Monday, June 21, 2021

3522. We Have to Rescue Animism: A Conversation with Colombian-Born Anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna

By Una Meistere, Spiriterritory, March 22, 2021

Luis Eduardo Luna (1947) is an anthropologist who holds both Colombian and Finnish citizenship. He has devoted forty years of his life to the study of shamanism and the therapeutic use of sacred plants (especially ayahuasca and admixture plants) among the indigenous and mestizo populations of the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon. Still today, his book Vegetalismo: Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon (1986) provides the most extensive insight into Peruvian indigenous shamanic practices (vegetalismo) and the cosmology of the mestizo population, in which an essential role is played by so-called plant teachers, or doctores. These are plants that, according to mestizo vegetalistas (shamans), have a spirit that can help people learn medicine as well as gain knowledge about the world we live in and other worlds. When Luna first arrived in the Peruvian Amazon in 1981, a 63-year-old vegetalista named Don Emilio became his teacher. Luna eventually recorded Emilio’s story in a 16mm documentary called Don Emilio and his Little Doctors (1982), which can be viewed on YouTube.

Born in Colombia in 1947, Luna holds degrees or certificates from universities in seven countries, speaks eight languages and has been an associate of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University and the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden (1987) as well as an elected Fellow of the Linnean Society of London (1989). He received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, was appointed for a study of the ethnobotany and ethnomedicine of the Colombian and Peruvian Amazon (1986), and holds the title of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa, from St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York (2002).

In 1985, during one of his research trips (together with ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna) in the town of Pucallpa in the Peruvian Amazon, Luna met Pablo Amaringo (1938–2009), who was a former mestizo vegetalista and an artist known for his intricate, colourful depictions of visions he had experienced during his shamanic practice and as the result of drinking ayahuasca. Luna became both a passionate supporter and motivator of Amaringo’s creative work. In 1988 the two men founded the Usko-Ayar Amazonian School of Painting, the goal of which, in addition to art education, was to encourage the artistic documentation of the flora, fauna and cultural traditions of the Peruvian Amazon as well as the preservation of the ecosystems of the Amazon region. At its apex, the school had 300 students, mostly between the ages of ten and twenty and most of whom, like Amaringo himself, had an eidetic memory. Sometimes referred to as a photographic memory, this is a phenomenon that is said to be quite common among the indigenous populations of the Amazon region.

Luna has curated exhibitions of visionary art in Europe, Latin America and the United States, including at the Brauer Museum of Art of Valparaiso University, Indiana, and the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery of St. Lawrence University. Together with Amaringo, he wrote Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman, a 1991 book that elicited much international attention and served as a kind of turning point in the popularity of ayahuasca in the Western world.

Together with Rick Strassman, Slawek Wojtowicz and Ede Frecska, Luna is the co-author of Inner Paths to Outer Space: Journeys to Alien Worlds Through Psychedelics and Other Spiritual Technologies (2008). He is co-editor with Steven White of Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s Sacred Vine (2000), with an expanded second edition published in 2016. Luna has been an assistant professor in anthropology (1994–1998) at the Department of Anthropology of Santa Catarina Federal University (UFSC) in Florianópolis, Brazil, and is a retired member of the faculty from the Department of Modern Languages and Communication at the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki. He is currently the director of the Wasiwaska Research Centre for the Study of Psychointegrator Plants, Visionary Art and Consciousness in Florianópolis, Brazil.

As Luna explains in our conversation, his biggest goal right now is to renew a small part of the original Atlantic Coastal Forest near his home in Brazil. “The Atlantic Coastal Forest was even more biologically diverse than the Amazon. Very little of it remains today, only about ten percent of it. A few friends, my wife and I own nine hectares of former forest, and before I die I want to reforest at least those nine hectares. I want to leave behind a beautiful and very diverse forest here.”

In contemplating your relationship with nature, you’ve often mentioned the need to return to animism.

We have to rescue animism. I’ve been thinking a lot about that nowadays. In 2017, after a long legal battle, New Zealand granted legal personhood to the Whanganui River, which is central to the life of the Maori people, who consider it an ancestor and spiritual mentor, and which was desecrated by English colonists since the 18th century. A month later, India declared the Ganges and Yamuna rivers living entities. The moment a river is considered a person, everything changes, because then you have a moral obligation to it as well. You have to treat the river as a person, with respect and care. Traditional people from all over the world could appeal to similar ideas to protect their religious rights. If a private company has the status of a person, why not also a mountain, a lake or a river?

Looking back at the work I did in the Amazon in the 1980s, I didn’t understand many concepts then; I didn’t have enough tools at the time to see phenomena in the many different aspects that I see now. But on the other hand, it was also very interesting that I didn’t have those tools, because I saw everything with my own eyes, very naively. I was looking at and describing and thinking about what I saw. OK, I did a doctoral dissertation, but my eyes were, in a way, naive. Of course, not completely, because I had an education and concepts that helped me to structure the world, but in any case, it was less specific. And what we need today is to go back to this direct contact with everything.

Do you think it’s still possible, or are we already too far from it?

I think it needs to happen. Otherwise we’ve got a very serious problem. Animism is not a philosophy, it’s not a religion; it’s a way to relate to the nonhuman world. We need to change our relationship with the nonhuman world. And it has to be a relationship – a two-way subjectivity, or intersubjectivity. Because the model we have right now, in which we are considered the superior intelligence and the owners of everything in the Biblical sense... you know, God giving humans dominion over nature, man being the centre of everything, man being the measure of all things... is simply not right. I know scholars will argue and tell me, oh no, it’s not exactly like that, etc. But unfortunately, in everyday life many people do think in those terms: we are superior, we can do whatever, the earth is full of just resources that we can use. We have no moral obligation towards animals, and we have absolutely no moral obligation towards plants, forests, rivers and so on, simply because they’re resources, they’re not people.

I think that’s the basic difference between all these traditional cultures and us. We’ve somehow become so obsessed with objectivity as a way of knowledge that we end up surrounded or immersed in objects. And the notion of the brain as the site of rationality, the rational, very logical, quantifiable aspect of the brain. Of course, the results have been extraordinary in the realm of science and technology, but we’re missing the other side. We don’t have this other direct contact with the world; we’re losing so much, because the world is simply not rational. The world is much more than that. It’s communication at the sensorial level, the artistic level and so many other levels. It is definitely artistic, because the world is beautiful, meaning that there’s beauty in it.

I was discussing this once with Rupert Sheldrake in Hampstead Heath, in London, a marvelous park near his home. He was telling me, you know, nature is beautiful, but not just for us – for each other. We have this idea that only our eyes can see the beauty. But no, everybody’s looking at it – the plants, the animals, the insects. To live is more of an aesthetic experience than a rational experience. And then we get into the wonderful theme of what it is to be this or that. What is it to be a tree, what is it to be this or that animal?

I wonder what’s going on inside my dog, for example. I communicate with her, I understand many things, but my dog, like every other animal, has an inner horizon. And that’s the dog’s way of perceiving the world. Like, I have my world, but everything else also probably has its own consciousness of the world, in whatever terms. Whatever that is, it’s impossible for us to figure it out or even to imagine, because it’s difficult enough for us to read the mind of another human.

Could be. Of course, what psychedelics give us is a direct experience. It’s short, though, and definitely not everybody needs to take these substances. In a way, the relationship with psychedelics is quite personal. I mean, you can do it once and it may change your life. You see the world differently, and that’s it, you don’t need to go back again and again. But on the other hand, people who have been touched by this, they also have other ways of expressing things; their behaviour changes, their relationship with nature changes, they help other people see the world in a different way and so on. I think it’s a wonderful and extraordinary tool. In fact, it’s one of the main contributions of Amerindian societies to the world.

We’ve lost many things, but still we have to recognise that it is the heritage of Amerindians that’s feeding the world today. I think three-fifths of the food we consume comes originally from the Americas. They domesticated those plants. And what you have in Europe and other places is just the tip of the iceberg, because in the Americas you have all these varieties of everything – 2000 varieties of potatoes, over 1000 varieties of corn, tomatoes, chillies, etc. We could eat much better if the markets were more open and more direct. In any case, we have their food, but then we also have their sacred plants. I mean, think about cacao, and of course tobacco, which is a very, very sacred plant that has been used very effectively for centuries in many different ways. But then it has been reduced to cigarettes with thousands of chemicals in them, killing people and so on. Or coca, which is extremely sacred both in the Andes and in the Amazon. Fantastic food, fantastic medicine, but again, it has been reduced to one alkaloid strain, which is horrible.

I hope ayahuasca won’t become one of those. I mean, it can be used intelligently and be a very good thing for many people. But you have to be sure about the way it’s planted and also about ownership issues. So, then you get into the whole difficult subject of intellectual properties, etc. The Indians have rights, but how to integrate it all into society, into market systems? All of that is extremely complicated.

I have a very good friend here in southern Brazil, where I live. He’s a South African naturalist. His name is Dale Millard. He figured out a way to combine a fast-growing tree (like the one we have here called garapuvú [Schizolobium parahyba]) with the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. The two grow together, and there must be some kind of understanding between these two plants, otherwise the vine could easily kill the tree, but it doesn’t. So, you have big production vertically, and at the same time both the garapuvú and the vine produce a lot of biomass. If you plant many of these trees together with the vine, it’s like a biomass factory, and once you have a canopy, then you also have the possibility for much more diversity of all sorts of other plants in this rich soil. Fruit trees or medical plants, or whatever. You can do that simultaneously. If produced in these quantities and in this way, Banisteriopsis caapi will be able to provide medicine, while at the same time recovering poor soils. And I’m not thinking only about ayahuasca (which is a combination of Banisteriopsis caapi and other plants), but about the vine itself. Because Banisteriopsis caapi itself is extremely medicinal. It contains harmine, tetrahydroharmine and harmaline, as well as the harmine metabolite harmol, and these stimulate neurogenesis, at least in vitro. So that’s perhaps a medicine for Alzheimer’s, perhaps for Parkinson’s disease, who knows. Banisteriopsis caapi also produces new beta cells and can potentially be used in the treatment of diabetes, also for ligaments and bones. So, it’s an extraordinary medicine by itself. Meaning, it can be used as a medicine without psychotropic effect. There’s a great need for this plant, and there are a lot of forests that have been destroyed but could be regrown with this sort of projects.

And of course, as much of the money from those projects as possible has to go to the indigenous people. They have to recuperate their rights. I mean, they’re losing their land, but they must keep the land to be what they have been for centuries, perhaps millennia – caretakers of it – because they’re giving us the greatest favour by preserving biodiversity. They really are the most important people on the planet right now, especially in this situation. We have to learn from them and give them respect and honour in everything we can. And it can’t be simply like a zoo. Many people say, oh, we already protect them, but no, no, they should also have access to everything like everybody else, while their world view and way of life should be respected.

To a certain extent, the Amazon itself is an anthropogenic garden. The Indians have been moving species from one place to another. Probably a lot of the variety, the diversity that we have in the Amazon is thanks to the human beings. I think that’s why we cannot blame ourselves as humans, saying we’re so horrible, etc. No. I mean, human beings have for a long time and in many different places been adjuvant to the processes of diversity, evolution and everything else. So, we are Gaia. Is Gaia intelligent? Yes, it is intelligent. Why? Because we are here. That’s what James Lovelock says.

So, thinking along those lines, you asked me whether I think it’s possible to restore direct contact with everything. Yes, it is possible, we can change this. But, better than saying we can do this with psychedelics, I’d like to say that we can do it in collaboration with plants.

OK, now there’s a big thing about synthesised psilocybin, and companies are thinking in terms of billions of dollars. Of course, it could be that the psilocybin experience by itself will communicate the message. People have had that with LSD; the whole ecological movement of the 1960s was apparently to a great extent very much linked with LSD. Because many took it in nature, in contact with the earth, barefoot, animistic to a certain extent... However, I would prefer contact with the plants themselves.

Now there’s a whole new movement embracing psychedelics, and I hope that animistic ideas somehow permeate the people who are having these experiences and transform them into action, not only produce another mental and narcissistic experience. Like, you know, I did this, I saw this and I saw that. Who cares? What matters is what you do with that experience. What is your vision, your relationship with your family, with your neighbours, with your society, with your garden, with the world? If it has changed, great; if not, it’s all just narcissistic, like going to a very good film. A very special film, but that’s all.

What I found very interesting in your book Vegetalismo: Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon is that vegetalistas use ayahuasca as a tool to study the properties of other plants. Not only ayahuasca, but other plant teachers, too.

Absolutely. That’s what happens. I mean, at least that’s what my teachers told me, and what I have also seen in the literature. I published my first article about the concept of plant teachers in 1984, which I had discovered from my conversations with mestizo people near Iquitos. Don Emilio, my teacher, was the first one who told me, ayahuasca is a doctor, and tobacco is a king of all plants. So, I understood that, for him, these are people. When he was about to take ayahuasca, he addressed the bottle of ayahuasca as bonito, abuelo, hacer marear bonito (beautiful, grandfather, let us see beautiful things). He addressed the ayahuasca as a person. And these other plants were also persons for him and other mestizo people.

In fact, Melvin L. Bristol, a botanist who was a disciple of Richard Evans Schultes, did a wonderful study in the Sibundoy Valley in Colombia in the 1960s (The Psychotropic Banisteriopsis Among the Sibundoy of Colombia, 1966 – Ed.). He realised that yagé (B. caapi + Diplopterys canbrerana) is used by the Kamsá and Ingano shamans to increase their pharmacopeia. They mix it with other plants to study the properties of the particular plant. But this concerns not only ayahuasca; there are other plants as well, because once you have the idea of the plant teacher, then, of course, the plants have their friends, their associates. Don Emilio, for example, when curing a case of witchcraft, he used the leaves of piñón rojo (Jatropha gossipifolia) and the resin of bellaco caspi (Himantanthus sucuuba), because these plants know each other. So, the idea of animism was there. They are persons.

So, what probably happens is that if we are open to the plants, the plants will all teach us something. Everything will teach us something.

You mention the word “sacred”. What makes a particular plant sacred?

The problem with the word “sacred” is that we’re understanding it in the context of Christianity. I use the word “sacred” because I don’t know what else to call them. Because these are special “people” or “persons” within the natural world. Meaning, the plants that have this very strong effect on us are very special. These plants have the ability to affect us in the way we see the world, to affect us cognitively and also emotionally, and on many different levels.

I was once with an Ingano shaman near the place where I was born. The whole preparation of the yagé, the whole thing is embedded in ritual. You have to make an offering, you have to blow tobacco, it’s done in a specific place, the medicine is kept in a special vessel and so on. So, it’s sacred in the sense that it demands special attention and respect.

How would you characterise the concept of illness from the viewpoint of Amazonian vegetalistas? Are the origins of illness natural or magical, or perhaps both? As we know, for shamans, there’s no difference in being killed by a virus or being killed by a jaguar. In both cases, the balance is disrupted.

There are different levels here. The vegetalistas I work with speak about two main ways you can get an illness. First, they believe that all illnesses are caused by an agent; it’s not a thing that causes illness. It’s always an agent, whether a human agent (very often) or a spirit agent of some sort. It can be a plant, it can be a tree – they’re all agents. A sorcerer may send you a dart (which the vegetalistas call a virote), or he/she can take away your soul, or a part of your soul, because they don’t have this idea of one soul, which is a Christian way of thinking. They have different souls, and so if you lose part of your soul, or one of your souls, you may become very afraid, or crazy, or you may lose the soul that affects your movements, or whatever.

One way to heal a person is to extract the illness, and Don Emilio did this by sucking. But before sucking he would use other plants to make the virote softer, so that he could be protected himself by something they call yachay, and then send the virote back to the person who caused the illness. That’s one way to do it. Another way is that the soul has been abducted and then the vegetalista has to travel to whatever space, whatever place, to catch it and bring it back to the person and put it back through the top of the head, or the fontanelle, in a child. 

But if we look deeper, then all illnesses are caused by some kind of unbalance. It’s either an imbalance with the natural world or an imbalance with the human social world. In other words, it’s not something that comes from outside, like an object or animal that comes from outside and penetrates us. And so, we come to the idea of the Covid-19 virus. We treat it like something that comes from the outside, and we protect ourselves by wearing masks. But Covid-19 is caused by imbalance as well. So, in a way, it’s ridiculous that we’re trying to protect ourselves without doing anything about the cause of the illness, which is also the way we deal with nature and with our own behaviour.

There are studies linking deforestation and wildlife loss to the spread of infectious diseases – it’s because we’re deforesting that they’re coming to us. So, we should now be thinking about how we’re going to deal with the outside world. And to a great extent, that is what’s happening now. Being confined at home, people are suddenly beginning to see that there’s this little patch of green, there are trees outside the window, etc. More and more people are going out into nature, taking up gardening, paying attention to how the plants in their vicinity are feeling, etc. Unfortunately, most people live in boxes, with no green outside. But I think that’s exactly what we need – we need to somehow recuperate the green, recuperate the air, recuperate everything. In polluted cities our immune system is degraded. Our food system is horrible, we’re eating junk. And that means that our whole system is much more weakened; it lacks balance, and therefore it’s a lot easier for the virus to get into it.

You made me think about something that Don Emilio said when I asked him why he takes these plants, especially ayahuasca. He said that it’s to make the body stronger and to clarify the mind. Not to have visions. That’s a very Western way of thinking. You know, concentrating on DMT is like what happened with the coca plant, that it became synonymous with cocaine. It’s like having a whole coca plant and saying that it’s cocaine. No. The ayahuasca brew contains hundreds of different chemicals. And every plant is different, and that’s what Indians based their diversity on, their classification, their taxonomy. Ayahuasca, too, has lots of different types, and sometimes the differences are very fine, very subtle. But the Indians know the difference, because for them, all these plants are people, they are not vessels for chemicals.

But why, from the whole range of teacher plants, has precisely ayahuasca become so popular on the global scene? As the Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis once told me, “If you had asked me forty-five years ago which of all the obscure psychedelics would hit the zeitgeist and be used ubiquitously in Europe, the United States and Canada, I never would have guessed ayahuasca.”

Neither would I. It is now fifty years since my first experience with yagé. That was in 1971, with Terence McKenna, and I had my second experience in 1979. Then I went to Iquitos in the 1980s, and I was worried, because I thought this was a dying tradition. At that time, it was relatively difficult to find a vegetalista there. You had to talk with a lot of people before you heard someone say, oh yes, I know somebody who lives in this or that place. So anyway, I met six or seven vegetalistas and discontinued my further searches. I said to myself that I have to concentrate, and I concentrated on the work of Don Emilio. Because I was making a film (Don Emilio & His Little Doctors, 1982 – Ed), and I was also working on my doctoral dissertation.

I was sure that this was a dying tradition, because none of Don Emilio’s sons wanted to continue it. I already had an idea for my next film, in which I would record the process of the three of us – me, one of Don Emilio’s sons and his eighteen-year-old neighbour – doing the special diet together. Unfortunately, they gave up very quickly, so in the end I was the only one who did the diet, for thirty days. But I could not make a film about myself (laughs). I remember I was very worried, and I asked Don Emilio, who’s going to continue this? And he said, you will.

Anyway, in 1980 I had no idea that ayahuasca was going to be this hugely popular. Don Emilio lived thirteen kilometres from Iquitos by road, and at that time the road was still under construction. He said that in his youth he had to travel through the forest to get to Iquitos, and it was very far away. He also often went into the forest to hunt. In fact, Don Emilio told me so much about that road that I thought I should make a film titled The Road. Unfortunately, I did not succeed in this because I had to return to Finland, etc. Since then, the road has grown into a two-lane highway, and Emilio’s house has disappeared. It was eaten up by that road.

More and more people began going to the Amazon. And some people say that the book I wrote with Pablo Amaringo (Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman, 1999 – Ed.) had an impact. That’s very interesting, because the book began with art. Of course, it also contained a lot of information about plants, symbols, traditions and rituals, but it was actually Pablo’s paintings and the visions they depicted that drew people in. A lot of people went to the Amazon just because of that, because of the artwork. These were not people looking for drugs, as some people say. A lot of people went there to look for direction in life, for some kind of spirituality. Among them were also lots of young people who said that they wanted to learn, just like I had done back in my time. I was curious; I was interested in understanding, in figuring out what it was that they were talking about. When I was doing my fieldwork, Don Emilio never asked me for any money. I gave him things that I thought he needed. Glasses, food, tobacco, etc. He only once he asked me for something. He asked me for a photograph I had taken of Don Apolinar Yacanamijoy, the Ingano shaman who gave me yagé in Colombia. Nothing else. So that was my relationship with him: I wanted to learn, and he wanted to teach. And it was the same with others.

Of course, along with the popularity of ayahuasca, the issue of money also appeared. When people went to see Don Emilio, he never asked for money himself, but somehow he expected that the people would give him something. It could be some money, it could be a chicken. But if they were very poor, he did not get anything, and it was all right. That was the kind of economy of ayahuasca that I saw at that time, in the early 1980s.

Then it all changed. The first ayahuasca retreats were opened, and I know that a lot of people attended them with good intentions. The people who went to the Amazon wanted security, the feeling that someone was going to take care of them, as well as certain facilities. Back when I was spending time with Don Emilio, I just slept on the floor. It was pretty harsh.

What has happened in the past thirty years has been worrisome and at the same time surprising. The last time I went to Iquitos was in 2000, when I was invited to a conference about shamanism. I gave a talk, and then they organised ayahuasca sessions, and, seeing as I knew several of the organisers quite well, I said I wanted to join one of those events. We took a bus, and it was full of tourists and there was a big gathering there. I said, what is this? You know, there are a number of things that take place in ayahuasca ceremonies, because the process that a person goes through can be very complicated. Someone near me started to scream, and there was no one to help him. I asked permission, can I take care of this person? I tried to calm him down – successfully – because he was bothering the others, and so on. This was the first time I had had the experience in this kind of context. Never, ever again.

I know there are wonderful people and wonderful places out there, I cannot criticise what I haven’t seen. But I am afraid by what is happening. One of my students was in Iquitos before the pandemic, and he was telling me that there’s already a shortage of the vine. So that is very serious, because that means extraction. If you’re not planting, then it’s just one more thing you’re taking from the Amazon. It’s rubber, it’s tropical fish, and now it’s also ayahuasca and other plants as well. It should be absolutely obvious that if you take something from the forest, you have to replant it, you have to take care of the forest. I mean, this has to be embedded in the system, otherwise it just becomes predatory, and that doesn’t help anybody.

Speaking about visionary art, what is its role in indigenous societies? Quoting the visionary artist Pablo Amaringo: “The spirits don’t talk, but they express themselves through images.” Amazonian people claim that it’s ayahuasca that teaches them language, the songs and the ornaments for their handicrafts. How do you explain this process, and how would you define visionary art?

It depends how and in what way you think of visionary art. But there are certain societies – for example, obviously, the Shipibo – where art is to a great extent based on the visions they experience during ritual ceremonies. These are kind of fractal images that they interpret as visions from the skin of the serpent and other things. Of course, it’s visionary, but again, it’s not like I take ayahuasca and I have a vision and then I do this or that. No, it’s within the culture. Just like the songs, the icaros. The visionary world is musical in the way that experience produces these synesthetic images that are culturally based. Of course, not everybody sees that, you know, but the Indians see it, and every culture will see different things.

When Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (1912–1994, an anthropologist and archaeologist known for his research and also in-depth fieldwork among many different Amerindian cultures – Ed.) was in Colombia with the Desana Tucano Indians, he brought along paper and pencils and gave them to the Tucanos to do whatever they wanted with them. From that came the beautiful book Beyond the Milky Way: Hallucinatory Imagery of the Tucano Indians. Reichel-Dolmatoff realised that all this art is related to the visionary world. It’s related to the cosmology, which is visited with the help of yagé, and so on. Originally, probably not every Amazonian culture used psychoactive or sacred plants, and not every art is based on them. We don’t really know; we’d have to go back in time to find out. But certainly, as far as we know, a lot of the art is based on people’s contact with such plants. But again, I cannot generalise.

However, the case of Pablo Amaringo is different. He was a vegetalista, but he left the practice. When I met him, he hadn’t taken ayahuasca for seven years. He got involved in some kind of astral fight according to his cosmology or the cosmology of the area, and so he decided to not do it anymore. But he had this experience, and he was a vegetalista, he cured people. At the same time, he was very interested in religious ideas. In fact, I’ve been surprised how in the Amazon, at least when I was there, there were very interesting theological discussions among people who you might think are so humble that you’d never believe they’d be having, you know, some kind of serious theological discussions.

Also, Pablo’s pictorial reference was Western religious art. I mean, he hadn’t travelled much before I met him, but in his paintings, there is some spatial distribution to the way images are depicted in the triptychs you see in churches. The reason he was able to focus on painting was also to a certain extent the result of my relationship with him, of the questions I asked him and the materials I was giving him. I gave him the very best materials I could get, all sorts of paints (gouache, oils, acrylics) and brushes, etc. So suddenly he had tools and the best paper in the world to work on. I was also able to provide him with everything he needed, I brought electricity and running water to his humble house, all that, and then he developed his own unique style. In the beginning, it was based on my own questions, which were very much related to specific motifs in the cosmology of this culture area. But then at some point it took off, and in a way, over the years it was also lost, because his style became too decorative and aimed at the market.

I’m lucky that I have some of Pablo’s paintings from the very beginning, including his first one, which was the seed of everything that came later. You can see them on the website. I kept those paintings for thirty years, and finally I felt that I could sell them to raise money for my reforestation project here in southern Brazil. I want to reforest the mountain just behind my house to bring back the biodiversity that was once there. That’s going to be what I leave behind me. I’d rather leave a forest behind me than money in the bank or anything like that.

Pablo Amaringo had a photographic memory, and he’s not the only one. I remember during my first visit to Amazonia, I was so surprised that our guide could speak twelve languages fluently. He had learned all of them from audiotapes. On the other hand, we in the West struggle with memory problems and illnesses that produce such problems. After spending so much time in the Amazon, have you managed to get closer to the mystery of these special skills?

I haven’t done any research. I don’t know if anybody has done any research on this, although it would be feasible to do it, very easily in fact, with Western tools. I mean, if you wanted to measure things, it could be done. What impressed me most, OK, first of all, was that Pablo had an eidetic memory. That’s what caught my attention. Although perhaps the depiction wasn’t completely precise, but in his paintings, I could recognise the species of the birds and the animals, it was all right there. But then he said, I remember everything I’ve seen. I asked, do you remember the visions you had when you were taking ayahuasca? And he said yes, he did. And in a way, that was a turning point for me. I asked Pablo to use his eidetic memory to turn his memories of the visions into art. He did it in his way, with the tools he had, but it was a recollection of particular moments, of the visions he had.

The way he created his art was very special. He said he simply placed a piece of white paper in front of himself and looked at it. Gradually, an image would come to his mind, and then he projected it onto the paper. In other words, he saw what he was going to paint on the paper – the whole thing, including the smallest details.

By the second and third year he already had a few students of his own. Until on June 15, 1988, we established the Usko-Ayar Amazonian School of Painting. I invested ten years of my life in it, because I believed that it was a fantastic opportunity, both for Pablo and his students. Pablo taught his students to use their own eidetic memory. First, look at things very carefully, see the details, see everything very, very carefully. Keep the image in your mind, and then in your mind you create the painting with the elements you have seen. You’re not copying from a book or from nature – you don’t go out into nature to paint. No, just the opposite. Pablo taught his students to concentrate and observe plants, birds, lines, and then create an image in their heads and project it onto the paper. There was also a certain technique, I mean, there was a methodology. For instance, he said, the first thing you have to know is where the light is coming from. So, he would paint the background first, and then, according to his words, he would gradually build up the painting in the same order that God created the world. First came light, then plants, then animals, then birds and then human beings at the end.

At some point, we had 300 students, all of them just creating art in this way. My idea was to make the school kind of an economic motor, that is, with 50% of the income from sold artwork going back into the development of the school and reforestation (the Sachamama Ethnobotanical Garden in Iquitos was partially financed by the school), the other 50% went to the artists, with the idea they would invest in sustainable projects. So, it was an ecological project in a way, although difficult to implement in many ways.

What became of the school?

I left in 1994. Since then, it has gone through many different periods, it’s had its ups and downs, so I’ve heard. The kids also have lives of their own. Some of them continue to paint independently of the school and have become artists, participating in conferences and doing exhibitions in different countries and so on. So, something was created that had a permanent impact in that society and in the world. Because these kids are influencing other people and so on. So, in a way, we recreated painting in the Amazon, it was a kind of revolution, both in terms of visionary art, following Pablo Amaringo’s footsteps, and in terms of depicting nature with great attention to detail.

Returning to what you said about eidetic memory, isn’t this phenomenon in large part connected with survival?

I’ve asked myself the same thing many times. First, let’s put ourselves in the forest. No books, nothing, no rational thinking, no Aristotle, no Plato, no Hegel, you’re in the forest. You’re there among other people, everything is alive, everything is intelligent, everything is related. The forest has everything: your food, your medicines, everything you need to make your house. Everything is there. The people there use their senses in a way that’s very difficult for us to even imagine. The way they see, the way they hear, feel, smell, everything is much more intense. We in the West have blocked these senses.

For example, I once took Pablo and one of his students to Finland, and we went to the forest there. Within twenty minutes, they had spotted a snake. I’ve been in Finnish forests many times, and I’ve never seen a snake there in the wild. But they spotted it immediately. The snakes were probably there all along, but I simply didn’t see them. Indians read patterns very easily, and they recognise the little details. You have to if you’re a tracker or a hunter. You have to see the smallest detail, because your prey is out there within the leaves and the branches in the forest.

In addition to very sharp vision and the ability to notice, Indians have a fantastic sense of hearing. I’ve been in the forest with an Indian, and he tells me there’s a boat coming down the river. I don’t hear a thing, zero for ten or twenty minutes, and only then do I start to hear the sound of a motor.

It’s probably the same with all of the other senses, too. Including the sense of smell. If I go to the forest, I get lost in five minutes. I get lost in the city as well. My sense of direction is very weak, because I don’t have an eidetic memory. But they do, and they know the forest, they know the plants. They’re probably “making a picture” of where they go so that they can get back home. Also the sound, the light. They’re much more embedded in the sensorial world than we are. We with our shoes, our clothes, our walls... We’re blind from the very beginning.

With our boxes...

Exactly. And now it’s even worse – with our screens. It’s now a flat world. A two-dimensional world. That’s very, very dangerous.

Did you ever talk with Pablo about the place where an artist exists when he or she creates? Where is this realm where art lives? Is it some kind of collective consciousness?

Pablo, as well as Peruvian artist Agustin Rivas, who was an artist before he become shaman, they both told me exactly the same things. They said that it was ayahuasca that taught them how to mix colours or make sculptures. Agustin told me that he would take pieces of wood, put them on his shoulder, and the piece of wood would make a different sound every time. And that sound somehow gave him the shape of what he was going to do with that piece of wood. So, there’s another synesthetic process.

So, what are they looking at? Well, I think what happens is that the picture of reality is much broader and more varied than we think it is. Simply because they have a conception of the world that is full of spirits, everything is full of spirit. It’s hyper-dimensional in a way, there are many dimensions. And with ayahuasca you can go into these other dimensions. You know, the world is not only that which we see with our eyes; it’s much richer. And of course, if you have more input, then there are more things coming to you.

It’s a pity, I’ve not tried my hand at art, but if I were able to put on paper a tiny little fraction of what I’ve seen, it would be a completely different story. But if you’re an artist and you visit those realms, and you have the capacity and the tools to make art, it’s such an incredible tool for creativity.

There’s a hypothesis that artists have a higher concentration of DMT in their brains. Could that be, or is it just storytelling?

No, no, I don’t believe that. In fact, how can you prove it? There’s a lot of mythology surrounding DMT. Look, for the Indians, the visions are not the most important thing. The DMT is in a mixture of plants, not in the vine. When Steven White and I did the ayahuasca reader together (Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s Sacred Vine, 2016 – Ed.), we found many myths about the origin of the vine, but we couldn’t find the origin of chacruna (Psychotria viridis) or the origin of chagropanga (Diplopterys cabrerana), the main admixture plant used in some areas of the Colombian and Ecuadorian Amazon. Why? Those plants aren’t so important. It’s the vine that’s the most important, and the main effects of the vine are in the body and in the clarity of the mind. So, I think we have to demythologise DMT. Again, we just take out one substance and concentrate on that – that’s a very typical Western way.

How dynamic is the indigenous world? How have these ancient traditions evolved over time, with the new things that are coming in?

Well, one of the amazing things about many indigenous tribes is that they’ve been so resilient. It’s amazing that they’ve been able to survive so many centuries of predation, missionisation, aggression and violence. It’s incredible that they’re still here. And they’re still claiming their own way of looking at things, defending their land, defending their sacred places. I have great, great respect for them, and we have to join forces to support them. You cannot be seriously interested in environmental issues if you’re not taking the side of the indigenous people with great respect. Because, as I said before, they’re the most important people right now, in this situation. So, we must stand for them in whatever ways we can.

What’s happening here in Brazil now is absolutely devastating. Can you imagine how short-sighted it is to destroy one of the most biologically diverse places on the earth just to extract minerals? I mean, destroying rivers, life and all that just to extract some kilos of gold. And in the end, this money will expand the pockets of only a few. The whole political and financial system behind it is absolutely crazy, rotten, anti-evolutionary, anti-life.

It needs to change, and I’m hoping that this virus, Covid-19, is a good messenger. I mean, I have not been touched directly. I’ve lost some friends, but I have not lost family. And I know that’s very easy to say... but we know that the cause of it all is deforestation, bad food, bad habits, etc. Obesity is one of the risk factors associated with Covid-19. We have to find a way to eat better, and there’s probably no better way than to get our food from sources that have a lot of variety. And who knows that better than indigenous people?

We have to change completely. We have to return to the concept of diversity, to the love of diversity. Because diversity is the key. The biggest cause of civilisation’s current problems is monoculture. Monoculture in everything – in ideas, in products, in agriculture.

Monoculture didn’t exist in the Americas, just like it didn’t exist in many other parts of the world. It was all polyculture; it was all planting together. In North America they had the three sisters – corn, squash and beans – all three nourishing each other and together. We need to go back, not open up new avenues and lines, but go back to a completely different and more organic way of agriculture. In many ways, we have to get rid of straight lines, so to say: in the mind, in agriculture, in philosophical thought. By the way, in my home here, I try to avoid right angles. This place here, my office, is circular. My house is full of strange angles, because I want to avoid that kind of straight thinking. It’s organic, you cannot draw it easily on paper, you have to make it grow according to the terrain. And things have to be like that, they have to be organic. In everything.

Even at universities, you know, this division of disciplines. It’s terrible. Biologists don’t know how to talk with anthropologists and vice versa; zoologists don’t know how to talk with botanists and so on. People working with microorganisms say, OK, that’s a different category from geology. But they’re not, everything is interrelated. We need to create these kinds of membranes like mycelium – multicultural, multi-disciplinary networks. We need to step out from linear thinking. So that we can all learn from each other. For example, you learn a little bit about this, but this is related to that, and that will take you there, and so on. It’s a different way of learning.

So, to wrap it all up, if someone asks you what reality is, what would be your answer?

I wish I knew. The only thing I can say is that it’s all much more complex and interesting than I or anybody can imagine. We live in such an incredible, complex, wonderful mystery. The mystery of existence itself is overwhelming. It’s amazing that we’re here as human beings and that we can ask these questions.

It’s very interesting to be alive. And I hope that it’s not too late for the next generations, because the world is getting poorer and poorer. That’s the terrible thing. I mean, more than 80% of the mammal biomass is just us and the animals that we eat. The rest of it, all the other species, is just a fraction. So, we’re already now living in such impoverishment. And there’s no stopping it. It’s not getting better. It’s not like now we understood, so now we’re stopping this machinery. No, in fact the machinery is getting faster and faster.

How do we stop this thing? The only way is through consciousness. Again, perhaps these plants and these kinds of experiences will help us to realise where we are, where we’re going, and how can we change this path.

Terence McKenna had a book called The Archaic Revival (1991) in which he said that perhaps the model we need is right there in the past. Perhaps the whole thing called civilisation is just a big mistake, or something that went very wrong. We learned a lot of things, but it eventually went wrong, so we have to change. It’s not that we’re going to now say that the whole of Western science and all of that was a mistake, but it took over. We need to see that there’s much more. We cannot let ourselves be absorbed by technology, especially now. What kind of world are we going to have – a biosphere or a technosphere? If it’s the latter, then in the end humanity will be lost within the machines. Robots everywhere. Which would be a very poor ending for the human experiment.


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