Do plants have spirits? And, can hallucinogens help you cure disease? Corine Sombrun undertakes a spiritual journey to the Peruvian Amazon jungle to experience the healing powers of a medicine doctor for the BBC's Heart and Soul.
The reasons people embark on spiritual journeys can be both mysterious and deeply personal. For French composer Corine Sombrun, it was discovering a painting and meeting its painter.
The painting, on show at an art exhibition, offered a vision shaped by the Ayahuasca medicinal plant. The Ahayuasca is a climbing vine and a hallucinogen, and it is native to the Amazonian rainforest.
As Sombrun stood observing the painting, she was approached by the painter, Francisco Montes Shuna. He is a shaman, or medicine man, and he lives in the jungle in Peru.
He made an impression. Months after their meeting, Sombrun packed a 13 kg rucksack and boarded a plane to Iquitos, in Amazonian Peru, to visit Montes Shuna.
A Garden Of Wisdom
Montes Shuna lives and works 18 km outside the town of Iquitos. In 1990, he created a refuge for medicinal plants called La Sachamama Ethno-Botanical Garden. La Sachamama means 'Mother of Earth' in the indigenous Quechua language.
The garden comprises 150 acres of land, close to the Amazon river. It holds thousands of species of cultivated medicinal trees, plants, vines and herbs.
The Rainforest Health Project (RHP) which is now affiliated to La Sachamama, describes the garden as 'an oasis of conservation: a clearly delimited and protected secondary rainforest environment established with the avowed intention of protecting the vast array of useful plants and the traditional knowledge and lore evolved throughout generations of indigenous inhabitants of the region'.
According to the RHP, La Sachamama contains 1,200 medicinal plants, among them the Ayahuasca.
The garden is also a shamanic teaching centre, where apprentices and patients learn about ancient healing methods, a legacy from the Indian and Pre-colombian culture. Apprentices also become skilled at identifying plants and studying their curative properties.
Plants are regarded as teachers, and the relationship between the apprentice and the spirits inherent in plants is encouraged. Shamanism is a vision of the cosmos which has very little to do with Western rationalism.
|'We are landing. We are in Amazonia. It's so beautiful outside. I can see the jungle. I could cry.' |
Upon arrival in La Sachamama, Montes Shuna led Sombrun to her residence for one month - a hut with a hammock and windows equipped with mosquito netting. While there, she hoped to overcome the grief of having recently lost her husband.
The next morning, while it was still dark outside, Sombrun applied the advice that Montes Shuna had given her on how to survive in the jungle.
|'First, switch on the flashlight, to see if there's anything under the hammock, where you plan to put your feet. After that, check your shoes to ensure that a scorpion has not chosen it as his home…' |
Then, later that day, she had a mud bath, the first of many cleansing rituals which would enable her to be ready for the Ayahuasca ceremony. The bath entailed Montes Shuna giving her a vigorous scrub and applying a coat of mineral-rich mud over her skin, which dried out in the tropical sun.
The Ayahuasca Vision
The Ayahuasca vine is commonly distilled into a concentrated infusion, which is then taken during sacred healing rituals. Shamans believe the Ayahuasca's properties enable healers and non-healers to communicate with the world of spirits. According to this belief system, the spirits of plants provide messages and offer visions on the nature of the illness. The illnesses - among them rheumatism, arthritis and infections caused by snake bites – can then be treated with teas, herb baths and other remedies.
As such, the Ayahuasca is not necessarily seen as a curative substance, but rather as a means towards curing a disease.
Communion With Plants
However, a true communion with the spirits of plants can only be achieved, shamans believe, through a special diet. It requires self-discipline and sexual abstinence.
Sombrun recalls the details of her food regime:
'During the diet you can't eat fat or meat. You can't use soap. You can't drink alcohol. You can't have sex. So, I think I'm on my way to becoming a monk…Francisco says if we do it right and long enough, the plants will teach us through our dreams.'
|'I am in a world where the plants are speaking; the animals are speaking. As an apprentice shaman I have to accept it.' |
The diet consists of vegetables and special plants of the jungle, such as the ajo sacha (a garlic plant), which is also frequently used to treat arthritis and rheumatism.
Shamans communicate with plants through the chanting of sacred songs called icaros, which can be sung or whistled. The icaro is accompanied by the rattle-like sounds of a shacapa, a fan woven out of dry leaves. This combination of sounds invites the spirits of the plants to send messages to the shamans.
For a Westerner, attempting to communicate with the spirits of plants may be a trying and perhaps even embarrassing experience as Sombrun recalls:
'I am going to sing to the plant...I have not had any dreams. So Francisco told me: go, in front of the plant and sing an icaro, to her, for her. Ask her, would you like to send me some messages through the dreams?
I hope nobody is looking at me…'
| Essential Plants
|In 1966, Francisco Montes Shuna of La Sachamama Ethno-Botanical Garden, and Tim Woodruff, co-founder of Rainforest Health Project (RHP), published an educational pamphlet on medicinal plants, found in the Amazonian jungle.
It identifies ten essential plants, effective in treating common ailments, such as bronchitis, intestinal parasites, rheumatism, arthritis, diarrhoea and skin fungi.
The pamphlet clearly offers only a tiny percentage of the medicinal plants available in the rainforest.
For skin treatment it recommends:
'To combat skin funghi…apply the white resin from the papaya leaves, after washing the hands with the leaves. The resin of the fruit can also be used.'
A book, which describes 100 of the Northwest Amazon's most important curative plants is currently in the making.
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