Jeremy Narby – The Cosmic Serpent

The first time an Ashaninca man told me that he had learned the medicinal properties of plants by drinking a hallucinogenic brew. I thought he was joking. We were in the forest squatting next to a bush whose leaves, he claimed, could cure the bite of a deadly snake. “One learns these things by drinking ayahuasca,” he said. But he was not smiling.

It was early 1985. in the community of Quirishari in the Peru-\ian Amazon’s Pic!lis Valley. I was twenty-five years old and starting a two-year period of fieldwork to obtain a doctorate in anthropology lrom Stanford University. Mv training had led me to expect that people would tell tall stories. I thought my job as an anthropologist was to discover what they reallv thought, like
some kind of private detective.

During my research on Ashaninca ecology, people in Quirishari regularly mentioned the hallucinatory world of ayakuasqueros, or shamans. In conversations about plants, animals, land, or the forest, they would refer to ayahuasqueros as the source of knowledge. Each time, I would ask myself what they really meant when they said this.

“My uncle was a tabaquero. / watched him take lots of tobacco, dry it a bit in the sun. and cook it. I wondered what it could be. That’s tobacco,’ my uncle told me. and once the mixture was good and black, he started tasting it with a little stick. I thought it was sweet, like concentrated cane juice. When he ate his tobacco, he could give people good advice. He could tell them, ‘this is good’ or this is not good.’ I don t know what the intellectuals say now. but in those days, all the Adventist missionaries said. ‘He is listening to his bats, to his Satan.’ He had no book to help him see, but what he said was true: ‘Even/body has turned away from these things, now they all go to the missionary.

I do not know how to read, but I know how to do these things. I know how to take tobacco, and I know all these things.’ So when he talked, I listened to what he told me: ‘Listen nephew, when you are a grown man. find a “unknown to unknown” after but before that, you must not only learn how to write, you must also learn these things.’

“Learn to take tobacco*” I asked.

“Take tobacco and cure. When people would come to htm, my uncle would say: Why do you ask me to cure you, when you say you know God now that you are at the mission, and I do not know Cod’ Why don’t you ask the pastor to pray, since he says he can cure people with prayers.” Why don’t you go to him?’ But he would cure them anyway He would pull out his COCO, start chewing it. and sit down like us here note. Then, he would swallow his tobacco
Meanwhile, I would watch him and ask him what he was doing The first time I saw him cure, he said: ‘Yen/ well, bring me the sick baby.’ First, he touched the baby, then took his pulse: ‘Ah, I see. he’s in a bad way. The illness is here.’ Then, he started sucking the spot [suction noise].

Then, he spat it out like this: ptt! Then, again, and a third time ptt! There, very good. Then he told the mother: ‘Something has shocked this little one. so here is a herb to bathe him. After that, let him rest.’ The next day. one could already see an improvement in the baby’s health. So I took a liking to it and decided to unknown. Ooh! The first time I had tobacco. I didn’t sleep.”
“How old were you?”

Twelve months after the Rio conference a publisher accepted my proposal for a book on Amazonian shamanism and ecology. I was going to call it Ecological hallucinations. Several weeks later my employer agreed to let me spend part of my time working on the book. I was set to investigate the enigma of plant communication. But where was I to begin? My initial impulse would have been to return to the Peruvian Amazon and spend some time with the ayahuasqueros. However, my life had changed. I was no longer a free-roaming anthropologist, but the father of two young children. I was going to have to conduct my investigation from my office and the nearest library, rather than from the forests of Peru.

I started by rereading my fieldnotes and the transcripts of the Carlos Perez Shuma interviews. I paid particular attention to the strange passages 1 had left out of my thesis. Then, given that writing is an extension of thinking. I drafted a preliminary version of a first chapter on my arrival in Quirishari and my initial ayahuasca experience.

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