Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ethnobotany and the Origins of Plant Knowledge

I'm reading a fascinating book by Harvard ethnobotany scholar, Wade Davis, better known for his book-turned-movie the Serpent and the Rainbow. The book I'm currently in the middle of, One River, Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, is mind blowing. Having spent a good deal of time studying the ethnobotany of the Pacific Northwest native people, I have an interest in the topic. Having never been to the Amazon, and never really having a desire to travel there, I've suddenly changed my mind. Pictures in my mind of "savages," muddy serpent infested rivers, and thick, dark jungles must be a result of the sort of "history" that was given to my schoolmates and I during the 70s and 80s. Not only is this book re-educating me as to the real horrors of the Amazonian jungle--the Spaniards and Europeans and their "missionaries" who infested the jungle as early as the 1500s and continued their atrocities through the late 1800s, but it is also sparking some creative interest in reflecting on theories and ideas of how people came to know the many properties of plants and then created their own rituals for use and teaching.

The section of the book that caused me to again consider the origins of plant knowledge had to do with the late Harvard Ethnobotanist Richard Schultes, who is reknowned for his extensive studies of the Amazon flora and who lived amongst many different indigenous tribes during his time there in the first half of the 20th century. Dr. Schultes had already been living amongst the Amazon peoples for well over a decade, and had already identified and collected thousands of species of plants that were commonly employed for food, crafts, and intoxicant use. He had undergone a multitude of different ceremonies during which a vareity of different psychotropic plants were consumed or otherwise and made remarkably scientific observations about each of his experiences. A hippie of the 60s he was not--this man was all scholar and science. After having recently discovered the Amazonian beverage yage, Banisteriopsis caapi, and learning that a variety of different plants were used as admixtures to alter the effect of the original blend, Dr. Schultes began to ponder what most botanist don't often write about:

"The Amazonian flora contains literally tens of thousands of species. How had the Indians learned to identify and combine in this sophisticated manner these morphologically dissimilar plants that possessed such unique and complementary chemical properties? The standard scientific explanation was trial and error--a reasonable term that may well account for certain innovations--but at another level, as Schultes came to realize on spending more time in the forest, it is a euphemism which disguises the fact that ethnobotanists have very little idea how Indians originally made their discoveries.

"The problem with trial and error is that the elaboration of the preparations often involves procedures that are either exceedingly complex or yield products of little or no obvious value. Yage is an inedible, nondescript liana that seldom flowers. True, its bark is bitter, often a clue to medicinal properties, but it is no more so than a hundred other forest vines. An infusion of the bark causes vomiting and severe diarrhea, conditions that would discourage further experimentation. Yet not only did the Indians persist but they became so deft at manipulating the various ingredients that individual shamans developed dozens of recipes, each yielding potions of various strengths and nuances to be used for specific ceremonial and ritual purposes."

"The Indians naturally had their own explanations, rich cosmological accounts that from their perspective were perfectly logical: sacred plants that had journeyed up the Milk River in the belly of anacondas, potions prepared by jaguars, the drifting souls of shamans dead from the beginning of time. As a scientist Shultes did not take these myths literally, but they did suggest to him a certain delicate balance. 'These were the ideas,' he would write half a century later, 'of a people who did not distinguish the supernatural from the pragmatic.' The Indians, Schultes realized, believed in the power of plants, accepted the existence of magic, and acknowledged the potency of the spirit. Magical and mystical ideas entered the very texture of their thinking. Their botanical knowledge could not be separated from their metaphysics." (pp. 217 - 218)

Truly, the real question of how these native peoples learned of the variety of uses of a multitude of plants will most likely never be answered. The use of a few intoxicating plants may have lead to the knowledge of thousands of plants is the unstated premise. Now, as the rain forest is razed, and the individual native cultures and their millenia of traditions are being lost or westernized, I find only sadness. The fact that only a few students of the botany of South America have had such a short span of time to do their studies (far less time than is necessary for such a magnitude of botanical treasure), and that the jungle is now being destroyed faster than could have been imagined even a few decades ago is just stunning.

The sadness at the loss of habitat is overwhelming. Therefore, I plant my own habitat to surround my domain. Plants for food, plants for medicine.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Beat the Heat

Summer finally seems to be ramping up, even if those pesky winds don't seem to be leaving for summer vacation. This past weekend proved that once it warms up, it gets downright HOT. Of course, Spring also decided to prove that summer is still not officially here by unleashing a dose of snow at my house yesterday morning, and cooling the temps down once again.

However, I'm optimistic that summer will eventually decide to stay a while, and therefore I thought I'd write about herbs and foods that can help the body cool off after a nice round in the sun.
As we start to get into the swing of summertime activities our bodies may naturally be seeking things that are cool, especially if we tend to participate in activities that heat us up and then leave us parched and dehydrated--like mountain biking, road cycling, rock climbing, running, hiking, etc.

Some local residents are fortunate enough to have a membership to one of the lovely outdoor pools in the area, and others choose to head inside to the local aquatic center for a nice cool down swim.
Kiddie pools, sprinklers, and mud puddles are long known as the choice of cool down for most kids...I think kids just simply have an innate sense of how to have fun and regulate body temps all at the same time. As my daughter demonstrates so naturally...

Many foods and herbs are cooling as well, and can be enjoyed while one is sitting near the pool or the sprinkler...whatever the case may be! Many of these foods are obvious coolers that often end up on the table due to seasonal availability--like cucumbers and watermelon. However, most people probably don't realize that watermelon seed can be taken internally for "summer heat," which is characterized by symptoms of fever, ruddy skin, rapid pulse, and great thirst.

Most mints are cooling because they open the pores of skin and allow for a better transfer of sweat to the outside layer of skin, which will subsequently cool the body. Mint sun tea is often a hit at backyard BBQs and parties! Of course, if we want to have fun with mint, there are all kinds of recipes it can be added to: strawberry salsa with mint, thai soda, mojitos, ice cream, coconut and mint popsicles--you name it!

Chinese medicine has identified the inherent energy of all herbs and many foods into the categories of hot, warm, neutral, cool, and cold. The taste of individual foods often indicate its energy. Bitter foods, like endive or dandelion greens, tend to be cooling. Sour foods, like lemons, are refreshing and cool. Spicy foods, such as jalapenos, tend to be stimulating and heating. Salty foods, like seaweeds and miso, are cool and softening. Full and sweet foods, such as barley and winter squash, are considered neutral to slightly warming.

Summertime cooling foods can include whole-grain salads made from barley, wheat kernals, and mung beans. Tofu is also considered cooling, as is edamame. Vegetables that are cool include eggplant, lettuce, radish, spinach, mushrooms, alfalfa sprouts, summer squash, celery, asparagus, and broccoli.
Cold vegies include tomato, bamboo shoots, seaweed, and snowpeas. Most seasonal fruits are cool, such as pear, apple, peach, and apricot. But watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe are considered cold.

So, in light of all these ideas, it seems that the standard American summer BBQ sampler of fruit salads, green salads, iced tea, and watermelon all help us cool off. Good old potato salad and homemade ice cream help too!

Mmmmm...that all sounds too good!

Feel free to share your recipes for good old summer fare!