Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Aguirre: The Re-Creation of a Sixteenth Century Journey Across South America – Stephen Minta (1994)
As a whole, I am not a big fan of most travelogues, although I do enjoy them when I happen to come across an interesting one in a magazine or online article. The kind I do find very interesting, however, is the type that attempts to recreate a journey from history. I know that people have written books about their attempts to follow great explorers such as Marco Polo, or the route Alexander took to India. This cool little book is a similar attempt to follow in the footsteps of an explorer, although one far more tragic and brutal than Alexander or Marco Polo. Stephen Minta sets out to retrace the path Aquirre de Lope, and the Spanish expedition he was a part of, took to leave Lima Peru and head out on the search for the location of the legendary, and wholly fictional, lost city of El Dorado.
Mr. Minta is very well-read on this topic, having researched the topic extensively. His insights into the difficulties faced by Aguirre and the others alongside him resonate with his and his traveling partner’s current-day experiences as they seek to retrace the route. His view of the modern-day issues in Peru, from poverty to corruption to the difficulties of the terrain to the deeply inhospitable nature of the mountains and rain forests surrounding him also help to underscore how, despite the passage of time, the difficulties of governing and living in the high Andes mountains do not seem to change. The jungle is ever present. The heat is unbearable. Roads and trails are sometimes destroyed by who knows what. The smells of age and sweat and dirt and rot and death are always near. If it is this difficult to traverse this terrain now, imagine doing it with hundreds of soldiers, hundreds of dogs, horses, and natives, all trying to make headway through what is truly a green hell.
Lope de Aguirre is one of the oddest historical figures around. He was described by contemporaries as a severely common, half-lame, unrefined, unattractive, overbearing, and illiterate life-long soldier. Mr. Minta states that “there is no one who knew Aguirre who ever wrote a good word about him.” That is a rarity indeed. In fact, it was during the long and arduous journey across South America that he became even more of a monster, causing the following proclamation to be passed upon his death requiring that: “Wherever the said Lope de Aguirre may have left dwelling houses, these should be leveled to the ground, that no trace or memory of them should remain: and that when they have been so leveled, they should be plowed over and strewn with salt.” That is something straight out of a horror movie! To think that this lowly man wrecked so much shop that the Spanish provincial government had to make an example of him after his death is something unprecedented. I think part of the appeal of Aguirre’s story is that it resonates with that most basic of American myths, the idea that anyone, born anywhere, with nothing to their name, can come reinvent themselves in the New World, even if it is to become a monster.
I am so glad that someone like Stephen Minta has braved the inhospitable Amazon basin to recreate this journey. I would never do so! Thank goodness for books. I first heard of Lope de Aguirre due to the Werner Herzog film, “Aguirre, The Wrath of God.” I highly recommend the film. Herzog actually took his cast and crew on a similar, and similarly ill-fated trip through the Amazon to film this movie, and it appears that the spirit of Aguirre was very much alive inside Klaus Kinsky, the madman actor who portrays Aguirre. The madness is evident on the screen. Having seen that movie several times, the tale told in this great little book really came alive in my brain. Being a city-slicker myself, the idea of leaving all I know to traipse through an unexplored wilderness rife with disease, predators, and native tribes seems like pure madness, but then again, it may have taken a madman such as Aguirre to even contemplate these expeditions. Normal, happy, well-adjusted people do not normally seek to explore, risking death all the while. Humanity must give thanks sometimes to the nuts amongst us. They risk what we cannot.
(This book is available for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Aguirre-Re-Creation-Sixteenth-Century-Journey/dp/0224024701 )
Thursday, December 7, 2017
Beastly Inventions: A Surprising Investigation Into How Smart Animals Really Are – Jean Craighead George (1970)
As a person who loves amassing vast amounts of data in my head, books like this one are such a pleasure. While some books explore very specific topics in depth, others, such as Ms. George’s cool book, Beastly Inventions, act as a compendium of so many interesting things that they lead an inquisitive person into ever expanding and fruitful areas of inquiry. When it comes to a book that details a wide array of the most amazing feats our animal brethren are capable of, I have found none better than this one. One can tell feel the true love and admiration for all these creatures that Ms. George shares through the descriptions and anecdotes in this book.
Like all great loves in life, Ms. George’s adoration of the natural world came to her via her father, a biologist, who would never pass up an opportunity to teach his daughter and sons interesting details and facts about nearly every plant and animal they would come across. (My love of books and reading came directly from highly literate parents who stocked our house with all manner of amazing things to read, from children’s books to smart magazines like Smithsonian or National Geographic, to encyclopedias, and who took us on regular trips to the public library, my favorite place on Earth - RXTT) What began as simple curiosity grew into a love of nature and a desire to explore all its quirks and oddities.
Jean Craighead George begins this book with a chapter discussing the new technological developments that allow us humans to explore nature in ways unimaginable just a few decades earlier. As this book was published in 1970, there are a few items that are out of date, but the information is still very good. Other chapters then explore the ways the animals have shaped and formed their bodies, the manner in which they travel through the world around them, the unusual parenting techniques, the intricate and highly varied manner of creating homes and nesting sites, and the specialized ways that animals have created to gather food and sustenance. Each chapter is chock full of great examples and items that just blow away the old idea that animals are boring and that we are the best thing around.
While humans have good to excellent sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch senses, there is no sense that is not overwhelmingly greater in some animal or other. Some animals cannot see very well, but can smell in ways that seem to us to be magic. Others have the ability to see in parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that humans can only see with specialized equipment, while yet other animals have senses that in o way relate to our day to day existence as humans. One of the oddest “senses” found by biologists is the ability in many rodents to detect radiation itself, avoiding a source of x-rays that, to our knowledge, they should have no way of “sensing!” Amazing stuff. From the lowliest worm to the most advanced primates, each animal and its unusual powers amaze and intrigue.
One of the best uses for a book such as this, is to shine a light on areas of study that I have been remiss in. For instance, reading a couple or paragraphs about the manner in which some animals reproduce made me want to go dig deeper and study the animals closer. Books such as this are amazing in that you can go back to them and find new avenues for exploration and new fields to study. I would love to find a companion book to this one detailing the amazing discoveries made from 1970 to the present regarding the wondrous capabilities of our fellow animals on this Earth we all call home. Anyone who doubts the magnificence of the natural world, or who has a young adult that is curious about biology and animals should get this book. It is a shame that it is out of print. Hunt it down at your local library. You will not be disappointed.
Friday, November 17, 2017
DMT: The Spirit Molecule – A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences – Rick Strassman, M.D. (2001)
There are a few fields of human scientific exploration where the amount we know is far outweighed by the vastness of what we do not know. The study of consciousness, of how or why a nervous system and a collection of neurons embedded in fat tissues results in what we experience as self-consciousness, or awareness, has been explored for ages by theologians, mystics, and recently by scientists. It is a very difficult field of study since we are using the same mechanism we are studying to make sense of what we are studying. How can the brain analyze itself, if our reality is but a construct of that same brain? How do people experience consciousness outside of their bodies, whether through trauma, near-death-experiences, mystical states, or psychotropic chemicals? These are huge questions, and we are just beginning to truly delve into them.
One of the many ways that humans have expanded their innate consciousness and connected with what they felt was the eternal divinity, has been through the ingestion of intoxicants. Many different things have been used, from herbs, to alcohol, to hallucinogenic plants and animals. For many humans throughout history, this was the way they connected with the spirits, with the powers that they felt created and controlled the world around us. Scientists have a hard time studying these experiences, as they are usually very subjective, and one person’s inner truths and revelations may not make much sense to another. It is hard to get any definitive data.
Dr. Rick Strassman, through his research into the compounds created by our brain to regulate body functions (serotonin and melatonin for example), was drawn to what is still a mystery in our brains. This mystery is the pineal gland. In many species, what is our pineal gland is a third eye of sorts, capable of detecting light and dark and situated above and between the two regular eyes of primitive creatures like snakes and lizard and turtles. In humans however, this gland is located in between the two halves of our brain. It is not part of the brain per se. It grows from the roof of our mouths, our palettes, and rises up into the brain sometime after the first month of conception. What drew Dr. Strassman to the pineal gland was a synchronicity he experienced while researching the pineal gland. He read that, around the 49th day after conception, the pineal gland secretes a large amount of Dimethyltriptamine, or DMT, a very simple molecule that has profound effects on our brains and consciousness. DMT is naturally occurring in much of the plant and animal life on Earth. At the same time, Dr. Strassman was engaged in a long personal exploration of Buddhism, and he read that the Buddhists believe that the 49th day after conception is when the soul enters the fetus, reincarnating into its next form. Knowing of the effects that DMT can have on the brain, this coincidence sparked a desire to understand in Dr. Strassman.
There are a lot of situations where the pineal gland secretes vast amounts of DMT directly into the brain. These are usually trauma events, such as when a woman gives childbirth, in a baby when the baby is actually born, and also when we are about to die. People who have taken DMT as a drug experience something that is so fast-acting, so otherworldly, so rife with a deeper consciousness than they ever knew existed, that it begged the question of why our body floods our brain with such a chemical during high levels of stress and trauma. Dr. Strassman wondered if the chemical DMT could not be referred to as the “spirit” molecule, for it seems to be the compound that allows our consciousness to either connect or travel to, an elevated level of existence.
Dr. Strassman details his efforts in getting this study to take place, the hardships that took years to grind through, and the experiences he had with his test subjects. Some of the chapters cover the clinical aspect of the experiments. Others deal with the variety of experiences that the test subjects related to Dr. Strassman upon the completion of their DMT doses. Some subjects felt they were pulled to a higher state of reality. Others, many others, felt they were being guarded/watched/taught by entities they encountered after taking the DMT dose. Many described it as being aware of the oneness of consciousness, of the infinity of consciousness, of the futility of fearing death, for they saw how consciousness just transitioned from the physical to the metaphysical easily. Many no longer feared death because of their experiences with DMT.
Dr. Strassman tried to see how beneficial or therapeutic these sessions could be, but as with all things, it was more dependent on the mindset of the test subject and the setting they were in when they took the DMT. Some people were ready to explore such a vast experience. Others shied away from it and feared for the loss of their “self.” As with any powerful experience, what we get out of it is dependent upon what we bring to it. He was unable to continue his studies on DMT, partly because of these set and setting issues, and partly because of the increasing pressure from the government to curtail all research into mind-altering chemicals, even the ones which showed promise as therapeutic drugs in psychiatry. What is evident is that more research needs to be done, and that there is likelihood that DMT could be the way our body creates a connection to the eternal/divine. It is worth exploring more, as it seems to correlate with what much of the world’s mystics and shamans and saints have been trying to tell all of us. Humanity is not separate from nature. Our individual consciousness is but a small part, a shadow of the eternal consciousness of the multi-verse. Most of the DMT test subjects experienced the deepest and most profound sense that the connecting tissue of existence is love, pure and simple. Love. Love is all you need. It may be all there really is.
(This book can be downloaded and read in PDF format here:
Thursday, November 9, 2017
100 Edible Mushrooms – Michael Kuo (2007)
I have spent my whole life fascinated by the world of Fungi. Whether it was seeing them pop up “magically” overnight on a fresh cut lawn, or reading about their life cycle, I was always intrigued. I love to eat the mushrooms that fungi create. I love to take photos of any mushrooms I run across in my day-to-day life. Lately, I have been on a kick to read as much about these amazing living organisms and their place in the fabric of nature and life on Earth.
Mushrooms are delicious. They should be, as they are the fruiting bodies of the fungi, created solely to spread billions of spores in an effort to have a few of them germinate and grow into their own mature fungus. The actual fungus usually lives hidden away, whether just under the soil, or under layers of bark. This is where you will find the mycelium, which is like a ragged net of fibrous tentacles, somewhat like a chaotic root system. This mycelium is what grows and processes the food that the fungi live on. Some fungal mycelial mats are so huge they cover acres and acres of territory. In fact, a fungus is the largest living organism we have yet to discover. There is one in the northwest woods that covers so much acreage it is mind-boggling.
Out of all the mushroom species we know and have scientifically described, few are good to eat for humans and even fewer are delicious. There are an estimated 16,000 species of fungi in North America alone, of which only around 3,000 or so have been documented by science. This makes it a very interesting field for someone like me, who loves science and scientific inquiry. It allows the dedicated amateur to make great contributions to a developing science. It also makes for fun hunting when searching for mushrooms for the dining table!
Mushroom identification is a very painstaking endeavor, and should be learned preferably at the hand of a mycological expert, or at least someone who has years of experience collecting edible mushrooms. This is not possible for all, and that is why books such as this are a great resource. Too many mushroom guides either concentrate on the hard science behind the fungi, leaving interested amateurs scratching their heads, or they want to be as encyclopedic as possible, making it difficult to find information quickly. Michael Kuo’s book does a great job of focusing solely on 100 edible mushrooms. Out of these 100 though, only around 20 are considered choice to eat, best cooked simply and their flavor and aroma enjoyed that way, while many are bland but edible, suitable more for addition to soups and stews. Either way they are highly nutritious and fun as hell to find.
In the past two years of my mushroom explorations, I have come across a patch of amazing Chanterelle mushrooms only once, and in my backyard of all places! As stated in this book, they were a bright orange color, had false gill ridges underneath, had white flesh when cut that did not discolor, and smelled of a fruity apricot. I cleaned them and sautéed them in butter and some salt and chives, and my wife and I feasted on them atop some scrambled eggs. It blew my mind, and tasted better than any store bought mushroom I had ever tasted. Hopefully the Houston area has a mild winter this year which would allow for the woods to our northeast to be rife with cool mushrooms as the rainy season continues. Mushroom identification and collecting is a great hobby and I hope to make some cool mycological discoveries!
(This book can be purchased here: https://www.press.umich.edu/157982/100_edible_mushrooms )
(This book can be purchased here: https://www.press.umich.edu/157982/100_edible_mushrooms )