Once I found a moldy old book abandoned in the lower shelves of a political science library. It was an edition printed in the 1940’s of a manuscript from 1650 published by the Peruvian government in celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the Amazon River. The book was last checked out in the seventies but no one had read it even before that date since most pages remained uncut. The title was: Paradise in the New World, Apologetic Commentary, Natural and Peregrine History of the Western Indies, Islands of Firm Ground of the Oceanic Sea by the Licentiate Don Antonio de Leon Pinelo from the Council of His Majesty and the Contracting House of Indies who resides in the city of Seville. I remember the anxiety I felt as I carried the two heavy volumes into my studio. I would have never guessed that a chance encounter of this nature was going to determine the course of my life and work for years to come.
The myth of South America as "paradise found" started with Columbus when he asserted in a letter to the Queen of Castilla that the entrance to terrestrial paradise was at the mouth of the Orinoco River. Columbus traveled with a copy of The Travels of Marco Polo. The Gulf of Paria resembled the description of a place in Asia the Venetian had taken for the Garden of Eden. The confirmation of a previous text appears to be substantial to this discovery, which makes the newly discovered thing not exactly new.
Pinelo's thesis was based on the re-articulation of several previous theories about the location of Eden. In 1629 Jacques de Auzoles' treatise Saincte Geographie located Eden at the center of South America. In Pinelo's version, Eden was not a rectangular garden, but a circular territory of 160 leagues (510 miles) in diameter, and the Paraná, the Amazonas, the Orinoco and the Magdalena where the four rivers of paradise. Pinelo's text reflected the intellectual transitions of the seventeenth century: it attempted to reconcile a theological account of creation, with a scientific view of nature derived from the newly developing discipline of Natural History.
When I decided to embark in the search of Pinelo's paradise I only had a copy of his book, a map of Eden drawn by Pedro Quiroz in 1617, and an airplane ticket. I was destined to reach into the very heart of South America and live to tell what I saw. Thus, my journey of discovery was bound to become the confirmation of a previous text, which was in itself the revision of a preceding one, and so on and so forth in a vast, never ending cacophony of echoes that went through Dante and Marco Polo all the way back to the Bereishit, the first book of the Torah.