Telling the names of gods

One River / Davis, Wade / Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, 1998

Telling the names of gods through plants, rivers, hallucinogenics, industries and languages: what a discovery was reading One River! My wife has read it like ten years ago, and it was only now when I got the time and the motivation to read it, mainly because it inspired the Colombian film “El Abrazo de la Serpiente”, nominated for the Oscars, 2016.

The film got no Oscar, but the 529 pages told me a story that we have never learned in schools or in the  universities in Colombia, Ecuador, Perú or Brazil. People in the Latin American cities know very little about the indigenous cultures living in the forests. One River is a story developed in the Amazon basin,  reflecting  the medicinal and spiritual life of indigenous communities. The story is told with key references to foreigners like La Condamine (French, 1743), Alexander von Humboldt (German, 1801), Richard Spruce (British botanist, 1853), Richard Evans Schultes  (American, 1941), Tim Plowman (American, 1974) and Wade Davis (author). Both Tim and Wade were Schultes’  students in Harvard, and the three of them play the central role of telling the many stories articulated by One River, the Amazon.

Though the main driver for Schultes’ visits to Colombia and the Amazon during 1941-1953 had to do with the need for getting rubber seeds for the USA (war and industry needs), the core of the real story has to do with plants, quinine, hallucinogenics like yagé, coca, yá-kee, yoco, curare, peyote, mushrooms, and the spiritual practices of the many tribes in the region. It tells the story of the Muinane, Bora, Witoto, Miraña, Yukuna, Makuna, Jinogogé, Siona, Waorani, Kofan, Ingá, Karijona, Gwanano and Desano communities, living along the Inírida, Guainía, Kuduyarí, Vaupés, Kananarí, Popeyacá, Miritiparaná, Caquetá, Sucumbíos, Naopo, Orinoco, Putumayo, and many other rivers tributaries of the Amazon. The book is telling the story of an important part of Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia.

The book also reflects how the private sector (important global companies) are interested in using the indigenous ancestral knowledge. It tells us clearly about the interests moved by the Intercontinental Rubber Company, Coca Cola, Parke-Davis, Royal Dutch Shell, Rubber Development Corporation, Rubber Reserve Company, Shell, Shell-Mera, and the United States Rubber Company. It shows how religious influences became important, like the Jesuits or the Capuchin Order during the Colony, or the Summer Institute of Linguistics or the Wycliffe Bible Translators in modern times.  They played the role of articulating belief and interests  between the visitors (companies) and the indigenous communities, who were not represented by the governments.

All these peoples, all these languages,  have developed a deep communication with the plants, with the rivers and the forests. According to Tim Plowman, “when you say the names of the plants, you say the name of the gods”. Their Latin names are like koans of lines of verse. The authors tell about their visit to the Kogi and Ika in the Sierra Nevada, and to many other shamans, and how they cultivate “the art of divination, techniques of breathing and meditation that lift one into trance, prayers that give voice to the inner spirit“.

The book brings together the best botanists in the world, and after many years of an intense experience and long life in the forest, they come to conclude that we do not know how Indians originally made their discoveries.  Spruce, Schultes, Plowman and Davis are some of the best people educated by the most advanced universities at the global level during the last 150 years and they go into the daily practice of learning from ‘locals’ like Adalberto Villafañe, Pedro Juajibioy, Pacho Lopez,  José Antonio Pabón, Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff and few research centres.

What I find strange (and to some degree disturbing) is to see that One River is written in English, based on the communication that the Spruce and Schultes managed to develop in the local indigenous languages.  There is no Spanish or Portuguese translation, which means that most of Latin Americans – living now in cities – are missing a fundamental part of their own reality. Because of the strong link that the Amazon keeps with the many variables of Climate Change,  One River is an important book to read.