“Wanna come meet T?” my friends asked me during our visit to the volcanic Big Island of Hawaii. “T” was what they called their old friend Terence McKenna, who had a house nearby. I’d have walked across barely cooled lava to sit down with this famous psychonaut, author and lecturer who, for example, had proposed a daring hypothesis about how primates, with the help of psilocybin, became archaic humans.
Famous for his writings and bardic lectures, McKenna, in one of his last acts, helped to initiate the All-Chemical Arts Conference in a Kona hotel, the title, I guess, being a pun on “alchemical” and a reference to what a friend of mine calls “mindful molecules.” The agenda of the conference was an opportunity for accomplished folks in computer science, music, novel-writing, painting, film-making, and several other fields to come further out of the closet and talk about how their work had been enriched, or even made possible, by the experience of ingesting psychoactive molecules.
McKenna lived up a steep gravel road that required a four-wheel drive, so we walked. We made our way to a small modernist house with “met glass” forming a corner of the kitchen. It was located on a clearing in the jungle in a setting that felt almost as remote as the irish island of Skellig, one of the places where monks kept learning alive during the dark ages. It turned out that McKenna had a high-tech computer connection with civilization, along with his own small observatory.
Apart from an intense schedule of lectures and publication of audio recordings, he wrote a stream of books. In 1992, for example, he had brought forth two books, The Archaic Revival and Food of the Gods, as ingenious and necessary now as they were then.
When he had talked about his writing in Santa Monica in 1992, he related his hypothesis that our primate ancestors had ritually eaten magic mushrooms that East Africa was then moist enough to support, and with their help, had become human and developed language. He saw their world as a kind of paradise, in which psilocybin at times dissolved the boundaries that exist in ordinary reality, a situation that loosened the ego as we know it.
Yes, his hypothesis was bold and unfalsifiable, but as he said, “It’s easy to understand how one kind of hummingbird emerges from another. It’s not very easy to understand how creatures that build something like Los Angeles can emerge from creatures who hunt ants by sticking grass stems down their holes.” We shouldn’t call it science, but should we neglect any idea that can’t be disproven?
Later, when he was in the process of dying at a friend’s house, I had occasion to ask McKenna about the cultural “singularity” that he foresaw. While he obviously enjoyed the popularity of his talks to psychonauts, I think he knew that his message would have to break out to a larger audience in order to cause a cultural shift. To judge by clothing, most of his listeners did not need to be persuaded about the value of mindful molecules.
How to reach the others? McKenna believed that we had less than thirty years to ward off disaster, and was already warning in 1992 about “the toxification of the oceans, the greenhouse effect [causing global warming], the spread of epidemic disease, the rise of fascism, the relentless efforts of free-marketeers to deal products in every corner of the planet.” Not bad for a quarter century ago.
McKenna saw mindful molecules not as a “recreation,” but rather as a source of personal growth and also as a way to help save us from disaster. “If we could import into straight society, almost as a Trojan horse, the idea that these psychedelic compounds and plants … are the catalyst that called forth humanness out of animal nature, if we could entertain this as a possibility,” he said, it would alter “society’s efforts to control and eradicate these substances” and rescue us from life “in an Orwellian anthill.”