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Rainforest Medicine: Preserving Indigenous Science and Biodiversity in the Upper Amazon

Rainforest Medicine: Preserving Indigenous Science and Biodiversity in the Upper Amazon by Jonathon Miller Weisberger. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books; 2013. Softcover, 408 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58394-608-4. $19.95.

Rainforest Medicine is an extraordinary book, which I could not put down. The author, Jonathon “Sparrow” Miller Weisberger, is an ethnobotanist and grassroots conservationist who has written an amazing chronicle of his work in Ecuador with multiple indigenous cultures over a 10-year period from 1990 to 2000. The title, Rainforest Medicine: Preserving Indigenous Science and Biodiversity in the Upper Amazon, is both descriptive and a metaphor for medicine in the form of spiritual wisdom that indigenous healers have shared with the author about how one needs to live in order to become a healer and navigate the realms of plant teachers.

A primary focus of this book is the utilization, role, constituents, preparation, cultural importance, and spiritual journeys of healers who drink the now-famous powerful Amazonian psychoactive plant mixture known as yagé or ayahuasca. As is now well documented, this sacred tea is comprised of a synergistic mixture of several plants, the stem of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi (Malpighiaceae) and the leaves of Psychotria viridis (Rubiaceae) or Diplopterys cabrerana (Malpighiaceae). Various Amazonian shamans also add other plants depending the shaman’s own formula. It is critical to add one of the two Psychotria or Diplopterys leaves for this tea to have its psychotropic effects. However, the Western medical term “psychotropic effect” is vastly inadequate to describe the role of this powerful “rainforest medicine” as the author explains, detailing the cosmology and healing visions of five distinct cultural groups.

The book is presented in nine chapters with titles such as “Introduction to the Indigenous Science of the Upper Amazon,” “The Gift of Ayahuasca,” “Preparing a Proper Brew,” “The Celestial Summer of the Cicadas,” “The Deep-Forest Perspective of the Waorani” (an Ecuadorian indigenous people), “The Eyebrows of the Andes,” and “Lineage Holders of the Ancient Traditions, Deep Forest and Urban,” among others.

The book contains 108 color photographs of beautiful upper Amazonian landscapes, including images of the plants associated with Banisteriopsis (some of the best-detailed photographs I have seen of the vine and these beautiful plants), specific indigenous healers and friends who are discussed in detail in the text, and community images from the cultures with which he lived and worked. Part of these photographs also document the destruction of Amazonian ecosystems by many well-known activities. Additionally, there are several wonderful ayahuasca vision paintings by the Peruvian painter, teacher, healer, and world-famous author Pablo Amaringo, including the book’s cover image (the author’s relationship with and teaching from Mr. Amaringo are presented in one chapter). The book also includes nearly 50 pages of detailed and informative endnotes linked to each chapter, a very useful glossary with botanical and indigenous names for many plants described in the text, and an extensive bibliography and index.

Weisberger shares a great deal of unique and deep, esoteric knowledge about the cosmology of the Secoya indigenous people who live in Ecuador and Peru. This window into the spiritual realms of the Secoya and their worldview is shared with the explicit consent of the Secoya healers; this knowledge is rapidly disappearing as the elders who retain this information are dying. The author lived among the Secoya of Ecuador for a five-year period and participated in numerous healing sessions with elder Secoya healers. He also worked with and for them in all phases of their daily life and established deep personal relationships with many members of this community.

In fact, there is a wonderful recurring theme throughout most of the chapters of this book about the importance of service to people, communities, and the environment. The author states repeatedly that one of the key requirements for developing one’s ability to be a highly evolved spiritual person and learn the art of healing with rainforest medicine is through service work. It is thus appropriate to pay homage to what service work the author has accomplished, which is described in the book. Weisberger was influential in the creation of three reserves in Ecuador, including the Napo-Galeras National Park. He also played a pivotal role in the process that helped the Secoya indigenous people retain an important area of rainforest that is part of their ancestral homeland. He participated in the demarcation of Waorani territory as well, which is described in more detail below.

There is rich and tremendous detail about the use of yagé and other plants among the Secoya as part of their yagé ceremonies. I have had the privilege to live and study plant medicine among the Secoya of the Santa Maria River in the Peruvian Amazon for a nine-month period. This book helped me understand a great deal of the subtle aspects of plants utilized by the Secoya that I started to learn during my time with these highly accomplished and respected indigenous people of the northwestern Amazon basin.

Wiesberger also devotes a chapter to his work with the Waorani peoples, who are one of the more “recently contacted” indigenous peoples in Ecuador. In this chapter he writes about the struggles of the Waorani in the face of relentless colonization, oil exploitation, and timber harvesting. The author describes his key collaboration on a four-year Waorani land demarcation project. He and his Waorani colleagues literally cleared a swath of forest around the borders of the Waorani territory. The author, along with a Waorani friend, planted food, medicine, and other plant species in the cleared borders to demark the Waorani territory. This is an example of the service ethic that Jonathon Weisberger demonstrates; his actions speak as loud as, and in parallel with, his words.

There is also a discussion of the modest and distinct ways in which the Waorani people utilize the Banisteriopsis vine, as well as a detailed description of the Waorani cosmology. In 1991, I had the opportunity to meet and briefly learn from one of the Waorani healers described in the text, who was a dear friend and teacher of the author. This individual Waorani, as reported by the author, died in 2013 — another reminder of the ethereal nature of the healers of the of the upper Amazon basin and of the importance of what Weisberger has documented in this volume.

Rainforest Medicine also illuminates the dark side of ayahuasca and the dangers facing healers using this plant mixture. Some of this information is relevant to people around the world who are taking ayahuasca in a variety of forums for a number of reasons. I wish the author of a recent article, “A strong cup of tea,” in The New York Times Fashion and Style section (June 13, 2014) had read this book so that he would have had some knowledge about the origins and importance of yagé among Amazonian peoples. In fact, I was happy to see the warnings and suggestions provided by Weisberger to people clamoring to experience the effects of ayahuasca. The author wisely states that consuming yagé requires preparation and respect, and that it is an experience to be undertaken only by those “called to do so.”

This book is delightful for many reasons: the author mixes in his own personal stories of healing sessions and traveling through enchanted regions of different rainforest ecosystems, and he honestly portrays how challenging it is and can be to try get different cultural groups and government and non-governmental agencies to cooperate on the creation of reserves and protected areas in Ecuador. I also greatly enjoyed the many references to Taoism that the author sprinkles throughout the book as he compares the cosmology and conduct required for personal spiritual development to become adept at healing with the “rainforest medicine” that he so elegantly describes in this book.

The book does not provide detailed lists of Amazonian medicinal plants as one finds in the classic The Healing Forest by Schultes and Raffauf (Dioscorides Press, 1990) or the Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary by Duke and Vasquez (CRC Press, 1994), which is wise as we already have those books and important lists. Weisberger takes the reader deeper into the origins and cosmology of Amazonian Shamanism of multiple cultures and simultaneously shows readers how to integrate their passion with service to help conserve cultural and biological diversity. With this book Wiesberger joins the ranks of Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Amaringo, Luis Eduardo Luna, Richard Grossinger, Dennis and Terence McKenna, Michael Harner, Katherine Harrision, Peter Gorman, Bruce Lamb, Jeremey Narby, and many other explorers of the mind — scholars and progressive teachers who have and are making important contributions to understanding the power of healing plants, fragile environments, and the astonishing dimensions of the natural world, which includes humans.

This book is a classic that will be of great interest to students of Amazonian studies, health, healing, shamanism, and biological and cultural diversity. It also serves as a guide to personal development if one chooses to experience yagé. Rainforest Medicine will be of great use as humans continue to evolve and explore the therapeutic potential of yagé and other plants that can help humans grow and overcome a wide diversity of behavioral problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Groups such as the non-profit organization Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in California are working to help the Western medical community understand how to integrate Amazonian Medicine, as described by the author, into clinical practice.

Bravo then to Jonathon “Sparrow” Miller Weisberger for what he has accomplished with this book. I am eager to learn about what he has done since 2000 and what he will do in the future.

—Steven R. King, PhD Executive Vice-President of Sustainable Supply, Ethnobotanical Research and Intellectual Property Jaguar Animal Health San Francisco, California