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A Gardener’s Awakening

An Interview With Michael Pollan

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Michael Pollan discusses his new book, exploring the relationship between humans and three plant products that have shaped human culture and history: caffeine, mescaline, and opium.

Michael Pollan is the much-celebrated, much-discussed author of many books that explore the relationship between humans and what we consume, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma. His latest book is This Is Your Mind on Plants. It explores the relationship between humans and three plant products that have shaped human culture and history: caffeine, mescaline, and opium.

Is it fair to say that gardening is your spiritual practice?

It’s one of them, definitely. Gardening is where I engage with other species. I don’t have pets now, and that would be another way to do it. For me, the garden is where I either confront or cooperate with the species we share this world with.

When did you shift your perspective to a plant’s-eye view of the world?

I wrote a book with that in the title: The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. But that was before I actually experienced the plant’s view in an emotional or spiritual way. When I wrote that book, I had an intellectual sense that plants have a point of view—that plants have their own interests. Through coevolution, plants work on us as we work on them. When we mow the lawn, for example, we’re doing the grass’s bidding because grasses want sun and they can’t take down trees, and we’re very good at preventing trees from growing. So, in that sense, when you’re mowing the lawn, the grasses are using you as much as you’re using them. This is how coevolution works. But all of that was an intellectual conceit. I didn’t feel the presence of plants.

For me, the garden is where I either confront or cooperate with the species we share this world with.

Are you talking about conversing with plants?

No. That’s not what I mean. You have to be careful with the language. I don’t think plants are sentient. They’re not conscious the way we are. But they do have agency. On their own timescale, they are reacting, and they have intelligence. They deal with changes in their environment. They either adapt to it or change it. But it was not until I did psychedelics in my garden that I saw plants as having a kind of presence.

How did you get into psychedelics?

I’d had the experiences of awe in nature and things like that. But I heard people talk about seeing God or merging with the universe—mystical experiences of one kind or another. I’d never experienced anything like that. I was kind of jealous.

Then I had such an experience during a guided high-dose psilocybin trip that I described in my book How to Change Your Mind. I saw myself explode into a cloud of little blue sticky notes that were then spread out on the ground like a coat of paint—yet I was still completely aware. What fol- lowed was an amazing experience of a piece of music where I essentially merged with it. I merged with the cello. I merged with the composer, merged with the player. There was just no difference between me and this music. And I realized that connection is a key to spiritual experience.

For me, spirituality isn’t about the supernatural. (I know for some people it is.) And it isn’t about transcending the material world. For me, it’s about transcending the ego—and what can happen when you let those walls come down. The ego is a fortress, and when that goes away, the potential arises for profound connection. It could be a sense of love.

It could be a sense of bonding with nature. I’ve definitely experienced that. The irony is that we usually feel we’re not in nature. We humans talk about having a relationship with nature as if we are separate from it. What a crazy idea that is! But that’s how we put it.

This brings us to your new book, This Is Your Mind on Plants, and the moment you realized that opium poppies grow not just in Afghanistan, but all around us.

That first part of the new book goes back to the summer

of 1996, after I read a short book from a small press called Opium for the Masses. And like a lot of gardeners, I got curious. I love experiments in the garden and doing things I haven’t done before: things we normally go to the store for or, in this case, to the drug dealer. But after I ordered and planted my poppy seeds, I discovered that the DEA was quietly cracking down on gardeners who were doing exactly what I was doing. They arrested the author of Opium for the Masses for possessing opium poppies that he bought at a florist shop in Seattle. That was quite amazing—and terrifying.

When I finished my article for Harpers, which described how you make opium tea and how the tea makes you feel, lawyers advised me not to publish that part of it. Some lawyers advised me not to publish even the fact that I was growing opium poppies because it is illegal to grow the flowers with the intent to manufacture opium. Ironically, that intent was proven by my ownership of a copy of Opium for the Masses. So, I had to take out those passages for the magazine. For this new book, I tracked down those missing pages and restored them for two reasons: One was that the statute of limitations had passed. I was safe legally. The other was that the political environment around drugs had changed. It’s hard to imagine the government cracking down on some gardeners growing a couple opium poppy plants today.

Are opium poppies still available in flower shops?

Yes, they are. Back when the DEA was calling or visiting seed companies and saying, “You shouldn’t sell these seeds, even though it’s perfectly legal to sell them,” most companies changed the name of the seeds. So yeah, you can find them. It takes a little doing, but they’re out there.

How many potential hallucinogens do you have hiding in your garden?

Nothing illegal. I have San Pedro, a mescaline-producing cactus. It’s not as well-known as peyote, but much easier to grow, and I’ve built up quite a collection since I’ve been working on the book. They’re quite beautiful, and they’re perfectly legal—until you start brewing them as tea. Then you’re “manufacturing a narcotic.” One of the many sur- prises in getting into all this is that I now see San Pedro all over Berkeley—and very often I see them hacked off, suggesting they’re being harvested.

What else do you have?

I am growing poppies again, but I have no intention of making tea or laudanum. Now I’m just growing it as most gardeners do: strictly as an incredibly beautiful plant. And I have cannabis, which is now legal in California. It’s thriving in a pot in my garden. And I have things like wormwood artemisia, which is made into absinthe, and supposedly is psychoactive. I also have Datura, which is a hallucinogen, or deliriant, actually. I don’t use it for that.

I like having psychoactives in my garden. I think it’s a dimension of gardening we’ve lost. I think our gardens are generally too benign. We have flowers and we have fruits and vegetables, but we don’t grow a lot of poisons. We don’t grow a lot of psychoactives. We’re more concerned with the beauty of plants than their power, and I’m very interested in their power.

Why are there so many psychoactive plants?

Well, plants can’t move fast. So if something wants to attack them, they have to figure out another kind of defense. And the defense that many plants have come up with is to produce alkaloids, chemical compounds that either poison mammals and insects or otherwise discourage them or discombobulate them. You might think that straightforward poison would be the way to go. And these are poisons at a high dose. But my sense is that plants realize that killing your pest is not the best strategy: If you kill your pest, you essentially select for resistant members of the pest population, which breed and grow very quickly. Farmers understand this really well.

People don’t feel themselves without caffeine. What’s so amazing is that you need a chemical to feel more like yourself.

Some plants use their chemical defenses to ruin the appetite of the pest. For example, the caffeine in coffee diminishes your appetite. Another strategy for the plant is to sufficiently confuse the pest by creating tumult in its mind—disorienting it, so it forgets where you are. I learned this years ago when I had a catnip plant in my vegetable garden for my cat, Frank. Every evening in the summer, when I was going down to the vegetable garden to harvest something for dinner, Frank would follow me in—and just look at me. And I realized he wanted me to show him where the catnip was. Every day he would get so high on catnip that he would forget where he had seen it. That’s a very clever strategy for that plant.

You write that some plants protect themselves with attractants that create addiction. I didn’t realize that caffeine withdrawal is now listed as a mental disorder in the DSM-5. How long did you go without caffeine during your research for this book?

I had about three months of complete caffeine abstention: no tea or coffee. And I was not very happy for a lot of that time. I got through withdrawal after a week or so. Nevertheless, I felt a real absence in my life.

Did the improved sleep make up for it?

I was sleeping like a teenager. That was the biggest benefit. That and the sense of virtue I had—which was stupid. There’s nothing virtuous about not drinking coffee. But we’re Puritans. We feel that any addiction is a weakness of character. When I told people that I’d completely given up coffee, they were impressed.

You’re not going to do that again?

No, I won’t. But I do think there’s something to be said for giving up things you like for periods of time. I love the idea of Lent. When we quit, we learn how much we love something, or we learn that we don’t need it. It’s very hard to understand the role of a chemical in your life that you consume all the time unless you take a break from it. I heard that from caffeine researchers: If you really want to under- stand the role of caffeine in your life, you have to get off it. So, it was a challenge. And I kind of liked that idea.

I didn’t realize that my first cup of coffee each morning is about getting over the effects of caffeine withdrawal.

Yeah. With that first cup you’re just heading off what other- wise is going to be a kind of miserable day, and you can feel it happening. You would think the chemical would make you feel more different than yourself, but when you have that kind of dependence, you don’t feel normal until you’ve gotten back to the baseline.

Before coffee and tea, you write that people drank alcohol all day.

We have to remember that for a long time, it was unsafe to drink water. In America, everyone—including children— was given hard cider at breakfast, lunch, and dinner because the fermentation killed the microbes. Drinking alcohol was safer than drinking water. But coffee and tea were even safer than that because the water was boiled and that killed everything.

What surprised me was the dramatic effect the introduction of caffeine had in Europe. Before tea and coffee, people were drunk a lot of the time, and that definitely diminishes your productivity, makes you much more accident-prone,

and you don’t have clarity for things like double-entry accounting. But under the influence of caffeine, you’re better than normal. You’re more productive, more focused, and you will work harder. Capitalism embraced coffee and tea because it’s a wonderful tool to extract more value from workers. That’s why we get paid for coffee breaks.

It’s very interesting to see what plants and compounds a society elevates as socially acceptable and condemns as evil. It tells you a lot about that society. And I think it’s no accident that in our society, caffeine is promoted. It happens to contribute to the smooth workings of a complex capitalist society. So is alcohol, probably because it numbs the pain of a stressful life for a lot of people.

MY WAGER IN WRITING

THIS IS YOUR MIND ON PLANTS ...

... is that the decline of the drug war, with its bru- tally simplistic narratives about “your brain on drugs,” has opened a space in which we can tell some other, much more interesting stories about our relationship with the mind-altering plants and fungi with which nature has blessed us.

I use the word “blessed” in full awareness of the human tragedies that can accompany the use of drugs. Much better than we do, the Greeks understood the two-faced nature of drugs, an understanding reflected in the ambiguity of their term for them: pharmakon. A pharmakon can be either a medicine or a poison; it all depends—on use, dose, intention, and setting. (The word has a third meaning as well, one often relied on during the drug war: a pharmakon is also a scapegoat, something for a group to blame its problems on.) Drug abuse certainly is real, but it is less a matter of breaking the law than falling into an unhealthy relationship with a substance, whether permitted or illicit, one in which the ally, or medicine, has become the enemy. The same opiates that killed some fifty- thousand Americans by overdose in 2019 also make surgery endurable and ease the passage out of this life. Surely that qualifies as a blessing.

Excerpted from This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan. Published by Penguin Press.

You write about leaders of the temperance movement coming home from protesting against alcohol and relaxing with opium tea.

Yes. And their patent medicines were full of opium and cannabis, and that was perfectly fine. The status of various plant drugs changes historically. There are still hundreds of thousands of people in jail for crimes involving small amounts of marijuana that now we can buy or grow ourselves in California.

I think we have to realize just how relative this war on plants has been. For example, opium tea is legal in the Arab world, but alcohol is not. I think we also have to realize that our combative relationship to these substances is really arbitrary—and has not worked. Drugs have won the war on drugs. One of the reasons I wanted to retell my story of opium in this new book is that we’ve invested huge resources, incarcerated huge numbers of people, and created horrible amounts of pain—all in the name of public health. But, in fact, legal opiates have been the biggest public health disaster of the drug war by far. The culprit was not illegal opium growing in people’s gardens. The culprit was Purdue Pharma and other companies selling legal opiates. We got that wrong. And I think that recognition has also taken a lot of gas out of the drug war and made it much harder to justify.

You’ve mentioned “revealed truths” of hallucinogens. Why do hallucinogens end up feeling more real than real life?

Well, I’m not arguing that hallucinogens give you revealed truth. What I’m arguing is that the insights you have on hallucinogens can feel like revealed truth—that there can be an authority to the experience that is really powerful. That’s been noted for a long time. William James wrote about eight different qualities to the mystical experience, and one of them was the noetic quality, by which he meant that what you experience feels objectively and authoritatively true.

That sense of truth may have to do with the loss of a sense of ego: If you’re feeling less like an individual, what you learn may seem less subjective and more objective, because precisely what you’ve lost is your subjectivity. So, everything appears objective. Keep in mind that people experience all sorts of crazy stuff on psychedelics, so it’s obviously not all revealed truth. One of the great truths people often mention is the idea that love is the most important thing in the uni- verse. That experience of love can have the force of “revealed truth,” and it could in fact be true. I’m not prepared to argue that it isn’t.

They’re blessings and they can be curses. We have to hold both those ideas in our head.

You write about the peyote ceremony as something to avoid because of cultural appropriation. Why is that?

Because peyote is in short supply in the United States. It only grows in one narrow band along the Rio Grande in Texas, and it’s proven to be so valuable to Native Americans dealing with the trauma of their existence. I feel it’s their substance. And what they’re suffering from, we inflicted upon them. So, the limited supply should be theirs. The way to respect peyote is probably to leave it alone.

That’s not to say that if I were invited to a Native American church ceremony, and they wanted to share peyote with me, that I would reject it. I very much wanted to experience it for the book, but I was not able to do so in part because of COVID. But there are other ways to get mesca- line, the active chemical in peyote. San Pedro is not hard to grow. And then there’s synthetic mescaline, which is harder to come by, but you can come by it. So, it’s not like we don’t have other ways to experiment with mescaline if that’s what we want.

Where I live in Oregon, you can now try pretty much whatever you want without being arrested.

It’s incredible what’s happening in Oregon. To decriminalize all drugs in small amounts for personal use is very signifi- cant—although it’s important to remember that these drugs are still illegal at the federal level, so it’s not risk-free. What was even more novel was for Oregon to legalize psilocybin therapy. Not just for people with mental illness, but for anybody who wants it. This is a very bold experiment and may point toward a future of legal psychedelics.

I think what’s really significant about the Oregon psilocybin law is the clear recognition that these are very powerful substances that have to be used with great care and in a therapeutic context, at least at a high dose. There’s a role for trained guides. Oregon isn’t opening up shops to sell psilocybin like we now sell cannabis. This is a very different model. That said, I have a feeling Oregon is going to have psychedelic tourism in its future.

The desire to change consciousness is universal. All cultures, with the exception of the Inuit, have found some plant or fungi that they use to change consciousness. The Inuit don’t have anything where they live, but presumably if they did, they would. This is a deep human desire and I’ve always been curious to understand, what is it good for? How does it actually help us? And I do think it helps us. We have to understand that these are very ambiguous substances:

They’re blessings and they can be curses. We have to hold both those ideas in our head.

We’ve hosted Native American ceremonies where I live. And one thing I learned is that some Native American tobaccos are much higher in nicotine content and some are hallucinogens.

I’ve been surprised to learn that in traditional cultures, tobacco is often regarded as the most important psychoactive plant. In the book I talk about undergoing a tobacco ceremony. It was brief but very powerful. And you realize that Westerners have taken this sacred, powerful plant and turned it into this lethal addiction. The way Native Americans traditionally use tobacco is very different than the way we use it. I’ve acquired a new respect for tobacco. I should definitely add that to my psychoactive garden.