Grandin, Greg. Fordlandia: the Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009.
This is the story of what happens when someone with a boatload of money gets a hair-brained idea: they can fund their outlandish dream but have no idea how to actually accomplish it. Henry Ford found success with his motor company and felt that this same success would translate well in a foreign country he knew little to nothing about. (After all, he had lots of advisers for that.) Suffice it to say, Ford started out with good intentions. He needed a new place to grow high quality rubber but that project quickly morphed and ended up growing into the more ambition dream of creating a civilized utopia in the wilds of an Amazonian jungle. Other well known companies set up the essentials of home away from home in places like Cuba and Mexico, but Ford wanted to create a brand new society. He envisioned shopping centers, ice cream parlors, sidewalks for the civilized townspeople to stroll upon, electricity, running water…all the comforts of middle America in a remote riverside section of Brazil. It’s ironic that Ford felt he was rescuing a vision of Americana so far from “home.” Of course, these visions were bound to fail. Ford ran into obstacles practically every step of the way. Clearing the land of massive tangle of jungle and vines wasn’t as easy as any of his advisors thought it would be. Engineers didn’t properly grade the roads causing washouts every time it rained….in a rainforest. The humidity would rust saw blades faster than the men could wear them out on the difficult bark of foreign trees. Keeping skilled labor on the job proved to be just as difficult. Diseases unfamiliar to mid westerners plagued the workforce. Prohibition wasn’t law in Brazil so those men who didn’t quit were often drunk thanks to rum boats moored on the river. Then there were the insects that plagued the crops. The list goes on. As you can imagine, all of this would lead to a breakdown. Of course this story can’t have a happy ending, but it is fascinating all the same.
Quotes I liked, “The Amazon is a temptress: its chroniclers can’t seem to resist invoking the jungle not as a ecological system but as a metaphysical testing ground; a place that seduces man to impose his will only to expose that will as impotent” (p 6), and “At night vampire bats often worked their way past window screens to feed, and since their razor sharp incisors could painlessly pierce flesh, the Americans would sleep through an attack, awaking to find their toes and ankles bloodied” (p 197).
Reason read: Believe it or not, August is reported as the driest month in the Amazon. If you can imagine that.
Author fact: Grandin is a Guggenheim fellow.
Book trivia: Fordlandia has a bunch of really great photographs. My favorite is titled, “Making a High Cut on a Big Tree” (p 174).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter simply called “Amazonian” (p 17).