Phenomenology Course (Goethe, Nature and Phenomenology)
Phenomenology is the exploration and description of phenomena, where phenomena are the things or experiences as human beings experience them. Phenomenology is a science of beginnings that demands a thorough, in-depth study of the phenomenon, which must be seen and described as clearly as possible. Accurate description is not a phenomenological end, however, but a means by which the phenomenologist locates the phenomenon’s deeper, more generalizable patterns, structures, and meanings. Rephrased in phenomenological language, Goethe’s way of science is one early example of a phenomenology of the natural world. He sought a way to open himself to the things of nature, to listen to what they said, and to identify their core aspects and qualities. Phenomenology is an approach to science that studies the world through what we as humans can directly observe and experience using multiple tools that use a whole brain approach. In these studies of nature, we will see the plant as a whole, and in the parts, we can see with our naked eyes. In so doing, we learn the true essence of nature. In this phenomenology study of nature, we need to cultivate the ability to let thoughts dissolve and experience, for instance, the plant kingdom as just the thing-in-itself. We need to be active in not doing, and allow the plant, tree, bee or soil to speak. It will tell us all the mysteries of its life, and ultimately, the truths of existence. It is an elegant and beautiful view of the study of nature.
This class is in partnership between the New Waldorf early childhood school opening in Bozeman Montana https://www.worldfamilyschool.org/ in September 2017 and Bridgette Lyn Dolgoff and her Urban Farm Project who will be in Bozeman from mid-July to mid-September 2017.
1) Phenomenology of Plants Saturday, August 12, 2017. 1439 W. Babckok St, Bozeman, Montana 59715, the class will be from 10 am to 12 pm, notepad, art paper, pencils, crayons to draw with and take notes. $15 per person and $20 per family.
2) Phenomenology of Trees Saturday, August 19, 2017. 1439 W. Babckok St, Bozeman, Montana 59715, the class will be from 10 am to 12 pm, notepad, art paper, pencils, crayons to draw with and take notes. $15 per person and $20 per family.
3) Phenomenology of Leaves Saturday, August 26, 2017. 1439 W. Babckok St, Bozeman, Montana, the class will be from 10 am to 12 pm, notepad, art paper, pencils, crayons to draw with and take notes. $15 per person and $20 per family.
Bridgette Lyn Dolgoff has been a lifetime student & practitioner of Shamanism. She is a Sustainable, Biodynamic farmer over the last 7 years has built individual family backyard food productions. She attended Steiner College. The Urban Farm Project was founded by Bridgette in 2009. UFP’s focus is consulting, building, education, in the community on our return back to our Earth Mother and All Our Relations.
Contact Bridgette at consciousnessofeconomics.com or 775.624.7862
When it comes to herbal remedies, many of us are familiar with the benefits of Echinacea or purple cone flower as an antibiotic, willow bark as a pain killer and aloe as a topical anesthetic and treatment for skin conditions. But that’s common knowledge compared to the insights and treatments that Native American medicine men discovered and used.
Native American medicine men developed a wheel very similar to the yin/yang of Asian medicine. The use of herbal remedies and other alternative forms of treatment was the cutting-edge medicine of their day. This was a holistic approach to medical treatment that relied heavily on plants and their unique benefits.
What follows is list of indigenous plants, trees, fruits and flowers unique to North America that have surprising benefits as defined by Native American tribes. If and when times are tough, it might be good to keep some of these ancient cures in mind. They also are good for everyday needs when you consider how effective some of them can be.
Licorice tea for a sore throat is a good example. It’s also interesting that many of these natural cures are still in use today, including beeswax and bee pollen, chamomile and others. It’s a good demonstration of the benefit of wisdom developed over centuries.
It’s hard to know how Native Americans determined which plants might have medicinal properties, although trial and error was probably one approach. It’s also thought that they observed sick animals eating certain plants and determined that those plants must have a certain property worth exploring. Since that time,scientific studies have verified the medicinal value of many plants. In fact, common aspirin is derived from salicin, a chemical in the inner bark of willow trees that was used in ancient times for fever and pain.
These medicines were usually administered via teas or pastes that were either ingested or applied externally. Sometimes the plants were eaten as food or added to food or water. On occasion, a salve or poultice was applied to open wounds. I would strongly recommend that you avoid the latter, given the risk of infection from wild sources.
I’ve omitted many of the natural remedies. There was a use for mistletoe that I came across, but mistletoe is essentially poisonous and if not used properly the results could be counter-productive, if not deadly.
I’ve also found a great deal of redundancy. It seems like everything is good for a cough or diarrhea. Rather than endlessly list plants that cure the same conditions over and over, I’ve tried to isolate this grouping to the most prevalent plants that you may find and recognize. As always, if you are pregnant, check with your doctor and do plenty of research before using any of these.
Here’s the list:
1. Alfalfa: Relieves digestion and is used to aid blood clotting. Contemporary uses included treatment of arthritis, bladder and kidney conditions and bone strength. Enhances the immune system.
3. Aspen: The inner bark or xylem is used in a tea to treat fever, coughs and pain. It contains salicin, which also is found in willow trees and is the foundation ingredient for aspirin.
2. Aloe: A cactus-like plant. The thick leaves can be squeezed to extrude a thick sap that can be used to treat burns, insect bites and wounds.
4. Bee pollen: When mixed with food it can boost energy, aid digestion and enhance the immune system. If you’re allergic to bee stings you will most likely be allergic to bee pollen.
5. Beeswax: Used as a salve for burns and insect bites, including bee stings. Intended to only be used externally.
6. Blackberry: The root, bark and leaves when crushed and infused in a tea are used to treat diarrhea, reduce inflammation and stimulate the metabolism. As a gargle it treats sore throats, mouth ulcers and inflammation of the gums.
7. Black Raspberry: The roots of this plant are crushed and used as a tea or boiled and chewed to relieve coughs, diarrhea and general intestinal distress.
8. Buckwheat: The seeds are used in soups and as porridge to lower blood pressure, help with blood clotting and relieve diarrhea.
9. Cayenne: The pods are used as a pain reliever when taken with food or drunk in a tea. Also used to threat arthritis and digestive distress. It is sometimes applied to wounds as a powder to increase blood flow and act as an antiseptic and anesthetic to numb the pain.
10. Chamomile: The leaves and flowers are used as a tea to treat intestinal problems and nausea.
11. Chokecherry: Considered by Native American tribes as an all-purpose medicinal treatment, the berries were pitted, dried and crushed into a tea or a poultice to treat a variety of ailments. These include coughs, colds, flu, nausea, inflammation and diarrhea. As a salve or poultice it is used to treat burns and wounds. The pit of the chokecherry – much like apple seeds – are poisonous in high concentrations. Be sure to pit the cherries if you’re considering this for any use.
13. Eucalyptus: The oil from the leaves and roots is a common treatment when infused in a tea to treat coughs, sore-throat, flu and fever. It’s used to this day as an ingredient in cough drops.
12. Echinacea: Also known as purple coneflower, this is a classic Native American medicine that is used to strengthen the immune system, fight infections and fever. It also is used as an antiseptic and general treatment for colds, coughs and flu.
14. Fennel: A plant with a licorice flavor, this is used in a tea or chewed to relieve coughs, sore-throat, aid digestion, offer relief to diarrhea and was a general treatment for colds. It also is used as a poultice for eye relief and headaches.
15. Feverfew: Used to this day as a natural relief for fever and headaches – including severe headaches like migraines – it also can be used for digestive problems, asthma and muscle and joint pains.
16. Feverwort: Another fever remedy that also is used for general pain, itching and joint stiffness. It can be ingested as a tea or chewed, or crushed to a paste as a salve or poultice.
17. Ginger root: Another super plant in Native American medicine, the root was crushed and consumed with food, as a tea or a salve or poultice. Known to this day for its ability to aid digestive health, it also is anti-inflammatory, aids circulation and can relieve colds, coughs and flu, in addition to bronchitis and joint pain.
18. Ginseng: This is another contemporary herb that has a history that goes back across cultures for millennia. The roots were used by Native Americans as a food additive, a tea and a poultice to treat fatigue, boost energy, enhance the immune system and help with overall liver and lung function. The leaves and stems also were used, but the root has the most concentration of active ingredients.
19. Goldenrod: Commonly thought of today as a source of allergies and sneezing, it was actually considered another all-in-one medicine by Native Americans. As a tea, an addition to food and a topical salve, it is used to treat conditions from bronchitis and chest congestion to colds, flu, inflammation, sore throats and as an antiseptic for cuts and abrasions.
20. Honeysuckle: The berries, stems, flowers and leaves are used to topically treat bee stings and skin infections. As a tea, it is used to treat colds, headaches and sore throat. It also has anti-inflammatory properties.
21. Hops: As a tea it is used to treat digestive problems and often mixed with other herbs or plants, such as aloe, to soothe muscles. It also is used to soothe toothaches and sore throat.
22. Licorice: Roots and leaves can be used for coughs, colds, sore throats. The root also can be chewed to relieve toothaches.
23. Mullein: As an infusion in tea or added to a salad or other food, this is a plant that has been used by Native Americans to treat inflammation, coughs and congestion and general lung afflictions. It is quite common and you probably have it growing in your backyard or somewhere close.
24. Passion flower: The leaves and roots are used to make a tea to treat anxiety and muscle pain. A poultice for injuries to the skin such as burns, insect bites and boils also can be made from passion flower.
25. Red clover: It grows everywhere and the flowers, leaves and roots are usually infused in a tea or are used to top food. It is used to manage inflammation, improve circulation and treat respiratory conditions.
26. Rose hip: This is the red to orange berry that is the fruit of wild roses. It is already known to be a massive source of vitamin C and when eaten whole, crushed into a tea or added to food it is used to treat colds and coughs, intestinal distress, as an antiseptic and to treat inflammation.
27. Rosemary: A member of the pine family and used in food and as a tea to treat muscle pain, improve circulation and as a general cleanser for the metabolism.
28. Sage: A far-reaching shrub across much of North America, it is a natural insect repellent and can be used for the standard list of digestive disorders, colds and sore throat.
29. Spearmint: Used consistently by Native American tribes for treatment of coughs, colds, respiratory distress and as a cure for diarrhea and a stimulant for blood circulation.
30. Valerian: The root as an infusion in a tea relieves muscle aches, pain and is said to have a calming effect.
31. White Pine: Ubiquitous and the needles and the inner bark can be infused in a tea. Used as a standard treatment for respiratory distress and chest congestion.
Trees are considered sacred in many cultures. Tree worship, in one form or another, has been practiced almost universally by ancient peoples in every corner of the globe.
Trees Speak to the Soul of Human Beings
It is no wonder that trees have captured the human imagination since the beginning of time. Their strength, deeply rooted in the Earth, is an inspiration. Their trunk and branches are a wonder of nature because they stand sturdy and impenetrable most of the time, yet they can flex and sway with the wind when needed.
The whisper of a breeze in their leaves or the sight of ants marching in a straight line up or down their trunks remind us of the magic of nature that trees embody. They live for hundreds or even thousands of years, and so we revere them as keepers of past secrets and sentinels of the future.
Watching their cycles of growth, shedding of leaves, and re-flowering in the spring, people have long perceived trees as powerful symbols of life, death, and renewal. Since the beginning of time, humans have had a sense that trees are sentient beings just like us, that they can feel pain, that they bleed when they are hurt. Trees even look like us. People have a trunk; trees have arms. And so we innately feel a deep connection to them.
Many people say they can feel a tree’s vibrational energy when placing their hand upon its bark. With their deep roots, trees carry significant grounding energy. We naturally feel peace and serenity when walking in the shade of trees on a forest trail.
Trees Help Us Every Day
A recent study shows that trees remove so much pollution from the air that they “prevented 850 human deaths and 670,000 cases of acute respiratory symptoms in 2010 alone.” When an insect called the emerald ash borer killed off a significant number of trees in the American Midwest in the 1990’s and 2000’s, rates of human death from cardiovascular and respiratory illness increased.
More difficult to quantify is the psychological effect that trees have on people. People who spend time outdoors, or even those who have access to windows looking out at trees, have been shown to have better health than those who do not.
The Universal Tree of Life: Both Ancient and Modern
The concept of a Tree of Life, often symbolizing the connections between all life forms, is found in many religions and philosophies, dating back as early as ancient Egypt. The Egyptian tree of life symbolized creation and represented the chain of events that brought everything into existence.
Fast forward to modern science. The tree has become the quintessential symbol of biological evolution, as its ever-branching image poignantly depicts the unmistakable interconnections between all living species on the Earth.
The Tree Leaf and Eternal Life
Consider this beautiful commentary from Thich Nhat Hanh reflecting on a tree leaf:
“I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. So I don’t worry at all. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’
… That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, knowing that I have a lot to learn from the leaf because it is not afraid-it knew nothing can be born and nothing can die.”
Cultural Beliefs About Trees
Trees are considered sacred in virtually every place where humans have settled.
There are many profound beliefs surrounding trees that people have held for millennia. Here are some interesting and touching examples:
- For the Sng’oi people of Malaysia, a person and a tree can belong with each other, and this relationship is maintained for life. Certain trees and certain people belong together. When a person belongs with a tree, they also belong with its offspring: any trees that grow from the seeds of the first tree, no matter how far the seeds may scatter. The Sng’oi people call upon their intuition to know which child trees have sprung from which parent trees.
- The World Tree is said to dwell in three worlds: Its roots reach down to the underworld, its trunk sits on the Earth, and its branches extend up to the heavens. Many cultures share a belief that this tree is the Axis Mundi or World Axis which supports or holds up the cosmos. For the Mayan peoples, the Axis Mundi was a massive Ceiba (in other cultures, it is called Kapok) tree that stands at the center of the world. The Mayan beliefs reflect that human souls first came into being as the sacred white flowers on the branches of the Ceiba tree. Souls of the dead Mayan ancestors rose from the roots of the Axis Mundi up through its branches and into the celestial realms.
- In Germanic regions, it was believed that mankind was created from tree trunks, echoing the perception that people and trees have much in common.
- In Sweden, some trees were considered “wardens” and could guard a home from bad luck. The warden was usually a very old tree growing on the lot near the home. The family living there had such great respect for the tree that they would often adopt a surname related to the name of the tree.
- A well-known sacred tree in Norse mythology was Yggdrasil, a giant ash tree that was said to link and shelter the nine worlds that were believed to exist.
- In Irish and English folklore, fairies would be found wherever Ash, Oak, and Hawthorne trees grew together. Hawthorn trees were regarded as a powerful symbol of protection, and were often planted near houses to ward off lightning as well as evil spirits. On the dawn of Beltane, it was believed that women who bathed in the dew from a Hawthorne blossom would become beautiful, and men who washed their hands in the dew would become skilled craftsmen.
- Buddhists have a deep reverence for the Bodhi tree, a type of fig tree with heart-shaped leaves, beneath which the Buddha is said to have meditated for 49 days, trying to reconcile his mind to the fact that there was suffering in the world. On the 49th day, he stood and thanked the tree for providing shade for him, and in that instant he attained enlightenment. Today, in the same location where the Buddha is believed to have sat, there grows a descendant of that same Bodhi tree. Buddhist myths say that the tree will live there until the world is destroyed, and the place where it grows will be the last place to be destroyed; and when the world is reborn, that site will be the first place to appear.
- The villagers of Piplantri, in Rajasthan, India, celebrate the birth of each little girl by planting 111 trees in her honor. The entire village works together to plant and care for the trees. This tradition not only ensures that the environment will be able to support the increasing population of the village, but it has also brought harmony and a drop in crime to the village.
- In Malaysia, people maintain a very intimate relationship with trees. “There is a practice of tree planting around houses to the extent that the walls and wooden structures are allowed to give way to the roots of creeping plants, purposely sown at the bases of these structures.” The graveyards in Malaysia are covered so thickly with trees that the entire grounds are cool and sheltered from the tropical sun. The trees are allowed to take root into the graves and it is said that the trees whisper prayers to the creator asking for forgiveness of past transgressions of those buried in that place.
In one of the great tragedies of our age, indigenous traditions, stories, cultures and knowledge are winking out across the world. Whole languages and mythologies are vanishing, and in some cases even entire indigenous groups are falling into extinction. This is what makes the news that a tribe in the Amazon—the Matsés peoples of Brazil and Peru—have created a 500-page encyclopedia of their traditional medicine all the more remarkable. The encyclopedia, compiled by five shamans with assistance from conservation group Acaté, details every plant used by Matsés medicine to cure a massive variety of ailments.
“The [Matsés Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia] marks the first time shamans of an Amazonian tribe have created a full and complete transcription of their medicinal knowledge written in their own language and words,” Christopher Herndon, president and co-founder of Acaté, told Mongabay in an interview (in full below).
The Matsés have only printed their encyclopedia in their native language to ensure that the medicinal knowledge is not stolen by corporations or researchers as has happened in the past. Instead, the encyclopedia is meant as a guide for training new, young shamans in the tradition and recording the living shamans’ knowledge before they pass.
“One of the most renowned elder Matsés healers died before his knowledge could be passed on so the time was now. Acaté and the Matsés leadership decided to prioritize the Encyclopedia before more of the elders were lost and their ancestral knowledge taken with them,” said Herndon.
Acaté has also started a program connecting the remaining Matsés shamans with young students. Through this mentorship program, the indigenous people hope to preserve their way of life as they have for centuries past.
“With the medicinal plant knowledge disappearing fast among most indigenous groups and no one to write it down, the true losers in the end are tragically the indigenous stakeholders themselves,” said Herndon. “The methodology developed by the Matsés and Acaté can be a template for other indigenous cultures to safeguard their ancestral knowledge.”
Christopher Herndon: The encyclopedia marks the first time shamans of an Amazonian tribe have created a full and complete transcription of their medicinal knowledge written in their own language and words. Over the centuries, Amazonian peoples have passed on through oral tradition an accumulated wealth of knowledge and techniques of treatment that are a product of their deep spiritual and physical ties to the natural world. The Matsés live in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet and have mastered knowledge of the healing properties of its plants and animals. Yet, in a world in which cultural change is destabilizing even the most isolated societies, this knowledge is rapidly disappearing.
It is hard to overstate just how quickly this knowledge can be lost after a tribe makes contact with the outside world. Once extinguished, this knowledge, along with the tribe’s self-sufficiency, can never fully be reclaimed. Historically, what has followed the loss of endemic health systems in many indigenous groups is near total dependency on the rudimentary and extremely limited external health care that is available in such remote and difficult-to-access locations. Not surprisingly, in most countries, indigenous groups have the highest rates of mortality and disease.
The initiative is important from the Matsés perspective because loss of culture and poor health care are among their greatest concerns. The methodology they pioneered to successfully protect and safeguard their own knowledge can serve as a replicable model for other indigenous communities facing similar cultural erosion. For the broader conservation movement, we know that there is a strong correlation between intact ecosystems and regions of indigenous inhabitation, making strengthening of indigenous culture one of the most effective ways to protect large areas of rainforest.
Christopher Herndon: The Matsés knowledge and the accumulated wisdom of generations stood on the very precipice of extinction. Fortunately, there remained a few elder Matsés who still held the ancestral knowledge as sustained contact with the outside world only occurred within the past half century. The healers were adults at the time of initial contact and had already mastered their skills before being told they were useless by missionaries and government workers. At the time we started the project, none of the elder shamans had younger Matsés interested in learning from them.
One of the most renowned elder Matsés healers died before his knowledge could be passed on so the time was now. Acaté and the Matsés leadership decided to prioritize the Encyclopedia before more of the elders were lost and their ancestral knowledge taken with them. The project was not about saving a traditional dance or costume, it was about their health and that of future generations of Matsés. The stakes could not be higher.
Christopher Herndon: After two years of intense work by the Matsés, the Encyclopedia now includes chapters by five Matsés master healers and is over 500 pages long! Each entry is categorized by disease name, with explanation of how to recognize it by symptoms; its cause; which plants to use; how to prepare the medicine and alternative therapeutic options. A photograph taken by the Matsés of each plant accompanies each entry in the encyclopedia.
The Encyclopedia is written by and from the worldview of the Matsés shaman, describing how rainforest animals are involved in the natural history of the plants and connected with diseases. It is a true shamanic encyclopedia, fully written and edited by indigenous shamans, the first to our knowledge of its kind and scope.
Christopher Herndon: We believe that empowering indigenous peoples is the most cost effective and enduring approach for rainforest conservation. It is no coincidence that the remaining tracts of intact rainforest in the Neotropics overlap closely with areas of indigenous habitation. Tribal peoples understand and value the rainforest because they are dependent upon it. This relationship extends beyond a utilitarian reliance; there is a spiritual link to the forest, a sense of interconnectivity that is difficult to comprehend through the compartmentalized Western mindset but real nonetheless.
Many of the serious environmental threats in remote indigenous areas that you hear about in the news—petroleum, timber, mining and the like—are external industries that opportunistically prey on the weakened internal social cohesion of recently contacted indigenous peoples, their limited resources, and increasing dependency on the outside world. The unifying theme of Acaté’s three programmatic areas, sustainable economy, traditional medicine, and agroecology is self-sufficiency. Acaté did not predetermine these three conservation priorities; they were set in discussion with the Matsés elders who know that the best way to protect their culture and lands is through a position of strength and independence.
From the global conservation perspective, the Matsés protect over 3 million acres of rainforest in Perú alone. This area includes some of the most intact, biodiverse, and carbon-rich forests in the country. The Matsés communities on the Brazilian side of the Javari and Yaquerana rivers frame the western borders of the Vale do Javari indigenous reserve, a region roughly the size of Austria that contains the largest number of ‘uncontacted’ tribes in voluntary isolation remaining the world. At the southern margins of the Matsés territory, in the headwaters of the Yaquerana river, lies La Sierra del Divisor, a region of staggering natural beauty, biodiversity, and also uncontacted tribal groups. For these reasons, although the Matsés may only number a little over 3,000 in total population, they are strategically positioned to protect a vast area of rainforest and a number of isolated tribal groups. Empowering them is high-yield conservation.
Christopher Herndon: The completion of the encyclopedia is a historical and critical first step towards mitigating existential threats to Matsés’ healing wisdom and self-sufficiency. However, the encyclopedia alone is insufficient to maintain their self-sufficiency as their healing systems are based on experience that can only be transmitted through long apprenticeships. Sadly, due to outside influences, when we started the project none of the elders had apprentices. Yet, at the same time, most villages still depended on and actively utilize the medicinal plant knowledge of the remaining elder healers, most of who are estimated to be over the age of 60.
In Phase II, the Apprentices Program, each elder shaman—many of whom are also Encyclopedia chapter authors—will be accompanied in the forest by younger Matsés to learn the plants and assist in treating patients. The apprenticeship program was initiated in 2014 in the village of Esitrón under the supervision of elder shaman Luis Dunu Chiaid. Due to the success of the pilot in Esitrón, it was unanimously agreed by the Matsés at the recent meeting that this program should be expanded to as many villages as possible, with priority given to villages that no longer have traditional healers.
The ultimate objective of the initiative is Phase III, the integration and enhancement of ‘Western’ health delivery with traditional practices. Wilmer, a health promoter in the small clinic in Estirón and one of the apprentices from the pilot program provides a role model for other Matsés health care workers. He understands that the future health of his people depends on the creation of dual, vibrant systems of health that allow the community to draw upon the best of both worlds.
In addition, it was agreed that our agro-forestry work should be expanded to include medicinal plant integration. This will be based on the healing forest created by one of the greatest Matsés healers in Nuevo San Juan and currently maintained by his son Antonio Jimenez. To an outsider, this forest looks like non-descript stretch of rainforest along the footpath to their farms, about a 10 to 15 minutes walk away from their village. In the presence of a master shaman pointing out the medicinal plants, you realize in a moment that you are surrounded in fact by a constellation of medicinal plants cultivated by the Matsés healers for use in treatment of a diverse range of ailments. Many rainforest vines and fungi don’t grow in open sun-exposed gardens and require rainforest ecosystems for their propagation. The placement of the healing forest 10 to 15 minutes away from their villages is characteristic Matsés efficiency. If you have a sick child, you don’t want to have to travel 4 hours to find the remedy.
Christopher Herndon: Unfortunately, history abounds with examples of theft from indigenous peoples. For the Matsés in particular, it is all too real. The skin secretions of the giant monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) are used in hunting rituals by the Matsés. The secretions, rich in a diversity of bioactive peptides, are administered directly into the body through application onto fresh burn or cut-wounds. Within moments, the toxins induce intense cardiovascular and autonomic responses, ultimately leading to a state of altered consciousness and heightened sensory acuity.
Although the range of the giant monkey frog extends across northern Amazonia, only the Matsés and a small number of neighboring Panoan tribes have been recorded to use its powerful secretions. After reports of the Matsés use of it emerged from the forest, investigations of the frog’s secretions in the laboratory revealed a complex cocktail of peptides with potent vasoactive, narcotic, and antimicrobial properties. Several pharmaceutical companies and universities filed patents on the peptides without recognition of indigenous peoples for which it has long held a unique and important role in their culture. One antifungal peptide from the frog was even transgenically inserted into a potato.
The fear of biopiracy is unfortunately a door that has swung both ways. Many conservation groups and scientists in the Amazon have done projects documenting indigenous knowledge of local fauna, such as recording bird names, but have generally been completely hands-off when it came to medicinal plants due to the fears of being accused of facilitating biopiracy. Yet with the medicinal plant knowledge disappearing fast among most indigenous groups and no one to write it down, the true losers in the end are tragically the indigenous stakeholders themselves. The methodology developed by the Matsés and Acaté can be a template for other indigenous cultures to safeguard their ancestral knowledge.
Christopher Herndon: Acaté and the Matsés developed an innovative methodology to protect their ancestral medicinal plant knowledge from extinction while safeguarding the sensitive information from theft by outside parties. The Encyclopedia is written only in Matsés. It is by and for the Matsés and no translations will be made into Spanish or English.No scientific names are included nor photographs of flowers or other easily identifiable characteristics of the plants to outsiders.
Each chapter of the Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia was written by a renowned elder shaman chosen by the community. Each elder was paired together with a younger Matsés who over months transcribed his knowledge in writing and photographed each plant. The photos and text were compiled and typed up on laptop by Wilmer Rodríguez López, a Matsés who is an expert in a written transcription of their language.
At the meeting, the compiled Encyclopedia, the draft of which exceeded 500 pages in length, was collectively edited and reviewed by the tribal shamans over several days. The completed Encyclopedia is now being formatted and printed for the Matsés, at their direction, and will neither be published nor disseminated outside of their communities.
We expect that the non-controversial success of the methodology pioneered by Acaté and our indigenous partners will open the door for similar efforts across the Amazon and beyond. We are already seeing efforts by other organizations eager to replicate it.
Christopher Herndon: Acaté cannot speak for the Matsés on this matter. I can say from working with indigenous healers throughout the Amazon that I have found them to be generally open to sharing their knowledge, when approached with respect. They also have an intellectual curiosity regarding other systems of healing, including our own.
Some of mankind’s most important pharmaceuticals, such as quinine and aspirin, have been developed through learning from traditional healers. Due to the political climate and international fears of biopiracy, it is challenging for even well intentioned pharmaceutical companies committed to equitable profit-sharing agreements to undertake such initiatives. Practically speaking, the complexity of indigenous knowledge and medicines is such that it is not possible to fully evaluate the phytochemistry within the timeframe that the knowledge is poised to be lost. The Encyclopedia, although not designed for this purpose, keeps options open in the future for the Matsés; a future that, in contrast to most historical precedents, will be one of their own determination.
We should also not lose perspective that, until their encyclopedia, the Matsés entire traditional health system was on the unchecked verge of disappearance due to influences of the outside world. The Matsés live in remote areas for which external health provision is challenging and limited. The health dispensaries in many Matsés communities, particularly the ones farthest upriver, chronically run short of the most basic medications, such as those used to treat falciparum malaria, an introduced disease. The Matsés pay out of pocket for these outside medicines, which are a considerable expense for many elders without sources of income. The simple microscope for malaria smears was broken in almost every village that I have visited. Comparatively, we live in a world of health care abundance. If there is to be dialogue, in my view it should begin with how we can support them in the present rather than how they can help us in the future.
Christopher Herndon: The health of a people, their culture, and environment are inextricably linked. One should not think of the harsh medical and socioeconomic realities in Haiti without appreciating the context that 98% of the half-island country is deforested with much of the land, along with its future potential, eroded away. The border between Haiti and the adjacent Dominican Republic can be viewed from satellite as an abrupt transition from brown to green, the result of different approaches to resource use. Likewise, the images of Ethiopia that exist in the modern consciousness belie the fact that, a mere century ago, Ethiopia was a country with a significant amount of forest cover.
The fate of the Matsés and their culture are forever bound to the future of their forests. By protecting their forests and strengthening their culture, you are protecting their health from a future blighted by diabetes, malnutrition, depression and alcoholism, the second wave of ‘introduced’ diseases that typically sets in indigenous communities a few short generations following contact with the outside world. Viewed in this way, biocultural conservation initiatives can be extremely cost-effective and preventative approaches to healthcare.
Christopher Herndon: Sometimes change on the ground begins with something as simple and as powerful as an idea. The idea that your culture, traditions and way of life are not inferior or something to be ashamed of, as others may have told you. The idea that the rainforests you call home have a value infinitely greater than petroleum reserves or mahogany sourced to produce luxury furniture. The idea that your mastery of the rainforest environment does not make you primitive and backward, but rather positions you to be at the forefront of the global movement for conservation. The Encyclopedia is a tangible first step towards bridging an increasingly widening generational gap before it is too late. The Encyclopedia initiative renews respect for the wisdom of the elders and returns the rainforest to a repository of healing and a place for learning.
Christopher Herndon: The unprecedented meeting was held in one of the most remote villages in the Matsés territory. It is extremely difficult to describe in words the emotion felt by all in attendance as the elder Matsés spoke of the battles they fought—
literally—to defend the Matsés territory and their way of life. Many were choking back tears as one elder after another called on the youth to seize this opportunity to fill the impending void left as the elders pass away, just as they did when their grandfathers were alive. I have been working in biocultural conservation in the Amazon for 15 years but it was one of the most inspirational experiences to hear the power of their oratory and the determination in their voices. You realize at once that the Matsés are warriors at heart, who have long fought to protect their lands and they are going to continue that fight.