Green Labyrinth: Exploring the Mysteries of the Amazon

by Sylvia Fraser
ISBN: 0887621236

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The Labyrinths of Mind and Jungle
by Erling Friis-Baastad

When quantum physics began disassembling the Newtonian universe, all manner of metaphysical speculations gained, or regained, credence. What most of us took for reality became suspect and all those tedious New Agers chanted, "I told you so." The good news is, Keats's handy cop-out, negative capability, still serves even when the mind threatens to buckle under the weight of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle or Bell's theorem: Take what you need and leave the rest.
What's a bit harder to deal with is the subsequent deluge of memoirs of healing by middle-aged westerners who, while citing "the new physics", claim to have transcended a mundane reality the rest of us are trapped in. That doesn't mean such spiritual journeys aren't necessary, or even at times enlightening, but only that in order to write effectively about them now, one has to be an especially daring traveller, scrupulously honest about possible dead ends, and a sufficiently skilful prose stylist to hold a stranger's attention through yet another account of personal healing and growth.
I wouldn't have expected even that much charity from my skeptical self until last week when I completed Sylvia Fraser's absorbing, moving and occasionally terrifying The Green Labyrinth. I prefer predictable Friday night AA meetings with straight-talking truck drivers in relatively cool and snake-free church basements to the idea of puking my guts out and defecating helplessly in some jungle after downing psychoactive ayahuasca. Fraser's adventures, however, make for better reading, in part because in addition to her courage to heal there's her courage to endure the more prosaic wilderness elements: malaria-toting mosquitoes, snakes, scorpions, parasitic fish and all the rest of Mother Nature's beloved "wriggling, chewing, burrowing" jungle children.
The author, a memoirist, novelist and travel writer, suffered a damaged childhood from which she rescued My Father's House A Memoir of Incest and Healing. Her painful experiences launched an adult quest for weapons with which to exorcise demons every bit as lethal as those of the Amazon rainforests. In her mid-60s she spent three months in Peru, most of that time with shamans and their wounded clients in the jungle. Her most recent book is an account of that adventure-ordeal.
Fraser's Peruvian narrative is divided into three major segments. "Jungle Gods" introduces ayahuasca, the planet medicine with which jungle shamans explore their patients' psychic ills by breaking through the mental barriers into alternate realities. Listening to someone tell of their psychedelic experiences can be as tedious as being the audience for a recounting of someone else's dreams. Dreams are far more fascinating when they are our own. Fraser, however, manages to spin narrative tension out of the most distorted and chaotic elements.
"I fleetingly distinguish men in formal dress with top hats and monocles like the New Yorker icon, accompanied by flappers in bugle-bead gowns. They toast each other with champagne, play roulette in plush casinos, swing from chandeliers." It would be unfair to the narrator give away the significance of a dog's grave upon which she rests as the ayahuasca-induced Jazz Age floor show winds down. Be prepared for some eerie comfort.
The second section of her book, "Sky Gods", tells of a journey to the Inca fortress of Machu Picchu and to the remnants of the earlier Nazca culture of Peru's coastal deserts. This is a more straight-ahead travel narrative, and a welcome rest from the subconscious-stretching exercises of the first and third sections of The Green Labyrinth. This section also contained the book's most enlightening passages. It was an honor to accompany the courageous, determined 65-year-old up Machu Picchu's neighbor, Huayna Picchu, to The Temple of the Sun. And it was an honor to be along for the decent as she realizes "that it's when humans bring their epiphanies down from mountain tops that good intentions miscarry. Around one corner I glimpse Funerary Rock, where Inca priests quite possibly slit the throats of sacrificial victims in the name of their gods, reminding me that every faith has it-that line where spirituality hardens into religion, reverence into ritual, aspiration into authority, belief into intolerance."
Eventually, in "Water Gods", The Green Labyrinth returns us to the jungle, ayahuasca and alternative ways of seeing and believing. Fortunately, even as the book heads toward a denouement, it never reads like the screed of some sanctimonious "born-again" pagan. Despite the gut-twisting demands of her immersion in the ayahuasca culture and her own painful history, Fraser is too committed to her craft for that. In fact, she addresses her doubts and reveals some disturbing aspects of the shaman industry. "Agustin maintains that he doesn't charge students for his teachings, only for living expenses. At more than US$100 a day for boiled rice, plantain and a blank bed, that's hard to believe Amazonian shamans are the priests, doctors, philanthropists and capitalists of their local economies."
She becomes even more frustrated with her opportunistic shamans. "At the ceremony, it soon becomes evident that Agustin has forgotten all about prayer sticks. Fine. I know by now that a shaman's promise is like dandelion gossamer, blown away by the first wind." I couldn't help wonder if the fact that Agustin has endured 1,500 doses of ayahuasca may have played havoc with his short-term memory. North Americans regularly abuse their pharmacies, after all.
Sometimes the author's fellow questers are a bit hard to endure: "Today I feel soft and mushy and grateful," announces one North American male. I prefer the pragmatic insights of the reformed grave robber who volunteers to be Fraser's guide in the Altiplano or Fraser's own perceptive plunges into physics, biology and anthropology. Ultimately, there's plenty to marvel at and argue with in The Green Labyrinth and if I could remain engaged throughout, there are certainly many other, more open-minded readers who will be enthralled to the point of booking a flight to Iquitos.

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