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If you like Richard Schultes's story, you might also like:
Lee Berger,
Norman Borlaug,
Sylvia Earle,
Paul Farmer,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Donald Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Kent Weeks,
Andrew Weil,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

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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: 6 / 8)

The Father of Modern Ethnobotany

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  Richard Schultes

What has been the impact of the missionaries on that civilization, on those people?

Richard Schultes: When missionaries -- whatever their special brand of Christianity is -- come in, they change the whole social structure and beliefs of these Indians. In my opinion, what they have to give the Indian isn't a gift. He can't understand our religion. And, he's lost confidence in his religion. Another thing, when missionaries get into an area, other white people or civilized people follow them, and alcohol comes in and all of the bad things of our civilization follow. That's not the missionaries that do that, they mean well, but with them follow our civilizations.

The other thing is that these people usually don't wear clothes. The men wear breach cloths and the women --

When a missionary comes in he says, "You've got to wear clothes. It's immoral to run around this way." They don't need clothes. The Indian who never has clothes on has beautiful skin. He is two or three days in the river cleaning himself. The missionaries bring in -- or commercial people following them sell them -- clothing. They can't often get soap. They use plants that have saponins in them that foam, but they wear these clothes until they are so dirty that they get skin problems, and I've often argued with certain missionaries. They are not immoral. What is more immoral than our own race, and look at the clothes we wear! Of course, there is no answer to that. But, I suppose they pass me off as an infidel, which doesn't bother me at all.

How will these cultures survive these intrusions from missionaries and commercial interests?

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
Richard Schultes: Well, they begin to buy things. The missionaries bring in clothing and tools, which are good, and things of that sort. But they have to buy them. Then they have to start working to earn a little bit of money. This means that their agriculture, their fishing and hunting suffers. They don't have as much time as they used to have, and the whole structure is different. I would say the whole structure they know falls apart. I'm sure the missionaries and other people wouldn't agree with me, but I don't think we are giving them another social or religious structure that they can understand or live with. Part of it is based on the importation of things that they don't have, and they learn to need them. They certainly can't understand our religion; our own people can't understand some of the things in the Bible. Leave them alone. That's my opinion.

Tell us the story of trying to get your plant specimens out by airplane.

Richard Schultes: I had made a tremendous collection of plants, and the airplane that was going to take me out [of the jungle was the same one that] took me in. After a while in the early days, I had to go in over land and over by canoe and so forth. Later, I could fly in with hydroplanes. I would make an agreement with the pilot that on such-and-such a day -- let's say two months, three months later, weather permitting -- he'd be there. I'd have to put out a bed sheet, so he could see I was there before he landed.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

But when the day came, there was no plane. It was a beautiful day, and he had always come on the day expected, but I said, "Maybe he's had some more urgent thing to do." So I waited and waited. I couldn't go more than a quarter of a mile away from that house in the forest because with the canopy of the top trees you can't hear the planes early enough to run back and put out that sheet. So I often say that that half-mile area -- a quarter mile each way around that house -- is the most thoroughly studied botanical area in the world. There isn't a moss that escaped my eye!

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
It was always going to be "the next day." Now, if I had only known what had happened! At first, I began to think there was a revolution in Bogotá, or the plane had crashed. They only had one or two of these hydroplanes. If I had known that it was going to be that long, I could have gone with Indians down the river through 22 rapids to the Brazilian frontier, where there is a small Colombian military post, which had a radio, and weekly airplane service. It got to where I'd hear this buzzing, and I'd say to the Indians, "There it is. It's coming." And they'd say, "No, Doctor. Avispas." It was wasps swarming around their houses making this buzz. Finally, after 62 days, they came!

When I got all my specimens on that plane to Bogotá, they told me what had happened. They were Catalinas. It's an old type of very heavy, slow plane, a cargo plane. The only place that these could be serviced and have their motors changed was Toronto. So they had sent both planes to Toronto, and it took almost all that time. When they came back, of course, they had many other urgent things to do. They figured, "Well, Schultes is there, he's happy, so we will go eventually."

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This page last revised on Mar 06, 2008 17:33 EDT
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