2007 Wade Davis, Ph.D.
Editors' Note: The following is an excerpt from an exceptional collection of essays on native plants, and is reprinted with permission of the publisher. The book is Visionary Plant Consciousness: The Shamanic Teachings of the Plant World. Edited by J.P. Harpignies. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2007. See here for another Vibration Magazine article from this book.
When you look at the circumstances of indigenous peoples around the world, half of humanity, half the legacy of our species, is disappearing before our eyes. And that's OUR doing. These are not cultures pre-ordained to fade away but are dynamic and vibrant cultures that have some insights we could desperately use. However, they are being driven out of existence by forces beyond their ability to come to terms with. We induce nomads off the land in Kenya, and they find themselves living in the slums of Nairobi where the unemployment rate is 60 percent for those with high school education. Lima, Peru, that had maybe four hundred thousand people in 1940, now is home to nine million people. Whether it's the refugee camps of the Afghan frontier or the barrios of Lima, all these places become breeding grounds for resentment.
As I began pondering the fate of imperiled cultures, I was drawn back to my academic roots. I began as an anthropologist. Working in the field, I often found that botany was an ideal conduit to many cultures, and particularly sacred plants. Where sacred plants are found -- some 120 found in Nature -- their use is firmly rooted in the culture. Ninety percent of them are found in the Western Hemisphere, or to a lesser extent in northeastern Siberia. The Old World is notably lacking in psychotropic plants, which is curious because the forests of equatorial West Africa or southeast Asia are as botanically rich in pharmacologically active compounds as the Amazon.
Sacred plants are one avenue to satisfy a common desire in the human spirit, the desire to periodically change consciousness, which is found in every culture. One of the most interesting aspects of psychoactive plant use in a place like the Amazon is what it reveals about the mysterious genius of the shamans, like the mystery of Ayahuasca's origins. (Editors' Note: See an article about the religious use of this combination of two Amazonian plants here.) How in a flora of eighty thousand species did these shamans figure out how to combine two distinct entities in different and unrelated families of plants? How did they know that when these two entities were combined in a quite sophisticated preparation, there would be this powerful synergistic effect, a biochemical version of the sum being greater than the parts.
If you ask most scientists, they will tell you it must have been trial and error -- a rude euphemism for the fact that we have no idea how the Indians knew how to combine these plants. If you run statistical models, you quickly realize that trial and error is simply not what happened, for there are seventeen distinct species of ayahuasca in the forest. If you ask the Indians themselves, they have, from their point of view, quite mundane explanations. They tell you the plants told them. "Of course, you take each plant on the night of the full moon, and each species sings to you in a different key."
And, of course, we scientists dismiss the idea because we're uncomfortable with metaphor -- and it won't get you a Ph.D. from Harvard. It does give you an idea that in journeying into these distant realms, we journey not simply to find valuable new species. We journey, in part, to return with new visions of life itself. It helps us understand that the world we live in does not exist in some absolute sense, but is just one model of reality. If there's one revelation of anthropology, it's that there are other ways of thinking, other ways of being, other ways of orienting yourself on the earth. And, given our sorry predicament, having access to other ways of understanding may be vital to our survival.
When you think about that and you accept the biological fact that all peoples have the same mental acuity, an interesting question emerges. "What happens when a people don't put that mental acuity into creating cities and electronic technologies, but rather put it into exploring the metaphysical realm or the realm of plants?" The work I did in Haiti showed me, powerfully, that different cultural realities create very different human beings whose capacities are profoundly different. Landscape CAN create culture.
But culture also informs landscape. Indigenous peoples throughout the world have forged through time and ritual a traditional mystique of the Earth. It's not based on an idea of being self-consciously close to it but on a far subtler intuition, the idea that the Earth itself is breathed into being by human consciousness. You can see this in any number of ritual practices. Of course, what's important is not whether the metaphors they invoke are true in some factual sense, but what the practices tell you about a people.
We have to be very careful not to project our own cultural categories and assumptions in attempting to learn from indigenous peoples. Misconceptions abound. For instance, many people in the West seem very confused about what shamanic medicine is all about. In our society, we distinguish between the priest and the physician. The physician treats the body, and, for some, the priest has dominion over the soul. We often read that in the shamanic traditions, the priest and the shaman become one, but that's an oversimplification.
There are two different levels of treatment. On the one hand, these cultures treat many diseases symptomatically, much as we do. In place of medicinal drugs, they use medicinal herbs, many of which are pharmacologically active. But my experience is that it's often the women who actually know more about that type of herbal medicine. It's the realm of women who are responsible for treating their families for all the basic afflictions.
The shaman's notion of healing is that the diseases he or she is called upon to address are always seen to be in some kind of metaphysical realm. So shamanic healing requires that the shaman elevate his or her spirit to soar away on the wings of a trance, to get to those metaphysical realms, often through the use of one of the sacred plants. Those in our culture who focus on sacred plants tend to focus too much on the plants and not enough on the fact that rituals of all kinds and the use of these plants are always specifically rooted in the culture. They are rooted more in a general desire to change consciousness, which can be done in myriad ways.
As fascinating as they are, we shouldn't put too much on the shoulders of these sacred plants. We need to focus more on the wonder of human adaptation to a remarkable planet, and sacred plant use is one aspect of that. Because of our own fascination with psychotropic plants, we sometimes put more weight on them than the indigenous peoples do. Furthermore, taking sacred plant use out of its cultural context can be a risky business. There's a romantic myth that a shaman is always a benign fatherly or motherly figure, but I've never met a shaman who wasn't somewhat crazy. That's their job. They're willing to go into waters that most of us don't even want to know exist. Shamans walk that fine line between enlightenment and psychosis, but they do have a society willing to welcome them back, and validates the esoteric knowledge they seek. So cultural context is tremendously important in the use of ritual in general and sacred plants in particular, and there are real risks in dabbling with them. But that doesn't mean these plants can't be of great use and interest to us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Wade Davis, Ph.D., one of the world's most renowned anthropologists, studied ethnobotany at Harvard and is the author of many books, including The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Clouded Leopard, One River, and The Light at the Edge of the World. While living with sixteen indigenous groups in eight South American countries, Wade created six thousand botanical collections. He is an activist associated with a wide range of groups including The Endangered Peoples' Project, of which he is the Executive Director.