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Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin: Indigenous knowledge serves as a ‘connective tissue’ between nature and human well-being (Mongabay)

news.mongabay.com

by Rhett A. Butler on 31 January 2022


  • As a best-selling author, the co-founder of the award-winning Amazon Conservation Team, and an acclaimed public speaker, Mark Plotkin is one of the world’s most prominent rainforest ethnobotanists and conservationists.
  • His experiences in Amazonian communities led Plotkin, along with Costa Rican conservationist Liliana Madrigal, to establish the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) in 1995. ACT took a distinctly different approach than most Western conservation groups at the time: It placed Indigenous communities at the center of its strategy.
  • ACT’s approach has since been widely adopted by other organizations, and its philosophy as a whole is now more relevant than ever as the conservation sector wrestles with its colonial roots.
  • Plotkin spoke of his work, trends in conservation, and a range of other topics in a January 2022 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

As a best-selling author, the co-founder of the award-winning Amazon Conservation Team, and an acclaimed public speaker, Mark Plotkin is one of the world’s most prominent rainforest ethnobotanists and conservationists. Plotkin has worked closely with Indigenous communities–including traditional healers or shamans–since the 1980s, first as an academic, then as a member of a large conservation organization.

His experiences in Amazonian communities led Plotkin, along with Costa Rican conservationist Liliana Madrigal, to establish the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) in 1995. ACT took a distinctly different approach than most Western conservation groups at the time: It placed Indigenous communities at the center of its strategy, working in deep and sustained partnerships with Indigenous elders and leaders to strengthen recognition of their rights through a combination of traditional knowledge and mapping technologies. These efforts have resulted in vast swathes of Indigenous territories across rainforests in Colombia, Suriname, and Brazil securing better protection, both functionally and legally. They have also helped elevate the public’s consciousness about the value and importance of traditional Indigenous knowledge.

Mark Plotkin with Captain Kapai (middle) and Captain Aretina, members of the Tiriyo tribe.
Mark Plotkin with Captain Kapai (middle) and Captain Aretina, members of the Tiriyo tribe.

ACT’s approach has since been widely adopted by other organizations, and its philosophy as a whole is now more relevant than ever as the conservation sector wrestles with its colonial roots and the associated issues around discrimination, inclusion, and representation. Put another way, ACT’s longtime model has gone from being seen as fringe to being mainstream.

Plotkin welcomes these developments, but cautions that it will take more than lip-service and money to drive meaningful shifts in how conservation groups work with Indigenous communities.

“Claiming you are going to do something difficult and then carrying it out successfully are not the same thing,” Plotkin told Mongabay during a January 2022 interview. “In my experience, partnering effectively with tribal colleagues and communities does not happen on a western timeline and is certainly not expedited by simply throwing lots of money at the process.”

Jonathan, head of the indigenous park guard program for Kwamalasamutu, on patrol in the Amazon rainforest.
An Indigenous park guard on patrol near Kwamalasamutu, Suriname in the Amazon rainforest. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Plotkin has been working to broaden public interest in Indigenous cultures and knowledge through a variety of platforms, from books to speeches to films, as a way to create a stronger constituency for Indigenous-led conservation. Last year he launched a podcast, “Plants of the Gods: Hallucinogens, Healing, Culture and Conservation”, to reach new audiences with this message.

Plotkin says that the podcast’s emphasis on medicinal plants, especially hallucinogenic plants, serves a purpose.

“I believe that hallucinogens and shamanism represent some of the most important ‘connective tissue’ between tropical nature and human well-being,” Plotkin told Mongabay.

Mark Plotkin podcasting. Photo credit: Mark Plotkin
Mark Plotkin podcasting. Photo credit: Mark Plotkin

As with his books, Plotkin leverages his storytelling abilities to engage his audience. These skills, he says, are critical to maximizing your effectiveness, whether that’s as a conservationist or something else.

“I have spent much of my career working with Indigenous peoples where… storytelling represents an essential craft,” he said. 

“Our industrialized society and our educational system have long undervalued the importance of telling an effective story. Whether you are a prosecutor trying to convince a jury, or a fundraiser trying to convince a donor, or a conservationist trying to convince a government official, you must be able to convey the information in a clear and compelling manner.”

Plotkin spoke of his work, trends in conservation, and a range of other topics in a January 2022 exchange with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

Mark Plotkin conversing with Yaloeefuh, a Trio shaman. Plotkin has worked with  Yaloeefuh since 1984. Image credit: Amazon Conservation Team
Mark Plotkin conversing with Yaloeefuh, a Trio shaman. Plotkin has worked with Yaloeefuh since 1984. Image credit: Amazon Conservation Team

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK PLOTKIN

Mongabay: You launched a very popular podcast last year. As a biologist and a successful author, what moved you to start podcasting?

Mark Plotkin: When I was a kid, there were only three channels of television, meaning an important message that appeared on any one of these channels would be seen by tens of millions of people. Such is no longer the case. If you want to disseminate a message widely, you have to work in a variety of media. I launched “Plants of the Gods: Hallucinogens, Healing, Culture and Conservation” with the intent of reaching a new and broad audience beyond just the folks who visit the Amazon Conservation Team website or have read my books.

Mongabay: Why the focus on hallucinogens and shamanism?

Mark Plotkin: First and foremost, because I am an ethnobotanist, and these are topics that I have found endlessly fascinating since I first wandered into a night school class taught my mentor Richard Schultes, the so-called “Father of Ethnobotany,” in September of 1974.

Secondly, because I believe that hallucinogens and shamanism represent some of the most important “connective tissue” between tropical nature and human well-being.

Mark Plotkin with Akoi, Sikiyana medicine man. Photo credit: ACT
Mark Plotkin with Akoi, Sikiyana medicine man. Photo credit: ACT

Thirdly, because of timing: Every week brings more news about how tropical hallucinogens like psilocybin and ayahuasca (both covered in episodes of “Plants of the Gods”) offer new hope in the treatment—and, sometimes, the cure—of intractable mental ailments ranging from depression to addiction.

Mongabay: Is this why ayahuasca tourism seems so out of control in places like Peru?

Mark Plotkin: This question brings to mind more than one cliché: “It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.” “When God wants to punish you, she answers your prayers.” “When it rains, it pours.”

Look, every biologist as far back as Linnaeus noted the expertise of Indigenous peoples regarding use of local flora and fauna. And most ethnobiologists as far back as Schultes in the late 1930s observed that these cultures used these species to heal in ways we could not understand, that – in the cases of hallucinogenic plants and fungi – shamans were employing psychoactive plants and fungi as biological scalpels to diagnose, analyze, treat and sometimes cure ailments that our own physicians or psychiatrists could not.

It therefore comes as no surprise that people whose medical, spiritual and/or emotional needs are not being met by western medicine or organized religion are traveling to places like Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon to be treated by “indigenous shamans” – some of whom are not Indigenous and many of whom are not shamans.

Sunrise over the Amazon rainforest
Sunrise over the Amazon rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The combination of remote areas, linguistic challenges, emotionally unstable people, altered states and money is a combustible one, and resulted in many problems and some fatalities. In my pal Michael Pollan’s book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” he makes a compelling case as to how and why emotionally fragile people are the ones most at risk in these ceremonies purchased via websites.

Of course, there is a win-win scenario here in which shamanism remains an honored profession, Indigenous people are compensated fairly for their healing knowledge and practices, the rainforest is better protected and cherished, and sick people are cured. Yet achieving these goals have proven more difficult than many had anticipated.

Mongabay: Which brings to mind my next question: The Amazon Conservation Team has put Indigenous communities at the center of its work since inception. Now the conservation sector as a whole is putting much more emphasis on the role Indigenous peoples play in achieving conservation and climate objectives. In your view, what has driven this shift?

Mark Plotkin: It is all too easy to say that the only news that is coming out of the environment in general – and the rainforest in particular – is bad. That people in general and large conservation organizations are now realizing the central role local societies must be empowered to assume is highly encouraging. That the Indigenous peoples themselves are pointing out that they are the best stewards of their ancestral ecosystems is likewise long overdue and to be celebrated.

Nonetheless, claiming you are going to do something difficult and then carrying it out successfully are not the same thing. In my experience, partnering effectively with tribal colleagues and communities does not happen on a western timeline and is certainly not expedited by simply throwing lots of money at the process. For example, for almost four decades, I have been working with the great shaman Amasina – who has been interviewed by Mongabay – and he is still showing me new treatments. Trying to learn information like this in a hurry would have failed.

Amasina in 1982. Photo credit: Mark Plotkin.
Amasina in 1982. Photo credit: Mark Plotkin.
Mark Plotkin with Amasina in Suriname. Photo credit: ACT
Mark Plotkin with Amasina in Suriname. Photo credit: ACT

Another personal example: about five years ago, I was invited (as an observer) to attend a gathering of Indigenous leaders in northeastern Brazil. On the first afternoon, I was approached by Captain Aretina of the Tiriyo people. He said, “I have not seen you in over 30 years. You were my father’s friend. When I heard you were going to be here, I traveled five days from my village to attend. May I give you a hug?” And we embraced, warmly and tearfully.

You cannot create this type of bond when you land at a small rainforest airstrip, tell the pilot to wait for you, have a brief meeting with the village chief, offer him lots of money and then get back on the plane and fly off.

Mongabay: The Amazon Conservation Team’s work in Colombia has significantly expanded over the past decade. What is the impact you’re most proud about in Colombia?

Mark Plotkin: The Amazon Conservation Team just celebrated its 25th Anniversary and Colombia was our first program and remains our largest. The accomplishments there are legion: Gaining title to more than two million acres (an area larger than Yellowstone) for the Indigenous peoples themselves, creation of the first Indigenous women’s reserve (“Mamakunapa”) in the northwest Amazon (with the assistance of my friend Tim Ferriss), and helping craft and pass legislation to protect uncontacted tribes and their ancestral rainforests.

One of the most meaningful achievements for me personally involves the expansion of Chiribiquete National Park where Schultes worked and collected. So stunned was he by this spectacular landscape after he first visited in 1943 that he began lobbying to have the region declared a protected area as soon as he returned to the capital city of Bogotá. In close collaboration with Colombian colleagues in both academia and government, this first came to fruition in 1989.

During the past decade, under the leadership of Northwest Amazon Program Director Carolina Gil and ACT co-founder Liliana Madrigal, we have partnered with local Colombians, (including Indigenous colleagues), to expand Chiribiquete to become the largest rainforest protect area in the Amazon (if not the world). At more than 17,000 square miles, it is twice the size of Massachusetts and protects a multitude of flora and fauna, the worlds’ largest assemblage of Indigenous painting, and at least three uncontacted tribes.

Meseta de Pyramides, Chiribiquete, Colombia. Photo credit: Mark Plotkin

Mongabay: And what about beyond Colombia?

Of course, there are other signature projects elsewhere. In the northeast Amazon, we have successfully partnered with local Indigenous peoples to help them bring no fewer than five non-timber products to market, with more in the pipeline. As far as I know, our Indigenous Ranger Program in the same region is the one of the first and longest running programs of this type in lowland South America. And our Shamans and Apprentices Program – facilitating the transfer of intragenerational healing wisdom within the tribe has been similarly effective.

And mapping: We are extremely proud of the fact that ACT – under the leadership of our ace cartographer Brian Hettler – has partnered with over 90 Indigenous groups to train them to map their own lands.

Furthermore, we have created highly innovative “Story Maps” for a variety of purposes. My two favorites are “The Life and Times of Richard Schultes” and “Lands of Freedom focusing on the oral history and history of the Matawai Maroons of Suriname, a landmark in documenting the African American diaspora.

Mongabay: Returning to the subject of Colombia, despite relatively progressive policies around Indigenous rights and conservation, Colombia’s deforestation rate has been climbing. What do you see as the key elements to reversing this trend?

Mark Plotkin: Apparently, the Presidents of both Colombia and Costa Rica were hailed as heroes at the recent COP meetings, based largely on programs and projects largely enacted by predecessors.

Tree cover loss and primary forest loss in Colombia from 2002 to 2020 according to data from Hansen et al 2021.
Tree cover loss and primary forest loss in Colombia from 2002 to 2020 according to data from Hansen et al 2021.

We need both the carrot and the stick to move forward in the sense that positive moves need to be celebrated while destructive moves are punished by economic responses, not just in the tropics but here in the industrialized world as well.

The concentration of wealth also needs to be called out: That more and more of the world’s wealth is the hands of the few, especially those few who have little connection to nature, bodes ill for the future. It is encouraging to see more billionaires writing checks for progressive causes but — with some very noteworthy exceptions — they are not giving their support to the most effective grassroots organizations, despite a lot of blather about “impact investing.”

The bottom line: We need to more effectively celebrate or criticize politicians and businesspeople for their actions. We also need to make sure much more training, opportunity and support are reaching communities at the grassroots level. And we need to do what we can to reorient our society and our economy to stop glorifying profits at all costs and promoting short-term gratification planning, thinking and operations which is fouling our global nest at an ever more frantic pace.

Mongabay: Beyond what you’ve mentioned so far, what do you see as the biggest gaps in the conservation sector? What is holding conservation back from having greater impact?

Mark Plotkin: One need is better analysis: What is the cost of pouring mercury into the Amazon in terms of human suffering and increased cancers? Of course, presenting the cost-benefit equation alone as a simple solution is far too reductionist. Throughout the course of human prehistory (e.g., the overhunting and extinction of animals as varied as the American mammoth and the Steller’s sea cow) and history (deforestation of the Mediterranean countries, DDT as a pesticide, voting against one’s economic self-interest, etc.), people have always carried out self-destructive practices.

Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Yet better explanation of costs and benefits, better elucidation of the spiritual components of environmental stewardship and better prosecution of environmental destroyers would bode well for the future. Many environmentalists forget: It was evangelicals who spoke in support of and fought to protect the Endangered Species Act when it was threatened in the 1980s. Better bridge-building in our ever more politically polarized world in the U.S. could conceivably bring many benefits.

Mongabay: Do you think the pandemic will teach us anything about how to do conservation better?

Mark Plotkin: I penned an editorial for the Los Angeles Review of Books, titled “Conservation and Coronavirus,” that described the link between the rise of the novel coronavirus and the abuse of nature in general and the wildlife trade in particular, and asserted that the best way to head off the next pandemic was to reset and rethink much of the unethical and needlessly cruel exploitation of Mother Nature, from deforestation to cramming animals into fetid cages. Many, many others have spoken to the same issues. Time will tell if there were lessons learned from the pandemic. In the short term, I am not seeing the changes necessary.

Mongabay: You’re the author of several acclaimed books, have appeared in numerous documentaries, and host a successful podcast. What would you tell younger colleagues about the importance of storytelling?

Mark Plotkin: I start with two advantages. First, I hail from New Orleans, where good storytelling is a highly celebrated practice. Not only is it a city where many great writers and storytellers were born, but even some of our most celebrated authors who weren’t raised there, like Twain and Faulkner, had their careers and abilities turbocharged by spending time in New Orleans. I have also spent much of the past four decades working with traditional storytellers in Indigenous cultures where being able to make a point through a tale well told is of paramount importance.

Secondly, I have spent much of my career working with Indigenous peoples where (once again) storytelling represents an essential craft.

The single best book I have every read about learning how to tell a story – whether it is while sitting around a campfire in the wilderness or composing a script for Netflix – is “The Writer’s Journey,” by Chris Vogler. The author explains Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” through the prism of Hollywood films and explains why and how “The Wizard of Oz,” “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” are the same basic story. Every storyteller should read this book!

Mark Plotkin with Amasina and other medicine men. Photo credit: ACT
Mark Plotkin with Amasina and other medicine men. Photo credit: ACT

Finally, I would say that our industrialized society and our educational system have long undervalued the importance of telling an effective story. Whether you are a prosecutor trying to convince a jury, or a fundraiser trying to convince a donor, or a conservationist trying to convince a government official, you must be able to convey the information in a clear and compelling manner.

Mongabay: What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in conservation?

Mark Plotkin: It is very easy for everyone – not just young people – to be discouraged by the global environmental situation: deforestation, wildfires, pollution, climate change, etc. – the list is long and seemingly endless. However, nothing is worse than doing nothing because you can’t do everything.

Monumental change IS possible, although you do not often see it featured in the media. Just look at Mongabay: even with the all the heartbreaking stories, there are always accounts of new ideas, initiatives, and successes. I concluded my most recent book as follows: “When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, people habitually threw litter out their car windows, smoked cigarettes in offices and on airplanes, shunned seatbelts and assumed the Berlin Wall would never come down. With enough changed minds come changed policies and realities.”

Rainforest creek in the Colombian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

So to modify a much quoted aphorism: be and create the change to want to see. The shamans with whom I have had the honor and privilege to learn from for almost four decades insist on the interconnectedness of all things, be it deforestation or racism or elephant poaching or poverty or climate change. I certainly believe the world needs more ethnobotanists and other boundary walkers who can straddle different cultures and belief systems, but I also know that we need more lawyers and politicians and spiritual leaders and politicians and artists and businesspeople to join the cause. Environmental justice and stewardship are way too important to be left solely to environmentalists!

Another tool in the fight against climate change: storytelling (MIT Technology Review)

technologyreview.com

Stories may be the most overlooked climate solution of all. By

December 23, 2021

Devi Lockwood

There is a lot of shouting about climate change, especially in North America and Europe. This makes it easy for the rest of the world to fall into a kind of silence—for Westerners to assume that they have nothing to add and should let the so-called “experts” speak. But we all need to be talking about climate change and amplifying the voices of those suffering the most. 

Climate science is crucial, but by contextualizing that science with the stories of people actively experiencing climate change, we can begin to think more creatively about technological solutions.

This needs to happen not only at major international gatherings like COP26, but also in an everyday way. In any powerful rooms where decisions are made, there should be people who can speak firsthand about the climate crisis. Storytelling is an intervention into climate silence, an invitation to use the ancient human technology of connecting through language and narrative to counteract inaction. It is a way to get often powerless voices into powerful rooms. 

That’s what I attempted to do by documenting stories of people already experiencing the effects of a climate in crisis. 

In 2013, I was living in Boston during the marathon bombing. The city was put on lockdown, and when it lifted, all I wanted was to go outside: to walk and breathe and hear the sounds of other people. I needed to connect, to remind myself that not everyone is murderous. In a fit of inspiration, I cut open a broccoli box and wrote “Open call for stories” in Sharpie. 

I wore the cardboard sign around my neck. People mostly stared. But some approached me. Once I started listening to strangers, I didn’t want to stop. 

That summer, I rode my bicycle down the Mississippi River on a mission to listen to any stories that people had to share. I brought the sign with me. One story was so sticky that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months, and it ultimately set me off on a trip around the world.

“We fight for the protection of our levees. We fight for our marsh every time we have a hurricane. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.” 

I met 57-year-old Franny Connetti 80 miles south of New Orleans, when I stopped in front of her office to check the air in my tires; she invited me in to get out of the afternoon sun. Franny shared her lunch of fried shrimp with me. Between bites she told me how Hurricane Isaac had washed away her home and her neighborhood in 2012. 

Despite that tragedy, she and her husband moved back to their plot of land, in a mobile home, just a few months after the storm.

“We fight for the protection of our levees. We fight for our marsh every time we have a hurricane,” she told me. “I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.” 

Twenty miles ahead, I could see where the ocean lapped over the road at high tide. “Water on Road,” an orange sign read. Locals jokingly refer to the endpoint of Louisiana State Highway 23 as “The End of the World.” Imagining the road I had been biking underwater was chilling.

Devi with sign
The author at Monasavu Dam in Fiji in 2014.

Here was one front line of climate change, one story. What would it mean, I wondered, to put this in dialogue with stories from other parts of the world—from other front lines with localized impacts that were experienced through water? My goal became to listen to and amplify those stories.

Water is how most of the world will experience climate change. It’s not a human construct, like a degree Celsius. It’s something we acutely see and feel. When there’s not enough water, crops die, fires rage, and people thirst. When there’s too much, water becomes a destructive force, washing away homes and businesses and lives. It’s almost always easier to talk about water than to talk about climate change. But the two are deeply intertwined.

I also set out to address another problem: the language we use to discuss climate change is often abstract and inaccessible. We hear about feet of sea-level rise or parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but what does this really mean for people’s everyday lives? I thought storytelling might bridge this divide. 

One of the first stops on my journey was Tuvalu, a low-lying coral atoll nation in the South Pacific, 585 miles south of the equator. Home to around 10,000 people, Tuvalu is on track to become uninhabitable in my lifetime. 

In 2014 Tauala Katea, a meteorologist, opened his computer to show me an image of a recent flood on one island. Seawater had bubbled up under the ground near where we were sitting. “This is what climate change looks like,” he said. 

“In 2000, Tuvaluans living in the outer islands noticed that their taro and pulaka crops were suffering,” he said. “The root crops seemed rotten, and the size was getting smaller and smaller.” Taro and pulaka, two starchy staples of Tuvaluan cuisine, are grown in pits dug underground. 

Tauala and his team traveled to the outer islands to take soil samples. The culprit was saltwater intrusion linked to sea-level rise. The seas have been rising four millimeters per year since measurements began in the early 1990s. While that might sound like a small amount, this change has a dramatic impact on Tuvaluans’ access to drinking water. The highest point is only 13 feet above sea level.

A lot has changed in Tuvalu as a result. The freshwater lens, a layer of groundwater that floats above denser seawater, has become salty and contaminated. Thatched roofs and freshwater wells are now a thing of the past. Each home now has a water tank attached to a corrugated-­iron roof by a gutter. All the water for washing, cooking, and drinking now comes from the rain. This rainwater is boiled for drinking and used to wash clothes and dishes, as well as for bathing. The wells have been repurposed as trash heaps. 

At times, families have to make tough decisions about how to allocate water. Angelina, a mother of three, told me that during a drought  a few years ago, her middle daughter, Siulai, was only a few months old. She, her husband, and their oldest daughter could swim in the sea to wash themselves and their clothes. “We only saved water to drink and cook,” she said. But her newborn’s skin was too delicate to bathe in the ocean. The salt water would give her a horrible rash. That meant Angelina had to decide between having water to drink and to bathe her child.

The stories I heard about water and climate change in Tuvalu reflected a sharp division along generational lines. Tuvaluans my age—like Angelina—don’t see their future on the islands and are applying for visas to live in New Zealand. Older Tuvaluans see climate change as an act of God and told me they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else; they didn’t want to leave the bones of their ancestors, which were buried in their front yards. Some things just cannot be moved. 

Organizations like the United Nations Development Programme are working to address climate change in Tuvalu by building seawalls and community water tanks. Ultimately these adaptations seem to be prolonging the inevitable. It is likely that within my lifetime, many Tuvaluans will be forced to call somewhere else home. 

Tuvalu shows how climate change exacerbates both food and water insecurity—and how that insecurity drives migration. I saw this in many other places. Mess with the amount of water available in one location, and people will move.

In Thailand I met a modern dancer named Sun who moved to Bangkok from the rural north. He relocated to the city in part to practice his art, but also to take refuge from unpredictable rain patterns. Farming in Thailand is governed by the seasonal monsoons, which dump rain, fill river basins, and irrigate crops from roughly May to September. Or at least they used to. When we spoke in late May 2016, it was dry in Thailand. The rains were delayed. Water levels in the country’s biggest dams plummeted to less than 10% of their capacity—the worst drought in two decades.

“Right now it’s supposed to be the beginning of the rainy season, but there is no rain,” Sun told me. “How can I say it? I think the balance of the weather is changing. Some parts have a lot of rain, but some parts have none.” He leaned back in his chair, moving his hands like a fulcrum scale to express the imbalance. “That is the problem. The people who used to be farmers have to come to Bangkok because they want money and they want work,” he said. “There is no more work because of the weather.” 

family under sign in Nunavut
A family celebrates Nunavut Day near the waterfront in Igloolik, Nunavut, in 2018.

Migration to the city, in other words, is hastened by the rain. Any tech-driven climate solutions that fail to address climate migration—so central to the personal experience of Sun and many others in his generation around the world—will be at best incomplete, and at worst potentially dangerous. Solutions that address only one region, for example, could exacerbate migration pressures in another. 

I heard stories about climate-­driven food and water insecurity in the Arctic, too. Igloolik, Nunavut, 1,400 miles south of the North Pole, is a community of 1,700 people. Marie Airut, a 71-year-old elder, lives by the water. We spoke in her living room over cups of black tea.

“My husband died recently,” she told me. But when he was alive, they went hunting together in every season; it was their main source of food. “I’m not going to tell you what I don’t know. I’m going to tell you only the things that I have seen,” she said. In the 1970s and ’80s, the seal holes would open in late June, an ideal time for hunting baby seals. “But now if I try to go out hunting at the end of June, the holes are very big and the ice is really thin,” Marie told me. “The ice is melting too fast. It doesn’t melt from the top; it melts from the bottom.”

When the water is warmer, animals change their movement. Igloolik has always been known for its walrus hunting. But in recent years, hunters have had trouble reaching the animals. “I don’t think I can reach them anymore, unless you have 70 gallons of gas. They are that far now, because the ice is melting so fast,” Marie said. “It used to take us half a day to find walrus in the summer, but now if I go out with my boys, it would probably take us two days to get some walrus meat for the winter.” 

Marie and her family used to make fermented walrus every year, “but this year I told my sons we’re not going walrus hunting,” she said. “They are too far.”

Devi Lockwood is the Ideas editor at Rest of World and the author of 1,001 Voices on Climate Change.

The Water issue

This story was part of our January 2022 issue

Anthropology’s Storyteller-Shaman-Sorcerer Strikes Again With ‘The Corn Wolf’ (Pop Matters)

BY HANS ROLLMAN

27 January 2016

MICHAEL TAUSSIG’S WORK BOTH ATTRACTS AND ANGERS OTHER ANTHROPOLOGISTS. IT ALSO RE-ENCHANTS A DISCIPLINE THAT IS IN DESPERATE NEED OF IT.

cover artTHE CORN WOLF MICHAEL TAUSSIG

(UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS)
DEC 2015

“So who is telling stories nowadays? And who is telling the story about stories?”

Michael Taussig was once dubbed “anthropology’s alternative radical” (by the New York Times, no less). It’s tempting to call him iconoclastic, but his latest collection, The Corn Wolf, problematizes the term ‘iconoclasm’ (it even features an ‘Iconoclasm Dictionary’) so thoroughly that a writer would deploy it at his peril.

Nevertheless, the dilemma sets the mood: Taussig’s work remains as genre-bending today as when he published the book that first raised eyebrows—and ire, among many colleagues in the field—back in 1987.

That book, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man(University of Chicago Press, 1991), launched a multi-pronged attack on some of the discipline’s most sacred conventions, and remains a controversial (and widely used) text in graduate and upper-level undergraduate anthropology courses today. While undergrads found Taussig’s unapologetic accounts of partaking in drug binges with Amazonian shamans titillating, it was the reflexive critique of anthropologists’ obsession with violence and terror, coupled with the experimental and often poetic style of composition, that put other scholars on edge.

Over a quarter century later, his ability to confound cultural critics and confront convention hasn’t waned. His latest collection of essays written over the past decade, The Corn Wolf, squarely tackles many of the key controversies of our time—the academic industrial complex, Occupy Wall Street, the intensification and precarity of neoliberal capitalist culture, the plight of Occupied Palestine, and more—in Taussig’s characteristically poetic, storyteller style.

Finding Magic in the Corporate Academy

Taussig’s work is the sort of bewilderingly beautiful prose (one is often tempted to call it poetry) that’s able to operate on multiple intellectual levels. The first essay in the collection, “The Corn Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts”, immerses the reader fully and mercilessly in the style. It opens with a poor graduate student realizing that writing up their fieldwork is the most difficult and important task of graduate school, and also the one thing graduate school teaches you nothing about. Fieldwork and writing; “they are both rich, ripe, secret-society-type shenanigans. Could it be that both are based on impossible-to-define talents, intuitions, tricks, and fears?”

No wonder many careerist academics dislike him.

Of course the essay isn’t so much about graduate writing as about his own writing, and about the act of writing—the magical act of writing—itself.

For example, Taussig considers anthropology’s treatment of magic and shamanic sorcery: “Pulling the wool over one’s eyes is a simpler way of putting it… What we have generally done in anthropology is really pretty amazing in this regard, piggybacking on their magic and on their conjuring—their tricks—so as to come up with explanations that seem nonmagical and free of trickery.”

This seemingly nonmagical academic form of writing—or mode of production, as he calls it—is what he refers to as ‘agribusiness writing’: “Agribusiness writing is what we find throughout the university and everyone knows it when they don’t see it.” Against it he pitches the idea of ‘apotropaic writing’, a magic that connives with the prosaic to produce a counter-magic of its own.

When anthropologists demystify shamanic sorcery, for instance, the ‘wolfing’ moves of apotropaic magic would reveal the sorcery implicit in the act of the ‘scientific’ anthropologist’s recasting of shamanism. Indeed, the fact that the wonder and magic of the everyday world has been demystified by science is a sort of magical transformation itself. Is this how we re-enchant the world? By the use of story-telling and writing to re-position what seems like the boring, unmagical workaday world of everyday capitalist drudgery and expose it as the magical sleight-of-hand and tricksterism that it is? “I have long felt that agribusiness writing is more magical than magic ever could be and that what is required is to counter the purported realism of agribusiness writing with apotropaic writing as countermagic, apotropaic from the ancient Greek meaning the use of magic to protect one from harmful magic.”

The point emerges again, perhaps unintentionally, in Taussig’s essay “The Stories Things Tell and Why They Tell Them”, as he discusses our collective yearning for “the old days”.

“‘The old days’ is actually a talismanic phrase and phase that ushers in prehistory and hence the enchanted world when things spoke to man… it goes along with what is felt to be a certain lack or loss of poetry—of poetry and ritual—in workaday life. But, you ask, has that really disappeared? Does enchantment not resurface under certain conditions, maybe extreme conditions, as in our contemporary world of machines, corporate control, and heady consumerism?”

Our world seems devoid of magic, comprised of boring realities that brook no alternatives: from the academic industrial complex to neoliberal capitalism. The hegemonic mode of thinking which makes us think that way, is perhaps the most magical and insidious form of sorcery there is.

Winnie-the-Pooh, and Wittgenstein, Too

The essays cover a broad range. Taussig discusses the literary work of B. Traven, that enigmatic, socio-political novelist who wrote under a pseudonym in early 20th century Mexico but is believed to have been an exiled German anarchist. Walter Benjamin appears repeatedly; Adorno and Wittgenstein, too. But to follow the startling trajectory of Taussig’s thought requires more than intellectual reference points: he weaves a sort of magic in his storytelling designed to disrupt the reader’s familiar mode of analysis; that agribusiness reading and writing model that underpins not just the academy but so much of our society’s accepted ways of configuring knowledge. A shaman-scholar, indeed. It’s Taussig’s particular talent: not just anyone can develop an essay drawing together bumblebees, the dialectics of humming, Theodor Adorno and Winnie-the-Pooh. Or produce serious, thought-provoking reflections on what a zebra in a zoo must think of a man riding by on a bicycle.

The value of Taussig’s work is that it can often be read on multiple levels; as enriching to return to as when it provokes for the first time, although the experience and what one gains from it is often quite different each time. The essay “Excelente Zona Social”, originally written to commemorate the anniversary of an anthropological classic, meanders through a set of reflections on the nature of ethnographic fieldwork, set against the backdrop of Taussig’s own time spent with peasants battling the Colombian state for control of occupied land. The peasants and their legal advisors compete with the state and the owners of capital (the palmeros, or palm plantation owners) to produce maps of the territory in dispute: on the state’s side, maps demonstrating ownership and property rights; on the peasants’ side, maps demonstrating usage and community history.

What emerges is a struggle over contesting frames of reference, and even over the language used to articulate the politics of presence. The state and palmeros speak in a legal, bureaucratic language; the peasants in a language of anecdotes and shared stories. Their legal advisor puts it bluntly: “’We have to create a new language,’ says Juan Felipe. ‘The palmeros have theirs, and we need to show the world an alternate model.’” The dispute echoes a broader one that is emerging in indigenous studies today, between competing histories of culture and the ways we recognize knowledge. In recent years, this trend has involved challenging the ways in which oral histories are traditionally devalued in western legal and intellectual culture.

Food for thought. But Taussig—like his spirit-guide, Walter Benjamin—takes it a step further and implicates the reader in this process, as well: “the origin of storytelling lies in the encounter between the traveler and those who stay at home,” he reminds us. The reader is not an innocent bystander; a point to which Taussig returns in subsequent essays.

The Politics of Field Notes

Another recurring theme in The Corn Wolf appears in the form of valuable reflections on the nature of the field journal, used by anthropologists to collect notes—sketches, snatches of conversation, reflections, vague impressions—and which is then typically translated into more standard form for reader consumption: books or journal articles. But in this process of translation it loses much of its magic, and that includes the capacity of the field journal to convey actual experience. When an anthropologist ‘writes up’ their fieldnotes, muses Taussig, after-thoughts kick in and infuse and suffuse the process. “By afterthoughts I mean secondary elaborations that arise on top of the original notes, photographs, and drawings. Through stops, starts, sudden swerves, the original is pulled into a wider and wilder landscape. To reread and to rewrite is to tug at the memories buried therein as well as engage with the gaps, questions, connections, conundrums, and big ideas that lie latent and in turn generate more of the same.”

The point of this reflection, Taussig continues, is to challenge the conventional trajectory of field-notes-to-publication. “I feel impelled to ask, therefore, if anthropology has sold itself short in conforming to the idea that its main vehicle of expression is an academic book or journal article? This is not a plea for exact reproduction of the fieldwork notebook but rather a plea for following its furtive forms and mix of private and public…”

There’s a revealing clue here to the circuitous and unorthodox nature of Taussig’s own writing style. It’s a form of “magical anthropology”, for lack of a better term. Critics speak of magical realism in fiction and literature as involving the use of magical elements to achieve a deeper insight into reality (well-known examples include the work of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende).  Adam Hothschild, writing in the New York Review of Books, famously referred to the reportage of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski as comprising a form of “magical journalism”. Such labels describe the use of writing not to convey facts but to communicate experience, by provoking ideas and states of mind that more accurately reflect the perceived reality of a situation, even if the process of doing so requires the storyteller (be they author, journalist or anthropologist) to sometimes run rough-shod over the facts as they might be conventionally presented.

This is also a form of what is referred to as ‘fictocriticism’—the combination of fictive and non-fictive elements in a single text. Its application has particular merit in anthropology. What many of us consider reality—“the facts”, or those details which are intended to convey and communicate reality—can sometimes themselves prove to be a barrier to comprehending reality as it is experienced by another. Facts are consumed and ordered by the reader within their own frame of reference, neatly reinforcing the reader’s pre-existing sense of reality; the experience of the Other those facts are intended to relay remains uncommunicated.

However,  by playing with the presentation of those facts, some storytellers (journalists, social scientists) might manage to more accurately share the insights and experience of the Other, by provoking a deeper, experiential resonance in the reader. Or so a magical anthropology, like magical journalism or magical storytelling of any genre, might suggest.

At any rate, the fact is there’s another thread here worth following: the power of storytelling and the role of the reader, as Taussig explains best in his travelogue-essay,  “My Two Weeks in Palestine”. A recurring theme in Taussig’s work is humanity’s fascination with violence and terror. Anthropologists (and other academics) are often criticized for their fly-in, fly-out method of witnessing violence, and of the careers built on our society’s fascination with violence. Like politicians, diplomats, journalists, humanitarians, and others, they are often criticized for writing about violence and terror without (seemingly) actually being able to do anything to stop it or cause it to abate. The academic, therefore, becomes implicated in the culture of violence, helping to stoke humanity’s fascination with the abominable. Yet the complicity of the academic, the anthropologist, is as nothing compared with the complicity of the reader, suggests Taussig.

This alone makes such storytelling and retelling a treacherous activity. Joseph Conrad called it ‘the fascination of the abomination,’ an accurate if ponderous rendering of the stock in trade of war journalists and war photographers, especially the latter, wild men and wild women to the core, too much in love with their work which soon settles into banality. But that is as nothing compared with the conceit of the reader of their work, secure at one remove from the action, yet no less likely to be buoyed up by the tempestuous currents of attraction and repulsion inflaming it before succumbing to indifference or turning the page or clicking the mouse.

In the face of this, what is to be done? Taussig suggests the act of witnessing is important, but it must lead to something more than mere consumption on the part of the reader. Thus the imperative for the writer, the storyteller, to find a way to write their stories (or articles, or books) in such a way as to provoke a more reactive reading that transcends mere passive consumption. Here the unorthodox anthropologist, open to the creative and experimental potential of the field journal medium or other types of experimental writing, might stumble upon ways of provoking such responses.

(I)t is my hope that the flexibility and “multi-tasking” to be found in the fieldworker’s diary can reconfigure this otherwise paralyzing ‘fascination of the abomination.’ Like the magical shield of Perseus, a diary allows of witness without being turned to stone. Like Walter Benjamin’s Denkbilden or ‘thought-images,’ the diary form facilitates grasping those images that flare up at a moment of danger when the potential for innervating the body is at its highest.

In Palestine he is struck by the way people tell him their stories: horrifying, terrible stories, but told thoughtfully and even with humour. “[T]he point was that people were capable, precisely because of their circumstance, of combining the unthinkable with the sayable—that was the miracle—and hence pass the baton of witnessing along to me, to pass on to you in the hope, vain as it may be, that witnessing becomes something more than consumption. Like travel and anthropology, reading has not only its passions but responsibilities, too.”

Occupying Anthropology

Taussig’s storytelling, in this collection, include an arc of stories on the pace of modern life: the speed-up of global capitalism, the precarious and destroyed lives it leaves in its ever-present wake, and the protest it sparks as workers and intellectuals and all those left in the margins (which is to say, the majority) struggle to pull the emergency brakes on a society speeding out of control. In “I’m So Angry I Made a Sign”, those brakes take the form of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which Taussig witnessed first-hand, and reflects upon in a thoughtful photo-essay.

Even more powerful is the essay that follows: “The Go Slow Party”, a moving cry for resistance against the great speed-up that plagues modern society (including academia). Taussig realizes that “the only time I really go slow is in the shower and having a shit. Both are fine examples of what Hakim Bey called ‘the temporary autonomous zone.’ Both free the mind and stimulate creative thinking…” He proceeds to reflect on the right to be lazy and the need to decolonize play and leisure. His own intervention—fighting for the right to install hammocks in his university department—was denied in favour of his colleagues’ more abstract approaches to the issue, but his reflections on the topic offer a powerful provocation.

In the final essay, “Don Miguel”, he offers some parting advice for anthropologists on the nature of fieldwork.

You learn after a long, long time, that the famous ‘method’ of participant-observation tends to be weighted toward the observation end of things and, what’s more, tends not, according to the profession, to allow much by way of self-observation. What you learn is that because of class and race barriers, what I would call ‘true’ participation is rare and unforgettable, but that the ‘stranger-effect,’ being a foreigner, makes this a lot easier. Some anthropologists, perhaps the great majority, make these barriers into a virtue, claiming that such participation is irrelevant and romantic, that we should study not ourselves, not psychology, not the anthropologist-native interaction, but something as vast and nebulous as ‘culture.’

Not so, asserts Taussig, and he offers a lifetime of examples to the contrary. The particular story he tells in the final essay is an amusing and engaging one: as a student, he made the poor decision to follow the advice of more senior academics and, against his own instincts, reach out to those at the top of the social hierarchy in the region of Colombia in which he was working, instead of simply ignoring them and focusing on the peasants he felt more comfortable with. The result was his being targeted by the local secret police (who had previously ignored him), setting off a frenzied dash around the country to convince the necessary authorities that he and his colleague were, after all, harmless researchers. His point, however, was that his own memory of this incident and the insights it opened up became a unique and different form of participant-observation, because “we had become objects in our own story”.

The Corn Wolf essays are prime Taussig: assuming a form that is both whimsical and yet deadly provocative at the same time. Michael Taussig: anthropology’s trickster magician, poet and storyteller, casts his spell again.

Hans Rollmann is a writer and editor based in Eastern Canada. He’s a columnist, writer and opinions editor with the online news magazine TheIndependent.ca. His work has appeared in a range of other publications both print and online, from Briarpatch Magazine to Feral Feminisms. In addition to a background in radio-broadcasting, union organizing and archaeology, he’s currently completing a PhD in Gender, Feminist & Women’s Studies in Toronto. He can be reached by email at hansnf@gmail.com or @hansnf on Twitter.