ROBERT MACNEIL: At 80 years old, Margaret Mee was of an age when most of us have long since retired, but not she. For 30 years, Mrs. Mee devoted her life to traveling up the Amazon River and its various tributaries. She would head up river into a small boat by herself, with only a local pilot for companionship, occasionally with a friend or two. Mrs. Mee was not simply a traveler and explorer of new places; she was a painter who tried to create a unique record of the rare species of flowers of the Amazon Basin before they disappear under the onslaught of man.
Her work has been compared to some of the masters at painting from nature. A collection of these paintings and her diaries called In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forest has just been published by Non-Such Expeditions. I talked with her last week when she visited New York.
ROBERT MACNEIL: Mrs. Mee, how did you become interested in the Amazon? What got you interested in the Amazon flowers?
MARGARET MEE: Well, when I arrived in Brazil, I was very keen to go up to the Amazon, but it was for some years I had to wait, because my sister was very seriously ill in Sao Paulo, and I had to stay there. Then I went up to Para, which is really Amazonas, part of the Amazon, and started painting the plants there. I had seen wonderful plants on the Serra do Mar, as we call it, the Atlantic Forest, of which, you wouldn't believe it, less than 5 percent is left. At one time, it stretched all the way from South Brazil, all along the coast, to the northeast Bahia, now there's 5 percent left. In the days when I was there, it was much more, and I found magnificent flowers there, but when I went to Para, I became completely, well, I fell completely in love with the flora of Amazonas.
ROBERT MACNEIL: And you, you felt you had to go deeper and deeper to get more and more things that couldn't be seen anywhere else, was that it?
MARGARET MEE: That's right, and I found some new plants there, too, which inspired me to carry on, look for others, and to record them.
ROBERT MACNEIL: Were you looking for plants to discover that had never been found before, or was your intention to record plants that might soon be wiped out by civilization?
MARGARET MEE: Both.
ROBERT MACNEIL: Both.
MARGARET MEE: For one thing, those which had never been discovered before will probably be wiped out first, of course, because they're rare, and as you know, there are just these ecosystems in Amazonas, where a certain plant can be found, and perhaps it can be found nowhere else in the Amazon.
ROBERT MACNEIL: What is it about the kind of flower in the Amazon forests that attracts you, the artist, that you don't find in exotic flowers elsewhere?
MARGARET MEE: Well, for one thing, they're extraordinarily aggressive, some of them. The bromeliads, that's the pineapple family, have great thorns. In fact, they're extremely difficult to collect, as you can imagine. They have hosts of creatures living in them, including scorpions, poisonous spiders, ants, well, almost-- and even snakes in some cases. But of course, there are the others which are so beautiful, delicate color, orchids, for instance, the Cattleya violacea, and the blue orchid, Acacallis cyanea, which is absolutely a dream.
ROBERT MACNEIL: Did it ever occur to you that it was a slightly unusual occupation for a delicately built lady to be going into the jungles of the Amazon, often either unaccompanied or very little accompanied, among the Indian tribes and the wild fauna?
MARGARET MEE: Well, I don't know, I'm not really so delicate perhaps as I look, if I do look delicate. But I have a great deal of resistance.
ROBERT MACNEIL: Describe some of the-- I've read about some of the things that you've gone through with insects and snakes and the Indian tribes and some white people.
MARGARET MEE: Yes. Well, the Indian tribes, I have no fear of the Indians, in fact, I've found them lovable, hospitable, friendly people. I have had some pretty horrid adventures with white adventurers, the garaimpeiros, the gold diggers.
ROBERT MACNEIL: Describe some of those adventures, what happened.
MARGARET MEE: Well, I was once in an Indian village, Tucano Indians, in Curi Curi, on the river, Curi Curi Ari, which is a tributary of the Rio Negro, the high reaches of the Rio Negro, and there I was collecting plants and painting, and one morning, the Indians had gone off in their canoes for their, to their plantations to work and they wouldn't be back till evening. And I heard an outboard motor poppling up the river, and in a few minutes, there were seven rough-looking fellows coming up the path towards my hut.
It was quite a long way from the so-called port, which was a fallen tree, as far as I remember. They came and the big garaimpeiros who was leading them said, "Fancy finding a woman like you here. Where's your husband?" So, of course, I told the truth, because better to tell the truth to ruffians. And I said, "In Sao Paulo."
ROBERT MACNEIL: Which is a thousand miles away or so.
MARGARET MEE: Yes. Then he asked me what I've got for them. Whiskey? No. cachaça... that's the very intoxicating drink of Brazil. "No, I've come up here to work." "Oh, alcohol?" "Yes, I have, but only for my cooking." "Oh, what else have you got for us?" I said, "Nothing." "Oh," he said, "but we'll be back again." So I thought, oh, my God, this is awful now. So I went into my hut, hid everything I had of value, and then loaded my revolver, which was a six barrel revolver, and thought, now they've gone, I must go into the forests, perhaps, which is the best thing to do? I peeked through the palia, the straw of the walls, and there I saw, there were the three of them circling around my hut. So I thought this is no good, sat down on a box, tucked my revolver underneath at the ready, and started to read a book, upside-down I noticed, waiting.
In about half an hour, I saw a shadow in the doorway. The big garimpeiro was back and drunk. He comes in, but I stick my revolver into his stomach, and that gave him a shock, I can tell you. He backed out and I followed him. By this time, my fear was going, and there's an old Indian outside. He said, "Be careful, he's very drunk, I'll take him up the river." So this fellow said, "Don't be unfriendly, shake hands." And then he sprang and tried to disarm me, but the old Indian pushed him off. They went. About half an hour later, the Indians came back, paddled back with reinforcements, one huge Indian bigger than I've ever seen, and I started to tell the story. They knew everything. After this, I was treated like a queen.
ROBERT MACNEIL: So how many trips have you made up the Amazon, deep into the Amazon?
MARGARET MEE: I've made fifteen, the last one in May to find the cactus which opens at night and fades forever at dawn.
ROBERT MACNEIL: The so-called "moon flower"?
MARGARET MEE: That's right.
ROBERT MACNEIL: How long had you been looking for that?
MARGARET MEE: Since 1965.
ROBERT MACNEIL: How did you know it existed?
MARGARET MEE: Well, because I've seen it from time to time, never in flower, until May.
ROBERT MACNEIL: Tell me about the feelings on finally finding one this last time at night coming into bloom so that you could witness that.
MARGARET MEE: Well, I felt thrilled. I had to climb on top of the boat and with all my sketching materials and that and sit down in front of the bud, waiting for it to open. And it moved as it opened, you could see it opening. This was thrilling. And as it opened, a wonderful perfume came out to attract the moth, of course, it's a hawk moth, which pollinates it. There was a full moon looking through the branches of the tree, magnificent, and all the time the sound of the night birds.
ROBERT MACNEIL: Aren't you worried about getting bitten by whatever poisonous insects of snakes or creatures there may be in the forest like that?
MARGARET MEE: The insects are a nuisance, but I don't fear the birds and animals at all really. It's the semi-civilized human that I fear much more.
ROBERT MACNEIL: I see.
MARGARET MEE: They are the danger.
ROBERT MACNEIL: Are you going back again?
MARGARET MEE: Yes, definitely. I shall go back perhaps in the spring, next spring, I hope. That would be May, of course.
ROBERT MACNEIL: What will be your goal this next trip?
MARGARET MEE: Well, I have so many ideas about the Amazon. I want to go to the Rio Japura, but I also want to repeat this trip into Anavilianis, which is a wonderful area for plants and not destroyed, as it's a reserve.
I'm rather frightened to go far afield, not frightened for my life or anything like that, oh no, but what I shall see, the horrible destruction which I have already seen on the Rio Negro. It was almost unrecognizable, a tragedy, that glorious river where I used to moor my boat to a great tree, Swartzia, coming into flower, to any great tree up there. I almost knew the trees as friends, individually. Not one of them is left. The mechanical saw has been up first, charcoal burners have burned the trees for charcoal to supply industry. They're using a tremendous number of the forest trees for charcoal burning to run industry. It's a very much cheaper way apparently than other means.
ROBERT MACNEIL: What have you yet to accomplish that you feel you haven't done? You've created a very large and significant record now of these flowers and your work has been compared with many of the great painters of flowers in the past. What have you yet to do? What leaves you unsatisfied?
MARGARET MEE: Well, I have written up my diaries. They're in this book, of course. And I have done, as you say, quite a collection of Amazon plants, but there are still so many, so many to be recorded, and this has to be done before they're destroyed if it's humanly possible. Well, I shall need another six lives, which won't be granted, to do really enough to satisfy me.