Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Richard Evans Schultes

Here's a small story about Richard Evans Schultes, the father of modern ethnobotany--man's use of plants. He was, of course, the head of Harvard's Ethnobotanical Museum until his death in 2001, and he was an astounding botanist. More than that, he was a great great explorer. He was in Colombia doing research on plants in the early years of World War II when he was called to the US Embassy in Bogata and told that his job for the war effort was to discover new sources of rubber so that if the Malaysian rubber plantations were cut off from the US by the Japanese we would still be able to make warships and airplanes and big guns and so forth. Even now, all sidewalls on tires on cars in the world are made from natural rubber and all airplane tires are made from natural rubber, and if someone ever put the rubber tree plague in the Malasian rubber plantations it would bring all world travel and all war to a halt, as big guns, all aircraft, and all vehicles depend on natural rubber and Malaysia is the only source for it in the world.
That's another story and it belongs to the great botanist and writer Wade Davis.
But Schultes, at the behest of the US government, found over 8,000 species of rubber trees that could be used in a pinch during the war. His efforts were never really needed as the US maintained control of Malasia's rubber production during most of the war.
But Schultes did a lot more during his time in the Amazon, and one of his interests was the use of hallucinogenic plants. Prior to his work in the Amazon he'd studied the use of peyote among native Americans with Weston LeBarre and he was the one who turned on Wasson to Marina Sabina and the magic mushrooms in Zacateca, Mexico. And during his time in the Amazon he came in contact with Yopo, the magical snuff used by some northern Amazonian tribes, as well as Ayahuasca, the vine of the little death, a brew made from a vine and some leaves ubiquitos to northwestern Amazonian healing on several levels.
But he'd never admit that he indulged personally. He wrote books about magic plants and general plants but he always stayed away from saying he'd personally partook.
Until an interview he did with me in the mid-1990s.
I'd gone to his offices in Harvard's Botanical Museum and done a wonderful eight-hour interview and taken some pictures for High Times. But the pictures were dark. So I had to drive from New York City to Harvard a second time a week after the first interview. And on the second drive Chepa, my wife/ex-wife, joined me.
When I arrived he said he was too busy to have new pictures made. But I insisted and he, at about 86 or 88-years-old, begrudgingly opened his door. The minute he did he saw Chepa and said she reminded him of some Colombian women he'd known 50 years earlier. And so he and Chepa had a 12-15 hour conversation about everything under the sun, including his use of ayahuasca, which I taped, with his permission, while I took the photos I needed. He simply fell in love with her. He laughed, they both laughed. They told stories about Amazonia and let me into only a part of the conversation.
And when the day was done, Mr. Schultes had finally told the story of using ayahuasca and of falling in love with Colombian Indian women during his years in the deep jungle.
And it was a personal but wonderful story. And it made the interview fantastic. And it could not have been done if Chepa had not been there. He simply loosened up around her. And as far as I know, that's how we know that the brilliant father of ethnobotany, actually drank ayahuasca.
And that was a wonderful interview to do.
So when I'm reading something today about Mr. Schultes and ayahuasca that's supposed to be new, there's a part of me that laughs and says to myself: 'If only that writer had had a wife named Chepa with him. He wouldn't have had to take years to get the answers I got in just two days."
And I don't say it with arrogance. I say it knowing how lucky I was. For all our issues, all the times she thinks I wronged her and I know she wronged me, Chepa also came through more times than I can count. So just in case I have not given her her due on this blog, here's some points. She made an old man who'd kept his secrets melt with her smile. And not with bad intention: Neither of us knew they were secrets.
So this one is for you, Chep. I hate you but I love you.
You still got points with me.

3 comments:

Arbol said...

I remember when I got to meet Dr. Richard Schultes and Dr. Mark Plotkin in 1999 in AZ at a small fund raiser , both talking about Yopo and the native Yanomamo Indians and the impact of our western culture on the tribe.
Will you ever be able to publish the interview, it would be an awesome story I could imagine.

phoenix said...

yes, publish the interview.

Chef Jem said...

Thank you!

I'm impressed with his honorable relations with the indigenous peoples. That inspired me to look up his birth card in the Destiny Card System. Richard had “The Friendship Card” AKA The Two of Spades.

“The Two of Spades is the card of work partnership and friendship. Two’s are also fear cards, and it is their own spiritual natures that often scare the Two of Spades. … the placement of the Two of Spades in the Natural Spread at the Uranus/Uranus position tells us that they have strong intuitional gifts. … They have strong mental powers and strong intuitive powers and both of these can make them money. They are very congenial and have success in social situations … ” – Robert Camp, Love Cards