Editor’s Note: Jonathon Miller-Weisberger is the author of Rainforest Medicine. He offers sacred plant medicine retreats at his remote eco-lodge in the jungles of Costa Rica guided by elder master-shaman of the Secoya tribe from Ecuador. You can find out more about his upcoming transformational events, here.
The Secoya elders, legendary plant masters from the Upper Napo Region of the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest, an ethnic minority, whose name, Secoya, means “people from the multi-colored river,” will be present at Guaria de Osa Ecolodge, gathering in Council three times, offering teachings this Winter (Dec 2012 – Jan 2013) to facilitate boundless healing, personal transformation and renewal.
Jonathon Miller Weisberger (aka Sparrow), Founder and Steward of Guaria De Osa, is an ethno-botanist and student of traditional Chinese and indigenous medicine, a naturalist and rainforest guide. He has 10 years of ground level experience and over 20 years experience working with indigenous peoples and communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon region. He has studied Tui Na therapeutic massage, Tai Chi, Chigong, Feng Shui and I Ching with Dr. Huang Cheng Jin of the Tai Chi Kong Fa Chino Academy in Ecuador. Jonathon has three certificates in Ecological Design from the Permaculture Institute and currently lives in his garden on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica.
In the short time that I’ve had to walk and speak with Jonathon, I’ve found he commits to his work with a rare dedication, giving attention and activism to the preservation and perseverance of the Earth and all her offerings. In each way that Jonathon acts, he propels a number of personal and community-based projects individually and cooperatively designed to work with a flourishing and well-balanced ecosystem. His work strikes the balance, being beneficial for the community that stewards and interacts with the land and resources being protected. Through models developed by Jonathon, such as Guaria de Osa Ecolodge, conservation occurs as a natural rhythm of life. This rhythm is experienced and taught through the work of developed programs and workshops supported by local staff as well as student and volunteer involvement. Jonathon also teaches as a communicator of the rainforest, understanding the lessons, nutrients and medicines of these diversified plants and animals.
Terra Celeste: You have an extensive understanding, not just of the plants and animals of the rainforest, but how they fit together as an ecology. The gardens at Guaria de Osa, a rehabilitated rainforest intentionally planted with your landscape design, includes hand-painted signs with the names of plants, integrating this knowledge into the experience of the land.
I see much of your work as a translation – you are communicating to us the story, meaning and spirit of the rainforest. From simple introductions, such as name signs for plants in the Guaria de Osa gardens, you also communicate an understanding of the cohesive whole – an intuitive knowledge of how each plant and animal resonates and contributes as part of the Rainforest and even more broadly, the Rainforest as a vital part of our Earth.
When did you fall in love with the rainforest? Have you always known that you would be an ethnobotanist ?
Jonathon: When I was nine and then again at age 11, I was sent to accompany a friend of my family who was studying the qualities of the rainforest plants. I was his assistant and helped him press botanical specimens. I remember vividly many of the adventures and this awoke a deep admiration and love for tropical nature, and especially an interest for medicinal plants.
The Secoya are an indigenous ethnic minority, a genuine Amazonian people, they number today approx. 700 individuals; half the tribe live in Ecuador and the other half in Peru. Until recently they were separated by the conflict between these two countries but now the boarder issues have been resolved and the families are starting to reunite after a 50 years separation. The Secoya elders are torchbearers of an ancient spiritual tradition, of healing and wellness through the use of different plant medicines and association with different spiritual realities. I was fortunate to spend 5 quality years living among and working among them, between 1995-2000. My main efforts were dedicated towards assistance in recuperating a large tract of rainforest lands on the Ecuadorian and Peruvian boarder and area called Lagartococha (black caiman lakes). We organized a dozen or more exodus style voyages there, upon request of course by the elders. Since the turn of the century, the Secoya have lost 95% of their population and 98% of the ancestral homelands, mainly from the introduction illness they had no immunities too. With the indigenous Sequoya no longer populating the land, arriving settlers were able to move in.
The Sequoya are a people of the lakes, this remote wilderness area is filled with stories and legends. It’s amazing to see how well they know the area, from the stories of the elders, each lake, each bend in the river had an account from the days of their ancestors. Eventually through many visits to the Ecuadorian government and organizing visits of the leaders and leaders to Quito, we were successful in assisting the Sequoya in the recuperation of this region. This was the dream of the late Fernando Payaguaje, who aspired his people return to this region, where the traditional way of life can be upheld. His life story and accounts are written up in the book, The Yage Drinker. [A PDF of this tremendous book can be found here: http://www.maps.org/freebooks/yagedrinker/portada-the_yage_drinker.pdf]
My time among them was also spent documenting their culture and traditions and I was able to produce several works for the community, a book on the use of the medicinal herbs in both Spanish and their native tongue, Pai Coca, a cosmology wall calendar and a small book on the Secoya cultural migrations. These works were drafted with the help of the elders and the school teacher, Celestino Piaguaje as well as my good friend, interpreter and guide Alfredo Payaguaje, the grandson of the late Don Fernando and distributed among the Secoya village. In order to fund these projects I organized tours to their village, two a year. Here is when Daniel Pinchbeck joined us and this adventure is written up in his epic book Breaking Open the Head. We were able to accomplish many other works of solidarity among the Secoya, such as the purchase of a canoe and motor for the Secoya woman’s organization, an outboard motor for the Sehuaya village as well as a radio communication system, among other acts of solidarity.
In response to your question pertaining to the importance of the Secoya people’s ancient traditions, a few things are clear. Their central belief is of merging with the energy of celestial immortal beings, the Wiñapai, the Ever-new-ones. They are beings in a constant state of self renewal – they are always new. The way the Secoya dress in the ceremonies is due to the fact that this is how these celestial immortals dress, with cross necklaces, in multicolored tunics, crowns with red on the front, yellow on the sides and a band of azure blue. To the wiñapai each moment is like a new life. It is believed that for those who abide in this way of life, deep spiritual realization is a result. The elders are ever humble and service oriented, they truly uphold, in all grace the “universal culture of service.”
The Secoya are original torchbearers of an ancient traditional plant, the science of yagé. Also known as ayahuasca, a richly alkaline brew of two plants, it is a purge, a tonic and an entheogen. Today, people worldwide are interested in the indigenous plant science of the Amazon. This has been opening new avenues for healing on a core and deep level of many complex imbalances. For this reason the Secoya people’s ancient healing and wellness tradition becomes like a rudder steering the cosmic yagé medicine boat towards a noble and auspicious destination.
Indeed during these times many ancient traditions will reappear to awaken and enliven the lives of many people worldwide. Understanding the science of plants and medicines from the Amazon and cultures, such as the Sequoya who’ve been practicing with these medicines for generations is a vital part of the global transformation, ever so necessary in these transition times. To make the change necessary, one has to be vibrant and active. We can pretty much bank on the passive and sluggish to not participate as part of the solution. These traditions and ceremonies of renewal help people to reconnect with their ecological self, their authentic self, it gives energy, focus and awareness of ones higher goals. Through understanding the yage, we can each reach towards fulfillment for ourselves and for others. In this way many people working worldwide, together become part of the global solution for planetary peace among all species.
Guaria is the purple orchid, a symbol for the newness of nature, and to assist others in touching this “newness” is the basic concept, to assist many in achieving spiritual and physical renewal through intimate contact with great nature!
You carry a rare and intuitive sense of what it is to build, working with the Earth to find natural harmonies in the use of land and balance of space. This sense is reflected in the design and architecture of the Guaria de Osa Retreat Center located in what you refer to as a people friendly rainforest and ocean wilderness setting, south of Drake Bay on Costa Rica’s remote Osa peninsula.
What is your source of inspiration when creating these retreat and educational spaces? How would you describe your philosophy of architectural and landscape design? Is your focus on sustainability? Comfort?
My inspiration come from nature, from wildlife and from sincere good hearted people who are dedicated to what they do in a whole hearted and absolute way. As for architectural design, I was fortunate to study Feng Shui with Dr. Huang in Ecuador. Feng Shui means Wind and Lake, it is the study of motion and stillness, and how this relates to human habitation. I would accompany him on house calls, and I was able to see many sick people dying of many types of illness. Dr. Huang would always point out the flaws in the Feng Shui of their homes and correlate how it related to the patients illness. For example, at one man’s home who had stomach cancer, his dining area protruded out, below there was no support. Structurally it was sturdy but not integral according to the principals of Feng Shui. And many other cases we were able to see. There are many aspects to architecture and landscape design. The most basic is that the design must be arranged in such a way that allows energy to flow where it needs to flow, and to settle where it the energy can accumulate, allowing for harmony, auspicious growth and good health. Not the inverse, which causes stagnation, loss of vitality and illness. For example, the back of a stair case should be covered so as not to lose the auspicious energy created by people walking up and down the stairs. The side of a home should not be too smooth, so that auspicious energy can accumulate in the grooves, and there should not be a doorway directly opposite an entrance way so that the energy being brought into the house does not leak out. The roof edges can be raised so that there are no sharp points, edges, pointing to where people may pass. These are just some examples.
As for landscape design, again I believe in following a few basic principal of nature. The first is that stability is created through fertility that is created through diversity, and this is a cycle. The second being, complementary opposites, like a shadow that’s cast from its object, and the third, that where two opposites meet there is an overlapping area of increased abundance. These three basic principals are at the root of sustainability. As for comfort, my personal philosophy, I believe, is that less is more, and more is less.
Since the onset of the lodge, despite debts and high overhead expenses for maintenance, significant proceeds (10-25%) from visitors tuition have been channeled to upkeep and maintain several ongoing rainforest conservation, restoration and cultural heritage validation efforts in both Ecuador and Costa Rica. Guaria is the purple orchid, an elegant symbol for the “newness” or “freshness” of nature, and to assist others in touching this “newness” is the basic concept, to assist many in achieving spiritual and physical renewal through intimate contact with great nature is the goal!
For years I lived with no hot water and slept on a folded blanket on a wood floor. Simplicity truly is the key to comfort, ok some cushions why not, but truly we do not need all the things we may think we need, and often times hidden in the cushions is the deadly needle. I always marvel at how little known, yet simultaneously how important is the architectural work of Arakawa and Gins, not that we followed any of their concepts, but more for the idea of overcoming comforts as a way to attain good health. I would say our lodge follows more the design and comfort principals of two ancient architectural styles, from the traditions of Tao and from the Amazon malocas, and of course with the modern conveniences of orthopedic mattress’s and seat cushions. High ceilings allow hot air to rise keeping the rooms cool, and ceiling fans always help too!
A life of balance and harmony is deeply valued and integrated at Guaria de Osa Eco lodge with dedicated space for yoga (designed by Jonathon and a friend Bruce Harlow). This space was created using the repurposed, reclaimed wood of trees that were felled over 50 years back to create the pastures in the nearby settlement of Los Planes, along with trees naturally felled, blown over in windstorms. Incredibly, the wood used for building Guaria de Osa was all hauled in by oxen teams and horses and all supplies were brought in by boat, as there is no road access to Guaria de Osa.
Please share more about the healing and wellness spaces of Guaria de Osa…
Most people live in small spaces with low ceilings, at Guaria de Osa people can enjoy the expansive design of our main lodge, the Lapa Lapa lodge that allows for ones imagination to wander. Einstein said, ‘imagination is more important than knowledge’ and all good things, I believe, come form a right attitude towards life. This of course is a very personal matter and one that each person, must decide for themselves.
The first building to go up was the main lodge, it is a stone’s throw distance form the ocean, surrounded by winding paths and flowering gardens, fruiting trees and palms. It is an amazing feat of architecture, three stories high and made entirely of reclaimed tropical hardwoods! The lodge is a combination of Taoist temple architecture with its three stories representing the three principal energy centers of the body (the three tan-dien) and raised roof eaves, rounding off the edges to allow for a feeling of peace and harmony with nature. Some elements of Amazonian malocas are present as well, such as the fanned rafters and the open uninhibited space, representing the vastness of the universe. The first floor is called the Dharma Hall, a great place for gathering during the heat of the summer day, its high roof, 13 foot high ceiling allows hot air to rise and its 35 x 50 foot (1750 square feet) tile floor is a great space for group gatherings, for arts and crafts making and resting in the hammocks.
Here one finds tiled mosaics, one of the purple orchids and another of the integration of east and west. The lodge being close to both the pacific and Atlantic oceans at a balance point between north and south America is a great place for eastern and western spiritual philosophies to merge, as well as the harmonization between the right and left hemispheres of the brain! Here we have held epic ceremonies with the Secoya elders from Ecuador, visiting the Lodge to assist us in hosting our native retreats called Rainforest Council Gatherings. Many incredible accounts of healing and personal renewal have taken place here.
The second floor has a huge hard wood yoga space. My partner Monica and I took ten days to polish it by hand and we like to keep it shimmering clean! On this floor we have two guest rooms and an elegant bathroom as well. A stair case leads one to the observatory cupula where one gets breathtaking ocean views and can enjoy a supreme sunset that daily we are gifted with.
At Guaria we also have a quaint outdoor eating area as well as several cottages and ocean view bungalows for our guests all elegantly located among the gardens and fruit trees. The island is an area surrounded by a small creek that runs through the property, here we hold sunrise renewal ceremonies, with alkaline rich rainforest plant medicines. Currently we have room to accommodate 30 visiting guests.
Jonathon, you’re the primary designer of the landscape and architecture of Guaria de Osa, can you speak to the nature of living as an integrated part of the rainforest – creating comfortable human habitats while also supporting the surrounding ecologies? How does this sense of balance translate into other parts of life? For those who don’t live in the rainforest, what kind of skills or knowledge might they obtain, attending a workshop or meditation offered, or even just spending time at Guaria de Osa?
We are a part of nature, and we must not drift far form her. I think any rational and somewhat conscious human can just look around to see that not only have we drifted far form nature. Quite possible it may a soon coming global disaster! We must live in harmony with nature, otherwise, sooner or later we court disaster. When we are in harmony with nature, we are in harmony with ourselves and with others, ultimately, true happiness is the result! This does not mean it is always easy, quite on the contrary it can be a great challenge, but it is one ever worth the while!
A newly made friend participated on a yoga retreat at Guaria de Osa with a California based Yoga teacher who has been returning consistently each year. After almost a year I saw him again and he could not thank me more for his stay at Guaria de Osa. He says still he can hear the soothing sound of the waves and feel the warm air on his skin, the lush scents on his nose. He assured me that the experience has been a source of inspiration and renewal and has been something that has lasted much longer than the week spent there. We both agreed that the experience served for him as a long lasting experience in self renewal, one that in turn has aided him in so many aspects of daily life. With this in mind one week at Guaria can offer a life time of renewal and can be like a reference point that allows one to continually tap into the “freshness” the “newness” of nature.
Does every stay with Guaria de Osa include the opportunity for hands on experience? What are the volunteer opportunities like? What is the level of involvement each volunteer / participant should expect in coming to Guaria de Osa?
Guest have the option to take tours into the rainforest, to be as active or as relaxed as they choose, it is their experience to do with as they please, and to be pampered, enjoy the grounds the food and the entire experience! Often times, to do less is to do more. Some want to trek, visit the goddess Jacuzzi and nearby waterfalls, hike to the Corcovado National park and others wish to just lounge, read, lay on the beach and catch up with much needed rest and relaxation, maybe even catch up on lost sleep with a long mid day nap! A significant percentage of guests’ tuition directly benefits our non profit conservation efforts, just as our slogan states, “saving the rainforest one vacation at a time”. Nightly rates start from $75 – $125 per night, including three meals and indoor lodging in either beach bungalows or cottages. The main lodge has two really nice rooms with high ceilings overlooking the gardens!
Volunteers on the other hand are obliged to work a minimum of 6 hours a day, at times up to 8, depending on what is going on. Volunteering posts are available on our marine turtle conservation projects that take place form July to December, as well as on gardening projects and