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We think of forests and woodlands as wild spaces where we can lose ourselves in nature. They also provide us with a wealth of resources such as food, building materials and medicines. But they are also globally under threat of destruction. In this episode, JC Niala delves into the contradictions in our relationship with woodlands, and explores different ways we can think about them, if we are to use and protect them more wisely.

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Photograph of a green toned photogram. The light sensitive emulsion has been roughly spread onto the textured watercolour paper leaving brush marks around the edge. In the centre of the green colour of the emulsion is the white silhouette of a cluster of fern leaves.
Woodland. © Faye Heller for Wellcome Collection.
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JC Niala (00:08): Woodlands are places we go to lose ourselves. I know this from my own experience. Remember the family farm that I mentioned in the last episode? Well, around 1980, my parents decided to convert it into woodland. It was in the heart of sugarcane country in Kenya, which is usually hot and dry. It took around 50 years, but my mum is now surrounded by thousands of indigenous trees as well as birds, monkeys and all sorts of other plants. It’s weird though, because when I visit her now, even though I know it’s man-made, it still feels sort of wild.

It’s true that generally, we tend to think of woodlands as wild places, but we’ve actually always lived with them. And that’s because they are full of things we use all the time. Paper, rubber, medicines, even mushrooms and herbs.

The thing is, our relationship with woodlands can very quickly go out of balance. We often want these things faster than they regenerate, and more and more we’re doing away with forests entirely, clearing great expanses of woodland so we can plant more crops.

All around the world many woodlands have been cleared to create farmlands, but leave land to its own devices and, eventually, woodlands do grow back.

In this series we’re asking what the plant world can teach us about being human, and in this episode we examine our relationship with woodlands and forests.

Ana Maria Machado (01:41): Everything, for the Yanomami, everything is alive, everything has spirits on it.

JC Niala (01:48): We explore what the best ways are to keep forests going for future generations.

Rebecca Latchford (01:52): You go into the forest and you cut down trees because that then demonstrates that it has an economic value to the country and to the people.

JC Niala (02:00): And whether or not psychoactive plants can help with a mental illness epidemic.

Michael Pollan (02:05): By making the brain temporarily more plastic, psychedelics appear to be a good way to break those cycles.

Joseca Yanomami (02:19): This is about the land where the spirits we call the Xapiri, they live. And they are responsible for healing us, they can heal us and take off the sickness of the people.

JC Niala (02:45): That’s Joseca, a Yanomami artist who lives in the Amazon in Brazil. He’s one of the artists featured in the ‘Rooted Beings’ exhibition at Wellcome Collection.

Ana Maria Machado (02:54): Joseca Yanomami was born in 1971, in the Yanomami village in the forest, when they just started to have contact with white people. He was raised in the forest and he still lives there.

JC Niala (03:13): Our translator Ana Maria has worked with Joseca and Yanomami peoples for the last 15 years.

Ana Maria Machado (03:21): My name is Ana Maria Machado, I’m an anthropologist, and I started working with them on the educational programme.

Joseca Yanomami (03:28): So you white people don’t think the forest is empty. There’s a lot of beings living there, of the honey, of bees. Everything has spirits.

JC Niala (03:55): For Yanomami peoples, like many others in the Amazon, the forest is alive with spirits or Xapiri. Though spirits is quite a pretty loose translation, because we don’t really have an equivalent.

Ana Maria Machado (04:11): When Joseca refers to Xapiri, he wants to say about very small beings, invisible for us, that can only be seen by the shamans. Everything for the Yanomami, everything is alive. When something happens in the world, it’s usually caused by the spirits because they are angry because we are destroying the world, or anything that makes them angry.

JC Niala (04:42): So shamans are responsible for communicating with Xapiri to ensure daily life runs smoothly, so people don’t fall sick or the weather doesn’t get too extreme.

Ana Maria Machado (04:51): Davi Kopenawa – he’s a philosopher and Yanomami shaman – he says that the forest breathes, but especially white people can’t see it. Can’t hear it. Because it only can be heard by the shamans, the Xapiri. As we don’t see them, we don’t consider them as alive. We don’t respect the spirits, so we just see it as commodity. With the white people destroying the forest now, it’s making the spirits angry, and they’re vanishing. They’re causing all these destruction of too much rain. The weather is changing, everything is caused by the spirits because we’re destroying the place where they live.

For example, In Rio de Janeiro they have big mountains, rock mountains and we have tunnels inside these mountains. For them to destroy a big rock or a mountain to make a tunnel, it seems absurd because that’s where the Xapiri lives. How can you destroy the house of the Xapiri? How are you going to have someone to heal your children or to heal your family or even to heal the forest? If you destroy their houses, the house of your spirits, so we are totally unrespectable human beings.

JC Niala (06:17): We’re in the process of pushing away the spirit of fertility, and once that escapes the forest, it won’t be habitable.

Joseca Yanomami (06:25): If white people keep cutting trees, the spirit of fertility – we call it në ropeyoma – will escape. And so the land will be all dry and hot. So we will be in a land, very warm and hungry.

JC Niala (07:00): We don’t have to see the Xapiri or believe they exist, in order to notice the positive effects that they have had on the way Yanomami peoples treat the forest they live in. They’ve got a system which creates harmony with their environment, instead of one which damages it.

Ana Maria Machado (07:16): Now when we see the map, even on Google Earth, we can see now it’s very clear spots of forest where you have indigenous land, and it’s usually all surrounded by soya camps, miners, gold mining and other extractive economies. So the way they live, it already keeps the forest alive. And they call us the merchandise people because we are just obsessed about buying things and making new furniture, and making new objects and for that we destroy the world. It doesn’t make sense for them.

JC Niala (07:58): Like many other forests, we tend to think of the Amazon as wild. But in actual fact the Amazon is man-made. By people who had been living there for centuries who co-created the forest with the trees that were growing around them. We can’t see it because we don’t know how to read the forest like Yanomami peoples can, and others who call it home.

Rebecca Latchford (08:23): To the untrained eye, if you’re walking into a tropical forest and you don’t know what you’re looking at, you think it’s a wilderness, but actually the people who live there will give you many markers and pointers to things like graveyards, and medicinal gardens and show you that it’s actually been inhabited for a really long time. My name is Rebecca Latchford. And officially I’ve trained as a forester, but I’m also looking at issues to do with environmental activists and indigenous peoples’ security.

JC Niala (08:55): Rebecca and I met working on potato farms in Scotland, and we shared digs. We spent 24 hours, seven days a week together and at the end of that, you either become firm friends or never speak to each other again. Safe to say, we became friends and I’ve learned a huge amount from her over the years. She’s completely transformed the way I see forests.

Rebecca Latchford (09:17): The public perception really is that these places should be conserved without human interaction, without being touched, perhaps, but actually that’s a luxurious point of view and I’m sure that comes from a point of view historically, from people who are wealthy or landowners. They have that luxury to leave land untouched or barely used, because many times, historically, they removed the people from that land. And I think that colours people’s view today of conservation, that people aren’t part and parcel of it.

JC Niala (09:56): We’ve both completely disconnected from forests and yet know that they are good for the planet, so we’ve therefore come to think that the only way for them to thrive is by not touching them. Treating them like some sort of outdoor museum, and this has had devastating consequences for the people who have lived in them for millennia. They get driven out of and locked out of their homes, all in the name of conservation.

Rebecca Latchford (10:20): That’s a trend that I see actually in conservation that’s really worrying, the militarisation of conservation, and then that often happens at the kind of exclusion and to the detriment of the people who are living there, because there’s a power imbalance that’s going on. And it all becomes about the animals, about the wildlife, about protecting the environment without people who are on the ground there. Or maybe the funders recognising that the people in the forest are part of that.

JC Niala (10:53): Rebecca has worked in forests all over the world and has a lot of experience working in dry forests in West Africa.

Rebecca Latchford (11:00): Of course everybody looks at the Amazon, the Congo Basin, Indonesia, perhaps, but these are the rainforests and are kind of like the stars of the show. But then dry tropical forests and semi-dry tropical forests, they’re under the same kind of pressures that you’re seeing in the tropical forests. There’s huge amounts of illegal logging going on.

JC Niala (11:23): I remember one night in the pub, when Rebecca was training to be a forester, she said something that really startled me. She said, “If you don’t use forests, you’ll lose them.” Now, I was thinking about all the tree planting my parents had done, and I was shocked. Rebecca was basically saying we should cut down trees. But the more she talked to me about it, I came to realise she’s right.

Rebecca Latchford (11:55): This misconception – everybody thinks cutting down a tree is a really bad thing. I used to, as a child, think that, until I learned a little bit more and understood obviously the dynamics of the real world that we’re living in. The thing is, if you look around your house, there are just hundreds of items in your house that originate from a forest. Whether they’ve got wood in them or paper, or some kind of other non-timber forest product like rubber. So I mean, removing forests from our daily lives for everybody in any part of the world is a major challenge. The solution to that is about how we view forests and how we manage them.

JC Niala (12:34): A sustainable way to manage forests is through reduced-impact logging.

Rebecca Latchford (12:38): You go into the forest and you cut down trees because that then demonstrates that it has an economic value to the country and to the people. Rather than it just being seen as something that’s like, “Oh, not very productive, let’s just clear it and create a cattle ranch or an oil-palm plantation.” So with reduced-impact logging, what you’re actually doing is you’re following that kind of natural cycle of the forest, you’re creating gaps when you go and fell trees. And obviously, there’s no rose-tinted glasses about this: you are increasing the intensity above the natural cycle. But the idea with cutting trees for timber in a forest is to try and imitate that and to reduce the impact.

Another thing that’s hugely important, and this is about communicating with the people who live in the forest, whose home that is, is free prior and informed consent. To the untrained eye, you wouldn’t recognise people’s places in the forest that are important for their spirituality, or graveyards or farms or a whole range of different things that are important for people to sustain their livelihood.

JC Niala (13:48): And there’s been some success stories. The Congolese government gave out over two million hectares of forest – what’s known in the trade as a concession – to one logging company, CIB [Congolaise Industrielle des Bois], who decided to get it FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] certified. Part of that meant a close consultation with the local community.

Rebecca Latchford (14:06): People within that forest concession were pretty happy with that situation because they were saying it was the first time in their living memory that they had been respected as people, given the opportunity to engage in their own kind of environment within their own country.

Just for contrast, right next door you have forest concessions that were given out to Malaysian companies, to Chinese companies, and then those concessions, what happened is that private security firms were being hired to terrorise the forest people. And basically people saw the CIB concession as a refuge and they were running there for safety. Some of the first timber that was cut under an FSC certificate and licence actually came to the UK, and was part of the Arsenal stadium refurbishment.

JC Niala (15:00): We’re so used to hearing disaster stories about deforestation when we talk about woodlands. Stats about the clearing of rainforests and the terrifying impact that’s having on the planet. I get the urgency, but without offering solutions, it can make you despair.

So I find it heartening to talk to Rebecca, who has a real sense of pragmatism when it comes to potential solutions. That’s not to say that sustainable forestry is a silver bullet. It’s expensive and takes time to put in place, but it’s good to hear some practical steps we can take to work with indigenous communities to save forests.

There are other resources apart from timber in the woodland. Remember episode one, where we looked at how many of our medicines come from plants? There’s huge amounts. There’s been quite a buzz recently about mushrooms and mycelium – the idea of the “wood-wide web” and the amazing interdependence between the fungal world and the plant world.

The wood-wide web is a neat way of explaining how trees communicate with each other through an underground fungal network. This means one tree in one part of the forest can send a message through the mycelium network to warn other trees when it’s being attacked by insects. It’s one of those mind-blowing connections that makes us rethink our preconceptions. Trees are far more alert, social and sophisticated than we thought, and fungi have suddenly become a bit of a celebrity.

Michael Pollan (16:35): I just got very taken with the symbiosis between me and these plants, between people and plants, and how we change them in various ways through breeding and grafting and selection. And they change us also – that it’s a two-way street.

JC Niala (16:50): This writer made all sorts of connections for me. In fact, it was reading Michael Pollan’s book ‘The Botany of Desire’ that made me want to understand more about our relationship to plants, and lead me to my doctoral research in anthropology.

Michael Pollan (17:05): I became aware of how plants manipulate us, basically, and that we’re not as in charge in our relationship with nature as we think.

JC Niala (17:14): It made so much sense to me, because in my heritage, we recognise the interconnection we have with the natural world. I had finally found a way to combine what I grew up learning with a career in social science.

Michael is easy to talk to, and has the gift of being able to describe even the most complex aspects of neuroscience in a way that is easy to grasp. For his last two books, he’s been looking at psychoactive plants and our complicated relationship with them. I was interested to find out more about his experiences with psychoactive mushrooms.

You experimented on yourself, so I would love to hear about your experience with psilocybin in particular, and the impact it had on your health.

Michael Pollan (17:57 ): I had a series of experiences on different psychedelics; probably the most powerful was on psilocybin. She put on some new music, she put on a Bach unaccompanied cello suite, number two in D minor, which is a beautiful and deeply sad piece of music.

And something amazing proceeded to happen, which was that I saw myself dissolve into a pool of blue paint, after first exploding in a cloud of Post-it notes. And I knew it was me and I was no more, yet I was observing this event from some new perspective. This new very objective, untroubled perspective, and what should have felt like a disaster – I was gone, I was dead – was fine. I had complete equanimity about it.

When you lose your sense of self – and it’s called ego dissolution or merging with some larger reality in a mystical experience – what’s interesting about it is, it is sort of a rehearsal for death. And this was the experience that a lot of the cancer patients had had. But when your ego dissolves, there’s no barrier between you and whatever is surrounding you. And you merge, and that is a transcendent experience.

JC Niala (19:16): Although what Michael is describing here can sound quite far out, in actual fact…

Michael Pollan (19:21): All cultures have some plant or fungus or both that they use to change consciousness. And it can be as subtle as what we get from caffeine in tea and coffee and chocolate. And it can be as radical as what we get from psilocybin mushrooms. This has struck me as a very curious human desire, because it wouldn’t seem, on its face, to be adaptive.

You know, when you’re in an altered state of consciousness, you are less plugged into reality, and more likely to have an accident, or be subject to being preyed on by a predator. It’s a state where you don’t have the kind of self-control that is part of how we defend ourselves. Yet it would have been selected out by evolution, I think, if it didn’t offer some positives.

JC Niala (20:11): Pain relief is one of the more obvious ones.

Michael Pollan (20:15): People have used plants to relieve pain for thousands of years. For most of the history of medicine, as you know, curing was out of the question. What you tried to do is relieve pain. And plants were how you did it.

JC Niala (20:28): It’s important to remember the history of medicine that Michael’s referencing is a Euro-American one. In other parts of the world there are different views on plants that have cured throughout history. But across the globe, Michael thinks psychoactive plants may have also contributed to cultural evolution.

Michael Pollan (20:47): I see changing consciousness with plants as a way to introduce new memes, new metaphors, new ways of thinking. And there’s a whole history I looked into for ‘This is Your Mind on Plants’, about psychedelics, about scientists and artists who had breakthroughs. And most of the insights that occur to people when they’re high are really not very good – in the morning after seemed kind of stupid. But every now and then, that encounter of a certain mind with a certain molecule produces something new and important that changes the course of cultural evolution.

One of the things psychedelics do is they give you fresh perspectives on old problems. And that can be very useful. Their strength seems to be in breaking destructive habits of thought and behaviour. A lot of us are stuck in one way or another, that we have these loops, these narrative loops we play, you know, that, “I’m unworthy of love,” or, ‘” can’t get through the day without a cigarette,” “I think I’m overweight, when I’m really underweight.” All these kind of destructive grooves that we get stuck in, and what the psychedelics appear to do is soften that rigidity, and sometimes completely change it and allow new patterns to get established.

JC Niala (22:09): And Michael thinks this could be a valuable tool for certain mental health conditions.

Michael Pollan (22:12): When I first started hearing about what psychedelics were being used to treat, I was kind of suspicious at the number of different things – it sounded like a panacea. People talked about depression, anxiety, OCD, addictions of various kinds, eating disorders and trauma. And it seemed like one substance is going to address all those things? And when I mentioned this to a very prominent psychiatrist, he says, “Well, what makes you think they’re so different? It may be that all these things are symptoms of a brain that is stuck in a certain pattern. So they may be different manifestations of a similar brain.”

JC Niala (22:52): It’s astonishing in a way to think that it could be so simple. Could you talk a little bit about what is actually happening in the brain during this process?

Michael Pollan (23:01): The honest answer is we don’t quite know. Activity in one particular brain network called the default mode network. And it appears to be involved in many functions having to do with the construction of a sense of self. So it’s involved in time travel, your ability to think about the future and the past, which of course you need to form an identity.

And the default mode network is at the top. And it’s a kind of transportation hub. So lots of brain networks communicate through the default mode network. When it goes offline, new lines of communication open up between formerly out-of-contact brain regions, and that might explain a phenomenon like synaesthesia, the fact that you can see smells, or hear visions.

JC Niala (23:55): The neural connections between different parts of the brain are a bit like ski tracks that have been made in deep snow, tried and tested routes which are hard to deviate from over time. But psychedelics melt that snow, so your brain can skate across and make new connections. You can smell colours or taste music, and loosening up those rigid patterns is why they think psychedelics can help with addiction.

Michael Pollan (24:21): Habits are great. They’re very adaptive; they save us from having to run fresh algorithms every day when we encounter a situation. But they also can trap us, and as we get older, we tend to fall into these comfortable grooves that don’t always serve us or serve the people around us. So by making the brain temporarily more plastic, psychedelics appear to be a good way to break those cycles. Psychedelic research is going to teach us a lot about the mind. It wasn’t acceptable five years ago to study this stuff. And now it is.

JC Niala (24:54): While he’s experimented on himself, Michael isn’t advocating everyone go out and take mind-altering plants. There are risks involved.

Michael Pollan (25:02): There are people who just simply shouldn’t mess around with these drugs. There are psychological risks too. People at risk for schizophrenia should not mess around with psychedelics. And you know, things go wrong.

JC Niala (25:17): It’s all very well finding new ways of using the forest, but what would large-scale research into some of the psychoactive plants in the Amazon mean for communities there? Their healing plants are sacred and have deep cultural meanings. Like for example, ayahuasca, a psychoactive medicine plant that’s used by some Amazonian peoples. It’s getting increasingly popular, with visitors heading to the forest to try the plants in their original settings, accompanied by a shaman.

Ana Maria Machado (25:48): The most important process when the Occidental world is using ayahuasca and other indigenous knowledge, it’s to respect their knowledge. To think about how to support them politically, financially, in a way that it can make an economic alternative in the forest. We see now the people from Acre and those who are experts with ayahuasca, they are doing really well. They are not involved into this very hard situation that we are facing in Brazil regarding deforestation and illegal invaders.

JC Niala (26:32): For this to work, it’s going to be essential to keep this knowledge alive and within indigenous hands.

Okay, so I know I said earlier that we’re all a bit desensitised to the stories coming out of the Amazon, about deforestation and the impact on the planet, but it would be irresponsible not to be upfront about the situation as it stands for some of the people we talked to.

Joseca Yanomami (27:00): I am giving my words to you white people: I want you to listen. People keep making our forest dirty and destroying it: we really don’t want it. Otherwise we’re gonna suffer, so you have to stop, you have to tell the authorities to stop doing it. That’s where we live. You already have your own land that you have already destroyed. So don’t send your sons and your others to destroy our land; you already destroyed yours.

JC Niala (27:44): In reality, the situation is worse than it has been for decades.

Ana Maria Machado (27:49): The Yanomami are facing now, in 2022, one of the worst moments of their history. Since Bolsonaro took his place as the president of Brazil, and the raising of the gold in the market, the gold-mining invasion in the Yanomami land became a huge problem.

They are polluting water, their water is contaminated with mercury. People like us, who work with indigenous people, we’ve been threatened in the Amazon now. The situation here in Brazil hasn’t been this bad since the military government more than 30 years ago. It’s really dangerous now to work in the Amazon.

JC Niala (28:41): What do forests teach us about being human?

Rebecca Latchford (28:44): Our existence is so tiny in terms of years in comparison to a forest. it definitely puts you in your place. You know, you’re just one species on this planet that has a very short life.

JC Niala (28:57): Most of the time we don’t fully appreciate forests – or, in fact, most plants.

Michael Pollan (29:02): Most of us suffer from plant blindness. Most people don’t see plants. If you show them an image and say, “What was in that image?” they will talk about the animal, they will talk about the architecture, they will talk about everything except the 90 per cent of that image that is plants. We completely depend on them. We breathe their oxygen. Without them, we would not be here. And how strange that we don’t worship them, considering that we owe them everything.

JC Niala (29:38): But who is that “we”? Listening to Joseca talk about the forest spirits, it’s clear that if we look beyond a certain Euro-American perspective on the world, many traditions do worship plants. Most civilisations have sacred trees: the Buddhist tradition and the Bodhi tree where the Buddha received his Enlightenment. And across the African continent, the magnificent baobab tree is a sacred keeper of water and wisdom.

What Michael experienced is what people who live in forests know. We are not an individual self with dominion over the natural world, we’re an interconnected part of nature. Maybe breaking down those mental barriers is going to be the only way we’ll start treating woodlands with respect.

Next week we delve into another landscape that historically has been the stuff of nightmares, and yet could save us from climate disaster. Wetlands – which, it turns out, are even more effective carbon sinks than forests.

Thanks to all our contributors: Joseca Yanomami, Ana Maria Machado, Michael Pollan and Rebecca Latchford.

Artworks by Joseca Yanomami on loan from Fondation Cartier, Paris appear in the ‘Rooted Beings ‘exhibition at Wellcome Collection, which is on until the end of August 2022. His work is also featured in the ‘Living Worlds’ exhibition in Lille, France until October 2022.

If you’d like to dig deeper into the ideas we’ve covered here, go to the Wellcome Collection website, where you can also find a transcription of this episode.

‘The Root of the Matter’ is a Reduced Listening production for Wellcome Collection. The producers are Alannah Chance and Mae-Li Evans. Our music and sound design is by Alice Boyd. And I’m JC Niala.

Joseca, a Yanomami artist from the Amazon, and anthropologist and interpreter Ana Maria Machado share their understanding of the forest and the threats it is currently facing.

Forestry expert Rebecca Latchford talks about how our models of forest conservation and usage fundamentally need to change if they are to exist for future generations.

And Michael Pollan, author of ‘This is Your Mind on Plants’, talks about the mind-altering properties and potential benefits of psychoactive fungi, which grow in the forests.

Presented by JC Niala
Lead producer Alannah Chance
Produced by Mae-Li Evans
Music and sound design by Alice Boyd

‘The Root of the Matter’ is a Reduced Listening production for Wellcome Collection.