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[Trenchant Edges] FAQ and The Experiment at La Chorrera pt 1
Clarification for us and Complexity for Terence
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 48 seconds. Contains 1761 words
Welcome back to our little corner of your inbox. I wanted to do a quick email today to set the ground a bit for next week’s deep dive into the foundational event of Terence’s psychospiritual mythology: His first trek into the upper Amazon in early 1971.
But first, I want to do a little housekeeping on the newsletter. It’s going to be a busy week, and I want to get everyone on the same page.
What is this newsletter even about?
Trenchant Edges is about unpacking weird ideas, the people who discover and promote them, and the strange times they create. We’re starting with failed prophet Terence Mckenna, and we’ll be going elsewhere from there, depending on what subscribers want.
Wait, subscribers, is this a thing you have to pay for?
Yes and no. Yes, there is a subscription option for people who want to support my work and have a say in what topics we cover. The “final product” of any investigation will be a 5,000-10,000 word essay published publicly. Subscribers also get two extra emails a week, which are more process-related and discuss the background and textual issues more than the weekly Sunday emails do.
Everyone who signs up gets the Sunday emails.
So I don’t have to pay you to get the best, most polished stuff?
Correct. You just get less of it, which might be better. And only between us, if you reach out to me and ask, I’ll probably comp you a subscription if you’re interested.
I’m not thrilled about charging, but I don’t see an alternative to how much time it takes to do the legwork.
If you don’t want to charge, why do you?
It’s a combination of things. A few years ago, I injured my back to the point where I can’t work blue-collar jobs anymore. As part of that, I lost my income and had to go back to freelancing and ended up homeless for a while, which I don’t recommend.
I’m a business-to-business copywriter by trade these days, and my life isn’t steady enough that I can burn 10-15 hours/week of high attention work time without there being some money at the end of the rainbow for me. I’m trying to get an apartment again, so I especially can’t mess around with that now.
It’s crucial to me to be transparent about the financial side of this and to offer people real value for the money and time. So far, I’ve been fortunate in how much support I’ve gotten for this project. And I’ve written 3,000-5,000 words/week since this started so I think folks are getting their money’s worth.
Well, that begs the question a bit. How much have you made?
As of 7/12, I’ve processed $525 since June 25th and received $448.85 after substack’s and stripe’s fees. Pretty cheap for how little effort I needed to put in to create such a reliable platform that works.
This lets me test the idea to see if it’s viable without investing a ton in building my web systems and payment processing. My first subscription happened when I was telling a friend about the project, and he asked where he could pay for it. It took like 20 minutes to go from having no email newsletter to sending him a link. That time includes deciding on a name, always the hardest part of a new venture.
What do you want from this project?
A few things. First, I want a steady stream of income that’ll let me focus on taking on more extensive and more sophisticated (IE: better paying) copywriting clients. If I can pay for rent and food with the newsletter, I can avoid taking bad clients or low paying work just to make sure I can meet my bills.
The other big thing is I want to learn more about exciting topics and to parse & share them with people. Deep conversations are my favorite part of being alive, and this project has already generated many of them. I want that to continue in a way that’s sustainable for me and fair to those engaging with it.
Beyond that, I mean, I want to know more and meet more people, and running a newsletter is suitable for that sort of thing. Writing is what I do, and it’s always sweet when people enjoy reading it. I want enough stability. So I can focus on helping people more than I’ve been able to the last couple of years.
Anything else people should know?
Mostly I’d reiterate the basics: For anyone who shares their email, it’s a once a week email on Sunday. For subscribers, it comes out Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.
The emails go out at 10 am.
Each investigation lasts 1-2 months and results in a significant essay. I don’t know where I’ll publish them yet, as I wanted a draft done before I start shopping it around. If I can’t find one, I’ll post it unmonetized on Medium.
I’m working on putting together some rewards for subscribers, mostly in the form of stickers and buttons and that kind of merch. It should be good fun. We will releases high-quality images for everyone, so no one needs to buy anything to enjoy it.
Wait, now that the FAQ is done, what happens to me? Was I only a rhetorical device?
That’s correct, but since you’re me, you already read Bhagavad Gita and already know what Krishna said on the subject: “The unreal has no being, the real never ceases to be.”
Well, this sucks.
Yeah, but think of the readers having to sit through another tiresome fourth wall break in a bit rapidly growing stale.
Exactly. So let’s get on with the Terence McKenna.
Why did Terence Mckenna go to La Chorrera?
One of the questions that divide the still-extant Terence Mckenna fandom is how much of his work was motivated by politics. While much from Terence’s time at Berkeley in the late 1960s remains obscure, what we know includes two facts: 1. Terence was exposed to and approved of the radical politics on display at the time and 2. At some point, he became disillusioned with it and left Berkeley to travel around Asia for a few years.
During this time, he attempted both to conduct some original research in Tibet with the surviving practitioners of the pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion Bon or Bonpos, which immediately ran into a linguistic barrier. We’ll be coming back to Tibet later in the month. Still, for now, the vital thing is Terence’s interest in the potentially psychochemical origins of religion began far earlier than his introduction of the Stoned Ape theory in the 90s. While in Asia, he’d also do more than a little bit of drug smuggling, a topic deserving its own newsletter.
At some point during this time, the notion of going into the Amazon to seek out a secret local variety of Ayahuasca called oo-koo-he that Terence and his friends had read about. But why did they want it?
The answer is potentially quite complicated, but Terence himself describes it as a millenarian alchemical search for a way to shortcut past the political deadlock between the establishment forces of the American Empire and the nascent-but-already-dying revolutionary movement that almost formed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
At the risk of oversimplifying it: He was looking for a magic way to end the world as he knew it. And he, as well as Dennis, saw their best option for this in DMT and its longer-acting admixtures long used in the Amazon as medicine and for ritual.
DMT is a fast-acting psychedelic that, at sufficient dose, provides a unique experience: The sense of being taken outside wherever we are now and to a different place with vastly different rules and stunningly gorgeous geometry.
There are, apparently, beings who live in that chaotic, hyper-dimensional mess who can communicate with us, if briefly. I’ve never communicated with one, only seeing something I can’t describe with a strong sense of its aliveness and intelligence, like staring into someone’s eyes after a minute but more intense and incomprehensible.
More real than real.
Much of this is a trip narrative Terence popularized. Still, there are trip reports from early DMT experiments in 1956 that say very similar things, so it looks as though it’s not only Terence’s ideas floating around and shaping expectations.
The problem with DMT, from Terence’s perspective, is its short action. Within 20 minutes, you’re back to regular reality, and within a couple of hours, you’re completely back to normal, with only whatever hints you could get into long term memory for the time you spent “out there.”
Happily, for the chemically curious, the solution to this was discovered long ago: Pair DMT with a Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI) and drink it instead of smoking it and instead of a few minutes of hyper-dimensional technicolor wonder, you’ll get hours of more languid, but not necessarily less intense or transformational, weirdness.
Terence used to claim that even if UFOs landed on the White House lawn today, DMT would still be the weirdest thing on the planet. It’s difficult to argue with him about that.
Hunting the End of the World
Which brings us back to 1971. The group who ended up at La Chorrera was Terence, his brother Dennis, their friends Vanessa and Dave, and Terence’s then-recently courted lover Ev.
Vanessa, Dave, and Ev are not their real names, which is probably for the best.
There was some drama we’ll leave out of our narrative with Ev’s ex along the way, but let’s just say in February 1971 the five of them made it to La Chorrera and discovered, not the oo-koo-he they were searching for, but an abundance of Stropharia cubensis mushrooms, which contain psilocybin.
This tryptamine (a class of drugs which includes both DMT and psilocybin as well as naturally occurring neurotransmitters like Serotonin) wasn’t the one they were searching for; they did eat quite a lot of them.
And that’s where things for from a relatively typical story of young people traveling the world for adventure in search of profound change into the domino that nudged the future in the direction of you reading this newsletter.
What would happen next would take divide the group into the elect and the disbelievers, and strain all kinds of credulity and maybe even physics?
But we’ll get to that next week.
In a desperate, transparent bid for the mythic good of “engagement,” and ‘cause I’m curious about all of you, we’ll be doing a question of the week from now on.
Would you be interested in me recording these and uploading them to youtube? It’d have to be pretty low effort, but it’d be a more natural way for some people to consume it.
Comment to let me know.