Plants with
Nervous
Breakdowns

Blaise Cendrars
In Amazonia, if a stranger happens to find his way into a clearing belonging to a man of the woods, he must not tremble and, above all, he must not turn his back, otherwise he will be pricked in the heel. He must enter this ancient refuge of man in a candid manner, present himself openly, and remain calm.

If he does this, he will be able to observe with his own eyes, and at close quarters, the man of nature as he comes and goes in his lost clearing in the unfathomable depths of the virgin forest, which is like an island amid the oceans of chlorophyll.

If you do not show too much astonishment, your arrival will not cause alarm, and the Amazonian will carry on with his everyday tasks as if he were unware of your presence: he will lay his fire, handle his fencestakes and his mallet, set his snares, play his reed pipe, tend his traps, and his nets, throw his lasso or pull in his fishing lines, shoot his bow or blowpipe, or go and crouch among his calabashes and half-calabashes, his earthen pots, his utensils and his stone tools, his treasures scattered about on the relatively clean floor of beaten earth, or squat in front of the oven where he is heating manioc, or the grill he uses for smoking meat.

If you are, by nature, a good man --- but take care! the primitive creature you have surprised in his lair, even if he is already half-civilized, that is, a caboclo or half-caste, has the gift of second sight and, like a pure-blooded Indian, can read your thoughts --- this man will not hesitate to go and stretch out in a hammock strung between two blackened posts beneath an awning, where he will rake his siesta, or doze, with one eye open, his poisoned arrows or his espingarda (a nasty trader's rifle whose butt is a coilspring) within reach of his hand and guarded by a cascabel, his familiar black snake.

But if you have succeeded in winning his trust, this 'savage' will even allow you to accompany him behind his hut, into a small secret enclosure he visits several times a day --- being mistrustful --- where he nourishes, watches over, and tends the plants he has appropriated and keeps hidden there, for he has learned how to domesticate these mysterious plants whose virtues and whose terrible pharmacopoeia he alone knows: sacred plants, demonic plants which he worships, but which he has had to steal at peril of his life from the savage woods, the stifling forest that besieges him, the jungle that is his unique, his mortal enemy, insidious, lethal, and eternal.

Among these plants --- lianas, bushes, ferns, rhorns, tubers, palms, mosses, medicinal or poisonous fungi, which he waters with blood or forcefeeds with meat, diurnal and nocturnal plants, some of which bark like dogs at midnight, while others sing melodiously in the wind and still others have nervous breakdowns, like sensitive souls, when the weather is about to change, plants that tear, burn, scratch, cling, adhere, cut, bore, saw, stick like glue, distill perfumes in the night or nauseous stinks at the time of the full moon, plants sternutatory or soporific, and whose fruits, leaves, buds, roots, bark, pollen or seeds are poisons, febrifuge or stupefacient, and from which the man of the woods knows how to extract powders or tinctures or syrups, the marrow or the resin, alcohols or unguents, gum or crystals that enter into the composition, often in infinitesimal doses, of the elixirs or the tophus waters, divinatory drugs or love philters, health-giving meal or death-dealing concoctions that he uses lavishly but with careful deliberarion --- among these plants, then, there is one, the rarest and most magical of all (although it can be found in every secret garden, growing behind every native hut, and every Amazonian carries a little sachet of the dried leaves on him), and this is the most mysterious plant in the forests of Amazonia, for never has a white man succeeded in procuring a plant; because of the psychic disturbances it produces, European scholars, who know of it only by hearsay, have provisionally listed it among those poisons that are most damaging and dangerous to the intellect, those that, as they say, act on the threshold of consciousness and yet every Amazonian smokes it tranquilly in his cutty pipe; it is the ibadou, the plant of levitation... a legendary plant thanks to which the man of nature, that prisoner of the forest, travels without being obliged, like us civilized creatures, to take ship or airplane.


--- From Le Lotissement du Ciel
©1949, Éditions Denoel
Nina Rootes, translator


The photograph is from Messages in Stone
Statues and Sculptures from Tribal Indonesia

(Skira)


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