Witch Doctors

To return to my dying Asian pear tree that I wrote about a month ago: I finally did call the nursery. The horticulturalist assured me that the tree was certainly a Hosui variety – because Hosui get fire blight very easily – and he was certain it was fire blight.

“Pull it right out!” he commanded. “Fire blight will spread to the other trees.” He added that you have to be super vigilant with Hosui, which essentially means spraying Streptomycin in the spring when fire blight is a possibility. He said many people plant Kosui instead of the Hosui, but even that variety isn’t all that resistant. Not like Olympic, for example. “Orchardists are always pulling the Hosui and replanting with more resistant varieties.

I didn’t ask, “Why then, are you selling them?”

It turns out that my tree isn’t a Hosui or a Kosui – it’s a Niitaka.  And even though every leaf blackened and fell, I decided to try and save the tree using a poultice of carbonatite, clay, and aloe, and some rubbing and mumblings. After a week, I was excited to see that a few of the buds were plumping and showing some green tissue. Now a witch doctor is an interesting phenomenon.

Dr. Annette Weiner, Kwaibwaga Village, Trobriand Islands, 1989 

Dr. Annette Weiner, Kwaibwaga Village, Trobriand Islands, 1989 

I had an experience firsthand when I lived with my anthropologist mother on a small coral atoll in New Guinea. Ours was an inland village, but one day some of my mother’s informants (the anthropological jargon for those who provide answers to the anthropologist’s questions) said, let’s go visit a coastal village. We walked a few miles over sharp coral to the far side of the island. As we neared the coastal village, I was struck by the trees we walked by. Their roots were above ground, tall intertwining webs formed tent-like structures that I could imagine hiding inside of. 

When we entered the village, we felt oddly unwelcomed. The men were out fishing and the women were wary. That’s when I got something in one of my eyes. A piece of dirt or an insect. My eye stung, but no one could see anything in it. After hanging out for only a short while, we turned around to make the trip home. The suspicious looks from the villagers didn’t feel good, and we didn’t want to cause trouble.

We traveled back through the forest of amazing trees, back along the rough coral trails, and finally entered our village towards nightfall. By the time we were back, I was feverish and dizzy. Word buzzed around the village. Questions were asked.  Had anyone said magic to protect me against flying witches. Flying witches inhabit the buttressed roots of those mysterious trees. Of course, the witches are jealous of young girls. They were certain that I had been attacked by a flying witch.

My mother was nervous. Even though she had aspirin and antibiotics to give me, and we were both taking quinine for malaria, she wondered what it could be. She was also fascinated to know what the villagers would do. They told her they had called a witch doctor from another village who specializes in flying witches. A skinny old man came in carrying his satchel of herbs. He checked me over, bending my limbs, looking into my eyes. He rubbed herbs into my skin and mumbled prayers. He was paid. And when my mother looked at him expectantly, he said, “The witch is only playing with your daughter; it won’t kill her.”

LH in Kwaibwaga Village in 1971 (fully recovered)

LH in Kwaibwaga Village in 1971 (fully recovered)

Norman Cousins, one of the early proponents of the mind-body connection, relates how when he visited the Schweitzer Hospital in Gabon, Africa, he commented to Dr. Schweitzer, “The local people are lucky to have access to the Schweitzer clinic and not have to depend on witch-doctor supernaturalism.” One look at Dr. Schweitzer and Cousins recognized his ignorance. The next day, Dr. Schweitzer took him to observe native African medicine. The witch doctor gave herbs in a brown paper bag to some patients and incantations in a brown paper bag to others, while still others he directed towards the Western doctor.

 Dr. Schweitzer explained the three groups. The first had what he called functional issues; these would go away easily and the herbs would help. The next group had what he called psychogenic problems, and they were treated with African psychotherapy. The third had physical problems, like a tumor or broken bone, and these he sent to the Western doctor. When Cousins pushed for an explanation, Schweitzer said,

The witch doctor succeeds for the same reason all the rest of us succeed. Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. They come to us knowing the truth. We are at our best when we give the doctor who resides inside within each patient a chance to go to work.   

—From The Mysterious Placebo, Norman Cousins

I believe plants aren’t so different from us. There is a doctor inside the trees that I hope I can motivate. I don't know if it has fire blight or a fungal disease. But rather than pull it, I will wait and see if its own wisdom along with my herbs will help.