Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Dr. Mark Plotkin (@DocMarkPlotkin), an ethnobotanist who serves as president of the Amazon Conservation Team, which has partnered with 55 tribes to map and improve management and protection of 80 million acres of ancestral rainforests. Educated at Harvard, Yale, and Tufts, Plotkin has since spent much of the past four decades studying the shamans and healing plants of tropical America from Mexico to Argentina, although much of his work focuses on the rainforests of the northeast Amazon. He is best known to the general public as the author of the book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, one of the most popular books about the rainforest. His new book from Oxford Press is The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know.
His upcoming podcast series is titled Plants of the Gods: Hallucinogens: Culture, Conservation, History and Healing, and it will be coming out in late October. More information will be available on Mark’s website.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show where it is my job to interview and deconstruct world class performers from all different fields. My guest today, super exciting, long time in the making, Dr. Mark Plotkin. You can find them on Twitter @DocMarkPlotkin, P-L-O-T-K-I-N, is an ethnobotanist who serves as President of the Amazon Conservation Team. You can find that at amazonteam.org, which has partnered with 55 tribes to map and improve management and protection of 80 million acres of ancestral rainforests.
Educated at Harvard, Yale, and Tufts, Plotkin has spent much of the past four decades studying the shamans and healing plants of tropical America from Mexico to Argentina. Although much of his work focuses on the rainforest of the northeast Amazon, he is best known to the general public as the author of the book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice. One of the most popular books about the rainforest ever published. His new book, published by Oxford Press, is The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know. Mark, welcome to the show.
Mark Plotkin: Tim, good to be here.
Tim Ferriss: We were chatting before we hit record. I said my audience likes stories and specifics. And you said, “I might have a few of those.” Certainly, based on what I know of you, based on our conversations, based on suggestions from friends who know you, I think we will have no shortage of ground to cover.
I thought we could start with a name and a person who fascinates me endlessly, and that is Richard Evans Schultes. I would love if you could explain who this is and how you crossed paths with this person.
Mark Plotkin: Well, Schultes is often called the father of ethnobotany. Schultes who passed away about 20 years ago, when he was told this, would often say, “Well, ethnobotany started with the pharaohs and I’m not quite that old.” So he had a marvelous sense of humor and seeing him in the field, I think, this is really one of the ways he wanted his indigenous colleagues over. He might’ve been a world famous Harvard professor, but ultimately a very down to earth, very earthy, wonderful, smart, kind, conscientious fellow.
Schultes taught for many years at the Harvard Botanical Museum. And he influenced people far and wide. Not just to students like me or Tim Plowman or Wade Davis, but people even that knew of his work and didn’t take his course. People like Alan Ginsburg, great Schultes fans. People like the great biologist E.O. Wilson were Schultes fans.
So his effect on popular culture and on science were, as I said, far and wide. This great new institute, Tim, that you helped start at the Johns Hopkins University, bringing some of these entheogens, some of these hallucinogenic principles to bear on so-called incurable diseases like PTSD or schizophrenia in a sense traces back to a lot of Schultes’ work because Schultes is the one who went into the subtropical forest, Southern Mexico and Oaxaca in the ’30s, and came up with a magic mushrooms. And Schultes is the one who went into the rainforest in northwest Amazon in the ’40s, and came out with ayahuasca. So his impact, positive impact on the world, is still being felt.
Tim Ferriss: I want to second what you just said in the sense that much of my fascination and thinking on ethnobotany, which I’ll want you to define for us in a moment, comes from reading the work of Schultes. I have one book, for example, that I’ve traveled with for many, many, many years, which is Plants of the Gods, which I’m sure you’ve seen, which was not only co-authored by Richard Evan Schultes, but also Albert Hoffman, the first person to synthesize LSD-25. And then Christian Ratsch, although I’m not sure if that’s how he pronounces his name in German. That is how it is spelled. And what is ethnobotany, since we’ll be digging under the hood with this quite a bit?
Mark Plotkin: In the broad sense, ethnobotany is simply the relationship between plants and peoples. But in popular culture, ethnobotany is the search for medicinal plants in the rainforest from tribal shamans. So you can go broad or you can go narrow, but it has to do with plants and peoples.
The bottom line is that Schultes taught and Schultes believed and taught the rest of us to believe that much of human culture is based on our relationship with plants. There’s evidence to indicate that many of the world’s religions had their beginning and the effect of these magical plants on the minds of our ancestors. As we know, the effect of these plants and these fungi and these frogs, we now know, on our minds is having a very positive effect when used correctly, either in traditional settings, under the care of traditional healers who really know their stuff or in the hands of Western physicians who are beginning to discover the incredible power and potential of these compounds.
The bottom line is that these entheogenic, hallucinogenic compounds in the hands of shamans, who I work with, are essentially vegetal scalpels that allow these men, and in some cases these women, to understand, analyze, treat, and sometimes cure emotional ailments, brain ailments that our own physicians yet cannot.
Tim Ferriss: One of the things that impresses me most about you and Schultes by extension, but that impresses me about you is your field work, you have traveled extensively in the field and have interacted with so many different tribes, so many different nations of people. I’m curious to know when you were bitten by the bug, so to speak, when did this journey start for you?
Mark Plotkin: I started on a cool September night in 1974. I had dropped out of college and was working at Harvard. A colleague of mine says, “Harvard has a night school and there’s this extraordinary Harvard professor who went down to the Amazon in 1941 and essentially disappeared, essentially went native for about 14 years. And if he’s teaching you, you really want to —
Tim Ferriss: I just want to pause to say for people. 14 years, just let that sink into your mind for a second. And this was just to place a time. This is in, what, the ’30s? Or when did the —
Mark Plotkin: 1941 to 1954.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Please continue. Sorry to interrupt. That’s just —
Mark Plotkin: So Schultes, to entice the students, gave a version of his very famous lecture on the plant hallucinogens of the Northwest Amazon. And there was this one slide, this one image that changed my life forever. It was a picture of — black and white picture — that had three indigenous peoples in barkcloth masks in grass skirts. Schultes said, “Here you see three Yukuna Indians doing the kai-ya-ree dance to keep away the forces of darkness. The one on the left has a Harvard degree. Next slide please.” And that image got me hooked, got me hooked on plants, got me hooked on indigenous peoples, got me hooked on the Amazon.
Tim Ferriss: What was your next step or the step that led it to becoming a career for you? How did you take that interest and translate it into a trajectory?
Mark Plotkin: Well, that famous saying of Pasteur, which is that “Chance favors the prepared mind.” So it wasn’t dumb luck, but there were certainly a lot of luck involved. I had dropped out of college and I was working in a museum and was looking for adventures, they say, and there was this one incredible graduate student who himself was sort of legendary. He said, “There are rumors of an endangered man eating crocodilians called the black caiman in the northeast Amazon in a country called French Guiana. This forgotten little ex-colony in the northeast shoulder or South America. You’ll want to go.” I signed up then and there.
Tim Ferriss: Just to backtrack for a second about, and I’m not going to spend too much time on Schultes, but I think that the parallels are interesting. What was it that caught the interest and piqued the curiosity of say, a Ginsburg or an E.O. Wilson? What was it about him? How was he portrayed?
Mark Plotkin: Schultes was essentially a trickster. I mean that in a very positive shamanic sense of the word. You see this man, this elderly man in a white lab coat with a crew cut in a Harvard tie. He looked like the straightest laced fellow in Harvard Square. This is culturally the end of the ’60s, beginning of the ’70s. Yet, when he talked and told his stories and showed his pictures, he was this wild man who went down to the jungle and did all these tribal dances and did all of these tribal drugs. I thought, “Wow.” You know that great quote of Walt Whitman’s that everybody cites about. “I hold multitudes.” Well, there were Schultes’ multitudes. It’s the ultimate pillar of the establishment and the ultimate swashbuckling explorer, all in the same person.
Tim Ferriss: I have no idea if there is any connection here, but when I first discovered Schultes, it made me think there had to be some type of historical basis for Indiana Jones minus the theft of artifacts, but the similarities are pretty striking. So I mean, aside from the physical appearance, I suppose.
Mark Plotkin: Well, this is always a big debate in the academic community where people say, “You’re an Indiana Jones,” and “No, you’re not.” “No, I’m not Indiana Jones,” back and forth. Who is and wasn’t. Indiana Jones is a fictional character. Indiana Jones was a tomb robber, but Indiana Jones fired the imagination of many of us who’ve made a living out of tropical research. So the net effect was tremendously positive.
But remember that the elements of Schultes, which are correct were baked into the Indiana Jones archetype. Elements of Schultes were also baked into Sean Connery in the movie Medicine Man. So he wasn’t just portrayed by Harrison Ford. He was also portrayed by Sean Connery. Pretty amazing for a straight laced, Harvard professor.
Tim Ferriss: So lest people think that shaman, shayman, curandero, ayahuasca, whatever we want to use it as a term, I suppose, curandero, in this case, if we’re talking about Spanish, would be limited to hallucinogens. Could you speak to, and this is a story I’ve heard you tell, but your foot injury, and as a way to just provide a little more surrounding context for the conversation we’re going to have.
Mark Plotkin: Well, people need to understand that the Amazon is full of different cultures. When you’re looking at indigenous cultures, there’s between three and 400. A minority of those are ayahuasca drinkers, okay? A minority of those are coca chewers. So when people say to me, “What do Indians in the Amazon want?” Or “What are shamans like?” You’re dealing with a lot of diversity here. And that’s something that the general public doesn’t really seem to get.
Now I’ve done a lot of my work in the northeast Amazon on the Suriname-Brazil border. And there is no ayahuasca there. There are no hallucinogenic fungi there. Or if there is, they don’t take them. These people are still masters of the rainforest. These people still are mastered diagnosticians and healers. No shaman, just like no physician can cure everything. And there are different forms of expertise and different forms of healing, even within Amazonian cultures.
Here’s an example. I was in the northeast Amazon where I’ve worked for decades. I came into the village and the shaman who was an old friend of mine said, “You’re limping.” And I said, “Yeah, I hurt my foot and it doesn’t seem to be healing very well.” And he says, and I’ll never forget this. He says, “Take off your shoe and give me a machete.” And I did as I was told. He walked over to a palm tree, which was about three meters away. Scraped off a fern growing on the palm tree, threw it in the fire, applied it to my foot, burn the hell out of me. Threw it in the pot and had me drink it. Now the pain stopped almost instantaneously. Now, understand that when I injured my foot, I put on heat. I put on cold, I took aspirin, didn’t work. I went to the doctor, she gave me a cortisone shot. Didn’t really work. I went to a masseuse, went to an acupuncturist, didn’t work. And this guy cured me on the spot. So I don’t understand how it works chemically or spiritually or shamanically, but my foot got better.
Now, seven months later, it came back. I was back in the rainforest and he fixed it. Now that’s 10 years ago and it doesn’t hurt. So who would you rather be treated by? Again, the point being, that these guys can’t cure everything. But sometimes, sometimes they can cure things that our own physicians, our own masseuse, our own physicians, cannot. And that’s why I am so anxious to make sure that these healing traditions are preserved, these healing plants and fungi are preserved. And that these cultures have room and breathing room to exist in a world which is pressing in on all sides. As we know from the headlines, COVID-19 is pressing in particularly heavily.
Tim Ferriss: One of my favorite quotes of yours that I’ve found is, and please correct me if I’m getting this wrong, it might be a paraphrase, but “Western medicine is the most successful system of healing ever devised, but it has holes.” Right? And I think they put some ellipses in there. So I probably omitted a bunch in the middle, but what types of — first you can correct that. And then could you elaborate on what you see as holes?
Mark Plotkin: Well, I think it’s quite clear to all of us that that Western medicine can’t cure everything. Anybody who’s lost a relative to cancer, anybody who has lost a relative to a suicide, anybody who has trouble sleeping, anybody who’s stressed out, Western medicine doesn’t seem to be able to cure many cases of these ailments. Again, no shamanic system, Chinese medicine doesn’t have all the answers.
All of these systems do something well. All of these systems need to be protected for their own sake and for the betterment of all of us. The medical office of the future, if we get it right I believe, is going to have a physician, is going to have a shaman, and it’s going to have a masseuse therapist. It’s going to have a nutritionist, all of these things that should be working together. So it shouldn’t be the physician versus the medicine man or woman. It should be ways of combining that.
Now I don’t think that we’re ever going to see a healer where it’s going to be a woman using ayahuasca and antibiotics and Ayurvedic therapy and massage therapy. One person just can’t contain all that stuff, which is why you need different people maintaining and practicing these different systems.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. There’s such a breadth of subject matter. Unless you want to go an inch deep and a mile wide, it seems like you really need to specialize. There are a couple of notes here I have that I’d love to explore just to kind of show how much territory there is to explore.
Could you please speak to electric eels and dolphins? I can’t wait to hear this because I don’t know what comes after the question, but new discoveries in the Amazon regarding electric eels and dolphins.
Mark Plotkin: Well, electric eels are hard to miss. They’re eight-foot slabs of meat that send out Jedi-like impulses that paralyze or/and sometimes kill their prey. So this isn’t something that’s a recent discovery. Electric eels have been studied for 250 years. Linnaeus himself described the first electric eel. Volta built the first battery inspired in part by his studies of electric eels. And just last year, 2019, we found two new species of electric eels. One of them shot out 20 percent more electricity than electric eels were known to produce.
The point here being, if we still don’t know how many species of electric eels there are, and now we’re studying this to find ways of building new micro batteries, which we can implant within the human body to power electrical devices, think what else is out there that is an eight feet long and hard to miss.
The excitement is to find stuff like this. The flip side of it is watching it’d be destroyed as we all see last year with the Amazon fires, that just the pace of destruction picking up in Brazil. So it’s both exciting and disheartening at the same time.
Tim Ferriss: Is the dolphin example also one of new species being discovered?
Mark Plotkin: Same thing. Again, I want to emphasize that it shouldn’t be about protecting species whether it’s here at home in Austin, Texas, or Peru or California, or wherever. It shouldn’t be about protecting species because they can cure cancer, or because it can teach us how to make new batteries. I think species in general and conservation in general is an ethical exercise. We shouldn’t be destroying species through our own stupidity and our greed because sometimes, sometimes, sometimes these things turn out to be life changing.
Now, in terms of the pink dolphin of the Amazon, they just found a new species of pink dolphin. How do you miss pink dolphins? Okay. But the Paraguay river dolphin is a different species. So again, we’re seeing that big, large, conspicuous well-studied creatures still have secrets that can share with us, and they might help revolutionize certain aspects of medicine. Like it seems possible with these new electric eels, or it might just be a cool species that we can go down there and see and enjoy.
Because one thing you have to remember when people talk about, “Well, we can’t afford conservation because we need to develop.” The fact is that tourism, ecotourism, is the second biggest industry in the world. As we live in an ever urbanizing planet, people have more and more desire and need to commune with nature. So the value of these wild dolphins and electric eels and all the other cool things around the world only increases if we protect them and their oceans and coral reefs and rainforests and deserts in which they live.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s hop from some of these, what you would think would be very conspicuous animals that have been missed, and by missed, I suppose we should say by Western science, not necessarily by the people who live there on the ground. Could you explain what yopo is, please?
Mark Plotkin: Yopo is the great undiscovered hallucinogen of the Amazon. Everybody focuses on ayahuasca all for good reason. However, there is a very powerful hallucinogen, my personal favorite, in the north central Amazon centered on the Venezuela-Brazil border and it’s called yopo. It’s a hallucinogenic snuff. Many people saw this and these famous films by Napoleon Chagnon Anthropology 101. And this is a tree sap or less recognized a leguminous crushed seed because it’s a very different hallucinogen that the Yanomami blow up their nose for the purpose of divination and healing.
It is quite an extraordinary experience because it hurts like hell for a few minutes. And then it is an extremely visual, spiritual trip that lasts for 20 minutes. And then you feel absolutely wonderful afterwards. For all of us who’ve taken LSD and went to that black period, remember that’s why the Stones wrote Paint It, Black, you feel better afterwards. Immediately afterwards, which in my experience is unique. It just goes to point that there are other mind altering substances that are still out there. It’s not just all about ayahuasca.
I’ll give you a concrete example. My late friend Loren McIntyre was lost on the Brazil-Peru border in 1969, was taken in by a group of uncontacted peoples called the Matsés, who had a very ferocious reputation. And they were the ones that introduced him to hallucinogenic frogs. Now known as kambos, quite widely. I learned about this from McIntyre. I put this in a TED Talk I gave a few years ago. When I went to one of the villages in which I work in South Suriname, I gave my TED Talk on the tribal language.
When I showed the magic frog from Peru, one of the shamans stopped me and said, “Oh, we have that frog here.” And I said, “No, you don’t. That’s from Peru.” And he goes, “No, no, we have it here.” And I said, “No, no. It’s in Peru. You never heard of this place. It’s thousands of miles away. That frog does not occur here.” And I said, “No way.” And he says, “Yeah, it’s here. But it’s in the canopy.” And I said, “What do you use it for?” And he says, “Well, we use it for hunting magic, just like those Indians you’re talking about.” And I said, “I’ve been working here over 30 years and you’ve never told me this?” And he said, “Well, you’ve been working here for 30 years and you’ve never asked me.”
And by the way, there was another frog that we use for the same purpose. So I was able to collect and identify this frog. Completely different family. It’s not like sometimes the next species over will have the same compounds in it, completely different family. Actually, some analysis had been done with this and it contains bufotenine, which is a hallucinogenic principle. So once again, the Indians were right and the Western scientist was wrong.
Tim Ferriss: And by hunting magic, that means they consume this to divine beforehand, or they use it for the hunt itself?
Mark Plotkin: They use it the night before the hunt to see where the animals will be. As a Western scientist, this makes no sense to me. But as an ethnobotanist, when people tell me stuff, indigenous people tell me stuff that I found hard to believe it’s important to put aside my disbelief and be willing to listen and learn.
The classic account to this was published by my buddy Peter Gorman, who heard about Loren MacIntyre’s first encounter with this drug and went down to the Northwest Amazon where he had a fair amount of experience. He tried it, and he said, “I took the stuff. In my mind, I saw this tapir crossing the river at a place I knew. The next day we went hunting. We got to that crossing and there was the tapir.”
Tim Ferriss: Raises a lot of questions, doesn’t it?
Mark Plotkin: There’s more questions than answers, but that’s what makes this field of study endlessly fascinating.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask you another question related to yopo. You said your personal favorite. For someone who does not have any personal experience, how would you describe the differences between yopo and, say, ayahuasca, aside from the duration of the experience?
Mark Plotkin: Somebody asked me recently, Tim, about ayahuasca, if I had taken it and I said, “Well, I’m an ethnobotanist. That’s my job.” And they said, “Well, how many times have you taken it?” And I said, “87, I think.” As you know, these experiences are often very different. It depends on where you are in life. It depends on what’s on your mind. It depends on the shaman. It depends on the mix because most ayahuasca mixes are comprised of different admixes by the real masters. And it depends, as you shaman say, it depends on what you need. Sometimes you’re going to the ninth dimension and making love to the goddess, the river, under the water, and sometimes you don’t see anything and sleep deeply and when you ask the shaman about it, he or she will say, “Well, you got what you needed.”
It’s very difficult to say, “Oh, ayahuasca is this and yopo was that and the magic mushrooms are that.” But I will say this, the Yanomami, with whom I had the great pleasure to live and study the stuff, make two kinds of yopo. One is made from the sap of a virola tree, which is essentially an Amazonian nutmeg. Remember, nutmeg is a tree from the Southeast Asian tropics. And if you read the autobiography of Malcolm X, he talks about sneaking into the prison commissary at night and stealing nutmeg so that he could get a buzz, catch a buzz out of it. Now I find the yopo from the virola snuff to be very, very, very visual. It takes you to a different place. The visions are extraordinary, much like I’ve seen in some ayahuasca experiences.
With the other yopo, which is made from the crushed seeds of a savanna tree, it’s primarily auditory. You’re hearing extraordinary things. You can hear everything in the jungle. It is unlike any other entheogenic substance which I have taken. That, to me, are very striking differences. But again, the details are in primarily who’s the shaman, what is he or she treating you for, what is the dosage. I really can’t be more specific than that.
Tim Ferriss: Well, thank you for making the attempt nonetheless. Let’s talk about this word shaman, shaman. It gets used a lot. It seems like everyone on Facebook who plays the didgeridoo, does yoga, or has been to Burning Man is now a shaman these days. For you, what does that designation connotate, and understanding that that is not the word that these people would use to describe themselves necessarily in these indigenous communities, but what does that signify to you? What are the prerequisite skills or experiences that would lead someone, in your mind, to qualify for that?
Mark Plotkin: The etymology of the word when I looked it up was he who knows, and I think there are many terms for what you and I would think of as a shaman. It is somebody who is an expert healer, somebody who is a keeper of the traditions, a keeper of the laws, a psychopomp, the person who conveys souls to the underworld.
One way to contrast it with our own healers, and why I think some of these shamans are so effective, is in our system if you’re sick, you go to the general practitioner. And if that doesn’t work, she sends you to a specialist. And if that doesn’t work, he sends you to a psychiatrist. Whereas the shaman, in a sense, it’s kind of one-stop shopping.
There’s two things that stick in my mind as how you know you’re dealing with the real thing. One is, in the Northwest Amazon, if you ask somebody if they’re a shaman, they will never say yes. They will say, “Well, some say that I am,” or “Who knows?” Anybody who pounds their chest, like some sort of tribal Tarzan, and says, “Yes, I’m a shaman,” or, “I’m the great shaman,” or whatever, isn’t a shaman.
Secondly, I gave the commencement address at Tulane Medical School a couple of years ago, my hometown in New Orleans. The night before I had a few drinks with the dean and I said, “I’ve got to ask you something.” I said, “Why did you ask an ethnobotanist to give the graduation speech at a medical school?” This was after a lot of wine. He said, “Well, we wanted Jimmy Carter, but we couldn’t afford him.”
But the reason I bring up that example, to answer your question, is one of the great shamans in the northwest Amazon, a real ayahuasca master, Don Laureano — he’s long gone now — of the Ingano people. I once asked him, “How long does it take you to become a shaman, a Taita?” In their language, that’s what they call a shaman. “How long did it take you to become a Taita?” And he says, “You know, my son,” he says, “in your system, you have to go to school for three years to become a doctor.” He says, “In your years,” he says, “I’m over 90.” He says, “I’m still learning.” I thought, “That is a true shaman.”
Tim Ferriss: Let me sub in for quite a few listeners out there to follow up on your mention of 87 or so times at the cup with ayahuasca. The question that one might ask is why so many times? Why keep doing it? Is this not supposed to be the “Wham! Bam! Thank you, Van Damme,” one-stop shopping, where you come in and you have this transformative experience? Why keep going back to the well? How would you respond to that?
Mark Plotkin: It’s an excellent question and like I said, I’m an ethnobotanist. It’s my job. Seven of the tribes who I work with are the original ayahuasca tribes. These are the same tribes that taught it to Schultes. When you want to work with an ayahuasquero and he says, “Well, we have to do this in ceremony,” we do. Very, very, very few occasions, Tim, have I gone down there and said, “I’m having a problem. I have an issue I can’t deal with. I really want to have a ceremony.” In almost every single case, it was part of bonding with these people. It was part of communicating with these people. It was never like,” Hey, I hear he’s a great shaman. Let me give this a whirl.” I don’t work that way. I mean, as an ethnobotanist, you don’t want to be a shaman snob like, “Oh, well I know a real shaman and you don’t,” sort of stuff. That’s nonsense.
However, it does give you access to this shamanic world and you’re dealing with the real deal. I want to bring up our mutual friend Michael Pollan. I hope everybody’s read Michael’s great book on hallucinogenic plants in practice. One thing that comes through repeatedly time and time again is this is not a toy. People with mental ailments, who are often the ones who go down to the rainforest and search for these things, often come back worse so that you really need to be dealing with the real deal, and stuff that you buy on the internet, or workshops you hear about on the internet, you got to be real careful because it’s not like smoking a joint. You can really have a bad trip. It can really do you harm.
The point here is not to say, “Okay, well, I’ve done it 87 times. Tim, you’ve only done it 83 times so I’m a bigger stud than you are.” That’s ridiculous. I mean, I remember when I was back in college and people would — well, the people who smoked the most dope were supposed to be the wisest. How’d that work out? There are people that go and take ayahuasca once and they say, “I got it. I’m done. I got what I needed. I’m never going to do it again,” or the shaman will tell them, “Okay, you don’t need to do this anymore,” or “You need to take another cup,” or “Don’t you dare take another cup.” This is how it has to be regarded. You wouldn’t go to a doctor that you heard about on the internet who didn’t have an MD and wasn’t certified. Why would you undergo something so profound and, frankly, so risky with just some fly-by-night operation?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I want to mention a few things to underscore a few of the points that you made. So the first, Michael Pollan. For those interested his book, How to Change Your Mind is exceptional. I also have two interviews with him on this podcast. A great 30,000-foot view as well as experiential account of someone who is psychedelically naive researching not just the history, but the current day and also having his own first person experiences.
To the point related to risk, just to give a few concrete examples so that people understand what can happen, in some areas of Peru — and certainly, hallucinogens are not limited to Peru. These plants — and there are many different types of plants — are not limited to Peru. But that has become one of the top destinations for those seeking some type of transcendent experience or who are desperate to address a problem they have not been able to address. In some areas, Pucallpa and other parts of Peru, there are a lot of basically walking dead. I’m not going to say dead, but you have these Westerners who have had psychotic breaks who are just wandering around homeless. I mean, it’s a nontrivial problem.
It’s really important to understand that these compounds can cause what Roland Griffiths at Hopkins would call ontological shock, where your perception of reality is so fundamentally shifted that you cannot get back to moor your boat. You cannot get back to the dock. I know someone personally who — actually, I know multiple people who went down. He did a dieta, which involved fasting and consuming a plant — In this case, chiric sanango — which is very valuable in a number of contexts. But whether it was the administration or his genetic predisposition, or any number of other factors, he was untethered from reality for a good — I want to say it was between one and two months, and his family had to fly down to South America, and the only way they could get them on a plane was by convincing him that he was God and that he would be doing them a great service. It would be a demonstration of his power to get on this plane with them to fly back to the United States.
I mean, this is, not to say, a typical experience, but it’s not altogether that rare, obviously. It’s not altogether rare, alternatively. I don’t have to take us too far into the sort of encyclopedic list of these types of side effects, but you have to treat them very carefully. You wouldn’t go on Craigslist to find a neurosurgeon, and I don’t think you should buy ayahuasca for your slow cooker on the Dark Web and invite your friend who’s had one hallucinogenic experience to be your shaman for the weekend. Anyway, I’ll get off my soap box.
Mark Plotkin: Well, I completely agree. In my new book Everybody Needs to Know, I talk about ayahuasca, and I point out this obscure liana that was dug up, in a sense, by Schultes in the ’40s and ’50s is now being taken from Israel to Istanbul. You take it at your own risk. I get a lot of calls and emails from people saying, “Where should I go to take it?” It’s like, “I’m a conservationist. I’m an ethnobotanist. I’m not running an ecotourism operation for psychonauts, so don’t even ask me.” But understand that there’s risks. Like I said earlier, hallucinogens are vegetal scalpels, and scalpels can heal you and scalpels can hurt you. They are the vegetal or fungal two-edged swords. And I get this all the time, people say, “Oh, well, it’s a plant so it can’t hurt me.” Really? Ever hear of strychnine?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Hemlock.
Mark Plotkin: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Belladonna. I’m sure a lot of —
Mark Plotkin: I’m all in favor of plant medicines or fungal medicines, but the idea that they have all the answers and there’s no downside is as ridiculous as saying, “If a doctor doesn’t know it, nobody else can.”
Tim Ferriss: Agreed. I want to talk about more things that can hurt or heal. Let’s start with vampire bats — or maybe not vampire bats specifically, but you were bitten by a vampire bat? This is something I did not know.
Mark Plotkin: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Or is it maybe a story about someone else? Okay, please say more.
Mark Plotkin: No, that was me! This is recounted in my first book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, which talks about my 15-year search for medicinal plants in the Northeast Amazon. I was on the Suriname-Brazil border on the Suriname side packing my gear to hike across the border and into Brazil — and remember, Americans don’t typically arrive in Brazil on foot — and I was in the camp and I had my lantern on and I felt this terrible pain in my leg. I looked down and there was a bat attached to my leg biting me, slicing into my leg. I mean, I was bleeding like a stuck pig. I yelled and my indigenous guide came running in, took a machete and sliced it in half and I just stood there, bleeding all over the floor. I said to him, “Oh my God.” I said, “Am I going to get rabies and die?” And he said, “No.” And then he said, “What’s rabies?”
He was right. I didn’t get rabies and die, but the reason that I was bleeding like a stuck pig is that vampire bats have anticoagulants in their saliva, much as leeches do. If you feed on blood for a living, you don’t want it to clot. That means dinner’s over. This saliva, this compound, is being looked at in the lab and it’s got a great trade name: Draculin. The thing here, Tim, is that when I —
Tim Ferriss: Are you serious? Is that what it’s called?
Mark Plotkin: That’s what it’s called. You can look it up.
Tim Ferriss: Oh my God. That’s incredible.
Mark Plotkin: The important thing here is — I started out working at the World Wildlife Fund, and we’re all about save the elephants and save the pandas and save the whales and that’s great. But there’s not much coming out of elephants, pandas, and whales in the medicinal realm. It’s often the creepy crawlies, often the poisonous things like poisonous snakes which led to the birth of ACE inhibitors, a billion-dollar drug industry on its own. It’s sometimes a very good reason for saying we can’t just protect the cute, cuddly things that are appealing to us emotionally. Sometimes it’s the nasty, mean, hairy, aggressive insects, scorpions, or other things like that that might have real potential.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. If I’m not mistaken, I mean, if you’ve undergone anesthetic, if you trace it back, a lot of the — I want to say some of the early innovations related to anesthetics were from curare and poison darts used in South America, which I would imagine probably came from frog venom of some type or toad venom, but you could perhaps speak to that. It’s incredible how much knowledge is possessed and is held in the heads of these, let’s just call them elder doctors, in the rainforest. Not by our credentials, but certainly in their traditions, and I think you’ve called them one of or the most endangered species. Because in a sense, whether it’s cute or cuddly, whether it’s a creepy crawly, how they can be used medicinally — or a plant, certainly — how they can be used medicinally has been vetted through trial and error for hundreds and thousands of years by some of these groups of people.
There’s a real question of how you can preserve that when these people are being displaced? And certainly, the older generations are dying. The younger folks have perhaps become seduced by a modernity, understandably, on some levels, and disillusioned with their traditional medicinal approaches. How do you you preserve? You have done such great work in this respect, but how do you even hope to try to preserve that?
Mark Plotkin: Well, that was the birth of the Shaman’s Apprentice Program that we run out of here at the Amazon Conservation Team, is that I quickly realized decades ago that I could never collect all the information — Schultes could never collect all the information — and a much better way to preserve it is within the cultures themselves. The fact is that no matter how much your shaman will teach me after decades and decades and decades of partnership, collaboration, friendship, love, they’ll still teach even more secrets to their kids or their grandkids. The answer we stumbled across — me and my indigenous colleagues — was let’s pass it down within the tribe. These are traditional secrets. It’s not going to be published. It’s not going to be marketed. It’s up to them. But as long as the young people don’t learn it, we’re doomed.
Well, through this program, we now have four Shaman’s Apprentice clinics in the Northeast Amazon. We have one of the first books ever written by the Indians for the Indians in their language, documents all of their medicinal plant knowledge. We have them running clinics first and foremost for themselves and their own culture. Outsiders are coming to them for treatments and it’s a living, breathing, thriving tradition where, when I went there, it was dying out. You had all these great shamans. They were like the last of the mastodons that weren’t going to reproduce. Well, now they’re reproducing.
The point I made time and time again was not like, “Okay, you can be a shaman or you can have an iPhone.” You can do both. But if we’re going to introduce technology, let’s do it in a way which supports the perpetuation of the culture rather than replaces it. Because when you have the equivalent of, I call it tech bombing, where you have outside of just come in and give these guys all sorts of trinkets — iPads and iPhones, they’re very seductive, but let’s show them how they can use to document their traditions, to record grandma and grandpa. Not just the medicinal plants, the old songs, the legends and things like that so it’s never lost.
Tim Ferriss: How do you, from a brass tacks standpoint, tactically on the ground — because like you, I’ve seen the iPads, the big screen TVs and so on used not in a focused way, but how most of the world and certainly how sometimes I use these things, as a source of entertainment and distraction. How did you help to incentivize the participants, especially the younger generations, to help facilitate this? What’d you do?
Mark Plotkin: Surprisingly easy. 20 years ago, the chief of the Trio tribe, which is the major tribe in the Northeast Amazon, who was a friend of mine at the time — still is — said to me, “We want to get title to our lands and we need a map. That’s what the government told us. ‘You need a map.’ We didn’t even know what a map was. They showed us. We want the help of the Amazon Conservation Team.” And I said, “You got it.” And he said, “So you’ll make us a map?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “But you said you’re going to help us.” And I said, “We will.” And he said, “So you’ll make us a map.” And I said, “We won’t.” He said, “I’m confused.” I said, “We will not make a map. We will teach you to make your own map and we will provide the training and the technology to do so,” which we did.
Technology came in specifically to help them protect their land, to lay their claim to the traditional territory. And while you’re at it, why don’t you talk to grandpa and find out all the names of the rivers and ask him why those rivers have those names. Was it a great battle or was it the home of a sacred spirit, stuff like that. It was introduced specifically to protect land and culture.
Now yeah, I mean, did they play games and stuff like that? They do. But it was introduced in a serious and purposeful way, and they have taken it onto themselves to find new ways to use it. I’ll give you an example. If you’re a botanist, you know that Brazil nuts only live in the Amazon basin. That’s what I was taught as a student at Harvard. But the Trios, in mapping their lands, which crosses the border between Brazil and Suriname, found 13 stands of Brazil nuts outside the Amazon basin because again, it’s the other side of the watershed. They decided to create maps of their Brazil nut trees because that is a sustainable resource. That was their idea. I didn’t tell them to do it.
One of the proudest moments in my career happened this week when I saw a picture of the same Indians in a clinic, which we help them set up, all of them wearing masks and the shamans were creating what they call a immunostimulant beverage from local plants and giving it to all the villagers as part of the ways to keep the coronavirus at bay. This shows the perfect marriage of ancient shamanic wisdom, which is the plants, and 21st century knowledge, which is the face masks, and the technology has been a very important part of the equation.
It’s not this thing like, “Let’s give them all our technology because it’s cool and we want to show them that we’re cool,” nor is it this equally ridiculous idea of saying, “Oh no, they’re Indians. We’ll spoil them if we give them technology.” They’re part of the modern world, and with the exception of the 70 uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, everybody has a sense of what’s going on.
Tim Ferriss: How did you, or how did they go from using GPS and other tools for mapping to recording the — and I’m going to mispronounce this. Maybe you can tell me — pharmacopeia, pharmacopeia?
Mark Plotkin: Both are correct.
Tim Ferriss: Both? Okay, great. I’ll go with both. The spectrum of plants and compounds that could — and animals, I suppose — that could be used medicinally, as well as the methods of preparation and administration. How do you make the jump from mapping land to that, or how was it done in any instance?
Mark Plotkin: Because it was a process. I went down there to collect ethnobotanical information à la Schultes, making lists and writing it down. When they said, “Why do you want to do this?” I said, “Well, you know that Bible you read in church? I’m not a Christian. I’m a Jew. And if my ancestors hadn’t written down their information, we wouldn’t have the Bible to learn from today. I want to work with your shamans to write down their knowledge so 20 years from now, 200 years from now, your great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren will have your original wisdom to learn from.” Well, the chief was a fundamental [inaudible], this was perfect. And we did so. We started writing down lists of plants and what they’re used for and then the shamans would prepare for me. I realized, okay, well, actually you need the dosage, you need the preparation. It’s not just hey, they use species A for headaches. That doesn’t really tell you much. And then I did this all with guides my age. I started this when I was 27 and after eight years, I very proudly handed the chief a book of his ethnobotanical wisdom in his language.
He had two books in his language at that point, the Bible presented by the missionaries and the Terreno Epe Pon Puro, The Trio Plant Medicine Handbook done by me in collaboration with the shamans. It’s the power of the written word. You’ve written enough books, Tim. It’s the power of the written word that when you put it in front of somebody and it’s written down, it carries much more weight than just a conversation or an interview or anything like that. That really revolutionized their thinking of the value of this stuff. I said, “Look, I got you guys started, but ultimately it’s not all about me.” My first book tells of a shaman’s apprentice. It’s kind of a trick title because I’m not the apprentice, they are. But in following me and me helping them kickstart this interest in their own traditions, they took it over, which is the way it should be.
Tim Ferriss: Was the book in their native language to prevent bio-piracy?
Mark Plotkin: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Or was it, it was.
Mark Plotkin: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Could you speak to, go ahead, please continue.
Mark Plotkin: No, I’ve been criticized for not publishing this information in the technical literature, but I have no interest in it. It’s their secret. I’m not going to reveal a secret that’s told to me in confidence so I can get tenure. I run a not-for-profit. I don’t face that challenge, but I wouldn’t do it anyhow. And so the knowledge is first and foremost for them. And if they want to commercialize it or sell it somehow, good for them. I’ll give them advice, but I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it for them. I’m not going to take what I know. And I know a lot and make money commercially. I run a not-for-profit. That’s profit is not my prime motivating factor in life.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s take an example just to explore this a little bit further and male aphrodisiacs. I was going to say, what has your experience been with them? But what I mean by that is in your field studies, we can go any direction you want, but in your field experiences, in whether it’s with the Trios in the northeast Amazon or elsewhere, maybe you could just walk us through your sort of exposure to this and the reception from your Western friends and colleagues.
Mark Plotkin: Yeah, I was working with the Trio’s first trip, I think was 1982. And they kept showing me this one plant, and they’d say, “That’s a male aphrodisiac. That’s a male aphrodisiac. That’s a male aphrodisiac.” Now you have to understand that shaman’s knowledge is individualistic in that even within the same tribe, even within the same village, very seldom do you have a shaman who will say, “I use this plant for this and I use this dosage and I prepare it this way,” and so on and so forth. It’s not a perfect match. Like our own medicine, it’s art and science. If you go to three doctors with one ailment, very seldom do you get the exact same recommendation in my experience.
I came back, but they kept saying, “This is a male aphrodisiac.” I got back to my office at a Harvard. I was working in the museum forum with Schultes at the time. And he said, “Well, call the medical school, see what they say?” I got this guy on the phone at the medical school, calling here from the Harvard Botanical Museum. And I said, “Look, I found this thing, and they say it’s a male aphrodisiac.” And he said, “Did you try it?” I said, “Look, I’m 27. I wouldn’t be able to tell if it worked or not.” He said, “Well understand, there’s no such thing as a male aphrodisiac.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Well, it’s physiologically impossible.” And I said, “Well, what about Spanish fly?” He said, “It’s an urban legend. It doesn’t work. There is no such thing as a male aphrodisiac.”
Okay, fine. A year later I was working with the Wayana people to the east on the Suriname French Guiana border and they showed me this other plant. They said, “It’s a male aphrodisiac.” And three shamans said, “It’s a male aphrodisiac.” Wasn’t even the same family. Once again, something’s just one species over in the same genus and probably the same compounds. Completely different plant, completely different family. And so I got back to Harvard and I called the medical school and the guy says, “Oh, you’re the guy who called last year. I told you, there’s no such thing, no such thing, no such thing.”
A year later, I was working with the Maroons. The Maroons are Afro Amazonians. They are the descendants of escaped slaves. They were brought to the northeast Amazon in the 1700s, they got off the slave ships, looked around and said, “This is equatorial rainforest. I’ll see you white boys later.” And took off for the interior. And you go in their villages and it looks like the set of Roots. It looks like 17th century west Africa. And they showed me a plant that they said was a male aphrodisiac, different species, different genus, different family, except these guys were selling it in town. I didn’t even call the medical school because I didn’t want to have the same conversation.
A few years later, some physicians got, I think it was the dosage wrong on a blood pressure medicine and all of a sudden, all these guys in the old folks home are popping woodies. Eureka. It’s a male aphrodisiac. If a shaman in a red breechcloth says it’s a male aphrodisiac, the guy in the white coat says, “It’s impossible.” The guy in a white coat stumbles across it, it’s billions of dollars and maybe a Nobel prize.
Tim Ferriss: Is there, just as a side note, this could be a total urban legend. I heard that the way this could be total, total fancy, but that the way that Viagra was identified for male enhancement, erectile dysfunction, whatever you want to call it was that they had called it a fail for blood pressure or whatever the primary outcome measure was for the study. And they asked the subjects, these elderly folks to return their supplies and the men all refused. And they were like, “What the hell is going on here? What is going on here? This is very, very odd.”
In your experience, have you seen any tribes who have been able to, without sort of destroying, setting fire to their own homes, metaphorically speaking, take some of this knowledge and monetize it for their benefit? Have you seen any success stories since there is, and the reason I ask is one of the compelling reasons to say preserve rainforest and all sorts of different ecosystems is for the medicinal value that might be contained. I’m wondering if there are any success stories.
Mark Plotkin: It’s really a good question for my colleague, Paul Cox, who’s a fellow ethnobotanist trained at Harvard around the same time I was and he was making great progress with some compounds from American Samoa antivirals, where the deal he cut, which is the way it should be done, where they would make a keystone payment. In other words, “Let me take this plant and if it cures AIDS, I’ll be back in 17 years with a billion dollars.” It’s a crap shoot. It’s a long shot for any plant or animal product or fungal product to make it to the market for a variety of reasons. But he said, “Okay, if you want to study this in the lab, you have to pay these people X. And then if it passes phase one, which it did, then you have to pay them Y. And then if it passes phase two, you have to pay them a Z. And then if it gets to market, they get a piece of the action.”
Another colleague of mine, Steven King at Jaguar Health, has been developing a new antidiarrheal from a tree sap in Peru and has made a lot of progress in putting money back into these communities. I wish I had a great success story to tell you about some tribe that made a billion dollars and saved the rainforest and lived happily ever after. The answers aren’t completely in. But these were two successful examples that really bear looking into further.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. No, that’s very encouraging. I really just don’t know if there were any precedents or sort of deal structures that have made sense long-term. And it sounds like there are some case studies that people can learn from.
Mark Plotkin: Tim, I think that where people fail, there’s two failures in this idea of sustainable development. One is that we have to find X, whether it’s the cure for cancer or an ecotourism lodge or non timber forest products and they can live happily ever after. And anybody who has a pension or has stocks, knows that you don’t put all your money on one horse, even at the racetrack. What we need is a diverse portfolio, as we would call it, where they’re making some money from ecotourism and they’re making some money from handicrafts and they’re making some money from running a shamanic clinic and so on and so forth, that’s the way to really help these people. The other fallacy is that we’ve just got to get them a lot of money, as much as possible, as soon as possible, they’ll be better off.
I’ve seen this time and time again, where these guys make enough money to move to the city and actually they don’t live in the nice part of the city. They live in the slums, the barrio, the favela and they’re much worse off. A little money on a very steady basis based on non-destructive aspects of the ecosystem to me is the way to go. And I’ll give you an example of that. There’s a tribe of hunter gatherers called the Akurios. They were essentially dragged out of the forest right before I started my work in the ’70s and ’80s and in the northeast Amazon. But the other Indians regard them as almost legendary in terms of their ability to hunt, in terms of their knowledge of the forest. And I was told they had 35 words for honey.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Mark Plotkin: I have to report that was an exaggeration. There’s only 34. I wrote them all down. I got together with my colleagues and said, “Let’s create a project on sustainable development of honey. We’ll show you guys how to build hives. We’ll have the Akurios as our technical experts to talk about what produces the best honey. What’s the stingless bees we should be working with.” And we’re now producing honey, not a single tree’s cut down. And they’re making money and they have more honey than ever. And it’s one of those win/win situations. They’re never going to get rich from this, but when they go to town, they’ve got honey in their pocket, which essentially means money in their pocket. It’s something they can sell without having to cut down a mahogany tree or sell off the lands to gold miners or anything like that.
Tim Ferriss: Well, that sounds certainly like tremendous progress or at least providing a very viable alternative to cutting down the mahogany and so on. I would love to explore perhaps the other side of the coin. And what I mean by that is I mentioned just a few minutes ago, say finding the, or you did also, the cure for cancer, or the cure for AIDS or the cure for fill in the blank. But it strikes me that there’s also, and it’s certainly this is not my original thought, there is the avoidance of the next AIDS or the next fill in the blank pandemic. Could you speak to your thoughts on preventing pandemics — any policies or lessons that you think are worth underscoring?
Mark Plotkin: Well, I did an editorial recently for the Los Angeles Review of Books. It’s on my personal website, markplotkin.com in which I point out that the pandemic was caused by abuse of nature. And by that the concrete example of that is it came out of a bat that was crammed together in some fetid cage in Wuhan, China. And we don’t know exactly how it jumped to the human species, whether it went to a pangolin and then to a human. That part’s a little unclear, but it’s clear that this terrible virus originated in the bat. And our attitude towards abusing these animals, cruelty to animals is causing real harm. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of deaths, trillions of dollars already and no end in sight.
When indigenous peoples, whether they’re pygmies in West Africa or indigenous peoples in the Amazon, tell us we’re going to pay a price for abusing nature, we’re paying that price. Some of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met are the Kogis. The Kogis live in northern Colombia in the Sierra Nevadas, not in the Amazon, but they’ve been called the Dalai Lamas of South America. They’re the most traditional people. They don’t wear shoes. They don’t have wristwatches. They don’t have cellphones for the most part. And they have been saying, and they told me this in February, Tim. They told me this in February and March, “If we don’t stop abusing nature, we’re going to pay a terrible price.”
Well guess what? They were right. And I’m sure they take no joy in that, but this whole attitude towards monetizing everything, towards short-term thinking towards, me tooism is destroying the planet on which we live. Is fouling the nest in which we live. This attitude, “Oh, well, foreign aid is a waste of money, and third-world people deserve what they get.” Really? How much money have we spent in the US now on coronavirus? And as I said, there’s no end in sight. I really don’t like to hear this phrase, “What’s the silver lining in this pandemic?” There’s no silver lining, it’s terrible, but there may be some lessons learned. And one of those lessons has gone to be abusing wildlife is a real bad idea. Bad ethically, bad spiritually, but obviously perhaps worst of all, bad epidemiologically.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any actions that you would like to see taken? Any policies put in place? It seems like regulating what markets in China would be, or is exceptionally challenging, but I haven’t been tracking the news or developments so perhaps steps have been made to try to mitigate some risk. Do you have any thoughts on what could be done to remedy some of these problems?
Mark Plotkin: Well, as I recall, you have extensive experience in East Asian studies and martial arts and things like that. Maybe you have a better understanding of the mindset than I do, but we’re all paying a price here. The Chinese, the Americans, the Canadians, the Amazonian indigenous peoples. I would hope that we as a species can sit down and say, “Let’s have some guidelines here.” There’s a lot of people calling for an end to the wildlife trade and in an ideal world maybe that would be possible but we don’t live in an ideal world. Let’s control it. Let’s have less cruelty. Let’s have less conditions that lead to diseases jumping out of these species, whether they’re bats or pangolins or armadillos. And I know from other biologists, there’s many viruses in the bats of the Amazon, as there are in Southeast Asia.
It’s not just like, “Okay, if we shut down the wet market in Wuhan, we’re cool.” I’m always much more in favor of building bridges and creating alliances than pointing fingers and saying, “This person’s at fault. These are the bad guys. I’m the good guy.” That seldom works. It just goes against human nature. By the same token, the idea that everybody will just get together and sing Kumbaya is equally ridiculous. The wildlife trade is the biggest illegal market with the sole exception of narcotics and munitions. We’re not talking about a couple of guys doing bad things on the side in the back of a market somewhere in the tropics. We’re talking about a lot of power and a lot of money. But if we don’t tackle it, the next pandemic is going to be right behind it. This is not a one off. There’s nobody who understands epidemiology or the wildlife trade thinks, okay, once we get past this, we’re in the clear. Nobody.
Tim Ferriss: And in some respects, this was a real warning shot. It’s caused long-term economic damage, certainly skyrocketing unemployment around the world. You have many deaths, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been. This is it’s, it’s very much a virus that’s kind of designed to trick smart people in a lot of ways, but it’s not nearly, at least as far as we know right now, as lethal as it could have been. Compared to many other viruses that have even scarier combinations of R naught and/or the sort of transmissibility and lethality. Hopefully this will act as a sort of flare to catch the attention of people who can take steps to mitigate some of these risks.
Mark Plotkin: Well, as somebody who’s been working in the Amazon for a long time, I’m often asked, well, when I look at the Amazon rainforest, is the glass half-full or half-empty? And my response is always the same. Any glass that’s half-full is half-empty. As terrible as things are with COVID-19, as you said, it could be worse. I wouldn’t say that’s a silver lining, but I would say, like you said, Tim, that it is a wake up call. You look at some of these terrible hemorrhagic fevers, they’re even scarier, but that’s not to belittle this virus, which is killing our species right, left, and center. The focus needs to be on dealing with this pandemic, but the focus at the same time needs to be on preventing the next pandemic. When I started work in the rainforest in the ’70s, many people said to me, “Well, rainforest, who cares about that? We have to worry about zero population growth.”
Now people say to me, “Well, the rainforest, who cares about that? We need to worry about climate change.” But overpopulation is driving deforestation of the rainforest and deforestation of the rainforest, destruction of the rainforest is pouring carbon into the atmosphere. And it’s the number two cause of climate change. Number two driver of climate change after fossil fuels. The idea that, “Oh, well, let’s just solve COVID-19 and then we can worry about wildlife and then we can worry about poverty and then we can worry about a proteomics pandemic.” No, we need to do all those things now.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s all interrelated. And one thing that strikes me about your bio and your stories and looking at your career is that much like Schultes, you are a boundary walker. Just like the Coyote, just like the trickster, or the Raven. You’re both boundary walkers and we won’t go into a whole Joseph Campbell mythological expedition right now, but you’re both boundary walkers. And as a boundary walker, you’ve been very good at finding common ground, common interests and building long-term relationships with people who at face value would seem to be very different from yourself.
And I’d be interested to hear, since I do think that building bridges is going to be very important. If we want to tackle any of these issues that we just mentioned, there’s going to need to be in the US, bipartisan support. They’re going to need to be, as you put it, large tents, as we were talking before we started recording. Could you speak to some of your longer term relationships? What they look like? For instance, you mentioned in a note that you shot me, a shaman that you hadn’t seen in 32 years, I don’t know the story behind that, but could you tell it?
Mark Plotkin: I was invited to a conference of indigenous leaders, mostly shamans. I was the only white guy there. It took me four days to get there. That in itself is a long story, which I’ll spare you this time. But when I got there, I met an old friend who was the one who invited me, who was a tribal leader. And while we’re talking, his brother walked up and he said, “Remember me?” And I said, “Yeah.” He says, “I haven’t seen you in 32 years. You were my father’s friend. I walked five days to be here. Can I give you a hug?” I almost burst into tears.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Mark Plotkin: I almost burst into tears. How sincere is that? But the point here is that a long-term relationship allows you to work with people, whether it’s a shaman in the Amazon, or whether it’s somebody in Capitol Hill or somebody you grew up with, based on a level of trust and friendship and knowledge that you simply can’t do in a hurry. And we’re rushing everywhere. Less so these days. You just cannot create the connections to get things done. And if we need system change, which the Skoll Foundation, which is one of the supporters of our work, founded by Jeff Skoll, who says we need system change. Means that we can’t just tinker around the edges. And what a lot of people don’t realize, if you look at the history of environmentalism, particularly in this country, it was founded by Republicans. The first great environmentalist was Teddy Roosevelt.
And the second greatest environmentalist in terms of presidents was Richard Nixon, also a Republican. This whole idea that, well, if you like trees or you like hunting, or you like wildlife, you should be a Democrat or Republicans don’t believe in us. Everybody gets sick. Everybody wants clean air. Everybody wants clean water. This is one thing where there shouldn’t be any political discord. There should be broad agreement. And clearly we need to work together. Democrats, Republicans, independents, people elsewhere, even in dictatorships, for the common good. I went to the Rio Conference in ’92. It was a greatest gathering of world leaders ever. George Bush Sr. was there, Fidel Castro was there. And this was probably the greatest occasion in the history of the world where everybody put aside their politics and said, “We want a better world, not for ourselves so much as for our kids and our grandkids.” That’s the attitude we need to have.
Tim Ferriss: Agreed. I’d like to, if you don’t mind, take a bit of a left turn. We’re going to come back to this, but I want to travel back to the Amazon, or surrounding areas, for a second because you mentioned the magic mushrooms of Mexico and shelties, and among the Mazatecs, much of the fungal medicine work is matriarchal, a lot of women. Very female forward, if that’s even an expression, but it tends to be matriarchal. I’ve certainly seen that there are many ayahuasqueras in among the Shipibo people—female. Have you run into other societies, other tribes, other nations within say South or Central America that have been predominantly matriarchal when it comes to the shamanic work or medicine work.
Mark Plotkin: Interesting question. Difficult to answer. You hit the two highlights, the famous female shamans of the neotropics are the Mazatecs in Southern Mexico and the Shipibo in the Amazon. Now, every tribe that I’ve worked with and I’ve worked with a number of them has female healers and sometimes female shamans. They sometimes make that distinction. They’re the ones that tend to focus on female ailments, menstrual problems, for example, childbirth problems or kids things. There are on occasion, female shamans that I’ve met, but they’re few and far between. I’ve had many discussions with the shamans around the fire at night about why that’s the case. And they said, women work too hard to have the time to practice medicine. They do all the work around here, right? They raise the kids, they tend the gardens. They do all the cooking. It is a very demanding profession and it’s not something you can do in your spare time.
And tribal societies, women tend to have very little spare time compared to the men. It’s obviously a sweeping generalization, but sometimes a woman will feel a call to heal. And that is what she’ll do, and she’ll be the equivalent of any male shaman or sometimes even better, but they tend to be outliers rather than, “Oh, yeah there’s a bunch of tribes that I know where the primary shamans are women.” So I would have to say in my experience, no, but you know, the Amazon’s a big place and there’s lots of tribes. So you may find different answers from other ethnobotanists.
Tim Ferriss: Within the tribes that you’ve spent time — this is going to sound like an odd question, but it’s related to the male/female split among practitioners. And that is what percentage is, I know it’s a lame question, but what percentage of the use of hallucinogens specifically is focused on hunting, aspects of hunting or warfare, right? And maybe less so today, but tribal warfare?
Mark Plotkin: You know, in my experience the tribes that I spend considerable time with that are very much into hallucinogens on a regular basis or in the Northwest Amazon. And most of the tribes I’ve worked with don’t use hallucinogens. The Xingu in the Southeast Amazon in Brazil, the Trios up on the Suriname-Brazil border, the Wyanas on the Suriname-French Guiana border, the Wai Wais on the Suriname-Guiana border. So I can’t give you a straight answer there, Tim. It doesn’t break down very easily. And most of the groups that I’ve worked with, warfare is definitely a thing of the past, except for some of the Yanomami when I worked there 20 years ago, spent time there 20 years ago, there was still warfare amongst the different villages, but I think that’s gone by the wayside since then.
Tim Ferriss: And hunting? And the reason I’m asking is I’m curious if the sort of — does the disproportionate male representation in working with some of these plants is related to a disproportionate traditional application to hunting, which I would assume in many of these cultures is predominantly male, but maybe that’s an overreach. I don’t know.
Mark Plotkin: I hadn’t thought of that, but I think that makes very good sense. And the tribes that I’ve spent time with that do a lot of ayahuasca for example, and yopo, it’s primarily for hunting, hunting, visions, hunting magic, good luck in the hunt and seeing where the animals are going to be. But as I said, the Yanomami, were still doing some warfare, very limited amount. And that was primarily the men and the men were the one doing all the yopo, at least that I saw.
Tim Ferriss: What do you think the, and this is a heavy term — so maybe it’s not the right way to phrase it, but the responsibility, if any, for people in the United States and elsewhere who are using these compounds from the Amazon to, in some fashion support or protect the communities, the people from which these medicines came from? That’s a loaded question. So yeah, you can answer it however you want.
Mark Plotkin: I find it highly ironic that all these people are talking about the vine of life don’t look where the stuff’s coming from. I’ve had shamans complaining that they see planeloads of this stuff flying out of the Northwest Amazon. They never got anything for it. There was no replanting. They didn’t know where it went. It was a sacrilege to them.
So I would like to think that everybody should be thinking about giving back whenever they benefit from something. And I’m not just talking about hallucinogens, but there seems to be a lot or very little interest in supporting these forests. Very little interest in supporting the shamans other than, “Okay, this guy gave me the brew to drink. So I’ve got to slip him a few bucks.” It strikes me, it’s just kind of a disconnect that it’s all about healing, but they’re not thinking about who they need to heal as reciprocity for getting some of the healing. You know what I’m saying?
Tim Ferriss: I do. Is there anything they can do? And this could relate to Amazon Conservation Team or any number of other things, but I’m wondering if people who are listening, whether they have benefited from psychedelics, whether derived from or synthesized based on the molecular structure of natural compounds, if they wanted to try to support, and certainly this is a great time to support because not unlike the native American communities in the United States, the indigenous tribes, certainly speaking with some of my friends in South America are having just an atrocious time with COVID-19 and having food supplies cut off, and it being viewed in some ways as an opportunity for governments to withhold resources. And it’s a very tragic situation. So I think that the timing couldn’t be better in a sense for supporting the communities from which a lot of these medicines came. What can people do? Are there any steps you might recommend, any things you might suggest they consider?
Mark Plotkin: Well, what you’re saying, I hear two questions, Tim. One is how should people give back that are benefiting from this healing and these plants and these fungi? That’s one thing. And our organization is very active in supporting the shamanic cultures, the Northwest Amazon, which is where ayahuasca and the use of ayahuasca originated. I’m sorry to my Brazilian friends who think it all came from Rio and Sao Paulo, no. Originally came from the Northwest Amazon.
In terms of helping indigenous peoples in the Amazon, they’re getting hammered by this virus. And it’s particularly challenging in the sense that it’s not like we’ve got the cure for this. And if we just had enough money, we’d give it to them. I wish it was that simple. It’s not, we don’t have the cure for it. We don’t have the cure for it for them. We don’t have the cure for us, but there are positive steps that can and should be taken.
And if you look at our website, AmazonTeam.org, you can see some of the things that we’ve been doing, which is indigenous park rangers who control the borders and keep the outsiders out because that’s how the disease gets in. Number two, educational materials in the tribal language, don’t send in a poster in Spanish or Portuguese and think, “Okay, they got it.” Also, the educational material has to be aimed at a culturally appropriate way. These are tribal people. They eat out of the same pot. In the age of coronavirus, you don’t eat out of the same pot. Okay? Sometimes it’s just sending in soap. They can make soap from some local plants, but not to the degree that they need it now. I mean, I’m washing my hands 20 times a day, as we all should be. So we not only recognize the problem, but we have programs in place to deal with it.
We’ve gotten over two tons of supplies, medical and sanitary supplies, into the hands of the indigenous peoples in the Northwest Amazon. Now on the one hand, that’s a pretty impressive number. On the other hand, it’s pretty pathetic compared to the size and scope of the problem and the challenge. So we need more help. We need more support to do more of this and partner with other organizations that can do more along the same lines.
So we know there’s a problem. We know it’s getting worse. We’ve lost two tribal leaders in the Amazon in the last month who are spectacular people that there’s no replacement for. And remember that the way that these diseases strike is they first and foremost hit the elderly. Well, the elderly are the libraries, the elderly are the ones that have all the knowledge in their heads. And secondarily, they hit the little ones, not necessarily coronavirus, but some of the other things that sweep through. So you’re losing the elderly and using the little ones, which means you’re losing the library and you’re losing the next generation. That’s a lose/lose proposition.
Tim Ferriss: And for those people interested, they can also follow Amazon Conservation Team on Twitter at AmazonTeamorg. And I’ll link to that in the show notes. And you recently just published a response dashboard, which is quite impressive. I’m impressed by it. Which was built with something called Esri, people can check out at Esri E-S-R-I. Very, very cool. And you can see visually how ACT, that is Amazon Conservation Team, ACT is working to mitigate the threat posed by COVID-19 to the Amazon rainforests most vulnerable populations.
It’s very cool. It’s very well done. And it strikes me as it’s a timely tool. And it’s a timely problem. If people have had this in some fashion weighing on their mind, or if it just occurred to them that if they are proponent of healing modalities that include plants or things derived from those plants, inspired by those plants, that this is a good time to sort of toss your hat in the ring and people can certainly find out more about what you do at AmazonTeam.org. Well, Mark, we could go in a million different directions. Is there anything else that you would like to make sure we mention or take some time to chat about?
Mark Plotkin: Well, I do have a concluding note and then I have a story, which you can feel free to edit in somewhere. I used to play a lot of racquetball, and I injured my arm quite badly, my forearm. And for some reason, the muscles of your forearm don’t have a lot of monition. They don’t heal well on their own if you injure them a certain way. And I went to the doctor, I went to the masseuse, same story. As I mentioned earlier, with my foot, it just didn’t get better. And I went to the shaman and he looked at it and he said, “Hmm, this is going to take some time.” So I spent a month there. I mean, I was doing other things, but the first thing he did was give me plants as a topical, he rubbed them on, a lot of massage, gave me a drink. So it was internal as well.
And then he said, “Okay, here’s the problem. You have a bad relationship buried in that muscle. That’s why your doctors can’t heal it and I can. So I am going to chant and I’m going to remove those bad emotions because it’ll just come back.” So he did the chanting, he did the massage, I drank the potion, and he said, “Now here’s the problem. What Western medicine doesn’t understand is when you have a bad injury, things will come back and attack that space. So some people, when they’re nervous, they get stomachaches or they get pimples or they can’t sleep.” He says, “What I need to do is put a shamanic patch over where the wound was. There’s no more wound, I’ve healed it, but I’m going to put a patch so it never comes back. So when you have stress or when you’re injured, it doesn’t start hurting again.”
That was about 13 years ago. I’m still fine. That’s an explanation and approach to healing, which I’ve never heard from any physician. And frankly, I’ve never heard from any other shaman, but you know what? My arm doesn’t hurt.
Tim Ferriss: So many interesting questions. I love interesting questions. You know, I just want to make a quick side note because I realized I didn’t answer it earlier. I didn’t explain it. You said liana earlier, that is a vine or a, I guess a wooden climbing plant that hangs from trees.
Mark Plotkin: Liana is a woody vine. That’s what Tarzan used to swing on. That’s what ayahuasca is.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s quite a cross-section too, a beautiful looking vine. Not so delicious. Looks better than it tastes.
Mark Plotkin: That’s definitely true.
Tim Ferriss: And you said you had some closing comments.
Mark Plotkin: Yeah. Recently I was talking to a fellow trying to get some support for fighting COVID-19 amongst the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. And he said, “ACT, what does it stand for?” And I said, “Get shit done.” He said, “Well, that doesn’t match the acronym.” I said “It’s Amazon Conservation Team. You want a mission statement? I got a mission statement!” The point is, we’re about accomplishing the goals, partnering with indigenous peoples to protect their culture and their forest. And the challenge has never been greater in the age of COVID-19, the point being that Western medicine doesn’t have all the answers. We don’t have a cure for COVID-19. We don’t have a cure for coronavirus, neither do they. But what we’re able to do is bring to bear Western knowledge and abilities and sanitation and technology like to the new dashboard, to keep track of this and try and devise the means to keep it at bay as much as possible.
The future of conservation, the future of the rainforest, the future of indigenous peoples, in my opinion, isn’t about the microchip versus the medicine man. It’s both of them working together. It’s about building bridges and building alliances and coming up with a new way of doing things, a new way of living our lives, a new way of stewarding nature. And it takes boundary walkers, whether it’s the shamans who come out of the rainforest to enlighten us with their wisdom or guys like you or me, who’ve been down to the rainforest to learn from them or people that have feet in different worlds or people that are just open to hearing other realities, other modalities, willing to try medicines or chanting or frog slime when Western medicine wasn’t able to do the trick. So whether it is Black Lives Matter, whether is it about saving the rainforest, all of these cries should feed productively into a more positive place for all of us, because conservation is not just about saving the rainforest. Conservation is not just about saving the Indians. Conservation is about saving ourselves as well.
Tim Ferriss: Mark, we could talk for many, many more hours and I hope to beat that in person. [crosstalk 01:29:44] And this has been just a thoroughly enjoyable conversation. And I really appreciate you taking the time. I think this gives people a lot to chew on. They can find Amazon Conservation Team at amazonteam.org. They can find your personal website at markplotkin.com. I’ll link to all of those in the show notes. And people can find those at tim.blog/podcast and just search Plotkin, PLOTKIN, and it’ll come right up or you can search Amazon. And I’m sure it will also pop right up. This has been a blast. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Mark Plotkin: I enjoyed it, at least as much as you did, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: Well this will be round one and hopefully we’ll get around to set up in person a bit, might be at a socially appropriate distance, but TBD on that front and so many more questions, but I’ll let those sit for now. And thank you once again. And to everyone listening, be safe, keep your mind open. And if you can support, if you have found benefit from the plants, the compounds that we’re describing, I feel like it is at least for me, a moral imperative. And quite frankly, it’s also an existential imperative.
If you are consuming these plants for the compounds themselves to support these geographies, these people who have been the stewards of this technology, these means of preparation and administration for hundreds and thousands of years. An easy way to do that is to go to AmazonTeam.org and see what opportunities exist. It doesn’t need to be a lot of money. There are a lot of different causes. There are a lot of different pains and a lot of uncertainty at the moment. But as you said, conservation is sort of the fabric upon which many of these other concerns rest. And it’s all encompassing in some respects. So I will say thank you, Mark. Dr. Mark Plotkin, MarkPlotkin.com. Definitely encourage people to take a look at Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, as well as The Amazon, subtitle, What Everyone Needs to Know. And until next time, thanks for listening.
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