People already communicate with places. The slow pace we take around cemeteries says something about our relationship with the space… We are responding to gravestones and other contextual markers, and they change our behaviour.
By Adrian Reynolds
I’d been hearing stories about Lenny Darnell and his Amazon adventures for a while, always at second hand. It wasn’t until I met the American a few years ago at an event in Edinburgh that I got to hear directly about just what he was doing and discovering. And it’s only now that I’m able to put Darnell’s experiences in the context of the new book by John Higgs. Watling Street explores Britain, and Britishness, taking in mythology, folk history, and personal journeys — a long way from the jungles of South America, but touched by its own quiet magic and feel for the authentic as surely as Lenny’s escapade.
Some of you won’t believe what follows, and that’s fine. I’m just here to relate what the affable Mr Darnell described in a straightforward style one Scottish Saturday afternoon. In the course of his adventures, celebrated pianist Lenny came to be a business consultant who as well as being active in his local community became a member of an Amazon tribe. He lived with them not as an anthropologist, but as one of the group, and part of his interest was in how that tribe got its knowledge of the rainforest they lived in.
It was an answer that perplexed Lenny. Asking the forest? What does that even mean? Do those words even describe a recognizable behaviour?
Lenny spoke to a tribal shaman, and asked how he knew what plants would be of benefit to a person with a particular sickness. He was asking in part to discover if that knowledge was handed down, since that would suggest over several generations that information would dwindle because of the human tendency to forget. Instead the shaman told Lenny — as if it was the most straightforward thing in the world — that when he wanted that kind of knowledge he would ask the forest. It was an answer that perplexed Lenny. Asking the forest? What does that even mean? Do those words even describe a recognizable behaviour?
In chapter 5 of Watling Street, John Higgs relates that London poet and playwright called John Constable was faced with something similarly perplexing –— he’d taken a long walk around roads he didn’t know in the area of an ancient burial site known as Cross Bones. Next morning, he awoke to find he’d written a long rhyming poem from the viewpoint of a medieval prostitute. Where had the words come from, in a form he’d not written before?
The easy thing to do when you mention Amazon shamen and London poets in contexts like this is to suggest that weird substances may have shaped their perceptions. One of the things Darnell discovered was that regardless of the use of psychedelics such as ayahuasca, everyday consciousness as experienced in the tribe was different from what he knew as an American citizen. And the poet John Constable admitted LSD use. Which is handy for anyone looking to dismiss the experiences of either.