Episode 2: Explorers Turned Apprentices
When Mark Plotkin went down to Suriname, he wanted to study how indigenous peoples use plants. But when he saw his indigenous friend Wuta leave his home in search of a better life in the city, he realized that indigenous knowledge was disappearing faster than anything in the forest.
Today, we’re talking about ethnobotany—the study of how people use plants and how those uses change across cultures. Dr. Mark Plotkin, eminent ethnobotanist and president of the Amazon Conservation Team puts it this way:
Mark Plotkin: Ethnobotany has been described as being like a Chinese box puzzle. Where you open up a box and there’s a smaller box inside. And you open the next box and you open the next box. And you get to the smallest possible box and you open it up and there’s another little box inside.
Today, we’ll hear about how the study of plants led to a focus on preserving traditional knowledge and the environment. So this time on Maps, Magic, and Medicine: Explorers Turned Apprentices
For 60 years, Rudi Limes has lived and worked in Suriname, a small and peaceful country on the northeast coast of South America bordering Brazil. Now he’s retired, lives in Suriname, and serves as an advisor to the Amazon Conservation Team’s board. After all these years, he continues to emphasize the importance of indigenous cultural knowledge to environmental conservation.
In Suriname, forests cover about 80% of the country’s territory and within the forests live a diverse number of indigenous groups. Rudi remembers the first time he realized these indigenous groups were at risk. He was 12 years old and he was driving through Suriname’ interior with his father, aunt, and uncle. They stopped and looked out at a development project that was building a road and power lines through the forest.
Rudi Liems: "I overhead my dad saying to my mother uncle and aunt, he said 'there is one sad thing about this all and it will bring development and the knowledge and culture will get lost because people will come to town and they’ll no longer practice their traditional knowledge.'"
Rudi’s father saw changes on the horizon: development pushing into indigenous territory. He feared that indigenous groups would leave the forest and move to town, abandoning their traditional way of life. Many years later, Rudi met Mark Plotkin who has focused his career on working closely with indigenous communities to preserve the knowledge of medicinal plants and healing practices.
Rudi Liems: "Mark is in my eyes the person the man who can really get things done and help to preserve traditional knowledge so it doesn’t get lost for the world."
Mark trained under one of the most famous plant explorers of the 20th century—Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. In the 1940s, Dr. Schultes embedded himself in the northwest Amazon. He studied how indigenous peoples used plants for medicinal, ritual, and practical purposes. Everything from an herbal remedy for a sprained ankle to poison-tipped arrowheads to hallucinogenic plants.
Mark Plotkin: "What were Schultes main contributions? Well he found the magic mushroom… He then went down to the Amazon and “found” ayahuasca-- well, Schultes didn’t really find it anymore than Columbus “found” America, he was the first white guy to take notice of it. But it led to the widespread use of ayahuasca today, you can buy it on the Internet. Part of the problem is that it’s being abused and isn’t being recognized for the powerful plant that it is. But I just keynoted a panel at the Boston Museum of Science. It was me and three physicians. They said they’re using ayahuasca to treat supposedly incurable illnesses like depression, PTSD—so, Schultes passed away in 2001 but his work lives on."
Mark first encountered Schultes in a night school class at Harvard. Mark had dropped out of college and was looking for direction, when a friend recommended Schultes’ class: “the botany and chemistry of hallucinogenic plants.”
In the very first night of the course, Schultes showed stunning black and white photographs from his groundbreaking ethnobotanical research in the Amazon. The photos would later be collected in a book called Where the Gods Reign. But at the time, Mark was hooked.
Mark Plotkin: "I certainly never learned any of this stuff or heard about any of this stuff or thought about any of this stuff growing up in my father’s shoe store in New Orleans. So I’m carrying on part of his tradition."
Though his first exposure to these topics came through the gaze of Schultes’ camera, Mark learned about Schultes’ love for the people he lived with for over a decade and the astonishing intimacy documented in these photos.
For the next 27 years, Mark studied ethnobotany under Schultes. He equates it to studying physics under Einstein. But the thing that stays with him the most is the way Schultes was a man before his time, a sensitive soul who wanted to repair the way outsiders perceived indigenous groups:
Mark Plotkin: “The major contributions he made to western culture and science is to say: look these other peoples we dismiss as primitive and backwards and illiterate know things that we don’t. He never made the argument that Indians know everything. He never made the argument like let’s go down there and gut them for everything they know for our benefit. But it was a real humanistic approach. It was sort of a family of man circle of life thing like we’re all in this together. These people know stuff that we don’t.”
Though there are many prominent figures who identify with Schultes’ legacy, Mark took on his teachings in the conservation world. Schultes focus on long-term relationships and medicinal plants—on pursuing knowledge and ensuring the knowledge remains for other generations. These things became central aspects of Mark’s own work. Bob Swap—a research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia—helps to put it in context:
Bob Swap: “it has been my experience in conservation and community engagement work in developing contexts it is very easy to come in with your sense of perceived needs without ever listening to the voice of those with whom you wish to engage.”
So, Mark hoped to provide alternatives to the fearful premonitions Rudi’s father talked about by listening to the needs of indigenous groups on the ground. Because when he went down to Suriname.
Mark Plotkin: "there were shamans but there were no apprentices. It reminded me of the last of the wooly mammoths."
He recalls one vivid example with his friend Wuta. We’ll hear about it. when we come back.
Welcome back. When we left off, we heard how Schultes inspired Mark to carry on his legacy in the conservation world. During his time in Suriname, Mark saw the effects of what Rudi’s father had talked about many years before. Some indigenous peoples were leaving the forest and coming into town in search of alternatives. Mark says this was the case for Wuta.
Wuta (Translated): He says he remembers meeting me in the old missionary house. By the time I started, the missionaries had moved on. So I used that as a center of operations and he remembers hanging out there.
Wuta is a member of the Trio tribe who live on both sides of the Brazil-Suriname border. He hunts, fishes, and that's Wuta playing the flute, but Mark remembers…
Mark Plotkin: I first met Wuta 33 years ago, we became friends. And shortly thereafter, he disappeared. Shortly thereafter disappeared, which Indians usually do in the rainforest—they marry into a different tribe in a different area. A couple years later I was in Paramaribo, the capital city of Suriname, and I was driving down the road and there was a little guard post and there was my friend Wuta in a silly little watchman’s uniform and I said, “what are you doing here?”
He said, “Well I wanted a better life for my kids and I was told a better life awaited me in the city, so I moved here.”
And I said, “How’s it going for you? You lost a lot of weight…”
He said, “not so good, what they didn’t tell me was when I moved to the city, I couldn’t pick up my hunting bow and go after dinner or get out my fishing line and fish in the river right next to me. They didn’t tell me that if you wanted to drink water you couldn’t just drink from the river, you have to buy it. So, I’m finishing up here, I’m moving back to the bush.”
Mark Plotkin: Shortly thereafter, I saw him in the village. There he was in his breechcloth again. He said: “I love the city. it’s a great place to go to the movies and buy stuff, but life is better here.” He’d come full circle. Shamans talk about coming back to where you started out. He’s been very outspoken. Outspoken in terms of how respect for indigenous cultures is key to wellbeing. Outspoken in terms of protecting the rivers and forests. He’s spoken up several times about chasing off the gold miners and bad guys. He doesn’t say much but he’s got a heart of steel.
Wuta (Translation): He said for me it’s all about two things: protecting the bush and holding it for my grandchildren
Rudi’s dad feared development would force indigenous groups to move away from their traditions and Wuta in some ways proved him right. But in many other ways, Wuta showed resilience to these seemingly insurmountable forces. His story demonstrates that modernity is not all encompassing and tradition is not something in the past. That it can live and adapt to present-day circumstances.
Since he went back to the forest, Wuta has learned about important plants and how to use those plants to heal. He has become an apprentice of some of the top shamans in the region through the shamans apprentice program, which Mark began during his time in Suriname.
Through the program, shamans teach indigenous people about medicinal plants and healing practices. They study, learn, and document plants in their own language. Then provide healthcare to their community. This is ensuring the knowledge of traditional healing continues to the next generation.
Mark Plotkin: I realized early on that I can’t document it all. Why not have my friends, guys my age who were in their mid 20s at the time document it with me and when I wasn’t there. Then I realized you can’t learn a system of medicine just writing down a list of plants. So we set up clinics where they were learning diagnoses and learning how to practice. From there, outsiders started coming in, so they made a living learning medicine and practicing traditional medicine. It was a win-win-win scenario. So, I can’t claim to have started out with this very clear vision of how we were going to do it because there were no real precedents here. But with the Indians we came up with some of the ideas together and we continue to improve it.
Since then, Rudi says he’s seen the changes in the community as a whole.
So, in this new generation, the tradition of exploration is turning back to benefit the communities themselves. From the beginnings with Richard Evans Schultes, traditional knowledge is the starting and ending point for protecting indigenous culture.
Instead of an outsider trying to become a shaman in a few months or a few weeks and then leaving, the local apprentices ensure this knowledge stays within the community so that it’s passed on to the next generation. Mark says this long-term focus is making peace with the past in order to imagine a more equitable future. Something Schultes would have been proud of.
Mark Plotkin: I’ve been asked continually by North American Indians, how do you get kids interested in the old ways? Because it’s not a question of just showing up and saying put aside that iPhone come learn about these plants. It’s not that easy or straightforward. But because we have a relationship based on trust, friendship, and even love, we’ve been able to try all sorts of things and many of them have succeeded. The point is that long-term relationships are the ways to get stuff done. That’s human nature, that’s not about ethnobotany and Indians. So, long-term commitments creates a relationship that you can’t generate in the short term for love nor money.
Rudi says where there are people, there is hope. And the future is promising when people take action.
So, it takes time for explorers to give up trying to become shamans. It takes time to imagine ways that indigenous groups can continue to live on the land they’ve lived on for generations. And not be forced into ways of being that we find normal and desirable. It takes time to listen to the needs of people on the ground and learn from the past in order to change the force of repeating these patterns. It takes risks, failures, and a lot of effort to figure out ways of relating to others who are different from us. And if we can figure that out, if we can turn exploration into apprenticeship, the results might benefit us all.
Davis, Wade. One River. Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Plotkin, Mark. Tales of A Shaman's Apprentice: an Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines In the Amazon Rain Forest. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1994.
Schultes, Richard Evans. Where the Gods Reign: Plants and Peoples of the Colombian Amazon. Synergetic Press, 1988.