An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of January 28, 2008
Issued from the woods just east of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

SHAMAN WITHOUT PORTFOLIO

The moment I stepped from the car carrying me into my camp in the woods near Natchez I was washed with the odor of crushed herbage, mud, a flower's perfume, there were birdcalls, and I saw more freshly leafed-out greenness than I could digest; green like Ireland in June, but somehow more robust and expansive, like Beethoven is to Debussy.

At that very moment I knew that the Yucatán had changed me. In earlier springtime returns these same sensations had evoked sweet, homey associations with my childhood springs in rural Kentucky, but now those childhood connections no longer were being made. Instead, to my astonishment and fascination, I was seeing things without reference to past or future, things as they were right then, and I'm not sure how this came to pass.

I'd first felt the new mindset at the border, crossing the Rio Grande into Texas. The US's landscape no longer struck me as comfortably organized in the manner of a remembered homeland, but rather after so long in the Yucatán things in the US seemed unnervingly geometrical and simplified, maybe even sterilized with too much obsessive attention, too much busy-ness, a landscape seemingly beat into submission. And the gringos -- of whom I was one but now not entirely so -- were so big, bleached and succulent, slow-moving and slow-talking, but how they walked like kings, every one of them, except for those who didn't.

On my first walk barefoot along the Mississippi woods it seemed that my Maya shaman friend José Tamay walked with me, pinching and smelling leaves, tasting bark-chips, poking a finger beneath herbs to see if tubers were there, chewing this or that twig or leaf, raising eyebrows, smiling, looking with wonderment deeply into things.

At the Hacienda I would tell visitors how the Maya made yellow dye from Mora bark, but now in Mississippi I remembered that yellowness also can be coaxed from the bark of eastern North America's Black Oak. For two and a half years I've been telling people how the Maya craft baskets from woody vines of the genus Cydista, but now I recall baskets just as elegant woven by Appalachian craftsmen from strips of eastern North America's White Oak. And also here along this Mississippi woods edge there's Sassafras whose roots brew a good-tasting hot drink that, my Grandfather Conrad always said, "thins the blood," something needing done each spring. And there are Pecan trees promising big, oily nuts in October and November, and wild grapevines and Lambsquarter and blackberry thickets and pokeweed sprouts, all with their own offerings.

Among the Maya, one becomes a shaman by acquiring secret, magical information and insight. I cannot say exactly how it's happened, but at this point here beside the woods in southwestern Mississippi I find myself compeled to declare that I have a shamanistic vision revealing to me this: That exactly as the plants of the Mayan Yucatán are exquisitely adapted to their homeland, and render unto that homeland all forms of magical and mystical bounty and enrichment, these plants around me now, plants of the Eastern North America Biome, are no less exquisitely adapted, and render no less bounty and enrichment, with no less magic and mystical implication.

All magic, all magic, all magic everywhere along the Mississippi woods edge, across fields, along roads, sprouting, greening, blossoming, emitting fragrances, concocting leaf chemicals and secret stores of carbohydrate and protein, all of everything intricately intermeshed, interdependent, surging on and on with life and more life, cycles within cycles, exactly as the Maya say, exactly as my own mind testifies exactly here and now in southwestern Mississippi.

There is this term, "Minister without portfolio," meaning a government minister with no specific responsibilities or one who does not head a particular ministry. Here in the woods of southwestern Mississippi with my new Yucatán shamanistic head I hereby declare my allegiance to the government of Nature as the Maya know it in the Yucatán and as I know it here in Mississippi right now.

Moreover, in this government that admits no ministries I do hereby declare myself Shaman Without Portfolio, stationed for the moment in southwestern Mississippi, and open for business. Facebook Icon.