A tall, fair-skinned blonde woman traveling down the Amazon River and into the remote areas of the Amazon rainforest is an oddity of sorts. However, for most of my life I’ve been told that I’m odd. Admittedly, trekking through jungles, studying the plant knowledge of indigenous Indian shamans and South American herbal healers, getting harassed in airport customs with a suitcase full of strange-looking murky liquids, bark, leaves, and roots, and running a large corporation in the process, is pretty unusual. However, it never really was a goal of mine to just be “usual.”
Most people who first meet me often ask: “How did you ever get into a profession like this?” Looking back, a series of journeys seems to have redirected the course of my life and shaped it into what it is today. I have to go back about twenty years to my most memorable journey, which started me onto this odd path where I find myself today.
I first became interested in herbal medicine and alternative health when, in my mid-twenties, I was diagnosed with acute myeloblastic leukemia (AML). Conventional medicine gave up on me after two years of traditional chemotherapy and cancer treatments and sent me home to die. I was twenty-four years old and was told I wouldn’t see my twenty-fifth birthday. But being the odd, determined, stubborn, rebellious individual that most people described me as even back then, I didn’t give up.
Twenty years ago it was even harder than it is now to access accurate information on herbs and alternative therapies. But you might say that I had a “dying need to know,” and I began studying alternative health with a vengeance. With a combination of herbal medicine, diet, nutrition, and other natural healing modalities, I was diagnosed as cancer-free eighteen months later. Not only was my cancer gone, but the extensive damage that was done to my body and internal organs from the conventional cancer treatments was healed or on the mend. Another real oddity, I was told. My oncologist, who scoffed at anything herbal or unconventional, believes that I was simply too stubborn to die. I know there is some truth in that statement, but I also believe that herbal medicine went a long way in curing my cancer and healing my body.
What I didn’t understand then (or now, really) is why they call chemotherapy and today’s modern medicine “conventional medicine” and refer to herbal medicine as “alternative.” My personal journey showed me that herbal medicine was much more conventional. It dates back literally centuries in time, with the less-than-100-year-old pharmaceutical industry offering the “alternatives” to the plant medicines we’ve used since before human beings even learned how to chronicle their uses. At least for me, herbal medicine was much more effective than the “alternatives” conventional medicine offered me in my personal battle with cancer.
After winning this battle, I continued on in my business career in Texas, starting companies in several different industries and selling them when I became bored with their day-to-day management. In business I was considered “successful,” and that success resulted in a ballistic, workaholic lifestyle. I continued studying herbal medicine and alternative health as a hobby, choosing to use herbs and natural health rather than drugs for my and my family’s health. They thought I was pretty odd too, but they accepted the strange herbal potions and nutritional remedies I gave them when they were sick.
Then, in 1989, I took a much-needed vacation that changed the course of my life yet again. Maybe it was just the first time I had taken a breath or a break in many years, but a journey to the wilds of Africa somehow reconnected me to the land, nature, and wildlife. It showed me that I needed to make a change in the hectic, harried life I had created, which was involved in the ego of success and the power of money and which wasn’t really personally fulfilling. So, when I returned from Africa, I sold my companies, bought a ranch in the hill country of Texas, and “retired.”
There—in a conventional, sort of backwards, rural Texas community north of Austin—I quickly became “the odd woman at Clear Creek Ranch” to the local farmers and ranchers. I grew weird plants, herbs, and vegetables, raised a motley menagerie of teenage boys and exotic animals (which hardly ever acted like they were supposed to), had too much land that was “unproductive,” and was obviously in dire need of a husband to make her do things right. Leastwise, that’s what the local farmers and ranchers would tell you. That didn’t keep them from dropping by to tell me about their aches and pains to see what kind of odd concoction of plants I might pick out of the gardens and give them, and which somehow mysteriously worked. Often, they’d just drop by to see what odd thing I was up to that day.
Wanting to give something back (and a bit bored with farm life), I started a small consulting company there on the ranch. The company (me) researched and collected information on cancer and AIDS therapies that were being used in other places in the world and taught cancer patients how they could access them. My personal mission was to compile all the research on alternative therapies and to make the information available to those faced with the same struggle that I had once confronted. It had been a great source of frustration and a committed struggle for me to try to access this type of information when I had cancer, especially at a time when I had little enough energy to just get through a day.
It was during this research that I came across an herbal extract that was sold as an herbal drug in Europe for cancer and AIDS patients, with some interesting results. When I determined that it was a simple extract of a natural plant that could be sold here as an herbal supplement (for a lot less money than the European company was charging), I decided to go to the source where the plant grew. My mission then was to try to import the plant into the United States. The plant was called cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa), and the source was the Amazon rainforest in Peru. This new journey into the Amazon rainforest changed the course of my life yet again.
On that first journey into the rainforest, I fell in love. I fell in love with the jungle, the people, the culture, the lifestyle and attitude, the plants and trees, the incredible rivers . . . all of which make up the Amazon rainforest. I also saw, on that first trip, the incredible amount of destruction that was happening in the Amazon. I saw that it was possible that the whole thing could go up in smoke and be wiped off the face of the Earth, conceivably in my lifetime. Waiting for my flight home in the Lima airport in Peru, I sat there sunburned, bug-bit, tired, and excited and decided that not only did I want to start a new company in the States to begin importing this wonderful plant called cat’s claw but that I also had to try to make a difference to help stop the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. I didn’t quite know how then, but I knew that an odd, determined, stubborn, rebellious sort of person such as myself had as good a chance as anyone else did.
That was the beginning of a group of companies that I founded in my thoughts sitting in the Lima airport, and officially two days later in Austin, Texas. I came out of “retirement” and began importing cat’s claw into the United States shortly thereafter. Through my ongoing work with the company and the many subsequent trips to the Amazon, I learned more and more about the other medicinal plants that were used as natural medicines by the indigenous peoples in the rainforest and began importing those as well. My company quickly outgrew Clear Creek Ranch and it was time to sell it and move back into the city as the journey, which now seemed to have a life of its own, continued forward.
In my work with the Raintree group of companies which I founded in 1995, I have been setting up plant harvesting programs with Indian tribes and rural Amazon communities, that are today, sustainably harvesting more than sixty medicinal plants from Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia. My ongoing research on medicinal plants continues to take me into the heart of the rainforest, where I work side by side with indigenous tribal shamans and medicine men, rural village herbalists and local “doctors” called curanderos, as well as North and South American herbalists, plant chemists, and universities.
Traveling through the remote areas of the Amazon where medicines, hospitals, and doctors are virtually non-existent has brought an opportunity to learn as a practitioner how to treat illnesses and diseases that I would never encounter in the United States . . . malaria, diphtheria, yellow fever, typhoid, and leprosy, just to name a few (not to mention the incredible bacterial, parasitic and fungal infections I’ve seen!). As a practitioner or healer in the jungle, I am called “jaguar-woman,” white witch, shaman, an Indian phrase that translates to “big mother in charge,” or curandera (healer) by the remote villages and Indians I visit and work with. I use their ancient knowledge of their plants and combine it with western research and science, so my “potions” are different, yet familiar, to their shamans and healers. Again, they think I’m pretty odd too, but many have never seen a very tall blonde woman with blue eyes and freckles (which many shamans have tried to cure me of!). As a board certified naturopath here in the States, I enjoy working on the many hard cases that get referred to me—people who have exhausted all other therapies and are willing to try some unusual jungle remedy for their cure. It seems my life has come full circle in the last twenty years, and I now find myself helping many cancer patients in my practice, when it was once me that was faced with this deadly disease so many years ago.
Oddly enough, of all the businesses I have founded and managed in my career, this is the only one that I’ve never had to determinedly push, market, make work, or direct. Since they were created, I have literally been running behind them trying to keep up. They seem to have a life, path, and purpose of their own; and I have never worked so hard, had so much fun and adventure, and been as personally fulfilled as I am today. It has certainly been a grand adventure. However odd it is, I feel I am truly blessed to be on the path I find myself on today.
My journey has just recently been redirected yet again: this year, I’ve moved myself and company—lock, stock, and barrel—to Carson City, Nevada. It seems that it was time for me to focus on helping some North American Indian tribes, much in the same manner that I’ve been assisting the South American Indians over the years. If this new venture/adventure is successful, my next book may well be on North American Indian medicinal plants and the need to put our own Native Americans back onto their ancestral lands (now owned and controlled by our government’s forestry agencies) as caretakers of the land in sustainable plant harvesting programs. What an adventurous journey that will be! Believe it or not, I haven’t been bored—not once—in the last nine years; that doesn’t look like it will be changing any time soon, either!
Before I became known as “the white witch of the Amazon,” I was (and am) a businesswoman first and foremost. When I first arrived in the Amazon, I approached the rainforest and rainforest conservation in a business-like manner and began to look for business solutions to rainforest destruction. This was odd to the activists and conservationists I came across, but again, I was used to being called odd. I believed then and now that, wherever you are in the world, basic business strategies still apply. Greed is greed and profits are profits, even in the remote jungles. If you want someone to do something, make it profitable for them to do and it’s not so hard to convince them. So I set about showing people in the rainforest how they could make more money sustainably harvesting medicinal plants like cat’s claw than they could make at timber harvesting, grazing livestock, agriculture, or subsistence cropping—practices that destroy the forest. It sounds almost too simple, but it’s effective and it works.
The only component left to make this business strategy work is to create the market demand for these sustainable forest resources so that it can result in profits for those participating. That’s not as hard as it sounds either. The alternative health and natural/herbal products industry in the United States is growing at an unprecedented rate. Recent statistics show that consumers have spent more out-of-pocket funds on alternative health and alternative health products and supplements than they have for conventional medicine over the past few years. And the rainforest does provide a wealth of beneficial natural products and highly effective medicinal plants for that industry.
This book represents almost ten years of my personal research and documentation on these important medicinal plants in the Amazon rainforest during my journeys into the South American jungles and in my journey with Raintree. I firmly believe that medicinal plants, such as those discussed in this book, are the true wealth of the rainforest and the means by which it can be saved from destruction. They have for centuries positively affected the health and well-being of the inhabitants of the forest. Through their sustainable harvesting, they can and will positively affect the health, well-being, and continuance of the rainforest itself.
It is my sincere hope that you, the reader of this book, will learn an appreciation of the rainforest and why it is so important to be saved; learn more about the wealth of beneficial medicinal plants it provides us; and learn how you can take part in positively affecting your health and the health of the rainforest with these wonderful plants.
May your own journeys and adventures be prosperous!
Yours in health,
Leslie Taylor, ND