Jungle Fever

The chattering classes are heading to the Amazon in search of esoteric highs. Are shamans the new shrinks?

by Clover Stroud
The Sunday Times
September 9, 2007

At a dinner party in Gloucestershire, Lucy, a mother of three, is regaling her guests with details of her last trip abroad. She has honeyed limbs and high-maintenance hair, suggestive of regular villa breaks in Ibiza or Tuscany. But earlier this year, as a 40th-birthday present to herself, she went to Brazil for a 10-day guided retreat in the Amazon, where she underwent a series of plant rituals involving the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca. “It was as far removed from taking normal party drugs as you can imagine,” she says, eyes glittering. “It was frightening and extraordinary.”

Lucy’s experience is symptomatic of a collective search for a complete wilderness experience as a panacea for our troubled souls. “I went to the Amazon because I felt my whole life needed shaking up, and I just didn’t know how to do that in England. I had everything I wanted, in terms of a stable marriage, lovely kids and a nice home, and although I knew I shouldn’t feel dissatisfied, I did. I wanted to reconnect with myself and the way I live before I got much older.”

Deep immersion in a faraway jungle is the latest fix for those stuck in the cultural, spiritual or personal malaise that besets many in the 21st century. Having an extreme psychological experience such as ayahuasca at the same time makes it all the more desirable. The Brighton-based writer and therapist Ross Heaven, author of Plant Spirit Shamanism, has been leading trips into the Amazon for 10 years. “In the 1990s, only real new-age devotees had heard of ayahuasca, but the sort of person going on retreats has changed dramatically,” she says. “I’m taking a trip in October that will include account managers, business professionals, a media figure, a conventional doctor and a nurse. People are getting turned on to the fact that in the Amazon we can learn something about the wisdom of native culture and the psychological healing aspects of the plants there, while also gaining from personal exploration and creativity.”

It was inevitable that we would find a faster, harder, more esoteric replacement for yoga. As eastern mysticism starts to look a bit, well, passé, people are looking elsewhere for their spiritual kicks. They now have a desire to immerse themselves in an extreme environment, which is why the Amazon has never been as hot as it is now. Sting and Madonna first swung our global eyes to the rainforest in the 1980s. But then we forgot about it as we turned our gaze back to organic vegetable boxes and carbon footprints.

Now, once more, the Amazon is gripping our attention: the interest in ayahuasca is emblematic of a growing fascination with tribal life. A rumbling collective disquiet suggests that we’ve got it all wrong, and that it is those naked men in the jungle — whom we might once have dismissed as savages, or patronised by buying their handcrafted tables for our fashionable lofts — who have actually got it all right. Could it be that such tribes might hold a key to global salvation? Shamanism and ayahuasca are slipping into the spiritual dialogue of the chattering classes where once there was ashtanga and kabbalah. Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Healing, Nature, Shamanism | 2 Comments

Quest for a Miracle Cure

These parents believe horses and shamans can unlock their son’s autistic mind. This is their journey of discovery

by Tim Rayment
The Sunday Times
September 9, 2007

A child is born, and the child seems blessed. He lives in the richest nation on Earth, at a time of greater wealth and understanding than any in history. The infant even has interesting parents: one British, one American, each a little famous in their own right.

But then something disquieting happens. Perhaps this was your child, too.

He starts to go backwards. First he loses his language, then he enters a solitary hell. He turns away when touched and arches his back when held. He lines up his toys in rows, and seems afraid of things that should hold no fear. He appears not to notice you, and his indifference makes you feel snubbed.

Soon the real heartache starts. You see other children play together in a sandpit while yours is to one side, obsessively pouring and repouring sand through his fingers. Sudden firestorms run through his nervous system, making him scream in panic and pain. Later, in the calmer years when he is four or five, other children’s attempts at friendship are rebuffed. This is not because your child wants no companions: the truth might be that he yearns for them. But he is mystified by social interaction, and conversation makes him nervous, as he has no idea how to respond. So he turns away with a distant expression, seeming cold and weird. This is autism. Your lovely offspring looks condemned to what, in 1943, Leo Kanner first described as “extreme autistic loneliness”, and many readers of this magazine will know a family that is affected. In the UK, 1 in 100 children is on the autistic spectrum.

It is a mystifying disorder. But on a farm in Texas, a British father thinks he has found a way into the mind of his autistic son. The boy has learnt to talk thanks to his relationship with a horse. He can quell his tantrums, express his feelings, even do maths and spelling — all because of a horse. He is the Horse Boy, and the loss of his symptoms is a challenge to conventional thought on how to handle his condition. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Brain, Buddhism, Healing, Psychology, Shamanism | Leave a comment

Most Polar Bears Could Die Out by 2050

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will be killed off by 2050 — and the entire population gone from Alaska — because of thinning sea ice from global warming in the Arctic, government scientists forecast Friday.

Only in the northern Canadian Arctic islands and the west coast of Greenland are any of the world’s 16,000 polar bears expected to survive through the end of the century, said the U.S. Geological Survey, which is the scientific arm of the Interior Department.

USGS projects that polar bears during the next half-century will disappear along the north coasts of Alaska and Russia and lose 42 percent of the Arctic range they need to live in during summer in the Polar Basin when they hunt and breed. A polar bear’s life usually lasts about 30 years.

“Projected changes in future sea ice conditions, if realized, will result in loss of approximately two-thirds of the world’s current polar bear population by the mid 21st century,” the report says. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Environment | Leave a comment

Charley, Frances, and Jeanne

When my brother enticed my mother to move down to Florida, he told her that Cape Canaveral was chosen as the NASA launch site because this section of Florida was hit by the fewest hurricanes. That was his selling point. He worked at NASA, 235px-hurricane_katrina_august_28_2005_nasa.jpgand thought it a nifty factoid.

Mom moved down, and for many years the worst we had to cope with was the occasional tropical storm, and we had already weathered many of them (pardon the pun) when we lived in the Virgin Islands.

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd scared us. It was heading straight for us, prompting the government to issue evacuation orders for the coastal areas, and even though we’re 20 minutes from the coast, we thought it best to leave. So did everyone else. We sat in traffic for hours and hours, trying to get to my brother’s house in Kissimmee. The 1.5 hour trip took nearly 5, and then Floyd veered north, so it was a lot of hullabaloo for nothing.

Then in 2004, Hurricane Charley threatened. We watched as it made landfall on the other side of the state, at Cayo Costa, with winds of 150 mph, then hours later hit the mainland portion of the state at Punta Gorda. Continue reading

Categories: Environment, Nature, Politics, Social Justice | 2 Comments

Nature Watch

A note from a friend in Arizona:

I wish you fabulous people could be here right now. On the upper route from Bisbee to Sierra Vista the tarantulas do a migration from the south side of the road to the north (never the other way) every year in September. Literally thousands of them cross when they do this, and the road is black with them. When you drive the road, you can hear them crunching under your tires. It’s so bizarre. And last night I walked outside to admire the moon, and a bat flew so close to my face that I had eye contact with him. Take that, you city slickers!

Categories: Animals | 3 Comments

Too Many Kittens

A recurring dream, which last night became a nightmare: I’m in a house that looks vaguely like my own, only it’s filthy. There’s a vague sense that I’m trying to pack up and move out.

Now, I’ll be the first to grant that I’m not the best housekeeper in the world, but the only rooms that ever are this bad in real life are my bedroom and occasionally my office, and they’re more cluttered than dirty. But in the dream, the whole house is thick with dustbunnies, grime, strange objects (like my parents’ old bowling trophies), books, papers, Cheetos (which I don’t even eat)—and kittens.

Somewhere along the way I have received a litter or litters of kittens, but (a) I keep forgetting about them, so I leave them for days on end to fend for themselves, which is making them feral, and (b) they are so tiny that a couple of them are easily mistaken for dustbunnies. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Dreams | 4 Comments

The Morning Howl

I‘ve been missing my dogs a lot lately. We had Tasha for ten years, then Goldie (pictured here)goldie-asleep.jpg for probably four. I inherited her from my nephew after Tasha died. I think she was around six years old, though I’m notoriously bad about remembering lengths of time with any precision.

Tasha—whose full name was Tashuunka Wakan Heyoka Yellowdog—was deeply loving, and generally obedient until she was outside and off-leash, when she became a wild wolf, running with all her might around the neighborhood, dodging helpful folks who tried to lure or lasso her. She’d usually return about four hours later, exhausted, filthy from playing in the canal, afraid of punishment, but unable (or certainly unwilling) to control the urge toward unrestricted freedom and exploration. Continue reading

Categories: Animals | 2 Comments

Mountains of Magic and More

by Tirthankar Mukherjee, The UB Post (Ulaanbatar, Mongolia)
Thursday, July 05, 2007

Kalidasa, the Indian poet-dramatist whose Meghadutam was translated into Mongolian in the 17th century (and whose name, I dare say, is totally unknown to the young in the country today), saw hills and mountains as the breasts of the Earth-woman. The Mongolian would ignore the erotic aspect of the simile, but would have no quarrel with it if female breasts are taken as sources of sustenance, for venerating mountains has been part of the Mongolian life ever since the nomads began their exploration of the country and found they were everywhere under the watchful eyes of hills.

Indeed, in Mongolian mythology, the world is ruled by Heaven and Earth in conjunction, the former male and causing things to be born, and the latter female and ensuring their nourishment and survival. This gradually led to the demarcation of some 800 sites—mountains, hills, lakes, and rivers—as worthy of veneration.

In this, something akin to the Japanese sangaku shinko (meaning “mountain creed”) can be said to have developed independently in Mongolia. Both Shamanism and the Shinto faith express reverence for mountains as sacred places. This is an integral part of a wider veneration of nature that is a feature of both, with both believing that natural features such as trees, lakes, streams, rocks and mountains are the dwelling places of spirits which hold influence over human affairs and respond to human prayer and ritual. Continue reading

Categories: Buddhism, Earth-based Religions, Environment, Nature, Shamanism | 2 Comments

Squirrelly Love

Just after noon today, there was a strange noise outside my mother’s bedroom. It sounded like someone was trying to get into the house, though the noise stopped suddenly.

I looked out the sliding door to the screened porch, and saw a classic love triangle being played out, animal-style. Clinging to the screen, upside down, was a large female Sciurus carolinensis, an Eastern Gray Squirrel, and a significantly smaller male, who was obviously attempting to seduce his lady-love.

At the same time, he was fending off the advances of another male, who was perched on the curve of the aluminum downspout and was trying to stare down male #1. Both males were switching their tails threateningly and chattering at one another, though #1 was far more aggressive with it. Periodically he’d leave the female’s side to rush toward male #2, shouting threats and whatnot, then he’d dash back to his woman, who seemed frozen to the screen, tense and unyielding.

Continue reading

Categories: Animals | 4 Comments

Apocalypse of the Honeybees

How poetically appropriate that the End of Humanity should come from such a tiny, sweet source

By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

From outta nowhere the tiny ones came, while humanity was busy trembling and sweating in the face of major global cataclysm, of global warming and nuclear war and rainforest devastation and melting ice caps and E. coli outbreaks and Ashlee Simpson and lethal hurricanes and the Apocalypse-hungry Christian right and a simply stupendously vile Bush juggernaut that has threatened all intelligent life everywhere. Onward they came, buzzy and calm and happy to be our very own adorable, unexpected harbinger of doom.

Yes, now we can see it clearly. Now we can be appropriately alarmed and now maybe we can even say, Oh holy hell, maybe we should have seen it coming all along: Of course the end of mankind should come from something as sweet and commonplace and unforeseen as the honeybees.

Have you not heard? Have you not read of the dire honeybee apocalypse and what it might mean for the majority of the delectable food crops in America, how we might soon face a very serious food crisis and might be eating little more than bread and pine cones in the near future, thus inducing widespread panic as we engage in violent bloody wars not for oil or land or God but over asparagus and avocados and those incredible Buddha’s Hand fruits they use to infuse Hangar One Citron?

It’s true. It’s all because of the honeybees, those minuscule, absolutely essential, beautifully pollinating creatures that play such a vital role in our food supply, help nearly all flowering crops grow and therefore provide a simply enormous portion of the global diet including all citrus and many vegetables Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Environment, Nature, Worthwhile Reading | 6 Comments

An Easter for the Birds

Many homes in this part of Florida (that is to say, homes newer and more expensive than ours) have a large screened-in area that encloses an in-ground pool, a summer kitchen, and a lanai or roofed porch; on temperate days, the sliding glass doors open up to the kitchen and family room and even master bedroom, so that the indoors pours comfortably into the outdoors. Darryl and Janet, my brother and sister-in-law, have such a home, which backs onto on a small but very pretty artificial lake.

Yesterday they invited everyone over for an Easter cookout. To be fair, no one cooked, at least not yesterday afternoon. We all brought our contributions: Easter egg potato salad (some of the eggs were a little blue or green from the Easter egg dye); a Jello salad with lots of marshmallows; extremely garlicky green beans; a precooked ham, and a precooked turkey breast, and packaged rolls; that sort of thing. Mom was dreading the day, since she was feeling poorly and not having a good breathing day, but as she had made such a fabulous showing the previous weekend—spending the night at the Kissimmee home of my other brother and sister-in-law, Dale and Nilda, while I gave a workshop at a writers’ conference in New Port Richey—Mom felt obligated to show up at yesterday’s gathering as well. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Christianity, Earth-based Religions, Holidays | 3 Comments

The Big Trip: Custer and the Devils Tower


Last night I swore I’d never again set foot in the Black Hills. Today I feel pulled back there, if for no reason than to see what they look like in the cold, rational light of day. mtrushmore.jpgThough I’ll happily skip Mount Rushmore this time. (If you’ve watched Kids in the Hall, you can just hear “I’m crushing your head!” when you look at the picture to the right.)

In the Black Hills National Forest, on the road leading to Custer State Park, was a sign that said, simply, “Grizzly.” I couldn’t tell if it was a warning or an advertisement.

All sorts of roads are closed up here. I don’t know what highway I’m on anymore (my, doesn’t that sound familiar?), but I’m snaking through the woods at about 15 miles per hour, going straight uphill. I’m not entirely sure my car will make it. I can’t help but wonder if I’m on the back side of Mount Rushmore; I’m at the top of Iron Mountain, apparently.

The man on the radio says he’s picking porcupine quills out of his coat from this morning’s encounter. How intriguing! Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Earth-based Religions, Nature, Spirituality, The Big Trip, Travel | 6 Comments

The Big Trip: Terror in the Black Hills


My first shock was the realization that Kyle, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where I was to meet with Vincent Blackfeather, the medicine man, is south of the Badlands, and that it is 3 hours and 100 miles back there from Rockerville, where I have stopped for dinner. black-hills.jpgI’ve missed it utterly, and the realization has put me in a panic.

I head into town and call my friend Jim to ask his advice, and reach only his answering machine.

It’s dark now. What do I do? I’m very near Mount Rushmore; do I visit it in the morning, or now? Do I camp in the forest somewhere, or find a comfy-but-cheap bed in a motel? Do I go back to Kyle after doing the Black Hills circuit?

I feel like such a coward whenever I think of Vincent Blackfeather and the Ceremonial. I’m feeling stymied by the Unknown; it’s as if all my Christian upbringing is reasserting itself in the face of this rampant “paganism” I’m being drawn toward. But if I don’t see him, what will I miss? If I travel back all that way and go to the reservation, will Vincent even be there, since he’s not expecting me? Should I try and call him in the morning? If I’m able to talk to Jim after all, will he have the proper discernment for me, since my intuition seems to be on the blink? Should I throw an I Ching hexagram? Do a tarot spread? Pray?

So I have dinner at the Old West Town Saloon. Continue reading

Categories: Dreams, Nature, Psychology, Shamanism, The Big Trip, Travel | 5 Comments

The Big Trip: The Badlands


The wind is so high, it’s causing dust devils all over the place—pink-brown whirlwinds of dust, dancing like small tornadoes, dancing against the blue sky. In one place, the dust devil was the width of an entire field, and was so thick it looked like a dust storm, albeit a stationary and tornadic one.

There were other signs I was entering the Real West as well. Leaves and husks from dried corn would blow across the road as if they were birds, skittering across like animals, but lifeless ones. Small tumbleweeds are appearing. Buffalo burgers are served at all the rest stops. And there are actual signs, too: Lakota Museum. Lower Brule Tribal Headquarters. Week’s Ponderosa Café—We Still Cook! Map of the Black Hills—Wall Drug.

Women in these parts drive trucks, wear jeans and flannel, sport short-cropped hair, and have tough, masculine personas. You might call them heterosexual lesbians. An actual lesbian couple I ran into at a gas station were an older couple from Michigan, one very butch and the other very femme, heading to Mount Rushmore and then down to Atlanta. They’ve allowed themselves six weeks for the journey.

Kadoka, South Dakota, holds an International Outhouse Race each year: two people carrying a real privy, with a third person inside. I’m so sorry I missed it! (This should not be confused with the Great Klondike International Outhouse Race held annually in Dawson City in the Yukon.)

The land itself is changing now. Continue reading

Categories: Nature, Spirituality, The Big Trip, Travel | 4 Comments

World Scientists Near Consensus on Global Warming

This was the surprising headline in today’s New York Times article. Scientists from all over the world are meeting at the U.N.–sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Paris this week to hammer out the details on an authoritative report on global warming. Its findings will project centuries of rising temperatures and sea level unless CO2 emissions are drastically cut.

The first section of the report will be released on Friday. The scientists are finding consensus around several points:

  • The Arctic Ocean could largely be devoid of sea ice during summer later in the century.
  • Europe’s Mediterranean shores could become barely habitable in summers, while the Alps could shift from snowy winter destinations to summer havens from the heat.
  • Growing seasons in temperate regions will expand, while droughts are likely to ravage further the semiarid regions of Africa and southern Asia.

As the scientists met on Monday, the U.N. Environment Program released its own report. They found that the most recent evidence from mountain glaciers showed that they were melting faster than before.

Of course, the world’s response is as it always is: self-interested political squabbling. The Times article goes on to say, “In the past year, international concern over what to do about global warming has grown along with concrete signs of climate change. Even so, political leaders are still groping for ways to tackle the phenomenon. Europe has adopted a program that caps the amount of emissions from industrial plants. But the world’s largest emitter, the United States, still is debating whether to adopt a similar policy, while developing countries like China are resisting caps on the ground that the industrialized countries contributed about 75 percent of the current volume of greenhouse gases and should make the deepest cuts.”

The international conference’s greatest contribution, to my mind, is their assertion that the science on global warming is “basic and undisputed.” It’s no longer a matter of whether these massive climate changes will occur, or when; it’s only a matter of whether we have the political will to fix it.

Thoughts? Comments?

Categories: Environment, Politics | 1 Comment

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