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

One River

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood spoke with author Wade Davis about some of the adventures recounted in his book One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rainforest.


CURWOOD: Most botanists would consider it the apex of their career to discover a single new plant species. That said, consider Richard Schultes. He uncovered 300 new species, and that's just a small part of the achievements of this legendary Harvard botanist. The early career of Professor Schultes makes Indiana Jones look like a bookworm. Starting in the 1930s, he did pioneering work in the peyote cult among Southwestern Indian tribes. But he is best known for his explorations in the Amazon. He survived innumerable perils there to collect more than 27,000 specimens and create the field of ethno-botany, the study of the interaction of human societies and the plant world. Wade Davis, one of Professor Schultes' former students, has written a book about the professor and his students, called One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rainforest. He told me that Professor Schultes began his career almost by accident, with a homework assignment at Harvard.

DAVIS: In that course at one point Schultes had to do a book review. And in order to do his homework, he raced to the back of the room, grabbed the thinnest book he possibly could off the shelf, simply because he had so much other homework, took it back to his home in East Boston where he read throughout the night these rather extraordinary passages. Because this book he had happened quite accidentally to select turned out to be the only monograph that was then available in the English language that described the stunning pharmacological effects of peyote. And as he read through the night of these visions of orb-like brilliance, he became completely enamored of the intellectual questions that this plant provoked. And he went to his professor the next day and he said, simply, "Professor, I must know about this plant." And his professor, who was a famous orchid specialist, Oaks Ames, said to him, "That's fine, young Richard, but if you want to know this plant you can't simply read about it. You must live it." And that's how this young kid from East Boston, who had never been west of the Hudson River, ended up pounding over the dusty roads of Tennessee in the summer of 1936, destined for the Kaiwa Reservation of Oklahoma where, with the road men of the peyote cult, this young boy from East Boston would eat peyote 3 and 4 times a week for 8 weeks of his young life.

CURWOOD: How do you think that changed him?

DAVIS: I think he became completely captivated by the possibility of the Other, you know, the possibility that there were worlds outside his own imagination. And that there are people who love their plants and understood their plants in a way that he had never come to appreciate. And certainly in a way that he was not being taught at Harvard.

CURWOOD: You know, it probably is impossible for you to answer this question without telling me the whole substance of your book. But when he went down to the Amazon to start looking at the hallucinogens there, he stayed for 12 years. What did he do for those 12 years?

DAVIS: Well you know, he began, of course, not looking for hallucinogens per se but to study medicinal plants for the National Research Council. He had a Guggenheim Fellowship. And he was initially interested in identifying the botanical sources of curare, the famous "flying death," which had a drug in it which had been just recently discovered to be extremely useful in modern surgery. Schultes actually found himself, after this extraordinary period of time in the forest, where he'd had malaria countless times -- he found himself at the headwaters of the Rio Wyneo, which is the headwaters of the Rio Negro one morning when he -- his fingertips began to feel numb -- and he thought it was the formaldehyde he was pressing his specimens with. But then his toes began to be numb. And he realized that he was coming down with beri beri. Now the only treatment for beri beri, which is a very serious disease, which can kill you, is injections of thiamine. And to get those he needed to get to a pharmacy. And needless to say, he was a long way from a pharmacy. He was several hundred miles, in fact he was 1,500 miles or more. And he came downriver. He met a mission post where a missionary had saved his life once and had an idea that [he] could do it again. Instead of going all the way down to Menales, 800 miles, there was the suggestion he could go a couple hundred miles upriver into Colombia and get to a remote military post. And so he immediately left for upriver, but the problem is the missionary's geography was wrong, and so it wasn't 3 days upriver, it was a week and a half. It wasn't a day over a portage, it was 7 days on feet that felt like stumps. And by the time he got to this middle territory post, he was completely exhausted: no food, no water. And he looked up at the landing and he said to the corporal of the Colombian Army, he said, "When's the next plane for Bogota?" And the corporal began to laugh and he asked again and the corporal just said 2 words, "La violencia," which is a term for the civil war that had wracked Colombia in the 17 months that Schultes had been upriver. There hadn't been a plane to that depot in 6 months; there wasn't one expected in 6 months. Schultes had gone 400 miles out of his way only to be that much further from where you could get rescued.


DAVIS: He immediately turned around and had, in a dugout canoe, to travel something like 1,200 miles downriver to Menales. By the time he got to Menales he had to be carried off the dock in a hammock. But before passing out he spotted an empty vessel belonging to the American Chiclet Company. His last words before passing out were, "Hire that boat." And you would have thought that after 17 months in the jungle, with beri beri, countless episodes of malaria, he might have, like, rested for a few days in Menales. He stayed for 3 days, just long enough to get a supply of vitamins, enough syringes to shoot himself up for the next month and a half, and he left on that boat. That gives you some sense of the man we've been talking about.

CURWOOD: Professor Schultes inspired several generations of students, yourself included, to go out into the field and try various plants, to try to understand them and the effect they have on people. What happened to you when you took this super-hallucinogen, the iowasca?

DAVIS: Well, one of the kind of odd parts of the sort of the '60s drug culture was this sort of narcissism or this sort of the sense that somehow these substances all were supposed to be pleasant. Well, yahe, or iowasca, is many things, but pleasant isn't among them.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) I see.

DAVIS: What I find is that the imbibing of this substance sends you into a realm beyond your imaginings where the world no longer exists but the world in which we are born appears almost be a crude and opaque facsimile of another world, which is a world that is quite horrific in a certain sense. And of course, when the shamans speak of facing down the jaguar, it's because they really do.

CURWOOD: So, it was terrifying in other words.

DAVIS: Absolutely terrifying. Of course, that's the whole purpose of it. It's -- you know, who said that messing around with God was supposed to be pleasant?

CURWOOD: I'm wondering -- don't you think that was a rather risky affair?

DAVIS: In what sense?

CURWOOD: Well, you never know what happens if you take a substance. Might kill you.

DAVIS: Most of these substances are relatively non-toxic. And you know, Schultes wasn't sending us out there, you know, quote unquote, to get high, any more than he had gone to the forest to get high. He sent us there because he understood that ethno-botany was a perfect conduit to culture, and because in his heart he understood that the loss of cultural diversity was a parallel process to the loss of biological diversity--and in some sense the terrible and tragic hallmark of the 20th century.

CURWOOD: So much has changed since Schultes first went into the Amazon. Western culture just keeps to be moving further and further into the rainforest. Would it be possible to do today what Schultes did 40 years ago?

DAVIS: No, and I guess that's probably the most profound question you could ask, Steve, because this is sort of the bittersweet element, both of Schultes' story and of course of the book. Which is that, you know, the rate of change is -- I've always thought that people living through a period of history are never aware of the kind of currents that are flowing beneath them. And one of the things we just don't realize too often is how fast things are changing. You know, let me give you one example. At one point there were probably 15,000 languages spoken on the planet, each one, you know, a unique manifestation of the human soul. Each one in some sense a flash of the human spirit. Today there are probably 6,500 languages spoken, and in another century, linguists tell us, there will only be 350. So this kind of condensation which is of such concern to linguists is also paralleled in so many ways in the condensation to monoculture and to the destruction of biological and cultural diversity. He still was able to live and be with many different cultures among whom he lived almost as the first outsider they've ever seen. And this kind of -- is a moment of innocence which will never again be possible.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Wade Davis is author of One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rainforest. Thank you, sir.

DAVIS: Thank you.



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