Our ignorance of nature leads us to consider natural products based on definitions that are a consequence of cultural classification: edible/edible, good/bad, permitted/forbidden. These are some of the basic distinctions with which human beings have domesticated nature, imposing the sieve of categorization that is always conditioned by factors such as politics, religion, economics or whim. After all, what we consume is a correlate of the cultural construction of each society.
What is nature if not an enormous set of products that have been modified through collaboration with man? The book Cannabis, a portraitby Chris Duvall, shows the unclear prejudices and obsessions we have towards this historic plant, one of the oldest, most ubiquitous and indispensable in the history of humanity.
Suffice it to say that without cannabis the great seas could not have been sailed, since hemp, a material obtained from its fibrous stems, was used to build ropes and sails for ships.
The great historian Fernand Braudel classified certain natural products as “plants of civilization” insofar as their adaptation imposed a way of life on large territories, transforming geography, technology and the very society in which they developed. Historian Chris Duvall’s meticulous tracking shows that this strangely persecuted plant is part of this classification.
Cannabis has been a traveling plant that, as men have found applications, has adapted to regions and responded to demands. It is an example of the fruitful exchange between plant and culture, whether to make fabrics and straps, whether for food or to produce mental effects. Politics and religion were always, as in almost every product, involved in both its diffusion and its persecution.
A cultural trip
Cannabis belongs to that group of plants that are part of a cultural ecology in that it is a multipurpose plant and has interacted with humans for millions of years. At this point it is worth clarifying that we usually link cannabis only with marijuana, but the author takes great care to distinguish the various types and uses of this plant. On the one hand, distinguishing cannabis sativa and cannabis indica, which does not produce THC, the psychoactive component. Both species were widely used by different civilizations, using both their seed as food and their fiber for clothing.
And even with marijuana, a derivative of its leaves and flowers and seeds, Duvall’s distinction is to point out the enormous variety of medicinal, religious and recreational uses that it had throughout history until its late pigeonholing, at the end of the century. XIX and especially after 1936, as a prohibited drug, which contaminated all its other uses and the mental perceptions of the plant.
The extraordinary journey of cannabis over millennia from native Africa to India, China and the Middle East, then to the Russian plains, the main supplier of hemp for the shipping industry, allows us to understand the variables that exist in our relationship with nature. For example, the United States government incentivized cannabis cultivation to mitigate dependence on hemp from Russia. In the same way, it was an efficient help for slave traders who distributed marijuana among captives to make the journeys and hard work more bearable. Queen Victoria of England was famous for smoking marijuana and the poetic halos of 19th century artists made hashish, another marijuana derivative introduced by Napoleon’s soldiers upon their return from their adventure in Egypt, a powerful incentive.
This fascinating journey through millennia and geographies allows us to understand how little we know about nature and how much we are involved in a cultural politics that determines our relationship with nature. Chris Duvall dwells very little on the specific effects of marijuana used as a drug. A coherent way to clear up the gloomy conceptions with which current culture classifies this plant. This book from the A.hache collection dedicated to “Natures” is profusely illustrated and offers an intense and entertaining journey through the history of the relationship between man and his environment, taking this plant as an example of the cultural construction of the environment. .
- Cannabis, a portrait. Chris Duvall. Adriana Hidalgo editor, 2023 Buenos Aires, 345 pages $6,900