In the Paleozoic era, sand made from particles of primeval volcanic matter washed up on the shores of the supercontinent Pangea (derived from the Greek pan - "all," and Gaia - "mother Earth" or "land"). Around this time, tiny nonvascular plants known as bryophytes evolved from unicellular algae in the great ocean, marking the beginning of the saga of plant life on Earth. According to biologists, in the matter of just 75 million years plants evolved from tiny toe-brushing beings to 60 meter giants.
Fifteen million years ago, a tremendous collision between two tectonic plates, the Naszca and South American plates, created the Andes mountains.
These mountains blocked the flow of water from the ancient super-ocean Panthalassa, transforming the land on the other side into a swampy freshwater petri dish. From this swamp emerged the greatest profusion of life on Earth – the Amazon rainforest.
The Amazon basin is home to the greatest diversity of species on our planet; one in three terrestrial species known to humankind are from this forest. In just one hectare of land in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, there live more plant and animal species than there are in the entire North American continent. The forest hums bright and loud with the sounds of millions of creatures communicating to one another, communing with life itself. They make strange noises as they make love to reproduce. Some creatures laugh. They sound as they fight and die. The baritone croak of the cururú toad (Rhinella schneideri), which lives for up to fifteen years, almost echoes through the forest. When the wings of the giant titan beetle (Titanus giganteus) rub upon each other, it is as if the air around it turns fuzzy. Palmate leaves, obovate leaves, lanceolate leaves, and oval leaves rustle in the occasional breezes that swerve through the trees. Birds dance like animate flowers.
The Amazon river is the world’s most voluminous, with thousands of fractal tributaries spiraling through the green.
Scientists speak of Flying Rivers – massive bodies of water hovering above trees in the forest which function like a biotic pump; condensation from these trees hang over the forest like a cloud, recycling water onto itself in an infinite, self-regulating, and sustaining loop.
Diversity in the Amazon is not just represented in animals and plants – approximately 400 known indigenous tribes call this land home. Over the course of thousands of years, indigenous people have evolved their own languages, unique ecological knowledge, cosmovisions, and worldviews from their unique experiences integrated in this ecosystem. These human communities traditionally derived shelter, food, medicines, and weapons directly from this rainforest. By evolving with the Amazon, they adapt to harsh conditions, attuning themselves to the subtle energies of the natural elements. To hunt a monkey, one must learn how the monkey moves, where it sleeps and what it eats; in a sense, one must become the monkey, imitating its behavior and shadowing its life. In order to learn the properties of a plant, one must learn how the plant grows, what animals interact with it, and what season it thrives in and dies in; in a sense, one must become the plant.
In this process of becoming plants, indigenous communities develop an intimate relationship and a profound understanding of the chemical, material properties of plants. The metaphysical, spiritual properties attributed to plants (i.e. tobacco "keeps spirits away") are often correlated to practical uses (tobacco is a natural pesticide, keeping bugs at bay). Botanical compendiums developed by indigenous communities of the Amazon rainforest have been heavily drawn upon by modern chemists, forming the basis of many household medications and remedies we find in Western pharmaceuticals today. With the assistance of indigenous experts, ethnobotanists have identified 100 psychoactive plants in South America (of 120 total known on Earth). Most of these plants are from the ecosystems of the Amazon basin.
Indigenous communities such as the Shipibo perceive of the natural world as animate and living, hence the term animism. Animism is a system of perception held by indigenous cultures around the world, who understand plants, trees, animals, stones, rivers, mountains, and landscapes to have distinct personalities (and in some case, even agency, or the ability to impose and realize an intention into the world). With the understanding that plants are living beings and should therefore be treated with respect, the Shipibo approach the botanical kingdom from a place not of exploitation, but of mutual partnership. Representing this sense of partnership, across the Western Amazon, some plants are called plantas maestras, or teacher plants. Far from inert, these plants are related to as intelligent beings with lessons to teach.
Plants communicate in ways we can hardly perceive. Over aeons of experiment, plants have evolved to adapt to their conundrum of immobility, developing techniques to repel predators and capture the attention of pollinators to do their bidding. Angiosperms (flowering plants) emit heady fragrances (and icky stenches) designed to attract pollinators. The sweet and sugary skins of fruits are the delight of insects, birds, and mammals who, after eating them, trek on and re-seed the plant in their droppings. For perspective, plants make up a staggering majority of the total biomass on Earth (with us humans hovering meekly just below 1%)!
Ecologists have recently discovered that forests function as a single organism, with trees sending carbon, phosphorous, nitrogen, defense signals, hormones, and water through subterranean root systems (facilitated by nodes and links through mycorrhizal networks). Far beyond our scope of comprehension, we can only begin to perceive the elegant efficacy of communication and collaboration in the plant kingdom.
Many plants host a class of nitrogenous, bitter-tasting molecules called alkaloids. Biologists are not certain what the evolutionary function of alkaloids is, but suspect that they serve a defensive purpose since they are bitter and difficult to digest. Alkaloids include, famously, theobromine, caffeine, cocaine, and nicotine. Medicines like quinine, epinephrine, and morphine, psychedelics like psilocin, mescaline, and dimethyltryptamine (and beta-carbolines found in Banisteropisis caapi, the ayahuasca vine), and poisons such as schrychine, are possible thanks to alkaloids.
Indigenous forest people like the Shipibo have developed an extensive knowledge and intimate symbiosis with the invisible powers and chemical messengers hidden in the biotic world.
Today, pilgrims make international trips to the Amazon rainforest (mostly to Peru) to experience ayahuasca and their greater body of knowledge of plants. Ayahuasca and Amazonian plant remedies have gained a reputation the world over for healing ailments of all sorts, misalignments of the body and the mind, seen and unseen. Much like the invisible communication of trees sending signals underground, plant medicines such as ayahuasca work by revealing and re-wiring the hidden pathways of thought, interpretation, and memory that we develop throughout the course of our lives. As people open themselves up to experience Amazonian plant medicines and indigenous traditions, we enter into a new paradigm of communication and reverence with plants.
By working in partnership with indigenous communities by journeying with ayahuasca and plantas maestras, might we take on the adventure of adopting new values of reciprocity? Could we be inspired to design systems modeled after plant interconnectivity? Can we take cues from the plants, learning to mimic and reproduce their ways of communication?
For the Shipibo, the world is woven together in a brilliant, universal fabric of kené – unique designs of energy that animate the world. All beings and emotions have kené – the dog, the connection, bones, love, plants, and you. The plants have their own unique designs and structures, each embedded with a unique geometrical form. By working with these plants, the designs teach us and ultimately become a part of us, integrated into our design. We humans are woven into a deeper evolutionary pattern, part of a greater comprehensive program.
Could the localized ethos of rainforest communities, integrating inner exploration and ecological conservation, provide crucial clues to help us reinvent our global civilization?
By Sophia Rokhlin, MSc
Author & Coordinator of the AYNI Initiative, Temple of the Way of Light