Singing to the Plants by Stephan V. Beyer
Originally published in 2009 ‘Singing to the Plants – A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon’ by Stephan V. Beyer is an exemplary, scholarly work on the topic. Beyer has doctorates in religion and psychology, has previously published works on Buddhism, the Tibetan language and religion, and has studied sacred plant medicine in both North America and the Upper Amazon. The richness of his background really comes to the fore in this insightful and comprehensive text.
The scholarly technique of Singing to the Plants functions on several layers. Firstly, the personal level, from Beyer’s own experiences being trained by two mestizo healers, or to the Western mind, shamans; don Roberto Acho Jurama and doña María Luisa Tuesta Flores. The effect of this intimate research is two-fold, not only does it mean he brings first-hand understanding to his cartography but he does so from inside the processes he describes, rather than being purely observational. Does this bias his opinion? Perhaps, but it feels more that it gives the author an authority in his voice, and in the quoted voices of his teachers, ultimately lending an authenticity to the text.
Secondly, Beyer includes citations from a host of other researchers in the field, including Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Luis Eduardo Luna, who have already laid the academic groundwork with mestizo shamans. In fact, the great range of citations that Beyer utilises means that the reference section and bibliography at the end is a valuable resource of information on its own, drawn, as it is, from across several fields of study. For example, he uses N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) as a Western counter-position to ayahuasca, utilising the work of Rick Strassman and others. By bringing in these, what could easily be described as alien, ideas, Beyer manages to tease out the intricacies of the mestizo methods in a way that communicates the information lucidly for a less-informed Western audience. Also, in part III of the book, which looks at ‘Context and Sources’, the same method works in an examination of the ayahuasca churches, like Santo Daime. Elucidating difference in approaches is a wonderful explanatory field, which, for the reader, is highly informative.
And, thirdly, Beyer’s well executed social analysis bring the whole book into a wider academic and cultural territory, which has the effect of giving the text a depth of understanding that ultimately strengthens its analytical perspective, nicely balancing the personal aspects of the text. The fourth and final part of the book – ‘Meeting Modernity’ – explores the cultural clash that is manifesting in the Upper Amazon, both in producing new forms of art and literature, but also in regard to Western oppression and exploitation. This Janus-faced occurrence, however, manifests in new discourses that are, it seems, creating new cultures. For example, a Yagua shaman called Alberto Prohaño calls the pot that he mixes his ayahuasca in his “microreceiver”. At the same time, Beyer brilliantly takes apart some archaic Western attitudes that still proliferate, with an astute dissection of popular and establishment attitudes to “natives” – the “other-as-child” whom has no culture – which is, of course, a naïve and closed-minded colonial perspective.
The opening part of the book, which makes up its bulk, is an overview of the mestizo shamanic healing world. As with all of the book, Beyer also discusses shamanism from a wider perspective than just the Upper Amazon mestizo, which beautifully contextualises the study. On the one hand, Beyer is categorising through looking at shamanic performance, learning from the plants, magic stones, types of shaman, initiation, ceremonies and so forth. Interestingly however, he is very careful to not rigidify these categories as standardised, constantly giving examples that go against the broad understanding. Rather than being in detriment to his approach though, he skilfully illustrates that in any anthropological study, one is confronted by a vast array of approaches that is highly individualised, which is certainly the case for shamans, their skills and their methods.
The problem of categorisation is most obviously demonstrated by the second part of the book that deals with the hallucinogenic brew ‘ayahuasca’. Aside from discussions on its various historical names like ‘telepathine’, Beyer demonstrates that there is a huge diversity in its preparation, its ingredients and even in its molecular consistency. Botanically, shamanically, chemically, there seems very little – aside from the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi – that remains consistent. Even the framework built around the ayahuasca experience itself by the individual shamans varies:
“It is a question of how we valorize our encounters. Whether ayahuasca lends solidity to imagination, or opens the door to the spirit realms, or transports the user to distant dimensions, it is still the quality of our meeting that matters, what we are willing to learn, whether we are willing to be taught by what we encounter, whether we will take our chances in the epistemic murk of a transformed world” (Beyer 266).
Beyer discusses the behaviour of the shamanic world without the rose-tinted spectacles so often associated with more popular writing on the topic. For example, in reference to shamans he personally knew, he says that he witnessed them turning against one another with “magical darts” and thus “the true landscape of shamanism [is] the landscape of suffering, passion, and mess” (Beyer 41). This he manages to do by juxtaposing it with the romantic and rather archaic ‘noble savage’ view that shamanism is purely about benevolence and spirituality. Instead it is more grounded in “real human life”, which is exemplified by his teacher doña Maria, whose life purportedly came to end due to a magical attack by a shaman named here don X. Jealousy over powers, over income and position, are rife in this world of sorcery. In the case of doña Maria “don X decided that if doña Maria could be eliminated, the way would be open for his son to take her place in the relatively lucrative business of healing gringo tourists” (Beyer 13).
Perhaps the hardest idea for a Western reader to come to terms with is the shamanic idea of ‘spirits’ and Beyer is very patient in his explanation of this ontologically confrontational area. The way Western researchers have approached this has changed over the years. In the nineteenth century ‘animism’ was coined and referred to a categorical mistake, like children ‘falsely’ believing in the existence of fairies; later, neoanimism was employed and this referred instead to “a way of engaging with the world”. This is, essentially, Beyer’s approach. Mestizo shamans have relationships with two types of spirits, he writes, spirits of healing (associated with plants) and spirits of protection (associated with animals and some plants). He says that these spirits lack “sensory coherence”, they are “not public” (thus private), that their “behavior” is unusual, and their appearance differs from real objects so far as they are inconsistent. They do, however, retain some human qualities like “self-awareness, understanding, personal identity, volition, speech, memory” (Beyer 111) and are autonomous. Personally speaking, I found this section highly engaging, as it opened up new ways of thinking about shamanism.
In conclusion, the text ends on the slightly sad note that there has become a lack of shamanic apprentices and that “without students, as one shaman put it, no hay futuro, there is no future. And then a thing of great beauty and power will be gone” (Beyer 385). It is difficult to see how this will be overcome unless the great culture clash manages to synthesise something anew. Singing to the Plants is perhaps the finest book currently available on, not only mestizo shamanism, but on Amazonian shamanism in general. As a cartography to the many components of this tradition it is far-reaching and in-depth. Whether you’re approaching from an academic point, or researching for your own visit to the Amazon, or even if you’re just looking for an introduction to shamanism in general, you couldn’t go far wrong with reading this text. Highly recommended.