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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Schultes Obit

Air Date: Week of


(Music up and under: Allison Dean, "Backwards Sting")

CURWOOD: The father of ethnobotany died earlier this month. Richard
Schultes just about single-handedly pioneered the Western study of native cultures and their use of plants. Most of his work was done in the Amazon, where he documented the medicinal and hallucinogenic uses for thousands of plants among the indigenous peoples. When not exploring the forest, Richard Schultes taught at Harvard. One of his students was Mark Plotkin, now president of the Amazon Conservation Team. He remembers the first time he saw the man who would become his mentor.

PLOTKIN: The enormous classroom was like an ethnographic museum. One wall was covered with huge green maps of the Amazon. From the rafters hung Amazonian Indian dance costumes with glistening black demon faces.
Two long display cases flanked the room, filled to overflowing with botanical booty from around the world. Black palm blowguns from
Colombia, shiny silver hashish pipes from India, and tiny bows and arrows from the Congo.

Presiding over the tableau was the great Harvard ethnobotanist Richard
Evans Schultes, tall, crew-cut, and dressed in an immaculate white lab coat, white dress shirt, crimson tie, and silver wire-rimmed glasses. As he called the class to order and began to show his slides, one picture in particular changed my life forever, a scene in which three Indians in grass skirts and bark cloth masks danced at the edge of a jungle clearing.

"Here you see three Indians of the Yukuna tribe doing the sacred Kai-yah-ree dance under the influence of a hallucinogenic potion to keep away the forces of darkness. The one on the left has a Harvard degree. Next slide please." From that moment on I and many, many others were hooked on plants, Indians, and the Amazon.

Schultes was without question not only an incredible inspiration to his students but the greatest botanical explorer of the Amazon in the twentieth century. He survived plane crashes, boat sinkings, bandits, hunger, dysentery, and repeated bouts of malaria. But he always insisted that he never had any adventures in the jungle. Schultes lived and traveled with forest Indians for almost 14 years, sometimes amongst tribes that had never before seen a white man. At one point he was gone for so long that friends in the Colombian capital of Bogota had given him up for dead. They were in the process of arranging a memorial service in his honor when he reappeared at the National Herbarium, frightening more than a few of his fellow botanists.

There was a historic event in Columbia just six days before Dr. Schultes passed away. Inspired by Schultes' example, 16 shamans from tribes he had studied left their jungle home and traveled to the capital city of Bogota. There they presented representatives of the national government with their code of ethics for shamanic medicine and conservation that they had designed and developed to protect their medical wisdom, their culture, and their ecosystems. Perhaps these healers in their rainforest still harbor the magic which first attracted Richard Evans Schultes so many years ago.

(Music up and under: Deep Forest, "Sweet Lullaby")

CURWOOD: Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team, remembering Richard Schultes, who died April tenth at the age of 86.



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