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The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes

The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes by Wade Davis. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004. 160 pp. ISBN# 0-8118-4571-0. $35.00. ABC catalog #B536.

As editor of a journal like HerbalGram, I receive many books on herbs and natural health for review. Once in a great while a book crosses my desk that causes me to immediately stop whatever I’m doing, pick it up, look through it, and read a few pages or chapters. With this coffee-table book’s arrival on a Friday afternoon, I took it home for the pre-winter holiday weekend, knowing that whatever editorial work I was planning would be trumped to give me time to enjoy this beautiful volume.

There are at least three reasons why this book is so compelling. The first is the primary protagonist, Richard Evans Schultes, the famed and highly revered Harvard botanist who is universally considered the “father of ethnobotany.” Schultes was a man who in many respects was larger than life. During his many years of research in the Amazonian basin, he lived with dozens of native tribes and mapped uncharted rivers, while seeking new supplies of rubber for the U.S. government prior to and during World War II. During his lifetime Schultes collected over 30,000 botanical specimens, 300 of which were new to science, and he described the uses of over 2000 medicinal plants that had not previously been documented.

Schultes’ progeny of students reads like a who’s who of ethnobotany: the author Wade Davis; famed integrative medicine advocate and best-selling author Andrew Weil; the late ethnobotanist Timothy Plowman; ethnobotanists and researchers Michael Balick, Steven King, and Marc Plotkin; and others. Davis tells the story of how so many botanists travel a plant-rich locale like the Amazon and, looking into the rainforest, are able to recognize two or three of the plants with which they were familiar. In contrast, Schultes would look at the forest and point out the two or three plants that he did not know.

The second reason this book grabs the reader is Davis’ writing. Wade is really a poet, but he chooses the (in)convenience of prose. The photos are explained with captions excerpted from Davis’ previous book, One River – Exploration and Discoveries in the Amazon Rainforest (Touchstone, 1996). One River is Davis’ tribute to his mentor and to another Schultes’ student Timothy Plowman, who was Davis’ fellow tropical traveler as they retraced Schultes’ journeys in the Amazon some 30 years later. (Some readers will recognize Davis’ works; his books include the much misinterpreted The Serpent and the Rainbow [Simon & Schuster Touchstone, 1985], which was later distorted by the Hollywood movie of the same name, wherein zombie potions of poisonous herbs catch the interest of a botanist and scout for the pharmaceutical industry—all based on Davis’ own post-graduate research experience in Haiti).

The photographs themselves are the third reason this book is so compelling. They are strikingly beautiful, especially since they are black and white! Schultes was not only one of the world’s pre-eminent botanists, he was also a great photographer. The large-format book allows these photos to take up the whole page with an almost a life-like effect, that is, as “life-like” as black and white photography can be.

The Foreword by Andrew Weil recounts how Weil was indelibly affected by Schultes. As a young undergraduate student at Harvard, Weil signed up for Schultes’ Biology 104, Introduction to Economic Botany. As Weil has stated numerous times in many speeches and interviews, the initial contact with Schultes changed the course of Weil’s education and still influences his trajectory as one of the premier leaders of integrative medicine, now a widely used term, coined by Weil to describe the rational combination of modern conventional medical practices with empirically sound “alternative” modalities. “Meeting this legendary botanical explorer was one of the truly seminal events in my life….When I entered Harvard Medical School in 1964, I soon realized how valuable my connection to the world of plants was going to be. Most of my classmates and teachers had little experience with it. Even the pharmacologists knew little of the natural sources of the drugs they studied and taught about….”

Weil’s three pages contain two classic photos of himself (then black-bearded) with a cultivated specimen of one of the plants that Schultes studied and experienced in native rituals—the powerful hallucinogen and shamanic favorite yage’ or ayahusaca (Banisteriopsis caapi), the “vine of the soul.” This is also the name of a book by Schultes and Richard Raffauf, Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Colombian Amazonia (Synergetic Press, 1992). 

Generously weaving a web through the photographs is text borrowed from One River. Veteran HerbalGram readers will recall that a black and white photo of Schultes was the cover photo of HerbalGram 38, which included an eight-page spread with excerpts and photos from that book.

While One River was a narrative of Schultes’ ethnobotanical experiences in the Amazon, this book is created from the exquisite photography of Schultes’ during the twelve years he spent cataloguing rubber trees and medicinal and psychoactive plants. His photos, taken in the 1940s and 50s, shows an Amazon before it lamentably went the way of modernization and the influences of the twentieth, and the now the twenty-first, centuries.

Davis’ Preface is an explanation of the book’s genesis and homage to Schultes and to that magical interplay of light, timing, composition, and equipment known as photography. Davis relates how the type of camera (an old 1927-era twin lens Rolleiflex) influenced Schulte’s composition and the resulting photographs in the book.

A poignant passage relates that during his last few years, an aging and Alzheimer’s-affected Schultes kept a copy of One River by his bedside. After his death, Schultes’ widow Dorothy (to whom the entire author’s royalties are dedicated) told Davis that reading the book had allowed her husband to remember many forgotten details of his own life. “I found this both amusing and very touching,” writes Davis. “Here after all was the man who had made my life possible. Now the book had become his life. His life had become my imagination, and my imagination had breathed meaning and content back into the life of an old man who was slowly fading away as all old men must inevitably do.”

There’s probably no richer, more meaningful, more appropriate way any student can repay his or her primary mentor than to help the mentor reconnect to the threads of his or her own life. It’s as if Schultes experienced one of the aspects of the meaning of religion through his student’s work: religion, from Latin religio, means to re-connect.

This book emanates an almost palpable essence or feeling that allows the reader to connect to a place, a time, a world that is now gone, yet beautifully preserved—like an insect encased in a piece of clear amber—in the photography of one of botany’s greatest leaders and luminaries. The entire ethnobotanical community owes Wade Davis a deep debt of incalculable gratitude for making these images available to a new generation of plant enthusiasts and potential explorers.

 —Mark Blumenthal