Why Experiment At La Chorrera? [Trenchant Edges]

How Terence McKenna got his groove part 1

Welcome back to Trenchant Edges, where we cut through the fringe bullshit and eat the bloody heart of weird ideas just to see if we’ll gain their strength.

I’m Stephen, Virgil to your Dante.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 12 seconds. Contains 1243 words

Today we dig into the most important bit of Terence McKenna’s life. These are the weeks that ended up defining him as a person and as a public intellectual.

Terence, you may remember, spent the late 1960s through mid 1970 smuggling hash and traveling around Asia. One of his shipments was intercepted in Denver and he feared that he was a wanted man.

This caused him to be out of the country when his and Dennis’ mother died. The grieving pair decided to follow up on some hints they had about a substance, oo-koo-he, a regional ayahuasca brew that may be some kind of secret alternative to what they saw as a failed political project of reforming the western system of civilization.

I want to point you to the quote that best seems to embody the frustration and despair that those in the counterculture felt in this historic moment, a bit from Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

While Hunter was dicking around with hotels in the strip and trying to chase the American dream after pure disillusionment was beaten into him in 1968 Chicago, Terence was looking for a back door out.

An escape hatch out of history into sacred time. Millenarian cults pop up in the wake of instability and catastrophe and while this cult was small it’s hard not to feel for them living through Nixon’s counter-revolution.

I focus on this background stuff, the crime, the mother’s death, the political situation because I want it to be clear that Terence, Dennis, and their companions were heavily primed for something. A fireworks store of weird ideas, personal trauma, and historic stress.

The spark turned out not to be the fabled Ayahausca brew.

The spark was a mushroom.

Or a field of them.

A Pinch of Further Context

Before we continue into the jungles of Columbia with Terence and Dennis, we should probably step back and take a look at where I’m getting this narrative from.

First, let’s take a look at the sources I’m using to put this together. We’ll look at them in order of publication.

  • The Invisible Landscape (1975), Terence and Dennis’ original opus, laying out their pseudorational speculations, adventures, and the final form of that system: The timewave.

  • True Hallucinations (1989) by Terence McKenna: A more in-depth narrative of the experiment at La Chorrera.

  • The Invisible Landscape (1994), the republication of the original, with a few updates.

  • The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss (2012), Dennis’ account of his life with Terence.

  • High Weirdness (2019) by Erik Davis; An account of the differences and similarities between three 70s prophets of weird: Terence McKenna, Philip K Dick, and Robert Anton Wilson

Most of these are kinda self-explanatory: Two versions of the same book, the travelogue version, Dennis’ latter-day reflections on it, and some commentary by one of the only modern commentators I trust to have something to say worth reading.

I more or less consider The Invisible Landscape (1975) and Brotherhood (2012) to be the authoritative texts here. The former fresh off the mania and the latter with long reflection. If they conflict, I’ll simply juxtapose the discrepancy and perhaps comment if it seems to say something.

True Hallucinations, which I regard as Terence’s best book, is perhaps too polished as a story to be trusted fully as a source of “historic fact”. We all know Irish bard types are more fond of a good story than the truth and I appreciate this book’s ability to lean into that with some honesty. The Audiobook is fantastic and available with a youtube search.

It’s also worth knowing

In addition, we’ve also touched on this subject a few times in the past on this newsletter. Here, here, and here.

The next question is where all this fits within the narrative of the timewave.

So, Terence and Dennis did *not* come up with the Timewave in 1971 in the Amazon. It was hinted at and maybe suggested, but mostly Terence built that idea in the wake of the experiment.

What the Experiment did was set powerful psychological forces in motion for Terence, his new girlfriend Ev, and Dennis.

Let’s talk a bit about the social dynamics in play during the expedition to the Experiment.

There were six people who went to La Chorrera. The original 4 conspirators, Terence and Dennis and Terence’s friends who he called Vanessa and David. They were all looking for some kind of radical alternative to the politics of the era and excepting Dennis, were veterans of radical politics at Berkley.

Once in Columbia, they ran into Ev, who Terence ends up in a relationship with, and Ev’s ex who’s irrelevant and leaves the narrative before anything important happens.

Once at La Chorrera, they find a huge cow pasture filled with Stropharia Cubensis mushrooms, which are now perhaps the most widespread psilocybin-containing mushrooms. Terence and Dennis would eventually popularize a method to grow this in the Mushroom Grower’s guide.

They take a bunch of mushrooms and quickly fall into two camps:

Terence, Ev, and Dennis want to go deeper and see where the rabbit hole goes.

Vanessa and Dave want to slow down because they’re worried about the group’s manic ideation.

After some hassle and refining of a theory to work with, Dennis and his companions perform the Experiment.

We’ll be skipping the theory and experiment today, but this creates 3 changes of note:

  1. Dennis goes on a kind of cosmic dissociation that takes weeks to ground himself in his personal identity again. This would drive him to focus more on hard sciences and is perhaps why he’s the brother who ended up with a PhD.

  2. Terence embraces the scope of the revelation and is filled with a profound faith that their work was a success. In some ways, this sense won’t ever leave him and could be what pushed him into his public career.

  3. Vanessa and Dave get SUPER worried at how out of their depth the group has gone and start pushing to return to civilization to get Dennis help.

Terence argues against this last point and eventually loses.

The group largely splits up after returning to a city and eventually America. Terence and Ev move around together trying to parse their weird ideas, Dennis decides to get a much better education, and Vanessa and Dave continue with their lives.

Eventually, Terence builds the timewave and novelty theory and published The Invisible Landscape (1975) with Dennis.

And by 1987 has started the public speaking career that he’s famous for, bringing the word of 2012 propagating its strange singularity backward through the historyless 1990s.

On April 3, 2000 Terence would die of a mushroom-shaped brain tumor.

On December 21st, 2012 no event that could be described as infinite novelty occurred. Just the ordinary linear growth as apparent in 1900 and 1970 as it was in 2012.

As of 6/30 2021, no one has tried to rehabilitate the timewave or novelty theory into working hypotheses again, leaving both ideas as just more dead new-age intellectual waste. Byproduct of a hungry publishing industry and a public looking for less conventional ideas to live around.

And that brings us to the present.

We’ll probably have to do two more of these to really give this mess the treatment it deserves. The next one will be about The Experiment itself, largely without their theoretical framework, and then a fun descent into the theory they worked out in the Jungle and afterward.

Sounds good.

See you tomorrow.

-Stephen