As an avid reader of fantasy and Sci-Fi, I was surprised when I found myself so engrossed in the field notes of ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin. Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice records his research with the indigenous tribes of the Amazon over a 10 year period. The text is divided into small, readable chapters that can be dipped into individually. The whole book reads in an easily accessible narrative as Plotkin moves from one tribe to the next. As well as being filled with an amazing extent of botanical knowledge, the book describes breath-taking scenes of shamanistic rituals and healing ceremonies with electrifying detail; Plotkin’s rare passion for the tribal culture, traditions and deep knowledge of the forest is caught by the reader as he relates the devastating effects of westernisation on the delicate ecosystem maintained by the tribes.
Today, many people are concerned about the loss of the rainforest for reasons relating to conservation and global warming, but Plotkin adds a sense of urgency for another kind of loss: “Every time a shaman dies, it is the equivalent of a whole library burning down;” the shaman of a tribe preserves centuries worth of knowledge on the healing, hallucinogenic and toxic properties of plants yet undiscovered by western society. Not only are we destroying the precious organisms, but the knowledge needed to uncover plants that could provide breakthrough medicines for currently incurable conditions such as Alzheimer’s and many fungal infections. I was amazed to find that things ranging from chewing gum to a cure for herpes are all thanks to the rainforest and its inhabitants!
The tragedy of tribal leaders turning away from their rich culture and tradition in favour of jeans and shotguns is laid out in heart braking simplicity as Plotkin describes the damage already done by ‘civilised’ gold miners, missionaries and land owners. Although he manages to document and translate the knowledge of one the Tirio tribes’ shamans and begin a programme for training young shamans within the tribe, there are still lots to be done to ensure the knowledge isn’t lost as tribes become more and more dependent on western medicines and equipment and lose touch with the old ways of life.
Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice is more than a study of botany and anthropology; it’s a plea for action on the preservation of the rainforest and those who live there for the benefit of the tribes and the future generations of people who will benefit from their knowledge. It is already too late to save many already extinct micro cultures but the individual knowledge of those left is, without doubt, worth the struggle.
Words by Betsy Middleton