The book is a series of recollections of a young scientist, who, having taken a course at Harvard in how native amazon tribes use plants for medicine, decides to make that study his life's work. So having never been to the jungle before, he goes to the amazon to seek out witch doctors (or, shamans) and learn their secrets. Well, not so much mayhem, but various encounters with gross parasites, vampire bats, electric eels, stubborn secretive Shaman, missionaries, colorful native traditions. Second, as all of the chapters follow the same model: recounting the experience of a field work visit to a tribe, they tend to get a repetitive vibe. Scientist visits tribe; shaman is wary and reluctant to teach scientist; scientist gets gross parasite; scientist ingratiates his way into their heart; shaman teaches scientist basic stuff; scientist must return next year to learn truth of secret potion; upon return, they've given up their native ways in favor of shotguns and Hawaiian shirts.
While the story itself and various knowledge bits about rain forests are engaging in and of themselves, what I really love about this read is the compassion with which the author, ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, writes about the indigenous peoples he stays with while researching the social, spiritual, and medicinal uses of plants in South America.
For this reason, I was eager to get a hold of Plotkins book and discover more about the place I call home. Plotkin considers in this book the influences that impact tribal cultures. Anyone who reads this book will certainly come away thinking missionaries are bad people. People who read this book from the comfort of their modern homes, in faraway places, begin to imagine something that is not true. Brazilians actually think that we Americans must have destroyed all of our forests so we must now come and control theirs. It was fine for Plotkin to live in his own modern world but resented it when the Indians he worked with wanted to become more modern. Somehow Plotkin, the all-knowing Westerner, thinks he knows best what should happen to these people. I have read that once some of the Yanomamo tribes began to believe in the gospel they stopped living in fear and in constant war. I wondered if he was aware of the fact that the coming of the missionaries prepared the way for him? In the end Plotkin could make a faithful record of the tribes medicinal history in their language only because the missionaries had labored for years to provide that written language. Contrary to popular belief most missionaries work hard to preserve culture. I applaud Plotkins amazing work because whether we like it or not cultures are changing and this intricate knowledge of the treasures of the forest can be lost forever.
Damn important read.
We remove the forest and replace it with pasture land, or mono-culture, or air-strips, or villages, town, cities, and industrial wasteland. When we take away the tropics jungle we take with it the diversity of plant and wildlife, indigenous homelands, and millennia of knowledge about the way the land actually works. I couldnt read Mark Plotkins 1993 book about his time among the indigenous peoples of Surinam and northern Brazil without a lump in my throat knowing that by now, most of what he saw is gone forever. In these tropical jungles Plotkin finds the most amazing mixture of terror and beauty. Then the beautiful birds, and plants, the waterfalls and jungle canope. Who should pay for killing languages and cultures and way-of-life when civilisation intrudes on people in their natural habitat? Poor Brazilians lured to the jungle for a new life.
As with many authors who write books like this, he sometimes goes off on educational tangents about the irrelevant history or experiences of people relevant to his South American studies (if that makes sense).
The author obviously does talk about plants and their medicinal properties, but it's always in the context of a story about the people of the northern Amazon.
I cannot recommend this book enough and have many times over the years.