The Spiritual Gardener: August Amazonia
We are just weeks away from that day that every gardener knows, when the heat and humidity suddenly give way in late August to a drier and cooler day. The gardener snaps to attention when that happens, usually when he is going out to get the morning paper and he feels the delicious tickle of a slight chill on the skin, and he realizes that the deafening silence he hears is the air conditioner taking a well-deserved rest from weeks of dutifully panting away in the side yard without a break.
The garden snaps to attention a bit too, though usually it takes several days of cooler weather like this in a row. It throws of the languor and the torpor of the summer dog days and stops looking so bedraggled and unkempt. Usually at our place, this snapping back into something more like smartness is led by the roses, which are always looking in late summer for their cue for the rosy last hurrah of the year.
And, appropriately for this hottest season in the garden, my mind is a bit lost in the jungle and the tropics, because I have just returned from there in actual fact. I went with a group of high school kids from Edmond, Oklahoma to the town of Piura in northern Peru. It was a parish-to-parish friendship exchange and our mission was to be of service in Piura, which is not far south of the border with Ecuador. Its economy is mostly connected to the farming staples of rice and cotton, using irrigation water brought down from the nearby Andes, and the region’s oil and gas industry.
The town has many neighborhoods that are poor, and some that are very poor indeed. Our job was mainly to help build simple bamboo houses for families that were in great need, but we also took turns delivering food and clothing to other families, helping build the new school and vocational center the church is sponsoring, and working in the hospice, talking and praying there with the patients, shaving them and cutting their hair.
I don’t know if you have ever gone on a vacation that was entirely about faith/spirituality or giving/helping, but if not I hope you will have the chance to consider that some time. It is hard to get the time, inclination, and opportunity to line up just right for an experience like that, but when it does and it feels right, just do it. I have done it more than once and each time I come back more refreshed and energized than on any other kind of vacation. I worked hard, lost weight, slept great and was more or less totally cut off from all the things that plague me in my usual workaday world. It was wonderful.
You can check out the opportunity to help—either by pledging a small monthly donation or traveling there for an extended time, and everything in between—by clicking this link for Santísimo Sacramento Parish in Piura, Peru. There you can read about the amazing work being done by a brilliant and charismatic young priest named Father Joseph Uhen, or Padre José as he is universally called there. Think Mother Teresa but in Spanish, and you will come pretty close to the main idea. He worked with Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity for years, and he formed the same wish to spend his life serving the poorest of the poor. And that is what brought him to northern Peru, where he is following that calling and working wonders every day for the people he serves.
But, to return to being a botanical observer and reporter, the climate of northern Peru is very different. It is considered a tropical desert. The cold and voluminous Humboldt Current that streams up the western cost of South America keeps moisture out of the air and so from the coast to the lofty Andes it is very arid, although it is not very far south of the equator and just across the Andes in northeastern Peru is the lush and tropical jungle of upper Amazonia. And on this trip we learned about two botanical marvels that come out of upper Amazonia and which I had never heard of before: one was the story of the early days in the manufacture of rubber and the other was about the psychotropic plant ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi).
The para rubber tree is native to South America and flourishes in the upper Amazon. Europeans knew about rubber for a long time. It was Columbus who first reported that tribes in the West Indies were using strange elastic balls in their games. But a commercial use for rubber was slow to be developed because natural rubber had the not very useful properties of being sticky and soft in hot weather and brittle in cold. But then then Charles Goodyear (yes, the tire guy) invented the process of vulcanization in 1844, a treatment that rendered rubber firm and tough in all temperatures, and the rubber boom began. South America was the world’s main source for the valuable stuff for most of the 19th Century.
The upper Amazon became the wild west of rubber, and two huge commercial centers were developed: in Manaus, Brazil where the gigantic Rio Negro pours into the even larger Amazon, and in Iquitos in northeastern Peru. The rubber barons lived in luxury in the heart of the jungle and built two great cities there as a result. On another trip a few years ago, this time to Manaus in Brazil, I actually walked through the magnificently opulent opera house they built there and toured a still-working rubber tapping plantation upstream of Manaus on the main stem of the Amazon.
The rubber trade was jealously protected in Brazil and it was said to be a capital offense to take any rubber tree seeds out of the country. But then an intrepid English adventurer named Henry Wickham collected 70,000 rubber tree seeds and smuggled them out of the country in 1876, in the middle of the boom years. They were planted in London’s Kew Gardens and, while only 2,400 of them germinated, it was enough to send out the beginnings of huge rubber plantations throughout the British Empire: in Singapore, Malaysia, Ceylon, and India. Brazil’s rubber monopoly was broken, and by 1912 the boom in the Amazon was over. Today, the global production of rubber is about 25 million tons, about 42% of which is natural and the rest synthetic, and about 70% of all rubber is used for making automobile tires.
The other Amazonian marvel I learned about is ayahuasca, the so-called “sacred vine.” It too thrives in the Peruvian and Brazilian rain forest and has long been used in Amazon tribal cultures by shaman guides for celebrations and initiations. Because it is strongly hallucinogenic, it has been used to promote knowledge, healing, telling the future, and resolving familial and tribal disputes. Today, its main use is for self-knowledge and expanded consciousness, and some Amazon clinics use it to treat alcoholism and drug addiction. And there is also a growing interest on the part of experiential tourists to try ayahuasca under the guidance of a local shaman, but personally I would not recommend such an adventure.
Extracts of the vine are made into a bitter-tasting drink; this drink induces nausea and vomiting, which is seen as part of the ritualistic cleansing process. There follows a state of great mental clarity and self-awareness, and visions are experienced. The experience can be either very enlightening or very frightening, and hearing about it I was reminded of the very similar uses and effects of peyote mushrooms among tribal cultures of the American Southwest, that were extensively chronicled in the novelistic/anthropological writings of Carlos Castaneda. I had no wish to try it myself, but the amazing properties of ayahuasca and the rubber boom remind us of the vast treasure house of botanical marvels that exist in the Amazon Basin and which medical science is only beginning to understand.