Interviews with Ebru Şinik

The Magic and Medicine of Palo Santo

Palo Santo David Crow Ebru Şinik İnterview

David Crow is an acupuncturist and herbalist with over thirty years of clinical experience. He is the author of “In Search of the Medicine Buddha,” a book about his studies of Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicine in the Himalayas, “Sacred Smoke,” about his studies of Palo Santo in Ecuador, and “Plants That Heal,” a collection of essays on botanical medicine.  He is the founder of Floracopeia, a company that supports ecologically sustainable agriculture through the production of essential oils. He can be contacted at

You can read below my interview with him about Palo Santo.


Palo Santo sacred smoke david crow ebru şinik interviewThe essential oil of Palo Santo is a relatively new botanical product. There are perhaps two or three other distillers of the oil, but Dante is by far the most successful and well known. I do not know if anyone distilled the oil from the wood before he did, but I would be surprised if so. Without a doubt, Dante Bolcato is the primary researcher, innovator, distiller, distributor and educator about Palo Santo oil in the world, and the vast majority of information that is known about it has come from his work. 

It is curious to consider that when Dante first met the tree and its fragrance moved his soul and brought him a new life, he had no intention to make a medicinal product. His dream had been to make a perfume, and when he became enchanted by the aroma emanating from the branch that he held on that fateful day in the Machalilla Park, that vision was reawakened. Until now, however, that dream has not been realized, because the medicinal powers and therapeutic benefits of the tree, its wood, its smoke and its essential oil are such a large part of his distillation work, and so closely entwined with the culture and the land, that they have dominated his research. 

A day will come soon, I suspect, that Dante’s attention will be able to shift from the many responsibilities of being a distiller to fulfilling his desire to create his perfume, a fragrance that captures the complex sweet and spicy notes of the dry forest, the equatorial heat and the beauty of the land. In the meantime, the Maestro is a living encyclopedia of ethno-botanical knowledge about Bursera graveolens; indeed, he is undoubtedly the world’s expert on this species, who has not only brought forth years of new research and information, but has gathered and preserved what the local people are rapidly losing of their own traditions. It is Dante, ironically, who has taught the native people of the Machalilla Park much of what they now know of the tree that their ancestors lived with for millennia.

Palo Santo Ebru Şinik David Crow interview

“Tell me about the first time you met the tree in the forest,” I ask Dante. We are sitting in his garden on the second day of our visit. “What did you think and feel?”
He reflects back to that day, twelve years ago.
“It was a powerful experience,” Dante replies. “I remember having an ancestral connection.

I thought ‘I have met a very strong medicine that can help people who are sad.’ I saw the possibility of being able to offer help, and that this discovery was something important for alleviating sickness.”

His comments reminded me of our earliest discussions six years before, when he had given me the first outline of his developing knowledge and experience with the oil. I had taken those simple teachings and shared them with thousands of people, finding that they were indeed valid. Over time, my own studies and research complemented what he had given me, and I was able to slowly elaborate and extrapolate more therapeutic applications, especially when I learned about the extraordinary chemistry the oil possessed.

“When you sent the analysis of the oil I was very moved,” Dante says, “because it says it is rich in terpenoids such as limonene. These are compounds that are known in psychiatry for having a strong antidepressant action, and so here is the connection with medicine.” 

This discovery had confirmed one of the most important uses of the oil that the doctor had previously shared with me. “Inhaling a few drops from the palms has an immediate calmative effect for those who are suffering from the epidemic of urban panic attacks,” he had stated. This simple piece of information has reached many people since that day, and in return I have heard many confirmations of its validity.

“Now I am working to produce this essential oil as a medicine for doctors and psychotherapists,” he says. He gets up and begins walking back and forth, demonstrating how he uses his walking stick.
“If I am depressed, the psychologist will say ‘Take this.’”
He holds up an imaginary bottle of essential oil.  
“But what is this? Look at its name: ‘Palo’ is a stick, a walking stick to hold you up; ‘Santo’ means a lot of power, because it is divine. In the hands of a doctor, this is very strong medicine.”

Palo Santo Ebru Şinik David Crow İnterviewThe Shaman

There are two things that one first encounters when entering the compound of El Artesan and Dante’s home. The first is that just inside the gate you must bend down to pass under an overhanging branch of Palo Santo. The second is that at the top of the path you are greeted by an altar of stone sculptures, crystals and a perpetually burning fire of Palo Santo wood.

I know the significance of the overhanging branch: it is a way to keep alive a custom once widely practiced in daily life by the native people. Dante has told me several times about this simple but profound ritual: when people left their village and set off on the trail, either into the forest or to another village or town, they would stop at the first Palo Santo tree. They touched it in reverence, and asked it to give protection along their journey. Later, when they returned, they would again greet the tree and offer thanks for a safe return. Now, as Dante would illustrate in his theatrical way, people jump on their motorcycles and race to town, leaving the tree neglected and forgotten.

To enter the world of El Artesan, therefore, you must make the traditional gesture by bowing in order to pass below the tree before you can proceed on your path, and again when you leave. Modern people from the cities need to do this, Dante has explained, to remember their connection to nature.

Up until now the altar and the fire have remained somewhat of a mystery to me. Their positioning and location is striking, being in the central spot where everyone coming and going from all directions must pass. It is not, as one would think, in the most secluded, quiet and private place, but the most active and public. Sara and I have been here at all times of day, yet we have never witnessed it being used for anything in particular, other than the source of a steady stream of fragrant smoke. 

Dante has told me about how he spends time meditating with the fire in the altar, and the remarkable story of how he prayed to Palo Santo for assistance when the cows were destroying the trees in the park, but I know nothing about his spiritual practices other than it seems to be a form of homa, the ancient practice of fire ritual. How remarkable that it was such a ritual that first opened the door of synchronistic events that brought me from the beach of Mahabalipuram, only to find it again here.

I am curious about the altar, the fire and what transpires when the Maestro sits with them, but out of respect I am hesitant to start by directly questioning his inner spiritual life. Instead, I inquire about his experiences with local shamans who use Palo Santo, imagining that he has some important and fascinating tales to tell.

“I participated in a ritual with Palo Santo,” he tells me.  “I met a shaman in Santa Domingo de los Tsachilas; his hair was painted red, his clothes were all made out of feathers.” 
Dante stands up and walks around the living room, miming as he narrates. 

“The ritual is like this. Close the door and the windows so everything is shut tight. Make smoke with Palo Santo, a lot of smoke. The patient is seated there; the shaman is standing here. The patient was a woman who was very sad. She did not know what she wanted. She was crying.”

Dante raises his arms, outstretched to the heavens and the four directions. 
    “The shaman calls ‘Listen Pachamama!  Help this person! Brother sun, sister moon, mother water!’ 
    “The smoke comes.  A lot of smoke is coming. 
    “The shaman finishes the ritual of talking to the sun and moon and earth. The eyes are stinging. The nose is running. Enough smoke, very strong. The shaman opens the door and says it is finished. The woman, the patient, is happy and smiling.
    “I was in this ritual. My eyes were also burning. I thought of only one thing: what is in this smoke? I did not think about the words of the shaman. I thought ‘what is in this smoke?’”

We know a few answers from our analysis of the oil: variousPalo Santo ebru şinik david crow interview compounds that are known to have antianxiety and antidepressant effects, working in this case directly on the neurochemistry of the limbic system through the olfactory channels with every inhalation of the smoke.

There are undoubtedly compounds other than the aromatic molecules at work as well, and the benefits of prayer.  But I am also curious about this obviously psychoactive experience, and will later find intriguing testimonials about the effects of Palo Santo smoke in further research on entheogenic plants and mind-altering substances. Whatever the ingredients, the smoke and oil are, as Dante described repeatedly, powerful healing agents for the mind and emotions, specifically sadness.

The Maestro continues.
    “I asked around to meet other shamans of Palo Santo; there was another in the province of Esmeralda. I went to meet him. 
    “This shaman had long hair, like a Rasta. His house was very dirty. He was dirty. His hands were filthy. His clothes were filthy. 
    “I said ‘Maestro, permit me to know the ritual of Palo Santo.’ He said ‘If you want to participate in a ritual you must clean the body, the heart, and the clothes with the smoke every day for three months.’”

Dante pauses and savors the moment of irony in his story.
     “I am looking at him, and he is very dirty. I said ‘Ok, thank you.’” 

Dante would never go back, but the shaman’s prophesy would come to pass.
    “This shaman said ‘Go to your house and clean yourself, because you are the man who can bring back Palo Santo and its power.”

The Maestro pauses again, and we consider the meaning of the shaman’s words, years later. A moment later he speaks again.
    “The shaman said ‘Palo Santo is powerful, but the people don’t know. You are the man that can bring back the life of Palo Santo.’ After this he gave me many benedictions. I was grateful for this, and said goodbye and left. I never went back, because I thought he did not want me to come back.”

“What else have you learned of Palo Santo rituals?” I continue, hoping to discover something about the fire, altar and column of smoke that perfumes the neighborhood day and night. “What do you do?”
    “Every day I wake up at five in the morning. I go down to my altar. There are many things there, very interesting rocks and quartz crystals. There is a large rock in the center, a gift from a Maestro here in Puerto Lopez who is eighty years old; it is one of the tools of the Indians, for grinding corn.” 

“I light a fire of Palo Santo. I do this every morning, and in the afternoon at sunset, when the kids are playing with video and my wife is at the Internet, I go and light another fire. I always do it, every day.” 

I imagine Dante sitting in the translucent colors of equatorial dawn, surrounded by the songs of waking birds, the first stirrings of the village, and the rising smoke from his altar to carry his mind into its contemplations.

“I connect with the positive part of Palo Santo,” he says. “I say thank you for the day today. The fire is there, and I think in it. I look at the leaves on the trees; I look at the other things around here. I think about the wood, about reforestation. Time passes, one hour. This hour is very important.” 

We sit in silence, listening to the sounds of the afternoon. I am appreciative of my teacher’s words, but even more, of knowing someone who has the sincerity, discipline and wisdom to return to the elements of nature over and over, with reverence, remembrance and gratitude.

“I have passed my whole life without believing in a religion,” he continues. “I am not a Catholic, I am not a Muslim; no, I am scientific. But now I know what I believe. I believe like the natives, in the Palo Santo. I say ‘thank you Palo Santo,’ like the natives.

“From doing this, Palo Santo is continually giving me a lot, and the scientific part of me, day by day, is leaving me.”

The Aromatic Gem

And so our story ends, in the colors of another equatorial sunset, as we drive down the coast highway. Dante is at the wheel, holding hands and singing Ecuadorian love songs with Rocio; Lazaro, Alejandro, and Kevin are riding in the back of the pickup, Barbara, Sara and I in the back seat. The air is rich with verdant herbaceous fragrances, green islands float in tranquil mirror-like waters offshore. The road winds around broad curves along the cliffs, lined with foliage and fruits of mango, muyuyo, and avocado; passionflower vines drape themselves over fences and poles and shrubs, while the mysterious moonflowers wait patiently to release their inebriating aromas on unsuspecting passersby. 

Our destination is The Magic Dolphin, a hidden gem of fine dining in the humble pueblo of Salango, a few miles south of Puerto Lopez. Around a few more corners waits a rendezvous with plates of aphrodisiacal barnacles, dishes of fine ceviche, grilled corvina served with plantains and a bottle of Spanish wine; the boys will feast on chips and orange Fanta, and Dante will let Rocio drive us home.

It has been a memorable adventure, worthy of celebration. 
Physically, it was intense and demanding, with unmistakable manifestations of what traditional Chinese medicine would describe as “damp heat,” including a plethora of redness, itching and swelling from the aggressive and ubiquitous mosquitoes waiting just out of Palo Santo’s reach; abdominal pain, diarrhea and fever from monsoon-nourished microbes in the food; sinus inflammation from the toxic dust of the streets; and humid lethargy only temporarily alleviated by another cold shower, another nap under the fan, and another shot of espresso. 
But these were minor irritations, in comparison to the pleasures.

Intellectually, it was a feast of rich stories and studies, delicacies to nourish the mind. 

Emotionally, it was a journey through a fragrant landscape where around each corner waited another joy: friendship, laughter, discovery, and revelation.    

Spiritually, it was an immersion in the matrix of creativity, a baptism in the womb of inspiration, a vision of a sacred dimension of healing, good fortune, art, poetry, and the blessings of natural prosperity unveiled by the purifying smoke and illuminated by the golden elixir produced by Palo Santo’s mysterious process of resurrection. 

This morning is an excellent example. We arrived early, and found everything quiet and peaceful before another day of work and activity. I wanted to finalize details with Dante concerning some items we were taking home as mementos of our time with him: a piece of Palo Santo wood and an incense burner. He had mentioned that he had a piece of wood picked out, but I had yet to see it.

The maestro was walking down the path toward us as we entered, and offered his usual enthusiastic greeting. At my inquiry, he led us into the workshop, and pulled out a gnarled piece of wood, about three feet long.

This is no ordinary piece of wood, he said, but a treasure of such antiquity that it has become petrified, fossilized. 
He held it up for me to examine where he had cut one end. It was polished and burnished, its ring patterns of growth glowing with shades of golds and browns and yellows and earth tones.

“It is a gem,” I commented, struck by the fact that the years had transformed it from plant to stone.

“Yes, it is a gem,” he replied. “But it is aromatic.”The Magic and Medicine of Palo Santo  ebru şinik david crow interview

Dante offered the polished end, and I marveled that a piece of petrified wood could emit such an exquisite aroma.

“How much is something like this worth?” I asked, my curiosity overcoming my knowledge that such talk degraded the meaning of the gift.  

“These pieces are now incredibly rare,” Dante replied.  “In the last three years I have found only this one. It is priceless.”

He held it out to me.
“You cannot buy this. It is something that can only be given, from one shaman to another.”
I accepted his gift: it looked like finely carved wood, was heavy and hard like stone, and had a perfumed aura.

How does one convey the nobility of such an action by a teacher, earned or unearned on my part? How can one describe the incomparable dignity, wonder, wholeness and satisfaction of such a moment? How does one describe the unique spiritual power stored in the last precious remnants of nature’s once abundant treasure house of magical objects? Perhaps in words of forgotten languages, words whose utterance arose from a more ancient, uncontaminated human mind, a mind whose wisdom knew the meaning and value of such things. 

Un Abrazo

It is already hot at eight in the morning when we arrive for the last time at Dante’s sanctuary. We drop off some household items we no longer need, discuss last minute details about the road ahead, have a final espresso and then bid farewell to everyone. Dante accompanies us to the gate; our driver, Fernando, is waiting to transport us through landscapes of coastal forests, steaming malarial marshlands, rich agricultural plateaus, and then up the towering western flank of the Andes into Quito’s cool valleys. 

“I never say goodbye without an embrace,” the Maestro says. We embrace, and in that moment I see and feel all the things that I have come to know about my teacher, and more. 

He is the alchemist and master distiller, who learned his art and science not by studying with others, but by vigilant days and nights in the tiny room with the fire of the still, listening to the sound of the water and steam and wood and oil as they underwent their mysterious transformations, observing the influences of the moon, tides and equator in the drops of golden elixir slowly accumulating in the beaker. 

He is the ethnobotanist who gathered the disappearing remnants of what the elders knew and remembered about the arboreal treasure in their forest, preserving and propagating this knowledge for the world as the younger generation forgot. 

He is the botanist and environmentalist who was the first to unlock the secret of germinating Palo Santo, the caretaker of thousands of seedlings, the one who has overseen the replanting of tens of thousands of trees, and the man whose vision, mission, message and life purpose is to create immense forests.

He is the entrepreneur and businessman who transformed a local ecological resource into a sustainable enterprise that has brought prosperity to his growing extended family, and with it empowerment for those burdened by the weight of oppressive cultural history.

He is the healer who freely offered the medicine of his Palo Santo oil to local families, in the process saving the lives of hundreds if not thousands of children who otherwise would have perished in the epidemic of infant mortality caused by preventable and easily treated conditions.

He is the teacher, storyteller, comedian, shaman and mystic, who lights a fire of Palo Santo wood every morning at dawn and every evening when work is done, who sits gazing into its smoke and sending blessings from his heart to all who might be inhaling its sweet fragrance.

He is Don Dante, a respected elder, community leader, father and husband.

All this was there, in the moment of that embrace, and something else. Would there not be, in the heart of a man like this, a tenderness and vulnerability born of years of sacrifice, now repaid many times over with love? 

It must have been, for I thought I saw a tear in his eye when we finally turned away and drove off.