A Peruvian Path of Plants and Power

Ethnobotanizing the Medicinal and Mystical Plants of the Andes and Amazon

Steep peaks of emerald green are visible as we clear the coastal fog and the breathtaking view below is of vast and mostly undeveloped terrain, with few roads, cities or power lines to spoil the view of the magnificent Andes. I am filled with excitement and joy as we near Cuzco, my adopted city where I have built a humble home. Something about this place called to me through my dreams and once I visited, I never really returned home. Like a jungle vine twining around my ankle, it tethered me at once and continues to reel me closer and closer. This is as much my home now as anywhere.

Plant spirit medicine is a shamanistic practice involving direct engagement and communication with the “spirits” of plants.

Peru is an awesome and inspiring place to study plants and plant spirit medicine. Within the ecologically varied terrain of the country are some of the most bio-diverse and wild places on the entire planet. The Madre de Dios region of the Amazon includes high cloud forests then stretches down to the jungle basin and is home to some twenty thousand plant species, calculated to be one of the most species-dense places on the planet. Peru also includes intensely spiritual cultures with numerous pre-Incan ancient influences, and many lineages maintaining centuries-old ways of life to this day. Add the amazing power spots, ruins, natural wonders, fascinating arts, architecture, music, textiles, dance, and thriving cultures, Peru practically oozes spiritual energy. Peru is one driving force pushing the pulse of the planet’s being, and Peru has now superseded India as the number one travel destination for spiritual seekers of the world.

My own spiritual goal for the last 10 years has been to study ethnobotany with indigenous communities of the world. I have been seeking out people who live close to the earth, provide for themselves with their own hands, and have a way of life far different from western culture. I spent time with the Hmong in Vietnam, the Kareni in Burma, and the amazing people of the Angor Wat region in Cambodia. I then chose the 12,000 foot high ancient city of Cuzco to serve as my basecamp, and for the last 6 years have studied the Andean plants with the Quechua speaking Keros people and make month long journeys down into the Amazon regions of Iquitos, Manu and Madre de Dios, meaning Mother of God. I love the concept of God having a mother. If an awesome spiritual force was birthed somewhere, I could see why it would be here. In Chinese philosophy, yin is a watery inward creative force, and here, this womb-like forest of sinewy, circuitous river and rain is about the most yin place I have ever seen, a place where the great mother might give birth to God.

I am not skittish when it comes to snakes and spiders, but I have never done particularly well with hot humid weather and only chose the Amazon because of its obvious plethora of plants. The heat zaps my strength. I feel like I’m pedaling a bicycle uphill – a bicycle with flat tires. Even my thoughts have flats as it is too hot to even think. I wear as little as possible and still be considered clothed. Yet you will see people walking down the street or forest path wearing heavy pants, boots, and socks. Socks! My toes curl in horror at the sight. This is why I placed my home at 12,000 feet; I am able to return to the crisp fresh nights of the Andes, wash my disgusting mud-caked laundry and restock my supplies. There is not a great variety of food in the jungle towns I have frequented: whatever fruit is in season, rice, potatoes, yucca root, white bread, cans of tuna, a few veggies that are not refrigerated and quickly spoil, and junk food candies and confections. It is difficult to impossible to eat a low carb diet and I tend to eat a lot of tuna, nuts and wilted rubbery carrots. When I have taken ethnobotany groups with me, we have traveled with a private chef as ewe are far from towns and supplies and have managed to eat fairly well.

It is also not so easy to find teachers and one cannot schedule a visit, email the community in most cases, or pick up the phone. It is sometimes possible to use a ham radio to communicate, though you must have patience. The radio may be in someone’s private home and most people don’t hang around inside their homes as they are out tending the gardens or coca crop, doing their laundry down at the river, digging yucca root to sell at the market or maintaining the trails. When you find someone at home, they may not speak Spanish, or they may not feel like dropping whatever they are doing to go and get the chief or perhaps the chief cannot be found. “Call back tomorrow” they say, but no one is home for the next two weeks. In many cases I have just made long journeys by bus, boat, and foot and simply shown up and asked to speak with the chief of the tribe. It is a very interesting experience to step off the boat, or emerge on foot out of the jungle and hike into a village to meet the gaze of the villagers.

The first time I did this was a half days journey from Puerto Maldonado. I hired a driver to take me to Laberinto and then a boat to a community down river. I walked up the river embankment and into the community wearing my little sundress, white with tiny pink and blue flowers and my pale face and blue-eyes which always fascinate the children. Soon I was seated in the shade talking to the president and a few men. The children eyed me curiously from behind the skirts and legs of their mothers. An older man with rather bowed bare legs hobbled over from his little hut to join us. He had a tiny bone through his nose, and a bright red, black, and white beaded necklace around his neck with several large boar tusks hanging from the center. He was the elder of the community and affectionately referred to as Tarzan. His eyes were slightly cataracted but shone pleasantly and his toothless smile was delightful. He most generously said that I could take one of the beds in his two room hut. As we talked that afternoon, he sat rolling some plant fibers back and forth on his bare thigh, skillfully making cordage. I asked him how old he was but he didn’t know. He guessed probably around tres mille, three thousand. This is common in the oldest generation, to not keep track of one’s age. Elderly people often simply guess.

I have simply shown up in this manner many times now and forged friendships with the Yaguas, the Bora, the Matsigenka, and the Queros. I will be spending the winter in Peru and have a plan to go deeper into the jungle with the chief of the Bora tribe, Laborio and his mother Delores, who assure me that if we go just 4 or 5 days in we will the hear jaguars rumbling the forest with their roars at night. When on jungle treks with the communities, I record everything they tell me including the medicines, the stories, the songs, and the medicinal formulas. In my weeks back up in Cuzco I search out the Latin names of plants, search out any published studies that may exist, and type up my field notes and research. I have studied the longest with the Queros tribe and am close to giving their knowledge back to them in the form of a book on their own medicinal plant knowledge, and their songs written out in their own Hauchiperi language. The elders who carry the wisdom of the plants are dying out and transferring the knowledge to the younger generation who often has more interest in the trimmings and trappings of the nearest town, is an issue. I am involved in a project with a native community in Alberta Canada teaching interested community members about their traditional medicinal plants as there is no one left who carries this lineage within them anymore. Soon this will be the case with the Amazon communities with whom I study as there are often just 1 or 2 people who know the plants. People in the US often ask me if I am bringing plants and medicines home to use in my practice in Washington State and that is absolutely not my point. I have plenty of wonderful medicines in my own back yard. My point in doing all this is get out of the US and spend time with people who have a very different way of life, and to try to preserve their ethnobotanical knowledge and give it back to them at some point when the time is right.

The time for sharing our knowledge with each other may well be upon us. There are many ancient indigenous legends saying that North America, symbolized by the eagle and South America, symbolized by the Condor will at some future time “fly together” ushering in a new era of harmony and balance. It is said that North America is intellectually based at its core, with a technology-based culture while South America has a heart-centered core with a mother earth honoring culture, and I certainly can feel this difference. For many hundreds of years, technology has held the earth hostage and the world has been dominated by mental aspirations at the expense of the heart centered goal of creating a loving and nurturing home for us all and making a sacred space of the entire planet. The intellectual north is turning to the spiritual south to achieve balance and is seeking the soul-full wisdom of the southern hemisphere’s cultures to help mature the empty heart. For centuries the primary spiritual deities of the modern culture have been male-based in the northern hemisphere – Christ, Krishna, Allah, Buddha, Confucius etc. South American spirituality is more earth-based, like other native and indigenous Americans, honoring Pachamama (Mother earth), jungle spirits, mountains, rocks, and streams. The native American prophesy of the condor and the eagle flying together is beginning to manifest with the northern spiritual seekers cultivating their hearts and souls with pilgrimages to the southern hemisphere and the rain-soaked mysterious jungles of the south.

My intention to learn the plants of Andes and Amazon has unavoidably involved me in learning of the spirituality of the cultures with whom I study, and in particular plant spirit medicine. Plant spirit medicine is a type of shamanism involved in engaging directly with the “spirits” of plants. While this may be a rather foreign and alienating concept to many westerners and scientifically trained medical practitioners, the notion that plants have souls, or energies, or spirits that are something more than just their physical matter is second nature to many cultures, and certainly to the Amazonian people. After all, most people have the sense that our aliveness is not just due to our “bag of bones” – the sum total of all the physical matter and chemical element that comprise our physical forms. There is something that leaves the physical body at the moment of death. The physical form is still there, but the life has left it and the “light” has gone out of the eyes. The soul has departed. Individual religious and spiritual ideations aside, most cultures throughout history and enduring into the present era have the underlying suspicion that there is some sort of animating force that drives our physical matter to organize itself in the form that it does. That animating force is an invisible energy, a non-corporeal force that has been referred to with the terms soul, spirit, light body, vital force etc. Many plants that I am being taught are believed to work directly with the spirit.

There is also a belief in many spiritual diseases. It is common in Peruvian shamanism to think of psychological disturbances not as character flaws or emotional weaknesses, but rather as parasites or external entities which have invaded and taken over one’s character and behavior. Therapies may be aimed at cleansing the body and banishing external influences with purgas (purges), dietas (diets), and limpiezas (cleanses). Aggressiveness, laziness, greed, fear, anxiety, depression, and confusion for example, are often seen as a corruption of the spirit due to external pernicious influences that are feeding on a persons’ energy. Thus, in order to rid one’s self of these corrupting influences people do not go to a psychiatrist to medicate it away, or to a psychologist to talk it away, but to a shaman or healer to throw off the external entity and cleanse or purify the spirit and body. These external corrupting entities are given specific names such as susto – the psychic disturbance that follows a bad fright or witnessing a violent event, mal de ojo or evil eye – the emotional turmoil that can invade when a powerful person looks at you with intensity, whether in malice or not. Tristeza is a deep sadness that should be treated as soon as it is recognized lest the person withdraw from the world and die shortly thereafter. There are specific plants, whose energies and spirits can enter a person and cure these diseases. People may seek the help of a shaman, or may simply go to the herb lady and ask for an herbal remedy. In all cases, people believe that it is the spirit of the plant, not the particular molecules or compounds in the plant that are doing the healing. There have been numerous instances where my teachers have shown me plants that are sought when one dreams of monsters, plants for those who lack love in their lives, plants to bathe with to rid oneself of negative energies, and plants for when there is discord in the family or community. If these spiritual disturbances are not treated, they may evolve into physical ailments and actual tissue pathology, or spread and corrupt the spirits of the family and community members.

The method of treating such mental and emotional disturbances is typically spiritual rather than medical. Psychotherapy is not well embraced or respected. In the western culture, verbal communication is highly prized and often goes hand in hand with success. High paying jobs are hard to come by without excellent verbal, language, written and these days, computer skills in western culture. These verbal talents are not so valued in many jungle tribal communities, and in fact, those who talk too much and work too little are less valuable to the village. The hard worker is more valuable than the good speller or reader. It follows that talk therapy as a means of treating anxiety, depression or other psychiatric disease is regarded as a rather weak and silly approach. Taking synthetic drugs to soothe one’s psyche is not regarded any more highly, as anything that weakens or burdens the physical body can only lead to more psychic disturbance in the future and allows more pernicious spirits to enter the body. Support of physical and mental health more involves ridding oneself of heavy and dark energies that spirits are attracted to feed on, and filling oneself up with light energy.

To me, these studies are not only intellectually interesting, they are life changing. More than just an anthropological/ethnobotanical study, these wonderful spiritual, talented people have become my friends. In the course of studying plants, I have been gifted with spiritual lessons, practical survival skills, and a much needed cure for my affluenza. I lead trips to Peru each August and may be contacted via email if you wish to join us. jstansbury@ncnm.edu. Happy Trails!

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