Pharmako/Dynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions & Herbcraft

What's Your Poison?

Dale Pendell
Mercury House ($21.95)

by Sarah Fox

"Lastly, it was never my intention to write for everyone.
In which case, I would say, you have scored substantial success.
Thank you, Sweetheart. Good night now."

Thus ends the Preface to the long-awaited Pharmako/Dynamis, the second in a proposed trilogy of books investigating "the nature of poisons" by our favorite contemporary alchemist, Dale Pendell. Having read the brilliant Pharmako/Poeia, released by Mercury House in 1995, and then having re-read it several times, we celebrate the much-anticipated arrival of this equally brilliant second volume. We begin again to surreptitiously scan the seed selection at our local co-op (why are the Heavenly Blue Morning Glories always sold out?), and more closely peruse the Linnaean nomenclature of the plants offered up at our farmer's markets (e.g. the innocent-looking and seemingly ubiquitous "Angel's Trumpet," otherwise known as Datura, or Brugmansia, an important ingredient in the Voudun's zombie potion not to mention its notoriety as a potent hallucinogen whose use is generally discouraged by medical experts.)

And we recognize that mischievously intrusive italicized voice—"the ally," as Pendell calls it, or "Sweetheart"—who continues to shadow his scholarship, his method ("where possible, immersion"), and poetic discourse, into the Gnostic lore and language of "the poison path." The Poison, or pharmakon (Greek: poison, or king; the Eucharist, or Jesus; to Derrida, "the undecidable")—in other words, the drug (Middle English: drogge, dry; in a country where plants are "scheduled," I think many of us can appreciate this etymology)—is "both noxious and healing, medicine and bewitching charm, chemical reagent and the artist's colors." It is also the ally, and it talks. Pendell's preface is basically a warning: "Books themselves are poisons . . . A key is necessary to unlock the gate, but anyone is free to just walk around it. I call this technique 'autocryptosis.' It seems only fitting that a book about poisons ought to be poison itself."

Indeed, this book is not for everyone. The common reader will cast it aside as esoteric gibberish. The D.A.R.E. police will find it impossible to understand, least of all conveniently misinterpret. The recreational drug user will become swiftly bored by the lack of unmitigated encouragement and the consistent allegiance to botany, chemistry, spirituality, and history, not to mention there's poetry in it. All the better for those who've been waiting behind the tree line for a chance to linger, hoping to lay a hand on the key. Pendell writes in the first-person plural, putting the reader directly on the path with him. For some this may feel off-putting. Others understand. The gate is locked for a reason: poison is certainly democratic, but the path itself is the way of danger. As Gary Snyder notes in his foreword to Pharamko/Poeia: "This is a book about danger: dangerous knowledge, even more dangerous ignorance, and dangerous temptations by the seductions of addictions both psychic and cellular. It is a book which requires that one not be titillated by romantic ideas of self-destruction. I hope and believe it will benefit human beings and the plant world too. It is not for everyone—but neither is mountaineering."

Who, then, are these books for? If you're still asking this question, chances are they're not for you.

To follow the Way of Poisons, it is essential to learn about plants. As you learn about plants, you will, by the by, meet plant people. . . . In the old times it was not unusual for people to be turned into plants. The old plant doctors knew those stories. The old doctors talked to the plants directly. They knew. That this tree was a girl, that that flower had been a boy. Such things are still true. . . . Our Way, however, is not about being a plant person. Ours is the Poison Path.

Pharmako/Dynamis is an especially inadvisable read for the faint of heart as it showcases those poisons which are stimulants: "Excitantia" (Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, Maté, Kola, Betel, Ma Huang, Khat, Coca) and "Empathogenica" (Nutmeg, MDMA, Ecstasy, GHB.) Pendell has devised a sort of taxonomical mandala, the primary headings being Excitantia, Thanatopathia, Inebriantia, Euphorica, Phantastica, and further in a pentacle with subgroups and alchemical symbols relating to each subgroup. The third volume promises to explore the realm of Phantastica: the hallucinogens. We really hope we won't have to wait another seven years to read it. "There are those who believe we can live without plants. There is thus some urgency to our task. . . ." Yes. The book goes beyond plants, however, and spends some time in its latter third discussing the potential merits of chemical stimulants, such as MDMA, discovered by Sasha Shulgin. The facts around historical use of MDMA and Ecstasy, and how those chemicals became corrupted (chemically and politically) while plunging into the underground scene, is particularly engaging in Pendell's hands.

It seems important not to underestimate Pendell's implication of "poison." Paracelsus stated "Everything is poison, nothing is poison." He also wrote "It is the work of the alchemist to separate the poison from the arcanum." The original poison: Tree of Knowledge. Doctors, shamans, poets, chemists, herbalists, teachers, politicians: possible poisoners all. As Pendell states in "On the Nature of Poison," the introductory essay to Pharmako/Dynamis, "The pharmakon is both remedy and poison: a baneful drug or a medicinal restorative. Homer uses the word both ways." And he defines Pharmakodynamics as "the study of the effects and actions of drugs on living organisms." That means any drug, including spinach, Skittles, aspirin, that cup of coffee you had for breakfast this morning, your trusty Prozac.

Less rhapsodic, more politically charged and germane to the present social temper than Pharmako/Poeia, Pharmako/Dynamis elicits a historical connection between stimulants and capitalism (or simply industrialization), and as always, Pendell locates plants (poisons) firmly positioned at history's crossroads. "Age of Reason. Age of Stimulants. A reasonable universe replacing a rational cosmos. . . . Stimulants eclipsed the age of Exploration. Speed and destination instead of the meandering looking about of a scout in unmapped territory. A closing of periphery. Mercantilism. The trading ship: nothing to see on the voyage, nothing but straight ahead. Destination. Goal directed." Pendell opens the book with an investigation of coffee, tea, and cocoa arriving almost simultaneously to Europe by the late 1600s. By 1700 more than 3000 coffeehouses thrived in London and became meeting houses for the prominent men of the day. Voltaire, whom Pendell calls "the quintessential coffee-shaman," drank 72 cups of coffee a day (bested, of course, by Balzac.) Pendell finds it difficult to "separate the history of coffee from that of. . .the spice trade," which cast Europeans out into the East Indies and the New World on their various expeditions involving piracy, enslavement, and colonization. The desire to sweeten these bitter beverages led to further plundering abroad, namely in Polynesia and Africa, where it took ten times the number of slaves to produce sugar than to produce cotton or tobacco. Even earlier stimulant nations, such as the Aztec and Inca, exhibited a rejection of shamanistic communalism in favor of violent imperialism. Some readers may note the absence of matrilineal-based cultures in the stimulant narrative—the story of speed does seem to transpire mostly in Apollo's domain. We can assume Pendell will revisit Maria Sabina, whom we last met in the Salvia divinorum section of Pharmako/Poeia, along with a ramble through the Eleusinian fields, in volume three, the aptly titled Pharmako/Gnosis.

Our own culture embraces the stimulant to a religious degree, with every work place housing its coffee shrine, Meth the drug of choice among bored rural adolescents, and everybody wanting to get more done faster, absorb more information, beat the clock. "Speed has become our principal and ruling poison," Pendell notes. Stimulants are buoyant, sociable; they feed on capitalist structures because they make us believe we can steal more time. Stealing more time, obviously, means buying more money. The cover illustration for Pharmako/Dynamis, from the 16th-century Charta Lusoria by Jost Amman, shows a swashbuckling couple dancing with big clay pots on their heads—they whistle while they work. "That poisons are excessive is almost tautological," says Pendell. "In this case the poison path goes beyond aesthetics."

But can stimulants be metaphysically valuable? Can the plants and chemicals from which they come hold keys to deeper, more molecular exchanges; can these poisons also be allies on the path? Pendell shows us they can, when used wisely, with respect and attention toward dosage and intent (not to mention set and setting.) In an interview conducted by, Pendell says "I'm more inclined to look to old ways, the older traditions, natural societies, more anarchistically based cultures and looking back to pre-civilized models of society, less hierarchical things. We could say that civilization has come to mean an advanced developed state, but traditional societies were just as intricate and advanced in their way. Another way to look at civilization is that it's an anomalous condition that humans have been in for the last four-thousand years, which does not represent most of our lives—that of having a centralized state, of having standing armies, hierarchical social structures." There are patches of land left in the world where communities do continue to flourish within what might be defined as primitive constructs. Many indigenous cultures struggle to maintain their shamanic roots and their harmonic relationship with the plant world, despite the frequent introduction of Western value systems through missionaries or researchers. In South America—where native use of psychoactive plants has provoked excessive on-site scholarship over the past several decades—many plants currently abused in Western societies sustain their spiritual import to the natives.

An example of a plant whose status varies significantly depending on the culture using it is the coca leaf, which remains important to indigenous South Americans. The coqueros in the Andes carry coca leafs with them on their treks and sometimes mix lime paste into their quids. Coca tea is Bolivia's national beverage, and the leaves are sold to tourists as a cure for motion sickness. The coca plant has served South America, "as food, as medicine, and as a central ritual of communal spirit," for five million years. Yet its abuse in the United States is legendary. Pendell writes at length about Reagan's role in the importation of cocaine (and the development of crack) to the United States, and his subsequent waging of "the war on drugs" (after media hysteria covered up the political atrocities raging on Central America, and as a potential excuse for later intervention in South America.) Even if you already know that the war on drugs is a smokescreen, that your kids are being brainwashed at school, that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Pendell's telling is remarkable in its generosity and scope. He's sensible, as well as literary and intellectual. On top of being a poet (he's published seven books of verse), Pendell is also a computer scientist and an ethnobotanist. He knows what he's talking about, and he's unbelievably eloquent. Then again, he does do drugs. But so do we, and Pendell is as gentle and wise a guide as they come. His intent is to bring to his discourse a grounding in both science and higher spirituality and show how, through his alchemical lyricism, their union can be raised to the level of magic: Gnostic wisdom and shamanism. In the aforementioned interview, Pendell says "My whole project is to subvert the way we think, the way we look at the world, and my two targets are, on the one hand scientism which has a reductionist/materialist approach and would 'dis' this whole discussion, and on the other hand, the naively uncritical new-age thought that is dismissive of the scientific tradition. My whole program. . .is a kind of wager that poetic logic is a truer description, a more complete description of the world than a purely scientific description. But at the same time, the scientific tradition has to be incorporated into it. Trying to pull these two currents in the western tradition back into each other. I think the culture needs that. It's a kind of disease we have."

If our culture is diseased—and I think few would argue that it isn't—Pendell offers a possible and sensible approach to the cure, even if we shirk away from immersion. Perhaps the most interesting, and surprising, essay in Pharmako/Dynamis is "Stealing from Tomorrow," in which Pendell seemingly narrates a personal recovery from freebase overload. Even here redemption can be earned, can be "part of the path," and he persists in his resolve that the poison cannot be blamed for its misuse. He ends this essay with

There is a spring. It comes out of the rocks on a high ridge dividing two great watersheds. The water is very cold and is pure beyond any other. It may be the only thing in the world that is not poison. It is surely the only thing in the world that can save your life. I'm not going to tell you where it is, but you know how to find it.

In other words, physician heal thyself. The essay immediately following "Stealing from Tomorrow" is, appropriately, "Wandering and the Vision Quest," a poetic and fragmented discourse on the hermetics of healing and shamanism.

The book is a veritable catalog of facts, ponderings, beautiful illustrations, and poetry, with quotations ranging from Bach to Nietzsche to the Aztec poet Nezahualcoyotl. Each plant receives its Correspondences (e.g. Coffea Arabica, listed in part below:)

MACHINE: Calculator
METAL: Silver
MUSICAL INSTRUMENT: Boatswain's whistle
MYTH: Golden Fleece
OUT-OF-BODY REALM: Realm of Infinite Structure
POISON: Single Vision
SIGN: Canis Major
TAROT KEY: Chariot
TOOL: Chart/Map
VIRTUE: Fortitude
VOWEL: Middle Front/e

Sub-headings for each plant include "Parts Used," "History," "Signatures," "Taxonomy," "Chemistry and Pharmacology," etc., and these are interspersed and revisited throughout each section. In his preface, Pendell says the book's structure "is three-dimensional and holographic. Start anywhere. Read backwards. A book is linear by nature, but that is only a single projection—other cut-ups might make more sense." Like a cookbook or a dictionary, it is the kind of text one will open to different places for different needs; it is a reference guide, but reading it from cover to cover is also among the most pleasurable reading experiences we've had in a very long time.

A green ribbon appears conspicuously on the spine of Pharmako/Dynamis, indicating, as we learn from the author's bio, that "Dale Pendell supports the Green Ribbon campaign to free the green prisoners. DIY." The only way to learn the poison path is DIY, immersion, and if we're lucky, by the by, we'll meet a fellow poisoner who's one step ahead with a tip or two to share. Plants are the principal teachers. They have a language, and Pendell gets as close as anybody has to transcribing the way that language might look and sound. The path is not about excess or merely recreation. It is, essentially, about death. We are mortal to be sure, but there are systems, laws, ideologies, and contrivances that limit our potential for transcendence. Do plants hold a key? Pendell examines the idea of death both metaphorically and literally. A few of these poisons could actually kill you, but the chances are unlikely if they're used responsibly. Many, if not most, of them benefit the body medicinally as well as psychically. The kind of death more likely to result from walking the poison path—aside from the obligatory "death of the ego"—is the gradual demise of a way of life, of living in disharmony with not only plants but other humans as well. The dissolution of the manufactured selves which separate us from each other and from our natural world. How long will this take? According to Pendell, the future bodes "hard times for large mammals." Will the real poison please stand up?

This is a brilliant, necessary book. There is genius to Pendell's approach, an erudite playfulness and poetic virtuosity unmatched by anyone writing about plants and drugs today. Pendell's books present a Pandora's box, and once opened, the steadfast and curious reader will soon find herself on the path. ("Opening the jar is the Hermetic pursuit.") Her way of looking at the world becomes spectacularly subverted; the poisons, after all, are greater than the human concepts which categorize and consume them, and they can and will live on without us. Has our existence become so clogged with its own stubbornness as to have eliminated the capacity to hear these ally ambassadors who call out from a world where, according to Pendell, "winds and ocean currents are intersynaptic fluids?" Are poisons involved in expanding our perception of the world and our role in its system, do they hold alchemical keys imperative to our continued survival on the planet? Are they worth the risk? We think perhaps so. Good night now.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003