Shockwaves of a Singularity [Trenchant Edges]

In which our heroes stumble through tall fields of high weirdness

Did the brothers McKenna attempt the most ambitious esoteric pseudoscientific experiment in the late 20th century?

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes, 15 seconds. Contains 2450 words

Welcome back, my friends. It's time for us to discuss the Experiment at La Chorrera itself. 

When we left our reckless heroes and heroines, they made their way deep into the upper Amazon to discover a secret admixture of Ayahausca called Oo-koo-ee as the best hail mary to trigger an escape from the nightmare of history. If you want to catch up, you can read last Sunday's email here.

1. The Timeline

I decided to give the timeline roughly in full to smooth the complexity of the ideas we'll be grappling with in later sections. You can read it or skip through and come back if you want clarity.

  • August 16th, 1969 Paonia: Dennis is briefly arrested but not charged in association with hashish Terence was sending stateside; Terence then becomes a suspected drug smuggler. We discuss his criminal record in an earlier email at length.

  • 1970 Taiwan: The brothers Mckenna write to each other and plan both Terence's return to North America and their Amazon expedition. 

  • September 1970: Terence uses a fake passport to travel to Canada, Dennis visits.

  • October 25th, 1970: Their mother, Hazelle Mckenna, dies of cancer. Terence, still a fugitive, remains in Canada.

  • Early February 1971, Colombia: Terence, Dennis Mckenna, and their friends arrive in Colombia. Their target, a Witoto small village on the Rio Putumayo where they'd read in a monograph about a promising admixture of DMT and other powerful psychoactives. On arriving, Terence tries a magic Stropharia Cubensis mushroom.

  • Early February 1971, Colombia: Terence meets 93-year-old John Brown, as we discussed in an earlier email.

  • February 6th, 1971 The Rio Putumayo: Dennis & co get on a boat towards La Chorrera, which will take them as far as El Encanto on the Rio Cara-Parana.

  • February 8th or 9th: The group reaches Mission San Raphael at El Encanto, and make their way to meet Dr. Alfredo Guzman, who would help them get bearers for their trip to La Chorrera.

  • February 21nd, La Chorrera: After a grueling overland trek, they reached their destination and almost immediately found a lot of Stropharia Cubensis mushrooms. This would prove... influential.

  • February 22rd, La Chorrera: The group would take their first psilocybin trip and see strange lights in the sky. Yet, they appeared to see the same lights in the sky. The first hints of a shared perception of the invisible landscape of tryptamine ecstasy.

  • February 23rd: Terence's last journal entry for several weeks, enthused by the experience the night before. The group is introduced to a Witoto named Basilio, who assumed the group were drug tourists and offered to take them to his father for Ayahausca. Terence and his lover Ev follow Basilio to get the plants for the visionary brew. They return the next day.

  • February 24th: The group begins to fracture on ideological lines: Terence, Dennis, and Ev, believing they may be approaching a phenomenon with "elements more than merely psychological," where Dave and Venessa were less than enthusiastic. 

  • February 27th: On a mushroom trip, Dennis makes a strange, insectile buzzing noise not entirely of his own volition later plays a central role in our story.

  • February 28th: Dennis first attempts to write his theories about the phenomenon down and what to do about them.

  • March 1st: Dennis focuses on the strange, buzzing noise he made in earlier trips as the source of the phenomenon in his writing. Ev notices a strange effect where the foam on the far side of the lake by the Chorro (the waterfall) appeared to stop moving. Verified by everyone but Dave. Terence grows uninterested with scientific speculation on the subject, content with knowing everything was happening as it should. A clear sign of having moved into a mythic mode of operation as opposed to a rational one. Dennis speculates that a fogbank condensed because of the slight change of environment of burning a joint, which worried Terence but later provided much food for thought.

  • March 2nd: Dennis, Ev, and Terence take residence in a more isolated forest house, more ideal to their increasingly wild speculation. Terence and Ev begin brewing the Ayahuasca, and Dennis outlines the theory their experiment will follow.

  • March 3rd: Preparations continue, and Terence notes the apparent synchronicity with an old calendar pun: "What date is a command? March Forth!" Sees it, along with everything else, as an omen.

  • March 4th: Preparations conclude, dinner is had with all members of the group, Vanessa and Dave retire away from the experiment, as Dennis raves about backwash from the approaching breakthrough. The experiment begins.

  • Outside of Time, ritual space: Terence finishes boiling the infusion as Eva and Dennis lightly chatted in their hammocks as they found it difficult to operate their bodies. The Other, in its transcendental, Lovecraftian form loomed outside with the Jungle. A candle on a shelf in the house tipped over, but froze in time and hung there turned to the side and didn't move at all. Dennis declares they've entered a space that is part mythology, part psychology, and part applied physics, and it'll take three attempts to breakthrough. They all drank the Ayahuasca, and Dennis ate a mushroom. After a time, Dennis declared he could hear the tone and was ready to begin. They all checked in to make sure everyone wanted to continue and snuffed out the light. Dennis made "a long, whirring yodel, strange and unexpectedly mechanical each time it sounded." The large mushroom they'd gathered to experiment with appeared to Terence and Dennis as the whole of the earth, and after the tone finished the third time, the mission rooster crowed that it was sunrise.

  • March 5th, A New World: A host of strange apparent effects from the experiment happened, though none as spectacular as Dennis's suggestions. Over the day it becomes somewhat clear that only Terence can access them. The world is not overcome in rapture at the arrival of the Millenium, but it was hard to tell that at the time. Dennis is unstuck to consensual reality and begins a period of several weeks of cosmic ideation in which communication with anyone is difficult. Terence appears normal except for his total faith in Dennis's dreamlike state, which makes him appear even crazier. That night, as everyone slept in the forest hut, Dennis declared everyone would have a series of dreams which, by morning, would sever their connection to their bodies and reassemble themselves perfected on a starship 22,000 miles above the Amazon basin.

  • March 6th, La Chorrera: Everyone woke up in their natural bodies, though I hesitate to say they woke up normally. With the second self-defeating prophecy in the trash, it set the pattern that would replay 4, 5 7, 10, 16, 21, 40, and 64 days after the experiment. Dennis' psychic disorganization is recognized as clear and persistent. Vanessa and Dave leaned towards leaving towards civilization, where Terence wanted to stay and let things play out. he won out over the short term.

  • March 7th: Vanessa and Dave acquiesce to Terence about Dennis's mental state. This balance, where Terence and Dennis would spend their time at the forest hut and Ev would more or less mediate between them, the mission, and Venessa/Dave would last five days. Terence would neither sleep nor need sleep for nine days.

  • March 11th: Terence would leave Dennis alone, and he ran off and ended up hassling some locals. This breaks the delicate political balance. The pilot agrees to come back in a couple of days to fly the group out.

  • March 12th: Terence accepts the need to withdraw from La Chorrera 

  • March 14th: Terence McKenna sees a UFO, the Climax 

  • March 15th: The Airplane arrives to take the group out of the deep Amazon. 

  • March 17th, Leticia, Columbia: The group spent two days resting, worn on each other. Dennis improves markedly.

  • March 20th, Bogota: Dennis returns fully to normal.

  • March 21st: Terence begins writing again, fixating on the I Ching as a reference point for the experiment and starting the process, which would produce the Timewave.

  • March 29th: Dennis returns to Denver.

  • April 13th, Berkeley: Terence and Ev return to the States for a brief visit where Terence discovers his college friends are not thrilled to find their friend thinks he's helped immanentize the eschaton.

  • July 15th: Terence and Ev head back to La Chorerra where they'd spend the next five months, against the advice of friends. The experience does not repeat itself, but Terence makes sure to collect spore prints of the Mushrooms.

And there you have it. I'm skimming over much exciting speculation, but those are the events from when the experiment started taking shape to when other considerations took over Terence's life. Most notably, the I Ching and what became the Timewave.

Attempting to create this timeline forced a few interesting issues to the surface: Terence's chronology is messier than I realized, especially in between taking the boat to Mission San Raphael and arriving at La Chorrera. At one point, he says the boat ride will take five days, but they arrive a day or two later. 

This is a reoccurring theme with any close reading of Terence Mckenna's writing: It sounds very lovely, but the details often don't add up.

2. The Theory

Explaining precisely what Dennis suggested they do is complex, challenging, and maybe a little quixotic. I have no training in physics, and what little I do have makes the kind of alchemical appeal to a poetic physics appear as word salad. 

I'm comforted by the knowledge that the people who heard Dennis speaking at the time also didn't know what he was saying. Even Terence, who mostly took over championing the ideas that descended from Dennis' theory didn't get it at the time.

So, let's get into the ugly gritty of it: There's such a thing as Electron Spin Resonance. It's a kind of frequency of energy in an electron, and it works with the same vibration that (I think) all energy in physics does. The mechanical buzzing sound Dennis made on that Psilocybin trip when properly focused by his will and imagination, would transform the molecular structure of the mushroom with the DNA of the person making the sound and that would reduce the temperature of the psilocybin to absolute zero, making it superconductive, and uh giving the person making the sound superpowers.

OK, so that last bit is maybe not quite right, but the process would destroy what we now think of as humanness and leave the experimenter far beyond the usual limits of mind and body.

A direct quote from Terence on Dennis' state after the experiment is appropriate:

"During this time, Dennis very slowly got better. His mind seemed to have been quite literally turned inside out. During certain times each day when he became more coherent, he said that the experience had catapulted him to the edge of the Riemannian pseudosphere that is the universe, in which even parallel lines intersect. He claimed he had to come back into ordinary space and was regressing inward through level after level after level.

Very strange things went on during this period. He could hear my mind working. He was telepathic; of this, I have no doubt. He could do perfect voice imitations of our mother and father. He became many people, imitating them perfectly. He saw me as a kind of shaman or messiah. He referred to me as "The Teach," not teacher or teaching but The Teach, a kind of personified alien ambassador empowered to negotiate the entry of the human species into the councils of higher intelligence.

And there was much more; a vision of twentieth-century history, building the lens, and the end of time. He said that the discovery of a higher physical dimension was a few years ahead of us but somehow linked up to Egypt, to Acacia tryptamine cults, to Tibet eight thousand years ago, to Bon-po shamanic magic and the I Ching. All these ideas were in constant circulation while he talked and performed incessantly."

Terence and Ev speculated that the tone Dennis made during the experiment somehow canceled out all the MAOI in his body, and his disorientation was a biochemical reset as his body gradually recovered from depleted levels.

I find this explanation unlikely for two reasons. Terence says explicitly he thinks there's a stable phenomenon involved that can cancel MAOIs and thus induce some real potentially dangerous altered states and health problems. First, I don't believe the harmonic resonance mechanism works anything like Dennis' description. Second, and more definitively, Terence never spoke about repeating the experiment.

Who the hell would believe anyone willing to search the Amazon for secret psychedelic alchemy would, on finding those secrets, not repeat the damn experiment no matter the risks? Not me.

Of course, Dennis' later career as a research scientist refutes my point somewhat. But still.

As someone who has induced a broadly similar period of manic ideation without drugs, I think what Dennis did was more akin to anchoring his consciousness to reference points outside even the group's eccentric consensus reality than "archetypal submersion" or singing chemicals out of his body. More like a bike chain jumping gears, from the same one-speed, everyone was on to a gear not merely unknown or unsuspected but shaped wrong.

We all know consciousness has a lot more annexes and states than usually advertised in the American Macro culture, but few of us would suspect just how far from home you can end up.

It's quite clear that Terence and Dennis both achieved persisting altered states of consciousness, with Terence having unusually easy access to the "Logos" teaching voice and Dennis more or less so burned by the stress of his experience he refocused his entire life on more rigorous science.

Which I can appreciate. Materialism may be wrong, but it's very concrete and safe. None of us are swimmers, and the shallows are way the hell nicer than the depths.

Then again, you don't see as much novelty in the shallows either.

It all comes down to the trade-offs. 

One thing I enjoyed was Terence's attempts to analyze his sanity during this period. Here's a representative paragraph:

"The psychologically minded will recognize this as a description of messianic ego inflation. Such it is, but we felt these things as anyone would feel them if they truly believed they were at such a point in history. We wondered, "Why? Why us?"

To such questions, the mushroom spoke in my mind without hesitation: "Because you have diligently sought the good and because you trusted no human being more than yourself."

I had hoped to have time to discuss the Opus itself, their goal, and the aftermath of all this, but the timeline took WAY longer to do. Whoops.

Guess we'll get into that next Sunday.

3. Weekly Question

A friend comes to you and tells you they've created a magic button that will bring about the Millenium that's been haunting western civilization (whatever that is) since the descent out of cyclical time to linear time.

Do you press it? Why? Why not?