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Plant Spirit Medicine.
Plant Spirit Medicine Eliot Cowan. Swan Raven and Company, Newberg, OR. 1995.187 pages. ISBN #0-926524-09-7.

" did the first ancient healers learn of the medicinal benefits of foxglove...? Unlikely that it was discovered randomly, through accident or trial and error. It seems reasonable to assume that ancient medicine men or women were somehow able to communicate with the plants or in some other intuitive way read what they might offer us humans."

This brief quote, from Hal Zina Bennett's foreword to Plant Spirit Medicine, raises a question often ignored by ethnobotanists. How did humans discover the healing power of plants? The doctrine of signatures is one explanation; a plant's form or other physical attribute suggests its use. Galactagogues (agents which increase milk production), for example, often come from latexbearing plants, blood remedies from red-colored ones. Liver- or heart-shaped leaves are employed to treat ailments of the respective organs. But other proximal and ultimate reasons also account for a species' use, including its taxonomic relationships, habitat, commonness, and faunal interactions. Cultural traditions also are important.

Eliot Cowan offers another possibility -- the plants themselves are the teachers. For Cowan, plants are more than cellulose phytochemical factories. He writes, "To think that plants are mere dumb creatures that do not know ecstasy is ignorance or tragic arrogant folly." In what could be called the Zen of drug plant discovery, Cowan describes the process of learning plant spirit medicine. "Go for a walk outdoors at a time and place where there are many different kinds of wild plants growing. Wander with no destination in mind. When you come across a stand of plants that are especially attractive to you, approach them. Speaking aloud, introduce yourself by name, and explain that you have come to learn from the spirit of this species." One page later he summarizes the process, "Become the plant."

Cowan asserts that science and traditional wisdom agree in describing the world as a dream, "...a tissue of appearances made of energy and consciousness." While he may be an accurate spokesperson for metaphysical herbal healing, one should take his assessment of conventional knowledge carefully. I know of few scientists who would describe the world around them as a dream. Here Cowan reveals the influence of the anthropologist Michael Harner, who authored the widely read book, Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls. Harner later embarked on a career as a spiritual gum. For traditional Jivaro, more properly called the Shuar, the physical world around them is indeed artificial. They discover the "real world" through the use of psychoactive substances such as natem (Banisteriopsis caapi (Spruce ex Griseb.) Morton, Malpighiaceae) and maikua (Brugmansia sauveolens (Humbl. & Bonpl.) ex Willd. Berchtold & Presl, Solanaceae) (Bennett 1992 and in press). If some scientists have attempt ed to make discoveries through similar processes, they have failed to mention this in their Materials and Methods.

According to Plant Spirit Medicine, it is not the plants that heal but rather the spirit of the plants. Cowan claims that there are no specific herbs for specific illnesses. Many traditional people recognize this, in part, believing the herbal remedies have little power until a shaman releases it. An objective assessment makes this argument less tenable, particularly considering the historical and geographical continuity of plant use. For example, leaves of guava (Psidium guajava L., Myrtaceae) are used throughout the plant's range to treat diarrhea. The leaves are employed in traditional societies, who may acknowledge the existence of plant spirits, as well as acculturated societies, who do not. This pattern suggests a physical component rather than a purely spiritual element to healing.

Plant Spirit Medicine provides little information on the medicinal uses of specific plants. It also is inconsistent in treating binomials. Generic names sometimes are italicized, sometimes are capitalized and occasionally are printed properly. Readers will likely fall into one of two camps. Some will consider the author's position to be untestable balderdash. Those of the New Age bent will applaud his work. Is there middle ground? Perhaps. Cowan has touched upon an important missing element in modern medicine -- the spiritual component. In a poignant description, he notes that Don Guadeloupe, a healer-teacher, was as shocked by the spiritual poverty of the developed world as much as the developed world was shocked by his physical poverty. All but the most hardened cynics would fail to find truth in that assessment. It is easy to dismiss Plant Spirit Medicine as 1990s gobbledygook but there are truths to be found within.

One of my graduate students, Christiane Ehringhaus, just completed her thesis among the Kaxinawá people of Acre, Brazil. Imidio Vieira, a 65-year-old healer, described the following method of plant healing: "When you use an enchanted leaf, you do not have to pray because the plant cures by itself....While picking the leaves, you explain to the iuxin (plant spirit) why you picked them and why you need their help and explain the disease of this patient to them....You bring the leaves, you do not do anything with them until they start talking. Wait until they ask, `What do you want these leaves for?"' After responding that she had never heard a plant talk, Imidio replied, "Oh Christiane, if you stayed here longer with me you would hear." Eliot Cowan would agree.

[Bennett, B.C. 1992. Hallucinogenic plants of the Shuar and related indigenous groups in Amazonian Ecuador and Peru. Brittonia, 44:483-493.

Bennett, B. C., M. A. Baker, and P. Gomez. Ethnobotany of the Shuar of Amazonian Ecuador. Advances in Econ. Bot. (in press).

Ehringhaus, C. 1997. Medicinal uses of Piper spp. (Piperaceae) by an indigenous Kaxinawá Community in Acre, Brazil. M.S. Thesis, Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University, Miami, Florida.]

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Bradley C. Bennett