Authors: Dennis McKenna
Iquitos and I go way back. I had first visited the city in 1981 as a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, off to conduct fieldwork for my thesis. But even that visit was a return of sorts, an evocation of my first trip to the Amazon with Terence almost exactly a decade earlier. Terence also joined me for part of that second expedition, which marked yet another crucial point in our lives, closing a chapter that began with our trip to La Chorrera even as it opened another. Though we remained close as time went on, our lives took parallel tracks. For one thing, Terence never again visited South America, while I kept finding reasons to return.
Iquitos, at first glance, looked pretty good to me on that visit in 1981, having just spent a month in Pucallpa, a frontier town to the south, under conditions that even then qualified as primitive. Iquitos, a city on the Amazon—indeed the farthest major port from the Atlantic almost 2,000 miles away—was the epitome of civilization by comparison. The prospect of a cheap hotel room, a cold shower (no hot water then), and a colder beer loomed large on my agenda.
Iquitos has changed in many ways since then, due largely to the influx of ayahuasca tourists. I suppose my research in ethnopharmacology has fed the interest in that psychedelic brew, so I share a small part of the credit for the new Iquitos, or blame, depending on how one sees it. In 1981, Iquitos was charming, a sleepy hamlet of maybe 50,000 souls, not the hammering, noisy city of 400,000 that awaited me in 2011. There were no three-wheeled
back then, now the bane of Iquitos, and only a few automobiles. Many of the characters of modern botanical legend—Richard Evans Schultes, Tim Plowman, Al Gentry, Nicole Maxwell, Gunther Schaper, Neil Towers—were familiar with the town, and I’ve had the good fortune to know some of them. As it had for them, Iquitos played a formative role in the course of my scientific career.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve returned to Iquitos. One reason I keep coming back is my interest in the mestizo shamanism that flourishes there. Iquitos is both the gateway into the upper Amazon and a center for the many indigenous peoples who over the decades have been compelled to leave their ancestral lands. As such, the city has become a repository of cultural knowledge, much of it related to plants and their medicinal uses.
Another reason I return is my friendship with Juan Ruiz Macedo, an amazing botanist who knows the region’s plant life as well any other. Juan is now the curator of the Herbarium Amazonense at the Universidad Nacional de la Amazonía Peruana. In 1981, he was working under the herbarium’s former curator, Franklin Ayala, his mentor and supervisor. My supervisor, Neil Towers, Ph.D., had written me a letter of introduction that I gave to Ayala, who assigned poor Juan the thankless task of leading a small band of geeky and basically clueless North American tenderfoots into the jungles on the Río Ampiyacu, the “river of poisons.” That’s another story, as we shall see. When Ayala later retired to work on a massive study of plants in the Peruvian Amazon, Juan assumed the top position admirably, and we have worked together on various projects in recent years.
Central and Northern Peru (Map by M. Odegard)
But over years, Iquitos has lost much of its charm for me. In 2011, I found the streets torn up all over town for a massive sewage re-engineering project, no doubt sorely needed. In addition to the usual crowded sidewalks pocked with (often) gaping holes, construction machinery and concrete blocks were strewn everywhere, making it more crucial than ever to watch your step. But the true scourge remains the
, which over the years have solved Iquitos’s mass-transit problems, at an unfortunate price. Thirty to sixty cents gets you anywhere in the city in about twenty minutes, but on vehicles that are noisy, dirty, and proliferating. I’ve often thought that, with some international help, Iquitos could be turned into a “green” model for post-petroleum mass transit in developing countries by converting those little carbon generators to electric power; the result would be a cleaner, quieter mass-transit system quite unlike anything else on earth.
I have no hope of that happening soon, or ever. Iquitos has been moldering since its glory days during the Amazonian rubber boom a century ago, a burst of wealth extracted from the surrounding jungle, largely on the backs of the region’s enslaved Indians. Under the rubber barons, life in old Iquitos was almost obscenely opulent for the upper crust and brutally hard for everyone else—which may not be so different from the new Iquitos, come to think of it.
The city has a way of wearing me down. And this time, the noise of the
, loudspeakers blaring from the electronics stores, the dust, the fumes, the oppressive heat, the sights, smells, and sheer urban madness overwhelmed me more quickly than ever. The same stimuli that initially made Iquitos exciting and exotic soon triggered a certain narrowing of focus, a kind of recoiling into a shell. To be honest, my visit in 2011 was cushy compared to my earlier ones—I had my own apartment. But I felt it more this time. Old age was creeping in.
After the students left for Cuzco and Machu Picchu, I helped the ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison move into the apartment next to mine. Kat is my brother’s former wife and the mother of their two grown children. We spent a few days working together in the herbarium, and then I left Iquitos, thinking I’d need a very good reason ever to return.
I had planned to head straight to what would have been my first visit to the Burning Man festival in Nevada, but again reality intervened, this time in the form of some nagging health issues. Suffice it to say that it didn’t seem like a great idea to spend four days in the desert with no water and primitive toilets. Instead, I returned home to Minnesota and threw myself into the project I’d told so many I’d complete. As I write this today, on May 10, 2012, after eight months of work, I’ve finished a draft. And now that I have, my perspective has changed from “Can I do it?” to “I have done it.” Readers who have struggled with similar creative endeavors will recognize the significance of this shift. There is plenty left to do, but the heavy lifting is over. I’ve been sleeping somewhat better as a result.
But even as I say that, my comfortable writer’s life is about to end. Ironically, I’m about to depart for six weeks in Peru, beginning with a course for a group of pharmacy students in Iquitos. I said I’d need a good reason to return, knowing on some level I’d find a reason, or one would find me. Once again I’ll assume the fetal scrunch that modern air travel requires, put myself into a foggy daze, and squeeze through that uncomfortable wormhole to emerge into the odd parallel universe that has figured so crucially in my fate.
So that’s one take on where this book began. A far more important point of origin lies much further back—or much, much further, depending on where you start counting. We could begin with the Big Bang and the inflation of the cosmic egg into the universe of stars, galaxies, and planets in which we now find ourselves, even if we have only the vaguest notions of how we got here, and almost no understanding of why, or even if there is a “why.” But without that primordial event, there would have been no world in which our story, or any other, could be set. I won’t go back quite that far, but I do feel obliged to express gratitude to whomever or whatever created this marvelous and improbable universe and thereby provided a stage for all souls to live out their fables and foibles.
Instead of recounting all creation, I’ll focus on my brother’s and mine. Our family story begins with our ancestors, without whom we would not have existed. And like any other personal narrative, ours can be traced back to embryogenesis. Every human life so far has begun with the mingling of genes between a man and a woman. Given time and a little luck, the resulting embryo develops in the womb into a viable infant that emerges into the world to begin its own unique journey through linear time, leaving its tracks on the continuum in ways that might make a difference in the order of things, or might not. In the near future, it may be possible for humans to incarnate by other means like cloning, but not yet through complete gestation outside a living womb, as envisioned by Aldous Huxley in his novel
Brave New World.
I might hope we’ll never achieve this capability, although it seems inevitable. One thing is certain: the entities generated by such a process will be something other than human, or at least not entirely human.
For now, anyway, it remains the case that every human being is the result of a combination of genes shared between a unique man and woman. That means you can’t really talk about beginnings without talking about the two individuals whose shared genes initiated the life of that unique individual, their child. That was certainly the case with Terence and me, two separate beings born of the same mother at different points in her life. I’m sure there were times when both our parents wondered if they had somehow deviated from this universal scenario and given birth to the veritable spawn of Satan. I suppose sooner or later this thought occurs to everyone who is blessed with challenging, rebellious offspring who, from the womb, seem bent on testing a parent’s skills (and patience) to the limit. Terence and I were (and are) most assuredly human—in many respects, all too human. To my parents, now long dead, I can only tender a belated apology for the trouble we caused them, and ask the reader’s indulgence in accepting it on their behalf. It seems only fair to look back at their lives and families long before we arrived and disrupted things.
Chapter 2 - Three Sisters
One way or another, directly or indirectly, my ancestors were drawn to Colorado by the promise of wealth from the ground. My mother’s people made a living off the fruit that grew on trees, my father’s came for the ore to be mined from rock. It’s as if Terence and I were later compelled on a quest that somehow synthesized theirs, searching for a modern analog to the philosopher’s stone in the molecules of mushrooms and plants. Maybe our journey was the westward trek of our ancestors continued in another dimension.
Looking for hints to our curious fate, I turned to our family’s past. As in any family, there are certain types and quirks that seem to recur over generations, conveyed through biology and learning, of course, as well as other mechanisms understood by no one, but at least acknowledged by storytellers. I can tell you my brother was not the first willful teenager in the lineage to flee home, or the first to imagine he’d find what he was looking for in California. He wasn’t the first to have a way with words, a love of books, or the terrible misfortune of dying young. His private library was consumed by fire on two different occasions, each time destroying an eloquent statement of who he was; but even that, in a sense, may not have been unprecedented.
If family lore can be trusted, a similar fate befell Teresa Aurelia Balena, born in Salerno, Italy, on August 2, 1886. My maternal grandmother’s origins were a mystery, even to her. Teresa’s parents died when she was very young, leaving her alone in an orphanage; all clues to her past were lost when the orphanage burned down, taking her documents with it. Whether she was adopted before reaching America, or arrived some other way, is also unclear. She may have been swept up in the “orphan trains” that beginning in 1854 carried some 200,000 orphans and street kids from the big eastern cities westward over the decades, to be handed out in towns along the way. Though portrayed at times as a shameful practice that forced many children into virtual servitude, many others benefited. There’s some evidence that Honey, as she became known, was not among the fortunate ones, at first. She ran away from her foster family at fifteen or sixteen, apparently fleeing mistreatment. Her luck changed when she eventually reached Riverside, California, where a kindly woman befriended her and gave her a good home.
Honey was twenty-five in 1911 when she met Joseph Kemp, a Coloradan who had traveled to Southern California looking for seasonal work in the citrus orchards. Joseph, my grandfather, was thirteen years older than Honey and a widower with four kids. The earliest evidence of his verbal flair may have been the fact he returned from his fruit-picking sojourn with a new fiancée. After their marriage in 1912, the couple moved into a house our grandfather already owned in Paonia, a town in the North Fork Valley on the western edge of the Rockies. At the time, my grandfather was a fruit worker in that mile-high, temperate Eden, whose tree crops began gaining renown shortly after European settlers drove out the area’s Ute Indians in the 1880s. Well into the mid-twentieth century, the area’s two signature commodities remained cherries and coal.
Our mother, Hazelle, or Hadie as she was called, was Honey’s first child, born on June 4, 1913. Another daughter, Mayme, was born in 1914, followed by Tress in 1921, and a son, Harold, in 1925. Honey died of a heart attack in 1947, a few years before my birth. I’ve never heard her described as anything but exceptionally kind and decent, and I regret I never knew her. Her four children, our aunts and uncles, were very much a part of our world growing up. So were the two middle kids from our grandfather’s first family—daughter Murrie and son Clare. John and Margie, the youngest and the oldest, were rarely around, as I recall.