The term monte occurs frequently in Amazonian mestizo shamanism. It generally refers both to mountains and woodlands; in the Amazon, it is, technically, the term used to differentiate the highland jungle from the várzea, the annually flooded lowland forest. But to the mestizos, the term means — as one regional dictionary puts it — despoblado, unpopulated, deserted, and thus dangerous, solitary, and frightening.

Since the plant spirits are very sensitive to smells, dwelling in the jungle allows one to acquire olor a monte, the smell of the jungle, the smell of other-than-human persons, while abstinence eliminates the smells of human sex, which the plant spirits dislike. Pablo Amaringo says that human beings just smell bad to the spirits generally, and only a long diet will purify one from this bad smell. Grandfather Alonso Andi, a Napo Runa, speaks of hunting: “From so much walking … the body acquires the smell of the forest; man becomes the forest and animals don’t flee.”

The same is true of the spirits. Poet César Calvo notes that those following la dieta may dress in special ancient cushmas, never washed. “The cushmas blend into the stink and the colors of the deep jungle, so that animals and souls aren’t made restless by the smell of man.” To become the forest makes one acceptable to the spirits of the plants.

Don Leoncio Garcia, a Shipibo shaman, makes this point with a story. Once there was a man, he says, who learned so much from ayahuasca that he kept on drinking it, singing day and night. His two sons tried to feed him, but, when they tried to pick him up, they found that he had become rooted to the ground. When the sons returned a month later, they saw that ayahuasca vines were growing from their father’s fingers; when they returned once again they saw that the vines had tangled all about him; and, finally, they returned to find that their father had merged completely into the jungle.

It is certainly possible to diet alone; but apprentices generally diet under the tutelage of their maestro ayahuasquero, who keeps them to the diet, and protects them and modulates their visions with magic song. But much of the time is spent in solitude, alone in a small tambo, an open thatched shelter they have built themselves, in which they stay throughout the diet, with not much to do. Days of drinking ayahuasca alternate with days on which they go out into the jungle, and learn to identify, gather, and prepare the plants.

It is probably worth noting that many mestizo shamans are skilled mitayeros, hunters and fishers, in large part, I think, because of months of sitting quietly and observing the jungle during la dieta. Indeed, the network of almost invisible paths that interlace the jungle are thought to have been created by the great and powerful shamans of the past.

That is how the plants teach you — sitting quietly in the jungle, with no place to go, listening for their song.

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