High on the Amazon: psycho-ethnobiology


"One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest," by Wade Davis. Simon & Schuster. Illustrated. 532 pages. $27.50.

Few regions of the world remain as mysterious as the Amazon, a vast and largely unexplored ecosystem that supports a stunning variety of trees and plants.

For millennia, these species have played an integral part in the religious, healing and cultural ceremonies of the people who reside there. For those willing to ply the wild rivers, dense jungles and windswept Andean peaks, to risk illness, isolation and extreme hardship, there is much to discover and to learn. Small wonder, then, that the Amazon holds such allure for that most venturesome of scientists, the ethnobotanist, who studies the relationship between people and plants.

To ethnobotanists fall the task of identifying species with commercial, scientific or humanitarian value. To do so, they must immerse themselves in the indigenous cultures to fully comprehend the uses made of plants unknown to the outside world.

Thus, the account of a daring ethnobotanist in the Amazon wilderness has all the makings of a fine adventure tale.

That is the saga Wade Davis apparently started out to tell. His subject is Richard Evans Schultes, a renowned ethnobotanist who began work in the Amazon in the 1930s. Schultes' foremost interest was hallucinogenic plants. During his later years at Harvard University, he trained a generation of young scientists, including Davis.

Davis' adulation of Schultes makes the reader yearn for a more objective biographer of this brilliant and eccentric scientist.

But, Davis subsequently decided to incorporate a second story with the Schultes biography after the 1989 death of his close friend and fellow Harvard ethnobotanist, Tim Plowman. In the 1970s, Davis and Plowman retraced Schultes' Amazon expeditions searching for varieties of the coca plant, the source of cocaine.

Davis' efforts to weave the two stories together creates an awkward and confusing narrative. Because Davis hasn't quite decided what direction he wants to go, the reader gets lost, too.

That's not to say there aren't occasional clearings in the jungle. The book contains brief descriptions of some of the most memorable characters imaginable, including Blas Pablo Reko, an Austrian Nazi who befriended Schultes in the 1930s and was an expert on psychedelic mushrooms; Gordon Wasson, a J.P. Morgan & Co. executive who left his job to experiment with and write about "magic mushrooms," and a missionary couple, Orville and Helen Floden, who built a brick fireplace in their remote Colombian cabin so each Christmas Eve they could sit by the fire.

Too much of the book, however, is given over to descriptions of hallucinogenic experiments by Schultes, Plowman and Davis. On more than one occasion, Davis' accounts of these drug-induced experiences reads a bit like Margaret Mead on speed.

The reader is left with the question: Is this a lark or legitimate science? The overriding impression - intentional or not - is that Davis, Plowman and Schultes are simply engaged in a quest for the perfect high under the guise of botanical inquiry.

Davis, who in 1988 stirred up scientific controversy over his claims of discovering the pharmacological explanation for zombies and later selling Hollywood the screen rights to his work, disappoints in another regard.

He fails to adequately address the future of the Amazonian ecosystem and its inhabitants in the face of intensive development. Certainly an ethnobotanist could make a compelling case for preservation.

Susan Q. Stranahan covers environmental issues for th Philadelphia Inquirer; her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the National Wildlife Federation Magazine among others. Her book, "Susquehanna: River of Dreams," was published by The Johns Hopkins University Press in 1993.

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