Thursday, May 31, 2007

the poison path

I've lately become enamored of Dale Pendell, chemist, ethnobotanist, and poet, author of the PHARMAKO trilogy. Pharmako/Poeia is the first volume of the series and I can't seem to keep my nose out of it. It's a poetic masterpiece, dedicated to the Power Plants, the herbs and flowers who are both Allies and Poisons. This is an adventure into history, culture, religion, psychology, literature, horticulture and chemistry. He sets the tone in the opening sonnet; here's an excerpt:

Come on, O rueful Syrians,
and all you thick-smelling
solanaceous plants;
You cultivated-in-rows tobacco and coca plants;
You maligned poppy plants and worshipped
grapevine plants --
All forgotten plants, and fad plants:
Come forth, you motley troop --
not a gentleman among you --
Not one that wo't lie, cheat, or swindle
a ride --
Come, all ye ruffians:
Be fruitful, we have need of poison.

I discovered this book while listening to a podcast of David Presti's neurobiology class from UC Berkeley. As a former hippie who dabbled in plant poisons during the 60s and 70s the class is a fascinating description of the molecular changes that occur in the brain when various things are ingested into the body. As a student of cultural anthropology it's even more fascinating to learn about humanity's long-running relationship with plants in general, and poison plants in particular. According to Presti, everything is a poison; whether it cures you or kills you is all a matter of the dosage.

I wanted to depict the flavor of Pendell's poetry, but there's so much good stuff on every page, I'm hard-pressed to choose. I will leave you with his description of addiction; in which he admonishes the user to beware the ally-poison:

An ally is like a half-broken horse, a horse with spirit. A horse that will carry you many days, only to suddenly knock you off on a low branch. Some allies are the subtle type. Maybe you have an ayahuasca ally. She is friendly. She gives you things. She doesn't seem at all malevolent. Or maybe you have an opium ally. She is more than friendly. She'll call you up and invite you over. And she is voluptuous, so you go. She is so good to you it seems like heaven.

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