Journey Into The Amazon

It was the winter of 1994, and I traveled upriver in the Amazon, away from the remote frontier town of Iquitos.

As we traveled further and further upriver each day, our accommodations in the series of Explorama Lodges became more and more primitive. Our goal was the herb walk at the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER) botanical field station, deep inside the rainforest of the Peruvian Amazon.

My journey to the Amazon rainforest was part of an awakened urge and quest to see, touch, smell, hear and taste the medicinal plants of this amazing part of the world, and to experience their “wild qi” (energy) with my own body, mind, and spirit, and hopefully, develop and awaken my intuition. Over the course of my fourteen years of clinical practice as a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, I came to the sad realization that my experience and knowledge of herbal medicine was book-bound and intellectual, disconnected from the life force of the wisdom and guidance of nature herself. I had been practicing herbal medicine without the vibrant connection to the live plant world. I could tell you about a plant’s energetic action according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM,) or the active compounds according to modern science yet, I was ashamed to say, you could have hit me over the head with Pau D’Arco or ginseng, and sadly, I would not have recognized them.

To use these plants I felt I needed to understand the ecosystem that had, over millions of years, developed and perfected their subtle, complex chemistries and energetic vibrations. In short, I was in the Amazon because I was only now finally aware and accepting of all that I didn’t know about them. It was my mission and desire to rectify this sad situation.

We traveled to Upper Amazonia, along the Napo River, about 100 miles east of the Peruvian frontier town, Iquitos, which is accessible only by air or jungle boats. We hiked a trail from the Tambo Explorama Lodge made slippery and muddy by rain. Black, ominous storm clouds gathered overhead as we headed inland towards the rainforest, away from the light and comfort of the open views and breezes of the enormous Amazon River, which in places gets as wide as a mile across. We entered into a dark, dense, claustrophobic sea of green, into the steaming, pulsating heart of the Amazon rainforest. The constant rhythms of non-stop biological activity that surrounded us were palpable, almost audible, like the hum of a primal generator igniting our deep unconscious. I sensed a mystical energy source, just beyond my reach, yet moving through me continuously.

Only a few feet into the trail I looked back and was amazed by how the tall, dense growth of plants and trees had already engulfed and swallowed-up our view of the river. Moving further in, I noticed the cacophony of sounds — calling insects, screeching parrots, strange, echoing bird sounds, lizards scattering cracking leaves, palms fronds rustling in the slightest of breezes, squirrel monkeys chattering to and from the shaded deep. As our eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, my glasses steamed up from the wall of humidity that hit us. Sweat began to trickle down the back of my neck.

Looking up for the comfort of the sky, the treetops seemed so far away, stretching and reaching to the light for their life energy. Some emergent trees top 200 feet, and may occasionally approach 300 feet, supported by the flaring buttresses of their roots that act as stilts. In this floodplain area, the Amazon bulges with water from high up in the Andes mountains and bursts its banks overflowing every six months. Tree roots here have to suck for the scant nutrients from a soil that is required to support so much life.

It’s surprisingly easy to walk. I was expecting to hack away through dense undergrowth on the ground, yet the path is clear among the widely spaced trees. Occasional openings in the canopy above allow shafts of sunlight to illuminate sunny islands of tangled growth, surrounded by a sea of deep green shade. Only 1% to 2% of light at the tree tops filters through to the jungle floor. The forest is layered in growth upon growth, vines draping downward, hanging everywhere, some twisted, looking braided like rope, interconnecting trees and levels of forest life. Vivid butterflies dart brilliantly, made almost neon-colored by angled spears of early morning light. We stepped over marching columns of ants carrying massive pieces of neatly clipped leaves often dwarfing their own size.

On the second day we packed early and were on our way down river to the first of a series of primitive lodges. After an hour, we left the quickly flowing river and turned into the calm waters of the Napo River. Settlements, people and traffic became scarce. The lodge buildings, sitting on stilts with interconnected walkways, appeared suddenly as we turned a bend in the river. Our accommodations here included only the basic necessities — a room with walls that did not quite extend to the ceiling, thatched roof, and windows that opened up to the jungle. Above and around our beds mosquito nets were suspended, although, surprisingly, there were fewer mosquitoes here than where I live in the woods of New England.

When we arrived, the feeling at ACEER was one of a serious field camp with graduate students and Ph.D. candidates carrying out research among guests like ourselves. Our herb walk wove through a trail with labeled and identified medicinal herbs that grow in the jungle. For me, this was like being invited to visit old friends in their own homes, finally meeting herbs I have known and used for years where they grow in their natural environment. Two of the medicinal plants I met:

Pau D’Arco, “Lapacho” (Tabebuia impetiginosa, T. avellanedae)

Pau D’Arco is an enormous flowering tree that grows as high as 46 meters and can get as wide as 2 to 3 meters in diameter. It is one of the most durable hard woods in the tropics. It has been used for centuries by the Indians native to the Amazon basin, and by the Incas as an effective treatment for cancer and other diseases. Most herbalists agree that it strengthens and balances the immune system, and it is currently used as a remedy for immune system-related problems such as colds, flu, boils, and other infections. Many of these diseases cannot withstand the antibiotics this mighty tree secretes to protect itself from bacteria in its primal environment.

Cat’s Claw, “Una de Gato” (Uncaria tomentosa and Uncaria guianensis)

Cat’s claw is a large woody vine. Hiking on the trail in the rainforest, it seemed to grow up to 20 to 30 meters toward the canopy. It gets its name from large hook-like thorns, resembling the claw of a cat, that cover and protect the vine. It is indigenous to the Amazon rainforest and other tropical areas of South and Central America, including Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, Guyana, Trinidad, Venezuela, Suriname, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama. It is known as a great “opener of the way” because of its remarkable ability to cleanse the entire intestinal tract. By cleansing the intestinal walls, cat’s claw enables the body to better absorb nutrients, thus helping to correct nutritional imbalances created by digestive blockages. Cat’s claw is also used as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis, injuries, and rheumatism.

Respecting Our Medical Roots

The Amazon rainforest is called the “lungs of our planet” because of its voracious consumption of massive amounts of carbon dioxide and because it produces over 20% of the Earth’s oxygen supply. Over the course of one day on Earth, it is estimated that 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide and oxygen are recycled. The leaves of trees in the rainforest breathe out so much moisture that, from space, the water vapor can be seen creating the clouds, that later create rain. They help cool the Earth’s climate.

The biodiversity is so enormous that it is impossible to imagine. The forest is teeming with life! A single pond can sustain a colossal variety of fish — more than exist in the whole of Europe. One rainforest reserve in Peru has more species of birds than the entire U.S. One tree in Peru was found to contain more species of ants than in all of Great Britain. A square mile of Amazonian forest may provide a home for as many as 23,000 distinct forms of life. In all of New England there may be only 1,200 plant species; the Amazon has more than 80,000.

When you are in the Amazon you begin to understand how the monotone of the same hue of green in such an endless expanse of rainforest would loom so foreboding to travelers from Europe. Coming from an heritage of agrarian land, dominated by man for thousands of years, farmed, cut and manicured to conform to his sense of order, his first instinct might be to try to contain this wilderness, to make it, supposedly, more secure, manageable and trimmed. Perhaps it is this instinct that is driving the current rampage of destruction —whether due to greed or dominance — that we are ripping through this most precious resource at a staggering rate.

As humans, and as hunters and gatherers, we have not developed separately from this wildness, nor are we descended from some spaceship to populate the Earth (perhaps as agrarian man’s ego may wish.) We are evolved from the same stuff as every other life form on the planet. Earth is 6 billion years old; the most ancient life form, bacteria, evolved 3.5 billion years ago. These life forms evolved into plant life 700 million years ago, but then, humans evolved in a mere blinking of the eye in Earth’s time: 6 million years ago.

It is only in the last 8,000 years that we have slowly abandoned our hunter-gatherer ways in favor of the agrarian, farming, and land-dominating ways. The Industrial Age further distanced man from nature. The connection of our soul essence to the “wild qi,” the underlying intelligence of Nature, has been lost. We must know somewhere in our deep memory, locked in our DNA, that we share the same elements, the same organic, chemical and bio-electromagnetic building blocks shared by all living things on our planet, but how can we restore the connection?

Even though today it is estimated that 80% of the rural world’s healthcare depends on herbal medicine, it has been violently attacked and repressed over the last 70 years. Only now in the United States, Japan and other industrialized nations is herbal medicine regaining its renewed respect as a system of healing with the understanding that herbs are designed by nature from which our chemistry and DNA are descended. Even still, in most countries that are using herbal medicine, there is no insurance coverage or national licensing regulations for herbalists. Herbal medicine only recently bubbled up in popularity as the public of the industrialized nations has clamored for gentler alternatives to powerful pharmaceuticals and their powerful side effects.

The regulatory niche where herbs do thrive is in the “wellness industry,” based upon concepts of prevention and wellness rather than the “disease system” of modern medical treatment. What may be driving this massive resurgence of general public interest is the recognition of the powerful negative side effects produced by pharmaceuticals. A recent study estimated that in the U.S. there are 79,000 to 139,000 deaths every year due to appropriately prescribed pharmaceuticals, and a staggering 2.1 million serious injuries reported. This same scenario is being played out in Japan, Europe and all industrialized nations. We tend to underestimate the health cost and over-estimate the health-giving benefit of these powerful chemicals. We forget that they stand on the shoulders of herbal medicine.

In industrialized countries almost half of all the best-selling pharmaceuticals in the early 1990’s were based on natural products or their derivatives. A recent study of the 150 major pharmaceuticals showed that 100% of the drugs employed for dermatological, gynecological, or hematological purposes, 76% of those used for allergy, pulmonary, and respiratory purposes, 76% used to treat infectious diseases, and 75% employed for general medicine and analgesic purposes, are derived from or based on natural products. About three quarters of these were discovered and came to us from herbal folk medicine, developed by the shamans, the witches, the priestesses, herbalists and folk healers over the ages, across the cultures as gifts to modern medicine.

It is estimated that 137 species of plants, animals and insects are lost every day. With this enormous loss, there is the compounded loss of the medicine man, dying without having passed on his healing arts to an apprentice or the tribe. With the loss of species and the loss of the irreplaceable knowledge of medicinal plants, we lose future cures for our children and their children, and the suffering is compounded down over the generations.

Geoff D’Arcy is a licensed acupuncturist and the president of D’Arcy Wellness Center in Natick, MA. He can be reached at 508-650-1921, email or visit

See also:
Hunting Mammals Adds To Forest Fragility
How Shamans Dream the World Into Being

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