Sunday, April 03, 2011


Night-Blooming Cactus #2 - Matutu - 2006

I've been meditating on the potentials and problems of development as the contemporary peoples of the forest make the inevitable transition to modernity. In the process I found Steve Talbott's essay Hold a Blossom to the Light which itself is a meditation on one of my favorite books. The essay is a long but most worthy read. Hope you have time to check it out.

Hold a Blossom to the Light

This chapter 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).

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he had withdrawn a dart, notched its tip, deftly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

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
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, yesor-
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 betacarbolines
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 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 latterday
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.”

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 criticize 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 us.1



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.


PS: Wade Davis' One River is a book I've read many times over, always with new discoveries and appreciations. Below are two TED talks by Davis:

Wade Davis on endangered cultures | Video on
  • With stunning photos and stories, National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis celebrates the extraordinary diversity of the world's indigenous cultures, which are disappearing 
Wade Davis on the worldwide web of belief and ritual | Video on
  • Anthropologist Wade Davis muses on the worldwide web of belief and ritual that makes us human. He shares breathtaking photos ...

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