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Biology Worthy of Life
An experiment in revivifying biology

Hold a Blossom to the Light

Stephen L. Talbott

This article contains reflections occasioned by the book, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, by Wade Davis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996). The book focuses, among other things, on the work of the legendary Harvard ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes. This article is also available in a Spanish translation.

While traveling through the Ecuadorian Amazon as an ethnobotanist, Wade Davis spent some time with the Waorani, known earlier as the Auca Indians. Among the last peoples of the Amazon to be contacted by outsiders, the Auca had made headlines around the world when, in January, 1956, they speared and killed five American missionaries -- this despite the missionaries' practice of dropping gifts from an airplane before their disastrous attempt at personal contact. The incident was only one in a series of unfortunate exchanges between the Auca and those who intruded upon their territory. According to Davis, "as late as 1957 there had never been a peaceful contact between the Auca and the outside world".

A couple of decades later, during his stay with the Waorani, Davis accompanied a young warrior named Tomo on a hunting excursion. Highly skilled with a blowgun, Tomo had already, at the age of five, been able to blow a dart through a hanging fruit at thirty paces. As an adult, he could "drive a dart clear through a squirrel at forty feet, knock a hummingbird out of the air, and hit a monkey in the canopy 120 feet above the forest floor".

After selecting a short blowgun (just over six feet long), Tomo led Davis and a companion into the jungle. As Davis tells the story, suddenly

Tomo froze, dropped into an attack crouch, and slipped away from us, moving silently and steadily through a thicket of heliconia until stopping at the base of an enormous tree sixty feet from the trail. In a single gesture he had withdrawn a dart, notched its tip, deftly spun the kapok fiber around the base, and placed it in the mouth of the blowgun that now hovered motionless above his head. His cheeks suddenly puffed out with tremendous pressure, which was released in an instant. A moment later he was lunging through the vegetation, laughing and shouting. By the time we caught up, he held a rufous mot mot in his hand. The bird was still alive. Tomo had managed to reach it before the poison took effect. He dropped the frightened creature into his basket and placed the dart conspicuously in the notch of a tree so that all would know an animal had been taken.

The use of the blowgun is a highly developed art. The Waorani routinely poison the tips of their darts with potent toxins they extract from plants. They notch the darts using the razor-sharp teeth of a piranha jaw, thereby ensuring that the poisonous tip will break off in the flesh of the prey even if the rest of the dart is swatted away. As for the gun itself, its volume is less than a tenth the capacity of the lungs, so "it is not force but control that counts, judging the distance to the prey, the angle of ascent, the proper trajectory". Up to a point, a longer blowgun produces a higher velocity in the dart, but beyond that point resistance in the gun takes over. "Finding that perfect balance, the right length, is what they're always looking for".

On Reading One's Environment

The skills involved in Tomo's hunting success were those many of us in a more technological culture might envy. But for Tomo himself the envy seemed to run in the opposite direction. "Though a gifted hunter with a dart, Tomo confessed that he, like most Waorani, preferred shotguns".

An odd preference, you might think, considering that most of the shotguns available to the Waorani were "miserable weapons: single-shot breechloaders cursed with weak firing springs that rarely lasted a year". A small box of shells cost what three blowguns did -- the equivalent of a week's work (if work was to be had). A four-day journey was required simply to make the purchase. Once obtained, the shotgun might be useful for large terrestrial animals at close range (assuming it didn't misfire), "but for birds and monkeys and anything that lived in the canopy, the blowgun was by far the superior weapon". So what was the appeal of the shotgun?

The Waorani affection for shotguns had little to do with efficiency. It was the intrinsic attraction of the object itself, the clicking mechanisms, the polished stock, the power of the explosion. As one Waorani hunter explained, "It makes such a beautiful noise".

In this regard, are we not all Waorani? It's just that, as we tire of one shiny object, we need another -- preferably a more "sophisticated" one, or at least a different one. Walk into any high-tech emporium, from Radio Shack to The Sharper Image, and (if you are at all like me) you will experience on every hand "the intrinsic attraction of the object itself" -- exactly the sort of attraction that makes a Waorani hunter prefer a shotgun with its "cool" clicking mechanisms to the blowgun that has become such an intimate and accustomed part of himself.

This suggests what I think is largely true: the history of technology is a history of walking away from ourselves. We abandon old skills and ways of being. This is not in itself a bad thing. Every individual's life is an endless journey from what he has been to what he is becoming. We are continually leaving ourselves behind, and necessarily so. That's what it means to grow. It is the same with cultures.

The problem, it seems to me, lies in a profound shift of emphasis -- a shift that was not necessary. The issue here, however, is difficult to grasp within an already technologized culture.

In mastering the blowgun, Tomo learned stealth and many physical skills. He learned great care, whether in preparing his poisons or notching his dart or avoiding what we like to call "collateral damage". He learned patience and well-focused attention. But above all, he learned to read his environment through a resonant inner connection with it: only by understanding the ways of the forest, the character and likely movements of his prey, the meanings carried upon the ceaseless symphony of sounds enlivening the jungle -- only so could he find success in the hunt using a weapon such as the blowgun.

The crucial point (it will emerge more clearly in what follows) is that Tomo's reading of his environment was thoroughly qualitative. He had to understand what it was like to be a certain animal. He needed to recognize the characteristic gestures of its movement -- and, indeed, of all its behaviors -- to know it from the inside, so to speak. The decisive detail for a particular hunt, whatever it turned out to be, was very likely available to Tomo without reflection or calculation, because it was implicit in the larger, expressive pattern that he grasped as a unified whole. Such "inner resonance" with one's surroundings is profound, subtle, and revelatory, a prerequisite (though not the only prerequisite) for any full understanding of the world.

The shift of emphasis I am concerned about is the sacrifice of this qualitative attention to one's environment in favor of a strictly analytical and technical understanding. It's the difference between having information about someone, on the one hand, and knowing him, on the other. Knowing gives us a power of direct recognition; we can be more fully open to the expressive qualities of the person or thing -- which also means being open to those same qualities in ourselves. We overcome, in the moment of knowing, the barrier between self and other. To experience the quality of a thing is necessarily to experience it, to find its shape and movement and significance reproduced within ourselves. This is what I mean by "resonance".

The Powers of Recognition

The ability to read nature in this qualitative sense, to know its phenomena from the inside, is not restricted to "primitive" cultures. While we may not know how to reconcile this ability with the canonized procedures of science, we do often recognize it as a mark of scientific genius. The primary subject of Davis' book, the legendary Harvard ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes, exemplified this sort of genius.

Schultes stood apart in his field. As Davis relates it, "even the most highly trained botanists are humbled by the immense diversity of the Amazonian forests":

Confronted with the unknown, they collect specimens and do their best to identify a plant to family or genus. Only later, in the comfort of the herbarium and invariably with the assistance of a colleague specializing in that particular group of plants, will they figure out the species and obtain a complete determination.

With Schultes, who collected more than 25,000 plants in Columbia between 1941 and 1953, and who was the first to record entire genera previously unknown to science, along with hundreds of species, it was different. "He possessed what scientists call the taxonomic eye" -- an immediate ability to detect significant variation within an overall pattern. He occasionally demonstrated his powers of attention to such variation in striking ways:

He was once in a small plane that took off from a dirt runway, brushed against the canopy of the forest, and very nearly crashed. A colleague who was with him recalled years later that throughout the entire episode Schultes had sat calmly by a window, oblivious to the screams of the terrified passengers. It turned out that he had spotted a tree, a new species of Cecropia, and had scarcely noticed the crisis.

What all this meant, Davis comments, is that Schultes

could resolve botanical problems in the moment, write descriptions in the field, realign species and genera just by holding a blossom to the light. In the entire history of Amazonian botany, only a handful of scientists have possessed this talent.

"...just by holding a blossom to the light". This is the essence of qualitative knowledge. It's the difference between going laboriously through a set of analytical keys to identify a plant or, based on direct and intimate familiarity with the plant world, immediately recognizing the distinctive character of the plant and its relations to other plants. In order to appreciate a little about what this means, think of how you would identify a face in a crowd when all you had was a list of discrete features, and compare that to recognizing an old friend. The recognition is instantaneous, or nearly so, a single act drawing on the qualities of an entire image, without analysis. And in that image you may read a great deal about the kind of experience your friend has just been through and how he is relating to those around him.

We in fact exercise such powers of recognition all the time; without them there would be no science. Yet a science that long ago disavowed any concern with the qualities of things has steadily pushed our acts of recognition to the periphery. Mention these mundane, daily human performances in certain scientific contexts and you will soon hear the muttered epithet, "mystical". Our technologies, with their emphasis on automatically transferable information, persistently train us in the disregard of subtle qualities. The steps in identifying a plant analytically via a key are easily taught through a program. What Schultes learned to see when he held a flower to the light is not. The program yields clean, unambiguous, yes-or-no answers -- and little else. The kind of understanding Schultes employed when studying a blossom enabled him to re-imagine and re-organize the relations upon which programmatic keys are based.

Puzzling Knowledge

The tribes of the Amazon present numerous riddles that are surely related to the difference between a qualitative and analytic understanding. There is a plant called yagé whose bark contains the beta-carbolines, harmine and harmaline. By combining yagé with various other plants, the shamans of the northwest Amazon long ago learned to concoct potent psychoactive drinks. Investigating two of the auxiliary plants employed in these concoctions, Schultes noted that they contained tryptamines, "powerful psychoactive compounds [writes Davis] that when smoked or snuffed induce a very rapid, intense intoxication of short duration marked by astonishing visual imagery". (Neither Schultes nor Davis was loath to verify such effects for himself.)

The problem is that, taken orally (the Indians drank these potions), the tryptamines have no effect; they are denatured by an enzyme in the human gut. But, as it turns out, the beta-carbolines in yagé inhibit exactly this enzyme. So when yagé is combined with one of the admixture plants, the combination produces dramatic hallucinogenic effects.

What astonished Schultes was less the raw effect of the drugs -- by this time, after all, he was becoming accustomed to having his consciousness awash in color -- than the underlying intellectual question that the elaboration of these complex preparations posed. 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. Yagé 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 adept at manipulating the various ingredients that individual shamans developed dozens of recipes, each yielding potions of various strengths and nuances to be used for special ceremonial and ritual purposes.

Another example was the preparation of dart poison, known as "curare":

The bark is rasped and placed in a funnel-shaped leaf suspended between two spears. Cold water is percolated through, and the drippings collect in a ceramic pot. The dark fluid is slowly heated and brought to a frothy boil, then cooled and later reheated until a thick viscous scum gradually forms on the surface. This scum is removed and applied to the tips of darts or arrows, which are then carefully dried over the fire. The procedure itself is mundane. What is unusual is that one can drink the poison without being harmed. To be effective it must enter the blood. The realization on the part of the Indians that this orally inactive substance, derived from a small number of forest plants, could kill when administered into the muscle was profound and, like so many of their discoveries, difficult to explain by the concept of trial and error alone.

Perhaps the trial-and-error hypothesis simply reflects a long habit of ignoring the knowledge potentials of an attention to the qualities of our environment. Such attention on the Indians' part could be quite remarkable. They recognized many different kinds of yagé plants, all of which, so far as Schultes could tell, were referable to a single species. The distinguishing criteria made no sense botanically, and yet "the Indians could readily differentiate their varieties on sight, even from a considerable distance in the forest. What's more, individuals from different tribes, separated by large expanses of forest, identified these same varieties with amazing consistency".

Much the same was true of yoco, a caffeine-containing stimulant. Schultes collected fourteen different types by the Indians' reckoning, "not one of which could be determined based on the rules of his own science". Schultes, as Davis reports it, was learning that

in unveiling the indigenous knowledge, his task was not merely to identify new sources of wealth but rather to understand a new vision of life itself, a profoundly different way of living in a forest.

Seeking a New Balance

It is a long way from the mechanics of information processing to the pursuit of a new vision -- a new manner of seeing. But what I am suggesting is that we urgently need to combine this pursuit of a new, qualitative manner of seeing with our more technical ambitions if we are to counter the unhealthy one-sidedness of the latter. The meeting of the two different ways of knowing proves undeniably fruitful, even in strictly scientific terms. Look at what has been gained through the contact of botany and medicine with native plant wisdom. To take just one example: curare, the dart poison, led western medicine to d-tubocurarine, a potent muscle relaxant. When administered during surgery, it greatly reduced the required levels of anesthesia. D-tubocurarine, Davis notes, ended up saving far more human lives than curare had ever taken.

More broadly, native wisdom has presented us with sounder images of the whole organism in its relation to health and disease:

For the Waorani, as for many indigenous peoples, good or bad health results not from the presence or absence of pathogens alone but from the proper or improper balance of the individual. Health is harmony, a coherent state of equilibrium between the physical and spiritual components of the individual. Sickness is disruption, imbalance, and the manifestation of malevolent forces in the flesh.

Slowly, sometimes reluctantly, our own medicine has been coming to terms with this awareness that illness and health are matters of harmony, balance, equilibrium. The projection of our fears upon "deadly" microorganisms as the sole and uncontested causes of disease will eventually be recognized as a latter-day echo of our ancestors' preoccupation with evil spirits. When, by contrast, we turn toward the organism as a whole, we will have to reckon with the fact that its harmony or disharmony cannot be read from instruments. True diagnosis requires nothing less than the kind of highly developed scientific art and qualitative vision that Schultes demonstrated with his plants.

Not many seem to recognize that in the age of digital technologies, our ability to read the qualities of our surroundings, detecting what is toxic and what is healing in them, what is in balance and what is out of balance, is even more crucial than it was for Tomo. It is also more difficult: the reading requires a greater, more self-conscious effort on our part precisely because our machines seem to make the effort irrelevant and futile. And yet the penalty for neglecting our responsibility is that the inhuman inertia of the machines will dictate our future.

It is not easy, after all, to read a collection of people sitting in front of monitors. Tomo, we can imagine, might need to make a quick, accurate assessment as to whether a group of warriors encountered in the forest was a peaceful hunting expedition or a raiding party. But how are we to gauge the friendliness of that roomful of programmers or data-entry clerks? Are they preying upon the larger society, or serving it? Are they working for the next Enron, or moving in a very different direction? Yet we must learn to read these things. The fact is that our social future will be determined by the human qualities of the activities being mediated through hundreds of millions of programmed devices, and by our ability consciously to resonate with and thereby to recognize these qualities.

Unfortunately, the devices themselves serve primarily to conceal -- and in some ways to nullify -- the qualitative dimensions of our activities. This is why, in a typical computer-based work group, the art of communication and openness to the other tends to give way to the mere manipulation of technical information. The scheduling of activities is tightly programmed. The budgeting and allocation of resources fall more or less automatically out of a spreadsheet. But the question remains: what do these databases and programs and numbers mean for the workers involved, for the surrounding community, for the global economy? What do we want them to mean -- or do our wants matter any longer?

To read the significance of our activities rather than being lulled by the blank expressions of our machines -- this is the skill and art demanded of us today. The skill and art are hardly new, however; it's just that our fascination with the technical aspects of our jobs encourages a much too narrow focus. Yet it is not that difficult, amid all the email exchange and programmed organization, to make an occasional inquiry of one's neighbor in the next cubicle: "How are you doing?" "How do you feel about your work?" "Do you think the product we're working on will help to heal our society or instead debilitate it?"

If what all the employees in a large corporation actually sensed, qualitatively, about their own work and the company's endeavors were a matter of common inquiry and group reflection, could the business avoid going through a revolutionary transformation? Could it any longer be the same business? If, as a society, we cultivated anything like Tomo's attentive openness to the expressive qualities of his environment, surely the transformation I refer to would be commonplace rather than revolutionary. And the sudden surprise of an Enron would be next to impossible.

But why bother when the program seems to be the only real work? When the next email and next report and next milestone demand attention, and the software can be trusted to "take care" of the larger issues of coordination? Our own functioning becomes comfortingly undemanding on the qualitative and expressive level, with all the challenges reduced to merely technical ones. But if the qualitative and expressive level is where we discover both the noxious and healing properties of our environment, it is also where we discover the meaning of our work and the ethical nuances of our relations with each other. It is no surprise when, having replaced this level with the programmatic automatisms of information processing, we find organizations running badly off the tracks.

The Thrill of Cutting Down Trees

None of this is to say that we could get by in today's world without the newer technologies. But it is to say that we cannot get by without recognizing the disciplines we must work ever harder to develop in order to invest the ubiquitous programming with our own purposes. And we also need to realize when our preoccupation with technology is just plain fickle.

In 1975, when the flood of goods from outside was threatening the Waorani way of life, the local missionaries tried to stem the tide. But when they restricted the flow of radios, T-shirts, sunglasses, and baseball hats, the Waorani simply expanded their contacts with nearby oil exploration camps and tourists. Going so far as to clear an airstrip at one location, "they invented rituals, imitated the activities of an oil camp, and sang songs to the helicopters, with the hope that they would unleash a rain of gifts".

Eventually the missionaries realized the hopelessness of the situation. One of them, Jim Yost, remarked to Davis,

As romantics we idealize a past we never experienced and deny those who knew that past from changing. We forget perhaps the most disturbing lesson of anthropology. As Levi-Strauss said, "The people for whom the term cultural relativism was invented, have rejected it". (p. 290)

The "cultural relativism" Levi-Strauss was referring to includes the notion that every culture has its own distinctive values worth preserving. Surely it does. Yet it is also true that the members of the culture itself may prefer change over becoming museum exhibits. We can hardly preserve them against their will, whether by dictating their values to them or artificially isolating them.

Davis hones the issue to a fine sharpness when he quotes Yost as saying,

Nothing thrills the Waorani more than killing game and cutting down big trees. It's what so many people don't understand who haven't lived in the forest. You don't have to conserve what you don't have the power to destroy. Harming the forest is an impossible concept for them.

When Davis interjects, "They don't know what it means to destroy", Yost goes on:

They have no capacity to understand. In a world of such abundance, the word "scarcity" has no meaning. It's what makes them most vulnerable. It's the same with their culture. When you've lived in complete isolation, how can you understand what it means to lose a culture? It's not until it is almost gone and when people become educated that they realize what's being lost. By then the attractions of the new way are overpowering, and the only people who want the old ways are the ones who never lived it.

You can easily imagine that a similar sense of the indestructible abundance of natural resources must have seized the early European settlers of the American West. And in a rather different way, the inexhaustible supply of computing power now invites the impoverishment of our cultural mores and institutions through their transfer to the shallow and much-too-automatic pathways of silicon.

Historically, there appears to be an element of tragedy in all this. We stumble along in ignorance and, by the time we realize the subtle ways our actions have caught up with us, the damage and loss are already irrevocable.

But one function of tragedy is to shock us into wakefulness. With this wakefulness comes a new ability to stand back and look at ourselves critically in the very moment of acting. And this in turn brings greater moral responsibility. Surely by the time of the settling of the American West there was much less innocence in the relations between settler and environment than there was for the Waorani. And it would be hard to excuse as innocent at all the widespread narcosis evident in the way we have yielded so passively to mass media and digital technologies today, allowing them to cut us off from vital openness toward the full-fleshed qualities of our human and natural contexts. We, after all, have as examples the Waorani and many other cultures, not to mention a reasonably objective knowledge of our own history. The Waorani had none of this.

Don't Bemoan the Loss of Old Skills

All growth has a tragic element. Something is lost. Catastrophe is a prime agent of maturation. Unwelcome as it may sound, the Waorani had no choice but to "grow up". What enables one to say this is that every culture has no choice but to grow up. Our own fascination with digital technologies is no less naive, and no less a blind toying with cultural catastrophe, than was the Waorani fascination with shotguns and radios. The difference between us and the Waorani of several decades ago is that, given our history with such things, we ought to know better.

On one way of viewing this history, it confronts us with a succession of tools giving us an opportunity to develop an ever-expanding array of skills and capacities. Increasingly, however, the peculiar challenge of our tools is that they invite us to ignore the matter of skills and capacities. Disastrously, they are advertised as labor-saving devices, and the main selling point lies in what we no longer need to do, not in the new skills we must develop if we truly want to master the new tools.

Bemoaning the loss of old skills is probably not the most productive way to critique the new technologies. The greater need is to recognize that, precisely because of the labor-saving capabilities of our high-tech tools, the art of mastery demands greater skills and more arduous discipline than ever before. Think of the retail clerk, nearly all of whose former responsibilities in engaging the customer and providing feedback for the operation of the business are now taken over by computers. This clerk is as fully detached from an earlier set of skills as was Tomo with a shotgun in his hands. So we have a choice: simply to accept that the human being in this case is now little more than a "dumb assistant" to "intelligent machinery", or else to tackle the huge task of re-visioning employees' jobs, and the business itself, along more humane lines. The challenge in all this -- if we accept it -- puts us into continual tension with the machines surrounding us. It is a tension that Tomo could scarcely have noted with his blowgun.

But if we do accept the challenge, then I'm convinced we will not really find ourselves abandoning the older skills -- not, at least, in the sense that counts. A qualitative and sensitive openness to our environment today -- the kind of openness where we move beyond technical information about people and things to a qualitative meeting with them, learning to recognize their characteristic expressions and gestures, learning what it is like to be in that other place, what are the poisonous and the curative elements in our surroundings -- this is not so much a negation of Tomo's skills as an extension of them. And in cultivating these skills we will find not only that our relations to the technologized world become healthier, but so also our relations to the natural world that sustains us1.


1. The commentary in this chapter is focused upon a relatively few pages of Wade Davis' large, sprawling work. The book primarily concerns Schultes and his many years of travel throughout the Amazon basin -- and also the later travels of the author and another student of Schultes, Tim Plowman. There's a great deal about the numerous psychotropic plants used by the natives (Schultes, with his unparalleled knowledge of these plants, garnered some notoriety during the psychedelic revolution in this country), about the critical quest for rubber by the Allies during World War II (in which Schultes played a central role), and about the culture of the native Americans and their grievous mistreatment by the colonists. All in all a highly stimulating book, well written and worth reading.

This document: https://bwo.life/mqual/misc/amazon.htm

Steve Talbott :: Hold a Blossom to the Light