A general look around at some of the strange and mysterious natural substances that ancient cultures have used for healing, coupled with a plea for their preservation. Ethnobiologist Plotkin (Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, not reviewed) alerts us throughout to the steady loss of habitats and societies being destroyed in the name of progress. He describes himself as being “on the trail of natural compounds that can treat diseases for which modern medicine has no cure . . . this is a quest powered by the desperation of the ill and the compassions of those who would cure them.” If for no other reason than selfish self-interest, he argues, we must save the environments that create substances which could save us from discomfort, disease, and death. His survey of the possibilities includes a native South American potion for treating diabetes (it need only be drunk once every few weeks); substances offering extraordinary pain relief without grogginess; and mind-altering concoctions used under the guidance of a shaman with the aim of psychic and spiritual growth. Emerging high-tech medicine should be used to enhance, not abandon, the ancient cures, Plotkin urges, citing as a prime example the immunosuppressant drug cyclosporin—which arises from a type of Scandinavian fungus. Toxins from frogs; healing tree saps; insect concoctions—all are part of the picture here.
A diverting journey, and an environmental alert.