chris kilham, the medicine hunter

stalking the wild rhodiola

“You walk into the drug store and what to do you see? You see tons of boxes and bottles. Now, where does that come from? It comes from some faceless laboratory someplace. I can show you people who do absolutely riotous things, shamanic ceremonies, people who cultivate and work with an herb. The whole world behind these natural products is mind-blowing.”  – Chris Kilham, The Medicine Hunter

It’s hard to interview Chris Kilham without picturing him lounging in a hammock, speaking on a vine-covered sat-phone from his treehouse somewhere in the heart of the Amazon. No matter that he’s actually in his kitchen in Massachusetts, stoking the blender for an evening smoothie, or perhaps sipping a cup of java. Wherever one imagines Chris Kilham at any given moment, whether teaching a class at the University of Massachusetts or sitting on an airplane en route to some far-flung paradise, the mind forms a visual portrait:  half-Tarzan, half-Sean Connery as the pony-tailed botanist Robert Campbell in the 1992 film “The Medicine Man.”

Kilham finds it all quite revealing. “You know what’s fascinating? That movie was not a box office success, but I can’t tell you how many people have asked ”˜Do you work like that Sean Connery medicine man?’ Everybody knows that movie! What that tells me is that we have this immense affinity for plants. It’s so deeply engraved in our conscious and sub-conscious minds that something like that just captures everybody’s imagination.”

Like Connery’s “Dr. Campbell,” Kilham has spent a fair amount of his time living among native tribes. He’s not an ethnobotanist, nor a PhD, but he does possess an abundance of enthusiasm and experience, and the adventurous spirit of a true explorer. He has traveled widely and published broadly, and has spoken frequently to audiences of all ages, advocating the use of effective, safe herbal remedies. The greater the demand for these remedies, he says, the better it is for the environment. It helps keep wild places wild, he says, and preserves others for agricultural use instead of industrial development.  

The Medicine Hunter’s motto ”˜One Tribe, One Vibe’ goes to the heart of what he would call his real work: to spread the gospel of good herbs with as much depth and dimension as possible, explaining their cultivation, their traditional use, and their history, while telling the stories of the people who care for them. By advocating for herbs and for preserving tribal lands and culture, Kilham is revving the economic engine of many native tribes, helping them improve their standard of living through fair trade practices, better wages, royalties, and funds for community development.

Fair prices for growers can drive up the retail price of supplements to the consumer. While Kilham advocates for the growers, like many experts in his field, he is frequently hired as a consultant to supplement manufacturers. “Yes, I’m an advocate for plant medicine. I’ve devoted myself to the study of plant medicine since 1970. But the real drive for me is making bridges between people,” he says. “Years ago I was living with the Indians on the Amazon. We went to see a woman named Maria Sena. She was 103 at the time. She was sort of a shaman’s shaman in this one big area of the Amazon with all the other shamans, mystics, sages, natural healers. They all went to Maria Sena at some point. She told me: “You bridge the world. You tell people about each other; this is what’s important for you to do.” Her words were tattooed into my mind. She had this tremendous force about her. And she didn’t know me. She’d never met me before.”

Kilham also believes that his calling is an extension of his commitment to yoga and the benefits that he has derived from his practice. He’s the author of several yoga books, including The Five Tibetans:  Five Dynamic Exercises for Health, Energy and Personal Power and his personal routine is so universal, it might best be described as world yoga. “I’ve practiced yoga every day of my life for the past 36 years,” he says. “I do an eclectic mix of hatha, kundalini, Tibetan yogas and Chi Gong. It’s just been a life passion for me. A lot of my inclinations and a lot of the things I want to do come from the whole kind of consciousness that yoga engenders.”

Kilham says that his yoga consciousness has led him to believe that his work is, as he says, “about the people. I think that the biggest challenge is promoting better human understanding. When I’m dancing on TV with old Peruvian ladies in some sort of festival and you can see how these people do what they do, you’re going to get a sense of the culture in a way that hopefully builds some kind of an affinity, a bridge that gives you a better sense of other people’s needs.”

In India, China, Brazil, Russia and the South Pacific, Kilham has made discoveries, nurtured friendships and, along with his local partners, made a difference in people’s lives. “We set up a project with tamanu oil in the South Pacific on Vanuatu, which paid a decent wage to workers, and we took 5% of sales and put it back into a trust that we used to fund development in communities that worked with the oil in some way. We were able to help a lot of schools and improve a maternity clinic there.”

Holly Lucille, ND, past president of the California Association of Naturopathic Medicine applauds Kilham’s efforts to promote the use of botanicals while educating consumers about their origins. “Chris goes places most of us couldn’t even find on a map. But he’s not just some jungle-Johnny-come-lately. He’s truly committed to helping people, both growers and end users, and I really admire him for that. We should all be grateful to him for that.”

For Kilham, anything less would be unthinkable. “The herbal industry is a very lucrative industry with billions of dollars. The people who earn the poverty wage consistently (which is a system that we’ve inherited) are the people who are in the field, people who are laboring in sometimes harsh conditions. It’s important because everybody deserves to eat and deserves a living wage. That’s a lot of what I do. If I can popularize maca for example, much, much more than it has been and hammer away on what sustainability efforts are actually out there, that in some ways will help the market to mature. It’s inevitable.”

But what about those people who try maca – a Peruvian energy booster often used for sexual dysfunction – if it doesn’t work for them?

“For a product to really be sustainable, it’s really got to deliver the goods for the end user. That drives the whole rest of the equation. So if you have gingko that’s properly extracted, people feel a sharpening of mind. Or you have superior kava extract that really does relax you in a beautiful way. These herbal successes help build the foundation for all this other stuff, for sustainable programs for improving wages, improving environmental practices. It’s all driven by results that people get with herbs.”

Kilham is taking his message to TV on a niche satellite channel, the Healthy Living Network, because, as he says, “I really think the media drives our culture, so why not drive some media?”

Chris Kilham is nothing if not media and marketing savvy. He helped one of the more respectable supplement companies, Enzymatic Therapy, develop a product known as “Hot Plants,” that contains maca, ashwaganda and other herbs traditionally used to enhance sexual function. He authored a book by the same name, and has published books on kava, maca, and a compendium on mind-altering herbs called “Psyche Delicacies.”

With his years of field experience and extensive industry contacts, he’s a useful barometer of what’s hot in herbal medicine. “Adaptogens, the anti-inflammatories, specifically the cortisol-lowering herbs and the adjuncts to cancer therapy and inhaled tea down the road – I think they all have good solid potential for future growth,” he says. “But I think the great herb is rhodiola rosea, for developing strength and energy and stamina and greater endurance and a feeling of the absence of stress. I don’t think there’s anything that imparts the benefits that rhodiola rosea does,” Says Kilham.

As with most of his recommendations, Kilham is careful to consider the source. And he does so with authority because, more often than not, he’s been there. “In the Altai region of Siberia, people put the [rhodiola] root into bottles of vodka, let it extract until the vodka turns a deep red, and then they drink a half shot’s worth a day. They use it for most of the people working outdoors. It’s given to married couples as a matter of course for successful fertility and sexual vitality. Everybody middle aged and older takes it for sexual purposes and uses it to keep their moods bright.

The government of Ontario announced a big rhodiola cultivation program. So we’re going to see this go the way of ginseng in those areas and climates where it’s suitable. I think that rhodiola is really going to emerge as the great of the greats.”

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