The Spike - Requiem for the Devil's Railroad of the Amazon

The spike sits on a shelf opposite my desk, four inches of mottled iron with a square shank and L-shaped head tapering to a wedge. I picked it up on the Devil's Railroad in the heart of the Amazon jungle.

I take the relic in my hand with a sense of awe and wonder.

Who was the man who swung the hammer that pounded this spike?

Was he a peasant from the thorn-studded backlands of Brazil? Was he a boy from Philadelphia, U.S.A praying to make his fortune with the rubber barons? Was he a laborer from the Caribbean who rode one of the recruiting vessels down the river sea to Manaus?

The inevitable question rises, too: Was my unknown hero one of seven thousand who perished beside the waters of the Madeira-Mamoré, which the locals call Love-Me-River. Some say the toll was higher, with one life lost for every tie laid along three hundred and sixty infernal miles.

The Estrada de Ferro Madeira-Mamoré (EFM-M) was first begun in 1872 and witnessed several disastrous attempts at construction before U.S. and British engineers finally completed it in 1912. The line ran from Porto Velho in Rondônia, Brazil to Guajará-Mirim on the Bolivian border. The objective was to bypass the treacherous rapids of the Madeira-Mamoré Rivers and facilitate the transport of landlocked Bolivia's rubber to the Amazon and the Atlantic.

On April 30, 1912, the last tie was placed at Guajará-Mirim and the first train made the run to the terminus at Porto Velho and the docks, where steamers stood ready to ply the navigable stretch of Love-Me-River.

By that year, too, the seeds of hevea brasiliensis surreptiously taken from the Amazon thirty years earlier by the Englishman Henry Alexander Wickham and planted in Kew Gardens in London had long since been successfully transplanted in Asia. The man-made rubber plantations were on the point of capturing the world market.

Within two decades, the ruin of the Brazil's rubber empire was complete. At Manaus, the Paris of the Amazon, the lights of its Opera House were extinguished, Monsieur Eiffel's iron palaces neglected.

The steamers plying Love-Me-River dwindled and the Madeira-Mamoré railroad fell into decline, used only by locals for ever-decreasing distances as equipment deteriorated. Less than three decades after its opening, the line was being reclaimed by the jungle.

I spent a week beside the Devil's Railroad when I was researching my novel, Brazil. Under a blazing sun at Porto Velho, I'd a feeling of unreality standing below an abandoned steam-powered crane emblazoned with "Industrial Works, Bay, Michigan." In the marshalling yards, half a dozen Baldwin locomotives rested with their steel wheels buried in the sand.

I imagined the massive crane clanking and hissing as it led the advance along the new rail bed. I could imagine it but couldn't ignore the twitter of birds that nested in the rusting hulk.

A few miles beyond the depot lay a snake-infested cemetery with hundreds of foreign workers from lands as far afield as Denmark and China. The forest was the last resting place for countless Brazilians who came from the dry lands and died in a wet fever-ridden hell.

It was near Guajará-Mirim, the end of the track, where I picked up the spike, walking beside the rusted rails, treading between splintered ties.

Toward dusk, I heard the distant wail of a train whistle, long and lonesome. Momentarily, there came the sound of a locomotive roaring along the passage between the trees.

The jungle night enveloped the Devil's Railroad as I stood beside the tracks. I knew I wasn't the only one watching that ghostly train race triumphantly toward the old town of Guajará-Mirim on the banks of Love-Me-River.

[Images from Brazil: The Making of a Novel (c) 2009 Errol Lincoln Uys]

Kindle 2: Who Says E-Books Aren't "Real" Books?

After watching a live blog of the launch of Kindle 2, I followed the comments on The New York Times BITS page. The majority, my own included, are positive, but a few see no joy in Amazon's e-reader:

“I have no idea how this kindle thing works and don’t want to know. I have a library I cherish and I take pleasure in touching and browsing through my old and new friends. I love the smell of new books, funky bookstores and book sales where I can find exciting surprises,” says one critic. “I cannot imagine a world without books...”

And nor can I, unless seen through the mirror of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. [Where books are burned, not because of censorship but a tyranny of mindless television, as Bradbury says in a web interview.]

Other critics lament that Kindle books can't be loaned to friends, will “break” if dropped, and bear no comparison to real books.

I'm surrounded by old favorites I can pick up and browse in an instant. I understand the loss these book lovers fear. I look at a shelf with a fine set of the works of Charles Dickens. I think of the best of days spent with Copperfield or a dozen other tales.

I love holding a book in my hand, but know that what captivates me as I sit with Dickens is not paper but ideas. – The story will never change, only the way in which it's presented.

Some prejudice against reading online may be rooted in readers' experience of the early days of e-books with wretched formatting and mediocre delivery. Kindle and other e-readers are already light years away from those recent dark ages, their world of “books” and ideas expanding at warp speed.

Nothing illustrates this more than the British Library's online rare books. Anyone who has ever been in the rare book section of a library knows the rigmarole one goes through and for good reason. Few people will ever get to hold original treasures such as Leonardo da Vinci's Sketches in their hands.

The British Library's Turning the Pages® makes it possible for everyone to do just that, browsing and turning the pages of Sketches and a selection of other priceless works. – As “real” and close-up as you ever likely to see them!