©2006 by Ross Heaven and Howard G. Charing
Editors' Note: The following is an excerpt from Heaven and Charing's Plant Spirit Shamanism: Traditional Techniques for Healing the Soul, published in 2006 by Destiny Books and reprinted with their permission.
The mandrake is a powerfully magical -- some say dangerous -- plant that has a root shaped like a human being, complete with arms and legs. Legends tell that when it is pulled from the soil, it emits a scream of pain and rage at its violation and that of the earth. It is said that anyone hearing this scream is sure to die unless ritual precautions are immediately taken to honor the plant and its environment.
Myths and legends like these are often teaching stories, and behind them lies a deeper truth. In the scream of the mandrake, there is a lesson for us about the need to "walk lightly on the earth" -- to treat our world with respect, awaken to its spirit, and take only what we need. The human race and its "measuring mentality" has not been too astute about this in the past, leading to a situation of increasing climate change, which some scientists bluntly state is now irreversible.
We will simply have to get used to and prepare for wilder and more chaotic weather -- ferocious hurricanes, rising sea levels, blistering summers, frozen winters, failing crops, and scarcity of food and drinking water. We can, however, give more respect to the earth by now cutting back on our resource plundering and pollution so that we bequeath a world with some comforts left to our children. Or, they, too may hear the mandrake scream.
Around 125,000 species -- almost half the plants on earth -- are found in tropical rain forests, which covered almost eight billion acres of the world's surface. One in three plant-derived medicines come from these rainforest plants, yet only a fraction has been investigated for medicinal purposes. Estimates vary, but it is well-known that several thousands of these rainforest acres are destroyed each year by Western companies or local farmers under Western sponsorship. They do it so cattle-grazing and mineral exploration can take place, in the interests of food and petroleum companies.
There is no doubt that many of these disappearing plants hold keys to lifesaving new medicines. We know this from the less than one percent that have been studied, and yet every year thousands more are destroyed. Once they are gone, they may never return. But this is only half the story, because traditional ways of working with plants are also dying out, as the West exports not only its technology, but its worldviews and values to these cultures.
It is a frequent lament among Amazonian shamans that fewer young people are coming forward now to learn natural medicine and to meet the spirit of the plants. They are migrating to cities instead, or putting their faith in Western science, which sees their shamans as outdated, misguided, or a throwback to a naïve age. These shamans, who cultivate their successors through apprenticeship, have no more students to teach, and their knowledge is dying as quickly as the forests around them.
This is a tragedy not just for Amazonian culture but for all of humanity, since many of the drugs we use in the West are derived from shamanic knowledge. For decades, pharmaceutical companies have employed anthropologists and ethnobotanists to work with these shamans so they know where to look for medicinal plants and what they are used to cure... It seems dishonest and ungracious for modern medicine to take so much from the old ways and then belittle these traditions for their "primitive beliefs" and "lack of effective medicine." To do so is a revelation of ignorance. As science wins the war against tradition, the old ways die out, leaving fewer folk healers and plant experts whose old knowledge our scientists raid to develop new medicines.
... In the face of growing evidence, the only sane conclusion is that it is time to do things differently. It is time for a return to traditional, compassionate healing methods, to concern for patients instead of profits. And it is time for a new generation of plant spirit healers -- you, the readers -- to step up to the plate to arrest this decline in the well-being of the world.
To do so, it will be necessary to free your minds from the conditioning of scientific rationalism, so you can explore, dream, and meet with your plant spirit allies, the energies of nature that are calling you. If enough of you answer this calling to rediscover the magic of plant spirit healing, together we can preserve the traditions and use them for the good of all, altering the course of this increasingly materialist and dis-spirited world.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: ROSS HEAVEN is a therapist and workshop leader specializing in personal development, healing, and shamanism. He offers indigenous medicine retreats and workshops world wide, which you can read about on his website. In addition to Plant Spirit Shamanism, from which this excerpt is drawn, his books include The Spiritual Practices of the Ninja, Darkness Visible, and Vodou Shaman.
HOWARD G. CHARING is a director of the Eagle Wing's Centre for Contemporary Shamanism, has taught at Dr. Michael Harner's Foundation for Shamanic Studies, and leads workshops and medicine retreats in the United Kingdom, the Peruvian Amazon basin, and the Andes.