Excerpt from Gormans Javari Expedition Field Notes, 1993

Our crew consisted of Tom and Alison, myself and Moises, our motorist, Golber, and his assistant Lucio, and a cook, Lydia. None of the crew, typical of that part of the world, had ever been on the Jivari, but all had heard stories about its black crocodiles, wild Indians, and 20 meter anacondas. Moises was being paid in part to quell those fears and keep the crew from simply quitting when we reached the frontier.

We took two–and-a-half days to reach Letecia, at the mouth of the Jivari. There we got stuck for Christmas (celebrated on Christmas eve, so no permission to leave for both days), and didn’t finally get onto the Jivari until the 26th of December. It was a long and hard prep, and I knew that if I didn’t come up with some plants soon Tom would toss me to the fish.

We travelled Sunday night and stayed at Atalaya, where we spoke with several people about entering the Rio Itui. Concensus, among loggers who have worked there, is that with our boat we will need between 2 and 4 days to reach the first Indian villages, and from there another 2-4 days to reach the Matis who live upriver. I do not believe there is any river that is 8 days long in this part of the world, except for the Amazon: the entire Jivari is only 5 or 6, going upriver, in our boat. But four days I could believe, and that means 6 at least, including coming out, and another couple to collect plants. But Tom had an appointment at Peter Jensen’s camp in mid-January, and time wouldn’t allow for an 8 day game of chance in the hopes of getting plants, so we decided to forego it. That will be another trip. Besides, we had no plant collecting permits for Brazil, and we didn’t want to put Shaman in the position of doing something illegal. But we got the information we need, so we can do the Itui at a later date.

On Monday we reached the village of Buen Sucess. Though it looks like a mestizo village it is the home of the Yagua. Though all official reports say there are no Yagua on the Jivari, I met them years ago and knew we could find them, though I couldn’t remember the name of the village.

It was late in the afternoon by the time we reached them, and though they initially denied being Yagua and also denied that anyone knew plant medicines there, Moises worked his magic, and I a little too, and we were told that Jose Marin was the man we must see. He is called the Father of To-E, the Father of Datura. Said to be a very good healer.

We made our way up  a hill to his hut: he was quite mestizoized, 40-ish, strong, slightly bandy-legged and full of good humor. Moises got to work quickly in the dying light: he was magnificent in explaining what we needed. Though Jose Marin spoke Spanish he needed to be cajoled into talking and then cooperating. Like the picunas, blow guns, they all use there, no one admits to having them. 

Moises asked Tom for the book of disease photos and begins to go over them. I made notes as we went, on the herbarium collection sheets, so we’d have some specific things to look for the following day. Jose acknowledged hepatitis, Tinea Rosea, a variety of salpurgidas (spelling?)—fungal infections. He told us he has cures for many, many of the infirmities he was looking at. It was an exciting moment: I could almost hear Tom C breathe a sigh of relief. 

In the morning, we went over the material again prior to setting out. This time it was Tom who went over the photos while I filled in the blanks on the interviews from last night: plant names, uses, preparations and applications. Jose was affable and more than a little happy that we were so interested in his work. Like so many communities in Peru, particularly indigenous communities, people are frequently embarrassed about their traditions, seeing them as old-fashioned and beneath them. So he, like so many Indians out here, has never before been asked about his knowledge by whites—most of whom want artifacts or to missionize—and was flattered by the thought. So he was more than willing to share a little of it. 

I had Tom stop at six disease types and nine plants (three were combination cures) so that we could keep Jose focused. Tom was a little resistant at first, but when it was explained to him that the Indians out here would not work like some of the people he was used to working with—that is, they were not available to us for more than a day, or a day and a half, maximally—he went along with the idea. I saw on my first trip that these guys would collect 50 plants if you let them just go, but that they’d not stick around long enough to get the proper number of specimens and quantity of bulk collection, so I learned that it was better to go for five in the morning, and four or five in the afternoon, then finish the collection the following morning. That way you really get 8 or 10 plants and get them good, rather than having 20 or 30 incomplete and useless collections.

At 8:30 AM we set off to collect, a troup of Tom, Alison, Moises, myself, Jose Marin, a younger Yagua, and Golber, carrying Alison’s camera gear.

The first plant we went after was the Red Pinon, a beautiful cultivated Euphorbiaceae family member, and a cousin of the castor bean Tom explained. The family is heavy in latex and good for medicinal substances. It is a beautiful shrub of a plant used by Jose Marin for the treatment of Candida/oral thrush. We immediately got the herbarium specimens but were short on the bulk.

Moved to a second plant which had both red flowers and fruit. It was in the same Euphorbiaceae family as the Red pinon. Jose identified it as the White Pinon, which Tom disagreed with. The plant was a sort of thick woody shrub with two elongated (three meters each) branches coming right out of a short trunk at ground level. Like a knot of wood with two branches. The trunk and branches were covered in beautiful white bark; the leaves a lustrous green with a tart sap. The plant easily produces two kilos of material for us.

Tom was looking for 2-3 kilos of bulk per plant. This was up from 1-2 of the last trip. But with Tom making herbarium specimens and three of us collecting bulk (Alison photographing) the process was fast, efficient, smooth. In twenty minutes we had our collection. One plant in the bag. 

Okay, Mr. K, send me back again. There are plants on the Jivari.

After the misnamed White Pinon we moved through the village chacras, fields, and under the canopy of a secondary forest. Jose seemed pleased to work with us and he was like a pied-piper leading us down the forest path until we reached legitimate first growth (or very advanced second) where the underbrush disappeared and the tall tall trees reigned. Flowers and fungus and lianas cascaded down and crawled up the thick and mottled trunks. 

At the third plant we collected, clavowasca, a liana, we had to begin working hard. We cut long sections and tore off full strips of bark and while we did Moises drank the sweet clavo water from the vine’s sections. Tom had the idea to cut the strips into sections right there, rather than waiting until we returned to the boat, and all of us went along. In short order the bark bulk was easily 3 kilos. The problem lay in the herbarium specimens. Clabowasca is generally found only in the tall old trees, and it flowers more than 80 feet above the ground. In this case it was probably closer to 100 feet above the ground, and despite having cut the vine it was impossible to pull it free. 

Fortunately, Jose, with little urging and without the aid of a climbing ring, grabbed the now-free vine above the cut and made his way up its trunk until he could grab a slender tree and shinny up into the canopy. His legs were flat out parallel to the ground at the knees, haunches like two round fruits of pure muscle as he pulled himself up and up and into the lower foliage, then higher, into the thick green of the lower canopy, until he finally disappeared. 

We called out for him to be careful: our trip depended on it, and we would rather have lost a plant than a man. But he knew what he was doing, moving easily in the high branches, tearing off leaves, stems and fruit and tossing them down through the canopy like spears to the forest floor. 

Minutes later we saw the electric blue of his Adidas shorts and then the sinew of his muscled legs and finally his tee shirt and head appeared. He slid down the smooth bark of the tree quickly and without stopping. 

I’d never seen anyone climb higher than 20 feet without a climbing ring before and may never again. It’s simply not done. He was an amazing sight.

Up the trail further we came on the cumala, a beautiful tree, the resin of which is used for the treatment of herpes when mixed with the White Pinon (sic). The bark was stripped from the tree trunk in a vertical motion with a machete held horizontal to the ground; It comes off easily and when it does a blood like red resin flows from the open wound. 

Tom was pleased: he was confident that Jose was the real article because of the length of time he said it takes for his remedies to work. On one question Jose says it took a full month to treat a disorder; Tom later said that that is the same length of time it takes to treat it with Western medicine in the states.

We moved into a new chacra where we harvested the cascara , bark, of the chuchuwasi, a large tree which was cut down to make space for yucca. Jose said it was still potent. 

The chuchuwasca’s outer bark was mottled, but it had a yellow inner bark, beneath which was a layer of rich red clay/sawdust material that crumbled to the touch. Boiled up it’s used for ringworm, Tinea Caporis, and that jibed with both Tom’s medical and botanical knowledge. 

 Once we finished the harvest we called it quits for the morning. 

On the way back to the village we stopped to make one more collection, the carachapanga, used in the treatment of caracha, a ringworm. 

It was a tall, stately, 100 foot monster of a tree, a key element of the canopy here, though it’s leaves were more like a strange mimosa than an oak, with sap, we were warned, that is extremely caustic. 

From the carachapanga we took a layer of balsa-ish inner bark 1/2 inch thick and cut it into small pieces. Golber seemed to have learned how to do the cutting of the bark the way Tom likes, and he didn’t seem to mind. Still, I’d have preferred we brought a field hand along rather than work our motorist/captain this way. 

Several species of ants lived on the outer layer of the carachapanga, many of which stung bitterly. But we got what we needed, though the herbarium specimens were collected from the ground, since there was no way to climb that monster (3 foot diameter) covered in stinging ants to collect fresher material. 

By the time we returned to camp it was apparent that it was too late to go back out for an afternoon collection. So day one ended with 5 1/2 collections. (Day 2 opened with Jose coming to the boat with the remainder of the bulk we needed for the Red Pinon collection, so we started our second day with him with a legitimate six plants under our belt. All felt better after our first day with him than we had before.) 

NOTE: A village man was bitten in the evening, one fang of the lorro machacko, a viper, he said, though it looked more like a scorpion bite. He wanted Tom to give him medication; we held off and gave him something for pain, that’s all. They know better there how to deal with things of that sort and all we’d have needed was to have his swollen foot and ankle take a turn for the worse because of a bad reaction to Western medication. 

The second day we completed collecting nine of our initial 10 plants, bulk and herbarium specimens. We were missing one because the water was very high and Jose didn’t have a canoe big and stable enough to carry us into a lake across the river, the only place where we might find it during high water season. 

The afternoon of the second day we cleaned up our notes, going over the interviews and plants a second time (something I learned was necessary, considering how little botanical knowledge I have, when I worked with Pablo last year. Sometimes they change their minds about a particular preparation, or the duration of a medication after they’ve thought about it for a while, and sometimes I just don’t get it right the first day, so it’s good to do the interviews a second time to make sure the information matches what was initially said.) Additionally, we took field notes from Tom, most on my tape recorder, of the locale, look of the plant, feel of the bark, what insects are around, things we might forget or mis-write later.

The third day, we went out and collected two more plants, one a soga, vine, and the other a black-palm fruit, which brought us to 11 collections. 

Most of Jose Maren’s remedies were bark or fruit derived, most of his plants fairly local. There was the problem that a number of remedies he would have liked to give us were found in the river bed when the water is low, which was flooded while we were there so we couldn’t go after them. But he did offer us a return trip of 10-15 days if we like, when the water is low, in July. Promised that he knows more than 100 plants but we need time and low water. He also said there is another healer in the village who was out in the field. 

NOTE: While at the village we were treated to a most rare and unusual sight: in one of the houses near where we were waiting for Jose I spied in and saw an elder, antigua, Yagua, making up curare darts. A cord of them being woven into a skein. His curare was in a small blue plastic jar, his row of darts lined up perfectly, curare applied by a cotton-tipped dart. He’d occasionally dip it into the jar and paint the dart tips a full inch deep with the rich rich thick brown paste. He handled it adroitly, drying each layer he painted over his fire before applying a second coat.

His wife, next to him, mashed fresh fruit of achote, red pulp she collected to color her food. She laughed when asked if she still painted her face with it. “Antigua” she said. Next to her were cooking and chicha pots she made with clay, and they sat next to gleaming aluminum pots and pans. How I wanted one of those pots for the museum! But I managed to keep my cool and not ask. Better to get it next time, when I find one that’s broken under her house.

But the curare was magnificent!

The couple was accommodating, allowing photos, moving into sunlight when asked, shooting the blow gun and so forth all at our request with no question of asking of gifts. Of course there were gifts: bread, salt, beads, kitchen knife, crackers, coffee and fish hooks in a nice white Shaman plant collection bag.

They in turn gave us 14 curare darts and a homemade wooden mortar and pestle. The darts, fresh and wet, were woven into a short skein. Tom was given four of them: One each for he and Alison; one for Steven K, and one for the offices of Shaman. Of the remainder, Moises got one, the museum got several, and I keep the few left over for my collection of things.   

Before we left the village, Tom asked if there were any villagers who might need his medical attention. In short order we had a boat full of Yagua who needed a little doctoring: one child who had scabies and three who had severe diarrhea. After they left we stepped overboard for a last splash then set off for Angelica’s home. She’s the former Matses prisoner whom we met her years ago and I was hoping that she knew a little something about plants.