Sacred Soil: Biochar and the Regeneration of the Earth, Is Now in Bookstores!

sacred-soil-coverI would like to share with you that yesterday marked the release of our book, Sacred Soil: Biochar and the Regeneration of the Earth!

A collaboration between a clean technology scientist, an anthropologist working among native communities in the high Amazon, and a budding novelist and student of mythos (guess which one I am!), Sacred Soil takes a multidisciplinary approach to the phenomenon of biochar soils — an elixir for the Earth that can contribute significantly to the restoration of the planet to pre-Industrial levels of atmospheric carbon by 2050, as well as helping us “go native” to our planet again!

U.C. Davis anthropologist Stefano Varese calls it a “jewel…a breath of pure utopian air” and Daniel Pinchbeck calls it “A visionary manifesto and a pragmatic, solutions-oriented approach to how we can heal our connection with the Earth;”

Ian Baker, in his Introduction, states, “The highly qualified authors of Sacred Soil show us a way forward toward restoring our garden planet, shifting the Earth’s carbon balance from the oceans and the sky to the soil and living vegetation, where it can nourish our hearts, blood, and bones and ensure our collective thriving. It is up to all of us to act on this knowledge.”

I pray this work not only makes an empowering and enduring contribution to the revisioning and retooling of our planetary relations with all species that so many of us are working so hard to achieve, but that it is also nourishing for the heart and imagination of its readers.

Perhaps the finest review I received for Sacred Soil came from my Dad in the Native American Church, Bob Boyll, who told me after reading an advance copy that it gave him hope for the future. I know my prayers for my daughter Maitreya’s generation are woven into this book. Please, buy it and spread the news!

Sacred Soil

Remembering Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries

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The loss of the daughter to mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy. It was expressed in the religious mystery of Eleusis, which constituted the spiritual foundation of Greek life for two thousand years…

The separation of Demeter and Kore is an unwilling one; it is neither a question of the daughter’s rebellion against the mother, nor the mother’s rejection of the daughter… Each daughter, even in the millennia before Christ, must have longed for a mother whose love for her and whose power were so great as to undo rape and bring her back from death. And every mother must have longed for the power of Demeter, the efficacy of her anger, the reconciliation with her lost self.
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born

One definition of “myth” might be: “A once sacred narrative which has lost its original context.” Like the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwreck on the high seas, we encounter fragments of myth, such as in Hesiod’s Theogony, drifting about detached from their original cultural setting and so read them as curious stories, quaint remnants, or illogical accounts of the cosmos.

What is lost in such fragments is the original wholeness of mythos, symbol, and ritual within which the myth had its transformative power. Continue reading “Remembering Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries”

Three Must-View Ted Talks on the Bio and Ethnosphere

biomimicryDr. Mark Plotkin, ethnobotanist, molecular biologist, disciple of the great Richard Evans Schultes, and founder of Amazon Conservation Team, gives an eloquent, deeply informed, and passionate apologia for the rights and incalculable worth of the uncontacted peoples of the Amazon rainforest.

To understand how bio and cultural diversity are intimately entangled as living, vital forces that shape our lives, we must understand the culture of Humanity in all its extraordinary diversity and imperiled circumstances: the “ethnosphere,” as anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer as Wade Davis calls it.

Janine Benyus’ concept of biomimicry has galvanized scientists, architects, designers and engineers into exploring new ways in which nature’s successes can inspire humanity.

Ceasefire: Ending Our War upon Bacteria

B7_gut-bacteriaBacteria are wondrous critters. They fix nitrogen in the soil to nourish plants, populate our intestinal tract so we can digest our food, and convert our milk into cheese. Yet, like the uncounted billions of stars in the night sky, their cosmos is vast and mysterious beyond our reckoning. They populate every nook and cranny of Mother Gaia, from the highest peaks of the Himalayas to the most abysmal depths of the ocean trenches to deep into the core of the Earth. They even ride the clouds. Within your own body, at this very moment, more E. Coli bacteria are thriving than the entire number of human beings who have ever lived!

Bacteria can also have a fearsome bite. Bacterial pneumonia, cholera, diphtheria, leprosy, plague, gonorrhea, tetanus, and typhoid are among the scourges our species knew all too well until the medical revolution of the mid-20th century, when antibiotics made their first miraculous appearance. For the generations that have grown up under their protective shade, it is easy to forget that a doctor’s first line of defense against an infected wound was once a scalpel or amputating saw, not a pill. No longer can a mere nick upon the chin while shaving carry us off by blood poisoning. No longer is it fatal to be in the same room when a stranger coughs.

There is no doubt that the advent of antibiotics was an extraordinary medical advance. Indeed, so pervasive and profound was the impact of antibiotics during their heyday that in 1969 the Surgeon General of the U.S. trumpeted that, “It was time to close the book on infectious disease.”

He could not have been more wrong. Continue reading “Ceasefire: Ending Our War upon Bacteria”

Revoking the Myth of 1492 and Reclaiming Turtle Island

buffalo ancestors

You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough – even white people – the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.

Spoken by a Crow elder to Gary Snyder.

Joseph Campbell, whose resonant interpretations of world mythology left such a mark upon the arts and spiritual imagination of the previous century, once offered four functions for any culture’s mythological system. “Mythology,” in this case, does not mean “outdated” or “pre-scientific,” but rather it means the interface of stories about the nature of existence that any culture must utilize to navigate through an ultimately unknowable cosmos. These stories we use to orient ourselves fall into four categories, or “functions,” according to Campbell:

1. The Mystical Function, expressing our awe of the universe; 2. The Cosmological Function, explaining the shape of the universe; 3. The Sociological Function, supporting and validating a certain social order, and 4. The Pedagogical Function, giving direction for living one’s life within the overarching meaning provided by a mythological system.

Apparently, this works by the trickle down effect. Authentic mystical visions of the highest attainable truths are given symbolic form and then stepped down, systematized, and eventually harmonized into the daily life of a society. This was the idea behind Plato’s Republic as well as the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, in whose cathedrals we can see an entire cosmovision realized in stone.

Yet, as we know, myth can not only point to eternal truths but also be a system of control imposed upon a population. Folk sometimes imagine the sociological function has to do with “socializing” at church or the temple, but it doesn’t. Not at all. It’s the aspect of mythic systems that supports and validates the social order — and like the tradition of sati, where a Hindu widow would throw herself upon her husband’s funeral pyre and burn to death, it can actually be a fairly nasty piece of work. Continue reading “Revoking the Myth of 1492 and Reclaiming Turtle Island”

Snake Medicine: How Shamanism Heals

Sacred spaceAnimistic perspectives, which hold the cosmos as “a being to whom prayers and offerings are made, who is endowed with understanding, agency and sentience, and responds to the actions of humans” are often dismissed as primitive, even as “incompatible with an impersonal regard of objective reality.” Yet this account of a healing of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (the consequence of severe rattlesnake envenomation), within the shamanic traditions of the Native American Church and the vegetalistas of the Peruvian Amazon, reminds us of how profound healing can be when it arises from indigenous perception of a sentient, living cosmos. It also demonstrates the diagnostic and healing capacities of shamanic traditions utilizing psychoactive plants, capacities sometimes beyond the reach of Western science. Continue reading “Snake Medicine: How Shamanism Heals”

The Intensified Trajectory of Consciousness in Odysseus’ Vision in Hades

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The winding path that led to this essay, just published in Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, began with the traditional lore of an Ashaninkan shaman working in the Peruvian Amazon. It may be the first significant discussion of Homer’s Odyssey in the light of contemporary knowledge of sacred plant medicines, indigenous ways of knowledge, and shamanic practices to appear in decades.

Towards the end of our year long investigation into the healing practices of the vegetalistas, as the indigenous and mestizo practitioners of rainforest medicine are known, we engaged in a plant dieta under the direction of one of the informants in Susana’s dissertation research, the curandero Juan Flores. One day, Flores tramped back to visit us during our solitary fast, and there the conversation turned to the mythic—and quite real according to him—beings that inhabit the Amazonian waterways. As Flores described the behavior of these sirenas, Robert was struck by the intriguing parallels between their seductive behavior and that of the Sirens described by Homer. Flores had never heard of the Odyssey, yet when given the story of Odysseus’ ordeal in the orbit of their rapturous song, Flores nodded his head and said grimly, “That’s them, alright.”

It was then we began to suspect that the indigenous experience of the natural world, which has a marked universality among native peoples, might have an underlying, shaping influence upon Homer’s narrative.

Along with familiarizing us with the cosmovision of the Amazonian peoples, our fieldwork also introduced us to the practice of shamanic journeying, which among Amazonian peoples, who live in an environment of extraordinary biodiversity, is often conducted in ceremonies utilizing ayahuasca, a psychoactive plant medicine whose name translates from Quechua as “vine of the spirits” or “vine of the dead.”

There we were also struck by certain parallels between Odysseus’ visionary descent into Hades and ethnographies of traditional shamanic practices among indigenous peoples worldwide, especially when supplemented by cognitive archaeologist David Lewis-Williams’ theory of the intensified trajectory of consciousness. These parallels are suggestive of a deeper morphological relationship between Homer’s narrative and the traditions of vision quest among the ancient, indigenous Mediterranean peoples (whose material culture is preserved in the Paleolithic cave sanctuaries), than is generally recognized. By viewing, as our main objective, just one episode in the Odyssey, the hero’s visionary journey in Hades, from an ethnographic perspective, this essay hopes to open up more inquiry into the indigenous, and shamanic, background of the epic poem.

To read the entire article, please enter here: The Intensified Trajectory of Consciousness in Odysseus’ Vision in Hades

snakes!

The Siren’s Rapturous Song: A Video on Shamanism and the Healing of Addiction

Awareness of the remarkable efficacy of psychoactive plant medicines to heal addiction is growing. These presentations by Robert Tindall and Susana Bustos, sponsored by City Lights Books, were inspired in part by the authors’ work at Takiwasi, a center for the treatment of addiction in Tarapoto, Peru which utilizes the traditional medicine of the rainforest, including ayahuasca, with a high degree of success.

These videos interweave two perspectives on the spiritual nature of addiction: An exploration of addiction versus shamanic initiation in the light of ancient Western texts, and a report on research into the shamanic treatments of addiction just conducted at Takiwasi, focusing especially on the lesser known vegetalista practice of the plant diet.

Part One is Robert’s talk on addiction versus initiation in the light of the ancient Greek and Celtic traditions.

Part Two is Susana’s talk on the vegetalista practice of plant dieta and its unique efficacy in the treatment of addiction.

With gratitude to Emerald Tablet, upon whose premises these talks were given on December 19th, 2013; to Vincent Tamer who captured them on video; and to Peter Maravelis at City Lights Books.

Tolkien and Magic Mushrooms: A Review of The Shamanic Odyssey by Carl Ruck

Here is an engaging, insightful commentary upon magic mushroom use among Tolkien’s contemporaries and a review of The Shamanic Odyssey by Carl Ruck of Boston University, co-author with Albert Hofmann and R. Gordon Wasson of the classic, groundbreaking study The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries.

The journey began in northern Africa, as recorded in the author’s earlier autobiographical account, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind: An Amazonian Plant Spirit Odyssey (2008) and it brought him eventually to his wife and coauthor, Susana Bustos, Ph.D., who was studying the healing songs, or icaros, of the mestizo vegetalista shamans of the Peruvian Amazon. The present book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, is also something of a personal Odyssey, combining Tindall’s abilities as a classical guitarist and a professional scholar of medieval English literature1 and ancient Greek epic.

Of course, the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, philologist and Professor at Oxford in Anglo-Saxon and the author of a series of fantasy novels, are now part of the general culture of the present generation through their film adaptations. The novels burst upon the world at the incunabula of what has come to be termed the Psychedelic Revolution of the 1960s and satisfied a thirst for a mythopoeia to codify the meaning of the flood of personal vision quests launched upon the world through experimentation with drugs, inadvertently instigated by R. Gordon Wasson’s Life magazine account (1957) of his participation in a mushroom healing séance of the Mazatec shaman María Sabina, and the ensuing general enthusiasm for psychedelic drugs like LSD. Continue reading “Tolkien and Magic Mushrooms: A Review of The Shamanic Odyssey by Carl Ruck”

Loving a Sentient Cosmos

Future Primitive interviews Robert on the joy of participating in a sentient cosmos; water, the primordial womb; music and opening of the gates of consciousness; from shamanism to cultural regeneration; Tolkien: remembering the animistic perception of the world; “a love and respect of all things animate and inanimate”; “a cosmo-centric economy”; reintroducing the indigenous consciousness of reciprocity; cultivating a self-sustaining soil.

Can Animistic Perception Change the World?

Taking a sacred medicine out in the jungle of South America appears to give rise to ecological awareness, as a reaction against a cold, materialistic view of the environment that mostly exists in the corporate mind, where it is seen as a ‘resource’ to be exploited.

Can such perception of interconnectedness and of a vital, living cosmos, characteristic of indigenous and traditional peoples, help save our world? Click here to check out this interview with Psychedelic Press UK.

Subversive Spiritualities: A Review

It is a rare occurrence to encounter an anthropological work that is intellectually rigorous and deeply spiritual, one which both illuminates the mind and touches the deep concerns of the heart. Yet when such a miracle occurs, as we find in Frédérique Apffel-Marglin’s Subversive Spiritualities: How Rituals Enact the World, all too often these works languish in obscurity. The ethnographic works of Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff on the Tukano Indians, for example, still make for riveting reading, yet his volumes mainly gather dust upon university library bookshelves.

Subversive Spiritualities, like Reichel-Dolmatoff’s works, deserves wide reading. Continue reading “Subversive Spiritualities: A Review”

Is Alcohol a Spirit? Or, My Goodness, My Guinness!

The word Spirit, the “animating or vital principle in man and animals,” comes to us via the Latin spiritus, “soul, courage, vigor, breath,” and is related to spirare “to breathe.” Its plural form, spirits, or a “volatile substance,” is an alchemical idea, and it was only in the 1670s that it usage narrowed to its present meaning: “strong alcoholic liquor.”

Yet lurking within our modern, dry categorization of strong alcohol as “spirits” this original sense of animating power remains firmly entrenched. As Shakespeare’s Falstaff put it, a good sherris-sack “Ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.” Not only that, it breathes courage into the soul, it “illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm, and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who, great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage, and this valor comes of sherris.”

This is the language of spiritual inspiration, not mere infatuation with a physical effect. Perhaps we should take ourselves at our word. What if alcohol really is a spirit? Continue reading “Is Alcohol a Spirit? Or, My Goodness, My Guinness!”

Alas! My Blade Is Broken!

Among Zen Buddhists, there is a tradition of composing a final work of art or poetry upon one’s death bed.

As a teenager, freshly embarked upon my Zen training in a Buddhist temple in Hawai’i, I came across this poem that has stuck like a koan in my memory ever since:

All my life I have prepared for this moment,
Sharpening my blade.

Now, my time has come.
And I draw it forth.

Alas! My blade is broken!

“This is not good news,” I had thought, appalled. How could someone train for decades and find, at one’s moment of greatest need, all the effort to be worthless?

Over time, I have come to savor this final communiqué from an anonymous monk in the recesses of a medieval Japanese monastery. The Heart Sutra teaches us that all things are essentially empty, including all the layers of the self that lead us to the delusion of a permanent, solid ego. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, and like clouds in an empty sky, we coalesce and dissolve as well.

This realization is the great liberation transmitted by the Buddha. Our blades are, indeed, broken. Good thing, too.

Yet, the anguished lament of this monk echoes still in the marrow of my bones:

Alas! My blade is broken!

Expanding Mind Interview — Shamanic Odyssey

Robert recently had a conversation with Erik Davis and Maja D’Aoust on the Progressive Radio Network’s program Expanding Mind, exploring indigenous versus modern consciousness, addiction, and the profound relevance of Homer’s Odyssey to unraveling the roots of our current ecological crisis.

Erik and Maja, of course, are deeply informed and intelligent interviewers, who bring a critical, along with appreciative, perspective to their program. We hope you’ll enjoy this podcast. It can be accessed here.

Prospero — Shakespeare’s Shaman

“Animism” is a concept first introduced into anthropological circles by one of its founders, Edward Tylor, as the belief in supernatural beings permeating the natural world. In his Primitive Culture (1871), he wrote that animism is a perception held by “tribes very low in the scale of humanity,” yet serving as the “groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men.”

Yet Shakespeare offered a far more sophisticated theory of animism in his final play, The Tempest. This is not surprising. Shakespeare’s works easily bear more than one interpretation, and like the termas in the Tibetan tradition, their hidden teachings seem to emerge as the centuries pass.

The Tempest is the tale of a Duke of Milan and his daughter, who, marooned upon a remote island, survive with the aid of a magic staff, a book of potent spells, and two servants: an airy spirit and a half monster/half man named Caliban.

When their enemies one day come sailing into Prospero’s prescient view, he uses his magic to regain his throne. It sounds almost silly, doesn’t it? It’s not. Shakespeare, like a quantum physicist, is exploring the fabric of reality and how “magic” can shape it, and all the play’s activity is grounded in animistic experience.

Tylor’s theory of spiritual evolution is dramatically realized in the characters of Caliban and Prospero, who both perceive the cosmos as vital and sentient, yet from different ends of the spectrum.

In Caliban’s naïve animistic consciousness, trees, streams, stars, all are alive, filled with music and strange wonder, and his most haunting evocation of that sentience comes in the lines:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
Continue reading “Prospero — Shakespeare’s Shaman”

Psychedelic Press UK Review: The Shamanic Odyssey

“I very much enjoyed reading the shamanic analysis of two of my own favourite books. The use of plants in the Odyssey, and the idea of an “intensified trajectory of consciousness” in Tolkien, and the phenomenological idea of presence in song and story, were all fascinating and thought-provoking, and while their analysis did not err too heavily on the theoretical, there is enough to give the reader a grounding for both historical ends of the texts as being part of a single analysis,” writes Rob Dickens in his review of The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience in the webzine Psychedelic Press UK.

To read the entire review, click here.

Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ Flos Campi

The impulse to transcend, to rise to a higher plane, was deeply engraved upon Western spirituality by Plato and later Neo-Platonic Christians such as Saint Augustine. Yet Humanity’s primordial mystical desire, artistically rendered in the art of the Paleolithic caves, has never been entirely lost: to touch the mind of the jaguar, to sip of the Earth’s sweet nectar, to take wing with the eagle, to commune in deep time with the ancestors.

This is why I treasure the compositions of the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams.

It may sound like a stretch to associate a 20th century composer with indigenous consciousness, yet Vaughan Williams, inspired by a poem of Meredith, could capture in a violin melody the rising of a jubilant lark and in his orchestration our experience of symbiosis with all of Nature:

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Like the voice of nature, in Vaughan-Williams’ work, as one critic observed, “One is never sure if one is listening to something very old or very new.”

Yet Vaughan-Williams did not write airy New Age music. It is a brooding prayer, full of ecstasy and grief, very in keeping with the tenor of the English imagination: “Ostensibly familiar and common place, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless.”

Of all his pieces, I’ve most hearkened to his eccentric composition Flos Campi, Latin for “flower of the field,” based in the Biblical Song of Solomon. Opening with a weaving bitonal duet between a viola and oboe, the suite unfolds into an interplay between a wordless chorus and an orchestra of flute (doubling on piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, percussion, and a modest body of strings. The voices, rising and falling in mystical/erotic ecstasy to rest in satiated tranquility, are seduced, spurred on to higher planes of exaltation, titillated, and led through intricate, whirling dance steps by their ardent lover, the orchestra. At the piece’s conclusion, all join in a single statement of soaring, subtle ecstasy and affirmation.

To listen to this piece is to be taken through a landscape, one whose contents are unique for each listener, yet which speaks universally to our deepest desire for communion with the transcendent through this created/evolved world. The listener never soars beyond into the empyrean, but is continually brought back to the dank, sublime mystery of our biological home – before being set to flight in spirit once again. It is the breadth and depth of the visionary journey which makes Flos Campi unique.

Like many of his works, Flos Campi is a song of the Earth and our symbiosis with it. Vaughan-Williams called himself an agnostic, but his spiritual roots ran deep.