Found this 2008 Discover interview with Canadian ethnobotanist and anthropologist Wade Davis the other day, fascinating enough to make me immediately order two of his most recent books. A few excerpts:
What is (ayahuasca) like?
You are flung into other levels of reality so visceral, so tangible, so all-enveloping, that they become your sense of the real world. And you suddenly realize that the relatively mundane realm of ordinary consciousness is a crude facsimile of what awaits in the psychotropic trance. This and other experiences in the presence of people taken by the spirit left me with visceral evidence that cultural beliefs can really make for different human beings, that there are other ways of knowing, other levels of intuition, that cannot necessarily be understood through the filter of Cartesian logic.
So drugs do for the Seona people what science does for us?
Not drugs. That’s a pejorative notion in our society—cocaine, crack, crystal meth, whatever. These aren’t drugs. These are sacred medicines. These are the facilitators. These are the avenues to the doorways of the gods.
Haiti, the Amazon, Borneo… How do you manage to fit in no matter where you are?
You’re with a bunch of yak herders at night in Tibet, and you’ve got a choice: You can hang out with the other scientists and listen to their stories of Chicago or their problems with their wives, or you can just wrap yourself up in a blanket and go down and hang in the body pile with the yak herders and drink rakshi and eat tsampa and fart. I have a good intuition for finding that kind of opening into culture that allows you to be welcomed.
What does it mean to preserve culture?
I don’t believe in preserving culture. The real question is, what kind of world do we want to live in—a monochromatic world of monotony, or a polychromatic world of diversity? The idea is not to eliminate modernity, as if we’ve got the right to sequester people like some kind of specimen in a bubble. If I get my arm ripped off in a car accident, I don’t want to be taken to a shaman; no one else does either.
The distinctions between cultures are not decorative—it’s not feathers and bells or dancers or songs. Those are the symbols of culture. The essence of culture is a blanket of moral and ethical values that we place around the individual. It’s culture that allows us to make sense out of sensation, to find order in a universe that may have none.