JUNGLE MEDICINE by Connie Grauds. Citron Bay Press, Marin County, California, 2001. $14.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Susan Pomeroy
For many years I read every story of shamanic initiation I could find. Carlos Castaneda, Florinda Donner, Lynne V. Andrews, Hank Wesselman, and countless other travelers, anthropologists and ethnobotanists have written thrilling stories of encountering adventure, terror, powerand, sometimes, healingthrough unexpected initiations into shamanic mysteries.
These stories intrigued, inspired, and sometimes left me wondering. Were they written by some coyote-trickster trying to witch us spirit-hungry Westerners out of our precious cash, or were they authentic?
My graduate training in geography led, not into these mysteries, as I had hoped, but out of them and into rational descriptive Western science. I thought (with deep disappointment) that at least I could continue to enjoy initiation stories as a "literary genre," even though, from an academic standpoint, there could obviously be no truth to them.
Fast-forward to November 1999. I am sitting in a classroom in the U.C. Berkeley Botanical Garden listening to a lecture by a UCSF professor on "Healing Plants of the Amazon Jungle." But I slowly realize this is not your typical dry academic lecture. Carefully woven in among the conventional plant identifications and scientific facts is the speaker's own story of finding personal healing and transformation through her work with an Amazon shaman.
When, near the end of the talk, we are all led on a "drumming journey" to encounter the spirit of the common herb rosemary, I willingly suspend disbelief. I find myself so moved by the powerful feeling of astringent warmth which I unexpectedly receive fromcould it possibly be the spirit?of the rosemary plant, that I wear a small sprig of rosemary in a cloth bag over my heart for the next several months.
The professor was Connie Grauds. Her book, Jungle Medicine, is the real deal.
In Jungle Medicine, Grauds, a pharmacist by training, recounts a startling tale of personal transformation which leads her from a safe-and-secure life as a member of the technocratic American medical establishment, to an entirely different healing modality learned through the rituals and disciplines of shamanic apprenticeship deep in the Peruvian rainforest.
Grauds' story begins in the midst of her busy life as an HMO pharmacist, dispensing the best medicines that modern science has to offer, to patients who frequently find little or no relief from thempeople who struggle to manage chronic symptoms with an ever-changing array of pharmaceuticals whose administration often seems based more upon guesswork than knowledge.
One day Grauds sees an ad for a "pharmacy in the rainforest" Amazonian trip. Little does she know that this is the first step in a series of shattering life changes over the next couple of years: divorce, carpal tunnel syndrome so severe she must quit her job as a pharmacist, cancer, and unsettling phenomena including receiving messages from plants, lucid dreaming, and automatic drawing.
Grauds is ultimately led back to the rainforest, where her work with shaman don Antonio leads to years of shamanic apprenticeship. During a series of trips to Peru she is gradually initiated into the mysteries of ayahuasca, and ultimately finds a new sense of purpose and power in her own life and a new sense of connection with nature.
She slowly learns that nature has spirit; that not only the physical properties of plants or herbs are beneficialbut that at times a plant's "spirit" can heal without any physical contact whatsoever. While even the most common and ordinary plants have a healing spirit, some special plants are not only medicine, but "Medicine," like the ayahuasca vine.
"We humans recognize our extraordinary spiritual members ... and we flock to them for guidance and respiriting. In the same way, shamans recognize the extraordinary spiritual potency of certain plants, which they regard as teachers, or sources of spiritual and healing power. Such plants, like ayahuasca, are living spirits in the heart of many shamanic traditions."
Through a series of tests and life-challenges, the conventional pharmacist becomes a practitioner of "spirited medicine." "A spirited healer, Grauds writes, "helps others to understand the psycho-spiritual roots of much illness, and helps them reconnect to the spiritual dimension and to the life-force that heals." It is not the healer who heals, but the mystery of the life-force itself.
Writing of a friend to whom she suggested the ingestion of St. John's Wort for depressionwhich turned out to be ineffectiveGrauds says:
"I now saw that ... I hadn't comprehended that healing meant healing through the power of nature. I'd been locked into the conventional view that healing was an effect produced only by medicine taken orally or injected into the bloodstream. Now I saw that healing wasn't exclusively dependent on such literal processes. Conventional medical procedures, you could say, were like the letter of the law of healing. But there was also the spirit of law, which was the "ingestion" of spirit itself, whether the spirit of lavender, of nature, of a healer or saint, or of a life filled with meaning and purpose. Conventional medicine, it seemed to me, followed the letter of the law. Shamans, and all true healers, followed the spirit of the law. And both letter and spirit were needed for a truly holistic, or spirited medicine, to be achieved."
The book Jungle Medicine works on many levels. It is a rousing adventure that will keep you up all night. It is a fascinating glimpse into the richness of the Amazon rainforest and the wisdom of its indigenous peoples. It is, in addition, a lucid insider's critique of modern medical practices, full of inspiring challenges to the dominant scientific paradigm. Most of all, Jungle Medicine reminds us of the magic and mystery of life, suggesting that in the midst of despair (or even in the middle of the dry plains of academia), nature holds a tremendous, mysterious power of healing that can be available to each of us.