(Anchorage Press, fall 2000. All audio unique to Primer for a Descent Into Novelty, Esalen, March, 1996)
On April 3rd, 2000, one of my favorite people died of a massive brain tumor. Despite gamma knife surgery, a craniotomy and "experimental p53 gene therapy protocol", Terence McKenna made good on his doctor's prediction of having between six and nine months to live. He was 54 years old. Author, lecturer, self-proclaimed alchemist, spoken word Svengali and legendary psychonaut (explorer of the frontiers of consciousness), McKenna changed the course of my life in a weekend. This is the acknowledgement I never got to give him.
I first heard of Terence McKenna in 1993 while Overseeing an illicit marijuana Farm in northern California.
Getting caught and convicted would have resulted in a ten-year mandatory prison sentence but I wanted a place to write a novel and this was a rent-free cabin in the woods. One weekend, a friend dropped by with a copy of Food of the Gods, a history book of sorts concerning the impact of psychoactive compounds on culture. Chapter one was Shamanism: Setting the Stage. Chapter Thirteen was Synthetics: Heroin, Cocaine and Television.
Food of the Gods also offered an explanation as to how the human brain evolved more radically in the last million years than any other organ in any other animal over a similar timespan. Having received a bachelor's in biology the year previous I was curious.
McKenna proposed that ancient hominids had discovered psilocybin mushrooms growing in the stool of migrating proto-cattle on the African savannah. These mushrooms would have naturally been incorporated into the apes' diet in order to improve their visual acuity which, in turn, would have made them better hunters. According to Terence, psilocybin also advanced human language and culture.
"These compounds catalyze consciousness, that peculiar self-reflecting ability that has reached its greatest apparent expression in human beings. One can hardly doubt that consciousness, like the ability to resist disease, confers an immense adaptive advantage on any individual who possesses it... These Apes were stoned apes and it's time we got used to it!"
Though many are quick to dismiss Terence as a lunatic and/or lump him in with the likes of the oft-incoherent Tim Leary, having had my own profound psilocybin experiences, I thought he might be onto something. While in thrall of so-called magic mushroom I had watched leaves transpire and sensed the Earth's inherent, overriding sentience. Many of my friends had experienced similar revelations. On a scientific level, however, I found things like breathing trees and Gaian intelligence difficult to qualify, let alone to champion.
Terence had no such qualms. In his view, not only were such experiences valid, they'd catalyzed the evolution of human consciousness. He also spoke of a nebulous "other", a "vegetable mind" and what he described as a "female companion".
I once heard him say on LA talk-radio that anyone who went through their entire life without a psychedelic experience was akin to someone who'd never had sex — and therefore struck him as "creepy." In response, the then-president of the Los Angeles Young Republican's Club said he liked to jump out of airplanes and therefore didn't need drugs to get a proper rush.
"Well, Dan," McKenna replied, "your suggestion of sky-diving as a safe alternative to mushrooms is a matter I'll leave between you and your insurance agent."
Terence's writing gave me the confidence to embrace my own psychedelic experiences and to share them publicly. Back at the marijuana farm I began furiously crafting my novel's finale, hurling my protagonist back in time to be blue-balled by Mother Nature and witness the decimation of the American wilderness in super fast-forward while riding a redwood tree back to present day. You know, like I'd seen on mushrooms. When the rejection letters started piling in I felt the first nibbling fangs of despair.
One morning in March of '96 I received my worst rejection yet: my original cover letter rubber-stamped "Sorry, not for us."
That same week however I also received a catalogue from the Esalen Institute, an amphibious New Age retreat center in Big Sur, California. McKenna was holding a conference there the following weekend entitled "A primer for a descent into novelty."
Though the conference's asking price was more than I could afford, I was able to halve the fee by volunteering in the kitchen and sleeping on the floor of the conference room.
The following Friday I found myself buck naked in Esalen's famous cliff-side hot springs, talking about the nascent internet while watching the gray whales spouting offshore. Later that afternoon I joined twenty-five other participants in the cushion-infested Huxley Room and finally met the man himself.
What struck me most about Terence was his voice: a nasal, undulating sing-song (please do listen to the audio clips). Irish-born, wavy-haired and slight of build, scholarly but never taking himself too seriously, Terence was like a man-sized leprechaun.
When someone copped to having anxiety about The Problem — the rise of tyranny, environmental destruction, etc. — he half-smiled and said off-handedly,
"Worry assumes you understand the situation and what are the chances you actually do?"
Over the course of the weekend Terence was able to supplant many such concerns about The Problem with a thirst for what he called "The Mystery." And, at the heart of The Mystery it seemed, was a Schedule One narcotic called dimethyl tryptamine.
"DMT," said Terence, "is meditation as advertised."
The active ingredient of ayahuasca — the so-called "brew of souls" from the Amazon rainforest — DMT can be found in many plants and, more tellingly, inside the human pineal gland*. Unless mixed with an MAO inhibitor (a compound which inhibits the formation monoamine oxidase, a stomach enzyme) DMT cannot be taken orally and must be either smoked or injected to be effective. When smoked, the trip lasts between five and ten minutes.
Aside from breaking the law, the drug's only danger was, as Terence put it, "death by astonishment."
What intrigued me most about DMT was how Terence claimed to have encountered other beings while under its influence. At the conference, Terence alternately described these entities as "self-dribbling jeweled basketballs" and "self-transforming-elf-machines" (STEMS). What intrigued him was the commonality of DMT users' experiences. Most could relate to his description of how, after two or three hits, one would encounter a "hive" or "dome" that existed beyond a hyper-dimensional "membrane". Some at the conference had even encountered STEMS themselves.
"It is not subtle," said Terence. "These things mob you like badly-trained Rottweilers."
All told, if psilocybin catalyzed human consciousness, Terence McKenna catalyzed my own. The day after he and I parted ways, after hearing me gush about the conference, a stranger at dinner party set a vial of orange powder on the table in front of me. It smelled a bit like mothballs.
What happened next was one of the most profound experiences of my life. It precipitated an adventure that led me to Egypt, India and finally to London where I wrote and published a book about the whole shebang, a book in which both DMT and Terence feature. In the intervening years, Terence and I e-mailed sporadically but when I went to his website for his Hawaiian address in order to send him a copy of my book, I found the following message from his agent, Dan Levy. I'm not ashamed to say I cried.
"Terence McKenna relinquished his body at 2:15a.m. Pacific time today, April 3, 2000. He died at peace and with people whom he loved and who loved him."
I've since been told Terence's last days were hard. The combination of medications and steroids led to considerable wasting and pain. As his last public posting indicates however, he stayed philosophical to the end.
"...this is a mad and wild adventure at the fractal edge of life and death and space and time. Just where we love to be, right, shipmates?"
The world feels emptier with him gone. I'm gutted he never got to read my book, or see me perform the spoken word therein. Whether his drug experiments led to his tumor is, to me, beside the point — though it's certainly a topic for discussion. What's not up for debate is how Terence was a visionary, an explorer, a teacher, a scholar, a world-class butterfly collector and a sparkling human being. To my eyes, he died with valour, like a lost astronaut.
Terence, if you're out there, please know that you touched many people during your too-brief stint on earth, and that meeting you at Esalen changed my path forever.
In the Hindi sense, Terence, you were My guru — one who brings light into darkness — and in a world so full of white and brown buttons, you were one magic mushroom.
"And then, after about three, four, five minutes it... retracts. It loses its vitality and it begins to pull away from you, almost like a boat pulling away from a dock. In fact, I had one trip where — metaphorically, not having hands — they all turned and waved and said, 'Déjà vu! Déjà vu!' Which is, of course, absurd."
This just in: To hear these lectures for yourself check out Lorenzo Hagerty's Psychedelic Salon Podcast, Episodes 573-577
Countdown to Complexity
Recently, I found an audiocassette copy of this entire conference, gifted to me by the Esalen staff, in my parents' attic. I sent the tapes to Lorenzo, who has broadcast every Terence McKenna recording known to ape and, amazingly, they survived the central California heat. It's been great to listen to them again, to hear Greg's voice, and be reminded of this pivotal weekend in my life. Terence's final exhortation before he let us loose upon the world?
"Explore the edges. Keep your logical razors sharp. Trust nothing that you haven’t verified for yourself. My faith is that the universe will take you in."
Lastly, Terence was recently humanized by his brother — and legit scientist! — Dennis in his excellent book Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss.
(*author's note: this had not been proven at the time of print, only suspected. DMT has since been found in rat pineals in the laboratory and is believed to be present in the brains of all mammals)
(banner image courtesy of truthinsideofyou.org)