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On the first morning of my ayahuasca retreat in the river basin near Iquitos, Peru, a group of us gather to watch the brew being prepared, the batch that we will drink from each night through the whole week. Gilbert, an employee of the Nihue Rao retreat center, leans over a stump, chopping the vine that grows in wild tangles all around the compound. A tiny green chip of the vine flies clear and lands at my feet. “Is it okay if I eat this?” I ask. He nods. I put it in my mouth to chew and taste. The texture is woody. The flavor is bitter, and pure.
Ayahuasca is created by layering caapi vine with alternating strata of leaves from the chakruna bush, which grows in the same biome, dowsing this parfait with water, and setting it to boil over a hot fire through the heat of the day. Eventually the plants will be rendered down to a ruddy sludge the consistency of molasses.
To act as the ayahuasca brew, the bush and the vine need one another. Ayahuasca is a combinatory psychedelic, and in fact, this is part of its mystique-for what made the ancestral healers of the peoples indigenous to the Amazon basin choose these plants out of countless thousands of others? And put them together this way? Neither bush nor vine stands out like a vibrant butterfly. Each is green and morphologically unremarkable, in a sea of green.
LAURA MARJORIE MILLER writes about travel, Yoga, magic, myth, photography, marine conservation, and other soulful subjects. She is a contributing editor at Be You Media, a public-affairs writer at UMass Amherst, and has a feature forthcoming in Faerie. Her work has appeared at elephantjournal.com, Tripping, GotSaga, Dive News Network, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, and mariashriver.com, in the Boston Globe, Yankee,Parabola, and Utne Reader. She is based in Massachusetts, where she lives with a cat named Huck.