Botanicals and Altered Consciousness

It was the nineties. We listened to Aphex Twin, Portishead, and The Cure, and painted the walls of the bedroom dark blue. I ordered exotic plants from various mail-order sources: sassafras and avocados, also khat trees and San Pedro cactus. With the latter plants I hoped to alter my #consciousness without supporting the netherworld of drug dealing. I had come to dislike and distrust street drugs and the addictions of various friends saddened me. Yet I still yearned for a personal transcendent experience.
That meant I was simultaneously someone who judged those who couldn’t wait to toke up, and yet, I was someone who was fascinated by those botanical miracles that made us see things in a new way. I just didn’t want those experiences coupled to dependence, and the drudgery of waiting around for a dealer’s call.
Around this time my friend occasionally worked for The American Botanical Council, a non-profit based in Austin, Texas, where we also lived in our colorfully painted house. Under the auspices of the American Botanical Council, we attended the October 1996 conference on Entheogens at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. (where else). An entheogen refers to a hallucinogenic plant used in a sacred ceremony. Many so-called primitive cultures, especially in the Americas, have long-standing traditions involving hallucinogenic plants and shamans.
I attended lectures from anthropologists like Christian Ratsch and chemists Kary Mullis, Alexander Shulgin, and Dennis McKenna. For the first time it became clear to me that people could pursue a serious study of plants without becoming ensnared in the dead end of addiction. While many use conscious-altering botanicals to numb and deaden themselves to the impact of their actions, in the shamanistic tradition, botanical allies are used to confront our demons. This was my understanding of it anyway. Being newcomers to the San Francisco scene, we never partook of anything stronger than margaritas, though the whole affair vibrated with secret rendezvous, and we glimpsed a sacramental altar in one of the other hotel rooms.
It awoke my interest in the works of pioneering ethnobotanists though. I read Wade Davis’ account of Richard Evan Schultes’ discoveries in South America, and felt honored to interview him in San Francisco. I’d also hoped to meet Albert Hofmann, the Swiss discoverer of LSD at the conference, but when knee surgery prevented his attendance, I contented myself with the signed photo he sent.
Even as my self-experimentation dwindled, and then stopped, I retained a fondness for the counter-cultural icons, and a fascination for the anthropologists that spent years of their lives investigating shamanistic traditions. I honor all methods that lead to an awakening to our unique selves. Sometimes its Eastern mysticism or a shamanistic experience; more often wisdom comes quietly, without fanfare, in bits and pieces.
Entheogen Fest

1996 Entheobotany Conference
Back row: Second from left, Alexaner Shulgin, fourth from left, Kary Mullins, on the right Dennis McKenna
Frpnt row: Fifth from the left: Christian Rätsch

The Beautiful #Botanical Nightshade

Her beauty is enticing, but this Brugmansia is a dangerous member of the Nightshade family.
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Nightshade. Something so dark, it’s blacker than night. As Peppa and her godfather, renowned chemist Alex Kaufmann, find out in the first book, the hallucinogenic Compound T is made from a nightshade. Its creator, a devious scientist, calls it a Compound, but it’s only a simple extract. A bit of deceptive advertisement.
The existence of a Compound T is a bit of creative fiction, but nightshades are firmly established in occult tradition. Nightshades, in Latin, the genus Solanaceae includes plants we eat, like tomatoes (though they were formerly believed to be poisonous.) Henbane, Belladonna, and various Angel Trumpets (Brugmansia) are examples of the more dangerous nightshades, ones that induce delirium. Pharmacological chemist and expert on psychoactive plants, Dr. Dennis McKenna explains the difference between hallucinations and delirium. During a hallucination you see and hear things that aren’t ordinarily present, but still are somewhat grounded in every-day life. During a delirium, the bond with consensual reality breaks, which makes a delirium a type of psychotic break.
McKenna admits to an unfortunate experience with Jimson weed, during which he was incapacitated. Jimson weed, a type of Datura, is a close relative of the Angel Trumpet, species Brugmansia. I had already finished my novel when I read McKenna’s reflections on the two closely allied plants. He writes “I believe that accidental or deliberate encounters with the shadowy Datura spaces are the basis for the belief, in many cultures, in a land of the dead.”
Interesting corroboration to the decision to feature the beautiful Brugmansia as a toxic hallucinogen.