“Back to Peru” from Talking Story
Categories: Excerpt Indigenous Cultures & Anthropology Psychology & Personal Growth
by Marie-Rose Phan-Lê
In this beautiful excerpt from her book, Talking Story, Marie-Rose Phan-Lê takes readers into the rain forest to walk with Don Pablo, a Peruvian shaman. It offers a brief but wonderfully vivid depiction of his environment and the wisdom he passes to students in these changing times.
Tags: Biography & Memoir Herbalism Shamanism Marie-Rose Phan-Lê
Back to Peru
Why was I shouting? When I used to look at photos of the rain forest, it never occurred to me that it would be a noisy place. It took some getting used to how loud it actually was. As we walked through the underbrush, we found ourselves raising our voices in order to hear each other over the cacophony of sounds—the high-pitched whistling of monkeys, the croaking of frogs, the songs of birds, the chirps of insects. It was indicative of how teeming with life the rain forest was. Engulfed by its lushness, it was hard to imagine the fragility of the rain forest’s existence, with its destruction by those needing farmland or firewood to survive, and by those hungry for the riches its natural resources command on the global market.
Walking among the wildlife in the rain forest was bittersweet for Don Pablo, who delighted in its wonders yet was acutely aware of its existence slipping away with each passing day. His hope was that the knowledge and memory of its wisdom and mysteries would be carried forth by the children and that the awareness of its importance would be spread through his art. “The forest is a silent factory that produces oxygen and food for everyone on the planet and needs to be taken care of,” he told the kids. As we moved through the bushes and giant trees, Don Pablo would stop by various plants giving lessons on their healing properties and then sprinkling the teachings with opportunities for play. This was an interactive school at its best, with the children touching, smelling, and tasting some of the plants, and then laughing and screaming as they swung from vines, jumped over rocks, and climbed trees.
Strolling through the rain forest with Don Pablo was like combing through the aisles of nature’s drugstore. “This plant is called caña agria or sacha auiro. This is a medicinal plant and is really good for treating bronchitis,” Don Pablo said, reaching for an elongated leaf of a bushy plant. We approached a tree that was about eighty feet tall and as he pointed our gaze up the length of its trunk, Don Pablo added, “The bark of this tree is good for treating arthritis and internal bleeding.” Further along our walk, Wellington demonstrated how to dig up roots of the plant that helped to cure his malaria and said he’d teach us how to make a tea decoction to take with us should we need it during our time in the rain forest. Mateo showed Don Pablo his puffy elbow, which had been inflamed for weeks, perhaps due to a hazard of his occupation: having to hold a boom mic pole over his head for hours a day. Don Pablo walked up to a young tree, cut into the bark, and collected the milky sap. He gently rubbed the sticky stuff into Mateo’s elbow and explained that it was a powerful anti-inflammatory. Most people are not aware that many of the medicines used in operating rooms today are derived from plants that have been traditionally used by indigenous peoples of the Amazon for centuries.
Like most shamans, Don Pablo will tell you that he learned about plant medicine from his teachers and from the spirits of the rain forest, who tell the shamans which plants to use for what ailments and give instructions on the proper administration of the medicine. Many ethnobotanists admit that they are baffled and amazed by the chemical complexity and accuracy of the shamans’ medicines and their efficacy in treating various illnesses.
“The planet is full of spirits in the plants, in the river, into the earth,” Don Pablo said passionately, waving his hands in the air and then pointing his fingers downward. He added that although we may not be able to see them with the naked eye, they are all around us. When I asked if he could see the spirits, Don Pablo replied, “Yes, sometimes I can see them when I’m concentrating, because I am like a priest. When I was a shaman, I was in close contact with them.”
At the last village we visited, the children treated us to a dance performance. They danced holding hands, moving around in a circle, and passing through a hula hoop–like ring. I was told this was a dance celebrating the circle of life. As I watched them smiling and moving gracefully, never breaking their connection to one another, I thought of Don Pablo’s words: “Children are like plants. In order to grow, they must be cared for, and like the plants and the forest, they are our future.”
After we returned to Uska Ayar a few days later, Don Pablo and his former students were teaching a group of children to paint what they experienced in the rain forest. The children learned to paint trees, rivers, skies, and animals. Don Pablo closed the class with, “Artistry is found in one’s heart and mind. Painters that have both—skill and imagination—are true artists.” Watching Don Pablo leading the children in the classroom and in the rain forest, I understood that he was not only bridging the material and spiritual worlds, but also bridging the old world of shamanism and the modern world that was creeping in. He was a man whose culture was in transition and who’d made a conscious choice to help the next generation move with that change, rather than deny or resist it.
Excerpted from Talking Story: One Woman’s Quest to Preserve Ancient Spiritual and Healing Traditions by Marie-Rose Phan-Lê. © 2014, North Atlantic Books.