From the Amazon to North Decatur Road

by Hugh McGlade 17C
Humanities Honors Fellow

Photo credits: Hugh McGlade

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We stayed at a floating hotel, a six-room structure surrounded by flooded Amazonian rainforest. When boats went by, the building bobbed with the wake. Urbanity—and for that matter, any landscape I had ever known—seemed very distant. The closest city was two hours by boat. Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, was a plane ride away.

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It was May of 2016, and I was on a research trip to Brazil. I had spent the past week in government archives in Rio de Janeiro, thumbing through documents for my thesis. I was scheduled to spend another week doing the same. The foray into the rainforest was a touristy get-away—a three day adventure to a part of Brazil that I knew nothing about.

In my first hours in the Amazon, I was a spectator in awe of the vastness of the sky, the colors of the birds, the density of the jungle, the noises of the monkeys. But I quickly normalized those things. They remained amazing, but not all consuming. Increasingly, people drew my attention. The politics of community policing against poaching; the agriculture practices of harvesting acai; the economic impact of eco-tourism. I got only small glimpses into those topics, through conversations and observations. But they stuck with me, and I kept thinking to myself, “Someone needs to write a history of this place.”

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Soon I returned to Rio and headed to the archives. As I read about my research topic (a U.S.-Brazilian hunger alleviation program in the 1940s), I paid more attention to the regular mentions of the Amazon. In fact, I realized that I had been privileging documents about the urban initiatives of the program, merely because I felt comfortable with references to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The Amazon, and its food, its soil, its landscape, was now real to me, and it changed the way I imagined history.

But it was not until I came to the Fox Center this spring that I gave serious attention to exploring the connections between our material realities and our humanistic inquiries. In a practical yet critical sense, I have a desk, bookshelves, and a quiet environment, the combination of which has allowed me to think, read, and write in a more attentive way than ever before. And in an intellectual sense, the community has pushed me to think about how the humanities—in their many disciplines and topics—relate to one another and to the world. For this reason, the weekly lunches and off-hand conversations have been not a distraction from research but rather a catalyst for it. I have been inspired by how people think, and by how ostensibly unrelated topics related to my work. Now all I need to do is get back to the Amazon as a researcher and not a tourist.

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