MIND-ALTERING AND POISONOUS PLANTS OF THE WORLD
From Timber Press, the people who brought us “Medicinal Plants of the World”, here is another lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced book from Michael Wink, the Heidelberg molecular biologist, and Ben-Erik Van Wyk, leading taxonomist at the University of Johannesburg. This felicitous collaboration enables us both to accurately identify 200 plants and to learn what the effects a thousand more may have on us. In fact approximately half the content is taken up with biochemistry. Fortunately a helpful glossary is provided
Given that the authors are both empirical scientists, at first sight it is curious that “Mind altering” and “poisonous” should be combined in the title. “Poison” refers to a physical entity, whilst “the mind” is a nebulous term that defies definition except on the most subjective level. A discussion of their book therefore requires dealing with two irreconcilable factors, To take the simpler matter of poisons first, the introduction suggests that this book “should be useful to gardeners” as well as medical professionals, but this seems an understatement: Given the propensity of some children for shoving anything into their mouths it should undoubtedly be on every mother’s kitchen shelf. That said however, many mothers will be alarmed to find the pages on coffee and saffron juxtaposed with those on Colchicum and Convallaria, but as the authors say, much depends on the amount of toxin ingested and its synergistic effects; the difference between a healing herb and a murder weapon is after all, frequently only a question of degree. I have had more than one customer concerned about breathing the air in a garden containing Aconite, another brought back a melilot having been convinced by a web site that it would annihilate her entire family notwithstanding the plant’s traditional roles in Swiss cheese making and enhancing the flavour of jugged hare. (Purists please don’t write in telling me that the Swiss insist on using the blue rather than the yellow species, the chemical content is much the same).
A certain intelligence is therefore demanded of Wink’s readers. But herb retailers rendered cynical by years of experience dealing not just with paranoid customers but their polar opposites, the “yummy mummies” who actively encourage their children to sample every leaf they encounter on the basis that all “green is good” will know that such intelligence is sadly lacking amongst their customers. Amongst the latter group, their standard rejoinder when told that the herb that they are exhorting their little precious to sample will probably render the child blue, foaming and lifeless, is an accusatory “If it’s so dangerous, why do you stock it then?” There would be little point in passing on Wink’s comment that the border line between the medicinal and the murderous is ill defined, such a concept is beyond the reaches of minds nurtured since adolescence on “life-style” supplements and “celebrity” television shows. (Any herb grower heard muttering, not quite sotto voce that the ingestion of mind-altering toxins by these brain-dead people can only bring about an improvement does of course deserve slapped wrists!)
The “mind-altering” part of the title is rather more difficult to cover in a brief blog. Leaving aside the knotty problem of what the “mind” is, given that it has taken millennia for the mind to evolve to its present imperfect state, why should anyone “in their right mind” want to alter it anyway? That Wink is also a noted ornithologist and Van Wyk is inter al, an authority on food plants, may not appear immediately relevant, but in the context of “mind-altering” it does suggest an essential ability to “think outside of the box”. Nevertheless as neither goes so far as abandoning the terra firma of empirical physiology to stray into the murky waters of “the mind”, it is necessary to turn to other disciplines to explain such imprecise concepts and why people should wish to mess up their brains with such happy abandon.
Primitive tribes, if we are allowed to call them that these days, ingested mind-altering plants to become imbued with the potent “spirits” contained within those plants, in other words, to take on some of the attributions of the divine by absorbing the holy spirit as did the Christian disciples at Pentecost (Act 2 : 6-12), the Delphic oracle or as the Amazonian shamans do today after a good dose of Ayahuesca. Some do not seek merely to approach the Holy Ghost in all its variations but to actually become divine. The deity is both omnipotent and immortal and it is no accident that when one has reached the celestial heights, one is described as being “high”; apparently one feels that one can live for ever. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe recently pointed out that “Our religious or philosophical beliefs about the nature of death and the purpose of life are central to how we live”. It is sad therefore that whilst his soul is careering about the heavenly infinity in pursuit of the illusion of immortality, the junkie’s body remains an earth-bound lump, probably even more useless than in its usual state. And when the Amazonian shaman comes down to earth, he will not only have a thoroughly nasty hang-over, but he will find all the perils of a hostile jungle and the viruses introduced by Christian missionaries and loggers still waiting to destroy him just as they were when he “left”.
As Weston La Barre put it half a century ago “The vulnerable are the culturally weary and heavy-laden, and those who have not loved this life and this body Only those who can not live are insatiable of life. The “comfort of immortality” can appeal only to those who have not had enough genuine experience of mortality” which more than hints at a mental inadequacy within the substance-abusers. If one looks at the so-called “celebrity” drug users, the Winehouses and Spears, one can see the validity of La Barre’s hypothesis. The drugs then, seem to accomplish little except to metaphorically blow out the brains of the habitual user as well as to cause long term metabolic damage, in effect to hasten the death the user seeks to avoid. It is a fact that one can get almost as “high” by thinking that one is “high”, having employed psychotropically inert substances as when one has stuffed one’s brain with chemically potent hallucinogenics. This may be perceived as casting doubt on the argument implied in the book’s title that the introduction of a chemical agent within the brain is necessary to accomplish a mind-altered state. However leaving aside the fact that psychotropically active substances have a long term deleterious effect, the effects of the non-chemically induced “high” are the same in that having communed with god, the user returns to an unchanged and unchanging world albeit with less of a hang-over. Several millennia after Moses came back down the mountain, the message on his tablets still have little impact in spite of being the theoretical basis of a civilised society. One questions whether or not the “smells” that have long-accompanied the bells of the catholic priesthood are any more potent than the cinnamon described by the silly child in Jack Turner’s “Spice”as “Astral travel oil”. As a means of connecting to the celestial heights, the effects of the burning spices are fleeting to say the least. Certainly The Church would have remained politically impotent through out its most influential period had it lacked its condottiere armies and the inquisition to back it up. Something vital has clearly gone missing since the Holy Ghost infused the disciples at Pentecost and one suspects that this is either ergot accidentally ingested during the meal or some magic mushrooms deliberately cooked up for their dinner.
In the matter of employing comparatively inert plant material to forge a direct link to the Divine, can there be any better example than that of the Queen? Not only was she enveloped in a dense cloud of incense at her coronation but also anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury with a concoction of aromatherapeutic but rather ineffectual spices. As the Archbishop sloshed the oil over the sovereign’s head he intoned “…..peoples whom the lord your god hath given you to rule and govern. In the name of the father and of the son and of the holy ghost”. Although neither prayer nor unguents has been sufficient to stop prevent sections of her former empire sinking into anarchy and her family becoming dysfunctional, I suppose Her Majesty can take comfort from the fact that she has lasted rather longer than any other sovereign similarly connected to God by herbal oils. Think of poor old Czar Nicholas and most of his predecessors! So whilst the Queen is scarcely a regular “substance-user” it can be no coincidence that by her anointing she was confirmed as the spiritual head of the Church of England, a body which exists largely to assist those who “seek salvation in the life to come”, the penitents whom the priesthood has brainwashed into such a state of guilt that they are unable to accept the mortality which La Barre refers to as “…..the fitting and desirable reward of the weary metazoan, after a gallant and brave game against insurmountable odds”, It goes without saying that shamans, queens and popes haven’t secured an immunity from death.
However it’s not just the fact that the Queen is not a sessile crackhead nor that the Holy Father is not a self-hating dope fiend that makes me think that the view perceived by the psychologists is more than slightly blinkered, for this analysis neither takes into account the people who take drugs for the fun of it nor does it address the positive aspects of “the soul” such as, for example, an aesthetic sense. More important is the whole question of “mind over matter”, how do fakirs lie on beds of nails, how are psychosomatic cures effected and how do some Islamists hold out for so long against being water boarded? It seems that the mind can accomplish more by not being befuddled with drugs. On this basis Wink and Van Wyk’s approach to hallucinogens, combining “Mind-altering” and “poisonous” in the title, is clearly the sensible one. This means that their book will come as a major disappointment to those in search of pretentious gobbledygook posing as “enlightenment”,. The text on most of today’s common favourites such as Cannabis and Magic Mushrooms warns that ingestion may induce tachycardia and death respectively. Nor are these warnings applicable only to the “hippy” community, some traditional herbalists (and celebrity chefs) could also read the book with advantage both to their insurers and their patients. Take heimia which enjoys occasional currency as a “brain enhancer” and is here revealed to contain a range of Quinolizidine alkaloids with the potential to cause dizziness, deafness and physical pain.
Such cautions are vital in today’s “blame culture” and it could be that this book may save a herb seller from career-shattering litigation. For this alone, it seems an eminently sensible investment.