Magic Mushroom Guru Terence McKenna Talks Science and UFOs

The following is an excerpt from the new book Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America by Jesse Jarnow (Da Capo Press, 2016): 

To the rim of our volcano heads a man in a Hawaiian shirt. Should you chance to meet him on the road, you will find that he speaks with an immediately unforgettable voice, a high-pitched lilt, every syllable a punchline. He happily introduces himself as an explorer. It’s not hard to get him to talk.

This man with gray splotches in his beard is an old-time Berkeley head and has seen the world. He studied the Tibetan language in Nepal and collected butterflies in the outer islands of Indonesia. And he’s been down the Amazon. If you happen to be in a spot in your respective travels where you’re waylaid together or moving in parallel for a while, he would be more than happy to tell you about that trip.

He’s full of stories. He first smoked pot at the hands of Barry Melton, also known as the Fish, as in Country Joe and ___. This traveler doesn’t dislike the Dead, either, perhaps similar to the way he doesn’t dislike LSD. He might laugh gently at the question. They’re both important modalities, he might say. But they’re not his. He’s friendly, this fellow.

He’s full of opinions, too. “I see the entire New Age as a flight from the psychedelic experience,” he declares once in his unmistakable voice. “People will do anything other than take a psychedelic compound. Be rebirthed, Rolfed, this, that, and the other thing. Because they instinctively sense that the psychedelic experience is real.”

Terence McKenna has important business up here on the metaphoric mountain. He loves psychedelics and is operating under specific instructions. He is charismatic and likable, and—a decade after his experiment at La Chorrera involving Psilocybe cubensis and DMT and the transdimensional contact and the UFO encounter—his voice is starting to boom from the mountain through the networks. In the first years of the 1980s, Terence McKenna becomes suddenly ubiquitous in psychedelic circles via radio show appearances and cassette releases on labels like Dolphin Tapes and Big Sur Tapes and articles in underground journals and, especially, live appearances at conferences. In person, Terence McKenna is very convincing.

His message is simple. When he begins to publish books, he boils it down to an instructive inscription that he can write along with his signature: “Five dried grams and silent darkness.”

Terence and his brother Dennis had returned from their 1971 trip down the Amazon and thrown themselves into their respective studies. Dennis takes a more traditional academic route, tackling chemistry and botany, while Terence continues to grind away at the information they’d received in South America, calculating, ever-calculating, what he calls the timewave. In 1976, the brothers had come together for their most important project.

Under the names O. T. Oss and O. N. Oeric, the McKennas published Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide and revolutionized the do-it-yourself production of psychedelic mushrooms for would-be travelers. From High Times, one can order mushroom spores and be well on the way to meeting the mushroom. Psilocybin had long been a rare treat for heads, available but always far more rare than the ever-plentiful LSD. With the McKennas’ help, mushrooms now can (and do) sprout in any climate, at any time of year, and their impact on American culture grows to match acid’s. One discovery is that, in the proper dosage, mushrooms are every bit as powerful as LSD.

The technique also allows Terence McKenna to have a career. Through the early ’80s, his work is sponsored by mushroom farming. It is later recounted that, every three weeks, McKenna can turn out seventy pounds of mushrooms. He and his wife Kat, a more scientifically grounded ethnobotanist, had been able to buy some property in Hawaii. But an acid chemist colleague gets busted. “They fucked him so terrifyingly that I saw I couldn’t do this anymore,” McKenna will tell Erik Davis. “I had to work something else out.”

“Includes some spacey science fiction” notes one distributor’s advertising brochure of the McKennas’ Guide, referring to Terence’s preface, which only scratches the soon-bluish surface of what will become a massive oeuvre. What Terence McKenna has worked out is a rap. And it will last him a long time.

In the Guide, readers learn that the mushroom has talked to the author of this book in the unequivocal words of an extraterrestrial voice: “I am old, older than thought in your species....”

Wait, what?

Terence McKenna must think so, too, because he’d waited a few years before throwing himself fully into the task of spreading the word, waiting, writing, writing, waiting, and—by 1982—speaking. McKenna’s is a clear, amiable voice, kind of pinched, kind of goofy. He drawls, he laughs, he is able to smother cynicism and project a contagious wonder. He’s got chops. Jerry Garcia’s a fan.

Not everybody is buying it. High Times had run side-by-side reviews of The Invisible Landscape and the Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide, unaware that they were products of the same authors. “They have in­ vited ridicule by advancing this absurd hypothesis [about mushrooms’ extraterrestrial origins],” fungi scholar Jonathan Ott writes.

All along, Terence McKenna will insist that he is not a scientist but an explorer. He is definitely an entertainer. His eight-cassette True Hallucinations “talking book,” complete with field recordings and jam band interludes, becomes an underground classic. By the mid-1980s, McKenna and his wife Kat establish Botanical Dimensions and start developing their property in Hawaii into an ethnobotanical reserve.

While McKenna is the most vocal, a community of psychedelic scholars begins to connect, with specialists in each field, sounding off in pages of small publications likes Thomas Lyttle’s Psychozoic Press, issued on typewritten pages from Coos Bay, Oregon, starting in 1982. They gather more and more often, fostering a world where the observations of independent psychonauts cross over into valuable scholarship. A percentage of psychedelic takers had always taken their practices quite seriously, but it is only in the early ’80s that their voices begin to rise and communicate.

McKenna has his coming out in May 1983, appearing at the Psychedelics Conference in Santa Barbara alongside LSD inventor Albert Hofmann, master independent chemist Sasha Shulgin, and others. Though he is a baby boomer, McKenna’s self-conscious bemusement and storytelling skills place him in a different league than most who have come before.

He finds his best outlet at the Esalen Institute, the durable institution founded in Big Sur in 1961 and home of many an idyllic navel gaze in the cliffside hot tub and hot springs. It is where the work of Albert Hofmann fully meets the theories of Carl Jung. Starting in the late ’70s, Esalen becomes a forum for the cutting edge of quantum physics—the quest to prove “spooky action at a distance”—playing host to researchers from Berkeley’s longhaired Fundamental Fysiks Group and others. It is under a similar rubric that McKenna makes his first Esalen appearance in December 1983, speaking at the Lilly/Goswami Conference on Consciousness and Quantum Physics. He starts dispensing aphorisms almost immediately.

“It is no great accomplishment to hear a voice in the head,” McKenna tells the assembled. “The accomplishment is to make sure it’s telling you the truth.” It is a rapturous, passionate, endearing, enduring performance. Get the tape. “My testimony,” McKenna says, “is that magic is alive in hyperspace.”

Adapted excerpt from Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America by Jesse Jarnow. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2016.

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