The fat hummingbird hovers in front of a giant red blossom, lazily drawing nectar with its strawlike beak. Its wings are beating so fast they are imperceptible to the eye. Meanwhile an evening breeze gently pushes its way through the dense jungle foliage lending a moment of relief from the stifling heat. The breeze carries a kaleidoscope of colorful butterflies, dragonflies, beetles and many other unique and wonderful tiny creatures. They gracefully flutter and dart through the moist, hot air as if performing a dance they had rehearsed for a lifetime. This insect ballet is accompanied by the local symphony of birds and crickets chaotically chirping and squawking, but somehow with perfect rhythm and harmony.
Suddenly, the hummingbird darts beneath the branches of a tree. From out of the darkness of the forest canopy a hawk appears. It drops into a spiral dive through the brambles without disturbing a leaf, and with impossible silent grace grabs the tiny hummingbird with its razor talons in mid-air. Without hesitation, the hawk swoops back into the canopy to enjoy its delicious prize--dinner. Asi es la vida en la selva. (Such is life in the jungle.)
Gilmer assures me there are thousands of medicinal plants in the jungle and he has literally spent years wandering around with his father learning how to identify and prepare them. Some are simple remedies for little problems, such as the sap of the Sangre de grado (dragon's blood) tree which is good for treating cuts and bug bites. Others are more potent and are used to cure serious illnesses, like the leaves and stems of Icoja, which are used to cure hepatitis. I have chronic arthritis in my hands and knees and Gilmer prescribed Giri Sanango. I was very impressed that he knew right where to find it in the confusing maze of the brambles surrounding the garden. I haven't tried it yet because the ground stems must cure in agua diente (a kind of rum) for four days before it is ready, but he tells me that he has rheumatism and it is very effective for him.
The shamanism of the amazon basin combines herbal medicine with deep spirituality. Not only do they prescribe medicines to their patients, but they also use plants during the treatment which they believe help them to manipulate the spiritual world and improve their patients condition. The most famous of these is a concoction called ayahuasca, which is a bitter tonic, made of six different hallucinogenic plants. It allows the shaman to enter a dreamlike state in which they can communicate with plants and spirits to better understand the cause of the problem. Once they have entered this realm they use what they have learned to change the flow of energy and use spirits to help them achieve their goal of curing the patient. Shamans believe plants themselves are always communicating with us in their language. Using ayahuasca is like having subtitles to a movie in a foreign language; suddenly they can understand what the plants are telling them. To the shamans, the dream world is as real as the world that our bodies live in, and by being able to change what happens in the dream world, they can change what happens in this one.
No matter what you believe about spirits and talking plants, there is little doubt about the benefits of using many plants of the Amazon for healing. Pharmaceutical companies are now catching on to what shamans have known and passed down for hundreds of years. In the past few years, almost all the major medicine companies have allocated funds to research these plants for their practical value in creating over-the-counter medicine. Gilmer has talked to researchers from some of these companies who are hungrily searching for cures to diseases such as AIDS and cancer and hope that maybe the answers lie here, deep in the wilds of Amazonia. Although many of them may prove useful, Gilmer does not believe they will be able to get the full benefit of their use because these companies ignore the spirit of the plant and seek only its physical value. As more and more practical discoveries are made here, people are becoming aware of what a sacred place the Amazon is. As it rapidly disappears we are beginning to understand that this precious fountain of life should be preserved not only for its own sake, but for ours as well.
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