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If you like Richard Schultes's story, you might also like:
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Norman Borlaug,
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Richard Schultes
 
Richard Schultes
Profile of Richard Schultes Biography of Richard Schultes Interview with Richard Schultes Richard Schultes Photo Gallery

Richard Schultes Interview (page: 5 / 8)

The Father of Modern Ethnobotany

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  Richard Schultes

You hardly seem to fit the popular image of the botanist, hunched over a microscope looking at a plant or a leaf.

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
Richard Schultes: Well, we do that when I am up here, but I never took microscopes. I had a little hand lens to see the interior of flowers, but you can't do that kind of work in the field. Maybe you could do it up here in this climate, or where you can use automobiles as so forth. But the only equipment I took in was two cameras, a Leica and a Roloflex. Unfortunately, no movie camera because we didn't have room in an 18-foot canoe, and because they are so delicate. If something went wrong, I'd have to carry around the damn useless thing and no radio, naturally.

I never felt the need of a radio. I remember I was there during the war in Korea. When I came out to Bogotá, I heard about the war in Korea, the papers were full of it. Six months I came out and they were talking about peace in Korea. Another four or six months later, peace talks in Korea. So, what's the sense of being a slave to the radio every day? I wasn't. I didn't know what was happening, and there was nothing I could do about it anyway, so I never worried about not being up with the news.

Were you ever worried about your life? Were you ever in situations where you worried about your survival?

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
Richard Schultes: Before penicillin was available, I developed septicemia, blood poisoning in my arm. Fortunately, I was near enough to walk to a place where they had a Colombian military flight, and I was able to get out. My arm was all swollen and red. I knew what it was. We got to the army base at Villa Vicencio, a little town at the base of the mountains. I was going to catch a bus and go to Bogotá and see a doctor, but the road had been destroyed by landslides during the wet season. You couldn't get out of Villa Vicencio. So I went to a doctor in Villa Vicencio, and he gave me a shot of something, and I passed out. I don't know what it was. There was only one American and his wife in that town, a man by the name of Dr. Marston Bates, who was working on the Rockefeller experiment which eventually led to the inoculation against yellow fever. The doctor called him, and I woke up in Marston's house. He made a thing with electric bulbs, sort of a tunnel, and put my arm in this. The doctor was able to get the sulfa drugs, and they saved my life and my arm. That was the only time I was really worried, when I found I couldn't get to Bogotá with this arm in that condition, but nothing else.

Really? Thirteen years in the jungle, and you had no other health problems?

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
Richard Schultes: Except for that one septicemia, which I had in the early days before penicillin was available, the only thing I really had was malaria a number of times. There is no preventative of malaria, except recently, a vaccine has been developed by a Colombian doctor for one type only. There are suppressants. These tourists that are told to take one pill a week of Aralen are suppressing. If they get bitten by one or two mosquitoes, there is enough "threshold," we call it, in the blood to take care of the infection. When I first went in, the Rockefeller tropical doctors told me do not dose yourself up with these suppressants. If you are bitten by 50 infected mosquitoes, there isn't enough in that low threshold to kill all of the organisms. Once you have had malaria, you know from the symptoms two or three days before you are going to have the fever. Then you take double the dose, and knock that out. So aside from the normal care, being in an Indian house after dark when the mosquitoes are mostly out (although in the daytime some of them will be flying in the forest), we always wear long sleeves, never shorts - long sleeves, long trousers.

Richard Schultes Interview Photo

You have a photograph that shows a Colombian Indian next to a rock. Can you tell me about that photograph?

Richard Schultes: That's an extremely sacred point in the Rio Piraparaná.


That is a hard granite rock, and nobody knows what Indians did that -- probably a thousand years ago -- how they did it without modern instruments, chipping that away -- some of the engravings are an inch deep. This is one of their gods, one of their spirits. We don't use the word "god." They don't have that idea. It's a spirit. This is the spirit of water, or of the river. "Nie-Ei" it's called in their language. And, all the Indians of that area consider that the place where the first Indians came. It happens to be almost on the equator. And it tells that the people who did it knew a little about the astronomy, the sun and the moon and all these things, to pick the center of the earth. These people today believe it's the center of the earth. And, it is the place where the first Indians came from the Milky Way. They came down in a dugout canoe drawn by an anaconda snake, which to them is sacred. A man and a woman, and three plants: the tapioca plant, which they eat; the coca, the source of cocaine, which they chew; and ayahuasca, which is a hallucinogenic vine. And they landed there, and that's a very sacred place to the Indians.


I want you to look at that picture I have of it. A wonderful story and they told me that story.


I once met an American missionary woman who said these people have no religion. And I said, "I differ with you." I don't like to see missionaries meddling with other people's religions. Leave them with their own religion! I said "my Indians," and I told her the story. "Why," she said, "you don't believe that?" I said, "I didn't say I believed it." I said, "Do you believe Genesis?" "Oh," she said, "Yes, that's the word of God!" I said, "Is there anything more stupid, utterly stupid than the story of a snake running after a woman with an apple in its mouth?" "Why," she said, "that's symbolic! I said, "So are the other things symbolic!" She wouldn't speak to me the rest of the day.


Isn't there a story about a missionary who ruined that image with paint, and the Indians' reaction to that? Can you tell us about that?

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
Richard Schultes: I can tell you. I got this from a Colombian anthropologist who was recently there. This happened very recently, and I haven't been there for years. One of these missionaries went down, and apparently sprayed this pagan god with gray paint which hardened in the sun, and on the top he wrote in red letters, "Our Lady of Such-and-Such." Apparently, this anthropologist told me, the natives went into a revolution. Probably, he said, in the next 25 or 30 years there won't be any missionary who dares to go into that region, and I can't blame the Indians.





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