Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon by Stephan V. Beyer. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2009. Hardcover, 530 pages. ISBN 9780826347299. $45.00.
As plant-based shamanism peaks in the Western consciousness, a number of books have recently been published documenting different facets of this archaic revival. Few are more carefully researched or as delightfully presented as Stephan V. Beyer’s magnum opus, Singing to the Plants, which as the subtitle suggests, is the invaluable guide to mestizo shamanism in the Upper Amazon.
Beyer is an ex-jungle survivalist, a trained lawyer, and, most curiously, a rigorous academic with degrees in both religion and psychology, who is steeped in the experiential world of Peruvian shamanism. Beyer spent many years learning the arts of indigenous curanderos (or as the West would call them, shamans), and received coronación in Peru by banco ayahuasquero (an experienced ayahuasca shaman of many decades) Don Roberto Acho Jurama.
Beyer’s book documents the rich traditions of the mestizo Spanish-speaking descendants of the Hispanic colonizers and the indigenous jungle peoples, and their colorful mix of folk Catholicism and traditional plant-based medicines. Chief among these medicines is the “vine of the soul,” ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi (Malpighiaceae) vine (containing mono-amine oxidase inhibitors) and a mixture of plants such as chacruna (Psychotria viridis, Rubiaceae) which contains the potent psychedelic dimethyltryptamine, or DMT.
Beyer sketches the history and current indigenous usage of ayahuasca, as well as documenting its unprecedented boom in the West as a spiritual tool, and he does so in a meticulous and rewarding way, weaving academic discourse with his own personal recollections of training with his maestro and other curanderos. The result is a fresh and evocative journey into the magical-realist world of indigenous plant medicines, where literally hundreds of plants are utilized by curanderos for physical and spiritual healing, love, magic, and malicious sorcery.
Beyer has a detailed chapter on the phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience, describing the internal visions that have made it so famous and sought after in the West, and discussing the lucidity, time dilation, synaesthesia, and modes of mental activity that create the internal sensations. Beyer holds no facet of the ayahuasca experience as sacrosanct, and applies modern psychological understanding to the how and why of the visionary experience: gap filling, active imagination, and other templates are applied against the indigenous world of spirits, entities, and magical realism.
In addition to ayahuasca, Beyer lists almost 150 medicinal, psychoactive, and “power” plants used in the Upper Amazon, from the potent tobacco Nicotiana rustica (Solanaceae; aka mapacho), to toé (Brugmansia suaveolens, Solanaceae) , ajo sacha (Mansoa alliacea, Bignoniaceae), camalonga (Thevetia peruviana, Apocynaceae), and many others. There is an invaluable appendix detailing the popular and scientific names, and references to each plant.
As his title suggests, it is not just the physical properties for which indigenous curanderos use these plants; the shamans sing to the plants, or the “spirits” in them, and are in turn sung back to. These songs, or icaros, are said to map the vibrational essence of the plants and are part of the essential tools of the trade of Amazonian shamanism. “The plant comes and talks to you, it teaches you to sing,” curandero Don Solón Tello Lozano is quoted as saying.
Singing to the Plants is an invaluable collection of indigenous wisdom sifted with reasoned Western critique. Beyer describes an ayahuasca ceremony and counterpoints this with detailed analysis of the role of the shaman as a performer, healer, and sometimes charlatan, providing an essential discussion of this idolized figure. He goes on to successfully map the shamanic landscape and the competition and dangers of shamanism (mainly from other shamans engaged in a jungle-infused, eat-or-beeaten competition for magical prowess and reputation, also called brujeria). From poisoned blow darts to magical virote (a short, blunt arrow), Beyer goes where few books on shamanism have dared to tread, to the dark side of ego-based work in the reputed spirit realms the hallucinogenic plants take the shamans and their patients.
Initiated himself, Beyer provides a cascading and carefully constructed explanation of all facets of mestizo shamanism, from the jungle villages to the large cities, and his journeys are infused with the colorful detail and ring of authenticity. This is a serious and scholarly compendium for the academic and layperson alike. It is to be most highly recommended to those with an interest in Amazonian medicines, shamanism, culture, and the current impact these evolving traditions are having as the West undergoes its own global shamanic resurgence.
—Rak Razam Author, Aya: A Shamanic Odyssey Mullumbimby, Australia