a book report of sorts

13 06 2009

on Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice by Mark J. Plotkin, Ph.D.

i’m reading a particularly outstanding book by an ethnobotanist who has written of his time in the rainforests of Suriname and Brazil with a dwindling population of Tirio natives. his aim was to spend as much time with their shamans and others with knowledge of the plants of the forest so he could learn all he could about the usages of these plants in their traditional context. aside from his being a terrific writer, he is a keen judge of the importance of the speed and thoroughness of his work as western culture invades and destroys their world. we know it well, don’t we? technology is too damn sexy.

the unspoiled Tirio villages he describes are spectacular, and their cultural realities make so much sense that my eyes cross involuntarily when i consider how we handle the same situations in western civilization. the people don’t discuss philosophies. they live them as they sense what is best for their people and their environment, from which they have no sense of separation. if someone is noticed to be admiring something of yours, you give it to them. they do seem to harbor a little jealousy with their spouses, but material goods, even though they mean something to them, don’t mean as much as brotherhood. if you are hungry and have no food but you’re near another’s garden, you take their food. you just have to tell them about it. every kind of character is appreciated for what they are and what they bring to the environment.

a custom spoken about, and which we’ve heard before, is the rule that you should take a gift when it is offered to you. we saw this in indiana jones and the temple of doom, even, when the Indian villagers gave Indy and Short Round and Willie the food they didn’t find palatable, but Indiana knew that it would be considered an insult not to accept it and eat it happily. anyway, i was thinking about how this practice must invisibly foster a sense of community in these villages. if this is practiced by everyone, and it is, then everyone will come to trust one another implicitly, because you could just as easily give or receive another a tasty dish as a poisoned one, and if everyone’s accepting, then everyone has to learn to trust one another with their lives. everyone thusly learns to trust others with their happiness and well-being. maybe this has been obvious to you. i just realized it.

anyway, the natives work hard, but take such joy in everything they do, that the question of “easy living” through greater technology or the ability to extend life expectancy through advanced pharmacological knowledge begins to pale in comparison. who wouldn’t rather live a life in which they were given the opportunity to become masters of many skills and employ their ingenuity and creativity every single day? they are always laughing, joking, telling stories, and going about their activities with absolute gusto.

their mastery of the knowledge they pass down and the skills they use to live, which are not insignificant by any stretch, is so alluring to someone who comes from a society that prides itself on its members not having to know how to do very much. our interdependence, you might think, would foster a stronger community as well, but it doesn’t. we don’t even know the people who perform the services for which we lack ability.

of course, the heartbreaking aspect of this book is in witnessing the alarming rate at which these communities are destroyed when the west comes knocking. their culture is immediately divided between those who do and those who don’t have the foresight to be concerned with the appeal of the gadgetry and glitz of “rich” nations. after spending time in two Tirio villages in Suriname, he visits one in Brazil, where there are missionaries teaching them about the Christian God and Brazilian soldiers living amongst them. Here shall I excerpt:

“The most unsettling sight to me, though, was the Indians. All wore secondhand Western-style clothes, and it seemdd that just the act of putting on the shabby clothes had sucked the vitality out of them—they appeared slow, solemn, and downcast. The comparison with my friends in Suriname could not have been more striking: in traditional loincloths, the Indians were the lords of the jungle, but in their hand-me-downs, they looked like urban poor.”

i feel like continuing talking about it, partially because i don’t want to end on a sad note, so here i go. i’ll give you a couple of interesting facts! one is that, as you likely know, the written word is still foreign to many “unwesternized” natives in the world, and the Tirio are no exception. they continue, where their ways are not interrupted, to storytell from generation to generation to pass the history of the tribe forward. well, several Tirio still tell stories about their ancestors passing through a land that was so cold and frozen that they had to wear the skins of animals to survive. obviously, they don’t wear much in the jungles, where they’ve been for so long that they have no idea what a snowflake looks like falling from the sky. it seems likely this story has been passed down since their ancestors crossed the Bering Strait during the last ice age, which means it has been told from generation to generation for around 20,000 years.

another fact: the Tirio, and other near-equatorial peoples, for that matter, are often amazed to see how the white man sweats. it seems as though those of us who have european ancestry developed a higher basic metabolism to keep us warmer in the colder climates, whereas those who have been in the rainforest for so many years have adapted by not sweating, which would be a fairly pointless act in the near-100-percent humidity conditions in which they typically live. the sweat would evaporate so slowly that it’s a terribly inefficient way to cool off.

and. that. is. why i like Mark Plotkin.

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One response

14 06 2009
Emily

Dude, I’m so glad you’re enjoying the book. I’m dying to reread it… when we meet again, might you be ready to part with it? Have you finished yet? Have you read the part where they let him do their drug and he can understand their language? Blows my mind.

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