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Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.

Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.

Hemp Times Interview—Wade Davis

by Peter Gorman

What is ethnobotany and how did you get involved?

Ethnobotany is probably best defined as the study of the interrelationship between human society and the plant world, in which they find themselves living. I think over time it has shifted from the compilation of raw data of how people use plants, whether as medicine or to augment technology, into a more comprehensive embracing of the whole world of that interaction. And I think gradually ethnobotany is shifting to a point where people are using plants as raw data points in an effort to celebrate a whole new vision of life itself. And so ethnobotany is maturing and becoming a much more complete science.

How I got involved was I was studying anthropology and I had a kind of intuition that I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to approach Indian people in the field and announce that I was there to study them. I mean if someone turned up at your doorstep and said “By the way I’m here for six months, you’re feeding me, and incidentally I’m studying your sex life” we’d call the police. And that’s sort of what anthropology is about. So I always felt, at least when I went to the field in South America, that plants were a marvelous conduit to culture, because as opposed to “studying” the people you’d study the plants upon which the people depended and because they loved their plants so much because they knew they lived because of their plans, it was a natural thing for them to experience a foreigner coming all that way to study their use of plants. And so it became a wonderful way to break down the inherent barrier between you, as an outsider, and the society, in which you find yourself living.

And of course, my main entree to it was that I was also a sort of a frustrated young anthropology student who was tired of just reading about cultures in books and someone told me about the great Professor Schultes who sort of loomed large over the Harvard campus at that time and I went and too his course, which was the first biology course I’d ever taken—I was actually in third year of the university at that point—and I was just amazed by and terribly impressed by the man. And so at the end of the term I went and simply said to him, “I’m from British Columbia and I’d like to go to South America like you did and collect plants.” And he just looked up at me and said, “When do you want to go.”

And Schultes, of course, is the father of ethnobotany and the man really kept the discipline alive in a certain sense, and so it was a remarkable opportunity to sort of be his student. And of course I wound up going back and being his graduate student as well.


Tell us about the importance of biodiversity to the health of the planet, and are we losing as much as people say we are?

I think the truth is that no one really knows how much we’re losing because no one really knows how much there is. One of the astonishing things about doing field work in the tropics, which is a hotbed of evolution, and is the area that’s been least explored biologically, with the possible exception of the seas, is that you never go down there without finding species new to science. So you have a situation where we haven’t even begun to finish the cataloguing of creation and yet we know that the rate of destruction is unprecedented, at least the destruction mediated a conscious entity that knows full well that we are doing the destruction.

I think there are all kinds of ways you can argue for the value of biodiversity. You can argue the utilitarian way, in the sense that if you take the genetic information in any one creature and start thinking of its pure biological potential—I think E.O. Wilson has a wonderful phrase where he says that the amount of genetic information in a single ant, if transposed into letters the size we normally read in a newspaper would stretch a thousand miles. And if you took a single handful of soil outside the doorway of any house in America and just held it to the sunlight you’d be holding in your hand enough genetic information which again, if transcribed to the size of the letters as printed in the New York Times say, that would fill every edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that’s been published since it’s inception, 1763 or something.

So that’s kind of the raw resonance of nature. Another argument for saving biodiversity is that we never know what substance or what species will yield what to us. Who could have predicted, for instance, a hundred years ago, that a humble penicillin mold, that at the time only grew on the rind of oranges, would one day give rise to one of the most powerful tools in the history of medicine, the modern antibiotic. There’s another wonderful metaphor to try to begin to appreciate the matrix of life that is encapsulated in the term biodiversity. It’s sort of like you’re going to go flying somewhere and you get on an old DC-3 and you notice that the mechanic’s out there popping the rivets out of the wings and you ask him what the story is and he says “Well, these rivets are great. I can sell them on the market for twenty-five cents, and that’s what’s keeping your ticket prices low.” And you say “Yeah, but what’s the story on the wings?” and he says, “We haven’t lost one yet.” In other words, as we nip away at the fabric of life, who knows what the implications are. I used to work as a logger in British Columbia, that’s how I paid for university, and we used to grind under the treads of our bulldozers the bark of a tree that we now know to be the major source of Taxol, the Pacific Yew, and we treated it as a weed species, only good as a pretty wood for knife handles. So there we were logging the richest temperate rainforest on earth, cutting down these trees that had 70 million needles capturing the light of the sun, these miracles of biological engineering so that we could mill them to two-by-fours and dimensional lumber for the US housing market while we meanwhile ground into dust the bark of a tree that turns out to have a drug in it that is the only drug that is effective in the treatment of ovarian cancer.

So I believe that biodiversity is not just the foundation of stability in an ecological sense, as the ecologists somewhat dryly teach. I think it is a fundamental article of faith, a fundamental indication of the way the world ought to be. And we know that the collapse of biodiversity is literally unprecedented. During the great extinction of the dinosaurs it took on the average 1,000 years per species to go extinct. Now we have at the very least 1,000 species going extinct every year. Nobody knows how many are going extinct because nobody knows how many there are, but E.O. Wilson, the naturalist who is as reputable as anybody as a source in the world of science, estimates that during the last 25 years of this century we may be responsible for the eradication of a million forms of life. And there’s something deeply philosophically disturbing about the hubris involved in that. The loss of a species is not simply the loss of a form of biological life; it’s the irrevocable separation of that species from the stream of God’s desire. It’s the final end to a lineage that by definition reaches back to the dawn of time. And if we can’t come to understand the poetry of diversity, the inherent appropriateness of protecting all forms of life on the planet, we will never be able to come to terms with some of the more immediate environmental problems we have. If we can cavalierly dismiss the legitimacy of a life form, what does that say about ourselves?

It enters the realm of metaphor. People are often asking me things like “Does magic exist?” and in our society we’re very uncomfortable with metaphor. We forget that part of the way we interface with the world tells so much about us. For example, as a young Canadian kid I was brought up to believe that a mountain was a pile of rock. A young Quechua speaking descendent of the Incas in the Andes of Peru will be brought up to believe that a mountain is the abode of an Apu, a spirit, a guardian. Now who’s right? That doesn’t matter. The interesting thing is how will that belief system influence the life of the believer. I think that I may be much more likely to rip open the heart of that mountain to extract ore if I think that’s all there is there, whereas the Indian boy will be much more reluctant to do that knowing that he’d be defiling a god. And the end result of that is that that Indian boy would have a much softer footprint on the land than I would.

So when I talk about the importance of biodiversity I think it should be something we respect so reflexively, that we teach our children to revere so automatically that through a number of generations hopefully there will come a time when the violation of another life form will become as socially unacceptable as the violation of another human being.


What is the ultimate effect of the loss of species to us in the Western world?

The loss of species works on many different levels. Anyone who’s taken basic biology understands the interconnectedness of life, whether it’s fungal life forms creating a cycle of decay on which all forests feed or whether it’s higher life forms that inspire you through poetry and the wonder of their existence. All of life is so clearly interconnected it’s like a magnificent fabric. What does it mean to take out a thread from a piece of cloth? How many threads can you take out before the whole thing unravels? I think that’s a very apt metaphor. And even when you think in a strictly utilitarian sense—just look at something like the field of medicine alone: we know that 25-40 percent of all drugs found in a modern pharmacy come from natural products. And these are natural products that weren’t discovered by white-coated laboratory technicians. These were the gifts of the curanderos, the shamans, and the healers among the indigenous peoples who work closely with the natural world, in which they found themselves living. And we know, for example, that in the tropics, in a place like the Amazon where we don’t even have a true idea of how many species there are or plants, or animals, where we don’t even know how many species there are to the nearest order of magnitude—you have a flora of probably something like 80,000 vascular plants alone, of which far fewer than five percent, more likely something like two percent, have ever been looked at in the most cursory way for their chemical constituents. And yet when you realize that those plants have yielded many of the major drugs in our pharmacy you have to ask what’s still out there in the forest to be understood and assayed for the betterment of all human society? And there’s no question that the plant world will continue to be a fountain of new medicinal drugs as it always has been. And when you look under the sea, for instance, the complex interactions between the organisms of the coral reef—many of which don’t yet have scientific names—you suddenly realize that this again is an incredible source of secondary compounds which could in the end be the source of some miracle drug. It happens all the time.

So when we lose biodiversity, on a material level we lose the possibility of discovering these new drugs. We also lose the richness of an environment. If you go to a second-growth forest you see a wretched entanglement of half-hearted trees or this monoculture with a couple of species of conifers compared to the complexity and wonder and diversity of an old growth forest, and it’s self-evident what we lose.

So you ask whether monotony is better than diversity? Is a monochromatic world better than a kaleidoscopic world? It seems to me self-evident that diversity is the source of wonder. Do we really want to live in a world where all the beauty has been reduced to a sort of single hue of grey? And that’s what I think of when I think of the destruction of the biosphere and the diverse biological communities on the planet.

And of course it’s important to note that the destruction of biological diversity is going hand-in-hand with the destruction of cultural diversity. I think it was E.O. Wilson who said that the 20th century will not be remembered for its wars or technological achievements, but 200 years from now will be remembered as the era in which we stood by and either actively endorsed or passively accepted the massive destruction and the unprecedented destruction of both biological and cultural diversity. There were once something like 15,000 languages spoken on the planet, each one like a flash of the human spirit and now there are probably 6,500, and linguists tell us that in another 100 years there will only be 350. So this trend toward homogenization is going on the cultural level as well as the biological level, and I find it incredibly disturbing. A prairie wheat field can be beautiful but it’s not a wild prairie meadow.

And one of the incredibly wonderful things to me in becoming an ethnobotanist, discovering the world of plants at a relatively late point in my life—I always loved nature of course, but until I studied botany a forest was beautiful to me in an esthetic sense but it was essentially a single hue of green, if you will, and then suddenly, once I began to understand systematic taxonomy and philology, every one of those organisms had a story, like a myth, that traced itself back through time, and suddenly that forest took on an amazing radiance. Imagine that each component of that forest has its own story! And this is what I think is sad: that many of those who dismiss the importance of biodiversity or dismiss the significance of the consequences of cutting down the old growth, are people who have never had any training in biology. They have no sense of what’s going on inside that forest. They view it as a sort of inert mass to be molded by their whim, but the more you know about biology the more wondrous God’s creation becomes and the more impossible it is to consider the violation of that world. And for me the academic training I received both as an undergraduate and graduate student only served to reinforce my sense of the wonder of the world. And I find it very disturbing that people who can’t even explain what photosynthesis is, probably don’t even know what it is, are frequently the very ones who are advocating as arrogant a notion as the idea that the loss of species is irrelevant.


In many parts of the world deforestation has had a devastating impact on the environment. Now hempsters suggest that you might be able to use hemp as a soil stabilizer and enricher to begin to pave the path back to a healthy environment. Have you ever looked at that issue?

Actually I was just out in California with my friend Bobby Wier who’s doing some very serious and interesting work on hemp as a soil stabilizer and as a source of fiber in the Far East. And it’s desperately needed. We have to find ways to generate fiber for paper and other products that does not depend on the cutting of virgin old growth. The idea that you would take a 500 year old tree and turn it into pulp and paper is incredible. Obviously it’s no often done because the economic factors would cause anyone who thinks logically to try to maximize the tree’s value, but it’s amazing to find that old growth timber, which should be prized like gold, is turned into dimensional lumber, and vigorous, healthy stands of timber are turned into pulp and paper products. It’s just absurd.

You know hemp has been a product that has been used by human beings as a food, as edible oil, as a source of fiber, as a source of medicine, as a benign stimulant for 5,000 years. This country was in some senses founded on hemp. And literally, until recently, anybody who bought anything in this country should have been arrested for dealing drugs because the dollar bills were made from cannabis fiber. So I think that hemp, and not just hemp, but any kind of fast growing annual that can produce a good fiber should be exploited. Think of all these waste sites of cut over land that could be supporting plantations of hemp—it’s just a brilliant idea.


Would it be possible to use hemp in denuded areas as a precursor to reintroducing indigenous plants to recreate the natural flora?

There are several questions there. First of all, reproducing a natural environment is very difficult. One of the interesting things that came out of the biosphere experiment in Arizona was that it showed graphically to the world just how hard it is to “create” an Eco-system. There are very few examples around the world where human beings, in any kind of time frame consistent with out kind of time frame, reproduce a primal forest. Obviously if you wait long enough nature will take its course on almost any kind of degraded land. Right now in Detroit there are 25 square miles of vacant lots in the inner city and all kinds of interesting ecological things are going on there as plants that can colonize those sites are doing so. And a lot of wild creatures are coming back into the city because so much of it has been abandoned and is just open ground now. But that said, it’s a hell of a job to do and no one really knows if it can be done. And the more complex the Eco-system the more complex it is to replicate. Certainly I would think that hemp could be used in a successional sequence where you use it to stabilize the soil and then through time, as you began to restructure the soil you could conceivably move on to other kinds of planting that move back toward the natural forest if that was your plan of management. But the other issue is that you just have to fly over some of the deforested places in the world where there is never going to be any natural forest brought back by humans and you realize that in those tired soils a crop like hemp could probably do pretty well, and I would think that the exciting thing about hemp fiber production would be taking these tired wasted soils and wasted landscapes and actually producing a crop on them that would bring revenue to people that would by definition provide an alternative to cutting down what remains of the wild forest. In Haiti, for example, as recently as the 1920s, the country was about 80 percent forested by one of the richest forests of the greater Antilles, one of the most significant in terms of the number of endemic species, and now the forest covers probably two to three percent. I remember being with a voodoo priest and looking over a valley that to me was a wasteland of second growth and weedy trees, and he began to wax eloquent, as if words alone could squeeze something beautiful from that site, and he could only think of angels while I could only think of locusts. I was more scientifically accurate, he did more honor to the human imagination and the spirit of endurance, but all I could think of was what could possibly be done to rehabilitate that land, and one of the reasons Haiti is so deforested is because people are constantly hacking away a what remains of the forest for firewood, often just to make charcoal so they can sell it. But how much better would it be to introduce a crop that they could cultivate and harvest and sell that will give them an alternative source of income and will not ruin the land. So that’s really where I see something like hemp being extremely useful, not only as a tool to revitalize landscapes but to also provide a revenue flow for impoverished people all around the world.


Do you know anywhere where the scheme of introducing hemp as a soil stabilizer is being attempted?

There is a big project going on in Thailand, though I don’t have details. And I think its being considered elsewhere because it touches on several things. One is that we desperately need new crops to plant and revitalize barren lands that have been made barren by the hands of people. Secondly, I think the whole stigma that has kept hemp from being used is slowly breaking down. I think the advances on the use of cannabis as a medical drug are very significant, because if nothing else in the controversy it’s brought to the fore all kinds of wonderful data showing how essentially innocuous marijuana really is, and suddenly those studies that have been well known to people in the field but not so well known to the general public are being broadly disseminated. So suddenly people are looking at good scientific data and seeing that marijuana has a very low level of toxicity, that there’s no history of morbidity or mortality in the last 50 years of very serious scrutiny by people like the DEA who have gone out of their way to do anything possible to find any data whatsoever indicating that marijuana causes physical harm and they’ve done nothing but shoot blanks. They’ve found nothing in 40 years. Marijuana must be the most scrutinized substance imaginable and they’ve come up with nothing to indicate that it can be detrimental to human health with the exception that smoking any substance can be a problem. But even that is only in the means of administration of the drug, not in the drug itself or the plant itself.


What do you see for mankind if we don’t change our ways, if we continue to ravage our remaining forests and pollute our oceans and rivers and air supply?

I think that one of the most frightening traits of the human species is the fluidity of our memory and our capacity to forget. I don’t believe for a minute that the human species is going to suffer to the point of being driven to extinction. On the contrary, the frightening thing is that human beings appear able to adapt to almost any degree of social and environmental degradation. We’re a social species; we were originally a scavenging species. Believe me, when there is nothing left but the cockroaches, we’ll be there with them.

But the question is whether this is a world you would want to bequeath to your children? What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

I have two very interesting experiences that I write about in my book Shadows and Sun. In one week I went to two incredible places. One was the site of the last nesting flock of passenger pidgins; the other was the site of one of the last patches of tall grass prarie in America.

And with the passenger pidgin, as recently as the middle part of the 19th century it made up as much as 40% of all the birds in North America. There were so many passenger pidgins that when their flocks gathered, oak trees two feet across at the base were broken over by the weight of the birds. Summer landscapes became winter landscapes simply from accumulation of guano. There were flocks that completely eclipsed the sun, flocks with two to three billion birds in them. And that species was driven extinct for two reasons: pidgin meat was the mainstay of the American diet first of all, and secondly those who could afford to kill their birds for sport did so at gentlemen’s hunting clubs in New York, where as many as 50,000 live pigeons would be catapulted to their death in a weekend of shooting. And that’s of course why we now use clay pigeons: because we had to replace the live pigeons with clay ones in skeet shooting.

And then you take the buffalo. In 1871 buffalo outnumbered people in North America. You could stand on a bluff anywhere in the Dakotas and see nothing but buffalo stretching to the horizon. Herds covered grazing areas the size of Rhode Island. And from the height of the herds to their final reduction to a zoological curiosity was only nine years. And of course it came about as an explicit policy of biological terrorism from the US government to eliminate the commissary of the Plains Indians and therefore pacifying them.

And I remember when I went from Ohio, on the banks of the Green River where the last great nesting flock of passenger pigeons had gathered and then went out to Sioux City Iowa and went to this remnant patch of prairie—a few acres now but once an ecological formation that blanketed north America from Manitoba to northern Texas, and I remember thinking as I looked across the landscape now carved into cornfields that are positively claustrophobic in their monotony, a landscape punctuated only by the silos of the farms that process the corn into pig foods and so on, I was amazed. Because the time of the buffalo, like the time of the tall grass prairie and the passenger pigeon is as irrelevant an era to the people living in Iowa today as the battle of Troy or the Fall of Rome. But it happened in the lifetime of the grandparents or great grandparents of the people I was with—good and decent folks, as you’d ever see, but for them those terrible events were utterly irrelevant. And it gave me an incredible insight into this remarkable fluidity of memory that man has, this capacity to forget that the human species has, which clearly had an adaptive function for a long time, to just move on.

So I think the scary thing for the prognosis for the next few years is the realization that human beings can adapt to almost any degree of degradation. In the same way the Haitians live in a landscape that will probably never again know the shelter of shade, so the people of Iowa live in a landscape positively claustrophobic in its monotony. Which gives us a glimpse of what the world will be like if we don’t change our ways, but if we don’t change our ways we’ll still be around and we won’t even notice. That’s what’s really scary.


Shearwater Books of Island Press; Shadows In The Sun; a collection of essays that chronicle that all phases of my work, from Haitian voodoo to Amazonian shamanism to conservation work in Borneo, to philosophical pieces on the power of landscape in the Canadian imagination.

Due out in the Spring of 1998