reflections from the edge: a photo diary

by: Tara Ruttenberg

last month, as official roadie and chosen moral support system for my talented herbalist mom, i had the unique privilege of participating in an alternative health conference called medicines from the edge: a tropical herbal convergence. through some sort of indescribable socio-biological osmosis as my mother's daughter, i've no doubt soaked up a lot of the ideas and practices on offer at a conference like this, and i enjoyed being a participant-observer into the realms of some seriously passionate plant-nerds celebrating herbal medicine and more.

while the subject matter of the weekend convergence first appeared somewhat alien, i was excited to realize that it has much more in common with my own connections to native spirituality and learnings on global sustainability than i had originally anticipated. thank you to all of the teachers, coordinators and hippie free-spirit family whose contributions i carry with me now, inspiring my words and work in the world.

the following are my inside-outsider reflections from the edge; my own sort of mental coalescence where themes of diversity, representation, and archaic revival converge.

permaculturalist Stephen Brooks opened the weekend by describing the edge as a place where we experience an abundance of diversity - natural and biological, as well as human and socio-cultural. we reflected on our planet's disturbing loss of biodiversity as a threat to human and natural existence, drawing a parallel to the loss of native knowledge and cultural diversity also disappearing at an equally alarming rate. “human diversity and the diversity of knowledge” Stephen said, “are key for sustainability, just like in nature.”

Costa Rica offers a special representation of the edge as both a geographic bridge between the Americas, and a space where tropical biodiversity thrives amid a diverse social landscape colored by indigenous communities, afro-Caribbean culture, European colonial history and the growing presence of foreign tourists and residents from all regions of the world – all intermingling to varying degrees, creating countless hybrid cultures in their midst. well situated at ‘the edge’, our stage was set for a weekend of learning and sharing. i was all ears.

and eyes, of course.

…and heart and mind and soul…  

pictured here above is Maia Balam, whose project Rescate Madre Amerikua (Rescue Mother Amerikua) draws on the importance of preserving native traditions by creating films of indigenous people and tribes in the struggle against resource loss at the hands of corporate extraction through mining and development, for example. she spoke of capitalization, modernization and commodification as contributing to a growing sense of greed, itself based in our modern myth of consumerism as a panacea for social wellbeing, and its destructive impact on indigenous lifestyles and ways of being. in her audience, we sat in collective sadness at the loss of native culture to consumerist pursuit, agreeing that a new consciousness is needed to support indigenous tribes in resistance.

similarly, participants spoke of our affinity to this concept of archaic revival, where a return to our shared, native roots is at the heart of global transition toward sustainability. grounded in an admiration for plant wisdom and a deep appreciation for ancestral indigenous traditions and ways of knowing and living with the Earth, we have faith in the revival of ancient practices and forms of livelihood rooted in harmonious existence between people and nature toward true sustainability. i found myself agreeing with the sentiment that our common human future relies so much on protecting indigenous communities, learning from their ancient wisdom and promoting their traditional methods of working with plants and medicine for the benefit of all. i emerged from this brief session with Maia with the message that we, as conscious global citizens, must merge forces with the indigenous peoples of the world to realize sustainability through ancient practices; returning to our tribe in profound acknowledgement of the ancient codes of knowledge we are lacking in modern society. i was grateful for the message, yet confused with what to do with it.


in his evening speech, Tom Newmark - Chair of the Green Peace Fund USA - brought the heat in true activist fashion, adding a splash of much-needed gloom to our otherwise inspired, albeit inevitable, doom. he reminded us that our love of plants doesn't exist in a rainbows-and-butterflies permaculture-perfect vacuum, helping us remember that if we don't save our planet through regenerative farming like yesterday, there won't be anymore plants to love, or any humans left to love them, for that matter. his statistics were sobering; his conclusions somehow hopeful. 

the sacred seed sanctuaries project he presented the following morning evoked sustainability's 'think globally, act locally' mantra, explaining how if we all were to create our own sanctuaries of diverse plant species, we would contribute to carbon sequestration through regeneration on a planetary scale, making it less important to keep resisting Monsanto and more important to become the solution ourselves. his message spoke to me: "we need to renew our spiritual, sacred relationship to mother earth to save the planet." is this what we mean by connecting with the archaic revival? growing our own sacred gardens across continents to make the Monsantos of the world irrelevant? it sounded powerful, possible.

...still, i felt skeptical.

the problems felt too big, the solutions inadequate. if our current patterns of existence have us at war with the very things vital to our survival as a human family - water, soil, food, air - how can sacred seed sanctuaries begin to even make a dent? especially if finding the time and space for such a project may very well be open to only the most privileged among us, while those responsible for environmental degradation on a massive scale continue their business as usual. if we as consumers and producers in modern-industrial society are literally eating the resources supporting diverse species and manipulating the environment to intentionally destroy the biodiversity on which all life depends, how can our sanctuaries, however sacred, make that all just go away?

"if we are the creators of this destruction," Tommy challenged us to consider, "isn't it our responsibility to fix it?"

this question gurgled organically inside me, uneasy in my intestines as my pen wrote feverishly in my lap.

"if we humans were responsible enough to fix it," i wrote, "wouldn't we have prevented it from happening in the first place?" maybe Tommy has more faith in humanity than i do when he says that the industrial-extractive mindset will never solve the problems created by that same industrial-extractive mindset. so we need a new mindset, right? i thought of Audre Lorde's famous quote: the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. it seemed Tommy agreed, and rightfully so. but what i started thinking about in that moment was that even though we know the industrial-extractive mindset is the problem, we still don't know how to overcome that mindset because it is so ingrained in our sense of self-in-society, in our very identity at the core of our shared world view. it is our inability to escape that mindset - because it is such an integral part of how we exist in the world - that keeps our industrial-extractive society from crumbling by the wayside, preventing the sustainable practices we so need and desire from flourishing in its ashes.

"bring in indigenous knowledge and use it," he said, ending his talk by appealing to our love of all things indigenous. i sort of wanted to clap, and i appreciated the sentiment, but it just felt off.

i asked myself: "has indigenous knowledge become our latest resource in the endless pursuit of an elusive sustainability wholly incompatible with the Western world view of materialism and our industrial-extractive existence?" white man and our materialist vision have been responsible for the annihilation of indigenous peoples and their lands for centuries in the service of what we believed we needed to live a worthy life in the pursuit of happiness in the 'new world'. now we want to bring in indigenous knowledge and use it for the purposes of what we think will save our planet and all of her people, ignoring the fact that our solutions still come from within that same materialist mindset that got us here in the first place - a mindset we can't step outside of because its pervasive mythology defines every aspect of how we live in and understand the world.

i thought about our previous conversations on archaic revival. has saving the native become the new white man’s burden? And is it because we care to preserve their culture and dignity versus the numbing effects of modernity, or do we care to save them because we know they’re our only hope for saving ourselves? to me it bringing in indigenous knowledge and using it sounds a lot more like colonialism than creative solution, coopting indigenous knowledge and assimilating it into our materialist world view and somehow calling it sustainable.

in that moment i came to a disturbing conclusion that i’m not sure we can rise above: bringing in indigenous knowledge and using it how we see fit is not only neocolonial at its core but also futile in materialist contradiction, not least where sustainability is concerned.


the day prior, Kathleen Harrison (pictured above) spoke of the dominant (Western) world view interrupting indigenous world views, particularly as they relate to our understanding of the real (material) versus non-real (spiritual or magical) aspects of life. she brought up a conversation on cultural revitalization and travelling as a means of cross-pollination among world views, waking us up to what makes us feel alive. i valued her comment on how many of us are living in two worlds at once, or rather between two different world views - the material and the integral - as anglo-society is being transformed by a plethora of native traditions, what she referred to as the supermarket of indigenous concepts; we all laughed, of course, perhaps reflecting on our own personalized mish-mosh of what we consider our spiritual beliefs to be. (the other day i described my own spirituality as a mix of hindu philosophy, Buddhist and Taoist principles, mixed with Mexica and native-American ancestral ceremony. …supermarket at your service.)

so now we have one foot in each world view – material meets integral through travelling and cross-cultural interaction. (or perhaps, i thought, we’re creating a mixture of the two into some hybrid paradigm that includes elements of each but is something entirely different in its own right).

something i think about often is the reverse of this world-view-blending relationship and the ways indigenous societies are being transformed by materialist traditions like scientific thought, market economics, consumerism and Western lifestyle pursuits, abandoning many of their cultural practices in the process. so while modern anglo-society is becoming somehow more native, native cultures are becoming more anglo-modern. will we meet halfway? and what does this mean for the archaic revival we so believe in? is it this difficult-to-bear reality that makes us want to adopt and preserve indigenous traditions out of fear that our materialist culture will contaminate their integral paradigms when we know that their world view is what will save us from our own?

yet, is our romantic image of the native and the inspiring messages it represents somehow out of touch with the realities of the native peoples we want to learn from, know from and emulate in ourselves? what happens when we want feathers and sage-smoke and they wear Nikes and crew-cuts; when they don't measure up to the story we've created of them in our minds? what does it mean for our native spiritual practices that have come to define our sense of being? do our own stories of self in our lives of privilege between two worlds start to unravel, too?


my mom's workshop - Our Gut Feelings: Emotional Healing and Moving the Qi – took the cerebral conversations we’d been having throughout the weekend and made them physical, personal. we got in touch with the deep feelings inside our bellies, stuck energy in need of release, understanding the connections between the organ systems and emotional healing. we might be smiling on the outside despite the pain in our insides, but our digestive organs call our bluff no matter how much positive thinking and glowing radiance we pretend to embody in our new-age selves. 


here, hippies hold their bellies in the grass near the trees, meditating on their deepest core feelings.


next, blonde dreads and feathers cry in emotional release as they practice belly massage on one another. it turns out it isn’t all rainbows and butterflies; it’s a little bit sad, too. 

perhaps a little bit real.  

we’re flighty, fancy free, light and smiling as we flutter between music festivals, organic markets, medicine ceremonies, moon dances, yoga classes, shamanic rituals, soul-searching and finding ourselves joyful in like company – our privileged soul family. but when we get down to it, when we pause a moment, do our gut feelings belie an emptiness inside? an endless yearning for an elusive fulfillment we can’t seem to find between rounds of ayahuasca, ibogane, kambo and tobacco ceremony? perhaps our boundary-less dabblings in native ritual mask deeper issues related to our socialization as individual selves situated in our materialist modern society; attempts to escape our empty realities, to save our soul-selves from our society-selves, from the reach of modernity and its perverse manifestations. in our love of hallucinogenic medicinal ceremony, are we grasping for our true self to be felt, expressed, in a world that tells us who to be and what to feel? to tap into integral wisdom and the realms unseen so that we might know ourselves fully? how much archaic revival will it take for our smiles on the inside to match the phony ones we wear on the outside?

we become ‘other’ in our alternative lifestyles of practicing an adopted form of indigeneity and we believe it’s somehow better, but at what cost to our deeper wellbeing do we put on a happy face when maybe we’re not so happy after all? how much longer til our bellies burst so that we might feel what’s real? will we deal?


gracias to the good guys at Proyecto Jirondai, whose work seeks to preserve indigenous song and prayer through recording them and sharing them throughout the Americas, we had the opportunity to meet real-life medicine men from Costa Rica’s Cabecar and Bribri indigenous communities. One of them, we were told, had to walk twelve hours from his village to meet the people who would take him to our gathering. we were in awe of him, of his knowledge, of the way he sang to the plants in their own special song. of how he learned medicine through his dreams and ancestors and wouldn’t walk with a light at night so as not to disturb the spirits. we wanted to learn from these men, their way of life, how we might absorb some of their knowledge to heal ourselves and others through the plants, just as their ancestors had done for millennia.

our intentions were honorable.

our questions were rapid-fire.

“so how do we use this bark? boil it or create a salve?”

“how much do we use?”

“what is the scientific name for that leaf?”

“can you sing that plant’s song again please?”

“wait, what is this used for again?”

i watched the process of one-sided knowledge extraction unfold before me as plant nerds turned colonizer-health practitioners in an instant, desperate for the wisdom they could use in their own practice, stripping it of its cultural significance and perverting its essence by removing it from its context, eventually commoditizing it into a marketable product for their clients. there would be tinctures and teas and lip balms and capsules bought and sold with a story of a medicine man who sings to the plants and who once walked twelve hours to share his tribal knowledge with us for the benefit of all. his people’s ancestral spirit-wisdom would live on in modern medicine chests the world around.

among all of these healers, i felt kind of sick.

and strangely enough, that wasn’t the strangest part.

the strangest was that there were only a dozen of us in the audience for these real-life medicine men. at a conference of over two hundred plant-lovers also in love with all things indigenous, fewer than fifteen of us made it a priority to learn plant wisdom from our idols, the people who invented it. it wasn’t that 175 people were lazy or lost, but rather that taking place simultaneously was a presentation on the use of medicinal plants in indigenous ceremony by none other than herbalist celebrity David Winston, who chant-yodeled in guttural Cherokee to welcome his listeners, making his American-Indian grandmother proud to spite his white-man appearance. no small feat, it turns out he is known for re-teaching Cherokee elders the knowledge of their traditional plant medicine lost through the generations of cultural genocide we call colonization, displacement and marginalization.

a white-looking man with some Cherokee heritage brought up and educated in modernity and well-respected for his contributions to restoring native knowledge.

…is David Winston our idolized archetype for archaic revival?    


i think what we like about him, though, is that he represents the type of indigeneity we’re comfortable with. because it fits within our worldview, and he makes it approachable by speaking to us in ways that make us feel safe, comfortable in the familiar. he’s not dark-skinned or nervous in front of your cameras in his face or singing to his plants and talking about spirits in the dark. no, he’s telling you exactly how those plants are used ceremonially so you can use them ceremonially too, out of context with non-shamans and medicine-men-for-hire, to get your hit of the edge, native spirituality at its deepest, in connection with the realms modern materialism teaches us not to see. that’s what we want, isn’t it? to experience, at least fleetingly, what people like the Cabecar medicine men have lived and known forever. so why wouldn’t we go straight to the source and show up when they’ve walked twelve hours to share their secrets?

could it be because in all of our attempts to escape the skeletons in our materialist worldview closet, we still prefer the representation to the real, the modern Cherokee expert-teacher to the humble Indian whose knowledge we want but whose actual presence in jeans-and-a-T-shirt doesn’t match up to the barefoot-and-feathered image we’ve created of him in our spiritualized mind-selves. in the process, we end up valuing image over substance and calling it real when it may very well be a reconstituted representation, at best.

we crave the truth in indigenous wisdom, a window into an integral world that still defines existence in remote corners safe from modernity. we’re inspired by it, we seek to emulate it, save it. but by failing to truly understand this wisdom and honor it within its place-based context, situated in a wholly distinct view of the world we’re unable to fully grasp from our materialist reality, might we be making a mockery of it instead? in seeking to become other, are we perverting and diluting that which we admire while getting further and further from its essence, and in the process, further and further from ourselves?


save us, Rosita Arvigo! we laughed and cried as the woman taught by the last Mayan shaman, don Elijio Ponti, shared her story of perseverance in becoming his apprentice for thirteen years. he rejected her persistence at first, but couldn’t get rid of her. eventually, he conceded: “if i teach you, do you promise to take care of my people?” now that’s a shamanic mandate if i’ve ever heard one. Rosita was refreshing in all of the ways i wanted her to be. yes, she is a woman from Chicago practicing shamanic medicine in Belize. she charges a hefty sum for courses in Mayan uterine massage. but the way she went about her training and subsequent practice spoke of honoring the traditions of which she became a part after dedicating her life to studying with don Elijio.

“take the children as if they were your own,” he had told her, an old man now. “take them, and teach them to take care of eachother.” following his dying wishes, Rosita started bush medicine camps for kids. young women in her audience today begged to apprentice with her. maybe they were feeling what i was feeling as i listened to her story. i felt grateful for her integrity, authenticity. she wasn’t extracting knowledge and applying it in modern-materialist contexts to make it appealing. she was on a mission to carry out the mandate of her teacher, the last Mayan shaman. he was calling the shots; she, his servant in the shared soul-purpose of sacred medicine. Rosita gave me hope that people like her still exist. people who let the shaman call the shots. people who value tradition in context, who know native spirituality and ancestral plant wisdom in authenticity and substance rather than in image and representation. may we learn from her in our love of the indigenous. in our practice of time-and-place-honored tribal ceremony. in our daily medicine, today and tomorrow.