Healing in the Chthulucene: becoming beyond human with medicinal plants

Laura Dev – 2016

Final Paper – Townsend Seminar: The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene



Looking through the lens of the “Anthropocene” encourages us to call into question what it means to be human. One way that we could define humanity is through our encounters with other-than-humans, in which case it is arguably our connections within a multi-species web, and as symbiotic beings that make humans human at all. The word “Anthropocene” simultaneously highlights our dependence on and existence within this multi-species web, and yet also sets us apart from that web, allowing humans to somehow act upon it from a removed position, while still being situated within it. This brings into relief the inequalities that allow some earthlings, and some humans, to gaze from a seemingly removed position, as agentive, and others to be objectified and acted upon. I specifically focus on how plants fit into this web.

Shall we define the time period of the Anthropocene by the denial of our human connections with other-than-humans in a self-fulfilling act of human exceptionalist isolation? According to the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s conception of Amazonian cosmology that he terms “perspectivism”[1], all beings consider themselves to be essentially human from their own subjective experiences, even though each type of being may experience different and perhaps only partially-overlapping worlds. I think it’s worthwhile to question our own humanity and who is bestowed with this distinction. It has been part of various power plays to dominate through the denial of humanity to certain subjugated groups, or to dehumanize the other (e.g. through colonial encounters with “others” in which humanity was structured within racialized hierarchies). Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed[2] talks about the act of “humanizing” as the antidote to oppression, which is intrinsically dehumanizing. This is accomplished through relating in a human way— that is, forming non-oppressive relationships through dialogue. Freire distinctly does not include other-than-human beings in his humanizing project, but I believe the same concepts can be applied. However, when I apply the word “humanize” in the context of other-than-humans, (in this case, plants), I do not mean “anthropomorphize”, but rather to allow for agency, for selfhood, and to be recognized in their worlding capacities –creating their own worlds of experience. It would be fair to describe the Anthropocene as a time when “othered” humans and other-than-humans have been globally oppressed by human hierarchies.

Cthulhu Rises by Silberius from Deviant Art. I like the word Cthulucene partly because I don’t know exactly what it means, but it draws on a lot of richly vague imagery – apparently the Cthulu is a mythical or scifi creature, and it also comes from the worth chthonic, which implies the subterranean, the earth, the underworld, the soil.
Cthulhu Rises by Silberius from Deviant Art. I like the word Cthulucene partly because I don’t know exactly what it means, but it draws on a lot of richly vague imagery – apparently the Cthulu is a mythical or scifi creature, and it also comes from the worth chthonic, which implies the subterranean, the earth, the underworld, the soil.

I use Donna Haraway’s term “Chthulucene” as an alternate lens to the Anthropocene, which situates us as part of a multi-species assemblage, and challenges human exceptionalism. If the Anthropocene is seen as something that we need to escape from, Haraway views the Chthulucene as the “multi-species muddle” that we must move more deeply into. The Chthulu is a mythical or science fiction creature, and it also comes from the worth chthonic, which implies the subterranean, the earth, the underworld, the soil. So in this way it seems an appropriate lens for how plants might understand these times. I explore in this paper what it might be like to form relationships with specific plants that strive to be less objectifying, less oppressive, and more collaborative and reciprocal. I call this striving “healing”. I am going to discuss a way of conceptualizing healing that integrates humanity as and within an ecology of selves – comprised of human and other-than-human beings. I borrow the term “ecology of selves” from Eduardo Kohn[3], who describes this as the many voices and agencies that occupy our inner and outer landscapes and that we are always becoming with.

The first main objective of this paper is to explore the concept of healing as an ethical stance that orients us as we are coming into being, and “becoming with”, that is useful in guiding us through the Chthulucene[4]. In order to do this, I focus on Amazonian healing and particularly Shipibo concepts of health and healing rituals. I will also explore the potential for “humanizing” plants to disrupt animacy hierarchies[5], through de-objectification, opening the possibility of more interesting, less hierarchical, and less oppressive multi-species assemblages. Particularly, I am going to focus on ways of relating with, learning from, and understanding plants that I am learning from Shipibo healers in the Peruvian Amazon. Learning from plants subverts hierarchies of animacy, allows us to exist in a world that is alive and not objectified. I argue that forging tighter multispecies connections may mean that through collective imaginaries, we allow ourselves to become sensitive to the collective web that we exist within.

My field sites are located near Pucallpa on the Ucayali River.
My field sites are located near Pucallpa on the Ucayali River.

The Objectification of Plants and the Fate of the Amazon in the Anthropocene

It takes about nine hours by slow boat to get to my field site, a Shipibo-Conibo native community downriver from Pucallpa, near the fork of the Rio Pisqui, in the Peruvian Amazon. The Ucayali River, a main tributary of the Amazon, is home to many indigenous groups, the most populous of which is the Shipibo-Conibo (Shipibo hereafter), with about 45,000 people. The Shipibo historically lived in small settlements along the Ucayali and its tributaries, but along with continuing deforestation in the region, many Shipibo people have now migrated to Pucallpa to seek employment[6].  The first time I visited this community, I had imagined that I was heading into “the jungle” but upon arriving, I found my imagined jungle notably missing. However, about an hour away, in the surrounding secondary forest, down a logging road, there are a small number of very old trees — some of the only old-growth trees I had seen – master teacher trees, which have been protected by my maestro (teacher) and his family, because they use the bark and resins of these trees for healing and learning.

Me and a great machinga tree.
Me and a great machinga tree. Photo by George Payapilly.

There are complex dynamics unfolding between Amazonian native communities and logging operations. There are competing claims over rights to harvest trees, as well as access and control over forested lands. This is also a conflict over worlds and identities. Trees and humans are continually co-constituted and reconstituted in a web of social and ecological relations. These relations, however, exist within a colonial legacy of racialized violence associated with the extraction of forest resources, which has given rise to contested landscapes, which represent struggles over meaning and conceptions of the world.

The objectification of plants and other-than-human-beings has led to many anthropocenic symptoms. I’m going to focus on logging and deforestation, a result of the objectification of trees as timber. There is an ontological tension in how trees are understood— Shipibo healers view certain trees and other plants as having the capacity to teach, heal, sing, and embody human form; at other times, trees are objectified as timber – already dead, a commodity to be harvested and sold. The social and ecological outcomes of timber extraction in the Peruvian Amazon have mainly affected indigenous forest users[7]. It’s unfortunately a common narrative that modern development is associated with the loss of livelihoods, dispossession, or cultural genocide for indigenous groups, along with ecological degradation. This goes with the discourse of improvement, and inevitable progress.

From worlddailynewsreport.com. The caption read: “Illegal loggers at the frontier of the Peruvian and Brazilian border have mistakenly cut down what experts claim is the world’s oldest tree after allegedly not noticing they were logging deeply in Matsés Indigenous Reserve, an area where logging is illegal, infuriating local conservation organizations and native indigenous communities.”

Peru has the second largest area of natural forest in South America, and the forest in the Amazon Basin is considered a global biodiversity and endemism hotspot[8]. James Lovelock, author of the “Gaia hypothesis”, has called the rainforests of the Amazon basin “the lungs of the earth” because of the plants’ contribution to transforming CO2 into O2. Lovelock hypothesized that high rates of deforestation in the Amazon would be a threat to Gaia’s regulatory capacity[9]. Nonetheless, there has been ever-increasing logging in the Amazon over the last century, and changes in the landscape of the Ucayali region have become dramatic. Pucallpa, the region’s largest city, is also the country’s largest lumber processing site, which can be attributed to a road connecting it to Lima, which was built in 1943[10]. However, logging remained at relatively low intensity until the last several decades, with increasingly industrial and mechanized operations enabling new access points and more aggressive extraction. Timber production continues to be a major economic driver in the Peruvian Amazon, with the Ucayali Region producing around 21.8% of the country’s timber (as of 2009). This is also an important source of regional employment, with an estimated 40-65% of the economically active population in Ucayali working in the logging industry, including many indigenous people11.

From wwf.panda.org
From wwf.panda.org

The story of deforestation in the Amazon portrays a typical Anthropocenic scene of humans destroying nature, with nature and indigenous peoples as the hapless victims of modernity, lacking agency in the process. This is linked with what Christophe Bonneuil calls the “naturalist narrative”[11], which views (colonizing) humans as agentive, without recognizing the humanity/agency of indigenous peoples or other-than-humans, thereby positioning colonizers as the necessary saviors as well, for an earth that needs rescuing. Bonneuil argues that a plurality of narratives and voices are needed in order to get a more nuanced understanding of the Anthropocene. Therefore, I would like to complicate this scene by noting that humans have been shaping the structure of tropical forests of Peru for millennia[12], and there is ample evidence that humans actually co-created the forests[13].

From McKey et al 2010. Pre-Columbian earthworks.
From McKey et al 2010. Pre-Columbian earthworks.

Agricultural mounds exist throughout the Amazon region, which date to pre-Columbian times. It is thought that they allowed for improved soil for crops in areas that flood seasonally, as well as potentially fish cultivation in the trenches during the flooding season[14]. Interestingly, these earthworks were not revealed until the area had been deforested. Yet, just as these humans left an imprint on their environment, and also left other artifacts like remnants of pottery, the plants also left imprints. The mounds were co-created by plant crops and humans, and these plants also left their own artifacts in the mounds, and on the pottery remnants in the form of phytoliths, which are tiny silica formations in the leaves of the plants, whose functions are not well understood, but which have specific, identifiable formations for different plant species[15].

Image from McKey et al 2010. These phytoliths are several thousand years old. I like to think of these as little stoneworks made by plants.

Plants are easy to objectify, because they are typically seen as being relatively low in the animacy hierarchy, which, according to Mel Chen’s model[16], is a hierarchy of matter, indicating the relative level of aliveness something is perceived to possess. In most science-based cosmologies, plants are seen generally as responding to external forces via chemical and physical processes, but not as having their own agency or subjectivity. This is partly a result of what my advisor Carolyn Merchant describes in The Death of Nature, as the historical process by which natural beings were rendered passive, rather than autonomous, and could therefore be dominated by science, technology, and capitalist production[17]. However, the Shipibo worldview, along with many indigenous worldviews, consider plants to be animate, and capable of communicating with, teaching, and healing humans.

I use the term “plant spirit” or “plant spirit master” to refer to the Shipibo ibo, which in Spanish is sometimes called the dueño, espíritu or madre of the plant, translating as its owner/master, spirit, or mother. Each type of teacher plant has a distinct ibo, though not all plants have the power to heal or teach[18]. This is distinct from the materiality of the plant itself, or from a plant as an individual specimen. Material plant specimens can be viewed as individual manifestations of the plant spirit master of the species, which is how Fernando Santos-Granero[19] describes the idea of spirit masters for the Yanesha. Eduardo Kohn describes the existence of animal spirit masters of the Runa in Ecuador as the beings who own and care for the animals of the forest, and live in the spirit realm[20]. This is analogous to the Shipibo conception of ibo. They are said to live in an unchanging spirit realm, and have the capacity to influence the material world and heal human bodies. The Shipibo language has seven different past-tenses depending on how far in the past an event occurred. There is also a spirit world that exists in mythological time, which is unchanging. This time is understood as a “distant present”, and can be far away in time, space, past or future, or in other worlds, and can be accessed through dreams and visions. In this world, there is no past and no future, but only memory. This world is seen as perhaps more true than and also as giving rise to our ordinary experiences.

A representation of Bobinzana, a teacher plant. Painting by Luis Tamani Amasifuen.
A representation of Bobinzana, a teacher plant. Painting by Luis Tamani Amasifuen.

Healing with medicinal plants

I view healing as a way in which we come into relation within an animate, multi-species ecology of selves. Healing offers a pathway out of an Anthropocene, in which humans are destroying themselves within a mostly-dead world, and into the Chthulucene, a world that is always already alive and inhabited by other selves. Healing has the potential to reach across boundaries of the skin, blur distinctions between self and other, and allow for both transpersonal and trans-species reconciliation. It integrates the body within the community, and with other beings in an ecology of selves. As I mentioned before, I conceptualize healing as a type of embodied ethical stance that orients us as we are becoming with.

Although I do not have the authority to speak on behalf of the Shipibo as a people or as a community, this understanding of healing comes from what I have learned from my own experiences with Shipibo healing rituals, as well as from a series of interviews I conducted in 2015 with over twenty Shipibo healers (these interviews were conducted partially in collaboration with my colleague Paul Roberts at the non-profit organization Alianza Arkana). In order to illustrate how healing can work to bring us into being within a multi-species assemblage, I draw on Shipibo concepts of health, which link social, ecological, and bodily health, and healing rituals bridge communication across species lines through the performance of songs and the personification of plants[21]. According to Shipibo healers, discord within our relationships can result in disease in the body.

A system of “dieting” plants is the method by which Shipibo healers learn from a teacher plant spirit. By making the body a very quiet and empty place, and engaging through dreams and visions, the healer learns to communicate with and personify the plant spirit they are dieting[22]. This is a process that Viveiros de Castro calls an “abduction of agency”, in which a human being is able to occupy the perspective of the plant spirit[23]. Healing and communication with plant spirits is often aided by the consumption of an entheogenic tea commonly known as ayahuasca or yagé. The plants used to make the tea are considered to be master plants, which facilitate communication with other plants. Ayahuasca is typically made from two plants: a vine (Banisteriopsis caapi; called nixi in Shipibo), and a shrub, called chacruna (Psychotria viridis).

Ayahuasca sensationalized. Screenshot from National Geographic’s Web Blog.

The healing powers of these plants are becoming famous globally, and stories about ayahuasca have been circulating with growing frequency in mainstream media outlets (e.g. National Geographic, CNN, and Vanity Fair). This international attention is due largely to the popularity of healing rituals for “spiritual tourists” in South America. The popularity of ayahuasca, and the reputation of Shipibo healers, have led to an influx of these spiritual tourists all along the stretch of the Ucayali River between Pucallpa and Iquitos. This goes part way to explaining my presence there, and the growing number of other foreigners (mostly European and North American), some of which find their way to my teacher’s house to experience Shipibo healing rituals and the use of psychoactive medicinal plants. However, it is unclear how the presence of tourists and the commoditization of healing rituals should be understood within the context of this small community.

These plants have been in relationship with humans for a long time. In Amazonian thought, plants and animals tell stories about people, and these stories help to construct their own identities and histories as well as our own. This begs the question of the role of other-than-humans in producing discourses and imaginaries about humans. In the stories that plants tell me, they claim that they helped to create us, as we consume them. In many ways, plants make human existence possible. Roots, leaves, stems, and fruit are somehow metabolized and alchemized into animal human flesh. In a very material way, all the carbon in our bodies has at some point in time passed through the chloroplast of a plant, as they fix carbon from its atmospheric form with the energy supplied from the sun. Indeed, plants figure prominently in creation stories for many peoples. The plants also have shown me that each type of plant, or each plant spirit, (as well as each people, each animal, each mountain, and each glacier), constitutes its own world, its own ontology. Our ability to experience these worlds depends on our ability to expand our sense of self to incorporate other earthlings into our inner ecology of selves.

Llullun Llaki Supai - By Pablo Amaringo
Llullun Llaki Supai – By Pablo Amaringo

The animation of plants through voice and ritual

In thinking about my work with Shipibo healers, and how to come to terms with appropriating their voices and the voices of plants, I use the concept of multi-voicedness, developed by Voloshinov[24]. There is no single voice or singular narrative that is making meaning of my existence. Indeed, I cannot even seem to see myself as a single self. I am more like a collection of voices, contributing to the discourse of myself as a self. An individual uses different voices to find a way of both constructing oneself and communicating to another self. This simultaneously constructs both the speaker and the listener, with speech forming a bridge between the two. Mikhail Bakhtin[25] described the multiplicity of inner speech as a conversation among many voices and between separate characters, which arise in a social process of appropriating others’ voices. During this process, it is important to question who is allowed to speak from the collection of voices that makes up one’s identity. We use narratives and voice to construct our own sense of identity and history, and a way of making meaning of raw experience. In a sense, narrative is used to weave together reality and memory.

The colonial process usually imposes a singular understanding of the world onto its subjects. This is the story of the hegemonic narrative becoming dominant and drowning out other songs and voices. The dominant narrative has become self-referential, impervious to the voices of plants, of glaciers, of indigenous peoples, of any dissenting human subjects, except for those which bolster its own agenda. This is the dehumanizing that I mentioned earlier. This is again related to what Merchant describes[26], when she talks about the process by which other-than-human beings and their human allies, were silenced, and a mechanistic worldview came into dominance in which the earth was seen as a dead machine.

There is an asymmetry between the entextualized history and the ecology of selves that are no longer given voice or names. This is part of the modern narrative that leaves out the stories of violence that were left in its wake. According to Marisol de la Cadena[27], it is precisely this silencing of subjugated voices that has allowed for the persistence of ideas of race and racism, as well as the elimination of “nature” from the political sphere.

The sonic and sensual features of voice are central to Amazonian conceptions of power and healing[28]. In Shipibo healing rituals, an integral part of the process is performing ikaros, which are songs used specifically for the purpose of healing. These songs are co-produced during communication between the healer and the plant spirit[29], aided by the consumption of ayahuasca. The plant sings a song to the healer, and the healer must then translate that song as directly as possible into the material world through their own body and the sonic features of their voice. This mimetic process that is being enacted by the healer is precisely what Michael Taussig describes as one way in which to become the “other”[30].

Rituals are present in all societies, and serve as a structured and symbolic process involving the performance of culture and reproduction of the lifeworld. Developed by Habermas, a lifeworld describes shared understandings, meanings, and values that are constructed socially over time and are transmitted culturally[31]. These lifeworlds require constant reaffirmation, and the colonization of a lifeworld by system can result in a crisis accompanied by a loss of cultural meaning, solidarity and sense of community. I argue that the colonization of lifeworlds associated with logging undermines multi-species relationality and the animacy of plants. It is a case of material production destroying symbolic reproduction at the lifeworld level. Indigenous psyches and bodies are also colonized as trees become timber, and meaning patterns about trees change. The challenge posed to Shipibo lifeworlds by logging, then, is both material and symbolic.

The commoditization of healing rituals is one way local communities have responded to the conditions of globalization and global capital. The performance of Shipibo healing rituals for outsiders can be seen as a way of reproducing the Shipibo lifeworld, and resisting threats to the material and symbolic basis for healing practices. These rituals also facilitate direct, unmediated connection with other-than-human beings, which disrupt what Mel Chen refers to as the “radical segregation of self and world”[32]. These ritual boundary crossings offer powerful challenges to any hierarchical social system.

According to Gramsci[33], within marginalized bodies, two opposing conceptions of the world exist simultaneously. One belongs to the dominant class, and the other to the marginalized class. Voloshinov[34] called these the official, and unofficial ideologies. These are related to Freud’s conceptions of the conscious and the repressed unconscious[35]. I view the body as a site of struggle between multiple voices and multiple worlds. The least articulate part of the consciousness corresponds to the voices that are most silenced. Through articulation, the unconscious may be made conscious and given voice, essentially allowing its presence in the social world. This articulation can be seen as a healing process, which was described by Freud in psychotherapy as the “talking cure”.

I conceptualize Shipibo healing rituals as organized processes by which more of the selves in the ecology of selves are given voice, and thereby more matter within the body (or ecosystem) becomes animated. These rituals confuse the boundaries between human and plant, self and other, blurring hierarchies of animacy, and bridging material and spirit realms. These plants are then included in the social process of subject formation, involving listening, mimicry, and exchange. The healing process operates on all scales of selves – including the voices within the body, including the embodied self in relation to the other selves in the ecosystem – traversing perceived divisions. Internal relations among various selves interpenetrate with external relations through voice. This is a mattering of worlds, a process which is never complete and is always becoming.

We can also view the consumption of these medicinal plants as a subversive colonization of human bodies by the agencies of the plants – or again, as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro terms it, an abduction of agency. Learning from these plants also offers a form of semiotic resistance to ideological domination and hierarchies of animacy through the blurring of boundaries between plant and person and the proliferation of plant-based knowledge and lifeworlds. By semiotic resistance, I mean resisting the material and symbolic restructuring of nature.

However, it is not the burden of indigenous peoples to overcome European-based hierarchies. Healing is an individual process, and it is also about establishing solidarity and humanizing our relations. There is a common narrative among spiritual tourists and new age media that ayahuasca is the cure for modernity’s ills, and therefore indigenous people have what the westerners need to heal. Michael Taussig addresses this narrative, talking about hierarchies created with the racial division of spiritual labor, and the construction of the magical other as possessing something of desire[36]. This is also the narrative that sells – and what tourists buy into, and it’s produced in collaboration among healers, tourists, and the plants themselves. As Taussig makes clear, it is necessary to understand the hierarchies that are reinforced by this narrative, and to recognize that healing and magic also have the potential to be bought and co-opted.


Research as ritual

As a white woman from North America working in indigenous communities in Peru, I have struggled a lot with what my role is as a researcher, and how I can conduct my work in a way that is not simply a form of neo-colonialism, and does not perpetuate racialized colonial hierarchies. This is probably going to be an ongoing struggle. Getting away from the imperialist type of research requires moving our attentions toward embodied, affective, experiential learning, similar to how one learns in Shipibo knowledge systems. This type of knowing is in contrast with a mythical “objective” stance. Amazonian concepts of knowledge, described by Cecilia McCallum, (about the Cashinaua, another Amazonian group) identify the body as an accumulation and representation of both material and spiritual knowledge[37]. In this way, all knowledge is viewed as embodied, and the body is seen as constructed by others (both human and non-human) in a social process, through the transfer of knowledge. The full “Cashinaua body” is described by McCallum as as a web of connections between exterior matter, speech, and knowledge in the body, as well as the manifestation of that knowledge expressed externally as action.

As I prepare for my extended fieldwork, I am exploring the idea of using ritual as a framework for approaching research as a potential decolonial methodology. Research, like ritual, is a repeatable and mimetic process, whose structure is taught to initiates. I believe that viewing academic practices as rituals can be useful in situating them in our own cultural context, rather than universalizing them. Likewise, in being inducted into Shipibo ways of knowing, it feels important to me to do it in a ritual context, which is under the guidance of Shipibo healers and plant teachers, and not necessarily on my own terms. I think it is important to understand the rituals we are performing, and to enact them very consciously, delicately, and intentionally, with full awareness of the hierarchies and social structures that we may or may not be reproducing.

Specifically, I am addressing the relationship between researcher and researched as subject and object relationship. Indigenous scholars like Linda Tuhiwai Smith[38] have been focusing on the need for decolonial research methodologies that unseat the hierarchy between the researcher and the researched in indigenous communities. I suggest that by focusing research as a ritual boundary crossing, there is a potential for an emancipatory move from a research system that is linked to a long and violent history of imperialism and colonialism. If we approach our research rituals, and our boundary crossings, with the ethical stance of healing, we can bring ourselves into relationship in a felt way within an ecology of other selves, and permeate binaries and hierarchies. I believe this is particularly important when working with earthlings (human and other-than-human beings) whose subjugated voices we may wish to bring into the political arena. When researchers turn beings into objects of research, we strangle the very thing that we wish to know.

I suggest that it becomes the ethnographic researcher’s role not to attain any sort of authoritative understanding of reality, but to listen. To allow other voices to speak and be heard, and to allow their sounds to expand one’s own identity enough to encompass multiple narratives, perhaps without the need to offer interpretation. Perhaps understanding that they may never be understood, but that these voices can still transform us. This is partly my own story of learning how to listen to plants, of excavating the multitude of voices that speak through this body.



The ontological tension that I brought up in the beginning of this paper was between multiple ways of understanding the existence of a tree: as animate, a teacher with its own social relations, or as timber – an objectified resource commodity. Shipibo healers and trees are coming into being at an intersection of plural and partially overlapping understandings of the world that are in places antagonistic to each other. Struggles over meanings and worlds play out in the physical sphere. Networks between humans and other-than-human beings emerge, seeking the preservation of indigenous semiotic systems and relationality.

"In defense of our territories and forest" The federation of native communities of the Ucayali - marching for indigenous rights, August 2015. Photo by Laura Dev.
“In defense of our territories and forest”
The federation of native communities of the Ucayali – marching for indigenous rights, August 2015. Photo by Laura Dev.

I explored healing as a way of moving into new types of relationships that are not based in oppression and objectification, a way of orienting ourselves in the Chthulucene, and I explored direct, unmediated, multi-species relationships, achieved through ritual boundary-crossings, as a form of resistance to hierarchies of objecthood, humanity, and animacy. Strengthening our connections within a multi-species ecology of selves, and becoming integrated into the life and death cycles of nature seem to be key in ensuring the future of our ecosystems, by way of entwining our human fates more closely with the fates of other-than-human earthlings.




[1] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies.” Common Knowledge 10, no. 3 (2004: 463-484).

[2] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, 30th Anniversary edition (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000).

[3] Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think (University of California Press, 2013).

[4] Donna Haraway, Anthropocene or Capitalocene, Ch 2. “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene” book in progress.

[5] Mel Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

[6] Warren M Hern, “The Impact of Cultural Change and Population Growth On The Shipibo of the Peruvian Amazon.” The Latin American Anthropology Review 4, no. 1 (March 1, 1992): 3–8.

[7] Rosa Cossío et al, Community Forest Management in the Peruvian Amazon: A Literature Review. (CIFOR, 2014).

[8] Cossío et al, Community Forest Management in the Peruvian Amazon

[9] James Lovelock. Gaia. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[10] Fernando Santos-Granero and Frederica Barclay. “Bundles, Stampers, and Flying Gringos: Native Perceptions of Capitalist Violence in Peruvian Amazonia.” The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2011): 143–67.

[11] Cristophe Bonneuil, “The Geological Turn: Narratives of the Anthropocene,” in The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis. ed. Hamilton, Clive, Christophe Bonneuil, and François Gemenne. (New York: Routledge, 2015): 17-31.

[12] Clark L. Erickson, “Amazonia: The Historical Ecology of a Domesticated Landscape,” in The Handbook of South American Archaeology, ed. Helaine Silverman and William H. Isbell (Springer, 2008), 157–83.

[13] Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez, Susanna Hecht, and Christine Padoch, “Amazonia,” in Traditional Forest-Related Knowledge, ed. John A. Parrotta and Ronald L. Trosper, World Forests 12 (Springer Netherlands, 2012), 119–55.

[14] Charles C. Mann, 1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2006).

[15] Doyle McKey et al., “Pre-Columbian Agricultural Landscapes, Ecosystem Engineers, and Self-Organized Patchiness in Amazonia,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 17 (April 27, 2010): 7823–28.

[16] Chen, Animacies.

[17] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper, 1980).

[18] X. Jauregui et al., “‘Plantas Con Madre’: Plants That Teach and Guide in the Shamanic Initiation Process in the East-Central Peruvian Amazon,” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 134, no. 3 (April 12, 2011).

[19] Fernando Santos-Granero, “Sensual Vitalities: Noncorporeal Modes of Sensing and Knowing in Native Amazonia,” Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 4, no. 1 (May 1, 2006).

[20] Kohn, How Forests Think.

[21] Bernd Brabec de Mori and Anthony Seeger, “Introduction: Considering Music, Humans, and Non-Humans,” Ethnomusicology Forum 22, no. 3 (December 1, 2013): 269–86.

[22] Jauregui et al., “‘Plantas Con Madre’: Plants That Teach and Guide in the Shamanic Initiation Process in the East-Central Peruvian Amazon.”

[23] Viveiros de Castro, “Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies.”

[24] V. N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973).

[25] M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986).

[26] Merchant, The Death of Nature.

[27] Marisol de la Cadena, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond ‘Politics’.” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 2 (2010): 334–70.

[28] Santos-Granero, “Sensual Vitalities: Noncorporeal Modes of Sensing and Knowing in Native Amazonia.”

[29] Bernd Brabec de Mori, “About Magical Singing, Sonic Perspectives, Ambient Multinatures, and the Conscious Experience,” Indiana 29 (2012): 73–101.

[30] Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity (London: Routledge, 1993).

[31] Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 2: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).

[32] Chen, Animacies.

[33] A Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Lawrence & Wishart, 1971).

[34] V. N. Voloshinov, Freudianism: A Marxist Critique (Indiana University Press, 1987).

[35] Sigmund Freud, “The Unconscious,” in Essentials of Psycho-Analysis: The Definitive Collection of Sigmund Freud’s Writing (London: Penguin UK, 1988).

[36] Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

[37] Cecilia McCallum, “The Body That Knows: From Cashinahua Epistemology to a Medical Anthropology of Lowland South America,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, 10, no. 3 (September 1, 1996).

[38] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. (London: Zed Books, 1999).


Orb Weaver

She had taken down her web by morning.
I awoke from kissing your mouth over and over. I was afraid
you would turn away but you leaned in sweetly
my body soft and you were mine,
we were us
another moment. Waking
without you, suddenly,
I gather myself for the day
reeling back threads of silky dreams
that somehow led to your face
in my hands, that somehow found
you in the wide night, unraveling
my bound and wounded heart.
Leaving, aching, by the door I look to the place
– it had spanned magnificently
from the overhang to a folded chair –
where the orb weaver had crafted her web
the evening before; the air was just crispening
with a hint of coming autumn – solitary –
and she at the ready, sitting proudly
and fatly in the very center:
imposing, hairy legs
and the visage of a wrinkled someone
etched onto her abdomen.
Hello grandmother, I would say,
thank you for your designs.
Now she too: gone,
with the first blush of today.
~ laura dev 2016 ~

a sending

again the womb
yawns like a black hole, a longing
ancient & arcane as gravity
for ever holding these pieces together
a spiral dance around This:
eternal emptiness
This: long inhalation
that draws all things
into it, toward now
the dissolution of time

yes, I would take you in
deep & quiet & still
the inmost axis
i could never reach with out
your everness with in
the pool of a fathomless well
you, some how
enter & contain me
close enough to infinity: full
in this place where I meets You
we rest on the tenuous edge between
every thing & no thing

in the truest sense of here
is from where I call to you
a primal and sudden sound
at once prayer and karmic exhale
the winds of creation
every star
past & future
come you
arcing outwards all ways
like a flock of birds
sent forth in the dawning
birthed, released & summoned home
with that single breath of song.

~laura dev 2014

beltane blessing

love finds shelter in soft, fertile bodies
takes root, brings us to gather
in union ~ goddess and god, earth and sky, yin and yang,
you and i. small creatures,
we bask in the wild fullness
of life, blooming open all around
and inside us, the quickening of spring.
bless this land with ten thousand seeds
all the light of days
and sweet clear waters ~
milk of mother
streaming in and out and over and over.
we take warmth in each other
breathing song into the hearts of birds
beckoning fruit to ripen
enticing new life to this good earth.


~laura dev 2014~

of duality ~ to the other

at times i forget the steps
of the dance we began at the beginning. please
forgive me for all ways of not being
as you will
for being
slippery beyond restraint.

for give your self creation
for ever give your self up

we have all sprung from this perfect garden
grown ripe and bursting
some to consume and some to return.
tame your judgment and feast of it
release the beast of your heart
to devour what it may

for it is so
and we are just so:
utterly full
we look upon each other.

i see you
sometimes seeing me
wishing i was otherwise.
i am often wise
but it has taken all my years
and still each exhale
to wear this face so boldly.
i have stopped trying
to be other than what arises
bubbles unbidden from the deep.
watch the storm of my eyes,
brace your doubt
against this grace.
hold all of me.
be whole.

may we honor each other as gods.

you are all ways
already forgiven
for never
are you not me,
this living and breathing.
we share air and ages and a wild, unruly love
that nips into our skin
where we pull apart
the great pain of the world
only denial that we are all—
cares and cages, seeds and wombs,
stricken giants and tiny buds
blooming at the kiss of sun.
please forgive me for not
knowing all this as myself
even my cloak of fear
and stubborn insistence
that i am not you:
constant, strong, here.

can you spare a blessing to accept me
and all this madness,
crawl inside me and look out these eyes?
i take you in and know myself.

seize my soft body and run
fly me to every edge of existence
the tip of the tip
to reach the center of it all.
feel me sink my flesh into the teeth
of earthly pleasure, its grime and lushness
grip me completely
not to keep me, but for joy
of shredding me across time
i, soul of all forms, joining rain to become river,
dirt to become fruit to become
formless, still, weightless,
never not here inside
me: shelter
as you dissolve all things
rebuild the world
remind me who i am.


~laura dev 2013~

The role of ectomycorrhizal fungi in mediating nutrient cycling in temperate and boreal forest ecosystems

~laura dev 2013~


In systems where nutrients are limiting, such as boreal and temperate forests, mycorrhizae play a particularly important role in mediating the nutrient cycling of the ecosystem. They are allowed this control because they are brokers of certain limiting resources, which they are adept at scavenging from the soil (Read, Leake, & Perez-moreno, 2004). All tree species form mutualistic associations with mycorrhizal fungi (Simard, 2009), and for a given tree species there are many fungal species with which it can form associations.

Mycorrhizae act as an extension of the root system into the bulk soil, increasing the absorbing length of roots (Chapin, Matson, & Mooney, 2002) and allowing a greater volume of soil to be exploited. The fungal hyphae can also bridge the zone of nutrient depletion that tends to form around roots, and enter soil pores that are too small for plant roots to access (Godbold, 2004). In exchange for the provision of nutrients, plants invest upwards of 30% of their carbon (C) in supporting mycorrhizal symbionts.

Underground networks of mycorrhizae can connect different plant individuals and even species within a forest (Simard, 2009; Simard et al., 2012). Carbon, nutrients, and water can be transferred among the individuals connected by a common mycorrhizal network according to source-sink gradients. These networks have been shown to facilitate plant species coexistence, regeneration after disturbances, and the persistence of seedlings growing in shaded areas. The presence of mycorrhizal networks not only impacts plant productivity and species composition, but also has great influence on the amount of carbon that is able to be stored in the soil. This review will discuss ways in which mycorrhizae influence the functioning of temperate and boreal ecosystems and how mycorrhizal presence serves to tighten the cycling of nutrients within nitrogen-limited ecosystems. It will conclude with a discussion of recent methodological advances used to study mycorrhizae and a few possible directions for future research.


Nutrient cycling in forest ecosystems is highly localized within the root zone of plants, and is driven by the release of nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) from organic sources such as amino acids, proteins, and leaf litter by enzymes secreted by microorganisms, including mycorrhizae (Schimel & Bennett, 2004). It was previously thought that the mineralization of nutrients from the organic polymer form was only done by free-living decomposers in the soil, but ectomycorrhizae have shown a widespread ability to carry out this function as well (Read & Perez-moreno, 2003). Indeed, ectomycorrhizae are critical for N recycling and acquisition in boreal and temperate forests (Schlesinger & Bernhardt, 2013), directly mobilizing nutrients from organic sources by excreting extracellular phosphatase and cellulase enzymes (Lambers, Chapin, & Pons, 2008). These nutrients are absorbed by the fungal hyphae and may then be transferred to the symbiotic plant hosts (Perez-moreno & Read, 2000).

The ability of ectomycorrhizal fungi to mineralize organic nutrients was most clearly demonstrated in a study of birch (Betula pendula) seedlings inoculated with the ectomycorrhizal fungus Paxillus involutus. Seedlings were planted in transparent observation chambers in factorial treatments of mycorrhizae inoculation and litter addition (Perez-moreno & Read, 2000). The presence of the mycorrhizae reduced litter nutrient concentrations, particularly P, indicating that the fungus was able to mineralize organic nutrient supplies. Concurrently, the birch seedlings with mycorrhizal inoculation treatments had significantly increased biomass production and tissue nutrient concentrations with litter present compared to treatments without litter, implying that the organic compounds were passed from the mycorrhizae to the tree seedlings.

The ability of mycorrhizal fungi to mobilize recalcitrant nutrient sources allows plants to survive in systems where rates of N mineralization would not otherwise be fast enough to meet plant requirements. In the pygmy forests of California, the soil is extremely infertile, acidic, and N-limited. The Pinus contorta trees in this environment have formed a tight nutrient cycle with their fungal symbionts, Amanita muscaria. The plants immobilize N in their tissues by producing high amounts of tannins (Northrup, Yu, Dahlgren, & Vogt, 1995). Tannins are very recalcitrant complexes, which lock up N in a form that is then only available to plants via mineralization by ectomycorrhizal fungi. When the tannin-rich litter is deposited in the soil the tannins adsorb to soil surfaces and are then able to be taken up by the plants’ own mycorrhizal symbionts. In this way the trees have adapted to maximize their chances of recovering the N lost in their own litter.

In environments with slow rates of mineralization, fungal associations are particularly important for plants to acquire adequate nutrient supplies (Godbold, 2004). Mycorrhizae are more abundant and have greater N mineralizing activity in areas with fewer N inputs and less nitrification, such as the more northerly boreal forests compared with temperate forests (Read & Perez-moreno, 2003). Further north, the soil is often more acidic, with fewer nutrient resources and therefore less mineralization in the absence of the fungi. This has been demonstrated using N isotopes to illuminate pathways of N transfer (Hobbie, Macko, & Williams, 2000; Hogberg et al., 1996). Natural abundances of 15N are altered when they pass through different transformations. When transferred from mycorrhizae to plants, the lighter 14N isotopes are preferentially passed to plants, causing depletion in foliar δ15N signatures (Hogberg et al., 1996). When this material is returned to the soil as plant litter, it results in deeper soil layers having greater 15N enrichment and surface layers being more depleted in 15N. An experiment in coniferous and broadleaved forests in central and northern Europe showed this effect to be most pronounced in N-limited forests (Hogberg et al., 1996). Hobbie et al (2000) got a similar result from a study conducted in Alaskan boreal forests. They found that trees in older sites with low N concentrations had lower foliar δ15N.

Both studies indicate that a greater proportion of plant nutrition was obtained by way of fungal symbionts when N was scarcer. This trend was also correlated with a decline in total foliar N concentrations, likely due to increased allocation to belowground C (Hobbie, Macko, & Shugart, 1999). This evidence suggests that as N availability increases, foliar N concentrations also increase, while mycorrhizal fungi decline. Therefore, boreal forests tend to have greater dependence on mycorrhizae for the mineralization of organic nutrient sources, and their associated fungi often have increased abilities for polymerase function.

Mycorrhizal networks can serve to transfer carbon, nutrients, and water to younger trees to help with growth and establishment (Simard, 2009). For example, seedling survival and growth rate in Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is improved when connected to mycorrhizal networks containing large trees (Simard et al., 2012), though the mature trees themselves have competitive effects on seedlings. This creates an area of maximum seedling performance in a circle around mature trees, but out of the way of competitive effects (Buscardo et al., 2012). These networks can prevent nutrient leaching from the system by taking up nutrients and distributing them where most needed based on source-sink gradients.

Future directions

Recent technological advances have greatly improved our ability to study the role of mycorrhizae in nutrient cycling. For example, culture-independent DNA analysis has been key in identifying fungal symbionts to genus or species, which was previously impossible (Simard et al., 2012). Advanced microscopy techniques have also been helpful in elucidating mycorrhizal physiology. Still, of the 5000 species that can form mycorrhizal associations, only a small number of these have been studied because of the difficulty of culturing them. In situ studies will be important for studying fungi that are not culturable (Read & Perez-moreno, 2003).

In light of projected changes in climate, it will be necessary to estimate the importance of mycorrhizal-mediated nutrient cycles for soil C storage. Since mycorrhizae increase the proportion of C in the soil relative to N and P concentrations, they contribute to soil carbon retention (Read & Perez-moreno, 2003). Warmer temperatures may disrupt the tight cycling of boreal forest nutrient cycling by diminishing the performance of extracellular enzymes, which function optimally at low temperatures. This could cause systems to lose more N and decrease their ability to store C. Increased rates of N deposition will also affect the function and abundance of mycorrhizal networks. Since mycorrhizal associations are favored by low-nutrient systems, increased N loads could decrease dependence on mycorrhizae.


Symbiotic mycorrhizae control nutritional processes, productivity, and species composition in boreal and temperate forests. These fungi provide a shortcut in nutrient cycling by accelerating the mineralization of organically-bound nutrients and providing them to plants faster than would be possible via diffusion in the soil (Lambers et al., 2008). Though mycorrhizal associations are critical for plant survival in systems that are limited by nutrients, their importance declines as N availability increases. Complex, belowground mycorrhizal networks influence the sink-source balance of carbon in the system by mediating storage and transfer of carbon and nutrients, thereby determining to a large extent the quality of the plant tissues that are returned to the soil in the form of litter (Read et al., 2004). Understanding how mycorrhizal networks are regulated will greatly improve our understanding of forest ecosystem processes.

Literature Cited

Buscardo, E., Rodríguez-Echeverría, S., Barrico, L., García, M. Á., Freitas, H., Martín, M. P., De Angelis, P., et al. (2012). Is the potential for the formation of common mycorrhizal networks influenced by fire frequency? Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 46, 136–144.

Chapin, F. S., Matson, P. A., & Mooney, H. A. (2002). Principles of Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.
Godbold, D. L. (2004). Mycorrhizae. TREE PHYSIOLOGY. Elsevier Ltd.

Hobbie, E. A., Macko, S. A., & Shugart, H. H. (1999). Insights into nitrogen and carbon dynamics of ectomycorrhizal and saprotrophic fungi from isotopic evidence. Oecologia, 118(3), 353–360.

Hobbie, E. A., Macko, S. A., & Williams, M. (2000). Correlations between foliar d15N and nitrogen concentrations may indicate plant-mycorrhizal interactions. Oecologia, 122(2), 273–283.

Hogberg, P., Hogborn, L., Schinkel, H., Hogberg, M., Johannisson, C., & Wallmark, H. (1996). 15N abundance of surface soils, roots and mycorrhizas in profiles of European forest soils. Oecologia, 108(2), 207–214.

Lambers, H., Chapin, F. S., & Pons, T. L. (2008). Plant physiological ecology (2nd ed.). Springer.

Northrup, R. R., Yu, Z., Dahlgren, R. A., & Vogt, K. A. (1995). Polyphenol control of nitrogen release from pine litter. Nature, 377(21 September), 227.

Perez-moreno, J., & Read, D. J. (2000). Mobilization and transfer of nutrients from litter to tree seedlings via the vegetative mycelium of ectomycorrhizal plants. New Phytologist, 145(2), 301–309.

Read, D. J., Leake, J. R., & Perez-moreno, J. (2004). Mycorrhizal fungi as drivers of ecosystem processes in heathland and boreal forest biomes. Canadian Journal of Botany, 1263, 1243–1263.

Read, D. J., & Perez-moreno, J. (2003). Mycorrhizas and nutrient cycling in ecosystems: A journey towards relevance? New Phytologist, 157(3), 475–492.

Schimel, J. P., & Bennett, J. (2004). Nitrogen mineralization: Challenges of a changing paradigm. Ecology, 85(3), 591–602.

Schlesinger, W. H., & Bernhardt, E. S. (2013). Biogeochemistry (3rd ed.). Elsevier Science & Technology Books.

Simard, S. W. (2009). The foundational role of mycorrhizal networks in self-organization of interior Douglas-fir forests. Forest Ecology and Management, 258.

Simard, S. W., Beiler, K. J., Bingham, M. a., Deslippe, J. R., Philip, L. J., & Teste, F. P. (2012). Mycorrhizal networks: Mechanisms, ecology and modelling. Fungal Biology Reviews.


pale petals softer than lips
summon moisture from bare air
clear globes form, grow, run together, reform.
kindred spirits, flower and dew
how they tenderly capture and hold the light
meet for a fleeting caress
and return to the earth.

i’ve been calling to the moon since i first knew myself a woman
unwilling to turn from its cold empty glare
its heavy draw
inspiring, for such a dark naked thing to be so luminous

yet i am still learning to breathe
to fill myself until i feel
my womb flooded with the night sky:
vast, black, enough gravity to pull me inside-out
to the deep seething center of creation.

surely within me lies the entire ribbon of time
surging forth forever like a serpent
from the true beginning:
a singularity sucking and again swelling, overflowing

inhale: sink to the source of it all
exhale: lap on the shores of the present.

each moment rests tenuously in the body
as if my form were the very teeth of time
and awareness the forked tongue,
guiding and savoring the breath.


~laura dev 2013~

a memory

the bones of me can’t forget
to be strong without apology
skeleton, rest easy with that power.

heart empty and
body so full of love
to open my throat in full roar
would shake fear from the world–
a flimsy fortress crumbling in a cool torrent of clarity.
civilization, what evidence have you left?

still, silence sits gravely in my mouth.
when did i learn shame?
yes, women, we carry it
deep in the posture passed down from our mothers.
muscles wrap my bones in cords of it
to tame the boundless nature teeming in me
as if all this strength was needed
just to hold the weight of my head,
bowed with memory.

i remember

they used to honor our unbridled hearts
with offerings of beauty and bounty—
crowns of flowers,
crystals, songs, honey, fruit–
we would laugh
and love them all freely, infinitely,
as we loved ourselves and so all things.
when nurtured, abundance wells from within

which happened first–
the hunger for more
or fear
of the scarcity of love?

skeleton, rattle me out of this skin,
who clothed me in this disguise and why
do they clutch at this?
there is nothing to be taken.

speak, tongue;
dance, limbs;
naked, i will heal these hearts.


~laura dev 2013~



without time
i am not my self

i am first the rain penetrating the soil
and into leaky walls

in time we are all blind

hurtling through stark passages
there is the feeling of breaking,
and not without fear,
as if to split forth from the seed
into an unknowable beginning:
a tender head,
then two leaves unfurling
to stand shaken in the sun.


we emerged out of parched earth
to look upon each other in this fragile state.

love leapt unexpectedly into my body.

morning licked at my cracked sense of time
and I gathered myself
from dark edges of the long night.

we both came seeking wholeness.

empty. unguarded. pure.
we stepped into each other with such absence
of resistance I felt no threshold,
only knew by the echo:
my small voice as if in a great hall;
the sound i strained for through the night
suddenly clear.


i cannot contain a love this fluid and lonesome.
weightless, it fills in my empty spaces like light
and again grows, bursts me apart:
i have hardly been so formless
to become the breeze and the breathing
lowly ruffling the water’s surface
and whispering soft words to warm ears.

will the winter keep me as such?
cold air draws fog from the ocean.
these hills are at their finest
draped moistly

with mist: sitting fatly among sodden branches
and shivering birds.

still yourself.
calm limbs collect dewy songs like blades
of grass in the morning,
calm hearts
catch heavy things that condense out of the night.
we all take on form sometimes.
were we sleeping?

i found myself
perched so gently and deeply within you
you feared to stir
but to breathe:
I felt the expansion
as the hot wind rolled in,
and woke upon a cool exhale

into the fresh hollows
you left.

return and awaken in me.
outside of time,


~laura dev 2012~


love is the lightest thing there is
so soft and spacious
i grow as if to float away
and the entire world rushes in
to join me.
we are it
it is me
and i pour through myself,
bathe the outgoing tide,
and swell anew with lightness
that it may return.


~laura dev 2012~