(Essay from which the Resurgence & Ecologist article ‘From Fragmentation to Wholeness’ – issue 279 – is abridged)
Indigenous forest groups derive a deep knowledge from direct interaction with their environment, including non-rational levels of it that they interpret as spirits. To what extent does this perspective deliver a more ‘real’ and beneficial conception of humanity on this Earth, and even a more ‘real’ experience of experience?
Evolution is a process of adapting to an environment in ways that offer some advantage, i.e. aiding survival, or reproduction. Evolution is environmentally driven: a reaction to and reflection of the living environment. An obvious adaptation, and advantage of the human species, is the evolution of culture – systems of symbols that offer interpretations of experience, of existence. One part of culture is ‘knowledge’.
In my country our culture and knowledge co-evolved with the natural environment up until the point that economic, religious and other forces obliged its destruction – the forests were cut, the pagans, herbalists, and mystics were defamed, and the witches were burned. In this process we destroyed not only our traditional knowledge systems, but also the very means of their evolution – the wild environments. While rural areas still exist in the UK, there remains no area unlimited, unimpacted by the hand of society. In other areas of the Western world, where wild areas remain, traditional communities, and traditional knowledge, have been irreparably altered by the cultural dominance of our imperial ideals. In the tropical forests of the New World, isolated peoples co-evolved with an ultra-complex natural environment, and continue to do so, retaining their traditional knowledge systems, from which we can learn of these things, ‘experience’ and ‘existence’.
A good example is the use, by indigenous forest peoples, of medicinal plants.
A tropical forest such as the Amazon has an estimated diversity of arthropod species (insects, spiders, etc.) of 10 million, whilst the current species count of all described plants and animals rests at just 1.5 million. This exemplifies the scale of life and complexity we are dealing with in such a system. This colossal abundance of arthropods feeds, for the most part, on vegetable matter, however, if you glance around such a forest you will notice a curiously low level of leaf damage on most all plants. This is due to secondary compounds produced by the plants – ‘secondary’ in being unnecessary for direct metabolic function.
Secondary compounds are by-products of the normal biochemical processes by which each plant survives, but they lend a great advantage in being variously toxic to herbivorous predators. These compounds include the phenolics, which add the pungency to most spices, and interfere with protein digestion. The saponins are another group: soap-like compounds which act to destroy the fatty component of cell membranes, from which we extract rotenone, our most successful biodegradable insecticide. Cyanogenic glycosides are yet another, which upon digestion become highly toxic hydrogen cyanide. And toxic amino acids a further group, which are present mainly in the bean and pea family (legumes), and interfere with protein synthesis – the most infamous of this group being L-DOPAmine. There are many, but the most common group of secondary compounds is the alkaloids, some of which we are familiar with. They include nicotine, caffeine, cocaine, morphine, cannabidinol, and up to 4000 in addition; any plant may contain up to 50 different alkaloids, each mediating the effects of the others. Some are addictive, but not all; their essential effect is interference with liver and cell membrane function.
The secondary compounds are indeed ‘toxic’, but as with most toxins, due to their metabolic effect in the human, or animal body, they can be very useful for medicinal application. As such, 40% of drugs on the commercial market are extracted directly from plants, and 80% are derived originally from plants. Deadly nightshade gives us the muscle relaxant in asthma inhalers, the Chinchona tree of the Amazon gives us Quinine, still the most effective and only resistance-proof anti-malarial, the white willow gives us aspirin, a species of Mexican yam the contraceptive pill, rosy periwinkle the most successful cancer treatment, the humble foxglove the invaluable heart stimulant Digitalis. The list is endless; nature really has the answers.
Plants everywhere produce secondary compounds, but it is in the tropical forests that the most and most useful plants reside. This is for two reasons. First, tropical soil is very old, and leached of nutrients. So poor is tropical soil that it has prompted the evolution of tropical plant species to produce many more secondary compounds, to avoid getting eaten in the first place, this being far less energy-intensive than producing new leaves from such soils. The second reason for the abundance of toxic plants in tropical forests is simply that – the sheer abundance of life in the sun-soaked, rain-blessed tropics, expressed most overwhelmingly in its magical forests. They contain a veritable universe of natural remedies; people talk of a miracle cure for cancer sitting deep in the Amazon somewhere, it is really very likely.
The indigenous people don’t know any of this, the chemistry, the science. They have no microscopes, no elaborate isolation and testing procedures, so they couldn’t possibly. They do know, however, that the plants have the power to heal. And they know which plants have the power to heal. Often plants are combined in what are later found to be very specific chemical relationships, for example the Ayahuasca mixture marries one vine containing the active components with another containing the necessary enzyme-inhibitors to allow absorption through the gut. Equally, often preparation is critical: some remedies are simmered for hours, where boiling would denature the active components. In many cases the plants are not even ingested: they may be applied as a poultice, or infused and inhaled or bathed in. Of an estimated 80 – 100’000 plant species in a forest such as the Amazon, the indians extract a multitude of remedies for almost every conceivable ailment. Their evolved knowledge is of a depth and complexity no chemist could hope to obtain. Indeed, they do ‘know’ all of the above, but without knowledge of science. The question remains, how?
Science says their knowledge must come from trial and error, but this is widely doubted due to the complexity of the knowledge, illustrated not only in the sheer number of plants used by the indians, but also in the specific combinations, and preparations of various remedies. Out of 100’000 species, the odds are not favourable for ‘trial and error-ing’ such a depth of medicinal understanding. What the people themselves say is that the knowledge is imparted to them directly via powerful ‘teacher plants’, with whom the Shamans are able to communicate on the spiritual level.
Broadly speaking, Shamanistic cultures believe a continuum exists between the natural and supernatural, each natural element of the physical world having a spiritual existence in the other realm. The Shaman, assisted by teacher plants such as Ayahuasca, can inhabit both realms to maintain balance between the two. He, or often she, consults the spirit world to learn the supernatural origin of diseases, and the spirits tell, or he/she simply ‘sees’, which plants to prescribe. This is the way they profess to learn of plant medicine, but we disregard their explanation because it is contrary to everything we know. The existence of these spirits cannot be proved, and as we have no experience of them, the idea is ridiculed by our culture.
We say, of course, these spirits are not ‘real’, but actually their existence can be neither proven nor disproven. Further, the actual existence, or not, of such things seems to me insignificant, given that a culture’s belief in them leads to very real effects – in this case the effective treatment of a multitude of illnesses. So if the consequences of some disputed belief are indeed real, significant, impacting on this reality, then in the most important sense this thing is real. The proof really is in the pudding, and the pudding is packed with a million remedies for not only physical ailments but also psychological and spiritual illness – traditional and Shamanistic cultures have long understood the great power of the mind over the body, of which we are only recently learning in the West. For millennia forest cultures have practised relaxation and massage, aromatherapy, hypnosis, visualization and dietary prescription as curative therapies, yet only now are these therapies becoming ‘modern’.
To explore the pudding, and our proverbial proof, a little more, these societies are some of the healthiest anywhere – cause of immature death among forest peoples being traditionally jaguar attack, snakebite or warfare, but never heart disease, cancer, or any other terminal illness. Mature death commonly occurs in the 90s or upwards, the elder generations remaining strong and healthy until an astounding age. So whether their forest spirits actually exist or not doesn’t matter: they are real because they give these peoples, somehow, a very real and beneficial knowledge. We disregard such knowledge however, because of our rationalist mental obstructions, and a cultural incompatibility which I will discuss a little further.
Western medicine is based on a ‘one-cause/one-curative’ principle, i.e. we believe a case of pathology to be consequent to one active molecule/bacteria/virus that can be neutralised by its specific curative molecule. I am not disputing that this be a valid medical understanding and method; obviously, Western medicine works to a substantial degree. I only wish to suggest that it is an incomplete understanding/method. There is no drug test that runs at 100% effectivity for example, and conversely, the placebo success rate of drug tests is regularly 30%. The major shortcoming with our medicine however is side effects. All drugs have side effects, and many drugs have huge, and hugely debilitating side effects, including addiction. But this seems to me an unsurprising result of a science that isolates highly active molecules and boosts them to unnatural proportions to overwhelm some intricate internal imbalance.
Plant medicine, by contrast, is more holistic. Any given plant, as I have detailed, may contain a large variety of active compounds, each one mediating the effects of the others. As such, a plant will induce a range of metabolic effects within the human body, perhaps effecting a cure with far less of the active compound than would be resident in a Western drug, and often doing so with drastically mitigated side effects due either to this fact or the presence of other compounds that inhibit the side effect. Quite simply, if a plant made someone’s hair fall out, or made them hypersensitive to the sun, or emotionally peculiar, a community would discontinue use of it; they would find some other plant to effect the same cure. Side effects are rare in herbal medicine.
However, neither is this alternative method ‘100%’. Every human body is different, and the complex chemical makeup of plants, so beneficial in mitigating side effects, might perhaps give rise to incidental ineffect in some individual cases. This creates the room for doubt I believe, and condemnation. But a critical element to note here is belief; a strongly doubting mind can truly obstruct physiological response to a treatment, drug-based or otherwise. And a positive attitude, faith, or belief, can effect the reverse, as the placebo effect demonstrates. So to a large degree this may explain the variable success of herbal medicine when tested in broadly sceptical Western societies. Incidentally, the variance in curative response from individual to individual is much more included in traditional medicine than our own. For instance, where patients are afflicted by ailments without readily identifiable symptoms and traditional cure, a Shaman prescribes an individually particular treatment. This may include the central plant ‘cure’, but then includes additional plants, therapeutic rituals, and dietary recommendations, specific to the person, depending on their spirit. Such practices reflect a deep awareness of the holistic nature of medicine.
The two methods, Western and traditional, are distinct, but I believe the school of plant medicine could be the more effective, and beneficial. Certainly, there are things we could learn from more traditional approaches, yet we disregard them vaguely as ‘juju’ because we don’t understand them, i.e. we don’t have enough explanation for them in our cultural terms. This was exactly the case with a whole host of ‘alternative’ therapies indigenous in origin that were considered invalid until some objectifying test allowed us to believe they weren’t. The most recent of this story being acupuncture, which was lately ‘proved’ in its localising of white blood cell response; and finally we take it seriously. My point is that before our ‘proof’, we didn’t.
So consequent to our doubts, and also to the vested interests of pharmaceutical multinationals who could neither patent nor produce actual plants for a global medicine market, less than 1% of tropical flowering plants have been investigated for curative properties. This is a great shame. And coming back specifically to indigenous forest peoples, I don’t mean to suggest that their supernatural interpretation of medicine is necessarily true, only that it is real in that it effects such results that it may as well be – it is a culturally relative explanation distinct from ours that takes them to the same point i.e. effective cure. Each interpretation, each perspective, is as valid as the other. But the indigenous perspective includes beliefs and medicinal practices that we refuse to take seriously, and from which we might otherwise learn.
The indigenous perspective represents a completely different experience of the forest to that a Westerner would undergo. It also represents a completely different, and I believe deeper, understanding of the forest, to ours. Their understanding includes spiritual, supernatural, or mystical elements, as we have discussed – elements that Western science says do not exist, because we do not have the means to test them. These are beliefs that science laughs at, that our intellectual culture calls ‘primitive’, purely because we have no proof of them.
These supernatural elements of traditional and shamanistic cultures – their ‘spirits’ – I will loosely refer to as ‘energies’, because I don’t pretend to know them completely, and of course they are various across cultures. But I believe they are a reference to some felt expression of the animate Earth, an energy connected to the sheer abundance of life in a tropical forest. If not outwardly mocked in our culture, such beliefs are termed ‘esoteric’, just as meditation once was, as yoga was, even as psychotherapy, and Freud’s idea of a unconscious was, before the very real benefits of each became accepted in academic terms. Right now there are indeed areas of science that could overlap with esoteric ideas of energies – vibrations for instance. We know everything has a resonant frequency, and that if manipulated these resonant frequencies can produce unusual effects in both inanimate and living things. Magnetism is another area. We know the earth has a magnetic field, and that various animals sense magnetic fields, and can be profoundly affected by them. We have also learned recently that the human heart has a magnetic field of up to 4m in reach; yet we have no idea why, or for what. We have no idea what it means. Perhaps these things have something to do with the life-energies I speak of, perhaps not. My point is only to show that there is more, much more to this physical reality than what we see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. And that there is definitively more than we can prove. The indians in the forest, the ones who have co-evolved directly with the living environment, feel something more, and they interpret it as spirits.
The reason science cannot take this ‘something more’ seriously is that our intellectual culture is based on a system of rational thought – one obsessed with objectivity, i.e. the universal experience of one reality, proved through externally verifiable observation. However, I would contend that we do not all experience one reality.
Before even mentioning the vastly powerful and manipulative unconscious mind, or the constructive symbol-systems of culture, it does well to look at the human eye. The way the eye works is as follows: photons reflect into the retina off some surface, they are transformed into electrochemical signals that travel down the optic nerve, and are separated into categories in the brain such as colour, form, depth and so on. The brain then constructs a representative image from these signals that is internally ‘viewed’. So we do not even ‘see’ this physical reality, only a mental, and therefore individual, representation of it. And just how the brain produces this image is still not fully understood.
Staying with eyes, and this notion of a subjective sensed reality, there have been tests of forest tribes in Africa to whom is shown a colour card of a number of green circles, and one blue circle. They simply cannot differentiate between the colours, and cannot pick out the blue circle, because their eyes, and indeed their brains, have not developed to pick it out. This is because blue is such a rare colour in nature, and under the canopy of a tropical forest clear sky is rarely seen: they never learn to see blue. When shown a colour card of 50 greens however, one a few microshades different from the others, where the Western eye could not hope to pick it out, they do so in a second. They live in a world of shimmering greens that we don’t even know how to sense – so these people really do experience a different physical reality to us. Do you see? Our senses develop in response to stimulation, i.e. in response to the ambient environment; perhaps, in the super-rich living environment of a tropical forest, a sense that somehow feels these arcane life-energies is stimulated, and developed, whereas in the relatively insentient and naturally bland environments of our cities and countrysides, it goes undeveloped.
So perhaps we really do experience different realities, but the very goal of science is to objectify experience, by external observation, measurement, causal isolation, theory, and prediction. It seems obvious to me that we simply cannot know everything by external observation, and yet such method is the basis of our particular cultural routine for attaining knowledge.
The method necessarily fragments phenomena into constituent parts in its bid to understand the whole of a phenomenon, going back to this idea of ‘one-cause/one-effect’. We fragment and fragment and fragment, and a scientist must specialise and specialise and specialise, trying to understand every tiny piece of a system. But we hit brick walls this way – physicists develop instruments to observe singular particles only to learn that the essence of matter is empty space. And in theoretical observation of elementary particles we come up against the inexplicable phenomenon of opposite ‘spin’. In chemistry we split substances into their constituent elements and yet the properties of, for instance, NaCl (salt) cannot be induced from the properties of Na (sodium) and Cl (chlorine). And in biology, even the subject of the most studied species on the planet, the human being, is overflowing with mystery. Our gall bladder is a large organ that is believed not to be an evolutionary hangover, and that has something to do with metabolising fats, but it can be removed with absolutely no ill-effect – we just don’t know why it’s there. Emotions we know are chemical in nature, but this explains nothing as to the powerful real experience of love, or anger. DNA we know codes our existence, but only 3% of the code is genes, the other 97% runs in baffling patterns that are mysteriously common to all life. And we need but only mention the profound conundrum that is consciousness.
To expand biology a little further, as we split natural systems into their taxonomic groups or their range of separate sub-disciplines, we learn only how complex is the interconnection between everything in the system, right down to the bacterial and fungal levels that are so little understood, less described, and even less observed. We find a complexity that cannot possibly be explicated fully, that cannot be simplified with such method. So if we don’t hit solid brick walls, our fragmenting method shows us only that there is more and more we can’t describe and explain.
Our scientific method isolates, sterilises and decontextualizes a billion parts of a given phenomenon, which sum to less than the whole. And this is the critical point – to focus so specifically on any one aspect of anything denies the observer experience and understanding of the whole. But how can we know a ‘whole’? I hear your indignant mind scream. And truly, it doesn’t seem to make sense – we can’t measure, or explain simply ‘the whole’. We can know the whole of something only by experience of it, and it is in this experience that true understanding lies.
We think, rationally, that we cannot take something in ‘all at once’ like this, but actually we are doing it all that time. When we look at a beautiful view we are not scanning the horizon and scrutinising each rock, each leaf, each cloud – we really do experience it all at once. And a familiar view, out of a bedroom window, or of a favourite painting, we can truly know in this way – if something is wrong with the view, we sense it at a glance, without even knowing what it is that is out of place. Such is the nature of experiential knowledge – it is intuition, it is feeling. This knowledge is not the technical theory into which science abstracts reality, it is the very substance of reality, it is experience itself. Such understanding is not by facts, but by acquaintance, familiarity, affinity. It is the difference between knowing about something, and knowing it.
This is the knowledge by which the indian knows the forest. She knows by being, by simply existing in the environment, and not by removed study of any particular aspect of it. The indian’s knowledge is deep, as we have discussed, and it does well to note that it includes many of the ‘parts’ we so obsess over, only each part is regarded specifically in the context of the whole. Walking around the forest with friends in Peru I would ask the name of a fruit lying below a tree, and they would proceed to tell me not only its name, but which tree it fell from, which animals come to eat it, which time of year it falls, what its flowers look like, the medicinal properties of the tree. Everything makes sense to them by nature of the unity of the whole. And, critically, this whole includes themselves. They see human beings, the people, as one part of the whole system. They share our understanding of complex biological processes such as pollination, not through putting flowers under a microscope, but by intuiting that we are life, we reproduce, and of course every expression of life does the same thing by some means. We forget that though science’s myriad discoveries may be fascinating, they always make sense. In the biological context particularly, everything is simply trying to flourish, as are we, and this is the law, perhaps, by which we can intuit an experiential understanding.
The forest indians recognise that they are just one part of their system, subject to it, and so they understand themselves in reflection of the whole. They are subject physically to the snake and the jaguar, but more critically, in their spiritual beliefs, they place themselves existentially subject to their environment. They recognise themselves, therefore, as a fundamental part of everything, intrinsically connected to the natural and supernatural. This is what allows not only the basic survival of these peoples, but real flourishment in their particular environment as healthy, happy, societies.
It is the converse to this holistic view, our distinctly Western anthropocentrism, that has allowed our society to overplay humanity’s part in the global system, to attempt to dominate it and bend it to our every will, cutting a swift path to self-destruction. This perspective of human beings as the centre of the system is both symptom and cause of the gross disconnection with nature that has occurred in our societies, to the point now that we value the earth in monetary terms. We forget even that we are natural beings, and so sex becomes twisted pornographic fantasy, almost every natural process becomes taboo, and it is even strange to see women breast-feeding publicly. We don’t feel this connection to the earth, to the sensuous world around us; we don’t feel a part of any natural system, and so we blindly destroy on a frantic, technologically assisted ego-trip. This is not success, we are not flourishing, and it is clear if you look at even the most immediate consequences of our unsustainable way of life.
The indigenous forest peoples feel a connection with the world around them, an energetic affinity that is expressed in the supernatural aspects of their cultures. It is this recognition that is pertinent to their unprecedented understanding of and flourishment in their environment. In the West we have conceptually and physically separated ourselves from the wild earth, just as we separate all things to understand what is irreducibly unified. In this way we limit our experience of existence to what is rational, and verifiable, and we destroy the very means of our survival.
To conclude, I do not wish to write-off Western science. Science is useful for explaining the parts of phenomena, for application toward specific goals. This is particularly the case with conservation, for science ‘proves’, in our cultural terms, that something be worth protecting. Although this seems to me a slow and expensive method to merely mitigate the effects of the fundamentally damaging attitude we have toward the biosphere. The damage will only continue until we acknowledge the intuition that tells us the environment is worth protecting essentially. If we open ourselves to our connection with the natural world, this energetic, spiritual, or existential connection, then an intuitive understanding presents itself, a true knowledge based not on the possession of facts but on acquaintance, recognition of affinity. This cannot be explained of course, it is a feeling, not reachable through words, concepts, or study, only through experience. It is through this true understanding that we see, or rather feel, that protection simply makes sense. And this is what I believe is most important for conservation, less the valiant research goals than a shifting of perspective, a changing of the values embodied by our society that obstruct our connection with nature.
Beyond the political implications, I oppose that our Science, so institutionalised and universal, be a sound method for finally understanding this world. Indeed, it only separates us from the world, and distances us from true understanding. It challenges the revelatory nature of pure experience, by fragmenting it and transmuting it into abstract theory, damaging our capacity to ‘experience the whole’ of anything. And this is surely what life ought to be about, the full experience of experience.
I must acknowledge that my conclusions come from my own individual experience of scientific and indigenous perspectives during my time in the forests of the Neotropics. But it was my uneducated teachers, and friends – the local people – who gave me the truer understanding of the forest, one that opened doors to the most meaningful and affecting experiences of my life. I learned from the scientists as well, but saw in them an intellectual disconnection from the environment, due either to fear, or doubt, or misunderstanding. The people that produce our very knowledge of this environment, in my experience, have little affinity with it, due to their interpretive understanding of it as a sterile mass of fragmented facts and theory.
The goal of science is understanding. The goal is not flawed, only the method. What we get caught up in is explanation, which is merely the communication of understanding. True understanding is intuitive, and true experience subjective – it ultimately cannot be shared, but its conclusions can, e.g. environmental protection. We must divest ourselves of the fear that there be unknowable things, for there aren’t, only inexplicable things. And those we must leave as they are, for such is their nature, and our own.
My only appeal regarding these ideas is to go out and find beautiful things. If you see something that you would call ‘beautiful’, particularly something that would be regarded universally as beautiful, a natural beauty, explore the feeling this entails. ‘Beauty’ is, after all, only a word, a symbol that becomes limiting as soon as it is uttered; but what it represents is a feeling, a raw sensing, I believe, of the connection we have with everything around us, particularly the natural world. In this connection we will find a more meaningful experience of our environment, and all the reason we need to protect it.
Touch the green dream.