June 3, 2014

Stalking the Wild Eleuthero

Chris Kilham is UMass Amherst’s Explorer-in-Residence

For an explorer to be “in residence” is rather an oxymoron. As an at-large faculty member, Chris Kilham ’75 is seldom stationary, traveling the Earth with his wife, Zoe Helene, to explore botanicals and search for medicinal herbs in the field.

Kilham is an outspoken advocate for indigenous medicines but also for sustainable trade, using his acumen to establish equitable connections with local people.

Funded by Naturex, a global botanicals company based in Avignon, France, the ethnobotanist’s travels could carry him to a Peruvian rainforest, to a cosmetics convention in Europe, or to a television studio: Kilham has been featured as a guest expert on over 500 television programs, including The Dr. Oz Show and FOX News Health.

Plant-based remedies like eucalyptus, ginger, and passionflower are back in the mainstream, says Kilham, because they are safe and give predictable, positive results.

“This is a multinational, $100 billion industry,” Kilham declares. “The science on plant-based medicine is humongous now. It is flourishing as few sectors are.” Through his immersion course, The Shaman’s Pharmacy (offered over summer and January sessions but currently on hiatus), Kilham has taken students to the Peruvian Amazon, not only exposing them to the world of plant medicine, but also encouraging them to redefine what is possible in terms of earning a living.

“It’s really about possibilities. We settle if we don’t know there is anything more,” he exhorts. “You don’t have to become a dull gray suit. You can take a walk on the wild side.”

Kilham describes the experience of taking students hiking in the rainforest at night, an experience far outside their perceived boundaries. “It gives them a good, solid hit of real luminosity,” he says. “They’re getting mind-blown and heart-blown in the best possible way.”

What does a lifetime explorer carry in his adventure bag? “My yoga mat. Knives, ranging from big to huge, for hanging off my backpack so people leave me alone. Camera equipment. I travel lightly, by the law of twos: two shirts, two pairs of pants.”

“This is a gas. I pinch myself that I get to do this for a living.”