a collection of stories from the past 20 years

homeblogtourshome IIcontact

Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.

Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.



THE HIGH TIMES INTERVIEW

WADE DAVIS: STUDENT OF THE PLANTS

by Peter Gorman

Writer, anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis has spent the better part of the last 25 years exploring the relationship between remote indigenous tribes and the plant world in which they live and on which they depend. Davis, a native of British Columbia, is the author of The Serpent and The Rainbow (1986), and Passage Into Darkness (1988), both based on his experiences while studying Haitian voodoo culture, as well as Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rain Forest (1990). His new book, One River—Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (Simon and Schuster, New York; 1996) is a brilliant biography of his longtime teacher and mentor, famed Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes.

HIGH TIMES: How did you come to meet Richard Schultes?

Wade Davis: I first met Schultes, who was a myth on the Harvard campus, when I went to school there in 1971. I was a kid from British Columbia and I took his biology course, and it turned out to be an event that changed my life.

 

How so?

I’d never taken a biology course before—I was an anthropology undergraduate—but to show you how serendipitous life can be, some time after I’d taken the course I was in a cafe with my roommate David in Harvard Square and there was a map of the world on one wall and he looked at me and he looked at the map and he suddenly pointed to the high arctic. And I reflexively pointed to the Amazon and two weeks later David was in the high arctic, and I would be in the Amazon.

And having decided to go to the Amazon there was obviously one man to see, Schultes, and so I sheepishly walked up to the fourth floor of the botanical museum at Harvard where his office was and walked in and said I’d saved up some money and wanted to go to South America like he’d done and collect plants. Now I knew little about South America and less about plants and he looked up at me and said, “Well, when do you want to go?” And ten days later I was in Bogota with a letter of introduction from Schultes.

Perhaps the funniest thing was that a couple of days before my flight I went into his office thinking I might pick up a few pointers. And he told me three things: not to bother with leather boots because all the snakes bite at the neck; not to forget my pith helmet, and don’t come back from the Amazon without trying ayahuasca. Which left me with the sense that I was very much on my own, but then he also said that while I was down there I might try to look up his man Tim Plowman, who was studying species of the Erythryoxlyon coca plants in the Andes.

 

Did you?

After I’d been down there for about three months I got a telegram from Tim Plowman and we met and went up to the Kogi and the Ika peoples together. And travelling with Tim was a total revelation; he not only knew the flora but he had such an incredible ability to get along with Indian people that suddenly the whole world unfolded before me to the point where I could see myself spending my life pursuing the mysteries of the rainforest and the science used by these peoples.

 

What was the particular attraction for you?

Well, the anthropological studies I’d been doing had been very theoretical, but botany was very concrete and a perfect conduit to the cultures I was suddenly dealing with. Whenever you work with cultures, you have to find something to break down the inherent gap between you and the society in which you find yourself living as a guest, something by which you can make a relationship begin to become meaningful and true.

And what Schultes had found was that botany was a wonderful way to access cultures because the people of the Amazon live closely with their plants because they live because of their plants. So by studying their plants you can learn anything you want about the people.

 

What was it like to study with him?

In 16 years of studying with Schultes I don’t know if I ever had an intellectual conversation with him. He didn’t teach like that. He gave you the keys to the museum and he’d say things like “Well, there’s this one river you should see,” knowing full well that the process of getting to that confluence would assure that by the time you got there you would have had experiences making you a different person. He taught with that kind of almost Socratic method.

 

And how did you find that first trip with Tim Plowman?

Tim was my mentor. He was 10 years older and already had a Ph.D. and he was already the botanist of his generation. And I was young, 20-years old with a wild-eyed sense of wonder. Actually, we got along famously during the year or so we travelled together and we kind of balanced each other because while he was light years ahead of me in botany and taught me everything I know, in time I would have a much more profound sense of anthropology and ethnology, which is what I was trained in.

 

What did you bring to that expedition?

I think my primary contribution was my ability to be in the bush. I was really raised in the bush in Canada. And I was up for anything: I had one word in my vocabulary and that was Yes—and I think Tim appreciated that.

Tim was a real botanist’s botanist. He couldn’t move through these forests without collecting, so we spent an inordinate amount of our time together just doing general collecting and inventory. We collected a significant number of new species and got to a lot of new areas, and just in terms of the clinical expedition we collected about 3,000 plants in the course of that year, many of them very special collections.

 

Did you also get to spend time in indigenous villages?

The people paying the bills wanted Tim to collect Erythroxylon, coca, that was his primary assignment. But it surprised me in retrospect that in the course of that year Tim never sat in a highland Indian village for a month and see how the people used coca. That would have been fun for me, because at that point there hadn’t been much recent ethnology or ethnography done on the use of coca in culture.

 

You subsequently went to Haiti to find the “zombie” drug. How did that come about?

Nathan Kline, who was the main psychopharmacologist at Rocklin State Research Institute, was very famous for his work on the chemical basis of mental illness—and ways to treat it with pharmaceutical products—and he had this case of a zombie. But since he didn’t believe in magic he thought there had to be a material explaination, which drew his attention to the reported existence of a “poison” that was somehow implicated in this phenomena. Well, he tried to get Schultes to go down to Haiti, but he was too old, so he recommended that I go. And what was tremendously exciting to me about that assignment was that here was an opportunity where the search for a natural product, which is the quest of ethnobotany, became only the beginning point of the study, and not the end point. In going down to Haiti with the assignment to find the chemical drug used to make a zombie, I was going down to find the chemical basis of a social event. So I ended up exploring the psychological, spiritual, political, historical, sociological and metaphysical ramifications of the chemical possibility.

 

In Haitian voodoo society you’re really dealing with a people who have an entirely different view of reality than we have, aren’t you?

You know, even people who were raised to respect different cultures have a tendency to presume that the world that we live in is somehow absolute, that these other cultures are quaint and curious and there to entertain us at some level because we are the real stream of history. Now I don’t believe that. I believe the world we live in is just one model of reality, one consequence of a particular set of adaptive choices we made. Everything I’ve ever learned in anthropology, in 20 years of intensive study, suggests that every human being has the same innate potential and how that potential is realized by the matrix of culture determines the outcome of that intellectual potential. And what I saw in Haiti was that a people who lived in a world of total material scarcity adorn their lives with their imagination. And living inside a voodoo society, a society where there is no separation between the metaphysical and the mundane, where people are moving in and out of their spirit realm with such ease and impunity and frequency is staggering to the outside observer. And that was tremendously exciting to me. The things I saw in Haiti defied all the tenets of my rational faith.

 

For those who have never experienced such such phenomena it’s difficult to comprehend.

You know, our rational traditions are derived from Descartes and beyond to the Greeks. And while the whole tradition of positivism that evolved by the 19th century—which basically says that if a phenomena can’t be seen and measured it can’t exist—liberated us from the tyranny of the church at the time, at the same time it implied the dismissal of all issues of myth, magic, metaphor and mysticism upon which our human spirit has revolved for thousands and thousands of years. And what I’m trying to do in One River is to show what it means to be in these cultures. The real foundation of the book is not just the natural world we found ourselves in, but the people who were having us in their villages. I call it the poetics of culture.

 

Which is what?

The innate poetry with which a people express themselves. At the Kiowa Sundance, for example, when the teepees were put up and the fetish symbol of the sun was released and put on a pole with the buffalo robes inside the willow arbor, there was one young man who stood outside and followed the sun from dawn to dusk, sacrificing his vision literally, so that people would come to see. So that’s a poetic thought of culture. Or in Mazatec land in southern Mexico, where, you’ve got a vocabulary based on the wind, just by mimicking the intonation of atonal language they have these incredible conversations.

The poetics of culture also goes into things like the use of yage— ayahuasca. How did the Indians find it? Trial and error makes no sense. And if you ask a Siona Indian how many forms of yage there are and they’ll say 17. Ask how you tell them apart and they say you take them on the night of a full moon and they sing to you in a different key. Now scientists would call that a nice folk belief while totally dismissing the idea. But how do you explain it? Or how do you explain the fact that the Waorani of Ecuador, with whom I lived, can smell animal urine from 45 feet and tell you what species left it in the rainforest. Part of the answer, obviously, is that these people have tuned their perceptive skills. But that’s only part of it.

 

Why can’t we can’t just accept what they say on the face of it?

In our culture we can’t quantify that. We can’t fit it into our own paradigm and so it can’t exist. And the reality is that things happen all the time out there in these cultures that we can’t explain. In Haiti, I went to voodoo ceremonies where individuals in the state of spirit trance were having burning embers the size of apples put into their mouths with impunity. Now there is no scientific explanation for it. People have tried to say it’s trickery or whatever, but those are just excuses for not being able to deal with the reality of these people. Now within the beliefs of the Haitian voodooist, there are perfectly reasonable explanations for this. What is interesting is not the sensational nature of the action but what it shows about the body unleashed during certain states of potential.

At the same time, if you look at an Amazonian shaman, the role of sacred plants and medicines in their cultures is obvious: It’s all tied into how they perceive disease to originate. The nature of the origin of diseases are always seen to be malevolent disruptions of the body and spirit’s harmony, so there are obviously two levels of treatment. On the one hand diseases can be treated systematically, just as we do, only instead of using medicinal drugs they use medicinal plants, many of which are the basis of our modern pharmacy. But on a far deeper level they believe that real healing must occur on a level of consciousness, and therefore the shaman must invoke some technique of ecstasy to soar away on the wings of trance to get into those distant metaphysical realms where they then work their deeds of medical rescue. And these sacred plants are an invocation of another realm.

And I’m perfectly comfortable with that as a scientist. It’s the old thing between science and religion. I remember being in Jamaica with a friend of mine and we were pulling up a little sensitive mimosa plant and my friend, who wasn’t a botanist, was intrigued by how the leaves fold up when touched. He asked why they did that and I said I couldn’t tell him why they did it but I could tell him how they did it. And a Jamaican who was with us said he knew why they did it. He said the leaves folded up because they feel shame. Right there was the schism between science and religion: science can say how but it can never say why and religion can say why but never how.

 

How did you find your own use of ayahuasca?

“To drink yage,” Brekel Romatof (???) wrote, “is to return to the cosmic uterus and be reborn. It is to tear through the placenta of ordinary perception and enter realms where death can be known and life traced through sensations to the primordial source of all existence.”

That’s the image you’re really trying to get. It’s not people taking drugs, but people engaged in another world.

 

And too many of those people and belief systems are dying now, through acculturation or loss of lands.

It’s a pity that at a time when people came along with the sensitivity, openness and intellectual preparation to really start thinking about what these shamanic practices were about—as opposed to say a Schultes, who would just observe those states and say “they were intoxicated”—we almost came along a generation or two too late. When you travel in the Amazon people say that all the real shaman have died off. And even by most anthropological accounts, the last of the really highly trained shaman died around 1965.

The thing that really drives me is that the destruction of biological and cultural diversity go hand in hand. This century will not be remembered two hundred years hence for its technological advances or its wars, it’s going to be remembered as the age in which we either passively accepted or actively endorsed the massive destruction of both cultural and biological diversity. There were 15,000 languages spoken on this planet 100 years ago. Today there are probably 6,500 spoken. And linguists tell us that in another hundred years there will be only 350. And every language is nothing more or less than a unique manifestation of the spirit.

 

You talk about people coming along with the sensitivity and intellectual openness to think about what shamanic practices really signify. Could we have done that without the psychedelic jolt we received 25 years ago?

This is a theme I’d like to talk about, because I’m really tired of the way things like LSD have been treated in our culture. How many Americans are estimated to have tried a psychedelic? At least 20 million, I’m sure, and I find it interesting as an objective observer of history and culture that those subjective experiences of a significant cohort of the American population are never given a place in the analysis of the social history of the last 20 years. I’m so tired of the historians refusing to acknowledge the fact that the psychedelic experience is part of the overall cultural skew that shook up society in the ’60s and early and ’70s. It wasn’t just civil rights and Vietnam and assassinations; a huge cultural aspect of it was that people were taking drugs. Those who were shooting smack and snorting cocaine might have created social trends, but nothing to change history. But I do think that the use of psychoactive substances had a profound impact on issues such as gender relations, attitudes towards homosexuals, attitudes towards the environment and so forth. In other words, if you want to ask where this notion—which came up incredibly suddenly—of the Earth being alive, dynamic, worthy of protection came from, it’s never acknowledged, even by the environmental movement of all people, that it had to do with an enlightenment provoked by the use of psychedelics. But I believe that the use of psychoactive substances really was a major force in the recent American social history.

 

Was their effect profound on you personally?

I live as honorable a family oriented life as any moral majority person would want me to lead on some level: two wonderful kids, a beautiful wife to whom I’ve never been unfaithful and so forth. And I don’t use drugs anymore—and not for any moral reason, I just stopped—except for experimentation in a folk setting. But I do not pass moral judgement on others who continue, and I don’t hide from having done them. What I’m getting at is that I represent what “those people” would like this culture to be, and yet I’m proud to say that my life was absolutely changed by taking San Pedro cactus, by taking mushrooms, by taking LSD.  

The very ideas, the very way I weave words and look at history and natural processes, the way I interact with tribals, all of it was impacted by my use of those psychoactive substances. So I’m quite amazed by the demonization of stimulants as “Drugs”, when they were never considered to be drugs by the indigenous people who used them. And that demonization of the substances has also demonized the experience in terms of consciousness. It’s probably not an accident, of course, because the act of changing consciousness is so subversive and threatening. But at some point the “psychedelic experience” will have its due. People will finally acknowledge that this was a useful thing. You know Andrew Weil has an adage that there is no such thing as good and bad drugs, there is only a good and bad way of using drugs.

 

When we did these substances there was certainly a counterculturally acceptable way of doing them: Do it in the right time with the right person in the right setting. And I think that was almost a kind of parallel experience to a shamanic rite of passage in indigenous cultures. What do you think?

When we started, by chance of the time of our birth, to experiment with some of these things, it was in a cultural set where we had an ‘each one teach one’ mind set. The whole matrix upon which these substances were being used and the expectation we brought to the experience was that it would be A) pleasant, and B) a revealing and positive experience.

Now it’s a little awkward to lay on young kids today because they have different expectations. They’ve been brought up to believe these are terrible drugs. Well, that’s different from us. So I’m equally loathe to suggest to any young person that they should try any psychoactive substance today. I don’t actually ever recommend anything to anyone. I feel it’s your personal choice.

 

Yet when any of us write about positive psychoactive substance experiences, it begins to create a framework within which the substances can be taken for best result.

I’ve been lucky that people have not responded to my book as a book about taking drugs, because it’s really a book about cultures and places in which these sacred plants play a role.

 

What’s your take on the rainforest as nature’s pharmacy?

I think the whole concept of the rainforest as nature’s pharmacy is a mixed bag, because I think there’s a tremendous risk of generating a backlash of disappointment if you suggest or imply that the only real value of the rainforest is as a source of new drugs. Because if you then don’t find those new drugs, what is the value of the rainforest?

I think that environmentalists have consciously or unconsciously, cynically or naively, flaunted this rhetoric though, and aside from the potential backlash it’s creating completely unrealistic expectations of wealth in the Third World where the presumption is that the gringos are somehow making a fortune off their plants.

You already notice that in things like the Biodiversity Treaty which, for better or worse, has significantly limited access to natural products in the southern hemisphere and generated expectations of imminent wealth that may or may not be realized but meanwhile have put bureaucratic impediments between researchers and the forest itself, which is not always a good thing.

Now given that preamble, let me say that we know for sure, given how few of the plants we’ve assayed, and how rich have been the fruits of those assays that it’s almost impossible to conceive that somewhere in the forest there are not more wonderful drugs to be discovered. So from that rational, it seems like an almost absolute certainty that drugs will be discovered. But from the other rational, it’s awfully difficult to discover drugs and it’s also very expensive to do. For example, the average cost of developing a drug is 500 million dollars today. That’s a solid corporate investment.

 

And then what do you do about intellectual property rights issue?

Exactly. What if you collect a plant from an indigenous group that they use for headaches, but then some pharmaceutical company finds a drug in the plant that is useful for arthritis, and they spend 500 million dollars developing it? It becomes a complex question as to what that intellectual property is worth, and how do you compensate the tribe that initially gave it to you in a way that is culturally sensitive, economically just to all parties involved, and which doesn’t disrupt that tribe.

 

How does the group you’re involved with plan to handle that?

The group that I’m involved with is called Andes Pharmaceuticals. It’s a start-up biotech company and essentially on the edge of becoming operational. The rationale of this company, which was started by a Bolivian, is to stay away from ethnobotany at least for the short term, because of its inherent problems relating to intellectual property rights and so on, and to deal with the Biodiversity Treaty by doing true technology transfer. The paradigm of what we’re doing is that we’ve set up a joint venture partnership with a company in Colombia, and instead of taking the plants from down there to up here, we are taking state of the art technology for cancer screening from here to Colombia. The lab will be set up in Colombia and the employees will be Colombian.

The second key of our model is that rather than try from plant to final drug, which incurs all these huge costs of clinical trials and so on, our goal is the identification of bioactive lead compounds, which presumably would then have a market value far lower than a final drug but would have a certain economic value to the major drug companies.

 

And your expectations?

What’s exciting about our concept is that it gives you an opportunity, with almost certainty, to generate product and do it relatively quickly.

At the same time we’re trying to be very low key, to dampen expectations, recognizing that the discovery of these new substances is essentially a numbers game. The goal is to be pumping 5,000 natural products through these screens year in and year out. But again, I think we should be moving very conservatively on this front, as opposed to dealing with the hype. Although it’s almost too late to put that genie back into the bottle because we’ve already raised expectations so high.

 

Google