A Review of Jeremy Narby and Rafael Chanchari Pizuri’s “Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge”.
It felt almost like he blew pepper up my nose. Immediately I became alert and then started shaking. My hands soon became so filled with energy, so taught, that the muscles spasmed and I couldn’t move them as individual fingers anymore. My practitioners, Emilio and Airyn Sierra, a couple from Colombia who hold many ceremonies like this, came up to me with their voices, their drum, their feathers, and their Agua de Florida to bless my process and move the energy. I couldn’t open my eyes for a long time, but felt immediate comfort and relief at their presence. The “pepper” my guide had blown into my nose was Tobacco.
Ayahuasca helps you only to see what needs to be done. Tobacco gives you the power to do it. Just the day before, I had read a new book by Jeremy Narby and Rafael Chanchari Pizuri called Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge. Serendipitously this book came into my life literally days before this ceremony, to give me a little context with which to handle this intense experience. This was my first Hoska (Tobacco) ceremony, a traditional practice from Colombia that is similar to many ceremonies throughout South America. Hoska has been used for centuries, possibly millennia, in order to heal, cleanse, and send prayers.
Tobacco in many forms is used so ubiquitously in the Americas that anthropologists have taken it for granted and never studied it. Until now. Narby’s and Chanchari’s book tackles both Tobacco and Ayahuasca, though it is fascinatingly thick on Tobacco and disappointingly thin on Ayahuasca. Narby states that the secret to Ayahuasca healing is, in fact, Tobacco. “Ayahuasca helps you only to see what needs to be done. Tobacco gives you the power to do it,” quoting a Yachak shaman. I could feel that power coursing through me in the ceremony.
Chanchari says, “All teacher plants have two souls.” They have both medicine and malice. The authors state that plants are totally neutral about whether or not they kill or harm. Malice is an activity that plants have, and medicine is an activity that people develop. Ayahuasca also can heal, teach, purge, or confuse. They are ambiguous by nature, and they can get those who work with them into a lot of trouble. In the Amazon, many languages use the same word for
medicine as for poison.
In modern materialist terms, Tobacco is related to the datura genus, a cousin of bromansia, which sports such famous plants as belladonna and mandrake, plants that have an intimate closeness to death. Low doses of Tobacco can create invigorating effects and suppress appetite, but moderate doses can induce nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness. High doses can lead to delirium, hallucinations, and death due to respiratory paralysis or heart attack. Overall, the authors state that it is wise you stay away from industrial tobacco, especially vaping.
Indigenous understanding uses this knowledge and turns it on its head for shamanic journeying. Narby saw a common practice where Ayahuasca shamans-in-training will be made to drink Tobacco tea, at doses that would lethally poison most people. However, nicotine creates an instant tolerance, so if one drinks it at increasing doses, it creates a tolerance which is permanent. Once someone increases their tolerance to tobacco, they can walk unscathed to the doorway of death. However, this is only with clear guidance.
Ayahuasca also needs to be used with caution. It is risky to drink Ayahuasca mixed with other plants. It is better to drink the simple brew. Chanchari talks about the risks of drinking Ayahuasca mixed with Toé (Brugmansia suaveolens) which is a dangerously powerful plant occasionally added to brews of Ayahuasca for foreigners who want to have intense hallucinatory experiences. It will make your head spin for days or even up to a week. He says foreigners should choose to drink Sky or yellow Ayahuasca, mixed with Chacruna (Psychotria viridis) or Yagé (Diplopterys cabrerana). If you take the risk, use harm reduction.
That said, scientists have come to understand that the substances contained in the Ayahuasca vine have a broad spectrum of health enhancing properties through harmalines. All harmala alkaloids induce the formation of new neurons. Harmine in particular has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial antioxidant, antidepressant, and possibly anti-tumor properties. Nicotine also has potential health enhancing properties. It releases endorphins which increase euphoria. Acetylcholine makes you alert and re-energized. Noradrenaline quiets the immune system when it overreacts.
In indigenous understanding, Tobacco can cure laziness or incompetence. Someone powerful enough with a high enough tolerance could use the power of Tobacco to turn into a jaguar. This is, for instance, a common belief among the Ashininga people. Narby’s friend’s father-in-law died while imbibing tobacco and becoming a jaguar. Their explanation was that others burned his heart while he was in the form of a jaguar. Science would say he died of a heart attack. They are both describing the same event in two separate and cohesive languages.
In order to embrace both ways of thinking, there is no need to believe anything. Belief has nothing to do with the process. Simply go with the end results of one belief system or another, and hold both simultaneously as equally important. Narby quotes the anthropologist Eduardo Viveros DiCastro: “For a start, taking native thought seriously is to refuse to neutralize it. Refusing to explain it or rationalize it, and instead drawing out its consequences and verifying the effects.”
Plant medicines call for a new kind of research, one that opens up to another way of knowing. Taking indigenous points of view seriously leads to verifiable and useful knowledge. It is important to look at the end result, not to try to explain how one got there. To engage with Amazonian experts, future scientists will have to examine their own presuppositions and this is where ayahuasca can help with doing just that. It is powerful enough to change people’s minds. Tobacco has a fiery personality that can assist in this change. Scientists are ready to see that plants perceive, communicate, remember, decide and learn, and are moving closer to recognizing plants as intelligent entities. Use prudence, respect, and knowledge. Go back and forth between the two world views over time. It is much like learning a language. One needs to become bilingual in two world-views.
In the Hoska ceremony, I decided to not take a second dose of the Tobacco, but instead wanted to ride the energy of the room. I discovered that there was no need to go far in my use of this sacred plant, knowing that if I abused it, failed to respect it, or didn’t try to understand the indigenous perspective, it could show its side of malice. In the end, the Hoska proved itself to be a medicine for me, with the help of Emilio and Airyn. At one point during the ceremony, I saw them lit up by a white light, something visually impossible in the dimly lit room. I allowed the medicine to change me.