The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishers, 1993.
Food of the Gods of perhaps the best book Terence McKenna has written, and I have read it with an enthusiastic participation that I have rarely experienced in my literary life. It was as if I was co-authoring the book while reading it.
And this book is much more coherent than The Archaic Revival, and much less esoteric than The Invisible Landscape—the book I shall review next. In fact, it treats a very important subject that is rather obfuscated in modern times: food. When I say obfuscated I really mean that most modern city dwellers have developed no consciousness of what they ingest on a daily basis; they are just gnawing away their very juice of life, with all the toxics that modern processed food contains.
While in ancient times food was medicine. You still have this philosophy in the Chinese food tradition where there are many dishes, for example a whole array of mushroom dishes, that originally were concocted for medical purposes but that today we eat just for enriching our daily diet. There is one rather esoteric dish among them, that is called the ‘black chicken.’
The interesting thing about this dish is that while you can buy these small black chickens in any supermarket in Asia, the other ingredients you best don’t buy there, but in a Chinese medical pharmacy. They will open a number of little drawers for you and put on a sheet of paper a curious composition of mushrooms, herbs, spices and dried plums that you take home for a few cents.
Now, you brew this with water, and just put some salt. You cannot imagine what this dish can do! It cures any cold, influenza or cough—guaranteed! The taste is exotic, it really tastes like medicine, and the red meat of this little black chicken really has a good taste. This is the way to enjoy life as the ancients did: you eat what you like, but you eat medicine at the same time.
McKenna’s mind was incredibly lucid for unveiling the machinations of our negative oversoul, and I wonder if any of his predictions are understood by a larger number of people, other than the eternal adolescent-minded and hopelessly narcissistic baby boomers that surrounded him like a plague all through his life, and that surely will not have the necessary strength to assume his heritage. He writes:
Our culture, self-toxified by the poisonous by-products of technology and egocentric ideology, is the unhappy inheritor of the dominator attitude that alteration of consciousness by the use of plants or substances is somehow wrong, onanistic, and perversely antisocial. I will argue that suppression of shamanic gnosis, with its reliance and insistence on ecstatic dissolution of the ego, has robbed us of life’s meaning and made us enemies of the planet, of ourselves, and our grandchildren. We are killing the planet in order to keep intact the wrongheaded assumptions of the ego-dominator cultural style. It is time for change./xxi
Food and mind do interact: this is the essential message of this book. And there is one more link to it. Food acts on sexuality, and sexuality acts in turn on the mind. This is not an insight unique to McKenna’s food research but many studies have shown that alcohol abuse has a particular effect on sexuality in that it renders the sexual appetite more violent, more sadistic, or else leads to impotence. McKenna speaks of an ‘alcohol culture’ and a little later he also speaks of a ‘coffee culture’ so as to characterize, in terms of food, our patriarchal tradition:
Dominator style hatred of women, general sexual ambivalence and anxiety, and alcohol culture conspired to create the peculiarly neurotic approach to sexuality that characterizes European civilization. Gone are the boundary-dissolving hallucinogenic orgies that diminished the ego of the individual and reasserted the values of the extended family and the tribe./148
On the other hand, the current demonization of the harmless hallucinogenic Cannabis will in the author’s opinion cause us a particularly heavy price to pay for the surrender to dominator values in that it will bring about the deterioration of the individual self, and selfhood:
Of all the pandemic plant intoxicants inhabiting the earth, cannabis is second only to mushrooms in its promotion of the social values and sensory ratios that typified the original partnership societies. How else are we to explain the unrelenting persecution of cannabis use in the face of overwhelming evidence that, of all the intoxicants ever used, cannabis is among the most benign. Its social consequences are negligible compared with those of alcohol. Cannabis is anathema to the dominator culture because it deconditions or decouples users from accepted values. Because of its subliminally psychedelic effect, cannabis, when pursued as a lifestyle, places a person in intuitive contact with less goal-oriented and less competitive behavior patterns. For these reasons marijuana is unwelcome in the modern office environment, while a drug such as coffee, which reinforces the values of industrial culture, is both welcomed and encouraged. Cannabis use is correctly sensed as heretical and deeply disloyal to the values of male dominance and stratified hierarchy. Legalization of marijuana is thus a complex issue, since it involves legitimating a social factor that might ameliorate or even modify ego-dominant values. Legalization and taxation of cannabis would provide a tax base that could help clean up the national deficit. Instead, we continue to hurl millions of dollars into marijuana eradication, a policy that creates suspicion and a permanent criminal class in communities that are otherwise among the most law abiding in the country./155
At the same time, with the suppression of Cannabis, a most harmful and toxic food rises: sugar. McKenna writes:
Let us be absolutely clear, sugar is entirely unnecessary to the human diet; before the arrival of industrial cane and beet sugar humanity managed well enough without refined sugar, which is nearly pure sucrose. Sugar contributes nothing that cannot be gotten from some other, easily avail able source. It is a ‘kick’, nothing more. Yet for this kick the dominator culture of Europe was willing to betray the ideals of the Enlightenment by its collusion with slave traders. In 1800 virtually every ton of sugar imported into England had been produced with slave labor. The ability of the ego-dominator culture to suppress these realities is astonishing./178
I know that most people are unaware of the dangers of modern-day sugar ingestion, and gradually destroy the health of their children with this peak form of ignorance that is promoted and encouraged by all governments in the world. McKenna unveils the cunning trick that led to a total inattention to sugar as a really harmful drug:
Sugar is culturally defined by us as a food. This definition denies that sugar can act as a highly addictive drug, yet the evidence is all around us. Many children and compulsive eaters live in a motivational environment primarily ruled by mood swings resulting from cravings for sugar./180
Then, eventually, we talk about tobacco and the myth of its cancerogenous nature that not only McKenna has unveiled in the meantime, but also a number of other researchers:
The tobacco of the Classical Maya was Nicotiana rustica, which is still in use among aboriginal populations in South America today. This species is much more potent, chemically complex, and potentially hallucinogenic than the commercial grades of Nicotiana tabacum available today. The difference between this tobacco and cigarette tobacco is profound. This wild tobacco was cured and rolled into cigars which were smoked. The / trancelike state that followed, partially synergized by the presence of compounds that included MAO inhibitors, was central to the shamanism of the Maya. Recently introduced antidepressants of the MAO inhibitor type are distant synthetic relatives to these natural compounds. /196-197
Opium addiction was once the price paid for the prohibition of tobacco, as addiction to gasoline has been seen to be one of the consequences of alcohol prohibitions both in 1930s America and in Iran under the reign of Ayatollah Khomeini. As a general rule, you can observe in life that every denial brings about worse a condition compared to the original desire that was denied to manifest. Only that our decision-makers have so far not fully understood this law of the psyche. McKenna writes:
It was the prohibition of tobacco smoking in China by the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1628-1644) that led frustrated tobacco addicts to experiment with smoking opium. Before that time the smoking of opium was not known. Thus it is that the suppression of one drug seems inevitably to lead to involvement with another. /201
So much depends on how we define food, or not define it as food! Psychedelics were originally defined as food, and no one had a problem with them. And the suppression of culture and the suppression of food go hand in hand, as McKenna lucidly demonstrates:
Psychedelic plants and experience were first suppressed by European civilization, then ignored and forgotten. The fourth century witnessed the suppression of the mystery religions—the cults of Bacchus and Diana, of Attis and Cybele. The rich syncretism that was typical of the Hellenistic world had become a thing of the past. Christianity triumphed over the Gnostic sects—Valentinians, Marcionites, and others—which were the last bastions of paganism. These repressive episodes in the evolution of Western thought effectively close the door on communication with the Gaian mind./223
I would like to close this book review with a reproduction of McKenna’s unique law draft, which he entitled ‘A Modest Proposal’, and hope that the publisher will allow me to share this information here, which is surely not destined to preclude any book sales, and in the contrary encourage the reader to buy the book:
A drug policy of democratic values would aim to educate people to make informed choices based on their own needs and ideals. Such a simple prescription is necessary and sadly overdue. / A master plan for seriously seeking to come to terms with America’s drug problems might explore a number of options, including the following.
1. A 200 percent federal tax should be imposed on tobacco and alcohol. All government subsidies for tobacco production should be ended. Warnings on packaging should be strengthened. A 20 percent federal sales tax should be levied on sugar and sugar substitutes, and all supports for sugar production should be ended. Sugar packages should also carry warnings, and sugar should be a mandatory topic in school nutrition curricula.
2. All forms of cannabis should be legalized and a 200 percent federal sales tax imposed on cannabis products. Information as to the THC content of the product and current conclusions regarding its impact on health should be printed on the packaging.
3. International Monetary Fund and World Bank lending should be withdrawn from countries that produce hard drugs. Only international inspection and certification that a country is in compliance would restore loan eligibility.
4. Strict gun control must apply to both manufacture and possession. It is the unrestricted availability of firearms that has made violent crime and the drug abuse problem so intertwined.
5. The legality of nature must be recognized, so that all plants are legal to grow and possess.
6. Psychedelic therapy should be made legal and insurance coverage extended to include it.
7. Currency and banking regulations need to be strengthened. Presently bank collusion with criminal cartels allows large-scale money laundering to take place.
8. There is an immediate need for massive support for scientific research into all aspects of substance use and abuse and an equally massive commitment to public education.
9. One year after implementation of the above, all drugs still illegal in the United States should be decriminalized. The middleman is eliminated, the government can sell drugs at cost plus 200 percent, and those monies can be placed in a special fund to pay the social, medical, and educational costs of the legalization program. Money from taxes on alcohol, tobacco, sugar, and cannabis can also be placed in this fund.
10. Also following this one-year period, pardons should be given to all offenders in drug cases that did not involve firearms or felonious assault. /269-270