Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice

If you have ever snorted scornfully at concern over the rainforests, this book will wipe the smirk off your face. It is primarily a travelogue, the story of Plotkin’s search for medicinal plants in the Amazon. As an ethnobotanist, he works closely with several indigenous tribes and their shamans. A picture quickly emerges of a world on the brink of vanishing. This is not just the rainforest ecosystem itself, which is one of the richest and most diverse on the planet (a quarter of all plant species grow there, etc.) What Plotkin finds is that the extremely sophisticated biochemical knowledge possessed by the native cultures is being lost at an alarming rate. Rapid Westernization, from the influence of Christian missionaries to an increasing dependence on consumer products, has resulted in a wholesale abandonment of ‘the old ways’. With the perceived superiority of modern medicine to shamanic cures (a superiority the author seriously questions), few young people have interest in training for the role of shaman. The result, states Plotkin, is that “each time one of these medicine men (or women) dies, it is as if a library has gone up in flames.”

Though the book ends on a note of qualified optimism, the reader cannot help but feel ashamed at the short-sighted hubris of our culture in dealing with native peoples. Even in cases where such cultures were not actively suppressed, we have failed to understand that what is quickly disappearing in these remote and mysterious regions is an absolutely vital part of the Human legacy. [New York: Penguin]

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