Hallucinogenic plants may have been the catalysts for everything about us that distinguishes us from other primates except perhaps the loss of body hair. All of the mental functions which we associate with humanness, including recall, projective imagination, language, naming, magical speech, dance, and a sense of religio may have emerged out of interaction with hallucinogenic plants.
So said the late Terence McKenna, an ethnobotanist, author, speaker, thinker, and one of the world’s most outspoken proponents of psychedelics. I first got into Terence McKenna in college, when I would stay up late nights in the studio listening to the Psychedelic Salon podcast. A labor of love by a man named Lorenzo, this podcast is apparently still running, sixteen years strong. It basically consists of hours and hours of archival interviews and lectures with psychonauts like Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, and Terence McKenna. At the time it blew my mind to hear people talking out loud about this stuff, to hear that people had been talking about it for decades. Millenia even, if you go outside the scope of ciswhite males in Western Culture.
The above quotation is actually from an essay by Terence McKenna called “Plan/Plant/Planet.” That link goes to a photocopy of it published in the Whole Earth Review in 1989, but I read it in his book The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History, a compilation of interviews and essays published in 1991. Honestly, listening to Terence McKenna speak is more compelling than reading his words on paper, but it is powerful to have a document to refer to.
It is Terence McKenna who introduced me to the idea that humans are not necessarily the most intelligent life on the planet, but that we may owe our intelligence to plants. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but spend enough time staring at a cannabis plant (let alone ingesting cannabis) and it certainly feels true.
I’ve been thrown way off from my usual Friday publishing rhythm, so last week I ended up choosing this week’s colors in a friend’s garden on a Sunday afternoon. I was hiding out on the other side of some bushes so my kids wouldn’t come over and start shuffling the cards around. The colors that emerged were Green Black White. Usually I let myself ruminate on the colors for a day or two before I start creating any imagery. But in this case, when I packed up my cards and stood up, I saw it immediately: a cannabis plant nearly as tall as I am.
Actually this plant was standing much taller than me, because it was sitting in a pot of dirt on top of a raised garden bed. It was covered in buds almost by not quite ready to harvest, sparkling with trichomes. So I did what came naturally: stared in awe, said hello, and took 500 pictures on my phone.
Green is love, family, leaves. Black White is interconnectedness, transcendence, light. This cannabis plant was all leaves and light, all green leaves and buds and light and shadow. I hadn’t ingested any of that type of plant myself that day, but I didn’t need to be high to appreciate this creature. While my final animation only uses the last 14 pictures I took, the photographing was its own communing, viewing up close through a screen, capturing capturing capturing, loving the plant’s light by committing it to more light, rendering it into digital images.
So a week ago my animation was already pretty much made in my camera roll. All that was left was to think about plants and interconnection and write it down. Easy enough.
A couple nights later I got into bed at 9pm expecting to wake up at 5am to write. It felt like an accomplishment: lining up eight hours of sleep! I took a little extra 40:1 CBD tincture to make sure I stayed asleep going to bed so early. While I have a lot of love for the cannabis plant itself, CBD tincture is the main form I can handle these days.
Well, I did wake up early, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. I was still in bed at 6am. And still in bed after 630am when the kids came bounding in.
The whole time I lay there in a sort of half sleep, thinking about writing about plants, then just thinking about plants, and then trying to think as a plant. Like, trying to be one. This perhaps made as much sense as any dream logic ever does. But I had picked up that Terence McKenna book again, and so his ideas had creeped back into my consciousness. “The animals move, migrate, and swarm, while plants hold fast,” Terence McKenna said.
Nestled in the dark sheets I was a plant, or maybe even a seed. I knew that it was really my animal body that wanted me to get up and do something. Be quiet, be still, I told myself. If you really want to learn from your plant body, lay in bed now and dream. Your survival might depend on it, according to Terence McKenna:
Until this point in history we have modeled our more successful economic systems on animal predation. Animals can potentially move on to another resource when they exhaust the one at hand. Since they can move to new food sources, they potentially have unlimited resources. Plants are fixed. They cannot easily move to richer nutrients, or leave an area if they foul or deplete it. They must recycle well. The fostering of a plant-based ethic that emulates the way in which the botanical world uses and replaces resources is a sine qua non for planetary survival. All capitalistic models presuppose unlimited exploitable resources and labor pools, yet neither should now be assumed.
Rest is one way to conserve my own finite energetic resources. So I lay there. Not a predator, not a hunter, not even a gatherer, but a recycler. Cycling through thoughts I’d already thought, breathing the air that was there in the room, processing the nutrients I’d ingested the night before. Taking in the sweet rest that was available in my bed, coursing it through my veins. Staying still.
Plants have a different relationship to time, measured by their relationship to light. Green Black White is number 28 in the Rainbow Squared System, which is itself a magical number having to do with time. 7 days for the moon to change phases, the new moon waxing to first quarter to full then waning to third quarter and back to new. 4 cycles of 7 make 28 days (or so) for the moon to cycle around again. Many human bodies live by this cycle at some point in their lives as well, shifting phases from menses to growing follicles to ovulating to building a uterine lining to shedding it with menses again. Black White is always about cycles, and Green Black White especially is about the natural world and celestial bodies and cycles.
Leaves certainly live in cycles with the light and the dark. I don’t know much about cannabis cultivation, but I know you can trick a plant into behaving differently based on the number of daylight hours you allow it, depriving sunlight and then blasting ultraviolet rays indoors. Much has been written about human relationship to light as well, the blue light coming from our screens tricking us into perpetual productivity. As we approach the Equinox I find myself looking forward to the daylight diminishing. Commuting in the dark sucks, even now when my commute is mostly school drop-off and pick-up. But I find it easier to write in the darker half of the year, when the sun isn’t yanking my attention outdoors.
Not that I need much help to write more, maybe just better. I looked it up and apparently I wrote 30,000 words last year and now 45,000 words this year already. Have I written about Terence McKenna before, I wondered? I couldn’t actually recall, so I checked. I went to http://arainbowsquared.com/year4 and did a Ctrl + F to search for “terence.” And I found one in Year 4, 19. Yellow Blue, but it wasn’t Terence McKenna. It was Terence Crutcher.
His name was nestled in a list of other names, names of Black people murdered by police. I had taken the time to transcribe it and the 99 others I saw on a piece of paper laid on an altar up on Bernal Hill in June 2020. But I didn’t take the time to actually learn each of those names and commit them to memory, much less to look up all the people behind the names.
Terence Crutcher was a 40-year-old father and musician who sang in his church choir. He was shot outside of his car by a white police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma on September 16th, 2016. That means this past Thursday was the 5th anniversary of his death. Terence Crutcher was tased by one police officer and then shot and killed by another, Betty Jo Shelby. He carried no weapon, though the autopsy found PCP in his system. She was charged with first-degree manslaughter but ultimately found not guilty.
I speak of Black and White as interconnectedness and light, but of course in the United States and in so much of the world, it is also race. Black and white. A white police officer shot and killed a Black man who was perhaps out of his mind at the time. I don’t know that the police officer was out of hers.
Police are trained to make split second decisions, to react instantaneously to what they perceive as threats. Terence Crutcher must have been reaching for a gun, the police officer said. Would staying still have saved him? We’ll never know, and ultimately that’s not the point, that’s never the point. But it is very possible that staying still for just another second or two after her partner tased Terence Crutcher might have prevented Betty Jo Shelby from then shooting him.
I’m certainly no expert on this case just from reading the Wikipedia page. And I can’t wish and I’m not wishing plant consciousness on anyone since I don’t even quite know what that means: would being under the influence of a synthetic hallucinogen like PCP qualify? But if animal bodies equip humans to harm each other, to divide each other into categories and hierarchies and systems of oppression based on those categories, it is tempting to imagine plant bodies as an alternative.
Terence McKenna ends the essay “Plan/Plant/Planet” with: “Our choice as a planetary culture is a simple one: go Green or die.” Saying “go Green” in the 1980s was a little less cringe-worthy than it is now that a couple decades of greenwashing have diluted the meaning. Even when Terence McKenna talks about recycling, he doesn’t mean turning plastic trash into different plastic future trash like it means now. Green Consciousness and “going Green” in McKenna speak is not about consumer choices, it’s about actually being Green. Not just preserving natural spaces but actually learning from and even acting like vegetation, which he says “constitutes by far the major portion of the biomass of the living earth.”
When I started writing this I thought it would be more about cannabis specifically. There is so much to say on that subject, and even on the subject of me as a white woman being able to write about that subject. But one thing that distinguishes cannabis from other plants is perhaps that cannabis knows how to speak to humans in a language they understand. Cannabis is what Terrence McKenna would call a “magical plant teacher,” and one who can perhaps translate for the others. But what are the plants saying?
In this moment, the plants are telling me to stop trying to talk to plants when I should be listening to other humans. That the drive to dominate, violate, and consume that has some humans divide other humans into categories is the same drive that separates them from the natural world. This drive doesn’t arise from the human condition or even the animal condition, but from deeply misinterpreting something about what it means to be an earthling. To be alive. Being a growing living thing among and with other growing living things embodies another Green force: Love.
Even capitalized, the word “Love” looks paltry. Love doesn’t look like something that could ever stand up against the atrocities committed throughout history to consolidate power, or stand up against the forces of white supremacy and patriarchy played out everyday in countless individual interactions. But it’s possible that Love is the only thing that ever could. A Green Love.