The blog

Alejo Carpentier, Cuban novelist of the so-called “boom” in Latin American fiction, was one of its theoreticians.  He was the one to coin the term “lo real maravilloso,” or, “magical realism.”  And in one of his essays he observes  that writing about Latin America is different because, essentially, it remains terra incognita to those he calls “people of other latitudes.”  He uses the ceiba tree, ubiquitous in Cuba, as an example.  How many Europeans and North Americans, who have no problems with a pine or palm, can call the image of this tree to mind…?

Arauco is, mostly, set in the land now called Chile.  And I ask: How many of my readers have seen, and can imagine, an araucaria tree, so typical of that land…?  How many are aware that the understory of the indigenous Chilean rain forest is bamboo…?

Arauco is also about sixteenth century Spanish conquistadores, and the people whose land they invade in the novel–their antagonists in the beginning of a three hundred year war–the Mapuche.  And I ask: how many readers of English have ever even heard of this proud people?  How many, who can easily call to mind some version of a tipi (or teepee), have any notion of the ruca, the indigenous dwelling of the Mapuche…?

This blog will do its best to help the novel transport you to Chile and the sixteenth century, with images and information, so that you can better “see” a time and place where you are not.  At the same time, although these pages are intended as a supplement to the novel, they will address subjects that might pique those simply interested in the “conquest” of the Americas … in Chile, with its landscapes, fauna and flora … and its first inhabitants, the Mapuche….





Recent Posts

Datura and Alternative Realities: In Searchof the Aboriginal Mapuche Machi (IV)

Commonly called Angel’s Trumpet, Datura stramonium sports a beautiful bloom.

IMG_6774 (1)



Here, a towering vine, with the characteristic clarion blossoms.



Said to have originated in the Americas, Datura has spread to all the world’s warm and moderate regions, where variations on the color and form of its trumpet have evolved.







Below, the seed pod, giving Datura two of its many names—pricklyburr and thorn apple.

Datura seed pod

Other common names include Jamestown weed (corrupted into jimson weed) and stinkweed.  Others are far darker: hell’s bells, devil’s bells and devil’s weed … one of these—in acute contradiction to the most common—is Devil’s Trumpet, for Datura is indeed a dark and complex thing, once its toxins are taken into the human body.  A last name–locoweed–reveals why Datura trumpet forth both Hell and Heaven….

Mad as a hatter, blind as a bat, red as a beet, dry as a bone….  The effects of Datura Stramonium intoxication—summed by this traditional ditty—are far from pleasant, and yet from time immemorial, worldwide this plant and its relatives have been used for sacred and ceremonial purposes.

Datura is a member of the potato family (the Solenaceae), which includes deadly nightshade, henbane, tobacco and mandrake, all of which are psychotropic. The active agent in Datura, atropine (a tropane alkaloid) is a poison that greatly punishes the body. As the ditty states, it causes delirium—a total inability to distinguish the vivid visions it induces from reality. Also, it dilates the pupils, which leads to photophobia.  (Here–in passing–a factoid: the “nickname” belladonna given to deadly nightshade derives from the habit of Italian belles of dosing themselves to dilate their pupils, flirting with death to increase their beauty.)  Datura also causes tachycardia—rapid beating of the heart—as well as elevated body temperatures, and an extreme dryness of the mouth. As if all this unpleasantness were not enough, Datura dosages can easily be deadly, depending on the part of the plant used (seeds, leaves, flowers) the stage of development, and the method of application or ingestion (Indeed, in some parts of Europe and India it has been cultivated as a poison). Nonetheless, used with caution, Datura has been prized by many societies for its remarkable ability to “liberate” the mind, severing its ties to reality–in other words, by providing total temporary madness.

In India, Datura is associated with the worship of Shiva—god of the dance of life—the plant said to have sprung from the hairs of his chest. And in the Americas, numerous peoples, including the Navajo, have made recreational and ritual psychotropic use of this plant. Those of European origin know Datura (or its cousins), through the well -known fact that witches fly by using ‘magic’ brooms…. Scholars have argued that such ‘flight’ actually consists of the characteristic soaring visions of Datura intoxication, caused by the application of an unguent to genitalia with a broomstick, as atropine can be absorbed through the skin (and most efficiently by the armpits and genitalia). Here’s a link to delicately worded article in The Atlantic, expanding on the ticklish theory: Why do witches ride brooms?



Technically, Datura is not a hallucinogenic, but a deliriant.   This means that, while under the influence of Datura, you are not just “seeing things,” but actually IN an alternative reality typically including spirit flight—which is to say the leaving of the body—and often transformation into animals. It is this which intrigued me for a variety of reasons when, early in my research into Mapuche culture, I discovered the use of Datura.

It is a documented fact that traditional Mapuche dose children with Datura in order to ‘see,’ in their delirium, what they will turn out to be as adults (for example, if the child picks up things not its own it will become a thief … and so on). But what drew me more to Datura and the Mapuche was its ritual use by machi. This intriguing fact which I encountered here and there in my early years of research was eventually attested to by Ana Mariella Bacigalupo’s magisterial book on Mapuche shamanism, Shamans of the Foye Tree: “Some machi ingest … the seeds of the miyaya, or chamico, plant (Datura stramonium), in order to produce hallucinations, divine the future, exorcise evil spirits, and treat pain, mental illness, asthma and rheumatism.”

In Arauco, I depict the physical effects of Datura and the characteristic progression of its induced visions (deliberately leaving the preparation of Datura concoctions vague … though the matrix of ripened urine I do include as one of those astonishing shocks encountered by ethnographic search). Certainly, not all present Mapuche machi indulge in Datura—indeed some look down on it as trafficking with poison, in this society where the boundary between shaman and sorcerer can be difficult to distinguish.  Though no one will ever know for certain if sixteenth century machi used Datura I assume it in Arauco … and I must confess that this decision derives partly from a festering generational ingestion of the books of Carlos Castaneda, in which Datura figures large. But ultimately, what Datura gave my novel was a structure for the visions of a machi who, accustomed in his own way to alternative realities, was forced to cope with one stranger and far worse than any vision possible to his people—the Spanish.

All cultures have their ‘edges’ (The Great Wall of China being an immense petrification of that metaphor). In Arauco that bound is depicted as a river, which I thought fitting for Mapuche culture–so focused in its daily life and in its myths on water–fitting also because the Bío Bío was for centuries the boundary and symbolic edge of the Araucanian war.

One cannot live in the middle of a river, as Ñamku states in Arauco.  Nor is a wall a place to live but a place to meet, a no man’s land where–the wall erected high enough–one can commune only while bearing the blank flag of truce. In such context (among other things), Datura stands for the radical blankness of that flag taken to another plane—a stripping away of body, self and culture, danger and travail taking one to where all rivers and all walls are overflown … a place where one, at last, might meet others similarly stripped of societal and mortal coil.

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