It may be worth drawing a distinction between the source of plant knowledge and the source of plant healing. Many indigenous peoples assert that their knowledge of plants and their uses comes from some other-than-human person who appears in a vision or dream. These spirits may, as in the Amazonian mestizo tradition, be the plants themselves, but not necessarily; when my teacher doña María Tuesta was young, for example, it was the Virgin Mary, not the plant spirits, who appeared in her dreams, showed her the healing plants, and taught her the plants to cure specific diseases.

On the other hand, the source of plant healing may be the physical plant, or the physical plant as a substrate of magical power, or the spirit of the plant acting independently of the physical plant. Joel Swerdlow, a scientific journalist investigating plant medicine, tells a story that illustrates this point. In Madagascar, he met with a rural healer who supplied him with leaves of a plant said to be good for cancer. And, indeed, tests by a Swiss pharmaceutical company showed the leaves to have anticancer activity. He returned, but the healer, concerned, probably wisely, about potential theft of his secrets, refused to supply any more leaves. Swerdlow then himself acquired leaves from the same species of plant; yet these, when tested, were ineffective.

To Amazonian mestizo shamans, there is nothing puzzling about this. Swerdlow did not sing to the plants. Herbalists — and this includes poisoners — do not sing; shamanic herbalists and sorcerers sing — charge the plants, cure them, call the spirits that invest themselves in the healing process. “What good do you think my remedies would be,” says don Manuel Córdova, a mestizo shaman, “if I didn’t sing to them?” And the song may be — but is not necessarily — the icaro of the plants who are in the medicine. In curing a woman made pregnant by a boa, Pablo Amaringo tells us, the shaman prepared the fruit of the huito, but then he sang — “singing many icaros, blowing on it, and putting in it arkanas” — calling the great serpent corimachaco, the multicolored rainbow, the precious stones, the mud of the waters, the laughing falcon, the tiger, the spirits of the pucunucho pepper and the hairy rocoto pepper — both hot pepper plants with which to stun the boa who, with its own spirit helpers, was supporting the pregnancy.

As poet César Calvo puts it, the physical plants are simply “the visible portion of the healing.” The plants, in addition to being real medicines, contain madres or genios, the beings who teach. Calvo says that the mothers of things “are the origin of their purpose and of their use for healing or for harming.” When we give the plants our love, we awaken their mothers, ”so that they will augment the strength of the cure with their love.” A cure is not caused by the ingestion or topical application of an herbal medicine; rather it results from the benevolent intervention of the mother through the intermediation of the plant.

Mestizo shamans have an encyclopedic knowledge of the preparation and use of healing plants, and frequently prepare and prescribe plants and plant mixtures for ingestion, baths, and sweats. But a plant is inefficacious by itself; it is the spirit of the plant who heals, and the spirit is summoned by its song. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize this is that, for mestizo shamans, the physical plant is the same as the plant spirit. The physical plant is the aspect of the plant spirit that you can see clearly all the time; the plant spirit is the aspect of the plant you do not notice — you cannot see — until you have drunk ayahuasca.

Thus, shamanic herbalists uniquely develop a personal relationship with the entire plant; the song, the whisper, the whistle, the rattling of the leaf bundle is the manifestation of that relationship in sound, puro sonido, the language of the plants. Biomedical practitioners — or contemporary herbalists who see plants as useful collocations of molecules — lack such a relationship; and they rely for healing on the mercy of a part of the plant with whom they have no relationship at all.

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One Response to “Plants and Spirits”

  1. herbivorous says:

    Excellent blog.

    But I would argue that I’ve never met an herbalist–even a modern, biochemically-based herbalist–that does not acknowledge that the plants speak. From my studies, it’s clear to me that there is no tradition on earth that does not acknowledge that there is communication between plant and people. It’s a poor scientist that would disregard this fact: Since so many indigenous plant traditions have turned out to be backed up by rigorous science, in my eyes it’s a failing of our scientific methods that we haven’t found “proof” of plant spirit interaction. Empirical data can be extraordinarily useful, and there’s just too much empirical data to support the idea that healers communicate with plants the world over, whether they are shamans or not.

    It is my strong feeling that you cannot work with plants for any length of time, especially in the capacity of a healer, without acknowledging the Spirit aspect of things. Or, as one of my hard-nosed science friends put it, the “woo-woo factor”.

    I’m about as science-based an herbalist as you might find–I’m a huge fan of the placebo-controlled, double-blind randomized trial–but I also have had many experiences that have taught me that it is equally important to honor and LISTEN to the plants themselves. These were not experiences that I sought out or cultivated, for the most part–it was just repeated experiences, some subtle, some not, that finally made me realize that I was being “talked to”. No herbalist I know would argue with this. (I’m not talking about a physician that might occasionally recommend St. Johnswort. I’m talking about practitioners that use herbs as their primary source of healing.)

    We may not sing to our plants, but I would argue that many of us are at least somewhat aware of the subtle songs of the plants themselves. It is my goal, as a healer, to use science as a guide (and a useful one it is!), but when push comes to shove, I have learned to listen to the subtle whispers of the plants themselves for final decisions about what plants to use, and I strongly, strongly suspect that most herbalists do the same.

    –herbivorous


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