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Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge: Jeremy Narby on PYP 479

Jeremy Narby is an anthropologist turned activist and author. As director of Swiss non-profit Nouvelle Planète, he advocates and fundraises to support Indigenous communities in the southern hemisphere. In Amazonia, for example, they help local communities gain title to their land, so that the World Bank and other “development” agencies, and multinational corporations cannot continue to exploit, degrade, and extract with impunity.

Jeremy's books are life changing. His first, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, makes the radical case that Westerners should not look down upon and dismiss Indigenous ways of seeing the world and nature as misguided or “cute,” but instead can learn a great deal by taking this knowledge seriously.

He points to the Ashininka (a Peruvian tribe) story that Europeans are white because they live underground in cities of great technological complexity, and emerge in Peru from time to time to steal women and children, to harvest their fat to run the machines in these cities. They're known as Pishtakos, or “white vampires.”

A fanciful tale, full of superstition?

Or a more or less completely accurate representation of how Europeans have behaved in South America for the last 500 years, killing, destroying, and extracting everything of value and leaving nothing of value in return?

Jeremy first encountered the Ashaninka in 1985, as an (in his words) arrogant young anthropologist, bringing all his materialistic, rationalistic, and agnostic baggage with him. Humoring the “primitives” and dutifully transcribing their childish beliefs. Until an encounter with the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca brought him to his knees and open his mind to the notion that the Ashaninka knowledge system contained truths that Western science was only beginning to discover.

One of Jeremy's enduring interests is in the Indigenous approach to plants and animals. Rather than relegate these to “nature,” as in “everything that's not human,” the Ashininka, the Shawi, and other rainforest peoples see kinship with all life, a kinship that the developed world will have to adopt if we are to survive on this planet.

That kinship manifests in relations with certain powerful plants, the “teacher plants” as the shamans call them, that share knowledge of the entire web of life with the humans who drink them according to prescribed ritual.

Two of these, tobacco and ayahuasca, are of Amazonian origin.

In his latest book, Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge, Jeremy and his coauthor, Shawi elder Rafael Chanchari Pizuri, look at two different plant teachers from both the Indigenous and scientific perspectives.

It's a remarkable book. By juxtaposing tobacco with the famous hallucinogen ayahuasca, it shows tobacco in a whole new light. Anyone who smokes cigarettes or consumes other tobacco “products” will be challenged to alter their relationship with this “double-souled” plant, one that can bring medicine or malice in equal measure.

And by juxtaposing Indigenous and scientific tools and perspectives, the authors model a respectful, generative, and above all valuable mode of interaction, where both knowledge systems are given their due, and each respects the other, even where they diverge or even conflict.

If you care about the fate of humanity, of the earth, of the rainforest, of the First Peoples of the world, and of sentient life in general, you'll want to explore the writings of Jeremy Narby.

I'm so grateful he took the time to share his spirit and wisdom and humility and clarity with us today.


Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby and Rafael Chanchari Pizuri

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert

Nouvelle Planète non-profit organization

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