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Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice.
by Mark J. Plotkin. Viking Penguin, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014. 1993. 318 pp. Hardcover. $22. ISBN 0-670-83187-9.

"The old man squatted on his haunches and turned to face the sun like some primeval bird trying to absorb enough solar energy to make one last flight." Plotkin, 1993.

"Far from saying that time means nothing to an Indian, I would suggest that it means so much more to him that he does not wish to waste it in profitless effort like we do." Edgar Anderson, as quoted on p. 222, Plotkin, 1993.

I have enjoyed eight separate ecotouristic weeks with the Yagua Indians of Amazonian Peru now, on at least one occasion accompanied by more than 100 ecotourists, all in their way contributing to the salvation of one of the most diverse forests in the world. These ecotours are in conjunction with International Expeditions of Birmingham, Alabama, and their tax-exempt arm, the Amazonian Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER). For many of the ecotourists it is their first trip to the rainforest; but many try to get back after their first taste of tropical biodiversity. Almost all novices ask about reading materials to help prepare them for their trip, and, after their return to the Northern Hemisphere, to remind them of the beauty they left behind at the ACEER camps. I am especially pleased to recommend a book whose royalties will contribute to the salvation of the rainforest.

Mark Plotkin's exciting new book is pleasant reading, well laced with historical, geographical, and ethnobotanical tidbits. The reader can enjoy it while preparing for a tropical ecotour and pick up some pointers about tribal and botanical etiquette in the tropics. Would that my books were as typo-free as Plotkin's!

Having been in the field at least three times with hyperallergenic (to bee sting) people (who had run off without their allergy kit) in the last year or two, I was particularly interested in Plotkin's comment (page 222) about a cacao relative (Theobroma) used for swollen testicles and ant stings. Perhaps xanthines (theophylline, theobromine) {like ephedrine}, have some antihistaminic or antianaphylactic as well as antiasthmatic activity that could be useful in bee stings. Perhaps sublingual applications of ground cacao seeds might be useful. as I've been told that sublingual application of norepinephrine-containing plants (such as purslane) might be useful in life-threatening situations where no benadryl kit is available.

Returning to Amazonian Peru, I enjoy reading and rereading books that relate to areas I plan to visit. The books don't always agree, but there is often disagreement among anthropologists, botanists, brujos, curanderos, doctors, ethnobotanists and hechiceros about their phytomedicinal data and its reliability. As Plotkin notes, it's most exciting when one finds that the ethnic group with which he is working has discovered independently the same applications used by other ethnic groups. Empirical wisdom scores again!

Plotkin teaches us some of the empirical wisdom of the tribes with which he worked. It's great, even humorous, reading, and highly recommended, even to those who have no desire to go ecotouring in the tropics, and to those who prefer to experience the rainforest vicariously, via reading.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Jim Duke