Reviewed by Tony Kendrew.
As far as I know, this is a first: a book about ayahuasca and plant medicine and shamanism which manages to tie together the understandings of traditional practices with western approaches to neuroscience and healing. If there is another, I doubt it has succeeded as well as Joe Tafur has managed in The Fellowship of the River. It’s a fascinating and beautifully-written book. And it has authority. The book is subtitled A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine, and Joe Tafur is perfectly qualified to be the explorer and to take us along for the ride.
This is not just because he is a US-trained physician, and a shaman trained in a Peruvian Amazonian tradition. He also partnered with a Peruvian shaman to open a jungle center called Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual near Iquitos, Peru, where he spent months over many years performing the ceremonies and observing and researching their effects on visitors. He tracks their progress through the ceremonies, and even after their return home, combining the approach of a western doctor following his patients, with the understanding of one who has experienced the gifts of the spirit world and the healing they can bring.
The Fellowship of the River exemplifies the vision of SAND. It comes from science grounded in direct experience, and is a meeting place of science and spirituality. Joe Tafur succeeds in passing on to us the insights and understanding he has reached over many years of much research, from the twin perspectives of his own seemingly contradictory approaches.
There are sections about Crohn’s disease, PTSD, addiction, and depression, but I was particularly intrigued by the short chapter on epigenetics, in which he reflects on the help that was found for a woman suffering from migraines. In a fascinating section the author makes the distinction between the hardware of the DNA and the software of the maladaptive programs of epigenetics. It is the latter that can be altered spiritually. As he writes: ”Spiritual healing meets biochemistry at the epigenetic level.” And “Young primates (humans and monkeys) respond epigenetically to love and also to the lack of love.”
Joe Tafur’s familiarity with the vocabulary and diagnoses of modern medicine and psychology should make his book valuable both to the medical community and to anyone who has considered the plant medicine approach to tackling deep seated medical – and emotional – issues. And he also explains why shamanic plant practices may not be for everyone.
The book has a glossary and many pages of references, and a cover image that strikingly combines the symbol of the twining snakes of Western medicine with the colors and birds we associate with the Amazon.
Joe Tafur currently works part-time as a family physician in the United States and continues as a medical consultant to Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual. His book is available on Amazon and his website is: