A river of sorrows
Across the Amazons, a live screenplay reading
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.