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Magical Fiction Meets Real-Life Science in “State of Wonder” and “Jewels of the Jungle”

by Caryn James
August 3, 2011 1:00 AM
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Ann Patchett’s glorious and highly praised new novel, State of Wonder, takes us on a dramatic journey into the Amazon along with her heroine, a laboratory researcher named Marina Singh. Marina is searching for a brilliant scientist, Dr. Annika Swenson, who has vanished into the depths of the jungle, and who turns out to have made a miraculous discovery: a tribe of indigenous women who achieve life-long fertility by chewing on the bark of a tree.

It sounds like pure fantasy, but take a look at the real-life research documented in the engaging film Jewels of the Jungle and the parallels make you consider exactly where science stops and magical thinking begins. We see how a novelist’s imagination soars, inspired by actual possibilities.

The documentary is fascinating even (maybe especially) for non-science types like me as it presents the work of microbiologist Dr. Gary Strobel. His research has taken him from Australia to the Amazon looking for microscopic organisms inside plants that protect those plants from diseases, and so may hold the secret of disease-prevention in humans.

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As he talks to the camera, we see someone who is far from Patchett’s slightly-mad scientist Swenson. Strobel is a calm, friendly guide through the science, yet he is obviously wilier than he seems. That red cap with a white pom-pom that seems to be his trademark? As we learn in the film, it’s such a clever invention that a version of it is in the collection of the Smithsonian; when he unfolds the cap, in has collected tiny insects and other organisms to gather and study. (That’s another thing the novel and film share: the scientists’ creepy-crawly research is so much more comfortable to observe from a distance.)

The swift hour-long film follows Strobel to, among other places, the upper Amazon. He goes to Bolivia and Peru, while Patchett’s characters go to Brazil, but if you watch the film alongside the novel you’ll recognize that evocative trip on the river. And while Patchett admits to having wryly named her fictional Amazon tribe the Lakashi after her favorite breakfast cereal, Marina Singh’s journey and Annika Swenson’s research are less fanciful than that.

Swenson was introduced to the Amazon by her beloved, obsessive professor, Martin Rapp, whom Patchett has said she modeled on Richard Evans Schultes, the late Harvard ethnobotanist who did pioneering work on plants in the Amazon, especially hallucinogens. That might explain the pale blue mushrooms that grow under the Lakashi’s fertility trees.

And as we watch Strobel describe his study of how insects and plants interact, it sounds very like Swenson’s fictional Lakashi. She knows that the lavender moths feeding on the sap of the trees interact with them to create the magical fertility properties, but hasn’t yet figured out how.

Patchett’s researchers have stumbled across another secret that has eluded real-life scientists. The Lakashi women who chew on the fertility trees are also immunized against malaria. A malaria vaccine is one of the holy grails for researchers, and as we learn in Jewels of the Jungle, Dr. Strobel’s work has provided some strong leads in that direction. Take a look at the documentary and the fiction will seem more eerily believable than ever.

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