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There are moments, like right now, where I can feel the entire world passing through me. It’s not that I’m porous, per se. More like I can feel everything, like there’s a storm of affect around me and I’m stuck right at the middle. Conduit. Conscript. Conductor (the electrical kind, as there’s no music yet, though the word ‘ampere’ comes to mind as a kind of deceptive, false medium between these nodal points, between shock and shake and wail, between the amphitheater and amplification and the French philosopher-mathematician who built this connection for me before I was born).
Minnie Evans started this whole thing. Watching the video, I found myself overwhelmed. So many divergent, weighty feelings. Gratitude, awe, confusion, familiarity, joy. I spend so much time thinking about “the work”, you know? I worry sometimes that people think I don’t, but I do. At shows, on the road, in the crib. The project is always with me, informing how I write and what I perform and where I am taking the strange assemblage that I’ve tried to build here. Yesterday, I stumbled upon the terms “ethnobotany” and “ethnobiology” and actually flipped out. Though a day later I’m not sure if these terms locate exactly what I’m tracking, they are certainly close. I know that there is something, or maybe an ensemble of somethings, here in the archive that is calling to me. Something about plants, animals, Black religion, Afrofuturism, disability, imagination. The flash points are everywhere. What I’m working through is how to put them together. How to assemble them into a constellation that’s legible. “Black Nature Writing” is a term that works for me most days, but I’m not sure it gets at precisely what I *think* I am seeing, which is a body of texts that is trying to put such pressure on the genre of nature writing, pushing its boundaries so far out to the margins, that I’m not sure if it fits anymore. If it even wants to fit.
But maybe that’s the work of blackness in nature writing, “anarranging every line” as Moten might say. Maybe there isn’t some other term, some other frame, connecting Minnie Evans and George Washington Carver and Douglass and Morrison and Walker and Octavia and Chesnutt demanding to be addressed by its proper name.
And, even if there is, is it really the name that I’m after? Or is it something about what these figures share? A spectacular secret? That Nature is both not “out there” (reading Timothy Morton has changed my life) but also kinda sorta is? This is what Lauren Olamina from Butler’s Parable of the Sower gives us, right? A charge. To take root among the stars. To think conviviality in interplanetary terms. A radical immanence that is also elsewhere.
an ethnobotanical sampler
Ethnobotany is the study of the traditional uses of plants. Indigenous people worldwide have amazing knowledge of how to use the plants around them, for medicine, construction, hunting, eating, etc. This is especially true in the Amazon, where the plant diversity is so high (the Ecuadorian Amazon is estimated to have nearly 3000 species of flowering plants and over 1000 species of trees that live below 600m elevation).* For example, the Shuar, the largest Amazonian indigenous group in Ecuador that was never enslaved by the Spanish, have been found to use an astonishing 577 plant species.* Overall, ethnobotanists have documented that Ecuador’s indigenous peoples have uses for approximately half of the 3000 plant species in the rainforest.*
In terms of medicinal uses, I can only report what the indigenous people use the plants for, not whether or not they are effective medicines. Few have been studied through the lens of modern Western medical science…yet. Remember that many of our modern drugs come directly from plants (aloe vera) or are derived from chemicals found originally in plants (aspirin’s precursor, salicylic acid, was originally derived from willow bark). A good example is curare, the best muscle relaxant in the world, still used in anesthetics, which comes from a vine in primary (virgin) forest in the Amazon. Indigenous people discovered this property generations ago and put it to good use on their blowgun darts to make their prey fall out of the trees, unable to move and easy to catch.
Scientific Name: Brownea sp. Family: Fabaceae
The cruz caspi is always drooping like this. Instead of putting out one or two new leaves all the time, which would allow an insect to live on the tree and eat a tender new leaf every day, it puts out a huge bunch of new leaves all at once about every six months. The new leaves droop down at first and gradually stiffen and lift up. This phenomenon is called “pouring out foliage.”
The bark from this tree, in conjunction with other plants, is used to make a contraceptive tea. A woman can drink this tea and be protected for 1-3 months, depending on the recipe. And if she drinks a strong tea once a month for three months, she will be sterile. Perhaps this is more sophisticated than surgery, which is painful and has its risks, and artificial hormone pills, which are released via urine into the water supply and cannot be removed via conventional water treatment.
This tree is so named because “cruz” means cross in Spanish and “caspi” means “stick” in Kichwa, an indigenous language. If we cut open the trunk there is a cross inside.
Scientific Name: Ilex guayusa. Family: Aquifoliaceae (hollies).
In contrast to cruz caspi, guayusa is used in conjunction with other plants to increase fertility. Over twenty women who could not have children have worked with Teresa Shiki, the head of the Omaere Foundation, and now have healthy kids.
Guayusa’s caffeinated leaves can be used to make an energizing tea. The Shuar Amerindians traditionally wake up very early every day and drink a large amount of guayusa tea before breakfast and then vomit. This clears away all the mucus built up in the system and any food that was not digested from the day before. They claim this is one of the reasons they traditionally lived over 100 years.
Interestingly, there is a tree in the same genus that is commonly used in Texas landscaping called the yaupon holly, or Ilex vomitoria. Native Americans in the US used the bark to make a tea to induce vomiting, though internet sources are split on whether or not the yaupon itself caused the desired effect, or just the massive quantities of water. Based on the properties of its cousin, I would guess that vomitoria lives up to its name.
Sangre de Drago (uruchnum in Shuar)
Scientific Name: Croton lechleri. Family: Euphorbiaceae.
This tree’s healing properties are well-known throughout Ecuador. Its dark red sap can be applied directly to a wound to help heal and close it. It is excellent for other skin problems, too, such as bug bites and acne. Diluted in water, it can help with ulcers or diarrhea, or used to gargle for a sore throat. Most of these functions are enhanced when mixed with the patient’s own urine (surprised? Never heard of urine therapy? Click here for more information).
Ungurahua Palm (kunkúk in Shuar)
Scientific Name: Oenocarpus bataua. Family:Arecaceae.
The leaves of this palm are used to construct Waorani houses, and its fruit can be turned into a drink like hot chocolate. The oil from the seeds is great for shampoo—for preventing hair from falling out and preventing split ends.
Chonta Pambil (tepa in Waorani)
Scientific Name: Iriartea deltoidae. Family: Arecaceae.
The wood from this palm is incredibly hard and used by indigenous Amazonians to build houses and make spears, as Chris mentioned in the podcast. The wood is so hard because it is incredibly slow-growing—the photo shows an individual planted over 14 years ago—but luckily it is one of the most common plants in the Amazon so it is usually not a problem for the indigenous people to fulfill their construction needs.
Scientific Name: Astrocaryum chambira. Family: Arecaceae.
As described in the podcast, the Waorani extract and process a fiber from this palm to make bags for carrying and nets for fishing. It feels like factory-made string!
Chris Canaday, Teresa Shiki, and Janeth Kajekai of Fundación Omaere
*Bradley Bennett, Marc Baker, and Patricia Gómez Andrade, Ethnobotany of the Shuar of Eastern Ecuador (The New York Botanical Garden Press, Bronx, 2002)