My first experience with the magnificence of the Amazon rain forest was in 1994 when joined an ethnobotanical expedition to the Amazon Center of Environmental Education and Research (ACCER) many miles up the Napo River, north of Iquitos, Peru. The rain forests overpowering size and expanse had a depth and density that I had never seen before. It was rich with heavy jungle smells and an overpowering verdant fecundity full of colorful wild life and esoteric plants. The cacophony of animal sounds punctuated both day and night.
The richness was so stunning and overwhelming that I experienced perception and sensory overload. I found it difficult to describe and initially it was ineffable. It took me a while to shift from awestruck back to the commonly accepted descriptive language.
I had worked with plant medicines for years, but was really unprepared for the magnitude and layered richness of the Amazon rain forest. The Garden of Eden does exist and I was in the middle of it. I was at the site of natural creation, watching the ultimate masterpiece unfold before me. The rain forests pure aliveness is uncluttered by our civilized neatness and what we consider to be the necessities of life.
In the next two years I enfolded the experiences and feel of the trip into my work as a teacher, lecturer, writer and practitioner. As I worked with plant medicines, I knew, in the back of my mind, that I would return to this magical and sacred place. The opportunity came when DR James Duke, medical botanist, called to say that he had funded a rain forest ethnobotanical garden at ACEER and needed volunteers. I jumped at what I saw as a legitimate reason to return, as my mind swung into euphoric recall. The magic of the rain forest had left an imprint on me and it drew me again.
Recalling my last trip, I limited my expectations with an attitude of "How ya gonna top that?" as I made preparation for yet another adventure into the primal rainforest. I would soak up the splendor and I learn more about healing plants by tending the gardens. My friendship with cuarandero Don Antonio Montero, the native shaman, and garden keeper would be renewed.
Having been in challenging jungle conditions before, I carefully planned and packed proper clothing and protective footwear. As a meticulous pharmacist, I also included a more than adequate first-aid kit. We would be many hours, by high speed boat, from the nearest medical facilities.
Unfortunately, within a week I contracted a jungle induced malady. Even with my good shoes and hygiene, my left big toe become badly infected by some unknown microbe. As the toe throbbed and enlarged, the nail began to float and ooze a nasty fluid. The pain became unbearable, and my shoes did not fit. My pharmacy antibiotics and creams didnt seem to help.
Don Antonio, the native healer, was my only source of on-site health care. He examined the oozing toe and said his primary concern was avoiding a blood infection that could travel up my leg and infect the groin lymph area. He would prepare a foot bath of medicinal plants to use for a couple of days, and if that failed he suggested using a machete to slice open the toe-nail and relieve the pressure. Needless to say, I welcomed an herbal foot bath over the prospect of a two-foot long machete blade performing first aid.
With me hobbling behind him, Don Antonio gathered seven plants from natures outdoor pharmacy for his medicinal brew. Experiencing no change from antibiotics, I decided to trust the traditional jungle medicine process. Don Antonio made the foot soak from the leaves of the Casho, Pinon blanco, Arnica, Paico, Papaya macho (only the yellow leaves would work, he said), Camote, and Sangre de grado. To this concoction Don Antonio added some ordinary table salt. I understood the rationale for the salt, the rest I just trusted. I felt like the pharmacists of history who grew and harvested the plants, concocted the plant medicines, and compounded the final product. I was dying of pain and living a moment of original pharmacy.
For the next few days, we repeatedly soaked the foot in freshly prepared plant baths, and the infection slowly resolved itself. The swelling went down, discoloration abated, and thankfully, the pain went away. The oozing under the toe-nail dried up, and the toe-nail did not turn black and fall off as Don Antonio had originally anticipated. I was amazed at how quickly it healed and was delighted that the first aid machete was not going to be used.
The most amazing thing about the treatment was the unquantifiable ingredient of Don Antonios ministrations. He paid attention and showed care for my discomfort and condition. He sang and hummed native plant-spirit healing songs as my foot was being washed and soaked in the fresh green aromatic bath. That kind of attention had never been lavished on me in a western medical setting, regardless of the severity of my condition. It reminded me of our medicines term "attending physician" or one who "attends" the patient and how frequently that promise is not delivered.
Trained in modern high-tech pharmacy, I sometimes find it difficult to believe that "those little green leaves" can cure "a big problem." As pharmacists were taught to single out the pharmacologically active ingredients. Modern western medicine will probably discount my foot healing as anecdotal. Some will propose that until laboratory analysis is made on the seven plants used, we only had a subjective native cure.
In the scramble for progress through chemistry, we have forgotten how much our lives depend on potent plant medicines such digitalis, curare, and taxol. The curative power of plants is far broader than our current research has catalogued. Medicinal plants from the rain forests used by traditional societies may prove to be an important source of potentially therapeutic drugs today, as in the past. Deep in rain forests lie yet to be discovered secrets that may cure todays devastating diseases.
Until the 1950s, pharmaceutical research relied heavily on plants as sources of medicines. Today, with the millions of prescriptions issued in the US, 25% of the drugs are still isolated from plants. Many were discovered through the ethnobotanical technique of studying indigenous uses of plants.
Rain forest healers have a remarkably extensive knowledge of plant medicines. It is transmitted from generation to generation, usually through on-the-job training apprenticeships. Unfortunately for our future and the preservation of this knowledge, few native young people are following in the curanderos footsteps. As ethnobotanist Dr. Mark Plotkin sadly observed, "every time a shaman dies, it is as if a library burned down."
It was exciting to be cared for by a native shaman, and to healed by natures medicines picked fresh from plants and put to immediate use. Experiencing the healing power of the rain forest and partaking in "original pharmacy" was life changing. It renewed the fascination and passion I had when I entered the profession long ago. I am very grateful.