About 45 people, mostly silver-haired, have gathered in a dreary, old stone church hall west of London. On the floor beneath their metal folding chairs, lines mark the borders of a basketball court; but this congregation has come not for games but for a lecture and slide show on the Amazon rain forest.

Before them stands a dapper Scotsman wearing a double-breasted, navy jacket with a paisley handkerchief poking out of one pocket. His face is framed with sandy-and-gray hair, including a beard and moustache as luxuriant as tropical foliage. He is speaking in a soft, unemphatic voice. He has certain peculiarities in his manner: one eyelid hangs slightly lower than the other, and he speaks in spurts of words out of one side of his mouth. Professor Prance, he is called in England, and with his proper dress and scholarly demeanor, he looks every bit the part.

A slide of the forest canopy appears. “The Amazon is a tremendously exciting place for a scientist,” he says. “In Europe we may have three or four species of trees in a hectare [2½ acres]; in this part of the Amazon, I have counted 179 species per hectare.” Dissolve to a close-up of a tree trunk: “Note the beautiful flying-buttress design—much like you’ll find in a Gothic cathedral. Such design features support the trees in the very poor Amazon soil.”

Dissolve to a tiny yellow flower: “From this flower the Indians make a powerful antidote for snakebite.” A water hyacinth: “It originated in the Amazon, where natural predators keep it in balance. But when a missionary introduced the plant into the Congo, it went wild, choking out lakes and rivers. The same happened in the southern states of the U.S.” Then a macaw, a bird that looks as if an artist’s palette had been dumped on ...

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