One River

The Amazon River flowing through the rainforest
Image via Wikipedia

I read Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice when I was 14.  I loved it.  Mark Plotkin‘s recounting of the years he spent in the rainforest talking to indigenous people and learning what plants cured what diseases made me want to run off to the rainforest and do the same thing.  Then I discovered that I don’t really like being muddy and tired and eaten half alive by bugs.

I do still find ethnobotany fascinating, though, and was thrilled when I received One River by Wade Davis as a gift a few years ago.  I finally got around to reading it this semester and have started posting some particularly interesting passages. Hopefully you’ll be tempted to read One River after reading a few snippets – it really is a wonderful book.

In One River, the stories of plants and people are impossible to untangle, but the plants are definitely the focus.  The botanist’s perspective might throw some people at first – people are often discussed to further the story of the plants. It was also pretty interesting to see different Amazonian cultures described by botanists who respect them, but who are clearly not trained as anthropologists.

One of the things that really bothered me about One River, though, was the near complete invisibility of women, especially indigenous women.  In Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, Mark Plotkin is frustrated because, as a man, he is denied access to the ethnobotanical knowledge of women in many groups.  However, he learns as much as he can from the women and speculates at length about the potentially incredible benefits of their knowledge to reproductive medicine. In One River the women are rarely even mentioned.  They must have been there, but you certainly don’t know it from this book.  I wonder how much of that is due to the cultures of these particular groups versus the sexist cultures of the botanists?


  1. Pat says:

    Have you thought of dropping Wade Davis a line through his publishers? He might be grateful to get a communication from the public (or better, a fellow botanical academic) which is not about zombies or psychoactive drugs.

    I preferred “The Serpent and the Rainbow”, more like the Indiana Jones botanist though not as crazy as the ridiculous film made from it by Wes Craven. Which reminds me that his assistant in Haiti was a 14 year-old local girl. With whom he did not have sex, unlike the film.

  2. Christina says:

    Coincidentally, one of the blogs I follow on google reader just today posted part 1 of an interview with Wade Davis:

    “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice” was in the library of the field station I was at in the rainforest in Ecuador. I remember that I devoured it while I was there and enjoyed it, but otherwise I can’t remember anything about it 🙁

  3. Jim Stewart says:

    Jane told me you finished reading the book and liked it. Good; I thought you would like One River. I do not think Davis is sexist. He made a documentary for The History Channel, the theme being ethnobotany exclusively about hallucinogenic plants of North and South America as well as the discoveries of his mentor and hero Richard Schultes, the guru of modern ethnobotany. I forgot the name of the documentary, but in it, Davis visits a female shaman in Oaxaca, Mexico. The native people of the Amazon see women as equal to men and just as important, although they mainly work in the background.


  4. Mary says:

    It’s such a coincidence that you’ve been posting about One River. I also received it as a gift awhile back and just started reading it this month. I was expecting something focused on the Amazon but I’m astonished at how much I’m learning about Native American culture as well (yes, I’m a slow reader!).

    Well written book. I don’t have an opinion yet on the lack of representation of women, but I’d guess that was more due to the blinders worn by Schultes and possibly Plowman than a viewpoint of Davis.

    • sarcozona says:

      It took me months to read One River. It was a wonderful book, but paced in such a way that I used it as my going-to-bed-book: I read just a few pages every night. I liked that the book started in the US with the beginning of Schultes search. I think seeing how people begin their journeys is important for young scientists/adventurers to hear about.

  5. Meron says:

    It has been many years since I attempted to read One River. The sexism was so blatant I thought the book must have been written in the 70s. When I found out it was published in 1996 I just put it down. Was not just the lack of the mention of the contribution and knowledge of indigenous women but the rockstar mentality he described of the white researchers and their corresponding attitude about women. And that was the end of Wade Davis for me.

  6. nancy haalboom says:

    I read One River in 2013 while travelling with my senior lecturer daughter in Guyana and Suriname. I found the book extaordinarily informative and it still lingers with me eight years later. I am seventy-five and a female product of the fifties so my expectations for female representation in many areas is low.
    I believe this should not detract from the book.
    Thinking of the rainforest, l wish that l could see some of it again.

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