When ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin showed up on the UC Berkeley campus for this interview, he was accompanied by a shaman. And it was no blond guy with dreadlocks from Brooklyn who presided over weekend ayahuasca ceremonies, either.
Don Fernando was a member of the Ingano tribe, a soft-spoken middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap who Plotkin had brought to the United States as part of a campaign to help him protect his people from the violent incursions into their region by timber and oil companies. Unlike most anthropologists, who may work to document dying cultures before they are snuffed out, Plotkin’s organization, the Amazon Conservation Team, or ACT, has been remarkably effective in doing something to protect the rainforest, its peoples, and its shamans.
Cultural and ecological survival is high-stakes work, however. Before arriving, Plotkin said, “You can photograph me if you want, but no photos of the shaman. If his image got back to Colombia, it could be very dangerous.”
As one of the few remaining swashbuckling ethnobotanists trained by the legendary Amazonian explorer Richard Evans Schultes, Plotkin also has a deep, abiding love of the healing and visionary plants of the rainforest. He is the author of several books: Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, Medicine Quest, and his newly released The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know.
While he claims that as a scientist the “technology of the spirit” practiced by shamans is beyond his understanding, it is likely that the two men who settled into their seats in the campus coffee shop knew more about shamanism than could be found on the shelves of the nearby UC Berkeley library.
Asked about his work as an ethnobotanist, Plotkin reflected, “Well – to use Dickens most over-quoted line – ‘It’s the best of times and the worst of times.’ It’s certainly the best of times in terms of the increasing realization that indigenous peoples know far more about the natural world than we do, that these indigenous healers can sometimes cure things that our own best physicians and psychiatrists cannot, and that nature is a seemingly endless storehouse of healing compounds, of which hallucinogens are among the most important but by no means the only ones.
It’s the worst of times in terms of destruction of the world, the rainforest ecosystems in which I work, and in the destruction and disappearance of tribal cultures who know these natural ecosystems best. So this homogenization of the human population into one big global culture is really a disaster for what we’re all trying to do here in terms of protecting and cherishing nature, as well as using nature’s gifts to heal our many ills – of which hallucinogens and entheogens are one part.”
Plotkin’s abiding fascination with the synergy of sacred plants and human culture has recently spurred him into launching a new podcast series Plants of the Gods, which focuses on hallucinogens, particularly in terms of healing, culture, and conservation.
While there are many podcasts out there on the topic of hallucinogens, none are based in field ethnobotany in the tradition of Plotkin’s mentor, Schultes, who did some of the most important research on peyote in the American Midwest, “found” the magic mushrooms in Oaxaca in the 1930’s, and made the scientific discovery of ayahuasca in the Northwest Amazon in the 40’s and 50’s.”
Plotkin’s vision for the podcast is, as usual, ambitious. Ranging from LSD and the birth of Western Religions to the ethnobotany of warfare to wine to hallucinogenic snuffs, it attempts to fill the ethnobotanical gap and create a novel perspective on the role of hallucinogens in the evolution of culture (not just indigenous culture but global culture, including into the roots of religious traditions such as Christianity and Judaism). This might sound a bit heady, but Plotkin’s skill as a storyteller transforms what could be a dry, academic presentation into a fascinating journey into the deep past of the human species.
Plotkin, given his decades of experience in the rainforest among native peoples and their medicines, may also offer us insight into a very contemporary issue: the much-heralded psychedelic renaissance, about which Bloomberg Businessweek just reported, “Psychedelic Therapy Schools Are Popping up Like Mushrooms.”
As the hordes gather at the gates of legalization, there is an uneasy sense of déjà vu.
A similar gold-rush mentality, after all, heralded the birth of the tech and social media industry. What began, in the words of Tristan Harris, as a “blue sky opportunity” has rapidly devolved into a profit-driven artificial intelligence which preys upon human consciousness and undermines our democracy.
What could happen when profit-oriented psychedelic entrepreneurs begin tinkering with mass consciousness, even with the best of intentions and a certificate from a newly launched psychedelic institution?
We really don’t know. But given our “fast-tracking” of technologies we don’t really understand, we should be very wary.
As the issue was outlined to Plotkin, the master ayahuasquero Don Fernando sat listening to the translation, a silent witness to the explosion of his traditional medicines into Western society. After consulting with him, Plotkin responded,
“Well, clearly, you can take these entheogenic substances out of the rainforest. Most of the hallucinogens we know are alkaloids. After Richard Spruce, who did the first scientific collection of ayahuasca in 1851, brought the stuff back to the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew it sat for over a hundred years until it was tested and was found to still be hallucinogenic. So, yes, you can take these things out of their natural setting, but the question we all have to ask is, ‘What is lost when you do?’
“In the psychedelic community, people often talk about ‘Set and Setting,’ but I think there’s a third ‘S’ that is missing, and that is the Shaman. The shaman is, of course, the master healer, the one who knows how to diagnose, treat and heal using many different therapeutic approaches that include the spiritual, rather than just the alkaloids that are in the plants, or the fungi, or the frogs. So, I think we’re moving towards a bi-modal model in the sense that, yes, guys in white lab coats can give you mescaline or synthetic hallucinogens, but they just don’t know how to use them in all the ways that these shamans do.”
One of the primary concerns of the Amazon Conservation Team is rainforest destruction by illegal logging, mining, and other invasive extraction practices. It came as no surprise, therefore, that Plotkin went on to describe the “extraction” of sacred plants such as ayahuasca by Westerners who lack the indigenous ethos of reciprocity and stewardship:
“Six years ago, I was in the Colombian Amazon and one of the great ayahuasca shamans said to me, ‘Sometimes people pull up on our airstrip and load boxes of ayahuasca into their planes and fly off. We don’t know who it is for. It’s just been stripped from the forest with no replanting. Nothing. We’re just left with nothing.’ That’s clearly not an acceptable state of affairs. Now, ayahuasca isn’t that difficult to grow in a tropical setting, so it’s not merely a question of, well, we can’t restore it. In my opinion, it is a question of fairness and informed consent as well.”
As well, one of the great concerns of the Amazon Conservation Team is protecting indigenous peoples from the bio-piracy of their medicines.
A little known fact is one of the greatest breakthroughs in 20th century medical science came from a preparation used to shoot monkeys down from the tops of trees. Naked “primitives” running around the jungle with blowguns turned out to be master chemists whose curare, a paralyzing muscle relaxant, revolutionized the practice of anesthesiology, making possible the open heart, organ transplant and hundreds of other surgeries now performed daily in hospitals around the world. Many other immensely valuable alkaloids have been “discovered” in use among native peoples and appropriated without offering just, or any, compensation down through the centuries. It’s a practice that Plotkin calls “an unacceptable way of doing business.”
When Plotkin was asked if he saw a similar modus operandi in the psychedelic renaissance, based as it is upon substances synthesized from plants discovered by indigenous peoples, he laughed.
“I once asked an ancient shaman of the Kamsa tribe, which is related to the groups in the Sibundoy Valley in Colombia where Schultes first encountered ayahuasca, ‘How long did it take you to learn to be a shaman? How long did it take you to really learn how to use these hallucinogens as effectively as possible?’ He smiled and he looked at me and he said, ‘You know, in your years I’m 92. I started learning when I was 5. I’m still learning!’ This is why all of us who are involved in these ceremonies with sacred plants should be thinking about how we can give back. It’s very ironic to hear people after ceremonies talking about oneness with the world or their communion with the Earth Spirit without seriously thinking, ‘What am I doing to help sustain this plant? How am I supporting the cultures that gave us this plant?’
“Of course, this isn’t a problem that is easy to solve, as we’ve seen with the so-called “discovery” by Westerners of the sacred frog slime called kambo by the Amazon explorer Loren McIntyre in 1969. The “sapo” has since spread throughout the West, and you can even buy it on the internet! But, who do we compensate? The Matses who taught it to McIntyre? The Yawamawas or the Amahuacas who have been using it just as long? What about other tribes that use it? So, it’s not as simple as writing a check to a charity and you’re done with it. Yet I want to emphasize that as we enjoy these benefits of Mother Nature we should think about how to give back, how to help tribal cultures, protect rainforests… My organization, the Amazon Conservation Team at Amazonteam.org, works with many of these tribal cultures. We’re one vehicle to help protect these forests and the cultures that know them best.”
Finally, a question was posed around our current scientific, lab-coated or cardigan wearing, psychologizing approaches to psychedelic medicines and their healing potentials. Might we not be missing something crucial by excluding indigenous voices – as is typically seen at conferences on ayahuasca?
Plotkin leant forward and said, “We just met one of the wealthiest women in Los Angeles and Don Fernando gave her a limpieza. Do you know what a limpieza is? It’s a cleaning at the end of an ayahuasca session. At the end of which, she said, and I quote, ‘Shit, I can’t believe I spent all that money at the orthodontist’s and now my bite finally feels right.’
“Okay? Now who would you rather be treated by? An orthodontist who’s putting you in braces and charging you thirty grand, or some guy who goes, blah blah blah blah blah, consults the spirit world for twenty minutes and all of a sudden your bite goes right. Easy choice, right? Some of these shamanic techniques may be reproducible in a lab, some not, and I’m less interested in finding that magic bullet than protecting all those bullets that are out there and the people who know how to fire those bullets in a shotgun blast, because a lot of healing is much more than shooting something into somebody. You got a Staph infection, you want an antibiotic. But even a guy like Don Fernando might be able to work with your immune system to jack it up into a higher gear in a way that doctors cannot. Ideally, you want access to antibiotics and shamans. Put another way, shamanism is the technology of the spirit.”
Leaning back, he continued, “I was once invited to give the keynote speech at a big ayahuasca conference and asked who the indigenous speakers were and I was told, ‘Well, we aren’t going to have any this time, but maybe next year…’ and I said, ‘I work with some of the most powerful and knowledgeable ayahuasqueros in the Northwest Amazon. I could bring one with me.’ And they said, ‘Well, we don’t have any money for that.’ And I said, ‘My organization, the Amazon Conservation Team, will pay his way.’ And they said, ‘Well, actually we’ve got quite a full program, so maybe he could do the open mike, Q and A stuff at the end.’
“I was appalled. I’ve never forgotten that and never will. I said, ‘This is like having a conference on Catholicism and the Pope says someone is going to buy him a ticket and you don’t want him on the program because you’re already booked!’ They didn’t like the analogy, so I didn’t attend, and more importantly, neither did the shaman. Look, we’re at a point in time where we are striving towards diversity and inclusiveness, and I can’t think of any more egregious error than having a conference focused on indigenous plants and healing without having an indigenous healer. I’m hoping those days are behind us.”
A question was posed to Don Fernando: “It sounds like for us to understand your medicine it’s going to require a reversal of roles of which culture considers itself superior to the other.”
Don Fernando paused for quite some time before answering, “I think this is going to take time. There are things that can be understood, and other things that cannot be understood. Invisible things…”
Everyone sat in silence for a while, absorbing that.
Finally, Plotkin spoke up and said, “Don Fernando and I were in a meeting recently and this fellow said to him, ‘So what do you know? You haven’t been to medical school.’ And he says, ‘Look, if there’s a scientific cause to your ailment, like bacteria, you should go to a doctor. But many ailments,’ he said, ‘are caused by sickness of the heart, mind, and soul, and that’s what I cure.’”
At that, Don Fernando smiled like the Cheshire cat.
An earlier version of this article mistakenly cited ACT for work in the Amazon that it did not engage in, and has been corrected.
Image: Ian Starr