The Making of an Ethnobotanist in a 1960s University Scene

One of the books on my ethnobotany shelves is Witchcraft Medicine:Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants, a colloboration between Wolf Dieter Storl, Claudia Müller-Ebeling, and Christian Rätsch, all three anthropologists and ethnobotanists.

Müller-Ebeling and Rätsch are married and live in Hamburg, but Storl was born in Germany in 1942 and came with his family to Ohio in 1953. Now he goes back and forth but lives primarily in Germany with his American wife.

Despite the cover and and subtitle, “A German ethnobotanist’s wild roots in the Psychedelic Sixties,” what  Storll’s memoir, Far Out in America, really describes is the pre-psychedelic late 1950s and early 1960s, the time when only a few university students would have heard of LSD and — lacking a connection to certain psychology professors or a father working in the right section of the CIA — would have had no idea how actually acquire some.

Storl himself describes Far Out in America as a story of personal adventure that would be “told in the hall of the gods.”  When not in school, he sets out on epic hitchhiking adventures, passing through every subculture from Appalachian moonshiners to civil rights activists to Chicano adventurers to seasonal workers in national parks.

I liked the two half-assimilated German beatniks, sons of German scientists brought to the US after World War Two “to continue their reearch on miracle weapons, rockets, antigravitational objects, and jet fighters.” They introduce college freshman Wolf Dieter to the music of Bob Dylan, whose 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Storl says “expressed the feeings of the times, the Weltschmerz, world-wearienss, and all that was stirring young hearts.”

For a bright young Ohian, Ohio State University is an obvious choice, and he goes off to Coumbus to study botany and agriculture, only to discover that he has enlisted in the Green Revolution, learning to “export high-yield ‘miracle seed’ to backward peasants in Asia, africa, and South America,” as one of his professors explains. The program is totally about large-scale, mechanized, monoculture farming guided by technocrats like he was being groomed to become.

Erika Bourguignon in the 1970s.

He drops out. After other false starts, he ends up in anthropology, where one of his professors is Erika Bourguignon (1924–2015), who taught more than forty years at OSU, and who was one of the few anthropologists to take “woo” — excuse me, “extraordinary states of consciousness” — seriously.

She published a lot, and when I was in grad school myself, her books and article were widely cited. Nikki Bado, my friend and former Pagan-studies book series co-editor, was one of her students.

Another was Felicitas Goodman (1914–2005), whom I met in the 1990s and thought of as sort of the European Michael Harner. She came to OSU as a middle-aged student, another one whose family emigrated to America after WW2, and earned a PhD there. She also started her own school of (neo)shamanism, The Cuyamungue Institute, in New Mexico, but also taught classes in Denmark, Germany, and other countries.

When I edited Witchcraft and Shamanism (1994) for Llewellyn, I was thrilled to get a chapter from her, “Shamans, WItches, and the Rediscovery of Trance Postures.” For the whole story how how she managed postures depicted in ancient and and indigenous pictures and sculptures with different sorts of trance experiences, read her book Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences.

Wolf Dieter Storl has numerous YouTube videos, about two-thirds of them in German and others in English.

4 thoughts on “The Making of an Ethnobotanist in a 1960s University Scene

  1. Pitch313

    A few years after Stoll (I think), I, a Northern Californian of the psychedelic era, enrolled at Michigan State University. As an undergraduate anthropology student.

    My introduction to fieldwork, among the peoples of the Great Lakes. What you describe about Stoll’s life experience is quite similar to mine, including meeting the academic side of the Green Revolution, as well as the participant (dairy farmers with hands of iron) side of the Great Lakes own agricultural cooperative movement.

    I became a dedicant to coops.

    In regard to Paganism, I specialized, as far as possible, in the interdisciplinary study of mythology, lore, and world views. MSU’s department at that time had a focus on local level politics, so I learned about that, too. Useful at Pagan meetings and gatherings.

    The celebrity anthropologist that I met was Michael Harner, proponent of an intriguing view of shamanism. So “woo” was, for some academics and students at MSU, thinkable and do-able.

    But I discovered and learned, honestly, much more that has influenced my own practice, from admiring, meeting, and hanging around with musicians–mostly bluegrass and old timey.

    1. It’s interesting that you met Harner. That is why I compared Felicitas Goodman to him — they were both antros who “went native” in a psychic if not an ethnic sense.

      1. Pitch313

        It was soon after he had returned from fieldwork. I remember that he was excited about his ideas on shamanism as (my description) an ethnological as opposed to an ethnographic category.

        I was one of the anthro types who approached the boundaries and protocols of the discipline with this sort of subversive intent–thinking about the particular in ways that make it more what humans can do. Not that I could be a shaman, but that I could imagine it better.

  2. Kalinysta

    I have some of Felicitas Goodman’s books and some books by her students. Very interesting stuff and some of the information I have actually used to heal my right knee with. I think a lot of pagans could find her work very useful.

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