In Iquitos, Peru there is now an association of shamans, not just those who deal in ayahuasca but those who work with other plant medicines, each one local to the shaman, some dealing with exotica that brings scientists from around the world to study with them in the hope of learning something not known before, and perhaps in the hope of finding a miracle drug like asperin or quinine or barbasco or any number of other marvel in the Modern that we take for granted now and can't imagine a world without. But there was a time, and not so long ago, that Amazonian medicine was hidden from the rest of the world, and for some shamans, that's just the way they would like to keep it. But most know such is not possible, that the world encroaches, that the shamanic world must make way for “progress,” such as it is, even when it destroys local village life. And thus there is an association of shamans who have elected Rossana to deal with the outside world of lawyers and government officials and tourists and other shamans making noises about this and that that brings Rossana to village after village oft times by canoe in the wet season when there are no roads at all but the water ways. And Rossana brings some sort of healing with her in the form of talk. Over and over she mentions “prudence,” a feminine way of dealing with the rough and tumble of a man's world that women have to cope with as well as they can. The village elders chose her, and the shamans work with her. It has been so for ten years, since the previous woman died, some suspect murdered by poison and a blow across the back from a club. Prudence only goes so far in the world. Slowly, slowly, little by little, and still there are stories of shamans murdered wholesale in the area of Yurimaguas, a story I find little evidence to support it, but now folk loric and true to the those who live the village life and shamanic profession. In this epistemological realm a death is caused, it doesn't simply happen of its own accord, doesn't come from a mindless force that we call nature. For the shamanic and the villagers who live in the worlds of plants, it is the power of the spirits of plants that do all things. That's why there are shamans and various sorts of plant doctores. Without them, people would be helpless against all harms. With them, life is frightening and bitter and short. Not all shamans are good guys. Some are witches. All shamans though are part of the matrix of plants and thus are all bound by the same rules of awareness of the realities of life.
Sitting in Rossana's sparsely furnished room with toys scattered around one can sense the village life still in her conversation and the look in her eyes when she talks of life outside the bustle of the city. Though we sit mere feet from the window on the street I don't hear any sound but Rossana's voice as she talks about tribal warfare, murdered shamans, raped babies, and demonic shamans sabotaging each other for the sake of gaining power over rivals. The shamanic world is a closed world, not only to me as a Westerner and modern world man but to others not initiated and trained in plants and lore. I have some sense of the village life as I hear my grandmother talking to me about the clans across the way, of the raids and the spirits of the glens and dales, the tors and the bens. I know the village life as well from the closed mind and the adamant refusal to speak further about some plain fact my grandmother will not accept, it being in contradiction to her life in the blistering north of poverty and toil and want. It's the jungle life, one of superstition and irrationality that one cannot change in the person living it. I remember it.
I'm not a science guy. I have little sympathy for the myopic cutters. My love in life sees grand narratives of high vision and the Moral in literature. It don't hardly include spirits living in trees and weeds. Like us all, however, I have a sense of the whole, and that is what the selva shaman in the Amazon provides along side the lab-bound molecular physicist and the Orthodox rabbi ducking bombs in Sderot, and the leftard conspiracy theorist sleeping in his mother's basement in Bumfuck, Colorado. We all of us search for a grand story that makes sense of what the world is and why we live in it as we do, well or ill. I look to Sophocles and Aeschylus and Shakespeare and Milton for reality and meaning; others look to the jungle and beyond, to the avatars of plants. Some look to the stock market, and some look to the Golden Age of the distant past in the hope of finding the way to the future perfect. Surprising to some, there are doctors of novels; and equally surprising to others, there are doctors of ayahuasca. What is? How do we know? What is the Good? I asked these questions over and over during the hours I spent talking with Rossana. Each time the answer came back to prudence. The story becomes clear if one hears the voice of a female shaman speaking as a female first and as a shaman second. Don't recklessly destroy things in haste and aggressive competition and pride. The story is grand and it needs many to make it clear, not the super shaman with the greater power, but all shamans working slowly and locally to make things good for those around them in need. Prudence. Don't, don't, don't.
Don't go to the shaman to ruin him for selfish needs, Rossana said, those sick people who want to die of the effects of ayahuasca and then leave their troubles at the shaman's door. Then followed too many examples of tourist who come to die. Don't come to seduce the shamans, I heard examples of, because some of them will go for it and some will retreat ever further from the world of outsiders from fear of demonic possession. And please, which made me choke on my coffee, please do not send us hippies, not people from Argentina, but especially not the worse of all, hippies from Chile.
Hippies came in the sixties and in various guises they come today to strip the selva of shaman, turning the original 50 or so lodges meant for jungle sightseeing into a massive industry now that harvests shamans and places them in modern luxury where they make the tourist happy and reap small rewards, often cheated so badly that the time came when Rossana and others were outraged to the point of starting an association to protect the professionals from further harm. Prudence. Get along, be careful, take a few drops of ayahuasca first to see if it might give on heart palpitations or even kill. Gently, gently. And do no harm.
Rossana gave ayahuasca once to three strange men, men she didn't know. Shortly thereafter at church she saw the same three men-- all of them Catholic priests. She went to her own priest and asked if now she would go to hell for her actions. The priest said no, that it is important that they know what it is the locals experience, knowing as well as they can the lives of others, those they hope as well to tend.
To know life and make people able to live it well without pain or fear is the good in the story of being Rossana tells. It's a girl's story. There is another story to tell that Rossana only hints at, a dark and frightening story of katawa and the family of poison drinkers.
I don't know, and the young Italian lad doesn't know, but someone might, and someone might tell the story of the attack on the boy that has left him terrified by his ayahuasca experiences, close to 20 and all benign at least and uplifting till the last when he was invaded by a bruha, the witch who came to destroy his mind and capture his soul.
“I don't know anything anymore,” he told me, sweating and frightened and sleepless as he sat on my bed and fairly begged me for answers I don't have to give him. “I thought ayahuasca was good. But now I don't know. I am afraid I have lost my mind.” I sat and smiled and listened and said nothing much because there are answer I don't have to give him. I know a little more, having looked a little deeper. Maybe I could tell him, but I don't know that he would understand. There are mysteries I don't quite get and don't want to waste time with fools pondering. There are evils too that one might want to ponder even if they attack the simple badly. I see him now in my mind's eye. I've seen some things, now I know I can tell. I thought he was a goof. Now? Well, now I don't know what to think about the lad. I've come back a changed fellow.
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