew. “We lived in an isolated outpost called Ralieghvallen, and we spent 12 hours a day, seven days a week, observing and recording data about a species of the capuchin monkeys that live there.”

The work was exhausting and demanding. At times it was also dangerous – the steamy rainforest is home to jaguars, voracious insects, herds of wild boars, and some of the world's deadliest snakes. By the end of the year, Andrew felt like a character of out Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. Worn out, physically and emotionally, he was eager to get home to Toronto.

Even following an old prospector's trail
through the rainforest isn't easy going for
Andrew (right) and his local guide.

Idealism alone doesn't get you anywhere. Even if
you believe anything is possible, you still have to keep reality in mind.

He did so having abandoned his dream of being a scientist. However, he took something new away with him: a fascination with Suriname. “The country stayed with me. I was hooked on it,” he says.

Andrew began reading everything he could find about the country and wasn't shy about sharing his newfound knowledge with family and friends. Not surprisingly, they were decidedly less enthusiastic than he was about a place few of them had heard of, much less wanted to visit.

Undeterred, Andrew continued his reading. The more he learned, the more his enthusiasm bubbled. Deciding to write about his Suriname experiences seemed to be a logical step for him.

After all, during his student days at Queen's, when he wasn't playing soccer for the men's varsity squad, he dabbled in creative writing. Andrew contributed articles to the student publication Ultra Violet, and he enrolled in one of Prof. Carolyn Smart's creative writing classes. Smart, who has served as a mentor and friend to hundreds of aspiring writers over the 25 years she has been teaching at Queen's, saw something special in Andrew's prose efforts. “She was the first person to encourage me in my writing,” he recalls. “In that sense, it all began for me at Queen's.” (Please see p. 14 of Issue #2-2009 of the print edition of the Alumni Review for more details).

Leaving behind his zoology days, upon his return from Suriname, Andrew enrolled in the Masters of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at UBC. The first thing he wrote there was a piece about his experiences in South America. The article confirmed Carolyn Smart's assessment that there indeed was something special about Andrew's prose; judges in an Event magazine writing competition chose his entry as co-winner in the Creative Non-Fiction category. With that success on his resume, “the dice were now cast,” as Andrew recalls. He decided to try his hand at writing for a living.

After crafting a novel – “A bad one,” he allows – that went unpublished, his imagination once again drifted southward to Suriname.

In 2005, Andrew found the opportunity he was looking and returned to the country. He landed a contract with an environmental non-governmental organization, Conservation International, to write some eco-travel brochures. Jettisoning his life in Toronto, he cleaned out his apartment and bid adieu to his girlfriend, who wondered aloud about what he was doing, branding him a “hopeless romantic.” That label is one he understands, but doesn't quite accept.

Says Andrew, “I prefer to think of myself not as a hopeless romantic, but rather as a very hopeful one. I realize that idealism alone won't get you anywhere. Even if you believe anything is possible, you still have to keep reality in mind.”

He also regards writing as one of the tools he has at hand – and an important one – with which to advance his goals. “Writing isn't some divine calling,” he says.

It is, he adds, a career choice that one makes. For that reason, he's fond of quoting a line from an interview with writer Jane Smiley that he once read. Smiley pointed out, “No one asked you to write.” Words for any would-be scribe to live by, those.

Andrew carried them inside his head during his second sojourn to Suriname, a six-month visit that began in late 2005. This time he had the opportunity to travel the country, to meet and interact with the locals, and to educate himself on the country's murky political situation. And what good travel story doesn't have at its heart a quest of some sort? Andrew went in search of the okopipi, an endangered, tiny blue frog that the tribes of the Amazon rainforest worship as a sacred creature and value for its pharmaceutical properties.

[photo of old van]Getting around in the interior of Suriname can be
problematic, as Andrew found out when this battered
old van broke down.

Andrew's account of his experiences in Suriname is both compelling and intriguing. That's especially true of his discovery of the ravages of industrial and mining developments – some of them driven by Canadian corporations – that are threatening to despoil Suriname's once pristine rainforest.

Going in, as mentioned above, Andrew's ambitions could only be described as vague. Short term, at least, they were also relatively modest: He planned to write a magazine article, and so he did when he returned home to Toronto in mid-2006. “Somewhere Up a Jungle River”, a piece he did for Explore, captured a gold medal at the 2007 National Magazine Awards. Crafting that article also served to fire his ambition to write at greater length about Suriname.

Swirling around inside Andrew's head were visions of a book. He spent the next 18 months tapping away at his laptop as he sat in coffee shops or in a work space at the Toronto Writers' Centre. Andrew did so with a couple of elusive goals in mind. One was to write “a page-turner.” The other, he says, “was to figure out some things about Suriname and about myself.”

[photo of the denuded branches of a drowned rainforest]The denuded branches of a drowned rainforest –
the Riverbones of the title of Andrew's book – are
a melancholy sight as they rise above the waters
of a man-made lake.

He succeeded on both counts. The 365-page book that he produced, The Riverbones: Stumbling After Eden in the Jungles of Suriname (McClelland & Stewart, $24.99) has won praise from critics and readers alike and had convinced Andrew that he indeed has what it takes to make his living as a writer.

By the way, the book's enigmatic title refers to the remains of a tree canopy, which is all that remains after an area of the Amazon rainforest that was flooded in the name of “progress.” Andrew saw the denuded upper limbs that claw at the sky as a powerful symbol of loss and of ecological disaster. The drowned trees stand as testament to the dangers of unbridled industrial development in this now imperiled corner of the Amazon rainforest.

Globe and Mail reviewer Charles Wilkins has lauded The Riverbones as “a freewheeling and vividly written essay on the mysteries and longings of what it is to be human in a world of cynicism and loss – and more significantly, what it is to be hopeful, to persevere, in the search for redemption and beauty.”

Meanwhile, a reviewer for The Irish Times praised The Riverbones as “Beautifully written.... for every answer [it] provides, it raises a clutch of questions – oddly in keeping with Suriname itself.”

While garnering such reviews has been gratifying, Andrew says there was another one that he finds even more memorable. What true “romantic” wouldn't? As he explained in an interview posted on the Open Book Toronto web site, hands down, it's the one by “the 80-year woman who told my mother … that she had fallen in love with her son–me – by page two.”

In recent years, as the world's attention has been focused on events in the Middle East, a revolution has quietly taking place in South and Central America.

The Riverbones is now available in the U.K, and it will soon be translated into Dutch and published in the Netherlands. “I'm hopeful the book will alert people to what the situation there is in the country's former colony,” Andrew says.

[front cover of The Riverbones book]“I'm also still hopeful that things will turn out well in Suriname. Some people feel there's a lot of money to be made exploiting Suriname's natural resources, and that money could be made in a good way or in a bad way. There are some encouraging signs. For one thing, the Maroons, who are the indigenous people of Suriname, are now a lot more aware of their rights, and they're starting to assert them.”

Andrew is similarly optimistic about another South American country that has captured his imagination of late: Bolivia. He's hard at work researching and writing a book about that Andean nation. In particular, he's focusing on how the mining industry is affecting life for people there. If you're interested, you can read an excerpt. It's the cover story in the first-ever international edition of Utne Reader (May-June 2009).

“This is an incredibly exciting time throughout Latin America,” says Andrew. “In recent years, as the world's attention has been focused on events in the Middle East, a revolution has quietly taking place in South and Central America. A leftist wave has washed over the region, and there are some incredibly exciting things happening, in Bolivia especially.”

What's happened is that leftist politician Juan Evo Morales Ayma – who's popularly known as Evo – was elected President in 2006. He's the country's first fully indigenous head of state in the 470 years since the Spanish Conquest.

[frog photo]Says Andrew, “There's an important story there to be told, and I'm excited about telling it.”

Somehow, you'd expect noting else from a “hopeful romantic.”

Visit Andrew's official home page at http://www.andrewwestoll.com

 

 
 

Suriname in a nutshell

[map of South America]

Where is it?

Northern South America, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between French Guiana and Guyana.
How big is it?
163,270 sq km (about three times as large as the province of Nova Scotia), 90 per cent of the land is covered by tropical rainforest.
What's the population? 481,000
What lanuages are spoken?
Dutch (official), English (widely spoken), Sranang Tongo (Surinamese, a.k.a. Taki-Tak, the native language of Creoles and much of the younger population and is lingua franca among others), and Caribbean Hindustani.
What's the capital?  Paramaribo
What's its history?
Explored by the Spaniards in the 16th century, settled by the English in the mid-17th century, Suriname became a Dutch colony in 1667. With the abolition of slavery in 1863, workers were brought in from India and Java.
Suriname won independence from the Netherlands in 1975. Five years later the civilian government was replaced by a military regime that soon declared a socialist republic.
It continued to exert control through a succession of nominally civilian administrations until 1987, when international pressure finally forced a democratic election. In 1990, the military overthrew the civilian leadership, but a democratically elected government - a four-party New Front coalition - returned to power in 1991 and has ruled since; the coalition expanded to eight parties in 2005.
What's its climate? Tropical, moderated by trade winds
What's its economy based on?
Dominated by the ­mining industry, with exports of alumina, gold, and oil ­accounting for about 85 per cent of exports and 25 per cent of government revenues. This makes the economy highly ­vulnerable to mineral price volatility.

 

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2009-05-30
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