» PLANTS, MAGIC & SPIRIT: Lit-Tripping in the Ethnobotanosphere

by Brian Awehali

“It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring”. – Carl Sagan

I’m always looking for examples of magic in the world that don’t require the willful suspension of disbelief, or the complete setting aside of critical thinking. Happily, the plant and animal kingdoms — not all that distinct or separate from us — provide almost limitless examples of interconnectedness, magic, and cosmic intelligence.

Consider highlights from Wikipedia’s, “Plant Intelligence” entry:

Plants are not passive entities… They signal and communicate within and among themselves, accurately compute their circumstances, use sophisticated cost-benefit analysis, and take tightly controlled actions to mitigate and control environmental stressors. Plants are capable of ‘learning’ from their past experiences, and of updating their behavior in order to survive present and future challenges of their environment. Plants are also capable of refined recognition of self and non-self, and are territorial in behavior.”

Ingredients for ayahuasca brewSo, keeping that complex and communicative intelligence in mind, are Columbian Amazonian shamans (or “medicine men” of many possible names) and their tribes able to communicate directly with animals and plants, and do they possess means of traveling to alternate psychic and physical realities? Can a combination of (animistic) belief, rhythm, color and strong plant medicine provide people with direct access and communication with what can be called a spirit realm? How is it that many Amazonian shamans possess understandings of the pharmacology and neurochemistry of plants that far exceeds that of Western scientists?

These are questions explored by Dr. Richard Evans Schultes’ landmark book, Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Columbian Amazon (1992), an extraordinary photo-centric collection of indigenous myths and narratives from travelers and scientists about the ayahuasca experience…

Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes and an Amazonian medicine man, snorting curare powder through bones. Curare, a plant-derived poison most often used to lethal effect on hunting darts and arrows, is also capable of producing psychedelic states of consciousness.

Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes and an Amazonian medicine man, snorting curare powder through bones. Curare, a plant-derived poison most often used to lethal effect on hunting darts and arrows, is also capable of producing psychedelic states of consciousness.

Are the claims of medicine men — that they get their information directly from the plants, particularly under the influence of ayahuasca — to be taken literally, poetically, or both?

Almost as importantly, what does the material gathered in this book, and the questions it raises, mean for “our” relationship to the Amazonian rainforest and issues of conservation and exploitation? National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, who writes the Preface to the latest edition of Vine of the Soul, has spoken passionately elsewhere about the modern decimation of the “ethnosphere,” and this book really shows, rather than tells, how important a diversity of Ways of Being Human really is, and what’s lost as cultures and languages pass out of existence.

Here’s a good History Channel clip about Schultes’ hunt for curare in the Amazon:

* * *


At roughly the same time Schultes was learning from ayahuasqueros in the Columbian Amazon, artist and filmmaker Maya Deren was situating herself in Haiti and immersing herself in Haitian life and Voudon spiritual practices, eventually publishing a landmark 1953 ethnographic account of her visit entitled Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. 

In both Vine of the Soul and Divine Horsemen, it’s fascinating to see how people in traditional, yet wildly different societies construct, interpret, and utilize symbols and belief for spiritual purposes. Storytelling, magic, art, and belief — symbol-manipulation and meaning-making — are potent evolutionary species traits, and from this viewpoint, both books depict places, times and cultures with strong living stories and a deeply pragmatic impulse towards artful synthesis and equilibrium with nature.

If you’re not inclined to read the book, this 50-minute film of the same name has some stunning footage:

And, if you’re curious about, or eager for more Deren, here’s one of her experimental short films, At Land, with remastered sound:

* * *

The Kingdom of This World, by Alejo Carpentier

Alejo Carpentier has been credited with originating “magical realism” in this book, though he called it o real maravilloso, or “real marvelloso,” and the prime magic of it is that he renders the wisdom and power of animals and earth- and plant-based spirituality, like voudon (voodoo), as literal truth. The narrative of the book (an astonishingly packed 180 pages) is about a particularly brutal and chaotic time in Haiti’s history (which is saying a lot), and it’s also a cautionary tale about overthrowing one master only to find the whiplash of another master descending. It’s a particularly good read in tandem with Deren’s Divine Horsemen.


Battle at San Domingo, by January Suchodolski

This book is hilarious in spots, bone-chilling in others, and it pulls no political punches. The rebellion depicted at the climax of the book is carried out by people, but when it comes, it’s also nothing less than a force of animal and plant nature.

* * *

Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, by Terence McKenna

FoodOfTheGodsCoverThis is a widely read, provocative, and also very maddening book. McKenna’s extensive exploration of cultures throughout history that used entheogenic plants (mostly psilocybin mushrooms) to expand their awareness, enter altered states, connect with vegetal intelligence, and, according to McKenna’s argument, actually make massive evolutionary leaps in language and cognitive processing, is fascinating stuff, and much of his research is convincing. He does, however, rely quite a bit more on speculation and annoyingly qualified language (“Could it be,” “it’s possible,” “Perhaps these people,” etc.), when he attempts to connect these aspects to the fall of what he calls “partnership societies” and the rise of “dominator cultures,” and when he attempts synthesis with social theory generally. The book is weaker for this, which disappointed me, because I’m a reader who actually believes already in the transformative psychic powers of entheogens (or, as we all called them in college, psychedelics). I’ve also read about medical (and military) studies into the therapeutic and anti-depressant properties of psychedelics, so this belief isn’t just based on my own anecdotal experiences.

Maybe McKenna was unlikely to convince too many people not already receptive to, and willing to believe, that we co-evolved our consciousness with plants, but I really wanted him to nail these things (I made all kinds of annoyed notes in the margins of my copy), so that it might convince more of those who are inclined to be skeptical about that proposition.

Still, this unique book is a landmark, and it’s a huge contribution to the inquiry into human’s longstanding and obvious desire to alter our perceptions and consciousness, as well as a powerful argument for more exploration of the relationship between human and plant perception and intelligence.

Of course, this being a blog post, and you being on the internet, you probably have more interest in a short video than a long book:

McKenna, who died not long ago, has a lot of great stuff available online, including a discussion of how Culture Is Not Your Friend, a detailed (audio) exploration of psilocybin mushrooms, and some probably very sage advice about consuming psychedelics.

* * *

Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobotany of the Haitian Zombie, by Wade Davis


Zombies are real; they’re not just a metaphor for disease, or for pod people in mass society! Wade Davis, a Harvard-trained ethnobiologist, does a brilliant job of explaining the specific cultural context and pharmacological basis for zombie-making in Haiti, which is not the garish horror movie reality depicted in so many movies, but an intricate system of social control brought over from Africa when slaves were imported for the Haitian economy. To manger moun, or “eat a person” involves a community request for punishment of someone who has violated community standards or codes, usually related to land disputes.


Clairvius Narcisse, the first zombie thoroughly documented by Western science.

The book also gives a great look at Haiti’s history; I was reading this when a large earthquake struck Haiti, and felt it deepened my understanding of events and context. This will probably change your thinking about voudon and Haiti in general, unless you’re already well-versed in the subject.

It might also make the ongoing pox of zombie movies seem even sillier than it already does, at least to me.

Check out this short clip, “Zombies: When the Dead Walk,” by Donna Zuckerbrot, and featuring Wade Davis:

And this, another clip from that same film, specifically about Clairvius Narcisse, a man whose zombification and “resurrection” are well-documented:


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