A feeling emerged from within me: “These people have deep relationship with these plants!” A thought which had never occurred to me in quite this way before. “They wake up, go outside, see them, smell them, sometimes pick them for food or medicine. They walk about their homeland continually immersed in this environment rich with plants. There isn’t even much concrete here… it’s mostly earth and plants. What a novel experience! How far removed we have become from the Earth in our urban lifestyle. What a rich experience to be amongst these people. I can feel so many layers of deep complexity through the interrelations of all life forms present. I have so much to learn.” Thus began my journey into the world of true discovery with plants and the people who love them.
At first, I wanted to learn only folk names for plants whether in Spanish, Mam, Cakchikel, Tzotzil, or other Mayan dialects, for these words were a reflection, I felt, of the deep relationship developed with these plants by generations of participants moving about through these environments, words imbued with deep meaning conveyed over numerous generations of cohabitation and observation. A truly interactive, participatory experience, or so I imagined. And after continued observation, it seems to be just that. An evolution of feeling and intimate experience manifesting itself in a spoken, yet often fluid, language. For in this valley, they might call the herb mariola, and several villages down the road it may suddenly becomecura todo, or more precisely, variations on local indigenous dialects not inherited colonial languages. There are countless versions of this the world over, however. Each manifestation authentic, pertinent, richly embedded, and informative to a particular set of circumstances within a given ecology. Uniquely placed within an interdependent overlapping network of information overlaying interactive fluid experiential knowledge. “This is genius,” I thought, “and it’s our genius – married with the wisdom and teachings of the Earth. Wow.” This is potentially very powerful stuff. “Is this where we all come from?” I pondered… “Were it not the way of all races, all ethnicities, to interact with their natural environment in this way?” These were my thoughts many years ago. It has become more apparent as a paradigm shift occurs that many others of my generation were having similar experiences simultaneously, unbeknownst to me. For I had thought I was nearly all alone in these thoughts and feelings for quite some time. And so it began, suddenly dropped into a world of integrated mutualism between people, plants, and place which instantly felt as real, as pertinent, as life-affirming as anything I had yet encountered, creating an internal revolution and a revitalization of spirit unlike anything I had experienced, then to be suddenly set adrift feeling on my own, as if it were all a distant dream as I observed the world headed in quite a different direction, irrationally so. Yet there were others I would encounter. Others who stood as signposts along my path, stood as sentinels for those who would come after themselves, reflecting outwardly the internal world of dreamers who dwelt in the dreamworld of wild plants who crossed their paths. It was not an entirely solo journey, but to make it through the subsequent stages of expression and actualization, it would require “walking through the dark valley of the soul” and emerging where the sun may once again shine. All of this, I must admit, was fundamentally inspired, for me, by the bright souls who stood to meet me as I staggered down the long road in my wayward drifting. However, it was not so wayward as I thought it to be. Looking back, I feel I was being led through challenges, obstacles, and potent scenarios – as a mouse lured by the scent of cheese through an unfamiliar maze – in order to become that which I was seeking in the world around me. Like so many before me, the outward journey only mimicked a deeper inward exploration. And it continues on...
I had been seated at the computer in Lercy’s apartment for the past 45 minutes (internet connections were sloooow in those days) researching herbal education opportunities in the Southwest U.S. as I was beginning to feel the pull. Suddenly, Lercy excitedly entered the apartment much sooner than expected, “O João! Ele pediu para você!” (“John! He asked for you”). I begin to think to myself, ‘who is “he”?’ and ‘how does “he” know who I am?’ “What are you talking about, Lercy?” I said. “O Towê. Ele não quer começar ate voce chega lá” (“Towê. He doesn’t want to get started until you arrive.”). I was perplexed. This man had no idea who I was, and I had just been asked to stay behind as I would “not be needed,” but something told me now I needed to go. When I arrived with Lercy, Towê was seated before a fire positioned on the southern tip of the elongated circle made by several tree stumps spaced around the small fire. A small open-air shade structure (oca) was above us when we met embracing palm to inner forearm ("muito poder" as Towê would say to me as he gave me this greeting) before walking over to ramshackle sheds pieced together with flimsy building materials within this mostly open clearing of the city park at its norther wing. Towê was softly gazing at me as we quietly spoke around the fire and became acquainted as he puffed at his corncob pipe. I felt like I did not know why I was there, but that somehow Towê was discovering this for the both of us and that I could trust in him.
Others present who were less sensitive to these underpinning dynamics seemed restless and confused, eager to follow through with their agenda (namely, the man who had asked me to stay behind in the first place). The moonless night was quiet and any sounds of traffic were muffled by the distance by which we were removed into the park. Suddenly, Towê stood up and approached me with his pipe in hand. Seated to the west of the fire I remained so as he bent over me blowing smoke across by face and body reciting incantations in his native tongue. Although I did not yet know Towê, I noticed the focused intent upon his face. He had gone to a place which exists between the worlds, and he had done so quietly and softly. This, coupled with the strength which emanated from him, I felt a great relief in the trust I allowed myself to place in him. We were already brothers at this point. As he concluded his doings Towê said something to the effect of, “you are going to begin to feel a lot better from here forward. Remember, João, sempre pra frente, sempre pra frente…” (“Always forward John, always forward…”).
Towê with umburana di cambão (Commiphora leptophloeos)
Towê brought me into the shop to reveal mounds of plastic bags and paper wrapped bundles of dry herbs, sections of woody stems, strips of bark, purple and green liquids macerating in reused clear glass cachaça bottles on the shelves. We were in the middle of a compound which saw the congregation of the most diverse collection of indigenous peoples from all of Brazil. This place known as FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Indio; National Indian Foundation) is found in the center of the nation’s capital, Brasília. FUNAI has been charged, since it’s inception in 1967, with protecting the rights of the native peoples of Brazil, in particular their land rights. Some would argue they have failed miserably at this. More diplomatic statements include “Not all efforts of the FUNAI have been helpful to the indigenous populations of South America.” One group, the Guaraní, led by Ambrósio Vilhalva (who was killed in a stabbing incident in 2013), has fought back against politicians, landowning agriculturalists, ranchers, and government actions and inactions in protection of and hopes of retrieving their land. There are stories like this from all over Brazil (particularly the Amazon and the Pantanal [featuring the Guaicurú, considered “the Apache of South America” due to their fierce resistance]). Entering the FUNAI compound I could feel the energy of this history and its current narratives thick in the air. This place is intense.
This was the landscape for my next level of training in indigenous herbalism of the Americas.
The drab FUNAI compound was nonetheless a meeting of color drawing from all regions of Brazil. Indigenous women and their children from various tribes sit along the promenade before their display of brightly colored woven textiles, basketry, fired pottery, souvenir bow and arrows, regional foods, or adornments created from colorful bird feathers. All in hopes to create a better life for themselves, to send something back to their elders and other family members at home, because they had no hope where they came from, because they no longer had land they were allowed to reside on, because they were indigenous people in Brazil and they were now an outmoded segment of society. Brazil was poised to be a world power – progress must not be impeded! Central within this framework of indigenous representation in Brazil was a man named Santxie. He and his brother Towê were my hosts, but more succinctly, they had become my family, in particular, Towê. Members of the Tapuya Fulni-ô from Northeastern Brazil, they were a long way from home in the cerrado of Brasília. But Santxie’s name rang throughout Brazil’s indigenous communities and beyond. His fierce and persistent vociferous defense of indigenous land rights and his efforts to bring together os pajés (“the medicine men”) of numerous indigenous groups at his sanctuary in the asa norte (“the north wing”) were alreadywell known upon my arrival. However, I was entirely oblivious to all of this. (See the film Sagrada Terra Especulada Brasilia). Their homes in the asa norte were in what is referred to as “a Terra Indígena Santuário Tapuya dos Pajés” (“The Sanctuary of the Shamans”), a name which was originally brought forth in the late 1950s when men of the Tapuya Fulni-ô came to the newly emerging capital as laborers.
Each day we would venture down to the FUNAI building catching a combi from the Northwest sector of Brasília. Here in Santxié’s office, Towê had set up an herb shop (Flora Povos Indígenas). One of the first tasks I put myself to was organizing their shelves of herbs. There were cellophane bags, jars of nuts, seeds, and bark, bottles of various cane alcohol infusions used as elixirs and tonics. I set to putting them in order. If they weren’t marked, I asked. I became familiar with the herbs this way. Whenever I asked a question, they helped me better understand more of what they do, where they come from. As I continued to be present and participate, they continued to offer teachings, to share. It was truly holistic. We lived together. We ate together. We worked together. We spent nearly all of our time in close proximity to each other. We had become family in a relatively short period of time. Although we could not visit the plants of his homeland (a caatinga; an environment not unlike Sonoran thornscrub vegetation) together, the spark of the relationship he had with these plants carried through in how he related them to me. I could feel his love and his pride for being a carrier of this knowledge, and his generosity with me was humbling. This was a healing in and of itself. I was beginning to understand better the message revealed to me whilst deep in the wet canyonland forest of the cerrado, an echoing of the message revealed to me by Bill the Ojibwe shaman in the high “valley of the shamans” in Guatemala – it is not necessary to ingest plants to experience their healing, nor remove them from their natural, living state in any way; plants heal in many, many ways.
I was excited to begin each day resuming my rummaging through the piles and piles of herbs which came from the Nordeste (the Northeast) of Brazil. I had no idea whatsoever at the time, but my new friends, my inherited family – Towê, his wife and two children, and Santxie with his wife and young infant child – were from a tribe, the Tapuya Fulni-ô from the state of Pernambuco, who were renowned for their knowledge of healing with herbs (although evidence points to this knowledge being endangered).
I awaken for the third consecutive day with “Tucson…. Tucson… Tucson…” echoing in my head as I re-emerge from dreaming. Hastily, I lightly slap the side of my head with my palm as if I can shake these thoughts out and away from me for good. “What am I thinking about Tucson for? I’m in Brazil. This is my life now.” It doesn’t matter. The thoughts persist, and I awaken on the fourth day with the same thoughts echoing through my mind. “It appears I may have to make a decision soon.” But I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to ‘go back.’ My life was just beginning here. A new life. An entirely different part of me was emerging. I couldn’t leave now.