Review of Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature's Healing Secrets by Mark Plotkin

Review of Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature’s Healing Secrets by Mark J. Plotkin, Ph.D., Viking, 2000, New York, 224 pages, $22.95.  Originally published in Alternative Therapies Vol. 7. No. 1, 2001.

This is a fascinating book on many levels.  As an adventure story it rivals anything that  Indiana Jones might offer.  Unlike Indiana, however, Mark Plotkin is a genuine scholar in addition to being a swashbuckling adventurer.  He takes the reader on perilous journeys into primitive forests, where he has dramatic encounters with members of many rare and bizarre species, including his own.  Where he has not gone in person/body he has gone intellectually, and hence can lead the reader through an immense territory on this adventure.

While the adventure story contained in Medicine Quest is compelling, it is at least matched by the embedded mystery concerning the author’s true identity.  Although there seems to be no reason to doubt that his name is Mark Plotkin, it is difficult to know who this Mark Plotkin actually is.  Before reading Medicine Quest, I had been told that its author had written a previous book on shamanism.  By combining this information with his use of the word “quest” in the title of the current book, I created an expectation that the book would contain amazing stories of shamanic journeys in which direct encounters with the consciousness of various plants, animals, insects, and microbes would be described in detail.  I further imagined that these encounters would reveal the generosity of the members of these other species, in response to a humble request from a member of ours for assistance.

My expectations and fantasies about shamanic encounters were not met.  Although dramatic journeys and mind-boggling observations were recounted, they all (or very nearly all) had to do with travels in the consensual reality of sensory perception and intellectual knowledge, rather than more esoteric shamanic destinations.   To further entangle the plot of this who-is-this-guy-Plotkin-anyway mystery, the book is littered with references to the financial value to drug companies of the products that have been, and undoubtedly will be, derived from the types of explorations described in Medicine Quest.  Although passionate arguments which sound like they come from a shamanic perspective are made for conservation, they most often are punctuated with the economic bottom line:

“Conservation of nature should be considered, in my opinion, a spiritual belief and ethical practice, and we should not decimate or extinguish species because of ignorance or greed.  That said, however, the medical argument for conservation is still the most appealing and convincing justification we have for conservation, and one that can be understood by every member of our species, regardless of nationality, political affiliation, or economic class.”  p. 22

The stubborn romantic in me is inclined to believe that Mark Plotkin is truly a mystic with a mission, a man whose best friends are shamans and members of other species, and that the economic bonanza talk is included because his publisher convinced him that this is how to get his message heard.  This belief finds support in his description of a personal ayahuasca experience which could hardly be seen as anything less than profound.

Profound in another way, Medicine Quest offers startling facts about how many other species there actually are on our planet, how little we know about most of them, and how amazing we already know many of them to be.  This alone makes the book worth reading.  Reality is truly stranger than fiction in many cases.  

However, there are also some important generalizations that seem to emerge from the descriptions of these biological facts, and these generalizations have immediate and significant implications for clinical/healing practices of many kinds .  

First, it would be difficult to read this book without becoming aware of how profoundly fragile human life really is.  The ability of many microbes and insects to rapidly adapt and evolve makes it clear that Black Death, HIV, plagues of locusts, antibiotic resistant infections, and the like, are constant reminders of the statistical improbability that our species has survived as long as it has.  Noticing that we could easily be obliterated at any time would seem to be an invitation to a certain sense of humility and gratitude, and to a curiosity about how we might better cooperate with whatever force in the universe appears to be working on our behalf. 

The second generalization that emerges from my reading of Medicine Quest has to do with the question of reductionism.  Mark Plotkin makes it quite clear that one cannot simply extract the active chemical from a plant used for healing by a shaman in the rainforest and expect it to have the same effect when administered by a white-coated physician in Topeka.  Even if all other components of the plant have been demonstrated to be biologically inert in humans, the healing effect of the “active” ingredient may not transfer from one situation to the other.  This failure to transfer is the result of a host of more subtle factors.  These include the wider biological and social environments in which the “treatment” is administered, the belief systems of the “patient” and of the “provider,”  and the multi-layered relationship between these two human beings.  In an age when all HMOs and many scientists would have us believe that human beings who are struggling and/or suffering can be treated as if they were merely cars needing an oil change, requiring nothing more than a mechanic and a wrench, Mark Plotkin reminds us that such reductionism is not applicable in the domain of living things. 

Medicine Quest could be read for the pure stimulation of a good adventure story, and I would recommend it for that reason alone.  However, I hope that others will also read it in search of inspiration and clarification about the deeper nature of healing.  For those of us who are not inclined to endure the discomfort and risk of the kinds of explorations Mark Plotkin has undertaken, his reports of his experiences are like those of the traditional vision quester: they are received by the one specifically seeking a vision but ultimately they serve the whole tribe