Terence Kemp McKenna, by Entropath, Wikimedia Commons
Now the scholar
Now the fool
Thus they appear on earth:
The free men.
— Hindu verse from Avadhoota Gita
Terence McKenna (November 16, 1946 – April 3, 2000), America's most beloved psychonaut, bard, ethnobotanist, folk hero, and freewheeling philosopher, rose to fame in the early 1990s with the publication of several influential books: The Archaic Revival (1992), Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge — A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution (1992), Trialogues at the Edge of the West: Chaos, Creativity, and the Resacralization of the World (with Ralph H. Abraham, Rupert Sheldrake, and Jean Houston, 1992), and True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author's Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil's Paradise (1993).
Of his childhood in Paonia, Colorado — a cattle and coal town — he says in a 1993 Details magazine article, "I think my first encounter with psychedelics was looking at Colorado and trying to understand that it was once the shores of an ocean with hundred-foot-long sauropods tromping through the mangrove swamps."
Mahakala, Tibetan painting circa 1900, Wikimedia CommonsIn 1965, while still in high school, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and then attended the University of California, Berkeley for two years. After that, he journeyed through spiritual India, collected butterflies in Indonesia, and taught English in Japan. Drawn to Nepal by his interest in Tibetan painting and Bon, pre-Buddhist Tibetan shamanism, he studied the Tibetan language and worked as a hashish smuggler until, according to legend, a Bombay-to-Aspen shipment was seized by U.S. Customs. To avoid capture by Interpol, he fled through Asia, studying ruins along the way.
Less than a year after the loss of their mother in 1970, he and his brother Dennis (who would later become a formally trained botanist) journeyed to the Amazon to hunt for oo-koo-he, a plant preparation containing DMT. When they arrived at the Colombian village of La Chorrera, they found ayahuasca — the hallucenogenic "strange brew" of the shamans — and Stropharia cubensis, or magic mushrooms. After an eventful trip, Terence returned to Berkeley to finish college. He completed a distributed major in Ecology, Resource Conservation, and Shamanism in 1975. One of the first outcomes of the brothers' Amazonian travels was The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching (1975). Another was Psilocybin, Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide (1976), the first technical handbook of its kind. Originally published under the pseudonyms O. T. Oss and O. N. Oeric, it has since been republished with the authors' real names credited.
The Elf-King asleep., NYPL Digital ID 1699734 What happened at La Chorrera would inform the rest of Terence's life, for it was there that he first experienced what he called the Logos, or the "voice in the head," a commonly reported phenomenon specific to psilocybin (the Stropharia cubensis or Psilocybe cubensis' psilocybin alkaloid is part of the tryptamine class and bears a structural relationship to serotonin in the human brain). In The Archaic Revival, Terence writes, "Psilocybin is a source of gnosis, and the voice of gnosis has been silenced in the Western mind for at least a thousand years... Our institutions, our epistemologies are bankrupt and exhausted; we must start anew and hope that with the help of shamanically-inspired personalities, we can cultivate this ancient mystery once again. The Logos can be unleashed, and the voice that spoke to Plato and Parmenides and Heraclitus can speak again in the minds of modern people. When it does, the alienation will be ended because we will have become the alien. This is the promise that is held out; it may seem to some a nightmare vision, but all historical changes of immense magnitude have a charged emotional quality. They propel people into a completely new world."
Ayahuasca Inspired, by Howard G. Charing, Creative Commons In the early 1980s, Terence did large-scale psilocybin farming, producing 70 pounds every six weeks. Then a good friend of his, an acid chemist, got arrested. Terence said in Wired magazine, "They f*cked him so terrifyingly that I saw I couldn't do this anymore. I had to work something else out." So he began lecturing on the topic of psychedelics, developing a witty and informative stream-of-consciousness style that approached performance art. The psychedelic experience, he often proclaimed, "...has no meaning unless it is able to be carried back into the collective." These talks were to be his true oeuvre, hundreds of hours of which were audio- and video-recorded and are now available online. In 1985, Terence and his then-wife, Kathleen Harrison, founded Botanical Dimensions, an ethnobotanical garden on the Big Island of Hawaii. Its purpose, says Harrison, is to build "a bridge between the categories of environment, cultural preservation, medicinal plants and psychoactive plants, hopefully to help change some of our cultural notions about plants, drugs and medicines."
Terence's breakthrough to wider media attention came in the late 80s/early 90s with Roy of Hollywood's "Something's Happening" program on KPFK radio in Los Angeles. Every Monday night, Roy showcased Terence's recorded talks and occasionally interviewed Terence live. This helped to get the word out. Something, indeed, was happening.
From the mid-80s until his death in 2000, Spiral, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationTerence became the world's most eloquent and entertaining spokesperson for the Logos of plant intelligence, developing and expounding upon, among other Logos-inspired theories, Timewave Zero, the Stoned Ape, and the Archaic Revival. According to Terence's Novelty Theory, the end of the world is an attractor (also called the Eschaton, or the last thing), which pulls evolution and human events towards it with greater and greater speed and complexity. In his last recorded interview with John Hazard in October 1998, Terence says, "And to understand that human technologies, languages, migrations, art movements, ideologies are not something different from nature, they're the same downloads of processes that we see in the movement of continents, evolution of new species of animals except that, these human novel, emergent situations are happening much more quickly... But you don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that if the universe is complexifying faster, an epoch, a time will come when this rate of complexification is occurring so rapidly that it will become itself the overwhelming phenomena in the world of three dimensional space and time. I call this the omega point or the transcendental object at the end of history... So what we have here is a new model of time, based on a very real intuition that I think most people share, which is, that time is speeding up, that human beings are part of that process, and that the culmination of that process, is now within the vein of historical time. In other words, I believe it will happen in 2012, in December, co incident with the same events that the Maya placed at the end of their calendar. Even if I am wrong, even if it's a hundred years or five hundred years later, these are spans of time that, when compared to the life of the planet, are fractions of a percentage."
Terence also conducted several public debates, or trialogues, with chaos mathematician Ralph Abraham and biologist Rupert Sheldrake, the creator of the Morphogenetic Field Theory; appeared on CDs; and performed at raves with musicians such as The Shamen, Zuvuya in England, and Space/Time in San Francisco.
photo credit: NASAIn 1999, after returning to Hawaii from a speaking tour, Terence collapsed with a brain seizure and was subsequently diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most malignant form of brain cancer. Wired magazine reported, "To Terence's amazement, his doctor described the thing as a 'fruiting body' that sent 'mycelia' throughout the surrounding tissue — mycological lingo straight out of the Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide... Like everybody else, he suspected a lifetime of exotic drug use may have been to blame. 'So what about it?' he asked his doctors. 'You wanna hammer on me about that?' They assured him there was no causal link. 'So what about 35 years of daily dope smoking?' he asked. They pointed to studies suggesting that cannabis may actually shrink tumors. 'Listen,' Terence told them, 'if cannabis shrinks tumors, we would not be having this conversation.'" In an interview with Jon Hanna and Sylvia Thyssen at the 1999 AllChemical Arts Conference, when asked if he felt a need to complete any written works-in-progress, Terence replied, "...do I feel cut off in mid spiel? No, I don't feel cut off in mid spiel. It's good to rotate the spokesman, or spokespeople, every once in a while." He opted for the gamma knife, an allopathic treatment that surprised many, while his admirers around the globe provided a more holistic approach: power words gleaned from a hike up the side of the Mauna Loa volcano, a blast of good vibrations from Nevada disk jockey Art Bell's 13 million listeners, and almost 2,400 e-mail messages in his in-box from well-wishers. Less than a year after his initial diagnosis, Terence passed away on April 3, 2000. We lost a great and fearless mind that day. In one of his last public speeches at the Esalen Institute, he said, "If psychedelics don't ready you for the great beyond, then I don't know what really does."
Dennis McKenna's The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss
is a gracefully told tale of two remarkable siblings. Terence - by all accounts a brilliant man - often claimed that Dennis was the smarter one. Few people know that Dennis, in his quiet and unassuming way, has done as much to further our knowledge of the plant-human relationship as his more flamboyant brother. This highly readable, emotionally intelligent chronicle of the brothers' lives and times is indispensable to those who seek a greater understanding of the phenomenon that was Terence McKenna.