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Nature and Culture in the Andes.

Nature and Culture in the Andes. By Daniel Gade. University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 1999, 287 pp.

Daniel Gade would be pleased to know that the most recent cinematic production in the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, was entitled Ratas, Ratones, y Rateros (Rats, Mice, and Rat-like People). A ratero in the Guayaquilean jargon is a thief, and the terms ratas and ratones therefore relate to the concept of theft rather than to animals. But the fact that vermin are used as a metaphor for such transgressive social behavior in Guayaquil speaks clearly to the presence and impact of these animals on the city's life. In Chapter 8 of his insightful narrative, ("Guayaquil as Rat City"), Daniel Gade recounts the historical emergence of black and brown rats in Guayaquil and their pervasive role in the city's social and natural imagery.

Gade's book, Nature and Culture in the Andes, is the result of his environmental research in the Andes over the last three decades. The text does not pretend to be an exhaustive or even methodologically based index of the main environmental concerns in the Andes, but rather a more textured problematization of singular issues that have triggered the author's imagination. In the book's ten chapters Gade presents a compilation of articles and essays (of differing length, theme, and methodological treatment) that center around the notion of the Andean.

Far from defining this geographical region as an obvious physical reality, Gade understands the social creation of space and how this is played out in the Andes. As somebody born in the Andes I could not but agree with great enthusiasm that "the Andean core has taken on symbolic meaning that goes far beyond the place itself" (p. 31). As he reminds us in his short history of the region, "the mountains of western South America were not always seen as composing a single range having a geographical unity" (p. 31).

The word Andes itself comes from the local Quechua term anti (pluralized by the Spaniards as antis) used by the Incas to describe and define their "uncivilized" mountain-dwelling neighbors in the Amazon basin to the east of their empire. It is actually quite fitting, following Gade's logic, that the term used to define the Andes did not even relate to the mountain region itself or its geography. Rather, the Andes is a misnomer that has come to mean very many different things over time, and whose definition is still in constant flux. At best, according to Gade, the Andes can be defined in contemporary terms as a symbolic mix of material and nonmaterial elements that comprise a particular way of being or approach to the natural surroundings.

Paramount for this approach is the cultural--ecological strategy of agropastoralism that relies on the manipulation of environmental verticality to exploit different niches and allows for the community's self-sufficiency. There are also other relevant cultural--ecological features that define this way of being "captured in community levels of social organization, long-standing patterns of mobility, reciprocity of obligation, duality of spatial organization, pantheism, and weaving as a form of artistic expression" (p. 37). However, far from providing an archaic laundry list to define lo andino, Gade is quick to recognize that it is not these features per se that are significant, but rather their symbolic manipulation or manifestation: "what people think of as the Andes has been at least as powerful as any purported objective description of their content and character" (p. 41).

In both his introductory and final chapters Gade outlines his own unique perspective on understanding the natural/cultural world of the Andes, both past and present. This perspective, however, does not result from abstract theorizing but from a wealth of field experience and active thinking and analysis. As a result of his lively engagement with the Andean landscape expressed in his analyses of malaria in the Bolivian highlands (Chapter 4), the Inca coca connection (Chapter 7), and Carl Sauer's Andean legacy (Chapter 9), among others, he is able to fully grasp the complexity of his continental subject matter. On the basis of his field studies and analytical work he concludes:

Once these things were examined, there was no authentic way to sustain the classic opposition of nature and culture. The dichotomy best suits armchair theoreticians in the absence of their own data. (p. 214)

Following Goethe, Gade proposes a nature/culture gestalt as the most meaningful way of assessing the landscape's reality, and describes the three variables of ecology, time, and space, as "the pegs upon which to hang the nature/culture gestalt" (p. 216). Ecological relationships of stability, instability, adaptation, and transformation between different elements are always embedded in the processes that constitute any landscape.

Time provides the diachronic framework needed to assess the ecological phenomena being observed. According to Gade this temporal framework allows "a perspective that opens the door to evaluating the relative stability of linkages between human and nonhuman phenomena" (p. 217). Historical knowledge also allows us to understand how humans have decimated the Andean woodlands for over 2,000 years, and that European colonization only accelerated a process already underway in the Americas.

In his discussion of the large presence of rats in Guayaquil (Chapter 8) and the use of the tapir as a cure for epilepsy (Chapter 6), Gade is able to relate long--standing folk knowledge of the environment and its transformation to other forms of knowledge brought in from Europe and Africa, to show how localized forms of knowledge in the Andes were transformed into their present day configurations--configurations that still allow Andean peoples to face, challenge, and survive, daily conditions of apparently insurmountable harshness and difficulty.

Gade's focus on space is based "on concrete places, not as geometric abstractions... the landscape forms the concrete spatial manifestation of the nature/culture gestalt" (p. 218). For example, the spread of the bubonic plague in Guayaquil did not stop, as is still believed, because of the health policies instituted, but because of the increase of the black rat population relative to that of brown rats, which were carriers of the disease. Another example is the spread of malaria, which increased with the greater populations of mosquitoes living off the stagnant water produced by irrigation agriculture (p. 219).

Another element in Gade's work is of a more personal nature and is most explicitly present when he equates his work to that of tribal shamans in the Andes. This particular mythical/personal perception of anthropological work is not without its correlates in Latin American social research. From committed social scholars like the Brazilian Paolo Freire and Colombian Orlando Fals-Borda, to the Peruvian Jose Maria Arguedas and the Andean scholar John Murra, social scientists in Latin America have seen themselves as carrying out a cultural mission with very strong personal and political implications. Gade however adds what I believe to be an interesting twist in his explicit connection of himself and his work with that of the mystical "seer" or shaman of tribal societies.

Several other aspects of the archetypal shaman fit my own sense of self-identification: wide-ranging interests, affinity for wild or remote settings, psychological dissociation, special interest in altered states of consciousness, and a larger world view than most people. Other aspects of the shamanic archetype so frequently reported in the ethnographic literature--introversion, reflection, empathy, capacity to heal oneself, and listening to voices in the psyche--fit me perfectly.

Through such a personal appreciation of his contribution to the understanding of the Andes, Gade has successfully avoided the double trap in the path of foreign--born researchers, either constituting themselves as leading experts to a reality they never fully understand or feeling condemned as perpetual outsiders in communities that constantly welcome their presence and participation. As Gade describes it:

The most profound meaning of the Andes thus comes not from a physical description, but from the cultural outcome of 10 millennia of knowing, using, and transforming the varied environments of western South America. (p. 34)

And I can emphatically say, from one Andean to another, that Daniel Gade's work is testament to this profound Andean reality.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Benavides, O. Hugo
Publication:Human Ecology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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