Riverdave's Journal

February 20, 2015


     I never expected this.  On our first day of arrival at an herb workshop along the Amazon River in 1998, our teacher is encouraging us to smoke tobacco!  In what feels like a pardisiacal atmosphere, Don Agustine is telling us that cups of rolled cigarettes are conveniently scattered about the camp.  We are urged to partake of them as often as we can as they will enhance our receptivity to other medicinal plants he intends us to share with us.  


     My shocked mind raced to veteran traveller Herman Melville's grim warning, "Warmest climes but nurse the cruelest fangs.  The tiger of Bengal crouches in spiced groves of ceaseless verdure."  As a child growing up in the southern tobacco town of Durham, North Carolina, I knew right away this workshop on the traditional medicines of Amazonia was going to be a challenge I would be forced to meet head on.


     For my entire teen experience, from 12 to 19 years old,  I attended classes next to the Liggett & Myers manufacturing facilities in downtown Durham.  While at Carr Jr. High, Durham Sr. High and then at Duke University's East Campus, the fragrant aroma of tobacco products wafted my way constantly.  My memories of that experience are positive. I lived a truly aromatic life adjacent to the handling of this home grown North Carolina herb.  



     In those days there were live "herbal" auctions in clusters of tobacco warehouses for blocks on end and the hum of cigarette rolling and cutting machines seemed normal and wholesome.  Downtown Durham was alive with blue collar workers toting gray lunch boxes.  It was a vibrant working community.  Today's white collar jobs that have overtaken the area have rendered our downtown district quite dull and boring in comparison.  


     When out of town guests would visit us, my parents took them for a tour of the L&M cigarette production facility on West Main Street where one could watch the millions of neatly cut cigarettes come rolling down the lines.  We thought it was so gracious of Durham that our guests were handed a free pack of cigarettes at the end of their tour! 


     I even recall as a child hearing the rumor from my neighborhood friends that Durham was a target for the "enemy" Russians.  They were aiming their nuclear missiles right at Durham because they did not want Americans to enjoy tobacco!  Our neighbors in Duke Forest across the street even built a bomb shelter in their front yard in which we often played.


     Then came the 1972 surgeon general's report linking tobacco use with serious health hazards.  Soon we were hearing how the tobacco companies had deceived us, adding addicting and harmful chemicals to our sweet home grown herb.  Though never more than a high school cool-thing-to-do occasional smoker, I eventually became turned off to the whole idea of tobacco use and never looked back on it again with respect.  In the year 2000, the last L&M cigarettes rolled off the assembly line in Durham.    


     But this Amazonian shaman-teacher was now shaking things up for me!  He informed us that the species of tobacco grown in the jungle, Nicotiana rustica, was different than the one used in commercial cigarettes, Nicotiana tabacum.  And it was distinguished mainly because it was much stronger psychoactively!  But being organically garden grown and cured by his team of apprentice herbalists, it was entirely free of the over 100 noxious chemical additives that the commercial companies added to their products.  


     So despite my long standing rejection of tobacco use, I decided to give it a try in the special learning environment of the herbal workshop.  But I found smoking difficult.   Upon inhaling the stronger jungle tobacco, my throat and lungs rejected it with a quick cough. We were even instructed to hold the inhalation for a long time to insure the absorption of the medicine, but I just couldn't force it down.  I observed how other participants reacted.  Surprisingly, most were able to inhale fairly well and reported positive sensations.


     Upon returning home from the workshop I decided to pick a writers retreat center as a place for my own serious study of tobacco.  While working on a writing assignment, I gave tobacco smoking a focused one week trial. I used a commercial organic brand that was becoming popular in the United States.  After a week of both mental and physical effort, I was finally able to relax enough to keep the smoke down and receive a lift I still vaguely recalled from high school days.  


      I began to research the use of tobacco by Native Americans and came away with the fundamental idea that tobacco was a plant that helped connect us with the spirit world for cleansing, protection and blessing.  I began to use tobacco occasionally after that, testing both rustica and tobacum species and also tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) that a friend was sending me from Venezuela.  I used them cautiously, noting especially any dependency that I might experience from repeated use. 


     I monitored my nighttime dream life after tobacco use, carefully writing down the next morning all details I remembered. I asked the seasoned African American gardner at Duke Homestead to teach me how to plant, grow and cure the green leaf that he had worked with all his life. I began to feel that because I was raised in a town steeped in tobacco culture, perhaps it was appropriate for me to learn the ancient healing secrets of the plant by apprenticing under a South American tobacco shaman.   


     In 1999 I spent a month in Bolivia exploring that possibility.   But I soon decided against a serious apprenticeship with a tobacco shaman, as it would entail the ingestion of large amounts of decocted tobacco teas taken through the nose.  At forty-seven years old, I felt that I was probably too old to take on such a rigorous training.  


     But I was gifted a pipe from my Bolivian teacher who taught me how to perform a ritual cleansing by blowing tobacco smoke mixed with other herbs over the psycho-energetic centers of the body.  I immediately included this new skill in ceremonies with my groups back home on the Eno River.


     On October 15, 2005 after leading a moonlight wafting trip, my group gathered in the old blacksmith shop at West Point on the Eno Park.  I did a ritual tobacco cleansing for this group of twenty-five individuals seated on chairs in a circle. I inhaled and then blew a considerable amount of tobacco smoke over each participant individually.  It was an amazing night of sharing both on the water in boats and afterwards on land in our circle.  Afterwards at home that evening, I had a dream in which I saw and heard many wonderful things, the details of which I was not able to remember.  


     What did remain with me the next morning was simply the following impression:  "All things fit together perfectly. There exist both sun and moon and they are in balance.  Everything in my own life is just the way it should be.  Everything on Planet Earth is just the way it should be. Everything in the entire universe is just the way it should be.  All things make sense.  All things are good and are working together for good."  


     Upon awakening I knew it was a message from the gracious spirit of the tobacco plant.  Of course I had been hearing this identical message all my life, starting with my childhood Sunday School teachers through my graduate studies in religion at Duke.  But now I had finally received it directly from the Source


Photo: Riverdave explores a cosmic ceiba tree with tobacco smoke at Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park in the Florida Keys