Writing, journalism, feature writing, wordsmith, indepth, author
Medicine Hunter, Christopher Kilham
Photo by Mark Roessler
The Adventures of Black Vulture
and Little Bear
This episode: Medicine Hunter and the Dragon's Blood
By Mark Roessler
Previously: The Medicine Hunter and his team of hardy international adventurers went in search of a fabled medicinal root, Tongkat Ali, which could enhance virility and libido in both men and women. He'd first heard of this rare root from a foreigner outside a stall at a trade show.
His source—and soon-to-be guide—had traveled halfway around the world in search of someone who would understand the value of her country's national secret and help share its energy-enhancing powers with the world. In The Medicine Hunter, of course, she'd found her man. Team Hunter set out for the jungles of Malaysia.
The Medicine Hunter met the local officials. He saw how Tongkat Ali was harvested traditionally, deep in the rain forest, the roots hacked from the black earth. He saw how it was beginning to be cultivated. He thought there was a good chance he could help these people. Everything his guide had said about the root's qualities was true—in abundance.
But he also saw poverty in that distant land, and he saw environmental devastation.
Traveling the murky jungle rivers in a small boat, the Medicine Hunter reflected, "You know, it used to be that about 14 percent of the world's surface was covered by rainforests. Now less than 6 percent is rainforest, and that amount is dwindling quickly, mostly due to logging. I know that people need wood, but logging the rainforests of the world is not the answer. Once these places are destroyed, they're gone for good. Logging the rainforests is a bad idea: it's short money and it's long-term environmental damage."
The Medicine Hunter's adventure program is seen the world over on television and the Internet. The New York Times has called him "Part David Attenborough, part Indiana Jones." Yet in the Pioneer Valley, most people don't know Christopher Kilham by his globe-trotting alter ego. Around here, he's better known as a professor of ethnobotany at UMass and a resident of Leverett.
Not that his neighbors see much of him these days. Like all true adventurers, he is something of an enigma, and even these identities don't begin to flesh out his many facets. Tall, dark and charming, he's always on the move. He's many things to many people.
Some Valley residents who don't follow his on-screen adventures might recognize Kilham as an author. A new edition of his widely translated yoga book, The Five Tibetans, was recently released with praise from Deepak Chopra on its cover: "A time-honored classic that belongs in every yoga library. A true yogi, Chris' voice is strong, sensitive, and clear, his calling deep and genuine."
And beyond the teaching, writing, research and theatrics, Kilham's work is also commercial. His televised expeditions are not fiction. He manages a global network of hard-won business contacts. He hunts medicinal plants for an international corporation, Naturex.
More often than not, he's hanging his hat either in an anonymous hotel, close to an airport with a name he can't remember, or in a thatched hut along the banks of the Amazon, meeting someone he may never forget. Instead of leaning over his backyard fence to chat with the guy next door, Kilham's more likely to be speaking into a microphone to a jam-packed conference room, explaining complex situations for a camera crew, or hobnobbing with a shaman who has had many intense visions, but has never before seen a white person. Kilham is always looking forward to a new destination. .
Home is where he does laundry between trips.
The Valley Advocate managed to catch up with Kilham and his wife, Zoe Helene, earlier this month. Beyond the baskets of unfolded clothes and the tables covered with tickets, laptops and itineraries, they settled down for a moment in their living room. In a far-reaching interview, they explained some of the complexities of being a modern-day adventurer, and the Advocate tried to better understand this international man of mystery who collects his mail in Leverett.
Though he has been exploring rainforests all over the world for decades, Kilham's televised program is a more recent phenomenon. It's not due to a lack of availability that The Medicine Hunter may not be a household name yet to Valley residents. The issue has more to do with the media company that broadcasts it.
"It's Fox, for God's sake," Kilham said, explaining that he and Helene don't have any friends who watch the station. "They just won't bring themselves to watch it. That's fine. I'm perfectly okay with that. But on the other hand, in over 100 countries, those segments get massive play. When I get off the plane in places like Spain or Germany, I get, 'It's a real honor to meet you. I watch you all the time.' Recently I was squired around in Barcelona as if I were the Prince of Wales, and I kept thinking: You've got to be kidding. Please, tell the people back home! I have to admit, somewhat embarrassingly: I could get used to this."
Kilham's confident ease and charismatic delivery work well on screen, making for a fine leader and host. He's always up for a challenge, and that's probably why he says he's most often asked in interviews what the grossest thing he ever ate was. Answer: Fried scorpions were bad, but tempura-fried blowfish sperm was worse. "It was infinitely tastier, but strange. Just enough toxin to numb my lips for a while. I got a buzz from that."
But beyond the stunts, as a teacher, his ability to translate complex thoughts into smaller, more manageable ideas is evident in all the videos.
Filmed while on assignment researching rare medicinal herbs for corporate clients, he and his extensive team prepare both brief segments and longer documentary-length features that appear along with the station's news programming. The videos also appear on the web, along with copious, deeply researched articles on the plants and biology that excite him most—those he feels could have the greatest beneficial impact on people's health and wellbeing.
Even when not on a quest, the Medicine Hunter often makes public appearances and is a frequently invited guest speaker to conferences and conventions.
"The extremes that we're constantly going through!" Helene said from her corner of the couch. "One week we could be in a native village, way out—the further out the better—and then the next week, we could be at the Doctor Oz show in New York, or maybe speaking at a conference for one of the pharmaceutical companies. Big ones: the biggest you can think of."
"Oh, yeah, I get invited by the big drug companies to be the headline act for them," Kilham agreed. He sat crosslegged on the Persian rug, smiling ironically. Kilham stresses on his website, "At Medicine Hunter we focus on traditional plant-based medicines and their sustainable trade as a way to contribute to a better world." By promoting "natural, plant-based medicines" he hopes "to protect the natural environment, and to support indigenous cultures."
The massive drug companies hire him "to lecture to them about medicinal plants," he said. "And I'm up there going, 'You know your stuff is toxic. You know ours is safe.' And they're just sort of nodding their heads."
"They want to know about the next big thing, too, and they want to market it," Helene said. "They love your stories, and they love that our products are sustainable."
"It's so strange," Kilham said. "I mean, I might be literally drinking ayahuasca [a potent hallucinogen, pronounced eye-oh-oska] with a shaman in the rainforest, and the next minute be sitting down with Chanel in Paris."
In addition to finding speaking gigs and leads about Malaysian virility-enhancing roots, the Medicine Hunter also first met Zoe Helene, his wife, at a trade conference.
"Chris stood out in a crowd," Zoe Helene said of their first meeting four years ago.
Based in Asheville, she had spent more than 20 years working in communications for large corporations, and was looking for a new career closer to her artistic and activist roots. The Natural Products Expo's slogan is "Where doing business just comes naturally," and this seemed to her like a good place to start.
He was on break between speaking events, hanging out with a vendor friend. While most people were dressed "corporate-casual," he wore a Hawaiian shirt. But what really caught her eye was the boar's tusk curled around his wrist. She had grown up in New Zealand, was familiar with Maori traditions, and had studied costume design in college.
"Only chiefs are supposed to wear those, you know?" she said.
Kilham smiled and replied, "I'm a chief."
One of the perks of a job as the front man for a global corporation looking to collaborate with indigenous people to harvest local resources is that those people show their appreciation in some peculiar ways, such as bestowing titles and tusks. On his home page and on his dining room wall, Kilham has a startlingly close, vivid photograph he took of the chiefs who honored him in 2005 in the South Pacific island republic of Vanuatu. The elder with the grey beard in the center of the image, in addition to a loin cloth and rubber flipflops, is wearing nothing more than a set of handsome wild boar tusks.
Zoe Helene saw Kilham's tusk in 2007, and in addition to marrying him, she became his partner in keeping the Medicine Hunter enterprises on the rails. She built and maintains the Hunter's website, often travels with him, and manages all the copious content—words, pictures, audio and video—that he generates.
While visiting the Shipibo people in a village in Peru, Helene's nurturing nature was honored when the name Little Bear was bestowed on her. In an earlier adventure with the Makusi Indians on the Venezuelan border, Kilham was identified with the Black Vulture as a creature that is involved with life and death, moving between heaven and the underworld.
Lately, the Medicine Hunter has been devoting much of his time and attention to tracking down a rare tree that exudes a sap known as dragon's blood.
From a small, unlabeled cosmetic container, Kilham rubbed some of the dark red substance on the inside of this reporter's arm. After turning a bright tan, the substance dried and became invisible, gripping the skin like a layer of dried Elmer's glue. Kilham smiled at the results.
"It becomes a beige latex shield," he said. "We have this monster body of science on this stuff. It has antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral properties. It's anti-inflammatory. It causes your skin to heal faster."
At the time of the interview, Kilham was taking a break from packing. In a few days he was heading on a new voyage in search of dragon's blood.
"So I'm going down to Peru to go out into the Amazon with my friend Sergio," he said. "I've been traveling around down there with him for something like 18 years. We'll go anywhere to meet with different villages of people who can supply this stuff. Cool, huh?"
Kilham's known about dragon's blood since 1997, when he "spent a month down there living with a shaman and his adopted family. We lived on the Amazon in Brazil, and we'd go out into the forest, and this was one of the many things I was introduced to."
But knowing of a plant in a distant land is, of course, only half the battle if you're going to reap its financial worth.
"If you want a certain kind of pumpkin from, say, Austria, there are roads and shippers and export agents and agricultural specialists and cooling operations. In the Amazon, though, you've got—" Kilham said, pointing to himself, "and then nothing else.
"You can't call the guy seven hours up the river; you've got to get in a boat, look for Philippo, then you're spending the night there, eating fish, rice and plantains, playing with the kids, sleeping in a hammock in some shack they've loaned you. So there's all of that going on, but then you've got to figure out—if these people go out and harvest a certain tree bark or latex or whatever—what do they put it in? Where do they store it? How do they dry it? How does it get from them to Pucallpa, seven hours down the river? We have to figure all that stuff out, so that takes time."
"The expeditions I've been on," Helene added, "were about finding villages that were capable of harvesting these ingredients—either dragon's blood or cat's claw [another potent plant]—and who had these plants growing on their land. But 'capable' in many different ways, including mentally. Were they together enough as a tribe or a village? It can be very difficult sometimes; you go to one poverty-stricken village after another, and one will have a little more infrastructure than another, but one will have a questionable chief, or another will be infested by fleas. They're all very different, and then when you find one or two that might be up to the challenge, you need to train them. And that's what Chris and Sergio do, Sergio especially."
"The good news," Kilham said, is that the strenuous nature of the work is "somewhat of a barrier to competition. It's like: 'Okay, you do it. ... I'll tell you everything. I'll give you the names of the villages: have at it.' The trick, of course, is knowing where to go and having contacts. Having people who expect to see you, or when you show up unannounced, will be glad to see you. That's the real trick, and we're good at it. We're good at showing up cheerfully and being the kinds of guests that you don't mind having around.
"This trip, we're going to meet with a guy who, we've been led to believe, deals in dragon's blood in the biggest volume of anybody out there. We hope he can answer some important questions for us and take us to some villages where a high density of these trees grow."
While much of Kilham's far-ranging travel has a strong educational component, even Indiana Jones couldn't go hunting for golden idols if he didn't work for a museum prepared to pay for his bounty. Many of Kilham's expeditions are for Naturex of Avignon, France, which he describes as "one of the largest botanical extraction companies in the world." The company's tagline is "ultimate botanical benefits."
"They are the largest processor of herbs in the world," Kilham said. "So if Pepsi has a green tea beverage or Revlon has an echinacea extract in a face cream, the odds are good that these things were made by Naturex. Not the finished product, but the ingredients. I find things for them. I do a lot of research for them down in the Amazon investigating different ingredients, especially for cosmetic products."
Kilham conceded that working with corporate executives and tribal chiefs could have its conflicts. As with the timber industry, extracting botanicals could have devastating consequences. Everything Medicine Hunter is involved in, he said, "admittedly is a two-edge sword."
"I've been to probably over 30 Chinese cities, and I'll tell you, I've seen the future and it doesn't look good," Kilham said. "You look at Lima or Caracas or New Delhi and [the problems] are deep and immense and crazy, and spiraling out of control. On the other hand, native people—if they can have some kind of economy that's based on where they live, and make enough to survive—they don't have to lease their lands to the timber companies, which is what they often do. They don't have to leave and become taxi drivers and chamber maids in somebody else's nightmare in a city where they can't fish and grow food or walk in the woods.
"The real trick—and it's absolutely a total issue—is, can you manage the natural resources so you don't wipe something out? Rosewood, for example. There used to be lots of rosewood in the Amazon. There's very little rosewood there now because the perfume industry has such a high demand for it. Mahogany: you can make $100,000 worth of furniture out of one mature tree. Are you not going to cut that down?"
"People will kill for far less," Helene added.
And what would the consequences be if dragon's blood were to become a commercial hit?
"I think about this all the time," Kilham said emphatically. "We are absolutely taking natural resources. For sure. The idea, for example, with dragon's blood, though, is to have enough source areas so that if it ends up that we need something like 100 liters of the stuff, we can spread the impact around."
Many of the plants Kilham is interested in can be harvested without destroying them. When trimmed, a lot of them grow back in even greater abundance.
"You can derive, per acre, a lot more money by the sustainable harvesting of things like medicinal plants, wild fruits and oil-bearing nuts and seeds than by cutting the stuff down or grazing on it," he said. "The real challenge is making this stuff popular, but not so much that it causes pandemonium over there."
To illustrate, he turns to maca.
"It's this plant I work with that's grown in Peru, up in the Andes: it's this energizing, sex-enhancing root that's like a turnip," he said. "I've been promoting maca for the last 13 years. I've been the maca guy, talking about it at conferences and successfully popularizing it in America and Europe. I'm without a doubt the world's number one exponent of maca.
"But if we could increase its sales tenfold in the next year, I wouldn't want that," he said, explaining that such an increase would swamp the trade and could potentially overextend the supply. He recommended a gentler course that would have less a corrosive effect on the environment. "I'd love to see that kind of increase over four or five years," he said. "That would be a tremendous ramp-up for those growers."
Helene said that when she began visiting supply villages, she was surprised to see that, despite their remoteness, they were very much connected to the outside world.
"The thing to bear in mind about the kids in these villages is, all they really want is an iPod," she said.
Kilham concurred. "You go into these tiny Amazon villages and there's these Internet cafes and you see kids in them, playing games and communicating with people all over the world," he said.
"I have some great pictures of teens wearing their interpretation of hip-hop, way out there. It's their choice, their impression of themselves and of America," Zoe Helene said. "Two projects I've started recently are taking pictures of kids in remote villages in Disney T-shirts—which I find really awful, actually—and the presence of Coca-Cola in these far-off villages. They'll have nothing, but they'll have their Coca-Cola sign."
Not everything the Medicine Hunter does and endorses is corporate- or media-friendly. He's not just looking for ointments that heal bee stings when he heads south to visit his shaman friends.
"[Organic hallucinogens] most certainly have their purpose," he said. "I use them unabashedly, and I'm definitely one of their ardent supporters and promoters, if used correctly. There are unquestionably reckless ways to use these substances that aren't beneficial at all. Like I don't think taking ten peyote buttons and going to a Red Sox game is a good strategy—nothing against the Sox. It's just a bad idea.
"But for example, in the Amazon, over the past few years, I and we and different gatherings of friends have gone down and regularly participated in ayahuasca ceremonies with highly trained shamans, and had our own, personal healing experiences.
"I've heard it said that true healing puts into order the body, mind and spirit with the past, present and future," Kilham said. "The one thing that magic mushrooms, peyotes, San Pedro cactus and ayahuasca all have in common is that they're all called 'la medicina,' the medicine. They're all about healing. You can go to them with addictions and be healed of them. That's common.
"A friend of mine after two days was pretty much rid of four years of chronic fatigue. If you have a realization on, say, ayahuasca, the realization is so complete and thorough and absolutely all-embracing that for a period, you become that realization. And the reverberative effect that exists in your psyche afterwards is very strong."
As the "explorer in residence" at the University of Massachusetts, each January Kilham takes 15 students for a 10-day trip to the Amazon to discuss topics like this. The class is known as The Shaman's Pharmacy. Showing students how to identify medicinal plants growing both on the ground and in the canopy, he and Helene introduce them to the rainforest and its awe-inspiring ecology.
Kilham said that while the trips are far tamer than a typical Medicine Hunter adventure, he gets great satisfaction seeing young people experience the jungle for the first time.
"I first saw the rainforest of Puerto Rico when I was 15," he said. "I was on a community work project, and I remember the moment I got hooked. I was painting a church out in the country, and I was up on the scaffolding and I looked over my shoulder and saw the wall of trees and thought, 'Yeah, man, that is where I want to spend my time.'"
Published in the Valley Advocate, Thursday, August 04, 2011
Used with permission