Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: September 1, 1996
Richard Evans Schultes was arguably this century's foremost botanist. He was the father of ethnobotany, the study of indigenous peoples' knowledge and use of plants. He inadvertently inspired the 1960's drug culture with his scholarly writings on natural hallucinogens. When Japanese troops overran the world's rubber supply in Southeast Asia, Schultes, through his research on wild rubber trees in the Amazon, found himself central to the Allied war effort. Davis, one of Schultes's most devoted students, recounts the stories of his voyages along hundreds of miles of forested rivers, his near-fatal encounters with rapids and disease, his collaboration with Amazon shamans, and his dealings with people from the unsavoury to the sublime -- including a Nazi sympathiser, a heroically faithful native assistant, and the cult figures Timothy Leary and William Burroughs.
The New York Times Book Review, John Hemming:
Mr. Davis does full justice to his mentor. An excellent botanist, he learned from Mr. Schultes and Plowman to gain the confidence of shamans and medicine men, to record their mythology and rituals and to experience days of mind-blowing trips and retching nausea - all in the name of science. ...Mr. Schultes can add to his formidable list of achievements that he taught and guided generations of dedicated ethnobotanists. One of his acolytes has now amply repaid him by writing this great, lyrical book in his honor.
The Boston Globe Book Review, Catherine Foster:
"One River" is a magnificent, meandering journey of three generations of intrepid ethnobotanists, scientists/explorers whose passions lay in discovering plants that might cure ills or illuminate the lives of others.
"Beautifully and meticulously written, ONE RIVER captures as no other book the adventure of ethnobotany, and in so doing portrays a true hero of science, Richard Evans Schultes, one of the last great explorer naturalists."
- Edward O. Wilson
"This is a wonderful book about a great biologist, Richard Evans Schultes. It is a trip into a time fast disappearing, when biologists were often also explorers, trying to understand the rich biodiversity of our planet - a form of natural wealth that is rapidly disappearing."
- Paul R. Ehrlich,
author of THE POPULATION BOMB
"Wade Davis is a rare treasure - a professional scientist who writes like a poet. In tracing the adventures of Richard Evans Schultes, his remarkable mentor, Davis enthralls us with the mysteries of the plant kingdom. I couldn't help regretting that I became a zoologist rather than a botanist."
- Dr. David Suzuki,
author of WISDOM OF THE ELDERS
There is a small photo album in the anthropological archives at the Smithsonian Institution that shows what it was like that summer nearly 60 years ago when Richard Evans Schultes, a young Harvard student, traveled west to Oklahoma to live among the Kiowa and participate in the solemn rites of the peyote cult. In one photograph the land appears as a blur of dust, the sky fading to gray, the air darkened by soil worked loose by the wind, the farmhouses on the horizon broken down and abandoned. Another image reveals the silhouette of a distant ridge of the Wichita Mountains, the place where the Kiowa elder, Bert Crow Lance, sought the medicine power.
Another photo is a portrait of an old woman, identified as Mary Buffalo, principal informant and wife of the Keeper of the Ten Medicines, the holy medicine bundles that the Kiowa say date back to the beginning of the world. She is granddaughter of Onaskyaptak, owner of the Tai-Me, the Sun Dance Image, the most venerated object of the Kiowa. Her medicine bundle has twelve scalps tied to it, seven of them taken from whites, including one from a long haired woman killed in Texas in the last century. The photograph reveals a face formed by the open prairie, by winter blizzards and summer heat. It is dark, weathered and stark. Her thin hair is drawn close to her head and hidden with a black net cap. A long dress and a blanket cover all of her frail body, save for her hands, which clasp the corners of the blanket to her chest. She has the strong, oversized hands of a woman who has spent her youth scraping meat and fat from hides. She appears proud, yet there is a deep sadness in her eyes that suggests that the stoic indifference we have come to associate with Plains Indians is less a characteristic of a people than the result of a century of impossible grief. At 88 her life has spanned the entire modern history of the Kiowa. As a child, she was brought up to believe in the divinity of the sun. As a young girl she witnessed the return of war parties and made offerings to the Tai-Me at the Sundance. As a woman she discovered the affliction of defeat, endured famine and disease. She grew old listening to the brooding chants of broken warriors, the silence of a prairie without buffalo.
Yet another photograph shows a group of blurry eyed peyote eaters lined up by a tipi at dawn. They are dressed in billowy cotton shirts, baggy trousers and kerchiefs. Belo Kozad, the Roadman or leader of the ceremony, stands in front and wears traditional clothes, a buckskin shirt, moccasins and an old trading blanket wrapped around his waist. His long hair is braided and wrapped in otter skins that hang well below his knees. He wears a fur hat and on the front of it, just above his eyes, is a circle of beads. The red cross at the center is the Morning Star. Around the edge are eight triangles representing the vomit deposited on the earth by the ring of worshippers inside the tipi. The fringes of yellow beads symbolize the rays of the sun. A prairie falcon feather dangles over his left eye. Hanging from his left shoulder is a strand of mescal beans, the toxic scarlet seeds used as a hallucinogen and in ritual ordeal before the arrival of the peyote cult on the Great Plains. To his right stands Charlie Charcoal, nephew of Kicking Bear. In the Roadman's hand is the fan of eagle feathers which that night Charlie had seen turn into water, a river, the wing of a bird and finally a ladder that had carried his prayers out of the tipi and into the heavens.
The most intriguing image of all is also the simplest. It shows the Roadman Belo Kozad flanked by two young white men standing in a field. On the Kiowa's left is Weston La Barre, a graduate student in anthropology at Yale who would go on to write the seminal book The Peyote Cult. His companion is the 21 year old Schultes. It is clear from the juxtaposition of the photographs in the album that all three men have just come out of an all night peyote ceremony. La Barre looks like it. His eyes shy away from the glare, his hair is wildly disheveled, his clothing loose. Schultes by contrast does not have a hair out of place. He is tall, dignified and contained. In the heat of the morning, and throughout a long night of chanting, prayers and ritual vomiting, he has evidently not so much as loosened the red Harvard tie around his neck. One would never know that coursing through his blood is the residue of a sacred plant that has just sent a dozen Kiowa on a mystical journey to their gods.
It was 40 minutes or more before Schultes felt the first effects of the plant. An unpleasant nausea was soon overcome by a whimsical sensation in the periphery of his field of view, an intuitive sense of space, a cushion, between himself and everything else in the tipi. There followed a fleeting moment of pure clarity, an almost crystal awareness of the appropriateness of where he was and what he was doing. He looked at Charlie, whose eyes had changed to sparkling beads, whose face flushed in gentle undulations that were slowly growing in intensity. Schultes blinked. The music had stopped. The Roadman was handing his staff to the man on his left, the Drummer was passing his drum to the Roadman. Each man in turn was drumming for the one singing. The songs ran together. Schultes found himself paying the utmost attention to every sound, and each one burst into another thought that washed over him with immense feelings of good will. All around him there were old men praying, tears running down their cheeks, voices tender with emotion, bodies swaying in adoration, hands reaching out for Father Peyote. He tried to move. Charlie stopped him.
"Never step between the fire and a man praying", he cautioned. Schultes began quietly to laugh. The shadows on the tipi wall were so much larger than the men beneath them. It was as if a gallery of spirits were dancing.
A pouch of tobacco came his way. His fingers fumbled over the moist brown strands. The scent was rich as memory. He crushed the oak leaves between his fingers. He took a peyote button in his hand. He shut his eyes and experienced warm flushing sensations and a sound that seemed to link his body to the earth. There was the sense of the feel of the earth, the dry desert soil passing through his fingers, the stars at midday, the smell of cactus and sage, the feel of dry leaves through hands. When he once again opened his eyes the men were slowing fusing one into another and every movement shot pulsating bolts of color in orb-like brilliance, diamonds turning into tunnels, windows into waves, oceans into rain. He lifted his hand before his eyes and was amazed to see a trail of light from his thigh to his fingers. Everything was reduced to sensation. His heart. His hair like straw. His jaw moving up and down chewing more peyote. The men around him ate it constantly. He watched their faces and the taste in his mouth changed. It was no longer bitter and sour. If the desert itself had a flavor, this was it.
Time turned into color. Every thought unleashed a sound, every gesture a rainbow of light. Schultes tried to concentrate, to follow a single train of thought, but found it was impossible. Resisting the wild flow of his thoughts was physically painful. There was another cloud of smoke as the Roadman placed more juniper on the fire. He seemed so calm, so outwardly untouched by the peyote. The Fireman went about his work, sweeping the floor of the tipi, tossing the cigarette butts into the fire, tending the flames, drawing the ashes into the shape of the Waterbird. Sometime close to midnight the Fireman placed a bucket of water close to the fire while the Roadman sang the Yáhiyano, the first of the midnight water songs. After a second song, the Roadman left the tipi and moments later Schultes heard four high piercing whistles. When the Roadman returned, he prayed over the water and gathered the Cedarman, Drummer and Fireman to the sides of the bucket so that together they might form a cross, an image of the four directions. The Fireman blew four puffs of smoke over the water, and thanked all those present for the honor of having tended the fire that carried their prayers to the heavens. The bucket was then passed around the circle and taken outside.
At the Roadman's invitation, several of the men left the tipi. Schultes remained behind, uncertain whether his legs would carry him. Time passed and the singing and drumming continued almost constantly, for there were twenty or more worshippers and each had four songs to chant. The amount of peyote consumed varied, with some men eating as many as forty buttons. Schultes had eaten ten or twelve; it angered him that he didn't know. In the middle of the night, well after the Midnight Water ritual, there was a healing. The patient was an old woman, a cousin of Mary Buffalo, and thus it fell to Charlie Charcoal to chew the peyote for her. The Roadman placed the partially masticated buttons in her mouth, and with his hands slowly worked her jaw. He bared the upper part of her chest, and taking a burning ember between his teeth, blew sparks over her skin four times. Then accepting the bucket from the Water Bearer he sprayed water onto her face and chest, all the while tracing the form of a cross in the air and whispering soft invocations to the spirits.
A sudden wave of nausea took Schultes out of the tipi. Once clear of a small group of women huddled around the fire, he stumbled against a tree and wretched as he never had, deep spasms that were less painful and disturbing than peculiar. Though the peyote had begun to run its course and the wild imagery was already receding into memory, his mind and body remained apart. He was watching his body vomit. He looked up. The dawn was slipping through a pearl gray sky. The branches of the oak trees spread like veins. Birds were beginning to stir. Behind him in the tipi he heard the Roadman singing the first words of the Wakahó, the daylight song for the morning water. The voice seemed terribly far away.
" You okay?"
He turned. Charlie Charcoal was walking towards him. He had a blanket over his shoulders, and his words seemed to come out of a perfect stillness, as if the air itself was held in time, suspended between the past and this new morning. A branch snapped and the sound was that of ice cracking from an eave and falling into snow. He tried to answer and found his words falling away from his thoughts. His jaw was sore. His mouth felt rubbery, and the words that finally formed emerged into the moment as if spoken by someone else. He could listen to their deep and resonant tone.
" I'm fine," he said.
The air was cold. A sharp and distant bird call held their attention for an instant and then was gone. The morning songs became louder. Schultes listened and discovered in the prayers a weary melancholy that he hadn't noticed during the night. And in the midst of the sounds, he heard the unmistakable yelp of a coyote.
He na we yo, he ha we wo wo wo
He-na we ne
Ya-na he na we ne yo wah
" Roadman's doctoring, " Charlie said, " blowing away the sickness". Schultes looked and saw smoke rising past the tipi poles.
" I hear coyotes," he said.
" That's how it happened. Some Comanche medicine man got his healing power from coyote. So he made the song and now it's dedicated to coyote. That's why he sings. Because it's morning and he's got the power. He's made everyone well." Charlie reached into his pocket for a cigarette.
" Seems like old Wes had a pretty good night," Charlie said.
" What?" Schultes asked.
" He was just there all the time. Then his eyes kind of started to grow on him and pretty soon the Roadman's head turned into some kind of duck and the drum too. Something like a gila monster."
" He said that?", Schultes asked. Charlie nodded. Behind him Schultes could see Mary Buffalo and her granddaughter passing small bowls of food into the tipi. Once again he realized that the night was over. The sweeping of the tipi floor, the ashes drawn into the final form of the Waterbird, the ritual food offerings of sweetened meat and parched corn, fruit and water, had for almost a month now marked the beginning of his days. How strange to have had so little sleep, to have experienced such hallucinations, to have known nothing that was normal and yet to feel so little fatigue.
" Gonna be winding up pretty soon", Charlie said, leading Schultes quietly back towards the tipi. Once inside, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light. The singing had stopped. The worshippers sat as they had all night, cross legged and upright, eyes lost in prayers. La Barre too remained in place. The circle shifted to the left, allowing Schultes and Charlie Charcoal to sit beside him by the door. Weston's eyes, Schultes noted, were wildly dilated and there were streaks of sweat and dust on his face. He had a small pile of food on his lap and his smile suggested that eating was just about the last thing he wanted to do.
Food and water passed around the circle and for half an hour or more the worshippers remained silent. Then in a final ceremonial gesture the Roadman sang the Gayatina, the round of four Quitting Songs that marked the end of the ritual.
Ki da bw da ya-na hai yoi no,
He ne yo wah
Dok'i ki-da bw-da ya-na hai yoi no
De k ä on ki-da bw-da ya-na hai yoi no
He ne yo wah.
As with most peyote songs, the verses were composed of words scattered among sounds that had no literal meaning. The effect was that of a single human voice surrounded and echoed by the syllables of nature.
It was during those days that I first experienced the overwhelming grandeur of the tropical rain forest. It is a subtle thing. There are no herds of ungulates as on the Serengeti Plain, no cascades of orchids. Just a thousand shades of green, an infinitude of shape, form and texture that so clearly mocks the terminology of temperate botany. It is almost as if you have to close your eyes to behold the constant hum of biological activity, evolution, if you will, working in overdrive. From the edge of trails creepers lash at the base of trees, and herbaceous heliconias and calatheas give way to broad leafed aroids that climb into the shadows. Overhead, lianas drape from immense trees binding the canopy of the forest into a single interwoven fabric of life. There are no flowers, at least few that can be readily seen, and with the blazing sun hovering motionless at midday there are few sounds. In the air is a fluid heaviness, a weight of centuries, of years without seasons, of life without rebirth. One can walk for hours yet remain convinced that not a mile has been gained.
Then towards dusk everything changes. The air cools. The light becomes amber and the open sky above the rivers and swamps fills with darting swallows and swifts, kiskadees and flycatchers. The hawks and herons, jacanas and kingfishers of the river margins give way to flights of cackling parrots, sungrebes and nunbirds, and spectacular displays of toucans and scarlet macaws. Squirrel monkeys appear and from the river banks emerge caiman, eyes poking out of the water, tails and bodies as still and dull as driftwood. In the light of dusk one can finally discern shapes in the forest, sloths clinging to the limbs of cecropia trees, vipers entwined in branches, tapir wallowing in distant sloughs. For a brief moment at twilight the forest seems of a human scale and somehow manageable. But then with the night comes the rain, and later the sound of insects running wild through the trees until, with the dawn, once again silence: the air becomes still and steam rises from the cool earth. White fog lies all about like something solid, all consuming.
Schultes was not sure what to make of this, but two themes intrigued him. First was the realization that the healer embraced yagé both as visionary medium and as teacher. The plant made the diagnosis. It was a living being, and the Ingano acknowledged its magical resonance as reflexively as he accepted the axioms of his own science. Yet, at the same time, there was evidence here of pure empirical experimentation of a specificity he had never before encountered. In Oklahoma and Mexico, and more recently among the Kamsá of Sibundoy, he had always seen psychoactive plants taken alone, not in any sort of combination. Now his Ingano informants, including an old man named Jeremiah Zambrano, insisted that by manipulating the ingredients of the preparations, in this case by adding a plant known as chagropanga, it was possible to change the nature of the experience.
Schultes did not question the word of his informants. Instead he elected to test their preparations on himself. At Puerto Limón he drank an infusion derived solely from the bark of the liana Banisteriopsis caapi. The visions that came were blue and purple, slow undulating waves of color. Then, a few days later he tried the mixture with chagropanga. The effect was electric, reds and golds dazzling in diamonds that turned like dancers on the tips of distant highways. If yagé alone felt like the slow turning of the sky, the addition of chagropanga caused explosions of passion and dreams that collapsed one into another until finally, in the empty morning, only the birds remained, scarlet and crimson against the rising sun.
What Schultes had stumbled upon was a bit of shamanic alchemy that, in its complexity and sophistication, had no equal in the Amazon. The psychoactive ingredients in the bark of yagé are the beta-carbolines harmine and harmaline. Long ago, however, the shamans of the Northwest Amazon discovered that the effects could be dramatically enhanced by the addition of a number of subsidiary plants. This is an important feature of many traditional preparations and it is due, in part, to the fact that different chemical compounds in relatively small concentration may effectively potentiate each other.
In the case of yagé, some 21 admixtures have been identified to date. Two of these are of particular interest. Psychotria viridis is a shrub in the coffee family. Chagropanga is Diplopterys cabrerana, a forest liana closely related to yagé. Unlike yagé, both of these plants contain tryptamines, powerful psychoactive compounds that when smoked or snuffed induce a very rapid, intense intoxication of short duration, marked by astonishing visual imagery. The sensation is rather like being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity. Taken orally, however, these potent compounds have no effect as they are denatured by an enzyme, monoamine oxidase (MAO), found in the human gut. Tryptamines can be taken orally only if combined with a MAO inhibitor. Amazingly, the beta-carbolines found in yagé are inhibitors of precisely this sort. Thus when yagé is combined with either one of these admixture plants, the result is a powerful synergistic effect, a biochemical version of the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. The visions, as the Indians promised Schultes, become brighter, and the blue and purple hue is augmented by the full spectrum of the rainbow.
What astonished Schultes was less the raw effect of the drugs - by this point, after all he was becoming accustomed to having his consciousness awash in color- than the underlying intellectual question that the elaboration of these complex preparations posed. The Amazonian flora contains literally tens of thousands of species. How had the Indians learned to identity and combine in this sophisticated manner these morphologically dissimilar plants that possessed such unique and complementary chemical properties? The standard scientific explanation was trial and error. It is a reasonable term and may well account for certain innovations. But at another level, as Schultes came to realize on speending more time in the forest, it is but a euphemism disguising the fact that ethnobotanists have very little idea how Indians originally made their discoveries.
The problem with trial and error is that the elaboration of the preparations often involves procedures that are either exceedingly complex, or that yield products of little or no obvious value. Yagé is an inedible, non-descript liana that seldom flowers. True, its bark is bitter, often a clue to medicinal properties, but it is no more so than 100 other forest vines. An infusion of the bark causes vomiting and severe diarrhea, conditions that would discourage further experimentation. Yet not only did the Indians persist, they became so deft at manipulating the various ingredients that individual shamans developed dozens of recipes, each yielding potions of various strengths and nuances, to be used for specific ceremonial and ritual purposes.
In the case of curare, Schultes learned, the bark is rasped and placed in a funnel-shaped leaf suspended between two spears. Cold water is percolated through, and the drippings collect in a ceramic pot. The dark fluid is slowly heated and brought to a frothy boil, then cooled and later reheated until a thick viscous scum gradually forms on the surface. This scum is removed and applied to the tips of darts or arrows, which are then carefully dried over the fire. The procedure itself is mundane. What is unusual is the fact that one can drink the poison without being harmed. To be effective it must enter the blood. The realization on the part of the Indians that this orally inactive substance, derived from a small number of forest plants, could kill when administered into the muscle was profound, and like so many of their discoveries, difficult to account for by the concept of trial and error alone.
The Indians naturally had their own explanations, rich cosmological accounts that from their perspective were perfectly logical. Sacred plants that had journeyed up the Milk River in the belly of anacondas, potions prepared by jaguars, the drifting souls of shamans dead from the beginning of time. As a scientist Schultes did not take these myths literally. But they did suggest to him a certain delicate balance. "These were the ideas," he would write half a century later, "of a people who did not distinguish the supernatural from the pragmatic." The Indians, Schultes realized, believed in the power of plants, accepted the existence of magic, acknowledged the potency of the spirit. Magical and mystical ideas entered the very texture of their thinking. Their botanical knowledge could not be separated from their metaphysics. Even the way they ordered and labelled their world was fundamentally different.
It was in Sibundoy, en route to the Putumayo, that Schultes first learned that the Indians did not distinguish green from blue. "For them", Padre Marcelino had explained, " the sky is green and the forest is blue". This was a strange concept, and one that lingered in his imagination as he entered the lowlands. It surfaced when he confronted with yet another botanical enigma, the manner in which the Indians classified their plants. The Ingano at Puerto Limón, for example, recognized seven kinds of yagé. The Siona had 18, which they distinguished on the basis of the strength and color of the visions, the trading history of the plant, the authority and lineage of the shaman. None of these criteria made sense botanically and, as far as Schultes could tell, all the plants were referable to one species, Banisteriopsis caapi. Yet the Indians could readily differentiate their varieties on sight, even from a considerable distance in the forest. What's more, individuals from different tribes, separated by large expanses of forest, identified these same varieties with amazing consistency. It was a similar story with yoco, the caffeine containing stimulant. In addition to yoco blanco and colorado, Schultes collected black yoco, jaguar yoco, yagé-yoco, yoco of the witches, fourteen categories in all, not one of which could be determined based on the rules of his own science.
Though trained at the finest botanical institution in America, Schultes, after but a month in the Amazon, felt increasingly like a novice. The Indians knew so much more. He had gone to South America because he had wanted to find the gifts of the rain forest, leaves that heal, fruits and seeds that supply the foods we eat, plants that could transport the individual to realms beyond his imaginings. Yet within a month he had learned that, in unveiling the indigenous knowledge, his task was not merely to identify new sources of wealth, but rather to understand a new vision of life itself, a profoundly different way of living in a forest.
The first time Schultes felt the dull ache of malaria was on the afternoon of May 23, 1942, as he and his Italian companion Nazzareno Postarino paddled up the Río Caraparaná on their way to El Encanto. It was the height of the rainy season and both river banks were flooded. Still, they had no choice but to make camp and rest until the fever passed. Stringing their hammocks above the boggy ground, kindling a fire from moss and bark, they lay in the rain for three days as the paroxysms of chills and nightsweats convulsed Schultes' body. On the morning of May 27, the fever broke and Schultes awakened to a blue sky, a cool breeze coming off the river and sunlight falling through the forest. Still weak, he rose slowly from his hammock and cautiously made his way down to the river to bathe. He stumbled and fell against the muddy bank. Looking up, he saw a solitary orchid, growing on the surface of a half-drowned, mossy trunk. He went closer, and reached for the delicate inflorescence. The petals and sepals were light blue, the lip somewhat darker with pale veins, and the back and wings of the column were streaked with red. He had never seen such a perfectly pure shade of blue. Teasing a blossom with his finger, Schultes knew that he held in his hand the legendary blue orchid. "Never, " he wrote years later, " could a doctor have prescribed a more effective tonic! I had found my friend... I was happy and could almost have believed that destiny had led me in these lowest of days to that one bright jewel of the jungle."
Rufino's father stood up and began a solemn chant.When it was over, he dipped a black calabash into the yagé and passed it to his son. Rufino grimaced as he drank the potion, as did we all. The taste was bitter and nauseating. There followed more singing and dancing, high tremulous voices and the sound of rattles and anklets. Then always a hush of expectation as Pedro prepared the next allotment of the brew. It was after the fourth round of yagé that I realized that the Barasana made up in quantity, what their preparation may have lacked in potency. I had not seen it made, but I knew from Rufino that it included in addition to the basic liana, the leaves of a plant known as oco-yajé, or water yagé. This was almost certainly the vine Diplopterys cabrerana, a tryptamine containing admixture used throughout the Northwest Amazon to enhance the brilliance of the visions. Schultes had collected it twice in 1952, once on the Popeyacá, and again among the Barasana on the Caño Timiña. Tryptamines are soluble in cold water, and from the number of leaves in his father's recipe, I gathered from Rufino that we were in for quite a ride.
I sat quietly among them, unable to participate yet conscious of the power and authority of their ritual. The plant took them first. In soft murmurs, Rufino spoke of a red sun, a red sky, a red rain falling over the forest. Nausea came quickly and he vomited. Immediately his father offered another draught of yagé which he took, spitting and gasping. Until then I had felt nothing, but the sound of his retching caused me to turn aside and throw up in the dirt. Pacho laughed, and then did the same. We all took more yagé, several more cycles. An hour or more passed. I looked up and saw the edges of the world soften, and felt a resonance coming from beyond the sky, like the intimation of a hovering wind, pulsating with energy.
At first it was pleasant, a wondrous sense of life and warmth enveloping all things. But then the sensations intensified, became charged with a strange current, and the air itself took on a metallic density. Soon the world as I knew it no longer existed. Reality was not distorted, it was dissolved as the terror of another dimension swept over the senses. The beauty of colors, the endless patterns of orb-like brilliance were as rain falling away from my skin. I caught myself and looked up, saw Rufino and Pacho gently swaying and moaning. There were rainbows trapped inside their feathers. In their hair were weeping flowers and trees attempting to soar into the clouds. Leaves fell from the branches, with great howling sounds. The sky opened. There was a livid scar across the heavens, stars throbbing, a great wind scattering everything in its path. Then the ground opened. Snakes encircled the posts of the maloca, and slipped away into the earth. One could not escape. The rivers unfolded like the mouths of blossoms. Movement became penetration. Then the terror grew stronger. Death hovered all around. Ravenous children, and animals of every shape and form lay sick and dying of thirst. Their nostrils plunged into the dry earth. Their flanks lay bare and exposed. And all around rose a canopy of immense sorrows.
I tried to shake away the forms from the luminous sensations. Instead my thoughts themselves turned into visions, not of things or places but of an entire dimension that in the moment not only seemed real, but absolute. This was the actual world, and what I had known until then was a crude and opaque facsimile. I looked up and saw my companions. Rufino and Pacho sat quietly, heads down, hunched around a fire that had not been there before. Rufino's father stood apart, arms outspread as he sang. His face was upturned, and his feathered corona shone like the sun. His eyes were brilliant, radiant, feverish, as if focused into the very nature of things.
Slowly, as the night moved forward, the colors softened and the terror receded. I felt my hands running over the dirt floor of the maloca, saw dust tinged with green light, heard the voices of women laughing. Dawn was coming. I could hear it in the forest. My companions still remained by the hearth, but the fire had died and the air was cold. I stood and stretched my muscles. Tired but no longer afraid, I slipped into my hammock. For the longest time I lay awake, wrapped in a cotton blanket, like a drained child sweating out the end of a fever. The last thing I saw before drifting off to sleep was a placid cloud of violet light softly descend on the maloca.
Some hours later I was awakened by the roar of an airplane passing just over the roof of the long house. I looked up and saw narrow shafts of light cutting through the thatch. My head ached and I wanted to drink, but other than that I was fine. I felt clean, as if my body had been washed, inside and out. Sitting up, I found myself surrounded by young boys who followed me outside into the sunlight and down the path that led to the river. The water was cool and refreshing, delicious to drink. There was a shout and one of the boys pointed to the riverbank. It was the missionary pilot. Beside him stood Rufino and his father. They had packed away their regalia, but their legs still bore decorative motifs, and black genipa dye was smeared across their faces. The pilot had his hands on his hips.
" Gone native, have we? " he called out." I wouldn't touch that water if I was you."
" You're early," I said.
" Actually I'm two days late."
" Well, come on, then. I don't have all day. I've got to be in Miraflores by noon."
It made for an awkward departure. I gathered my gear and specimens, left what remained of the trade goods with Rufino, and within 20 minutes was airborne, soaring above the maloca and over the forest towards Mitú. The sudden shift in perspective was startling. The streams fell behind, grew into rivers and the rivers spread like serpents through a silent and unchanging forest. Rufino had likened yagé to a river, a journey that takes one above the land and below the water, to the most remote reaches of the earth, where the animal masters live and lightning is waiting to be born. To drink yagé, Reichel-Dolmatoff writes, is to return to the cosmic uterus and be reborn. It is to tear through the placenta of ordinary perception, and enter realms where death can be known and life traced through sensation to the primordial source of all existence. When shamans speak of facing down the jaguar, it is because they really do.
Tim once said that science and myth were one, that the natural world was but the manifestation of thoughts and impulses occurring on endless metaphysical planes, all enveloped by the mind of the healer. Schultes said he didn't understand, but I know he did. Often I think of how it must have been for him all those years ago. And what comes to mind is my recollection of Tim, standing in the forest, hands reaching for some curious plant. When I look at photographs of Schultes in the field, in Oklahoma with Weston Labarre, straddling a mule in Oaxaca, with Pacho Lopez on the Río Negro, what I see is Tim, his posture, his eyes, his sense of wonder and delight. Schultes is an old man now, and like all old men he has forgotten much of what he knew and did. But he never forgets Tim, and in his memories they have merged, student and teacher, father and son, like two branches of a river flowing into one.
The black and white photographs on this page are by Richard Schultes: the color photos are by Wade Davis.
You may order ONE RIVER from the on-line booksellers
Amazon gives you the option of sending your credit card information by encrypted e-mail .
Visit the web site of NOMADS OF THE DAWN, another book by Wade Davis.
Return to Ian Mackenzie's home pageLast Updated: 25.2.97 WebMaster: Ian Mackenzie email@example.com