In the rugged semi-tropical mountains of Southern Mexico, in the northeastern corner of the state of Oaxaca, the Mazatec Indians grow corn, beans, and coffee. The Mazatecs are one of many discrete linguistic, ethnic groups in that diverse state. Due to their long isolation in the deeply folded terrain of the Sierra Madre Oriental, both the natural habitats and the cultural traditions have been able to remain somewhat more intact than in many more accessible areas.
Although traditions of healing with plants are rich and varied across much of Mexico, the Mazatecs are renowned for their facility with plant medicine and ritual healing. As a Zapotec man from another region of Oaxaca explained to me two years ago, when I was setting out on my ethnobotanical fieldwork in that area, "My people know many herbs; so do the Mixtec and the Mixe. But the Mazatecs know magic. They know how the plants talk." By looking at the way that the Mazatec people see nature and interact with it, both in the field and ritually, we can understand something of the indigenous Mesoamerican concept of natural order, and of health and illness within that order. We can also get a glimmer of an enduring, multi-leveled worldview, which is rooted in the many species that dwell in their mountains and valleys and resides deep in the animated landscape itself.
The rivers flow largely underground, through miles of cavernous tunnels. The world's greatest spelunkers are only now exploring the subterranean torrents of what is known as the Huautla Complex. During an all-night Mazatec healing ceremony with a curandera or curandero (a female or male shaman who cures), there is heartfelt prayer, beautiful singing, and chanted invocation. In the penetrating silences that fall between these expressions, one can hear, or perhaps I should say one can feel, the river flowing close by underground. Each river, cave, spring, and the water itself has an individually named spirit, a dueño, that guards the water source and must be treated with exacting respect, or else, I am told, there will be dire personal consequences for the careless transgressor.
The curandero inhales the scent of his meter-long beeswax candle, which acts as the hour-glass for the prayer session, and tells us where the bees who made the wax came from and which flower pollen they were collecting. The pollinators, their blossoms, and the effort of making their hive are part of the offering we make to the deities we are invoking. He sings about the bees. He prays to a large, fresh Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco) leaf on the table, addressing it as two saints. "San Pedro," he murmurs, "San Pedro and San Pablo, please protect these people here and this work that we do tonight. Carry our prayers to God and help us communicate our gratitude and our needs." On the leaf lies a small mound of crumbled green tobaccos, piciete, two or sometimes three varieties, each grown nearby by a friend or relative, or sought from healer-gardeners in distant villages. The shape and color of the flower-rose, creamy white, or the rarer purple-distinguishes the variety visually, but it is the espíritu in the plant that makes it prayer medicine. Each variety has its particular being and qualities that differ from the next; each contributes a personality and a specific force to the act of diagnosis or protection that the healer is attempting. It is believed that together the spirits of two or three tobaccos, of two or three saints, listening and working on behalf of the one who needs help, will be better than one. During the ceremony, the tobacco saints will be rubbed briskly on the skin or held in a small quid in the cheek by the healer and perhaps by the patient. The participants will speak to these santos, who they feel sure are listening, and request that they urge the other spirits of lifeforms, elements, rocks, sky, and ancestral time to engage in the ritual conversation too. The curandero will name every spirit he feels might help in his endeavor of the moment and will express gratitude to many more.
Over the past five hundred years, as the stories of the saints have been told, retold, embellished, and made locally relevant by neophyte converts to Catholicism, the saints' qualities meshed with the qualities that are particular to certain plant species and the primordial beings that have long resided in those plants, according to native recognition. The personification of plant species reflects a palpable perception of their intrinsic character, but it also provides a way to communicate with each species as a being, in a dialogue about the environment, the relationship with other species and with humans. Through a leaf, even without ingesting it, one can speak to the spirit of the species, give thanks, make requests for intervention or insight, and observe alliances. In fact, the spirit is the medicine, and it can be invoked without the plant material, if necessary. The healers' divination and healing skills do not arise solely from the psychoactive chemistry of some of these plants, although they are powerful teachers. The practitioners know and assert that the spirit of some medicines can make one crazy, can leave one with mind-shadows, if one approaches without gratitude or without humility. Bodily purification, pure intentions, and direct verbal interspecies communication-prayer-are essential aspects of the medicine and the teachings.
During a late night ceremony, the curandero and his patient have eaten the leaves of Salvia divinorum, which the Mazatecs call Shka Pastora, the Leaves of the Shepherdess. La Pastora is very shy, they tell me, timid like a deer. She will only come when we have eaten many pairs of the leaves and sit very quietly, perfectly still, in the darkness, as in a glen in the forest in the moonlight. If someone moves or speaks suddenly, she will disappear in a moment. If we invite her, and we are very clear and open to her, she will come, she will speak. She will whisper to us what we need to know and show us what she sees. She may help to heal us or bless us with good fortune. But we must pray and we must listen. And we must pay her our full attention in the still darkness of the hut perched on the steep mountainside-amidst the maize patches, the savory leaves of Piper sanctum and the night-scented blossoms of the rosy Brugmansias.
We are on a rock mountain, beside a clean spring, above a narrow path. One wall of the hut in which the healers live and do their work is solid, swirled, vertical rock. It is el Cerro de Curación, they tell me, the Hill of Healing. Four of us sit facing the rock wall with its suggestive patterns as we pray. "That is why we came here, to gaze upon the rock, to speak to the rock, because we can heal here and no one will bother us," smiles the elder. Recycled planks, black tar-paper, and battered tin make up the other walls and roof of the two-room house. The floor is swept earth. An old table set against the rock wall is the altar, with flowers, single leaves, seedpods, candles, and paper images of the saints arranged along it.
The Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, the spiritual heart and soul of its native people is there too. She speaks through some of the plants that are used in ceremony. A Mazatec lay anthropologist has told me that the same goddess spoke through these plants in preconquest times. She just had a different name then, but always the same compassion, the same personaje. The Seeds of the Virgin, from two species of morning glory, Ipomoea violacea and Rivea corymbosa, are ingested to seek vision and to help in difficult childbirth. The leaves of Santa Maria, another name for La Pastora, help with prayer and insight. But no matter what, she is always there to speak with-the compassionate emissary who will bring solace and carry prayers on to Dios. She has God's ear. Flowers, tears, and beautiful words, copal incense, candlelight, and absolute honesty are offered to La Guadalupe. She is not jealous of the other saints, nor of the spirits of the plants and the deities of the earth that are called together in these ceremonies. Together, they are a team of spirit-beings who can be invoked in times of need, if the intentions are good and the proper offerings are made.
The healers know that at this level of awareness there are no absolute cultural boundaries: Catholic and chthonic, cave and book, ancestors and mushrooms, indigenous and international-all are working in a vibrating tapestry of la medicina. Not everyone knows how to ask for medicine, nor how to receive it, they tell me, but there is no one in the world who does not need medicine in their lives.
The Leaves of the Shepherdess, Shka Pastora, grow in small hidden glades in the upland moist forest. The plant is rarely known to set seed, propagating itself vegetatively from the fallen nodes, usually with the help of those few humans who know where it grows. It is speculated that through centuries of human tending, it has lost the ability to set seed effectively. Or perhaps it is so rare and sensitive in nature, confined to a small region and very specific conditions, that had it not been for its beautiful medicine and human alliance, it would have died out long ago as a species. We hike higher into the mountains to visit a hidden patch, which I am told has been the curandero's family patch "forever." No one else knows of it, nor would any honorable person harvest leaves from these plants, even if they stumbled upon them, for the Shepherdess is known to have a delicate relationship with the man or woman who tends her in the forest, and she would not work for another who took her illicitly.
We were up on a mountain that was known and named for its pines, the ocotes, yet I saw only twenty or so of these pines on the mountain, up above us on a precipitous ridge. The spring is also named for the ocote; and the ocote is the namesake of the ancient, stone-stepped trail on which we ascended. When I asked why there were so few pines, my friend told me that all the others had been taken, to build with, in the past fifteen years. These few were preserved only because they were too hard to take down. We were silent for awhile, eating bananas that we had picked nearby, and appreciating the vista of folded hills, worn stone-lined trails, cornfields, forest remnants and distant dwellings. Above us, at the very end of the pine trail, was a small extended-family settlement of three houses, with a donkey and a goat pegged in the swept yard. My friend gestured across the landscape, and said, "From up here one can see all the cerros, also the distant higher mountains, and it is not too hot to work in the milpa [the cornfield]." He nodded at the several wattle-and-daub huts with tin roofs across the lush ravine from us. "These people live a good life up here, quiet, growing their food," he mused. The tiny grandmother raised her hand in greeting from their door. Two young women looked up from a bench in the shade where they sat embroidering flowers on white dresses. A brilliant yellow rectangle of corn was raked out to dry in the sun next to them. "And besides," he continued, " up here they get great television."
One day as I was walking on a muddy path high up above the town of Huatla, the now-bustling center of Mazatec country, looking for interesting plants and the occasional wandering herbalist to question, I saw a remarkable "worm" in a wet wheel rut. It was several inches long, thick and greasy-looking, a rather transparent gray, with incipient organs and dark eyes visible through its oily surface. It seemed to have no means of mobility, and as I gently turned it over with a twig, I saw the beginnings of six tiny legs trying to poke through its fat sides like thorns. I am intrigued by unusual natural phenomena, but something about the murkiness of this creature repulsed me. It was probably an insect larva of some sort, I thought, that had perhaps fallen onto the road from an overhanging tree. Two weeks later, on another hot, wet afternoon, when my Mazatec parabiologist friend and I were exploring the high trails, I spied another such entity lying in a mud puddle. (1) Excited, I asked my friend what it was. He said that he had seen them from time to time, and that during the rainy season it was normal to see them in the red mud of the roads. I asked him if it was indeed the larva of an insect and if he knew what kind of insect it would become. Surprised at my assumption, he asserted, "It is not an insect, it is the seed of a small tree." Unconvinced, I questioned him again, and he then described the tree it would become. I felt the cognitive ground shift beneath us, and reminded myself that diversity comes in remarkable packages.
Another time, I visited a family in a small town in the lowlands, at the end of one of the roads that radiate out over the steep countryside. The forty-year-old husband has a teaching credential and instructs twelve and thirteen year-old students in both Mazatec and Spanish. He is curious about the world and enjoys discussing many contemporary issues, although he has not traveled far and laments the shortage of interesting visitors. The teenaged daughter and three younger sons all prize education and hope to study further at the university in the neighboring state of Puebla. They have a bookshelf, a rarity, in their two-room, stuccoed, tin-roofed house on the hill above town. Like everyone else, they draw water from a well, wash their dishes in a plastic tub on stones outside, and cook over a fire on a pounded-earth table. Luffa sponges hang like green cucumbers from a vine on their arbor.
From dusk on, the scent of Queen of the Night, huele de noche (Cestrum nocturnum) fills the air, and her leaves are cooked in chili and vinegar to accompany meals. The youngest child in the family, a boy of seven, asked me if I would like to taste his favorite food. I said yes, wondering what was up as he ran off into the trees. Soon he was clambering up a huge leguminous tree and came running back with several fifteen-centimeter-long caterpillars, thick as your thumb, brilliantly patterned in yellow, lime-green, and black. He grabbed a twig off the ground and thrust it lengthwise through one of the caterpillars, forcing out its innards. He quickly slipped the elastic skin off the stick, turning it inside out, and offered me the pearly tube that remained. "They're best fried," he explained. His mother told me that in mid-summer, when certain trees are covered with the larvae, they eat platters of these crispy caterpillars. They leave many behind, she assured me.
The next time I visited the family, a regional election was taking place. We discussed their political views and their dissatisfaction with the hopelessly self-obsessed ruling party. After the heat of the day had passed, they offered to walk me up to a viewpoint above the town. As we ascended a rough trail through the trees, past rocky hollows known by the children for their individual snake inhabitants, under the ripening edible fruits of a vast tree, they stopped to point out the exquisite blossoming epiphytes higher up. When we reached the rocky peak, they noted how the trees had grown and the path had shifted and that someone had planted tiny plots of corn in the sunny spots. We stepped out onto the rocky promontory together and examined the town far below us. They told me the history of the streets, the school, of the church and its decay and revival now under the guidance of an Indian priest. "He is a good liberal," they said. "He respects us all and he knows the plants!" In the basement of the church young women make tinctures and salves from the local native plants and sell them for only a peso or two, with advice, to anyone who needs medicine. "The state has forgotten about our people except when they want votes-then they build a few more miles of road. But we are remembering how to take care of ourselves. It is so important that our children understand that la Naturaleza [Mother Nature], can sustain us, if we pay attention." The school teacher stopped talking and we all looked out over the valley and the village. One of the children I know there wants to add English to his Mazatec and Spanish and become a translator. His cousin wants to grow food and gather from the wild, like his grandfather. Everyone wants to eat tomorrow and to grow up to have their own families.
We scanned the trail that wound up the mountainside immediately across from where we were. Steeper and higher, it felt as though we could reach out and touch it. I was told that the spirit of that hill is a woman, very tall and very fat, who wears a beautiful dress, almost too beautiful to look at. She is a spirit of abundance. Sometimes the curanderos of the village are blessed with a vision of this guardian woman.
Because the landscape that the Mazatecs live in is so vertical, with so little horizontal space and so many interwoven hillsides, they long ago developed a whistling language to augment their spoken one. Like yodeling, the whistle-speech can project across chasms and along mountainsides. This versatile language has a great variety of tone and meaning. Not everyone knows it anymore, but I often heard the young men whistling to each other instead of using words as we traveled in the backs of trucks through the small towns that dot the ridges and valleys of the Sierra, or when we walked the trails through hamlets without roads. Yet many Mazatecs are monolingual, and most of the older people who live outside of the larger towns speak only their native tongue. Many of the women in their forties and older do not know, nor do they seem to need, Spanish. Much of the negotiation in the marketplaces and almost all private conversation occurs in Mazatec. Despite five hundred years of colonization and intentional cultural disruption by Europeans, in a country next door to the United States, there are large populations for whom the colonizer's tongue is not primary, nor even widely known. Their tenacious nurturing of their own pragmatic and poetic languages reflects the degree of living diversity of the culture, and the endurance of their ritual traditions, vibrant mythology, and their interactive encyclopedia of natural phenomena.
Since I was there to study plants, cures, and plant lore, I often asked people for the names of things. Most often I was told that there was no corresponding Spanish name and that the Mazatec name for one thing often combined the names of other things or qualities in nature, so that the name of each species reflects its metaphorical or literal association with other species or natural processes. Nothing exists by itself. A bird can be named after a flower and thunder, a flower named for the ear of an animal, or a wind for the scent that it carries. It occurred to me: If a pollinator were decimated by a virus or an herbicide, and the blossoms could not fruit, and then the next year the flowers did not scent the air, what would we call the wind? If the diversity of the natural world is intact, and the human world is able to note and appreciate that diversity, then it all rolls along as a self-aware system of interdependence. The Mazatec wise people maintain that all participants in that system communicate with one another in dynamic relationships, using languages that call on all the heightened senses. From the very multiplicity of lifeforms a unified world is created. To recognize a deity in each place and thing is not contradictory to the unity of all things. Rather, in this biodiverse worldview, it is a requirement.
After I had been in the Sierra Mazateca a while, collecting medicinal plants, photographing, cleaning beans, interviewing those who live on the trails, watching a new concrete house being built on the roadside, listening to conversations, carrying water, and playing with the children, I began to notice a certain dissonance in the biotic mapping. My friends had mentioned characteristics of the deer in their description of plant qualities, and yet, considering the scarcity of animal protein in the local diet, I wondered why they hadn't mentioned deer as an animal they hunted for food.
One evening, the elder and his grandson, armed with a shotgun, invited me along on a hunt for armadillo, hoping for a rare meal of meat. As we watched in the deepening dusk from under a huge mango tree, having seen no armadillos, I was relieved to sense that we were about to give up. I asked about the deer. "There are no more deer here," confirmed my young friend. "We killed them all for food or scared them away. But we still speak of them in our songs. A few live up very high in the mountains," he announced with a matter-of-fact resignation that was neither guilty nor tragic. But when I told him in Spanish that many deer graze each evening in my wild Northern California garden, does and fawns and even the occasional buck, he was deeply impressed. He quickly translated this into Mazatec for his grandfather, the curandero. This presence of deer in my life became one of my best credentials for learning about shamanic work. It compensated somewhat for the almost unbelievable fact that I did not know how to make tortillas.
The psychoactive mushrooms that grow in the area have many folk names that describe who they are and how they grow. The little ones that spring forth. The little holy children. The landslide. One species is called San Isidro, the patron saint of laborers, whose aid is solicited in beginning a new endeavor. A beloved species of Psilocybe is called los pajaritos, the little birds. As a midwife-curandera sorted through a banana-leaf packet of mushrooms that a trusted collector had brought to her, she held up one small, brown, elf-capped mushroom and said, "Es un pajaro [It is a bird]." Since they are always eaten in pairs to reflect the balance of the feminine and the masculine, she carefully matched it with a smaller one. "Un pajarito [a little bird]," she chirped. "Together, the little birds sing."
According to my naturalist-assistant Carlito, he and his father sometimes go high up and far away, on a pilgrimage, to collect with their own hands the particular species of mushroom they need. But it is a long trek, and sometimes one has to hunt or camp for days waiting for them to appear after rain, in the misty weather. The alternative is to "order" them from someone, a particularly reverent and discreet man who collects the mushrooms only from distant, wild places that are very "clean." He knows la Naturaleza and picks the mushrooms in the right way-with prayer and attention to other entities or possible magical disturbances in the surroundings. The collector's intentions will be absorbed by the mushrooms, so it is crucial that he be a good soul. This year it was hot and dry during the height of the rainy season, so there were almost no mushrooms, and only one healing session had occurred in three weeks. When there are mushrooms, and all is well, two healing or blessing ceremonies per week might occur in this household. This is possible several months of the year, when there has been normal rainfall.
At other times of year, the leaves and seeds of other species are the medicines. My friends became increasingly worried about the shift in weather, the blazing heat, the absence of medicine, and the man in a nearby town who had received only the first of two sessions necessary to cure him from hechecería, a bad spell that had been put on him. They were concerned about the health of the seventy-year-old curandero himself, whom they call "the chief of the wise ones." He seems strong today, but he is now beginning to sing about his vulnerability. Only in the recent ceremony did they acknowledge aloud that someday he would be gone, like the deer, like the jaguar they have not seen in years. During the mushroom ceremony, he sang to us that his son, his wife, his grandson, and even I, his friend, must learn fast-before it is too late to learn.
For years the family has lived in the sky-blue casita, tucked high in the forest and milpas, camouflaged by lilies and coffee trees, above a little-traveled trail. Privacy is essential, they tell me, for doing medicine and for staying out of harm's way as doctores. But now they are building a concrete block house down by the road, much more spacious, with concrete rather than dirt floors. Their younger son left his own family, moved to Mexico City where he works in an office, and married a second wife who is urban Mixe and very modern. He returns for a weekend every month or two to help with construction and to bring money for building. During my stay we moved, bit by bit, down into the road house. They assured me that the curandero would continue to hold his diagnostic consultations and that ceremonial work would continue in the old hut on the hill. But in the meantime, contemplative time was being interrupted frequently by the foot traffic on the road, the curious acquaintances who stopped by, and the distraction of the occasional passing truck.
The road has only passed through this valley for the past seven years, and still very few people own vehicles. The ubiquitous Coca Cola truck, the battery dealer, and the pick-ups that ferry passengers, animals, and supplies make up the two or three vehicles that pass each hour. The old curandero pantomimed to me that the people of the road, himself included, are now like monkeys, because they all rise to their feet at the sound of an approaching engine to stand in a row and stare at the road. No conversation is more important than who is passing, he said to his grandson, mocking himself. He plans to sell sodas and aguardiente, cane-liquor, from the bedroom window, since so many people do like to ask him for advice anyway, and figures he can make enough money to paint his new house that way. After all, he conceded, it was getting harder for him to climb the mountain and work in the steeply inclined patches of coffee, beans, and corn with his digging stick. He'd rather plant lower down in the valley and buy some of his food from others.
One day Carlito and I walked and hitched ten kilometers beyond the town, down a road that was only three months old. It was a wide, raw cut in the landscape, a few men still cracking the most obstinate rocks with hammers. Children stood in front of each of the few houses along the way, watching us pass. When a beer truck dropped us at the end of the new road, we found that it abruptly narrowed again into a footpath, an ancient camino , with shaded resting places, large stones set flat to use as the occasional bench, and trees generously hung with edible pods along the way.
Returning up the road, we stopped to visit an herbalist, his wife and six children. They all had an illness they had never heard of and didn't know how to treat. I was sure that it was mumps, and we agreed to use some of their plants for fever and discomfort, while I assured them that they would get well. I asked how they liked living on a road, after years of living only on a path. "Well, we like it so far because we can sell more plants, and sodas of course, and maybe the peanuts and ginger that we have planted up the mountain." The herbalist informed me that the ginger he had planted came all the way from India, and that it was both good medicine and good food. "Not many people have it here," he explained, "and the peanuts make a valuable protein for us because we don't have much meat. We can make a better living with the road going past us," he proclaimed optimistically. His green coffee was spread out in the sun to dry an arm's length from the road's edge, Aristolochia vines were hung to age in the shade for tea against stomache aches, and I counted seven species of butterflies flitting around the dung of their single pig. The whole family, with swollen necks, wanly posed for a photo-at their request, because this was an opportunity to preserve a memory.
A couple of months later, while I was recovering from hepatitis A, which I had contracted while I was in the Sierra, I thought about the road and what it opens up; what it lets in and what it lets out. More disease enters, for one thing, and news of the world, and theft and trade and gossip and allies and enemies. Education, politics, influence, and change. Some Mazatecs leave, looking for work. Outsiders like me come in, for better and for worse. The sixteenth-century reports of Bernardino de Sahagún convey that the old native people, observing the increased use of the early roads for trade and for carrying tribute to their conquerors, gave the name coatl, or serpent, to the road:
Thus they said: "Can it be that it is a little danger, a little serpent of our Lord?" Or they said: "How hast thou come? Can it be that it is the serpent, the road of stumbling?" They named the road "serpent" because it is long and winding. And they called the road tequatoc, since there is stumbling, there is the running of thorns into the feet. (2)
In this deeply metaphorical world, the serpent winds its way into the known and changes it as he goes. The Indians saw that the serpent-road causes change, and that he consumes what he needs as he goes. As consolation, I try to remember that there are things of value that we each bring, that we leave behind, that we are given, and that we take with us. Is there a way, I wonder, as the past melds into the future, that we can contribute by spiritual and cultural means to nurture the diversity of lifeforms?
These people were able to maintain or creatively adapt their language, much of their culture, and their spiritual traditions in the face of their defeat and colonization by Spanish systems of commerce and forced labor. Diseases introduced by the colonizers in the sixteenth century decimated the majority of the native population, and with the promulgation of Catholicism, the folk religions were suppressed, their sacraments banned. The geographical isolation and the scarcity of resources for generating change has long worked to the advantage of the Mazatec people and their territory. With the developments of recent decades-roads, services, dams, communication-they already live much more in the world of the outside. The roads opened the doors and the outside has come in.
But there are still learned healers, the plants continue to be known and collected for singing powerful prayers, and offerings are still left where water wells up from rock. Day-long pilgrimages are made by townspeople, collecting armloads of scented leaves as they ascend, to offer to the beings who dwell on mountaintops and who have the power to bestow good luck on the pilgrims. Cause and effect are documented in the natural-mythical world because, I am told, no species can live without its spiritual alliances. It just won't work. These alliances are what make the world hold together, the real world that is seen in the visions. Thankfully, there are contemporary indigenas (Indians) and mestizos (of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage) in all regions of the diverse state of Oaxaca who are involved in cultural revitalization movements. They photograph and record rituals, interview the old ones who will talk, and hold multi-ethnic meetings to discuss their successes and frustrations. But all three of the healers with whom I have worked these past two summers did not want any such documentation. Nor did they welcome the intrusion of outsiders, unless they had come for healing, and then only after a course of recommendations and intuitive prediagnostic interviews.
"When we are singing with la medicina, if you turned on the machine with the little red light," said the elder curandero, "the spirits simply would not stay with us. They would run back into the darkness, and then what would be the point of it all?" So, instead, we are given stories to share, and we are taught that profound attention is our best instrument.
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