Posts Tagged ‘Amazon rainforest’

The Story Behind The Dark Side Of Ayahuasca

Yesterday, an article entitled “The Dark Side of Ayahuasca” appeared in Men’s Journal, a prominent American magazine with a monthly circulation of 700,000. The article focused largely on the death of Kyle Nolan, an 18 year old Californian who died under mysterious circumstances at an ayahuasca retreat center in Peru. The link is here, and well worth a read:

The piece was written by Kelly Hearn, a professional journalist for 15 years, who has written for The Nation, National Geographic News, The Christian Science Monitor, and many others. I first met Kelly this past spring, when he was here in Iquitos doing research for the ayahuasca article. Men’s Journal had sent him to Iquitos to write a feature piece about the overall trend of ayahuasca tourism in Peru, but between its writing and publication, the death of Kyle Nolan occurred. After that, says Hearn, “my editor said, ‘sorry, but we have to ask you to re-write your feature, because it has become a news story now.’”

So the resulting news article, pared down to 1,866 words, bears little resemblance to the article Hearn originally hoped to publish, but these were circumstances beyond his control. Such is the life of a freelance writer. I’ve since become good friends with Kelly, and he happens to be back in Iquitos for the first time since he was here researching the story. I sat down with him this morning at the Amazon Bistro to discuss his thoughts on the article, because I think the story behind the story is even more interesting than what was finally published in Men’s Journal.

“So, this has turned into a news piece about Kyle,” Hearn began. “I originally filed a 4,000 word story that was trying to capture the spirit of ayahuasca, including how it affected me personally. I am obviously disappointed it didn’t get published that way, but that’s the business I am in, I have to accept that.

“It’s frustrating to see the tone and focus of the article change, and I almost feel that I should apologize for the change in tone to all the people who helped me with my research. But, on the other hand, Kyle Nolan’s father was happy about it as a news piece, he said it was ”spot on, good work,” and that makes me feel good, because I wanted people to do their homework about ayahuasca, and if you are looking for a shaman or a retreat center, to find people who are real and honest, like Slocum at Amaru Spirit for example, before they go off with just anyone into the jungle.

“But I met new people, I got a book deal out of it, and the things I didn’t get to say in the article, I hope to communicate in the novel. My original story was that I met really interesting people who went against the grain of the stereotypical ayahuasca seeker. I mean, at first, after everything I heard about ayahuasca, I was telling people to throw up their hands and run backwards from this thing. But in fact it is changing peoples lives. Once I got here and met some of these people, and tried it for myself, I began to see that.”

I should mention that, as a direct result of coming here to research this article, Kelly happened into a set of circumstances that led to a group of private investors financing him to write a novel that features ayahuasca as a major plot point, which they hope to option for a film as well. Now, nearly a year later, he has written a draft and is completing the re-writes. I personally am very excited to read the book, and see the movie too.

So, what, I asked him, was his own ayahuasca experience like? Well, to really appreciate his response, you have to know about a very odd synergy that occurred in Iquitos, three days after Hearn did his ayahuasca ceremony. At the time, Hearn was also researching a story for The Washington Times about the murder of fourteen shamans in the remote town of Balsa Puerto, located outside of Yurimaguas. At the time, the all-time record for flooding in the upper Amazon region was at or near its peak, and the waters had stranded or incapacitated hundred of towns and villages, and made the logistics of travel into these regions into a Herculean task.

After hearing that the road from Yurimaguas to Tarapoto was impassable, he decided to email his editor and tell him that he was giving up on the story. He was facing a four day boat ride, followed by overland passage across uncertain roads, and then having to hire smaller boats to travel into a flooded and fairly lawless area. He was quite rightly worried about traveling into such a remote region, with no guarantee of safe passage, or of encountering the mayor of Balsa Puerto once he got there, which was the reason for the whole trip.

So, on his way to deliver this message to his editor, he passed a local restaurant a block from the hostel where he was staying. He glanced inside and saw a man who looked remarkably like the photographs he had seen of Alfredo Torres, the mayor of Balsa Puerto. He passed by, paused, and turned around and went back to look in again. He could swear it was Torres, a man he had never met but only seen in photos. So he went inside and said, ’excuse me, are you the mayor of Balsa Puerto?” And indeed it was him! The mayor explained that he rarely travels to Iquitos, but was in town for a couple of days to request emergency funds from the regional government to aid the displaced flood victims in his village.

The mayor finished his lunch and then obliged Kelly with the interview he had been seeking, explaining at length his version of the circumstances surrounding the murders of the shamans. The mayor, who like many locals there are fervent evangelical Christians, had come under some scrutiny because of the deep conflict between the fundamentalist Christian beliefs of the town leaders, and the traditional shamanic beliefs and practices of the indigenous Shawi curanderos who were found murdered. Some even alleged that the murders happened on the mayor’s order. But the mayor proclaimed his innocence, disavowed any knowledge of the real perpetrators, and even said to Kelly that “God has led you to me so that I can declare my innocence to the world.”

“My ayahuasca experience was book-ended by running into the mayor,” Hearn explained. “I dealt with those fears of how to encounter him during the experience. I had some anxiety about it– Balsa Puerto was just too far. But before I could inform my editor, I walked by a restaurant and there was the mayor eating lunch! So I got my interview after all, without even having to travel.”

What to make of such an unlikely event?

“The mayor said it was God, and the shamans said it was the plants who led me to him. I put a lot of thought into it during my ceremony, and sure enough, my problem was resolved for me. It led me to question the whole of reality, really. What was it that led me to him? Just a coincidence? I think I’m still trying to figure that out.”

For what it’s worth, I myself also had a very strange synchronicity that day. Kelly wanted more info on a situation where a Polish man in Iquitos had almost died during an ayahuasca ceremony, and had gone into a coma and suffered brain damage. I had never met the guy, but I had some free time that day and I told Kelly I would go out to see what I could learn, although I had no leads to go on. Then, driving by a street festival in San Juan, I saw a lone gringo sitting by himself among hundreds of Peruvians. On a wild impulse I thought, maybe that’s him.

I pulled over, parked the bike and walked over to this guy and started talking to him. I asked him if he knew anything about this Polish guy, and he had a very strange reaction. He didn’t know what to make of me, he thought I was a cop at first. It took us a few minutes for us to sort each other out, talking in both Spanish and English. But it turned out that this guy, who was Dutch, was a good friend of the Polish guy, and had been the one by his side through the ordeal of taking him to the hospital and dealing with all the residual fall-out. He was the best resource, the most reliable person to talk to, to get to the heart of what really happened. Consider this: having set out on my specific information-gathering mission that morning, this Dutch guy was the only person I asked about it the entire day, and I picked him randomly out of a crown on a whim– and, in a city of over 400,000, hit the bullseye on the first shot.

What really happened, as I understand it, is that the Polish guy passed out during the ceremony, wasn’t monitored closely enough, and aspirated on his own vomit. There is a strong suspicion that he was given toé (brugmansia) in the brew, a dangerous plant that Kelly mentions in the Men’s Journal piece.

Finally though, when I got back to tell Kelly about this crazy coincidence, he he trumped my story by a mile! He was incredulous at the day’s apparent coincidences, and so was I. So, to quote my friend, I am still trying to figure that one out.

Building Community in the Amazon Jungle: A Guest Post by David “Slocum” Hewson

Everything changes, but nothing is lost.

Everything changes, but nothing is lost.

(Editor’s note: Jungle Love is pleased to feature this guest post from David “Slocum” Hewson, the founder and owner of Amaru Spirit, a holistic healing center located in the jungle outside of Iquitos, Peru. Their website is here: Regular Jungle Love readers may notice some similarities between Slocum and Chillum, a recurring character in the blog. These similarities are, I presume, not totally a coincidence.)

“Building Community in the Amazon Jungle”

A guest post by David Hewson

Many gringos come to the Peruvian Amazon with dreams of buying land in the jungle, building homes and perhaps even starting businesses. The natural beauty and abundance of the jungle seems like a paradise on Earth, and it is, until you try living there full-time.

As a kid, I loved reading about Daniel Boone, and the whole pioneering spirit. My great-grandparents first settled the land where my family in North Carolina still lives today. I guess on some deep level I always had that pioneering spirit too, and the past three years–buying jungle land in Peru and building a retreat center there–have given me the ultimate test of my pioneering skills! I have paid a lot of dues to get where I am now. While many gringos come here with similar ambitions, I’ve seen a lot more failures than successes during my seven years in Iquitos. So I’d like to share a few of my own learning experiences in how to build community relations in the jungle.

When I first bought my land on the Itaya river, it was completely undeveloped. In time I learned that I had inherited a border dispute between my neighbors and the former owner of my land. There’s this idea in the jungle that, if you are tending land, even if it doesn’t fall under the deed, it’s yours. But there are always going to be disputes when the map and territory itself do not align. After I bought the land, we discovered that government officials had taken an old map and used that as a template, but no surveyors had ever come out to properly survey it.

The neighbors had been fighting over a disputed swath of land from the people I bought it from– and sometimes they didn’t even know where the line was. There was a tree a meter over the line, but the neighbor tended the tree, so it’s theirs. In my case, the neighbors over-claimed what they actually had. But fortunately, some other neighbors with property adjacent to mine had actually done their surveying according to legal requirements, and filed it in the public registry. The government surveyors then had a problem on their hands–they were obliged to do their jobs properly. Otherwise the borders would have overlapped, based on the boundaries of my neighbors, which were already on legal record.

So the surveyors came back the second time, and it turned out that both neighbors gained land from what they had before on paper! And with that, the dispute was settled, and both sides were content, without the need to construct fences or make problems. This was a rare example where a dispute resulted in a win for both sides! Because where there there are no fences, borders in the jungle can get very fuzzy, and it’s always better to know exactly what’s yours.

When we began building the first structures on the land, I invited all my neighbors over for a minga. This is a day of shared communal labor. No one gets paid, but you provide a meal for everyone when the work is done, with the understanding that you will show up for your neighbor when it’s their turn for a minga. This event was chronicled here:

The minga is a great example of community in the jungle. It encourages social cooperation and trust between neighbors, which becomes extremely important when the time comes for the community to band together in order to deal with problems that affect everybody.

One of the greatest problems faced by this community, myself included, was illegal logging on all our lands. Thieves coming upriver from Belen were constantly entering the quebrada (creek) that gave access to this area, cutting down and stealing trees and whatever else they could take. I knew something had to be done about all these invaders, after I caught some thieves on my own land. It had been vacant for so long, people assumed it was free for the taking. This problem with wood theft really was so out of control that in the beginning, there were eighty to one hundred boats coming in on the weekends, dozens and dozens of people on a single day! Each one intent on sneaking in and hauling logs illegally out of the forest.

So I obtained a signed, notarized document stating that I had permission to control access to the quebrada, on behalf of the entire community. Then I hired a person from the community to be my guard, as he would know who was from the community and who wasn’t. I paid him a good monthly salary, because it was essential to be able to identify people as locals or strangers. Some of the people coming up the creek were harassing me, yelling crude and insulting things, but they weren’t strangers or thieves, they were locals from the village! Not everyone in the community thought it was a good thing to have a gringo in the neighborhood.

The other thing I did was buy some guns and make sure my guard was always well-armed, night and day. A word about guns: there are no police in the jungle. You are your own police. I never owned a gun until I moved to Peru. In the jungle, it is a necessity. Without that protection, eventually you’re going to be exposed to the risk posed by people who come onto your land with guns of their own. It’s just that simple.

Finally, I hired a painter to paint a big sign, stating that we had armed guards and permission to shoot on sight, complete with a pictorial icon of a person getting shot, so even people who couldn’t read would get the message. We posted this sign prominently at the entrance of the quebrada where it was impossible to miss. And after we did that, the traffic from invaders dropped immediately from dozens every week down to maybe one or two a year. The problem virtually went away overnight.

Even with that, I wasn’t accepted by a lot of the community. And I understand, I’m a gringo on the land, I have a different way of living, and they’re not used to it, they’ve never had a gringo try to set up stake among them. And that brings me to the Sunday morning meeting where everything turned.

Each Sunday morning around 8 or 9am, the community held a public meeting to discuss whatever issues were current. I found these meetings to be largely a waste of time. Besides, we worked on the land on Sundays, and often did ceremonies on Saturdays, so it was inconvenient for me to attend, although I was expected to either go in person or send a representative.

Meanwhile, the mayor was talking behind my back, sending nasty verbal messages through the locals, little birds coming to chirp that we’re going to fine you for not attending, little threats like that. It was just a situation like, how are we going to get money out of this gringo? We’ll fine him! I said to the little birds, I won’t talk to the mayor unless he sends me a signed, hand-written message with my name on it. If you want me to come, you have to give me a signed invitation. And so they did that.

I talked to my lawyer about it, and he said I was on private property. So long as the community is not indigenous, I wasn’t legally obligated to attend any of these meetings, and they couldn’t legally enforce a fine.

Armed with this information, I went to the meeting that Sunday with my wife and my child. I planned my words carefully in advance, so I would know exactly what to say in the heat of the moment, facing a roomful of villagers, some of whom had been publicly denouncing me. When I got up to speak, it was obvious that they were all charged up to harass the gringo. I began by talking about how we all faced a common problem, and pointed out the money I had personally invested in order to deal with it.

“I’ve spent a lot of money on this already, for example to hire an artist to paint these signs, warning people not to come into this territory,” I began.

How much did you pay? They wanted to know. I told them. And then they laughed. They were making fun of me for spending that much money on a sign.

“But if you don’t spend that much, so it looks professional, no one will take you seriously,” I said.

At that moment, what I really needed was for them to take me seriously.

So I said, “Who here feels safer now, because I have put up signs and bought guns and hired armed guards from your own community to police this area? Are people still tearing your trees down? How many people come onto your land now?”

There was a silence in the room as that sunk in. Then one man, a guy who had been one of the ones harrassing me before, spoke up.

“No one,” he said. “I have not had any problems since then.”

“Me neither,” another man said. “I don’t have invaders anymore.”

Then all at once, they collectively understood that the money the gringo was spending actually was benefiting the entire community, and the whole energy changed. They had to admit that the problem had more or less gone away. And they said, he’s exonerated from these meetings, we’re not going to fine him, and the gringo is OK.

“In fact,” I continued, “Each one of you has a right not to come to these meetings, you all have private property!” The mayor cut me off immediately. He got out a book and started reading the laws.

I said, “I don’t care what you’re reading, this doesn’t mean anything! It’s a tax system, and they make money each time you don’t come to the meeting, but you don’t actually have to pay it.” I made the mayor very nervous talking about individual rights, and once I mentioned my lawyer’s advice, he intervened and quickly changed the subject. In my opinion, this problem with meetings and taxation goes back to Fujimori, who put these meetings in place, to make sure regional authorities could keep track of what local villages were doing. They didn’t want any of these communities getting too independent.

After that Sunday morning, something shifted. As a show of goodwill, I agreed to send a rep to be there every week in my place. And we’ve never had any problems since then. They accepted me because they know who I am now, because I was willing to stand before them publicly with my Peruvian wife and child by my side to make my case, and because it’s not in their interest to mess with me. Now the whole community knows that I am a job provider, I’ve got a good business up and running, and I’m not going anywhere.

I even made a proposal to the town to raise the funds to plant coconuts along the road to the town, so people don’t have to drink sugary sodas all the time, they could drink coconut water instead. If we ever get the funds together, I’d still like to do that.

The mayor and I even started to get along after that. He was the one who made the ruling that I didn’t have to attend the meetings anymore. The mayor, you see, is also a shaman, and he had wanted me to drink ayahuasca with him for some time, but I wasn’t interested– he was too political, too slick, he had lived in different parts of Peru and knew a lot about life outside the jungle. I was wary of him–he was very charismatic, which can be a red flag with Peruvians–in my experience here, the most charismatic people are the ones to watch out for. So it was, I believed, with the mayor.

Ultimately, what really broke the ice between us was that I did drink ayahuasca with the mayor-shaman; or rather, he drank my medicine, at my place. And this veteran ayahuascero, who had worked with the medicine for decades and bragged about his ability to handle it, got rolled over by my brew and went unconscious for three hours. And I was the one tending to him. After that, I think we started to have a real understanding with each other, and there was mutual respect.

It’s funny how the people I avoided the most in the beginning are the people I’ve gotten the closest to now! The mayor is now employed as the head shaman at my retreat center, conducting regular ayahuasca ceremonies for my clients there, and he does an excellent job too.

One last observation. When I first moved onto the land, my cane field was burned. I found eleven witnesses who said it was the former owner’s cousin, who had kept an eye on the land, but never got paid for it. He wanted to scare me so that I would go away. He’s now one of my best workers. He’s the only one who will tell me in advance if he’s not coming in to work the next day! No other worker does that, they just don’t show up.

At the time, I confronted him, did you burn my cane field? I have eleven witnesses. He denied it. I said, well, because you burned the chacra where I’m going to construct a maloca, now I don’t have to do another minga! So I told him I wasn’t going to press charges, and I thanked him instead.

Under the Mistletoe


Some well-established mistletoe colonies.

Some well-established mistletoe colonies.

Here’s another riff on the theme of how many cool things can be found right in your own backyard. Corrina and Maverick and I live in walled compound with a big garden in the back. We have lots of fruit trees—coconut trees that yield dozens of coconuts at a time, guanabana, cherry, avocado, acai, copoazu, cashew, and mamey, among others. But the garden’s most prominent feature is a grove of a dozen mature Brazilian guayaba trees, which were planted by the family a decade ago, and which prolifically produce large, luscious, bright yellow guayaba fruits on a daily basis.

Then one day I noticed these trees had some branches with differently shaped leaves. I pointed it out to Otorongo Anthony, and he identified it instantly as an invasive species of mistletoe. He suggested I remove them from all the guayaba trees by hand, the only sure way to rid the trees of the pest. They target citrus trees, which explained why I only found them on the guayabas. When I looked closely, I found that they had colonized every single one of the guayabas to some extent.

Phoradendron, the family of mistletoe, is well named for its parasitic properties: phora (to bear, carrying, producing, transmission) dendron (tree). Corrina and I wondered how this tree reproduced itself, and was transmitted from host to host. I figured the obvious answer was birds. Most of these growths occurred at the outer edges of the tree canopy, and tended to occur in clusters. Why were some trees afflicted with half their growth taken over by the parasite, while others had only one or two growths?

Sure enough, thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that this species of mistletoe produces flavorful berries with sticky seeds inside. Birds peck at the seeds, and then wipe their beaks off on the branches, leaving the seeds plastered on the branches where they can begin to propagate new territory. Occam’s razor is everywhere to be found in the jungle, and this is yet another elegant example of the simplest explanation being correct. The action of birds eating berries, and perhaps even wiping their beaks on a branch, is all that is needed for the opportunistic seed to find its host.

I also learned that these plants are known as hemi-parasites, because they do their own photosynthesis, but also depend on the host for water and some nutrients.

It’s funny, I scarcely noticed this imposter in my garden all this time. I mean, I did notice it, but it was growing out of the woody tissue of its host so flawlessly, I was all but fooled. The burls it raised where the parasitic root ran along the stem of the host have an incredibly clever design. In botany this root is known as a haustorium, and its function is to penetrate the host’s tissue and draw nutrients from it, just like that face-sucking critter in Alien. 

Come to think of it, phoradendrons remind me a lot of some of the characters who hang out down on the Boulevard. Except they’re trying to gradually attach themselves to your wallet without your noticing anything strange.

The differently shaped leaves of Phoradendron spp. obviously give it away, but it’s something you just don’t expect to see, that level of masquerade and trickery in the plant kingdom, an imposter hiding in plain sight.

So yesterday, I got the stepladder and went around the garden, meticulously removing every one I could find. I must’ve plucked out a couple hundred of them, and it took me most of the afternoon to do so. On closer inspection, up there in the canopy, I found that there were whole supply trains of ants focused around the contact points where the parasitic roots had attached themselves and formed nodes on the branches, getting sap or nutrients of some kind from these joints.

Which, by the way, is why they call this plant suelda con suelda in Spanish. It means to join together, in the sense of welding or soldering one thing to another, reflecting its method of joining itself physically to its host. Not only that, but suelda con suelda is well known in the jungle for its medicinal properties—particularly its ability to heal joint problems, dislocations and fractures! (Many people in the jungle pull down samples from the forest and transplant them onto citrus trees in their yard, so they can have a supply on hand if needed for emergency plasters and poultices.) You gotta love the symmetry of that . . . yet another great example of the medieval Doctrine of Signatures, which, like Occam’s razor, begins to appear everywhere you look in the jungle, once you start looking.

So it turns out that this pest is actually a healer as well, and I spent hours eliminating a plant that others in the jungle cultivate. One man’s parasite is another man’s medicine, I suppose.  I just had to laugh when I found that the mistletoe was itself suffering from a parasite, a leaf blight which I only found on its leaves and nowhere else. The guayabas too have a common leaf fungus of some kind, but it’s different from the one specifically targeting the mistletoe. So even the parasite has one of its own, and everything is eating everything else all the time, without sentimentality or remorse. A process that is neither good nor evil, but merely reflects the uncompromising need of all living things to survive and propagate by any means necessary. Which is to say, the law of the jungle, eh?

Good Morning, Beautiful

I’ve found life around the house to be fairly chaotic this year. There’s been the usual boilerplate stresses like financial worries and relationship strife, and now that Maverick is a two year old he is a hurricane-grade source of chaos in himself. On top of that you’ve got Corrina and her mother acting out an age-old Latina mother-daughter conflict over how to raise the child, and every other household decision that really boils down to who’s in charge here and generally ends with them squawking at each other like a couple of riled-up mother hens fighting over a nest.

I’m ready to say goodbye to a lot of that stress, discord, and chaos. I have a high threshold for it, and I fully accept that life is messy and chaotic and full of loose threads and false pretenses and dead ends. Iquitos has certainly taught me that much. While I admire the beautiful landscapes here, neither do I ignore all the trash that’s lying around on the ground and gummed up in the bushes and floating in the rivers. They’re not separate from each other, much as I would like them to be. So, I don’t take the chaos personally anymore, or as a comment on my own life . . . but I do hope that the coming new year finds my family and I in a more peaceful and composed place.

Lots of people have daily rituals by which they set their compass each morning. Some exercise, others get up early to read the paper or meditate or just sit with a cup of tea and space out for a bit. At our house, I wake up and say good morning to the beautiful Corrina, and then we like to start with a super-smoothie of acai pulp blended with maca and banana and fresh fruit juice like camu camu or mango. Sometimes I go out back and pull down some coconuts from the tree, and we make the smoothie with fresh coconut water. Man, that’s good stuff. I live for simple pleasures like that.

After that, Maverick sits down to eat some eggs (bee-oh bee-oh is the term he’s coined for eggs) and we have a chat. Good morning, I say. And he either agrees or disagrees that it is a good morning. Then we discuss that. Maverick is now in the habit of repeating everything he hears, so it’s like talking to a parrot.

We also have an actual parrot, who wakes us up very early each morning by screaming bloody murder. It makes a horrifying screech (at airport-level decibels) that sounds exactly like the musical arrangement for strings from the shower scene in Psycho, at the moment when Janet Leigh gets stabbed. How would you like to wake up to that every day at dawn? Many’s the morning I have very nearly given that bird a real reason to scream bloody murder. In spite of this, Pepita is still the family pet after almost a decade.

So after breakfast I like to make a cup of coffee and perambulate around the garden while it’s still early. The birds are flickering everywhere and the light at that time of day has this soft, silky quality like the glow of off-stage lights before the sun gets higher in the sky and the klieg lights come on.

I like to kind of check in on the greenery and watch things as they grow. There’s an ancient, instinctive kind of communion there. I imagine it likely goes back to the first time a human being ever thought to put a seed into the ground, and then came back later to see what happened. My backyard here is getting more jungly, and I find if I look closely I find all kinds of bugs and insects and other critters that look like they just flew in from outer space. You can really see a lot if you just look. It helps to quiet the mind and focus one’s attention. Close observation is a bit like meditation, I suppose.

I always check in with the plants. I like to see how fast the maracuya (passionfruit) vines are growing, and I look for the first passion fruit flower. They look like this:

The well-named passion flower

The well-named passion flower

I also say hello every day to the boganzana, a long-limbed shrub with flowers like glass fireworks, and a great ‘energy.’

Maverick, with a boganzana in full bloom

Maverick, with a boganzana in full bloom

And I make sure to pause and pay my proper respects to the datura that I planted under the coconut tree. A plant growing under a tall coconut tree is like living under the sword of Damocles, and I can think of no better choice to occupy that real estate. Known here as toé, datura is an extremely powerful psychoactive medicinal plant, associated with black magic and witchcraft since before the Middle Ages. Datura is the botanical equivalent of Saruman, or Darth Sidious. It’s not something you want to fool with at all. It can seriously mess with your mind, make you crazy, even kill you dead. But it also has gorgeous flowers. So I planted it in a corner of the garden where we can all enjoy it from a distance.

Datura, the dark wizard of the plant kingdom

Datura, the dark wizard of the plant kingdom

I was thinking of something Pete Davidson said the other day, when we were talking about gardening. He said, you may talk to the plants, but do the plants ever talk to you?

I can’t say that, in the course of daily life, plants have ever talked to me. I know that talking and singing to plants, and getting messages in return, plays a key role in shamanism and the way medicinal plants are handled and prepared. Viewed in terms of a quantum-level energy transfer going on between two living beings, I can totally see how that could really work, and make a difference both to the person and the plant, in the medicinal efficacy or the shamanic experience that results.

More on this topic here:

But no, generally speaking, plants don’t talk to me. I’m not that attuned.  Then Pete told me that once he was getting ready to transplant a cocona plant, and it said to him, ‘you can’t transplant us while we’re fruiting, or we’ll die.’ So he transplanted them anyway, and they all died. Later he noticed them popping up randomly all over the lawn, and he realized that this is the way cocona likes to grow, and you can’t make it do otherwise. Plants, just like people, can be very much creatures of habit.

This morning, I was making the rounds, checking in with my big jungly backyard. I said good morning to the parrot. ‘Whatthefuck,’ replied Pepita. This is something I taught Pepita long ago, but she hardly ever says it. So that was pretty special right there. I went on down the path, and Corrina came out to feed the parrot.

Mira! Corrina said. Look!

Meeera, cried Maverick, as he came running out from the house to see. Meeera que?


There's Pepita in the top right.

There’s Pepita in the top right, eating coconut.

I walked back under Pepita’s tree, and saw what Corrina was pointing to. I had just walked right by it without noticing. Together we all admired an exquisite string of orchids that had just bloomed. The Peruvian Amazon has evolved a fantastic array of exotic, otherworldly orchids, and this particular strain of orchid grows as an epiphyte, meaning it does not need roots in the soil to get nutrients, but usually lives up in the branches of the rainforest canopy. This one had attached itself to the branch of a guayaba tree, where it had lived in obscurity until now.

A string of coyly hidden orchids.

A string of coyly hidden orchids.

 “Oooooh,” said Maverick.

“Mira, tienen pequeñas pelos, como una vagina,” said Corrina.

“Va-hee-na,” Maverick repeated.

I was going to correct him, but, well, that’s what flowers basically are, after all. And this one was pretty amazing.

“Flor, vagina, misma diferencia,” I said. And we all just sat there admiring it for awhile (the flower, that is.)

Then Maverick said, “Mishma diff’rensha. Que es, papa?” (Same difference. What’s this, papa?)

“Es donde bee-oh bee-ohs son hechos,” I replied. (It’s where eggs are made.)

“Flor,” said Maverick. “Va-hee-na. Que bonita.”

“Que bonita indeed, hijo.”

Orchids-- God's supermodels.

Orchids– God’s supermodels.

Which is funny, because the term ‘orchid’ comes from the Greek orkhis, which literally means ‘testicle.’ That’s because of the shape of the root, which resembles a nutsack. Ironic.

The earth laughs in flowers, Emerson said.

I like that.

The lesson I take from this is that there’s always more to see. Open yer eyes, and suddenly it’s all around–beauty is everywhere.  Every corner of the earth contains multitudes, from l’origine du monde to the last undiscovered orchid on the map, loveliness can be right under your nose at any moment. You need only be paying attention in order to see it.  And here I thought I was paying attention. I mean, whatthefuck, right?

My Week at Tapiche Ohara’s Reserve: The Beauty Of All Forms

Last week, I finally had a chance to visit Tapiche Ohara’s Reserve, and spend a week there at the lodge with a nice Dutch couple who had been staying at the hostel. My partner in the hostel, Tucandeira, is the manager of the lodge and also the chief guide. But Tucan could not make the trip that week, so I went instead to serve as translator.

I’ve been meaning to make the trip for a long time, and while it’s quite a journey to get down there (twelve hours by fast boat to get from Iquitos to Requena and finally up the Tapiche river to the lodge), but it was well worth it. Tapiche Ohara’s Reserve encompasses some 3,800 acres (1,500 hectares) of pristine, protected rainforest, including at least five distinct ecosystems. There’s a lot to see. The jungle is massive!

the lodge at Tapiche Ohara’s Reserve

And it contains so many wonders, such incredible creatures of strange variety, each with its own ingenious set of adaptations to its environment. Anyone who doubts the logic of natural selection should take a trip to the deep jungle. Every niche in every corner of the jungle is occupied by a creature specially designed to fill it. And all things are food for something else, ourselves included. Every moment of the day and night, the jungle devours itself, over and over, and all creatures within it evolve to escape death a day at a time. It teems and seethes with life and spills over with it everywhere you look. To spend a few hours walking through the jungle is to experience oneself as an alien visitor to the far side of a strange paradise.

The resident guide at the lodge, Segundo, lives there with his wife. He and his brothers, who live with their families just around the bend of the river, are indigenous Matses. Segundo proved to be an excellent guide. It was quickly obvious that he was wired into the jungle on a neural level, plugged into the subtle nuances of sight and sound and attentive to every hint of movement, every whisper and rustle of branches. He was our eyes and ears. He pointed out a host of creatures that we never would have seen. As we walked through different ecosystems, Segundo would imitate the sounds and songs of different animals, and many of them answered him, including a black caiman, to our amusement. He grunted at it, and after a pause, a low guttural dinosaur groan came from across the lagoon. Later, in the night, he would catch both caiman and fish by hand from the boat.

Segundo doing a little night fishing

The Reserve was particularly rich in bird life. We saw several dozen varieties during our stay, and Segundo identified them all. Their Spanish names—camungo, picaflor, ayaymama, huapapa, tuhuayo, shansho, buduc!– have a lovely lilt to them; the names themselves are like poetry.

On that first day’s walk, we saw tracks of the sachavaca (tapir) but never the animal itself, which gets up to 500 pounds but is quite shy. The undergrowth of the primary forest where we walked was shot through with butterflies slashing among the foliage like shooting stars. Most butterflies only have a few weeks to live in their mature form, and they seemed to be making the most of it. We ate fruit off the ground that had been cast down that morning by herds of grazing monkeys, and later we came across a little fleet of squirrel monkeys making their leisurely way through the canopy, maybe forty of them, pausing to peer down at us with quizzical expressions.

the mata mata, possibly the world’s weirdest turtle.

Back by the river, we saw turtles called taricaya, as well as an ancient one known as mata mata, and egrets and herons and hawks, and many dolphins. The Tapiche is practically crowded with pink and grey dolphins. I have never seen so many in my life, nor been so close to them. Segundo said that they had lairs beneath shelves under the water, and that they left to go hunting for fish during the day. At dusk, right from the lodge, you could see them headed back home, one after the other down a lane in the middle of the river, in no particular hurry, kind of drifting along with the current, almost as though they were commuting home from their workday. At night, when we would cut the engine and drift along in the current, they would reveal themselves when they surfaced and breathed through their blowholes, sounding exactly like a swimmer who has come up for a breath of air. At night, when all else is quiet, it’s quite funny to hear this sound right behind you.

Another day’s walk was a long trail through an aguajal—a stand of enormous aguaje trees. The aguajal was damp and boggy and choked in lianas and interwoven fingers of renaco trees. The aguaje fruits are a favorite snack across many species in the jungle. and I collected several dozen ripe ones that the monkeys had tossed away, and ate them myself. So yes, I ate the discarded leftovers of some monkey’s brunch, and they were delicious. Segundo pointed out a bird called in Spanish ‘Victor Diaz,’ so named because its song is an onomonopeia. I thought that was great.

There were many scattered stands of acai palms as well, and from the reference book at the lodge I learned that the botanical name of the acai palm, Euterpe precatoria (Martius, 1823) was named by him as an homage to Euterpe, who is one of the nine Muses of classical antiquity. She’s the Muse of music, and so not surprising that, while all of Zeus’ daughters were hot, she was a total knockout. She was known as the ‘giver of delight.’ The elegant aspect of the acai palm inspired Martius to that tribute, and an excellent one it is. And I’m willing to bet he never even tried an acai smoothie, which is also a giver of delight.

Another day’s walk took us five hours, starting at dawn, through an ancient primary growth forest of truly incredible variety. We saw a great many fruit trees, but not much fruit. Segundo said that a lot of them, the uvos and charihuelos, anona and grenadilla, would not start fruiting until November. Along this trail were more resonant, poetically named trees. I repeated them to myself as we walked along: caoba, cedro, capirona, renaco, remo caspi, capinuri, tanaranga (don’t touch!) We passed an absolutely massive ojé tree, a couple hundred years old at least. It has a caustic, milky sap that can be drunk to eliminate all parasites and worms in the body. The fingers supporting its trunk ran along the ground in all direction and snaked out of sight through the undergrowth.


There were several grand old caucho (rubber) trees along the way as well, and you could see from the grooves in the bark where, many decades before, very likely during the Rubber Boom, the trees had been harvested repeatedly for their rubber. Segundo, smiling, pointed out that the men who had done this had been dead for some time, the harvested rubber long interred to some distant landfill, but the trees themselves were still around.

A living veteran of the rubber boom

But the pinnacle of the day’s walk, for me, was the sight of a 200 year old lupuna tree, one of the crowning giants of all the Amazon, with a footprint as big as a cottage, and fruit bats living among its crevices. It was absolutely enormous, so big that photographs did it no justice, as it wouldn’t even fit within the camera’s frame. It resonated like a drum when you slapped the fins of its long wooden knuckles. It was a patrician, an aristocrat among trees, rising sternly into the canopy and gazing all about with noble bearing and excellent posture.

Lupuna: even taller than Dutch people.

The trail led ultimately to an enormous lagoon that struck me as prehistoric, almost outside of time altogether, where black caimans shared space with huge paiche, the largest fish in the Amazon. I passed the time hunting little frogs and bugs while Segundo barked at the caimans and the Dutch couple rested by the lagoon in repose.

It was then that I began to really look closely, when my gaze slowed nearly to a stop. Everywhere I looked, when I looked long enough, I eventually saw something. And some of the creatures I found hidden in plain sight were astonishing in their mastery of camouflage.

There were these moths tucked into a nook in the lupuna. I didn’t even see them at first.

There was this praying mantis, who was stealthy as a ninja. I didn’t see him until he moved.

There was this cicada, who had a great camo pattern on its wings, the photo here doesn’t really do it justice.

But the creature that really blew my mind, out of everything I saw, was this little tree frog. Segundo spotted it, I never would have seen it, and he said it was very rare to see one, as they are notoriously difficult to spot in the wild. You can see why. This photo was taken when we first walked by. Can you see it?

Nature loves to hide.

Here’s a closer look:

The little frog hopped around to the other side of the tree, and in the direct light you can really see the ingenuity of its camouflage, in texture and coloration:

Finally, Segundo picked it up so I could get a more detailed shot contrasted against a neutral background. Simply amazing. I am admittedly a total geek for all things camouflage, but encountering this frog in the wild was like meeting Yoda for the first time. Master… I didn’t recognize you!

And of course, if Jedi mastery of mimicry is not your thing, and all else fails, you can always just stand someplace where they can’t see you…

maybe not the greatest hiding place…


I have many other examples of this, I took hundreds of photos, the wealth of discovery in the Amazon really made me feel like a kid again, seeing new forms of life with fresh eyes and enchanted by wondering what else is out there. When I returned to civilization after a week, it felt like a very short amount of time to be gone, but I was energized and refreshed.

The rainforest has the privilege of evolving in geologic time. We are not accustomed to seeing the results of such prolonged efforts and exposure, in the prefab world that society has constructed for itself. The Amazon has had nothing but time to hammer and plane out the specifics of its forms, and time is really the key to it all—so many of those plants and animals do resemble a kind of aesthetic perfection to my eye, in the way each fills its niche.

Seeing the whole tableau up close feels like taking a tour of God’s own laboratory, and I don’t know where you’re more likely to encounter such an intriguing variety of life forms up close. To conceive of the forces at work behind such staggering biodiversity is difficult for me to put into words. Darwin really was the great prophet of our age, the bearer of the torch at noon. And he was a devout Christian. I totally get that. Darwin saw no contradiction there and neither do I. Bearing witness to those preternatural, non-Euclidean jungle landscapes simply makes me want to point and say, look! Just look at it! It’s so very like paradise. How magnificently skilled is the slow and steady hand of the Designer!

I occasionally startled myself with the thought that, on a planetary scale, all these creatures are in fact our neighbors. I don’t care if that sounds trite or sentimental or makes me sound like a tree-hugger. For me it had the force of revelation.

Having returned from this alien land, or rather this land in which I was the visiting alien, the problems of the world as well as the problems in my personal life now seem scaled to their proper proportions once again. Yes, the Middle East is afire with anti-Western vitriol, my native land is bitterly divided against itself, people everywhere are suffering, and the world’s in a hell of a state. All of it will fade. The curtain will close on all those petty human dramas, and today’s crises will be swallowed up whole and forgotten tomorrow in the epochal time of that elemental wilderness, provided we do not destroy it first.



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