Issue 8 Pharmacopia Fall 2002
On the Poison Path: An Interview with Dale Pendell
David Levi Strauss, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Dale Pendell
Dale Pendell’s book, Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1995), is a remarkable compendium of knowledge about psychoactive plants—from tobacco, beer, and wine to aether, absinthe, and opium (not to mention “The Mad River Plant,” Duboisia hopwoodii, Kava kava, Salvia divinorum, and Calea zacatechichi, among many others). Pendell is a poet, botanist, and adept of what is called “the Poison Path,” dedicated to extracting the medicine from poisons, both literally and symbolically. In Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare wrote, “In poison there is physic”; for centuries, the techniques for locating it were taught as “spagyrics,” or plant alchemy, a range of nearly forgotten traditional methods for preparing medicaments by extracting the three Philosophical Principles (Mercury, Sulfur, and Salt) from plants. Paracelsus, the hugely influential 16th-century Swiss physician and chemist, advised his colleagues to “Learn Alchimiam, otherwise called Spagyria, which teaches you to separate false from true.” In his foreword to Pharmako/Poeia, the poet Gary Snyder writes: “This is a book about danger: dangerous knowledge, even more dangerous ignorance,” and the book begins with a legal disclaimer and cautionary note from the publisher: “This book is an exploration of the ‘Poison Path.’ All of the plant substances described in it act on the human body as drugs and thereby as poisons. … The publisher and the author recommend that dangerous or illegal practices be avoided.” But Pharmako/Poeia is much more than a collection of recipes, preparations, and dosages. It is above all a work on the poetics of altered states. I had been hearing about Pharmako/Poeia for some time, and I remembered Pendell as a poet and editor of a literary journal called KUKSU, in California, but was finally prompted to read it by my friend Peter Lamborn Wilson, who’d gotten to know Pendell at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where we had all taught. After reading the book, I was anxious to talk with its author, so one clear day in May, we three sat down at phones 3,000 miles apart and turned on the recorder.
Dale Pendell’s book, Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1995), is a remarkable compendium of knowledge about psychoactive plants—from tobacco, beer, and wine to aether, absinthe, and opium (not to mention “The Mad River Plant,” Duboisia hopwoodii, Kava kava, Salvia divinorum, and Calea zacatechichi, among many others). Pendell is a poet, botanist, and adept of what is called “the Poison Path,” dedicated to extracting the medicine from poisons, both literally and symbolically. In Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare wrote, “In poison there is physic”; for centuries, the techniques for locating it were taught as “spagyrics,” or plant alchemy, a range of nearly forgotten traditional methods for preparing medicaments by extracting the three Philosophical Principles (Mercury, Sulfur, and Salt) from plants. Paracelsus, the hugely influential 16th-century Swiss physician and chemist, advised his colleagues to “Learn Alchimiam, otherwise called Spagyria, which teaches you to separate false from true.”
In his foreword to Pharmako/Poeia, the poet Gary Snyder writes: “This is a book about danger: dangerous knowledge, even more dangerous ignorance,” and the book begins with a legal disclaimer and cautionary note from the publisher: “This book is an exploration of the ‘Poison Path.’ All of the plant substances described in it act on the human body as drugs and thereby as poisons. … The publisher and the author recommend that dangerous or illegal practices be avoided.” But Pharmako/Poeia is much more than a collection of recipes, preparations, and dosages. It is above all a work on the poetics of altered states.
I had been hearing about Pharmako/Poeia for some time, and I remembered Pendell as a poet and editor of a literary journal called KUKSU, in California, but was finally prompted to read it by my friend Peter Lamborn Wilson, who’d gotten to know Pendell at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where we had all taught. After reading the book, I was anxious to talk with its author, so one clear day in May, we three sat down at phones 3,000 miles apart and turned on the recorder.
PLW: So, Dale, are you “prepared” for this?
DP: I’m getting there.
DLS: Dale, Pharmako/Poeia came out in 1995, and Pharmako/Dynamis is just about to appear. Will there be additional volumes in the series?
DP: Yes, there’ll be a third volume, Pharmako/Gnosis, which will cover the hallucinogens and the tropanes (Daimonica: datura, brugmansia, solandra, henbane, belladonna, etc.), and maybe a few other plants that got left out of the first two volumes. I’d like to get that out in a year, but it never seems to happen that quickly.
DLS: How long did you work on Pharmako/Poeia, or perhaps I should ask when were you conscious of having begun, since there’s so much lore and research that obviously took a very long time to accumulate?
DP: The original vision started in the 1960s, when I had the idea to write A Poet’s Guide to Drugs, pursued with the methodology of immersion so that some signature of each substance would come through in what it did to my style of writing in each section. And that this would say more about the substance than what I would think to say. Then I got interested in plants. I devoted myself to lay life, but I kept up the plant work. So I had a strong botanical background when I came back to it in 1989 or so, sparked by a trip to Ecuador.
PLW: Was this a shamanic experience in Ecuador, or were you just collecting botanical specimens?
DP: Both. I did drink ayahuasca a couple of times. But I came back to the book really to try to correct some misinformation that had become common.
PLW: In anthropology or in pharmacology, or in both?
DP: Both. All too often, certain concepts in each get frozen into dogmatic or glib assertions. On one side, we might find “scientism,” reduced to what Gurdjieff called “nothing but-ism”—a wholly material explanation of everything. On the other side, a magical New Age worldview that can become so superstitious that it loses critical ability and the value of testing. So I wanted to work in between them.
PLW: You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but have you in these books gone back to your original experimental idea of testing how the substances themselves would affect your style?
DP: The methodology was immersion.
PLW: So there’s nothing here that hasn’t been “bio-assayed,” as they say.
DP: That’s right.
PLW: And do you notice the stylistic effects of these different substances? Is this an ongoing theory of yours, this kind of Henri Michaux effect?
DP: Yes. For instance, the stimulant chapters are the longest, and the most prosaic.
DLS: You often address the reader directly, wryly. Like on page 36 of Poeia: “Besides, why worry, if you are reading this you probably already have a reputation as an eccentric.” And in Dynamis, on page 104, after you say that Faust and Helen had a child named Euphorion, another voice says, “Go on kid, look it up yourself. This is about you.” This really jolted me when I first read it, because I immediately imagined myself reading this book as a youth, searching for knowledge, and I was thrown back into memory. Who do you imagine are the readers for these books now?
DP: I wanted to create a book that, had I found it when I was younger, browsing around a used bookstore or at a friend’s house, would have blown my mind.
PLW: Changed your life.
DP: Yeah. I wanted to leave messages for myself to find.
DLS: In Poeia you write, “In the forthcoming companion volume to Pharamako/Poeia, if we cannot make use of spagyric technique, we may nonetheless avail ourselves of its obfuscation.” There is some discussion in these books about spagyric techniques, but not in great detail. Why not?
DP: In that case, I was using “spagyric” in the general sense of alchemical. It’s also used now in a very specific way for a particular alchemical operation of separating the sulfur, mercury and salt out of a plant, and then binding it.
PLW: I believe Paracelsus initiated the term, didn’t he? And so it refers specifically to Paracelsan alchemy that uses the three substances, as opposed to previous methods that only dealt with the sulfur and mercury. Paracelsus added salt as the third principle. The alchemists who are practicing today in Morocco or Iran all use that system now, whether they even know anymore that they owe it to Paracelsus. His books were translated into Persian and Turkish, I know.
DP: The highly complex and varied alchemical language provided a model for a way of dealing with matter and spirit at the same time.
DLS: I’m sure you had to make many decisions about what to address in these books. Some of it is secret knowledge, and I wonder if you had any qualms about this.
DP: Lew Welch said, “Guard the mysteries; constantly reveal them.”
DLS: When Picasso was asked to design camouflage uniforms for paratroopers, he said, “Dress them as Harlequins.”
DP: That’s right. Nobody will believe it.
DLS: Writing about absinthe, you say, “Jonathan Ott reports psychoactive effects from smoking Artemisia absinthum, an assertion that I have been able to verify.” Describe the effects of smoking wormwood as distinguished from the drink. Is it similar to the effects of wormwood tea?
DP: I haven’t pursued that much. Because absinthe is such a wonderfully balanced and well-crafted beverage, I’ve just never had much interest in smoking the plant.
PLW: I did it only once or twice, because I didn’t think the effects were worth choking down all that smoke. It was mild, but detectable, like lobelia or Siberian motherwort. But nothing like the alchemical preparation of true absinthe.
DP: Which suffuses the whole body, whereas the smoke seems to just concentrate in the brain.
DLS: You mention that Maurice Zolotow wrote that absinthe was “without equal in counteracting airsickness and seasickness.” Do you know anything more about this?
DP: Yes, I think that’s objective, and other people who have tried it say the same. If you can get your hands on this wonderful green liquid—which is very difficult, you really need to know somebody … I’ve heard stories of someone taking a flask with them onto an airplane and when the stewardess goes by, just asking for a glass of ice water, and…
PLW: And a packet of sugar…
DP: Maybe a packet of sugar…
PLW: And a spoon, please dear, while you’re up! [laughter]
DLS: There should be split spoons dispensed on every flight, to go with the complimentary absinthe! It should be the one thing that they do serve on airplanes. No more air rage, no more suicide bombers.
DP: This past year, someone did find the receptor site for thujone [an isomer of camphor found in the essential oils of wormwood, sage, cedar, and tansy, and one of the major active ingredients of absinthe]. A research group at Cal, in a well-designed experiment, found that it works on the GABA receptor in the brain. It doesn’t bind directly to it, but I think it binds close enough to the receptor site so that it bends the receptor site to act as if it were occupied. And since the GABA site is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, the net effect is stimulation, which would explain why large doses are convulsive. And this would also probably explain its efficacy as an insect repellant.
DP: Overstimulation of the insect’s nervous system. After this research was reported, the newspapers were saying “Secret of Absinthe’s Neurotoxicity Discovered,” and “Why Van Gogh Went Mad.” And I wrote to the researchers and said, “Did I miss something?” And they said, “No, you didn’t.” The press took the neurotoxicity of absinthe for granted, and then figured, “Now that we know how this works, that shows why it’s neurotoxic.” In truth, the experiment proved the opposite. There hasn’t been any good research of long-term effects of chronic use of absinthe, but everything I’ve seen shows that the alcohol is much more toxic. I can see how absinthe would be more quickly addictive than other alcoholic drinks, because of this wonderful simultaneously calming and stimulating effect of the thujone and the other plants in it.
DLS: I was surprised to find that you don’t speak at length in the books specifically about dosage. I think it’s in speaking about absinthe that you first say “Dosage is everything,” but you don’t focus on the Paracelsan principle of “one dose to cure, one dose to kill.” Why not?
DP: I don’t talk about dosage? What an oversight. I’ll remedy that in the next volume. There is a principle for trying things you don’t know a lot about. People who search for wild mushrooms start small. Sasha Shulgin called it “working up.” And that’s what Albert Hofmann did with LSD too, only he started with what he figured was one-tenth of an active dose, and that was 250 mg.
PLW: The famous bicycle tour.
DP: But you’re supposed to start small and then wait several days to work up to double what you took before.
DLS: This is also akin to “simpling,” where you begin with small doses of therapeutic agents and then work up to get the desired effects. Can you say more about endorphins and the nature of addiction? You write, “Endorphins present a physical analog to the spiritual laws of homeostasis and addiction.” Is there really any hope for a non-addictive analgesic, or, as you say, an “overdose-proof painkiller”?
DP: It might be possible to find a different pathway. But the history of painkillers and synthetic opiates has certainly shown the contrary. Each new development of stronger painkillers—heroin to cure morphine addiction, methadone to cure heroin addiction, etc.—ignores the principle of homeostasis: that receptors up- or down-regulate themselves to try to get back to where they were. Think of the receptors as a row of mailboxes on a country road, there to receive pain messages. Opiates lock the boxes. The body responds by erecting a new set of mailboxes. Then you need to take more opiates to lock those new mailboxes, until finally you have tiers upon tiers of locked mailboxes…
DLS: All looking for mail!
DP: And then when you quit taking the opiates, all the locks fall off at once.
PLW: And all the pain that’s been blocked up comes on all at once.
DLS: You say, “Pain is the first teacher we deny.”
DP: There are different classes of pain. First, there is simple pain. Then there is the fear of pain. And finally there is what the Buddhists address, the pain of transitoriness. Even when things are good, there is always the pain of knowing that they won’t last. For simple pain, the recourse is the anodyne. For the fear of pain, the medicine, or poison, is avoidance. For the pain of transitoriness, the reaction is grasping. The grasping part is that you create a world to hide in. That’s why it’s so primary. The angels create the universe. It’s the bad angel Lucifer who, when cornered, turns. And it is that turning that creates the universe.
PLW: I always felt that opiates worked on all three of those levels, but the third will always be with us.
DP: Levi, in your essay on the therapeutic image [in Between Dog & Wolf], you make a connection between the anodyne and the allopathic.
DLS: Allopathy is about treating symptoms. If you suppress the symptoms, it’s thought that you’ve treated the illness.
PLW: That’s what opiates do.
DP: Yeah, I have to stand by my statement that the opiates are just great medicine. What a gift to a healer to be able to relieve pain! I’ve thought a lot about all this in my pursuit of what I call the Poison Path, and the methodology of the Poison Path is iatropathic, which means the doctor takes the medicine. [laughter]
PLW: Well, that’s always been a part of shamanistic practices.
DP: Very traditional. And the world gets better.
PLW: Very good. Very tidy. [laughter]
DLS: In Poeia, there’s a beautiful passage about “a power greater than the poppy.” And later on, you write, “The first poisons were love philtres, potions to ensnare the heart. Other seductions came later: knowledge, the Elixir of Life.” Do you think this is literally true?
DP: Yes, I think so. We’re speculating, but the etymological basis is certainly there. And looking at ancient classical books on magic, so much of it is love magic. And in popular magic, love charms are so often the major thrust. Bury a lock of hair before your door, and she will come to you. I think looking for eternal life was a later development. [laughter]
DLS: Immortality can wait, baby.
DP: Love is really the last socially acceptable form of divine madness. I’m working on a piece using the Poison Path methodology on love and desire. Looked at as a drug, love is certainly more dangerous than anything else out on the street. It kills more people, and inspires more murder and mayhem, than any other substance by far.
DLS: At the beginning of Pharmako/Dynamis, you make a statement that I’d like you to elaborate on: “That poisons are excessive is almost tautological. In this sense the Poison Path goes beyond aesthetics,” and then, “Conceivably the rupture with aesthetics is a fatal flaw.” What do you mean by this? Aesthetics is perception. The path of excess is an aesthetic. How does the Poison Path go “beyond aesthetics?”
DP: “Beyond” is imprecise. Maybe I should say unaesthetic, not beautiful. Is hunkering over a vomit bowl beautiful?
DLS: All perception is aesthetic.
DP: What I was trying to say was that using aesthetics as a value judgement might be problematical in the Poison Path. Aesthetically speaking, “excessive” is generally a derogatory or critical term, as opposed to “harmonic” or “balanced.” And visions are excessive.
PLW: Don’t you think that saying visions are excessive is somewhat culture-centric and temporo-centric? Aren’t there places and times when vision is and was more integrated?
DLS: It may be more integrated, but it’s still excessive. It has a place, it has rites and ceremonies, but people practicing it are still students of excess.
DP: Excessive practices are often integrated into healthy societies. Societies that try to suppress Dionysus are ill-fated. They have bad luck. But I agree with Levi that visionary states share something of the nature of excess. Take the image I used of the vomit bowl. Ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison mentioned to me how, in traditional societies, vomit bowls are often beautifully carved.
PLW: And to the person on the plant, vomiting is not necessarily an ugly or unaesthetic experience.
DP: No, it’s the great purge, the great cleansing.
PLW: That’s what I’m saying. If it’s part of the social, then you have to be careful about how you’re using the word “excess.”
DLS: Well, the way I’m using it is in relation to the nature/culture split. Nature is excessive: there are always too many seeds, too many young, too much production. Nature is excess, and culture is reacting to that. That’s why excess often has a derogatory sense in aesthetics, because it’s thought to be too close to nature, too “wild,” and not cultivated enough, not cultural.
DP: Yes, in this vein, I’ve been associating Dionysus with excess, but the ivy leaves worn by Dionysus were believed to be a cure against drunkenness.
PLW: Are we sure now that ivy leaves have no psychotropic effects?
DP: Recent work says no. Nothing yet from laurel leaves, either.
PLW: But is that true about ivy leaves having an anti-drunkenness effect?
DP: I don’t know if it’s true, I only know that it was so believed. So you can look at Dionysus in terms of the sobria ebriatas of Philo the Jew: sober drunkenness. Antonio Escohotado, the Spanish philosopher, has resurrected this idea and made the distinction between “sacred intoxication” and “profane intoxication.” Antonio’s test was how you feel the next day. With sacred intoxication, you feel better the next day, and with profane intoxication you feel worse.
PLW: That’s good, I like that. Although it might not always be true. I mean a sacred intoxication could be a very wrenching experience. I think your work on the tropanes in this respect is historically very important, and so far, little studied.
DP: Yeah, and I’m not sure that research would be much fun. [laughter] Among a certain people in Ecuador, the brugmansia consultation was open to everybody without the mediation of a shaman. You did it on your own. But you only did it a couple of times in your life, at very important crossroads. And you would prepare extensively. You would build a hut out in the jungle and then you would line up your family and friends to watch over you in shifts, to make sure you didn’t hurt yourself. Still, it’s one of the most dangerous of the shamanic plants. Every year, young people have misadventures with datura. It’s so tricky. Even people who should know better because of their experience have had to be rescued by helicopter and…
PLW: I have some stories like that from the 1960s.
DP: People took Asthmador in the 1960s, these belladonna cigarettes that you were supposed to smoke for asthma, but they were useless for that.
PLW: Right, but if you ate half of one of those cigarettes, holy shit! We called them “Cosmodors.”
DP: You ended up taking your clothes off and walking around town picking bugs off yourself, and the police would pick you up and it all got blamed on LSD. [laughter] It’s very difficult to get anything back from that space. Not much memory remains, usually. I am in touch with some people who favor the tropanes. Mostly the pagans seem to like them. Hopefully they can spare me some of the fieldwork. [laughter]
DLS: Well, Dale, is there anything else you want to say on the record?
DP: I’m trying to spread the idea of the Green Ribbon, the wearing of the Green Ribbon. What I have printed around mine is “Free the Green Prisoners,” and what I mean by that is: 1) Free all the outlawed plants, and 2) We want a P.O.W. exchange: we want our children, our friends, and our dealers who’ve been sent to prison for using plants and plant-related substances to be released. And we believe that the fact that we haven’t taken any prisoners ourselves, and so have nobody to give back, is immaterial. Green Ribbon! Free the Green Prisoners!
Dale Pendell is a poet, software engineer, and longtime student of ethnobotany. His poetry has appeared in many journals, and he was the founding editor of KUKSU: Journal of Backcountry Writing. He is the author of Pharmako/Poeia (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1995), Pharmako/Dynamis (San Francisco: Mercury House, 2002), and the forthcoming Pharmako/Gnosis.
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