Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The prodigious biological and cultural riches of the vast Amazon rain forest are being lost at a horrendous rate, according to the author, often without yielding their secrets to the Western world. During his years in the South American jungle, ethnobotanist Davis (The Serpent and the Rainbow) has done much to preserve some of these treasures. He tells two entwined tales herehis own explorations in the '70s and those of his mentor, the great Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, beginning in the '30s. Both men have been particularly interested in the psychoactive and medicinal properties of the plants of the Amazon basin and approach their subject with a reverence for the cultural context in which the plants are used. The contrasting experiences of two explorers, a mere generation apart, starkly demonstrates how much has already been destroyed in the rain forest. Although Schultes probably knew more about Amazonian plants than any Western scientist, he was constantly learning of new ones and new uses for them from native experts. Davis graphically describes the brutal clash of cultures from Columbian times to the present, often so devastating for indigenous peoples, that has defined this region. At times humorous, at times depressing, this is a consistently enlightening and thought-provoking study. Photos not seen by PW. (Sept.)
While not technically a biography, this is the story of Timothy Plowman, a young ethnobotanist who died while looking for medicinal plants in the South American rain forests. The author, who explored with Plowman in 1974 and 1975, tells a vivid story of adventure, Amerindian culture, and, to a lesser extent, the social and political climate surrounding Harvard in the 1960s and 1970s. Plowman was the brilliant protg of Richard Evans Schultes, one of the world's leading authorities on hallucinogenic plants and the Amazon rain forest. The author mixes the backgrounds and travels of the two men with sociology of South American tribes and their sacred plants. Because use of hallucinogenic plants is described, this is not a book for young people. For adults, it's a fascinating story of ethnobotanical exploration and an excellent real-life tale of science out of the laboratory, and only peripherally the sad story of a brilliant life lost to AIDS (Plowman contracted the disease as a result of pretrip inoculations). It also reveals the effects of development on the dwindling rain forests and their endangered cultures. Recommended for large collections.Laura E. Lipton, Center for Urban Horticulture, Seattle
Davis, a compelling writer and intrepid ethnobotanist best known for "The Serpent and the Rainbow" (1987), proves himself a master of synthesis in this engrossing history of plant exploration in the Amazon. He alternates between accounts of his amazing adventures in the field and rich descriptions of remote Indian tribes and their plant-based cosmologies, tales of conquering Spaniards and missionaries, and dynamic portraits of his mentors: the pioneering genius Richard Evans Schultes, the "world's leading authority on hallucinogenic plants," and Timothy Plowman, another inspired plant expert and fearless traveler. Davis pays particular attention to Schultes' groundbreaking field research into the uses of such sacred plants as peyote, coca, "yage", and the San Isidro mushroom, as well as his seminal work with rubber plants and arrow and dart poisons. But as he works back and forth in time, a terrible paradox arises: just as outsiders such as Schultes and Plowman began to recognize the tremendous sophistication of Indian knowledge about the medicinal and spiritual properties of plants, the Amazon jungle came under assault. Davis, acute and articulate, both marvels at the subtleties of nature and the inventiveness of human beings and bemoans the tragedy of cultural conquest and rampant industrialization.
A fascinating narrative of the exploits of Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, interwoven with the much more benign adventure of his student, author and ethnobotanist Davis (The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1986).
Beginning in the middle 1930s and for the greater part of the next two decades, Schultes journeyed throughout the remote Amazonian jungle to study the psychoactive and medicinal plants used by its indigenous peoples. His discoveriesincluding the natural plant source for LSDhave filled the annals of ethnobotany and helped kick off the hallucinogenic era of the 1960s. Schultes survived beriberi, malaria, frequent capsizings, and airplane accidents. But perhaps his most adventurous and sometimes dangerous forays were into the psychoactive drug rituals of tribes located deep within the Colombian and Brazilian rainforests. Schultes was recruited by the US government in the late '30s to find and develop new, blight-resistant sources of rubber, a project that was foolishly abandoned, according to Davis, because of bureaucratic infighting and ineptitude. Faintly echoing Schultes's saga is Davis's account of his own 1970s expedition, when he accompanied the ethnobotanist Tim Plowman to the Andean regions of Peru and Colombia to collect specimans of coca and study its cultivation patterns; in the footsteps of their mentor, Schultes, both men sample the hallucinogenic effects of various potions, chew coca leaves, and find themselves in some dicey situations on mountain roads. These episodes are flavored with revealing histories of the brutal Spanish conquest and the more recent but equally gruesome enslavement of Indians to the rubber trade, and contain some sprightly written, at times dryly ironic travel prose. But Davis's own experiences pale by comparison with the main narrative and are interjected at seemingly random intervals.
Although Davis might have been better advised to scale down, this is an exceptional tale of 20th-century scientific exploration and a rousing travelogue to places both real and illusory.