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One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, by Wade Davis. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996)

visions of a botanist one riverIn 1941, when I came to America, movies cost eleven cents and ran continuously. My very first taste of these day-long joys in the dark was a zombie movie, some low-budget avatar of The Night of the Living Dead. It scared me—a meticulously raised little European—deliciously out of my wits. These experiences leave their mark, and when Wade Davis’s first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, came out in 1985, I pounced on it. It was an account of the author’s successful hunt for the poison that made zombies and for the social function zombiism had within vodoun, the animistic religion of Haiti. The book turned out to be adventure, science, anthropology, and history rolled into one, and the first thing I learned was that with my early movie experience I had been initiated into a national—and a pretty ignorant—fascination with Haitian customs, stemming from two decades of occupation by our marines. (1915-1934) One worker in the field, preceding Wade Davis by nearly half a century in trying to set things right, had been the young black anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston, later the author of the beautiful novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She had, perhaps misled by her mulatto informants, described certain vodoun societies as criminal associations, a description Wade Davis, who man­ aged to establish real contact, was at pains to set right. But he, in turn, has too little to say—it seemed to me—about their notorious association with the Ton Ton Macoute, Duvalier’s murderous security force. I mention this fact because this tolerance, a tolerance with a passionately positive sign, a deeply engaged receptivity, is a characteristic of Wade Davis’s writing. It makes him a particular kind of explorer, the inside-outsider, and it makes his work—One River shares this characteristic—questionable in the very best sense: an incitement to thought; it has serious moral resonance.

Now came a happy coincidence. Wade Davis happens to maintain a close friendship with Travis Price, our Santa Fe alumnus (’71) and the architect of our new Greenfield Library in Annapolis. Travis Price promised to induce Wade Davis, by now a busy international lecturer, to come on a Friday night, and no lecture in my memory is more often recalled by students both for the flamboyance of its Haitian matter and the beauty of its slides.

Then One River came out and was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by a reader who—I am guessing—had sampled rather than absorbed the book. He made short, though very appreciative shrift of its qualities, dwelling mainly on its hero, the ethonobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. I thought I’d wait for the paperback, when Wade sent over an inscribed copy, and an inscribed copy imposes an obligation. I started in on this huge work, well over five hundred large pages, and presently it became a way of life—a dozen pages whenever a window opened for imaginative ranging.

I’ve finished now, and I’m here to say that One River has the qualities of a classic. A classic of what? Well, a classic, of course, of ethnobotanical discovery and psychopharmacological exploration; also of daring and adventure; also of reportorial expose and thumbnail history; also of at-the-source-biography and deep-felt friendship. Like The Serpent and the Rainbow, it is many things in one. And it has absorbed enormous amounts of fieldwork and research.

Richard Evans Schultes

Richard Evans Schultes

All these strands are artfully interwoven by means of flashbacks, as Davis and his teacher-friend Plowman, older by a decade, retrace the paths and renew the collecting of their teacher, Schultes. He, in turn, had followed routes taken by his own hero, Richard Spruce, who, in his turn, saw what Alexander von Hum­boldt had seen. One such lovely revisitation occurs in 1942, when Schultes’ recurrent malarial fever finally breaks. It had kept him for four days lying in a hammock in a bog by the Rio Karaparana on his way to El Encanto. (The hundreds of exotically beautiful names of Amazonian tributaries and villages make the book a glossal pleasure.) He stumbled to the river for a bath, fell, and, half-drowning, looked up to see chat “bright jewel of the jungle,” the pure blue orchid, Aganisia cyanea. It had been collected by Schultes’ Colombian friend, Cuatrecasas, in 1939, by Spruce in 1851, and by Humboldt in 1801. For Schultes, this accident, which is the sort that befalls a devotee in his ardor, turned a week of misery into a moment of bliss; he saw at once perfect beauty and the confirmation of his own botanical lineage. (p. 373)

One River is, thus, first a botanical biography of Wade Davis’s teacher. Though, or rather because, lovingly composed, it is by no means a panegyric. Schultes is vividly depicted as a temporally displaced Victorian, a man of unbendable rigidities and yet of enormous humanity, the unwilling guru of the psychedelic* movement and the most focused naturalist: a man with “the taxonomic eye,” with “an inherent capacity to detect variation at a glance.” (p. 394) Wade told me that Schultes, now an old man, wrote him to say that he was deeply moved by the portrait. Successful vignettes of other fellow-botanists abound in the book.

This band of “naturalists” in the old sense, namely, people in love with the appearances of nature, seems to be—almost as if by reason for its shared absorption in the (probably) inanimate world of plants—particularly ardent in its human attachments. One of them, Reichel-Dolmatoff, recalls the reserved Schultes, upon a mention of Spruce’s name, saying in the toneless voice of deep feeling: “He was my hero.” (p. 482) Not just the Anglo-saxons and Europeans are included in this fraternity, but also the Hispanic scientists and above all the Indian informants, who are acknowledged as consummate ethnobiologists.

The book is dedicated to Tim Plowman, who died young of AIDS. It is one of the book’s reticences that we don’t learn whether he was infected by the needle or by sex. Schultes clearly worried about Plowman’s injecting drugs, an issue I will speak of below. Plowman seems to have been a sort of beatnik botanist, inspired and elusive, a hero to the watchful young Davis during the common travels in 1974-75 that form the frame of this book. Again, what is moving and attractive is that the fierce attention directed in common to nature in its variety makes people so receptive to friendship—not a normal epiphenomenon, I’ve been told, of laboratory science. These naturalists feel themselves, at least through Davis’s eyes, to belong to one, noble lineage, and that is one intended meaning of the title “One River.” (p. 491)

Davis’s artistry in interweaving human and plant life is combined with writing in which immediacy of impression comes together with the vividness of meticulous accuracy to form a style rightly called “lyrical” by the Times reviewer, John Hemming, himself an Amazonian writer. The language is sufficient to produce virtual visibility, so that one all but recognizes the photographs—mostly from Schultes’ collection. (One complaint must, incidentally, be lodged against the publisher: Photographs are not captioned and maps are neither decipherable nor indexed; the reader has to travel along by dead-reckoning.) One picture, of an Indian boy in a beautiful serape holding a blossom, Schultes’ favorite photograph, is a lovely Amazonian counterpart to the numerous flower-presenters of archaic Greek pot painting.

triumph of the will The dangers and hardships of Amazonian travel add to the armchair reader’s pleasure. I can’t help remarking on a vignette of the airplane (rickety flying-crates are one way to cover these enormous distances) as seen in the wilderness. When the first airplane took off from the town of Sibundoy (in the valley that is the site of the greatest concentration of hallucinogenic plants on earth) the Kamsa Indians thought that it was a great crucifix with a priest floating in the sky. (p. 268) It put me in mind, though by way of contrast, of the opening of Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious masterpiece, The Triumph of the Will, the staged film documentary of the Nazi party convention of 1934, which opens with Hitler’s plane descending on medieval Nuremberg, throwing the black shadow of a heretical cross over the city.

The “Red Hotel” was the name of the truck modified to be laboratory and sleeping quarters, in which Davis, the dog, Pogo, and Plowman traveled over trackless wastes and precipitous mountain highways that kept falling into the valleys to reveal within hours what an Amazonian traffic backup is. This book can be read as a classical adventure story: making the most of life­-threatening mishaps.

The reportage element comes out in a gripping and persuasive reconstruction of some bureaucratic stupidites and expert fanaticisms—names named. The former shut down Schultes’ commissioned survey of the wild rubber species and numeration of individual trees (!) in the Amazon area and dismounted the resulting plantation of specimen groves. This work had been inspired by the vulnerability to capture and to disease of the Far Eastern plantations during the second World War. A false faith in the value of synthetic rubber was part of the “betrayal of the dream” of producing fine latex in the region. The latter fiasco was the attempt by fanatical scientific do-gooders to eradicate coca leaf chewing among an indigenous population that knew what it needed for survival. Again, a false identification of potent synthetic cocaine with the mild coca leaf was at fault. Davis derived, I imagine, some satisfaction from showing that the nature he loves is in both cases a more benign provider than the laboratory.

And that brings me to ethnobotany and psychopharmacology, the scientific heart of One River. The methodical collection of specimens—Schultes’ last collection number was 20210—is what a botanist travels to do. If his ability is to recognize variety, his triumph is to discover a new species or even a genus, and his glory is to have one of these named after him. Schultes had dozens (and it is to be hoped that there will be—or even is now—a genus Davisianthus or a species x davisii). Ethnobotany is concerned with the local knowledge of the uses of plants. Ethnobotanists are therefore part anthropologists. But, above all, they are the respectful colleagues of the indigenous experts. Thus, the ethnobotanist’s anthropology is both local and universal.

Nate Saint, missionary made famous by being murdered by the Auca Tribe

Nate Saint with Auca Tribe

At one point, because he reports with an anthropological eye, Davis throws light—just by the way—on a puzzle that has deep philosophical implications and is of special interest to me. Among professional philosophers there is a great debate, a sub-spat in the nature-nurture controversy, concerning image recognition: Is it an innate or an acquired ability and are images (including photographs) imitative likenesses or symbolic conventions? The field evidence of anthropologists dealing with image-innocent populations is inconclusive. Davis reports that the missionaries who later became famous when they were murdered by the Auca made an air drop of smiling photographs of themselves by way of introduction. The Auca, a first-contact tribe, had never seen two-dimensional images and looked behind them for the dimensional remainder of the thing depicted. To me this says that the question has been put wrong side up. Not: “Do people innately recognize the object represented in an image?” But: “Do they recognize its image-nature when they first see it?”—Evidently not. Recognizing a likeness seems to come by nature, but recognizing an image as an image takes education. Perhaps it even is education.

Many medicinal uses were known to the Indian ethnobotanists, but, of course, the chief knowledge of the tribal shamans concerned the psychopharmacological effects of plants and the preparation of potions. How they learned of these properties and the often complex modes of extracting, mixing and administering is a mystery lost in time; the knowledge is by now traditionally transmitted. Most of the vision-inducing drugs of the modern pharmacopeia come from the flora of this area, so that it is quite natural that the spiritual life of the multitudinous Amazonian tribes should be built around the sacralized ingestion of nature’s offerings.

The origin of these practices is often traceable to pre-Conquest times. Quetzalcoatl, the ancient deus absconditus, who is most vivid of all the old gods to moderns in search of knowledge or regeneration (witness D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent), is depicted in a pre-Columbian document in association with teonanacatl, the group of psychoactive mushrooms named in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, “the flesh of the gods.” Its existence was denied in scholarly circles (peyote not being a mushroom), so Schultes, ever respectful of native claims, set off to find it, and did. He also identified the other great sacred plant of the Aztecs, ololiuqui, a morning glory whose active principles eventually turned out to be natural analogues of LSD. (p. 121) Schultes’ progeny, Plowman and Davis, continued the quest for hallucinogenic plants and the rituals associated with tasting them. It should be said that only once in all his travels, in 1967, did Schultes come upon a “recreational” use of such drugs. It was among the Yanomami (who are the most studied tribe of the Amazon, known to every amateur reader of anthropology). These people ritually take a snuff called ebena, and some of them, who lived near a mission—often the source of disorientation—dipped into the stash whenever they felt like it. Visionary drugs were normally a grave business for the Indians, though that may have changed by now.

Wade Davis

Wade Davis

All three men partook. In general, it is amazing what they were ready to put into their stomachs. For example, Davis’s willingness to enjoy fat grubs, generously sharing them with the village children, obviously endeared him to his hosts. It is a part of his unabashed receptivity. Plowman and Davis also tried yage (the pre-Columbian ayahuasca) yoco, yopo and much other potent stuff.

They did it experimentally—not in the loose-minded sense of “experimenting with drugs” but in the serious and receptive spirit of careful investigation. But, of course, they exemplified the questionableness of all participatory anthropology: half in, half out; half celebrants, half observers; half scientists, half adventurers. Often the spirit of the place took its revenge: They saw nothing and got very sick.

Sometimes something did appear, and Davis has the memory and the art to write of his visions with a vividness that makes his accounts a match for De Quincey’s classic, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. (1821) But besides the experimentalist’s care, Davis also has a sort of innocent gusto, the large receptivity I’ve spoken of, a gusto to know and to know by experience. After much self-searching I’ve come to think—an equally dubious position—that, though on deepest Apollonian principle I’d never do it myself, I’m glad he did it.

What is most deeply interesting in the book, way beyond the well-worked dubieties of anthropology, is its approach to the visionary spirituality of the peoples that indigenously inhabit the continent south of us. Here is where a “Western” inheritor of the indirect way to the Beyond, that of sober inquiry, has a chance to come to grips with Otherness, with a mode that does not separate epiphantic magic from mind-altering pharmacology. Here every issue that a sound-minded person most cares about is joined under a novel aspect: sanity and the way to illumination, visibility and the manifestations of the divine realm, physicality and the gateway to transcendence. If anything sensible is ever to be said about the great divide between Quetzalcoatl and Apollo, One River will be the indispensable source book.

Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 44, Number one, 1997) and is republished here with gracious permission. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).

*Timothy Leary, who was eventually fired by Harvard for his dubious experimentation with mind-altering drugs, had been disowned, it seems, by Schultes long before—for using the garbled Greek term “psychedelic.” Schultes, who knew that it should be “psychodelic” (“soul-showing”), evidently considered false Greek to be the root of considerable evil (p.120).

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1 reply to this post
  1. Liked the article very much but I wondered when you said about plants being probably inanimate (lacking soul/life) you were really meaning “insentient” (lacking sensation). I would say that plants are pretty definitely animate (having life/soul), maybe a little less likely sentient. Although even as to this latter given the discovery of evolution, I wonder if there may be something a little more than innate unconscious teleological principles in things and something more like a low level consciousness even in things below the level of animal sensate consciousness as Teilhard De Chardin suggests. Also Romans 8 talks about a “eager expectation” on the part of “creation” as a whole for the “revelation of the children of God,” this may be somewhat metaphorical but I wonder how much so. And no I’m not on mushrooms.

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