[Trenchant Edges] Just Who is this Terence McKenna guy?
An unexpected public post for those less acquainted with Terence Mckenna
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 44 seconds. Contains 2149 words
Sunday night my mom messaged me saying, “You make the assumption that everybody who's reading the newsletter knows who Terry is and what he has done. That is not the case for me. I know nothing about the man and even after reading your newsletter I'm getting peripheral things about him but nothing at the core. ”
Well, crap. As usual she makes a good point.
So we’re going to take today to get to know a bit more about Terence’s backstory. Here’s a picture of Terence in 1971, for reasons which will shortly become clear.
When writing the Psychedelic Thunderdome, a bracket competition where I used clickbait to trick people into reading about psychedelic history, I introduced Terence this way in his match against John Lily:
Two titans of the field. The rashpunk bard who gave voice to the content of the psychedelic experience versus maybe the most radical scientist of the last hundred years. Both steeped deep in contradictions inherent in extensive self experimentation and attempting to map a rational grid on inherently arational things.
Terence is probably best known for his Timewave Zero program, novelty theory, the stoned ape theory of human evolution, and promoting the notion of a apocalyptic 2012 event. But while his pretentious towards scholarship never managed to overturn any established paradigms in the fields he wanted them to, his ability to describe psychedelic experiences and relate their contents to a wide range of subjects is probably unmatched. I could write all day about the big fish and little fish he caught or spun yarn about and all those in his wake. My favorite of his books? True Hallucinations, which mainlines a modern fairytale into any reader willing to take the time to visit it.
While Terence's was ultimately a kind of orator who worked towards a kind of scientific art useful to challenge assumptions about the nature of reality, John C Lilly was a scientist who constantly pushed for the edge of whatever field earned his interest of the moment.
I’m sure we’ll get back to John C Lilly at some point, being a fascinating man of mystery and giving dolphins LSD as he is, but let’s focus on Terence.
Literary flourishes aside, Terence was an author, speaker, mycology enthusiast, and outsider ethnobotanist. He went to Berkeley in the mid-late 60s, where he was vaguely a student radical, and then left the country to explore Asia in a mix of drug tourism, drug smuggling, and attempted actual scholarship.
The Experiment at La Chorrera
By early 1971 he, his brother Dennis (now a well regarded research pharmacologist), and a few of their friends traveled into the upper Amazon in search of a secret local variation of Ayahausca called Oo-Koo-he for reasons I can only describe as alchemical millenarian whimsy.
Not so much the return of Christ as the term is usually used, but seeking an agent of profound change to redeem the project of mankind by respiritualizing base matter.
If that sounds a little bananas, well, it might be.
When they reached their destination, a place called La Chorrera for its large waterfall, they found many stropharia cubensis mushrooms in the local cow pasture and set about exploring the Tryptamine realm they gave access to.
A pretentious way of saying, “They got real high and tried to make sense of it.”
We’ll talk a LOT more about the details of that experience on Sunday, as it’s very much involved. Terence basically wrote two whole books on it, The Invisible Landscape and True Hallucinations. So… yeah, we’ll get into it.
The short of it is things got real weird, even for people long accustomed to high weirdness. And the brothers McKenna walked away with a lot of strange new ideas to cope with.
After that was a period of adjustment to their new state, figuring out how to grow stropharia cubensis mushrooms, and refining. In 1975, they published The Invisible Landscape’s first edition (which I’d love to read), and in 1976 they published The Magic Mushrooms Growers guide under pseudonym.
The forward has perhaps my favorite bit of Terence’s writing:
"I am old, older than thought in your species, which is itself fifty times older than your history. Though I have been on earth for ages I am from the stars. My home is no one planet, for many worlds scattered through the shining disc of the galaxy have conditions which allow my spores an opportunity for life. The mushroom which you see is the part of my body given to sex thrills and sun bathing, my true body is a fine network of fibers growing through the soil. These networks may cover acres and may have far more connections than the number in a human brain.
My mycelial network is nearly immortal--only the sudden toxification of a planet or the explosion of it's parent star can wipe me out. By means impossible to explain because of certain misconceptions in your model of reality all my mycelial networks in the galaxy are in hyperlight communication through space and time. The mycelial body is as fragile as a spider's web but the collective hypermind and memory is a vast historical archive of the career of evolving intelligence on many worlds in our spiral star swarm. Space, you see, is a vast ocean to those hardy life forms that have the ability to reproduce from spores, for spores are covered with the hardest organic substance known.
Across the aeons of time and space drift many spore forming life-forms in suspended animation for millions of years until contact is made with a suitable environment. Few such species are minded, only myself and my recently evolved near relatives have achieved the hyper-communication mode and memory capacity that makes us leading members in the community of galactic intelligence. How the hyper-communication mode operates is a secret which will not be lightly given to humans.
But the means should be obvious: it is the occurrence of psilocybin and psilocin in the biosynthetic pathways of my living body that opens for me and my symbiots the vision screens to many worlds. You as an individual and Homo sapiens as a species are on the brink of the formation of a symbiotic relationship with my genetic material that will eventually carry humanity and earth into the galactic mainstream of the higher civilizations.
Since it is not easy for you to recognize other varieties of intelligence around you, your most advanced theories of politics and society have advanced only as far as the notion of collectivism. But beyond the cohesion of the members of a species into a single social organism there lie richer and even more baroque evolutionary possibilities. Symbiosis is one of these. Symbiosis is a relation of mutual dependence and positive benefits for both species involved.
Symbiotic relationships between myself and civilized forms of higher animals have been established many times and in many places throughout the long ages of my development. These relationships have been mutually useful; within my memory is the knowledge of hyperlight drive ships and how to build them. I will trade this knowledge for a free ticket to new worlds around suns younger and more stable than your own.
To secure an eternal existence down the long river of cosmic time, I again and again offer this agreement to higher beings and thereby have spread throughout the galaxy over the long millenia.
A mycelial network has no organs to move the world, no hands; but higher animals with manipulative abilities can become partners with the star knowledge within me and if they act in good faith, return both themselves and their humble mushroom teacher to the million worlds to which all citizens of our starswarm are heir."
If memory serves, the were the first to figure out how to reliably cultivate psilocybin containing mushrooms, but they may just have been the first to publish such a method.
Following that, Terence did a few talks but would mostly spend his time in obscurity building his knowledge and eventually founding a nonprofit to study and preserve shamanic plans with his then wife Kathleen Harrison, Botanical Dimensions. While she’s never gotten the traction Terence did in the 90s, she’s hella smart and has a lot to share. Really, look her up.
In the late 80s, Terence’s speaking profile started to pop back up.
Giving Voice to Visions
And now we get to the part of the story most familiar to his fans. From the late 80s until his death, Terence was a prolific speaker and writer. By 1995 he’d published a new edition of The Invisible Landscape, True Hallucinations, The Archaic Revival, and Food of the Gods.
Of those, the first and last were the most influential, as they contained Terence’s two most popular ideas: The Timewave Theory and the Stoned Ape Theory. We’re gonna mostly skip over the Stoned Ape Theory because Terence argued it very badly as anyone who’s looked carefully at his citations can tell you. The short, short description is that early humans kicked off the transition into modern humanity by ingesting psilocybin containing mushrooms.
While the overall theory is still at least technically possible so far as I know, Terence’s version would need substantial reworking to be even plausibly valid.
As for the timewave, I covered it in detail here, but a quick primer would be: Terence extrapolated wildly from the I Ching and speculated that the fundamental organization principle of the universe was to conserve novelty. A phrase which should tell you already of his love of paradox and coincidentia oppositorum.
The really important part of this theory is that it predicted a descent into physics warping infinite novelty in late 2012, coinciding with the Mayan calendar’s changing of Baktun.
Terence wasn’t the first in the American fringe/new age milieu to make strange predictions for 2012 (I believe that was José Argüelles), but he was one of the most popular during the 90s and his esoteric ideas were fleshed out enough to sink some real teeth into. Mixed with gift as an Irish bard, and he could make a compelling case for someone to believe in. Or not, he always admitted this was something of a crackpot idea.
I’ve had some really interesting conversations with some of his fans from the 90s and I’m looking forward to discussing those in detail. If you’re one of those old heads, I’d love to chat with you about it.
But that’s a treat for later.
Enduring Legacy, Psychedelic Raps, and Influence
Terence usually described his niche as being an oddly solitary exponent of the content of the psychedelic experience, as opposed to its medical or creative utility.
In his odd nasal voice, Terence would talk sometimes for hours, on a slurry of odd ideas inspired by what seemed to be the whole of history, literature, science, and philosophy. And this is why he’s still as influential today as he was in the 90s: Hundreds of hours of his talks are freely available to anyone on youtube.
I’ve known people who would listen to him before bed just to seep in his musings.
It’s difficult to pin down the appeal of Terence because he was many things to many people, but it’s undeniable that he’s helped many people Find The Others. Myself included.
His talks give the feeling of discussing cutting edge ideas, often just as much now as when he recorded them.
For my own part, I find Terence most valuable as a guide to the little moments in a life lived in the wake of strange times. Here are some favorite phrases:
The Transcendental object at the end of history
Nature loves courage
Half the time you think your thinking you’re actually listening.
The artist’s task is to save the soul of mankind; and anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. If artists cannot find the way, then the way cannot be found.
Nothing comes unannounced
Television is by nature the dominator drug par excellence.
Western civilization is a loaded gun pointed at the head of this planet.
The problem is not to find the answer, it’s to face the answer.
matter is magic
Nature is not mute, man is deaf
Culture is not your friend
And since we’re all about strange times in this wicked year of our lord 2020, here are some raps for you to sink your teeth into.
These are just some interesting titles on the first page of youtube’s search. There are so many more.
Unfortunately, Terence never got to see 2012 himself and we’ll never know how he’d react to it.
At the end of the 90s he contracted a rare form of mushroom-shaped brain cancer and died in 2000. Leaving behind a wake of ideas and people we’re still seeing spread out to this day.
Leaves a lot of unanswered questions and many intriguing possibilities.
And that’s why we’re here.
Thank you all for reading and I’ll see you next time.
I like to remind myself often about the thinking vs. listening. One of my favorites from Terrence for sure along with "Nothing comes unannounced."
Really great read! Your writing style is great to read and it is about very interesting subjects you give good links to.
There are occasional typos that I notice, however, that obscure for a second what sentences mean, and they generally detract from what you are trying to do, I think.