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29 September 2021

Those who came before us knew how plants could reveal a more vibrant reality

The hallucinogenic Datura are a natural means to wisdom. Why must we ban plants like them?

By John Burnside

Towards the end of the last century, I lodged, briefly, in a traditional prairie house near Emporia, Kansas. The house was so cosy as to be slightly claustrophobic, but it had a wide porch out front and an acre or so of yard, given over exclusively to those extravagant, eerily white flowers known as Angels’ Trumpets. My host was an elderly Christian woman who told me that this planting scheme put her in mind of heaven – a destination for which she seemed to think that she, and by association, anyone in her immediate circle, was inevitably bound.

At that time, I was not particularly familiar with the flora of the American Midwest, but one thing I did know was that those elaborate, fluted blossoms belonged to the species Datura, a plant used, in former times, by the indigenous people of that place in their shamanic rituals. It tickled me, rather, to know that this deeply pious lady had become an unwitting custodian to one of the most powerfully hallucinogenic plants in nature; a plant that, carefully prepared to isolate its psychotropic properties, had been a key sacrament in rites that she would have considered heathen, un-Godly and, no doubt, un-American.

It is tempting to think that any society gets the sacraments it deserves. All the world over, those who came before us were practised in the art of drawing visions from flowers and roots and the fruiting bodies of certain fungi, an art that allowed them to voyage into the otherworld on a regular basis in this life, rather than waiting for some nebulous and entirely posthumous ever after. Sadly, we enlightened folk of the “developed world” – the self-anointed missionaries of God and reason – have gone out of our way to ban any substance that might reveal a more vibrant reality; or, as Aldous Huxley puts it, following William Blake, to outlaw anything that might cleanse the doors of perception. There are probably several reasons for this – the most obvious being that some people just enjoy banning things – but what seems most likely is that, long ago, some authoritarian soul worked out that a frequent outcome of any organically guided trip was not so much inebriation as a tiny, but possibly cumulative, advance in wisdom.

The Datura is not banned, however, presumably because preparing the plant for consumption is such a complex task – and the risk of getting it wrong and being fatally poisoned deters all but the most determined of would-be visionaries. On the other hand, these angelic plants are not the only means to wisdom that the American continent has to offer.

[see also: Unlike most of its kind, the short-eared owl comes to us in the daytime – but remains otherworldly]

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Everyone knows about peyote, the desert succulent used widely across the lower United States and Central America for centuries in indigenous rituals, and many are aware of the properties of psilocybin, a constituent of several fungus species, commonly known as magic mushrooms. Research has shown that these natural medicaments have healing powers: in the early 20th century, peyote was used by the Native American church to treat alcoholism, while psilocybin is understood to help with a variety of mental disorders. Casual users also report experiences of unity, of a moral and psychic wholeness that, for those still inclined to the old terminology, might be compared to the state of grace. Inevitably, this has led to the use of such naturally occurring sacramental plants being banned.

Why is this? In a world so lacking in opportunities for grace, surely anything that cleanses the doors of perception ought to be welcomed, especially when it occurs naturally. True, the Datura plants growing in profusion around my pious host’s B&B were deadly poisonous. But are they really so much more dangerous than a belief system that worries less about the Earth than its dreams of a heaven whose only music is a silent chorale of cold white Angels’ Trumpets?

[see also: How do you preserve the history of something that lives and dies each season?]

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This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age