Tracing Plant Essences: Regeneration through the alchemy of essential oils.
These photos have been produced through a commissioned investigation of how essential oils are helping support and regenerate native communities and their landscapes. The work has brought me in close contact with the growing, harvesting and the art of distillation from all around the world. From soil to bottle, I tell the story of how plants and people can work in tandem to heal and regenerate this planet.
Southern Amazon of Peru,
Madre de Dios
Camino Verde, Baltimori, 2019
Flying over the Andes to arrive to Puerto Maldonando in Southern Peru.
The landscape changes as you head south. More and more of the mountains turn to forests, until you can not make out a single tree but a blanket of trees that weave together the forest canopy.
We head out into the rural areas and then deep into the primary forests of Madre De Dios region. Walking by foot, you become increasingly small as the sounds and walls of the forest begin to envelop you. Birds, monkeys, insects. Encountering the majestic trees that make up the canopy of the rainforest, one feels as though they are witnessing not only sublimity but potentially the last moments of an ancient forest.
Audio Clip: Sounds of Primary Forest
Walking through primary forest with Robin Van Loon director of Camino Verde, one can begin to feel held and embraced by the etheric of the rainforest and its great presence. I follow Robin and he occasionally crumbles leaves in his hands and passes them to me to smell. He recites their common and scientific names like poetry. The smells further his poem. The smells of Moena are strongly aromatic, fresh, clean, woody, and handsome. It is unlike any other smell. And while Camino Verde’s work is rainforest regeneration, I am wondering how this smell is related to the work that they do.
After precarious foot bridges, cathedrals like root walls of great Kapok trees, dodging bullet ants and the soundtrack of howler monkeys, we arrive to the Camino Verde Reforestation Center in Baltimori. Life here is regulated by the weather and the amount of sunlight available for working. Solar powered and wild, it is an authentic taste of jungle living. Here is where the Camino Verde team maintain their nursery, do most of their planting, host visitors and distill oils.
Don Juan Rafaele climbs his ladder into a great gathering of Moena trees. He harvests branches and leaves of the tree by hand for a distillation. The branches are cut in a method that helps maintain the forest, it is forestry work, no trees are harmed, over harvested, disrespected or exploited. Don Juan seems as part of this forest as the leaf cutter ants that are parading their bright green leaf pieces at my feet by the hundreds. Not only does Don Juan harvest Moena for Camino Verde, but Camino Verde is able to purchase Moena from his farm across the river. This harmless harvest is not only utilizing branches that would normally fall anyway from falling branches of giant over story trees, but it also helps families keep their traditional jungle chakras (farms). Providing an alternative to the other choices to meet economic demands, such as gold mining or clearing land for commercial mono-crops like soy, corn, or cattle. These essential oils are not only regenerative for the forest and ecology but its people too.
The Moena branches are stacked and ready for distillation.
The Still: Making a steam distillation in the field.
The Camino Verde distiller amongst the nursery of rainforest trees.
From the amount of plant material used for the distillation the actual essential oil yield
is small and precious.
Moena is the name for many species of trees in the rainforest. This little bottle came to hold the results of a first ever distillation of wild branches of Endlicheria williamsii, a less common variety of Moena. This is a little bottle of magic.
This is just one plant being utilized to help fund families, planting of trees, and demonstrating a way to meet economic demands while conserving this earth. Commerce will never leave us, but we can change the way in which we use resources, creating a reciprocal relationship with our planet. These essential oils represent to me the re-distribution of wealth from the West to the lingering native communities around the world.
It makes me wonder about plant intelligence and that these oils might help inspire social change and stewardship of land and people.
~Blair Butterfield 2019