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Reflections on the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs (ESPD) 55 conference

Reflections on the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs (ESPD) 55 conference

Last month, Synergetic Press was excited to attend the McKenna Academy’s Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs (ESPD55) Conference in St. Giles House, Dorset, UK. 

A beautiful and inspiring gathering that came as joyous relief for many after months of being confined to communing through Zoom space, it was the coming together of old friends and the making of new ones. Not your ordinary psychedelic gathering, this conference’s focus was on ethnopharmacology: the pharmacology and biology of how people collaborate with plants and fungi in their respective contexts.

A Brief History of ESPD

The history of the conference harks back to 1967, when the first ESPD conference was held in San Francisco, California. A first of its kind, the symposium, brought together a diverse array of interdisciplinary specialists including notable figures some of whose careers would include them becoming Synergetic Press authors including Alexander Shulgin, Richard Evans Schultes, and Gordon Wasson.

At the time of the first symposium, Dennis McKenna was 16 years old. Sharing a burning fascination in psychedelics with his older brother, Terence, Dennis yearned to find a way to shape his career around the substances which sparked his curiosity and fed his inquiry. The 1967 conference proceedings were published in book form a few months after the event took place, and perchance, Dennis happened upon a copy in 1968. That book had a major impact on Dennis, serving to change his life that very day when he realized he could also pursue a path in this field.

The US Department of Mental Health who sponsored the first conference intended to have follow-up gatherings every ten years, but sadly, though not surprisingly, the War on Drugs slowly forced all such public conversations to a grinding halt. Fast forward 50 years to 2017, Dennis had long dreamed of having a second ESPD symposium in order to explore how the field had developed and evolved throughout the last half a century of psychedelic prohibition. The proceedings of the papers presented at that symposium held Tyrigham Hall, UK in were carefully curated into what has become a cornerstone addition to the Synergetic Press library, in this two volume box set, Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs: 50 Years of Research

Synergetic Press at ESPD55
This year, the second ESPD conference hosted by Dennis together with the McKenna Academy marked 55 years since the original conference, once again bringing specialists from far and wide to discuss their research and findings in a setting that encouraged the free and frank exchange of information and ideas on the last 55 years of research, and assess the current and possible futures for research in ethnopharmacology. 

We were delighted to be a sponsor of the conference and have the opportunity to showcase our books at the to the assembly of about 100 people. Synergetic Press Publisher, Deborah Parrish Snyder and Community Outreach Manager, Jasmine Virdi both attended the gathering. Several of our presented talks included keynote address by Monica Gagliano (The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence), Luis Eduardo Luna (Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s Sacred Vine), and Wade Davis, Mark Plotkin, Glenn Shepard, Manolo Torres (all ESPD50 contributors), and of course, Dennis McKenna. We are getting the work underway to publish the ESPD55 conference proceedings with the McKenna Academy in the year ahead. 

Looking to the future of the field, there was a strong sentiment among conference organizers and researchers regarding the importance of keeping the fields of ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology alive, inviting young, emerging researchers to participate in and shape the dialogue, while acknowledging many ethnobotany programs at universities have, over the years, been discontinued for reasons that are not totally clear, as there are students looking for the training in these disciplines. 

In addition to the ethnopharmacology studies, there were talks that branched from the pharmacology of kratom to the use of psychedelics as tools for scientific discovery to the history of psychoactive plants in Chinese culture. We explored different spheres of the ethnosphere, the hydrosphere, the mycosphere.

Monica Gagliano, co-editor of The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence gave the opening keynote, a wonder-inspiring talk entitled Medicine for the future: if we listen, plants will teach us, gently inviting the audience to sense into the ways in which we conceive of and interact with plants and their intelligence, setting the pace for the rest of the conference. 

Through her studies investigating plant intelligence, Gagliano invites us to reconceptualize the ways in which we understand plants, shifting away from language that frames them as inactive objects, moving towards perspectives that honor their agency and influences upon the human world. 

“Denying non-human intelligence is bound up with colonial agendas,” she shared, in her presentation at ESPD55.

Another captivating talk was that of astrobiologist, Bruce Damer, who spoke about the use of psychedelics for creative problem solving, particularly as tools for scientific discovery and for accessing genius. 

Making a case for the necessity of genius and innovative thinking, he pointed to the compounded crises of our times. 

“I would suggest to you that if we don’t have more of it, or if we don’t use it, we won’t make it through the coming challenges,” Damer said. “And my tribe, the tribe of neurodivergent scientists and engineers, their close cousins, all nerdy peoples on the earth — we play hide and seek with genius. It is our job to come up with solutions to gnarly scientific problems, crack the code of some AI optimization, or look through a massive climate data set and find a solution.”

Paul Stamets raised our attention levels as he spoke of his latest insights and discoveries in the mycelium universe he works in, sharing eye-opening statistics on the performance of the “Stamets Stack” in treatment for depression and other ailments. 

Wade Davis, author, cultural anthropologist, co-editor of the ESPD box set and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, gave a powerful closing keynote address, sharing his insights from traveling around the world and spending time with different traditions and cultures as well as delving deeper into his decade-long research on the history of the coca plant.

Davis re-emphasized the critical need to abandon the colonial, and furthermore unscientific, Victorian construct of the evolution of humanity from the savage to the barbarian to the civilized. 

“If we’re cut from the same genetic cloth, it means all cultures share the same genius,” Davis said. “And critically whether this genius is invested in technological wizardry or unraveling the complex threads of memory inherent in myth is still a matter of choice and cultural orientation.There is no hierarchy in the affairs of culture.”

All the conference talks are available to purchase and stream here.

The Life & Legacy of Richard Evans Schultes

The Life & Legacy of Richard Evans Schultes

Richard Evans Schultes; The Father of Contemporary Ethnobotany

Richard Evans Schultes is one of the most important plant explorers known to the 20th century. Initially a medical student at Harvard, he later went on to do a course in economic botany, finding himself completely enthralled by the subject, and changing his degree entirely.

In December 1941, Schultes embarked upon a quest in the Amazon rainforest to study how indigenous peoples utilized plants in medicinal, ritual and everyday contexts. He is often referred to as the ‘father of contemporary ethnobotany’ because of the well-known extensive field studies that he carried out in South America, particularly in the northwest Amazon. Schultes spent over a decade engaged in continual fieldwork, collecting over 24,000 species of plants, 300 of which were previously unknown to science.

Schultes was one of the first Westerners who lived amongst the isolated tribes of the northwest Amazon, and the first scientist to explore certain areas in that region which have not been researched since. The notes and photographs that he took during his research remain some of the only existing documentation on indigenous cultures in regions of the Amazon which are currently facing external threats to their existence.

Our Rainforests Under Threat

Richard Evan Schultes in the Amazon (1940) (via Harvard University Herbaria & Libraries/Wikimedia)

According to the World Wildlife Fund, in the Amazon “around 17% of the forest has been lost in the last 50 years, mostly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching.” Rainforests cover less than 3% of the Earth’s surface, with the Amazon rainforest being the world’s largest. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘lungs of the Earth’ because it is thought that more than 20% of the world’s oxygen is produced there. Further, the Amazon is one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, and estimated to be home of 390 billion trees, among them 16,000 different species, and is the tribal home of 1 million indigenous people.

With the days of the rubber boom long gone, new trajectories of economic exploit now threaten the Amazon rainforest. Brazil’s president, the recently elected Jair Bolsonaro has vowed to develop Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector, aiming to open up and allocate more rainforest to the production of beef and soya in order to meet sustained international demands. Further, Bolsonaro stated that he wanted to dissolve the Environmental Ministry, planning to merge it with the Agriculture industry, favoring the interests of those who have stakes in converting forest into farmland. During last year’s election campaign, Bolsonaro vowed to end demarcation of new indigenous lands in order to free up mining and commercial farming on indigenous reserves.

Recently, Bolsonaro made a tweet stating:

“More than 15% of the national territory is demarcated as indigenous land and Quilombolas. Fewer than 1 million people live in these isolated places of real Brazil, exploited and manipulated by NGOs. We will together integrate these citizens and value all Brazilians.”

The Preservation of Knowledge

Due to economic exploit, the ways of life of indigenous groups are on the verge of being lost, alongside many species, plants, and trees, having tragic implications for our planet as a whole. Thus, it is important in today’s quickly changing world to make efforts to preserve and deepen our knowledge about such biologically and culturally rich areas of our planet. More than preserving knowledge, we need to make collective efforts to protect the peoples that steward it.

In line with this goal, the non-profit Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) who are committed to working alongside indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin in order to help them protect their bio-cultural heritage launched an interactive educational map, the Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes. This fully interactive map enables you to dig deeper and retrace Schultes’ illuminating adventures into ritual, medicinal plants, and indigenous cultures.

The Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes

Former student of Schultes’ and founder and President of ACT, Mark Plotkin, and cartographer Brian Hettler gave a talk at the Harvard Museum of Natural History about their newly developed interactive map Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes. Through this fully immersive map journal, you can navigate Schultes’ extraordinary adventures, retracing the landscapes and cultures that Schultes explored in his first 14 years of research (1939-1953).

The Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes (screenshot by the author for Synergetic Press)

The launch of the map serves as a tribute to the life and work of Schultes, charting the magical history, cultures, and biodiversity that he uncovered on his travels in Latin America through the lens of his field notes, ethnobotanical research, and beautiful photography.

“In an era of climate change and rapid acculturation, it is urgently important that we improve how we communicate science and research, in order to engage new audiences and inspire people to pursue careers in these fields.” ㄧBrian Hettler, Senior Manager of ACT

Explore the travels of Schultes


Amazon Conservation Team

Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is a non-profit founded by Dr. Mark J. Plotkin and Liliana Madrigal in the mid-1990s. From its beginning, ACT veered from the well-worn paths of the conservation community, enlisting the support of indigenous communities that live in the forests in order to achieve conservation results that were as impressive as they were sustainable. Today ACT partners with 55 indigenous tribes and other local communities to map-manage, protect, and bio-culturally conserve of 80 million acres of ancestral land.

 

Keep up to date with the ACT’s latest developments in conservation @AmazonTeamOrg and find out how you can help support their efforts through amazonteam.org


Books by Richard Evans Schultes 

Vine of The Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants, and Rituals in the Colombian Amazonia

Vine of the Soul is an exceptional photographic essay accompanied by detailed descriptions of the Amazon Indians’ use of medicinal and other sacred plant substances. Over 160 documentary photos, some of the most significant ever taken on the subject, bring the reader along a journey in which healing with plants is the norm, and ritual and magic play an essential role in everyday life. Richard Evans Schultes, former Director of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University, led an extraordinary life that bridged the worlds of academia and tribal cultures.

 

Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs: 50 Years of Research (1967-2017)

A defining scholarly publication on the past and current state of research with psychotropic plant substances for medicinal, therapeutic, and spiritual uses. 

Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs features a prominent essay by Mark Plotkin, Brian Hettler & Wade Davis named, “Viva Schultes – A Retrospective”, highlighting the important work that Schultes’ pursued throughout his life and illuminating the legacy he left behind.

 

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