Conversations with the Cosmic Serpent
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Conversations with the Cosmic Serpent

Conversations with the Cosmic Serpent

By Hank Edson

For about a week and a half Jeremy Narby’s book, The Cosmic Serpent, kept me in a kind of brain-thrill-fever.  First published in 1998, it took me a while to get word of Narby’s work, which it turns out created a lot of excitement in the worlds of environmentalism, anthropology, social justice and science when it first appeared. 

The last time I found myself excited about new information was a few months before the beginning of our four seasons permaculture class when I discovered the books of Tom Brown, jr.  Although the culture, education, and experience from which Brown and Narby write are very different, they both conclude from their experience with indigenous teachings that communications received from plants are a source of knowledge available to human beings.  More succinctly put, they both say: Plants communicate.

With respect to Narby, his work begins with his doctoral field work in the Amazon, which created the opportunity to engage with indigenous people there who told him the source of their vast knowledge of the biology of the Amazon was the plants themselves.  To receive this knowledge from the plants themselves, a hallucinogen was used by the indigenous people and a long and difficult shamanic training was necessary.  Under the supervision of a shaman, the indigenous people ingest the hallucinogen and experience for themselves communications which appear to share a common foundation.  Narby, himself, heard descriptions of the visions encountered with use of the hallucinogen and then eventually took the hallucinogen and experienced similar visions.  This is a much reduced form of a remarkable narrative and survey of what to this point has remained a very limited understanding in the developed world of shamanic knowledge. 

The reason Narby’s book is so important is that he discovers a connection between the the double helix DNA  and the cosmic serpents that occupy the hallucinations, visions, and worldviews of shamanic cultures on every continent going back thousands of years.  Narby’s book is in some ways a comparative ethnography of shamanic cultures and our modern scientific culture.  In the end he presents in very clear language the following opposition between the modern scientific culture and the worldview theory he has developed as a result of his study:  “My hypothesis is based on the idea that DNA in particular and nature in general are minded.  This contravenes the founding principle of the molecular biology that is the current orthodoxy.”  [Emphasis added.]

I thought I’d share a few of the things I love about this book.

1.  Animals, Plants!

Although pet owners generally know it to be true that animals are minded and have thoughts, emotions and personalities, still today there are many in science who directly or indirectly reject such contentions about our fellow animals.  This does not apply to all scientists, as Narby’s follow-up book, Intelligence in Nature, documents.  Nonetheless, the assumption that animals are instinctual, “mechanical” beings, rather than minded ones, continues to exert a dominant influence over our Western worldview.  This is particularly true when it comes to justify the use of power in ways that does violence to animals.

For many years, I have been growing a collection of books that tells stories about the mindedness of animals, such as Summers with the Bears by Jack Buckland, The Gift of the Dear by Helen Hoover, In Praise of Wolves by R.D. Lawrence, and A Language Older than Words by Derrick Jenson.  I’ve also collected YouTube videos of dogs swimming with dolphins, crows raising kittens, and lions befriending gazelles that further evidence a remarkable “plasticity,” as Narby calls it, of what we call instincts to be expanded by experience in a way that indicates mindedness.  These books and YouTube clips and the recent work across many fields of science indicates that the prejudices of the dominant mechanistic view of animal life is slipping away gradually in the same way that did the notion that the earth was flat.

However, for all this progress, I know from observing myself, that Narby’s book blows wide open the implications of what this shift in worldview really means.  In addition to my animal books, I have also been interested in the spin-off of quantum mechanics that posits a minded foundation to existence.  Between the abstractions of this latter worldview and the gradual enlargement of my view of mindedness to include my brother and sister animal species, a huge chasm of existence, which I implicitly assumed to be “unminded,” was spread out in a way that prevented me from recognizing the potential for something like a credible unified theory of mindedness. 

What I means is: Once I am introduced to experience that plants, DNA, and even rocks have a quality of mindedness, the impact expands dramatically.  I’m no longer talking about correcting my relationship with animals; I’m talking about the way things are in a universal way that is completely different from what I have generally received from society.  Animals, yes!, but Plants, WOW!  That’s what The Cosmic Serpent says to me.

So now I am working on my library of stories about minded plants, which looking back, I see I first began with The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter, and which now includes Tom Brown, Jr.’s books and Jeremy Narby’s.  If you know of others, please tell me about them below!

2.  Human Potential

To me, what is even bigger than what Narby tells me about the fabric of existence is what Narby tells me about just myself.  That is: Human beings have the capacity to receive knowledge communicated from plants.  It is not just that I want this knowledge; it is more that I want to be in a condition where I have realized my capacity to obtain this knowledge.

Before I read Brown and Narby, it did not occur to me that the muteness I attributed to plants indicated a lack of development on my part, not on theirs!

3.  Twisting-Twisting-Language

On the way toward the development that these books inspire me to aspire to, one of the most marvelous insights offered by the indigenous people interviewed by Narby is that the experience of mindedness requires the use of “twisting-twisting-language.”  That is everything requires metaphors and constantly shifting terminology and descriptors because that is the nature of the spiritual essence that has the quality of mindedness. 

As an attorney who has been trained to try to use language to constrain all potentialities to a certain rule and result, I am very aware of how much our western culture has committed itself to a relationship with words that is itself extremely mechanistic and therefore doomed to be unsustainable, in addition to being completely inadequate as a means for communicating with and about the essence of life.

Narby’s study suggests that we will have to learn a new language, not just Spanish, not even Ashaninca or some other indigenous language, but rather a language that weaves like the DNA the morphing experience of life in the material of being.  (Wow that one is really reaching into new-aginess, but it’s reasonable to fail in one’s first steps toward twisty-twistiness.)  This last bit will make more sense to those who have read the book.

4.  Paradise Lost

One of the many fascinating aspects of this book is its survey of indigenous snake mythology, including, of course, the mythology of the Garden of Eden.  An observation Narby makes toward the end of the book on a different subject draws me to make a connection:  Narby writes that because huge areas of the Amazon have been mowed down into pasture and ruin, there now are indigenous shamen training in new ways out of necessity, having lost the rainforest that was their access to a reality they know better than the one of molecular biology.  One such shamen tells Narby that the “mother” of the animals, who may be communicated with through the use of hallucinogens, has gone away since the rainforest was destroyed and the animals no longer live there.  What does this mean?

The conclusion I draw is that, although there still exists indigenous people with the knowledge of how to receive knowledge from plants and animals, obviously if we kill the plants and animals, that shamanic knowledge is of diminished use.  This reminds me of the exile of Adam and Eve, not because the snake (DNA) shared knowledge with Adam and Eve, but because Adam and Eve (us) mowed down the center of biodiversity in the name of grazing cattle.  The exile is not through loss of shamanic knowledge, but of the retreat of those with whom the shamen communicate from our world.  How tragic, if just as the Western World recognizes the validity of the shamanic relationship with a minded nature, the last of that nature retreats under the bulldozers of the Western World!

Narby’s book, however, suggests that the Shamen who persist in the Western World’s wasteland are not without resources and are evolving to commune with what they can in the life that remains.  All is not lost, but the juxtaposition of discovery and destruction call for more urgent action. 

5.  First Person Narrative

Last, let me just say one of the secrets of the success of The Cosmic Serpent is that Narby presents his theory by way of a first person narrative of his own intellectual journey.  On this journey, he shares his prejudices, the prejudices of his discipline, the challenges, surprises, discoveries, and inspirations that were a part of his investigation.  This approach completes the multi-dimensional quality of this multi-disciplinary book and gives it a page-turning appeal.  I highly recommend it!

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