The Amazon, Early 20th Century and Early 21st Century
The Green Inferno
What is dense, mysterious, unmappable, and full of strange and deadly wildlife? If you said Donald Trump's hair, you're almost right. But we don't have the space to analyze that here. Instead, we're talking about a safer place: the Amazon jungle.
Described by Grann as a "green hell" (2.9) and by explorer James Lynch as "the most beautiful place he had ever seen" (2.35), the Amazon is a place you have to see to believe—if you can make it back alive, that is.
This mixture of beauty and danger makes the jungle a compelling place. That comment about it being beautiful was made when Lynch while he was being kidnapped by natives, so that shows you just how much of a draw it can have on some people. It had the same alluring pull on Fawcett, who wants to unlock its mysteries.
(Pro tip: nature always wins, folks. Always.)
Like Fawcett, a man who seems superhumanly strong but nevertheless destroys himself with his own obsession, the jungle is a paradox. It's lush and green, but it's filled with things that want to kill you. It's one of the densest places on the planet, and yet it's almost impossible to find food there. If we were to personify the jungle, it would be more internally conflicted than Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights.
Jungle 2 Jungle
As fascinating as the jungle itself is, what Grann does when he returns to the jungle is shows us just how much it changes. You'd think an environment this large and powerful would be eternal, but you'd be underestimating the destructive power of humanity, which knows no bounds.
Even during Fawcett's time, the jungle isn't untouched. Conquistadors desperate to find the riches of El Dorado or other mythical cities have either killed the tribes of the jungle outright or left behind diseases that have done the dirty work for them. Fawcett isn't mapping unexplored territory. The jungle he treks through is already damaged.
But humans are also notoriously shortsighted. It isn't until Grann visits with Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist who lives in the jungle, that he realizes how quickly things can change there.
Grann hints at the ephemeral nature of everything human in the jungle throughout the book, for example by showing us the jungle's destructive power on human and animal bodies, which are stripped by ants and other creatures. But Heckenberger shows Grann that it's not just people who have gone: structures and buildings, when unmaintained, are quickly reclaimed by the jungle as well.
That revelation leaves us in a place just about as sticky as the one Fawcett was in. We can be 99% certain that Z no longer exists—but there may no longer be any definitive trace of it, either. In fact, it may be hard to ever determine either way whether it existed or not. All we have left is hope. And ants. There will always be ants.