22 September 2009

Unimaginable courage

Camisea, 11 June, 1981:
"It was already dark when I was called to the medic's station in the big camp. Up on the plateau between the two rivers, woodsmen had been felling trees, barefoot as usual, and one of them had been bitten by a snake. Snakes had never been seen anywhere near chain saws, because the noise and the exhaust fumes drive the snakes deep into the jungle, but this man had suddenly been bitten twice in the foot. He had dropped his chain saw and just caught a glimpse of the snake before it disappeared into the underbrush; it was a chuchupe. Usually this snake's bite causes cardiac arrest and stops breathing in less than a minute, and cases in which a person has survived a bite longer than seven or eight minutes without treatment are almost unknown. Our camp with the doctor and the antivenom serum was twenty minutes away. The man, so I was told by someone who had been working next to him, had stood motionless for a few seconds, thinking hard. Then he had picked up the chain saw, which had stalled when it hit the ground, pulled the cord to start it, the way you pull an outboard motor, and had sawn off his foot above the ankle. I saw the man - his whole body was gray. He was alive, perfetly collected, and very calm. Before they took him to the doctor, the others had tied off his leg in three places with lianas: below his crotch, below his knee, and above the stump, and had twisted the lianas with sticks to make a tight tourniquet. They had stuck a kind of moss on the stump to stop the bleeding. I had a plane readied to fly him out to Lima the next day."
Blogged not because of the violence or the grotesqueness of the event, but because of my jaw-dropping admiration for this woodcutter and the courage it must have taken for him to face his imminent mortality and deal with it in such a dramatic fashion.

From Werner Herzog's Conquest of the Useless - his notebooks about the filming of Fitzcarraldo at the headwaters of the Amazon.


  1. And his will to live.

    Wow. I just can't believe it. I couldn't have done what he did. I wouldn't have had the courage.

    I wonder what happened to him . . .

  2. Well, if you know anything about venom from snakes you know it doesn't matter what you saw off, once you're bitten it is in your blood stream and in your whole body. It was actually a bad idea to saw off his foot. kind of like sucking out the venom, it doesn't work. I hope they were able to reattach the foot, it is much harder to do when lacerated by a jagged object.


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