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Plants, Shamanism and Ecstatic States

Before the white man, Christian morality, and the practice of using chemistry to treat biology, there was nature, spirituality, and the medicine man for the indigenous people of the world. Everything in their universe was provided for them by the creator – nothing was evil, and nothing was wasted.

There were magical plants in this universe that could give you visions, heal your spirit, allow you to commune with nature, and, if the dose or the plant were powerful enough, to talk to the creator. They were part of rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations. They were part of negotiations with other tribes, of war and peace.

And the best part was that these plants and the comfort they provided were everywhere – they just grew there.

After thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of years of using these plants, in the last hundred years these plants and their traditional uses have been unfairly stigmatized and labelled under the ubiquitous moniker "narcotics". Many are illegal, many are regulated, and many fall into the grey area that might allow you to pick and use, but never to grow or sell.

The science of Ethneobotany studies these plants from every perspective, from the scientific to the cultural to the philosophical, hoping to better understand the uses and importance of shamanic plants and visions – there are a lot of wonderful legal drugs on the market today, but none of them are much good at giving you the power to talk to the animals.

Every two years for the past decade, experts in a wide range of ethneobotanical fields meet to discuss their research, their findings, and their experiences.

This year’s conference on shamanic plant science, Ethneobotany 2, will take place in Whistler from May 11 to 13, and attract experts from all over the world. Chief Allen Stager of the Mount Currie Indian Band will open the event, which is being held at the Whistler Conference Centre, at 2 p.m.

According to Rob Montgomery, director of the botanical preservation corps, the event is "a multidisciplinary exploration of shamanic, visionary plants or plant teachers, encompassing ethnopharmacology, pharmacology and phytochemistry" with emphasis on "history, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, archaeology, and art history."

Specific topics to be covered include ayahuasca (an endogenous, halluciongenic vine found in South America) and its analogues, cannabis, magic mushrooms (also called psilocybians), Salvia divinorum (a powerful and uniquely "visionary" type of sage found in Mexico), iboga (a West African tree whose bark produces the most powerful and long lasting psychedelics on earth), peyote (the same visionary cactus from the Southern U.S. and Mexico that the good guys were tripping on in the movie Young Guns), natural and artificial tryptamines (from a large hallucinogenic family of plants and compounds that contain both an indole ring and an amine group), phenylthylamines (a huge and largely illegal hallucinogen and "speed" family relative that includes mescaline and amphetamines), and, surprisingly, tobacco.

"Isn’t is amazing that tobacco was and still is the number one shamanic plant used worldwide?" asks Montgomery. "And right alongside this traditional sacramental use we find it regarded by others as an unhealthy bad habit. Traditional tobacco use is no casual thing, it’s ceremonial and often ingested in stunning, trance-inducing doses.

"It is said that there is no real healing unless tobacco is used. Think about this: tobacco comes from North and South America, but was disseminated to every other continent… and was immediately and eagerly incorporated into the deepest shamanic repertoires everywhere. Why? Because it works."

According to Montgomery, the "puny, carcinogenic chemical fibre of commercial cigarettes" only provides a small dose – a kind of shamanic tease. "Try slowly inhaling an entire good, big, 45 minute cigar. It’s a shamanic state, and certainly not lending itself to chain-smoking."

Montgoemery’s particular field of interest is divination, using psychedelic and hallucinogenic visions to see into the future. "Traditional people often consult these plants as oracles, approaching them with respect as very special living beings which can enable insights," says Montgomery. "Often this quest addresses lost objects, (determining a) cause of illness, ‘who stole the hens eggs’, village decisions, ‘who is he/she sleeping with’, and such.

"It all seems related to matters of time. Time is a dimension. Divination is about what happened, what will happen, what we should do… accessing the dimension of time through this peculiar altered state.

"It’s just a thought, but perhaps the relationship between divination and visionary plants is pragmatic and effective. Don’t you think that’s an excellent but overlooked ingredient in many peoples and communities these days?"

It’s not all metaphysics. Many shamanic plants, taken separately or as part of a compound, have valid medical and scientific uses: Morphine, for example, is an essential pain-killer derived from opium, which is a powerful hallucinogen.

"Visionary plants themselves provide humans with numerous valuable compounds which variously possess direct therapeutic applications in medicine for physical and psychological healing, as well as research materials for neurochemists," says Montgomery. "Many corporate success commodities, such as Prozac and Hydergine arose directly from studies on psychoactive plant compound modifications."

Visionary plants have also contributed to cultural art, music, philosophy, community and religion in many advanced civilizations. For example, the advanced Mayan and Aztec cultures were guided by visionary plants and shamans, and still had the wits to construct intricate temples and study math and astronomy. The most prehistoric civilizations also used visionary plants in their own processes, perhaps imagining the wheel or dreaming up a better way to hunt mammoth in the process.

"Examples from the remotest prehistory are spectacular, ever-present and demonstrate the central and ongoing relationship between all peoples and plant-derived shamanic inspiration," says Montgomery.

While the history is always fascinating, the field of ethneobotany has as many modern applications as does historical interest – more people are probably using shamanic visionary plants today than at any other period in human history.

"Remember that within any community of people, there seems to be a consistent percentage to whom shamanic inebrients and visionary divination are of interest," says Montgomery. "Most people aren’t so inclined. Shamanism traditionally involves arduous experience, long hours, personal sacrifices, keen wits, impeccable integrity and often low pay. It’s not for everybody. Even among Western enthusiasts of shamanic herbalism this bungee-jumping into the soul is suited for a similar minority.

"I do think that most people can benefit from knowing these inner realms via direct experience at least once in life."

Although he would never suggest doing anything illegal, many shamanic plants grow in our own backyard. Many of these substances have a bad reputation, and are considered "drugs" or "narcotics" by the authorities.

"I suppose some consider altered perception itself to be an untoward pursuit and that shamanic plants which can catalyze this should somehow be dismissed, regulated or even prohibited. I suspect this is a relic of medieval philosophy and only embraced by law enforcement enthusiasts, control addicts and a mean-spirited minority. Traditionally, shams are the most respected spiritual guides and healers of any community and the plants are considered sacred beings. Why should this though be bad?" asks Montgomery.

Many of the plants in question are endangered by human encroachment and the loss of habitat. Some species of visionary plants, such as Salvia divinorum, are kept alive by scientists and enthusiasts.

"Myself and fellow speaker Christain Ratsch visited (Chile) recently and were unable to find a single Keule tree," says Montgomery. "But my bittersweet view is that nothing lasts, change is stability, and species all come and go. Life is impermanence. To behold this majesty and regard the mystery is part of what navigating the realms of perception these visionary plants enable."

There will be 19 speakers at the three-day conference, covering everything from the art history of angels and dragons ("Virtues of Bad Trips") to the war on drugs, to psychoactive plant preparations and admixtures of different cultures – Montgomery is presenting this last topic. A more complete list of speakers is available at

Tickets are available to residents and visitors for US$290 for all three days, US$200 for Friday and Saturday, and $100 for Sunday. The atrium vending area is open to the public.