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Seeking Gaia
Kathleen Harrison, Botanical Dimensions and the Plant Mind
by James Kent, jamesk at
Nov 1993*
Psychedelic Illuminations #5
Citation:   Kent, James. "Kathleen Harrison, Botanical Dimensions and the Plant Mind". Psychedelic Illuminations. Nov 1993;5:21,63.
Since the introduction of shamanic plants and medicines to Western science, many anthropologists and laboratory wizards have struggled to divine their cultural significance and figure out how they work their peculiar magic. Yet, in spite of all the work done in university laboratories, sterile hospitals, and million-dollar pharmaceutical research wings, conventional science has done little to unravel the ancient mysteries of shamanic healing power. Divorced from traditional contexts, shamanic folk medicines and visionary practices have remained a mystery. It is only recently, through the work of researchers in the "softer" sciences of ethno- and entheobotany, that the true role of these plants could be understood in terms the Western mind could appreciate. It is not simply an "elevated consciousness" or an "altered state" the shaman seeks through the use of these plants, but instead the shaman is said to work his or her magic through an actual psychic link to the pool of biological wisdom held within the network of all terran life, often referred to as the "plant mind" or the "Gaian mind".

Despite the ancient wisdom and power offered by these plant spirits, shamanic plants and practices are now threatened by the encroachment of industrialized forces into rainforest societies. Not only is Western "progress" gutting the fertile habitats of traditional shamanic plants, but the displacement and assimilation of rural peoples has created large gaps in the folklore vital to understanding their usage.

Although many people recognize the dangers posed to the shamanic tradition, few have done as much as Kat Harrison to understand and preserve the fragile link they provide between culture and environment. Harrison is president and co-founder of Botanical Dimensions, a non-profit organization dedicated to the collection, protection and propagation of plants of ethnomedical significance and their lore.

Harrison was first introduced to the wonders of the natural world at the age of six, when her family spent the winter sailing to and living in a small Mexican coastal town. "Just being in Mexico, bathing in the river, speaking Spanish, riding horses through the jungle, I became absolutely entranced by the culture and their unique way of looking at the world," says Harrison. "I knew then that was how I was going to live my life -- traveling, surrounding myself with these people, and seeing the world through their eyes." It was also during that first trip to Mexico that Harrison began collecting and drawing specimens of wild flora, a passion which eventually led to a degree in Art History and Botanical Illustration from U.C. Santa Cruz.

Being immersed in the psychedelic culture of the Bay Area in the late Sixties also had a profound effect on Harrison. "During that time in my life I really did see the possibility of our higher selves being active in the world," she recalls. "I'd been moved by a vision of what a combination of heart-opening and mind-moving plants could do, and then quickly learned to look at what they had already done in cultures all over the world." Her search for knowledge of these plants in traditional contexts led her to spend much of her young adulthood traveling to the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and the Amazon.

By 1985 Harrison and her husband, Terence McKenna, had gathered a large personal collection of ethnomedical specimens at their home on the Big Island of Hawaii. When they discovered that an adjacent ten acre lot of virgin rain forest was going to be sold and cleared it was an impetus for them to organize. With the help of generous contributions from individuals interested in the preservation of these environmental and cultural assets, Botanical Dimensions was formed and the land was purchased to start an ethnobotanical garden. "It was a very exciting endeavor," says Harrison. "Under the umbrella of Botanical Dimensions we had built a bridge between the categories of environment, cultural preservation, medicinal plants and psychoactive plants, hopefully to help change some of our cultural notions about plants, drugs and medicines."

Although Harrison and McKenna have since gone their separate ways, Botanical Dimensions continues to prosper under Harrison's management. The organization's shoestring budget of $100,000 a year comes from research grants, the unique newsletter PlantWise (edited by Harrison), and private contributions. In addition to cultivation and management of the garden in Hawaii, BD now also funds the Hoasca project, a biomedical investigation into the effects of ayahuasca (a South American shamanic brew), and has created an ethnobotanical garden and botanical preserve in the Peruvian Amazon called El Jardin Sachamama (Garden of the Forest Mother Spirit).

Located outside of Iquitos, Peru, El Jardin Sachamama is tended by local Mestizo people with the bulk of their funding coming from Botanical Dimensions. El Jardin was started by Harrison with the help of local plant expert, Francisco Montes, and though none of the gardeners living at El Jardin are shamen or ayahuasceros, a lifetime of experience with indigenous peoples in the rain forest environment has provided them with an enormous personal database of plant lore. "There's something to learn from everyone there," says Harrison. "For each plant there are many stories and songs that go with it, not just about how to use it, but about the mythology that surrounds it and it's relationships with other plants and animals."

Harrison's continuing goal with El Jardin is not merely to collect and propagate useful plants, but to also collect the folklore and knowledge which accompanies them. "The wonderful thing about a locally managed garden like El Jardin," says Harrison, "is that discussion is created by the people who live there about what they know and can pass on. Information is traded, and other people who may have lost that connection can come visit the garden, learn about the plants themselves, and share what they know. The most important part of what I'm doing, I feel, is to get people to recognize the value of what they have before it really is gone, either the plants themselves or the information."

In a population of people with very little economic resources, the importance of plant lore and folk medicine is inestimable. When a cholera epidemic swept through Peru in 1991, the crew of El Jardin had no access to Western medicine so they looked to the plants to protect themselves. They found that drinking the sap of a vine called Uña de Gato (Cat's Claw), a plant used traditionally as an immuninty booster and tumor reducer, would relieve the violent vomiting and diarrhea that makes cholera so deadly. "This is a stunning example of contemporary folk medicine developed in a moment of desperation," says Harrison. "The plant (Uña) had not traditionally been used that way, but when they looked around to see what they had to fight the illness, there it was. This shows there's a future to ethnobotanical medicine, and we can show people who live in these places that the things they need are right in front of them."

Harrison records all of the plant information passed on to her and is currently attempting to catalogue it all within a comprehensive computer database. Although this enormous project has been put on hold several times due to lack of funding, when finished it will be the most complete source of intertwining plant knowledge and folklore ever assembled. The finished product will ultimately be an informational metaphor of the vast web of relationships between people and plants from all over the world. In addition to the information she brings back from the Amazon, Harrison is cultivating a network of gardeners, explorers and amateur ethnobotanists around the globe with the primary goal of trading seeds, plants and information to create a world of cultural and ethnobotanical diversity. "These gardens provide a living library of genetic information which could exist in virtually every third-world ecosystem around the planet," says Harrison, "and these are the cultures where this information is needed most. The propagation of ethnomedical gardens in these areas could provide medicines and a possible source of income, things that are desperately needed."

A lifetime of studying nature has given Harrison a very special relationship with the plant mind. While her initial interests revolved solely around visionary and healing plants, over time she has come to discover that each species of plant has its own distinct spirit which can act as a teacher, a healer, and a powerful ally. "Plants are everything to people in these rural environments," says Harrison. "They're a source of food, shelter, medicines, drugs, toxins, and of course visionary agents." According to Harrison, all levels of plant usage can teach us something, even the toxins. It is common practice for an apprentice curandero (healer) to ingest specific toxins on a daily basis for many months. Like a trial by ordeal, the experience teaches the shaman not just about what he or she is ingesting, but about the surrounding plants as well. This is how a curandero finds allies, and learns which plant would be best for treating a specific ailment.

Indeed, the most important lessons an apprentice ayahuascero or curandero can learn do not come from other shamen, they come directly from the plants, sometimes in the form of visions (during ayahuasca ceremonies, for example) and sometimes in the form of icaros, or sacred songs. "In very intense vision-seeking periods, during an apprenticeship or in a group perhaps," says Harrison, "a song can come to you, and they (the ayahuasceros) feel that this is just as if someone had handed you a letter from the Great Spirit, and what it says in that letter you must never forget because it's probably the most important thing you've ever learned."

Harrison believes that anyone can learn from the plant-mind as long as they are open to the experience and, above all, respectful, as you would be with any other teacher. "Always educate yourself," says Harrison, "about the traditions, about the plant and about the chemistry. You must know how to prepare your body and mind. Visionary plants are very powerful so there are definite psychological dangers, but most of these plants are actually used for healing. You must have a huge amount of respect because it's like diving into heavy surf -- there's power and beauty and danger all together. You have to be as strong and clear as possible, and be ready to let go and surrender. Resistance to the experience is what gets people into the most trouble."

For more information about Botanical Dimensions and the PlantWise newsletter you can write to Botanical Dimensions, PO Box 807, Occidental, CA 95465.

* NOTE: The above text varries in minor ways from the version that appeared in print in Psychedelic Illuminations. We are not sure why that is, nor whether this is an earlier or a later draft.