A river of sor­rows

Across the Ama­zons, a live screen­play read­ing

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

Though she had never spent a sin­gle night out­doors, in 1769 Euro­pean aris­to­crat Is­abel Godin des Odon­ais set off from her home in colo­nial Peru (now Ecuador) on an epic 42-per­son ex­pe­di­tion through 3,000 miles of rain­for­est to reach the mouth of the Ama­zon River. Her goal: To find her hus­band, who had spent 20 years in po­lit­i­cal exile in French Guiana, fruit­lessly beg­ging colo­nial au­thor­i­ties to al­low him to re­turn to his wife and fam­ily.

Eight months later, Godin ar­rived alone in French Guiana, deliri­ous and starv­ing, and she even­tu­ally re­united with her long-lost hus­band. But “bit­ter­sweet” barely suf­fices to de­scribe their re­union: Along the way, ev­ery mem­ber of the ex­pe­di­tion crew, in­clud­ing mem­bers of Godin’s fam­ily, died from in­fec­tions, in­sect bites, and drown­ings. Her story is the sub­ject of Across the Ama­zons, a new screen­play by Santa Fe ecol­o­gist and author Laura Marsh, who has her­self spent decades ex­plor­ing the Ama­zon to dis­cover new species of pri­mates. Marsh will lead a live screen­play read­ing of Across

the Ama­zons at 6:30 p.m. on Tues­day, Oct. 18, at the Jean Cocteau Cin­ema. “I first heard the story [in the early 2000s] in Belize,” Marsh told Pasatiempo. “A friend of mine there was read­ing a book called

Search­ing for Is­abel Godin. I’m a trop­i­cal rain­for­est ecol­o­gist, but I’ve al­ways been a fic­tion writer, too. I know what it’s like to go out on jun­gle ex­pe­di­tions with guys car­ry­ing ma­chetes. I know that the eas­i­est way to get lost in a rain­for­est is to turn around. Be­cause of the in­cred­i­ble di­ver­sity of plants, you will lose your way.”

Marsh is the di­rec­tor and co-founder of the Global Con­ser­va­tion In­sti­tute, a Santa Fe-based research agency that ex­am­ines the con­nec­tions be­tween wildlife and hu­man health. But her work as a sci­en­tist has also long been tied to film. She has trained stunt an­i­mals for movies and runs a con­sult­ing busi­ness, The Hol­ly­wood Ecol­o­gist, for di­rec­tors, pro­duc­ers, and screen­writ­ers who seek ac­cu­rate por­tray­als of scenes in­volv­ing sci­ence. She is cur­rently in ne­go­ti­a­tions with a di­rec­tor to pro­duce a film based on Across the

Ama­zons. When she first shopped the fin­ished script in 2009, she said, pro­duc­ers re­ceived her work quite icily. “They took a pass. They told me [my screen­play] isn’t ro­bots vs. Godzilla. It’s a fe­male lead schlep­ping through the Ama­zon with a lot of in­dige­nous peo­ple in a pe­riod piece from the 18th cen­tury. Now it’s dif­fer­ent; the cul­tural cli­mate has changed.”

Marsh’s for­mi­da­ble knowl­edge of life on an Ama­zo­nian river ex­pe­di­tion in­forms and en­livens the screen­play — many of her own trav­els have over­lapped with the route Godin fol­lowed. “I went to Is­abel’s town — Riobamba, now called Ca­jabamba,” Marsh said. “It’s a lot like Santa Fe, with lots of artist en­claves and a mix of cul­tures. There’s a lit­tle funky out­door mu­seum cov­er­ing Is­abel and her jour­ney to find her hus­band.”

Still, Marsh noted, the screen­play is as much an act of imag­i­na­tion as it is research. “Is­abel didn’t write much or leave much be­hind. I had to spec­u­late a lot as to what their con­ver­sa­tions would have been about on the jour­ney.” Her nar­ra­tive of Godin’s pas­sage through the jun­gle is punc­tu­ated by the deaths of nearly all the mem­bers of the ex­pe­di­tion. In both con­ver­sa­tions and so­lil­o­quies, Is­abel re­counts how she came to be sep­a­rated from her hus­band, the fate of their chil­dren, and her deeply am­bigu­ous feel­ings about the way her ex­pe­di­tion mates treat their black and in­dige­nous ser­vants and slaves.

Godin’s saga be­gan in 1749, when her hus­band Jean Godin, a French geog­ra­pher who had re­cently as­sisted in the first sci­en­tific map­ping of the Equator, left the cou­ple’s home in Riobamba for French Guiana to be sure the pas­sage was safe for his preg­nant wife and chil­dren, who were to leave for France later that year. But colo­nial pol­i­tics barred his re-en­try into the Span­ish ter­ri­tory where his wife and chil­dren were still liv­ing. For the next 20 years, Is­abel re­ceived no news of her hus­band’s where­abouts — a pe­riod dur­ing which her four young chil­dren died of small­pox.

In 1766, some 17 years af­ter her hus­band’s dis­ap­pear­ance, Godin dis­patched her In­dian ser­vants to in­ves­ti­gate ru­mors of a boat, 300 miles away, that lay wait­ing to take Is­abel down the Ama­zon. It took the re­tain­ers close to two years to re­turn and con­firm that, in­deed, the boat had been paid for and dis­patched by her hus­band four years ear­lier. The pa­tient cap­tain and his crew had been liv­ing all this time at a nearby Je­suit mis­sion, wait­ing for the woman whose pas­sage to the mouth of the Ama­zon had been con­tracted and paid for. Ac­com­pa­nied by her two broth­ers, a niece, a close com­pan­ion, ser­vants, over two dozen in­dige­nous guides, and a few stray French­men who saw an op­por­tu­nity to re­turn to their na­tive coun­try, Godin soon em­barked on her mo­men­tous jour­ney. The legacy of that ex­pe­di­tion is some­what am­bigu­ous. On the one hand, it’s an in­spir­ing tale of a woman sur­mount­ing im­pos­si­ble odds to find her hus­band. On the other, it could be seen as a shop­worn para­ble of white Euro­peans driven to death and ruin in an un­for­giv­ing South Amer­i­can rain­for­est.

As an ecol­o­gist who has made her own epic slogs along the trib­u­taries of the Ama­zon, in search of elu­sive species of saki and howler mon­keys, Marsh con­sid­ers Godin a gutsy hero. In 2014, af­ter 10 years of field research in Ecuador, Marsh was feted in wildlife bi­ol­ogy cir­cles for the discovery of five pre­vi­ously un­known saki mon­key species. Four of the an­i­mals were named af­ter pi­o­neer­ing pri­ma­tol­o­gists; Marsh chris­tened the fifth Pithe­cia is­abela, in honor of the woman who bravely jour­neyed through the mon­keys’ habi­tat nearly 250 years ear­lier.

“I know Is­abel had to have trav­eled down the same rivers I did and heard the cries of these mon­keys from the river­banks,” Marsh said.

In con­ver­sa­tions and so­lil­o­quies, Is­abel Godin re­counts how she came to be sep­a­rated from her hus­band, the fate of their chil­dren, and her feel­ings about the way her ex­pe­di­tion mates treat their ser­vants and slaves.

Laura Marsh

Is­abel Godin

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