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‘This is your Mind on Plants’ review: Mind-altering garden plants

Michael Pollan has been bedazzling us with his writing about our relationships with plants and nature. He has considered questions such as how and why plants evolved to gratify humans, what we should eat, why our connection to nature matters, and how our food emerges through water, heat, fire and earth. His writing is elegant, original, entertaining and thrilling.

His latest book, This is your Mind on Plants, is no different. Utterly absorbing, it is a continuation of How to Change your Mind, where he opens the door on psychedelics — psilocybin, mushrooms and LSD. In the current volume, he draws us in through lyrical historical and cultural narratives, takes us on a path that explores the biology of some mind-altering chemicals, punches at confusing government policies on drugs, describes indigenous communities’ ancient practices with peyote, and tries to explain his own transformational experience with the guided consumption of psychedelics. He examines human involvement with three mind-altering chemicals: opium, caffeine and mescaline.

Fighting over poppy

The earliest reference to poppy is by the Sumerians in 3400 BC in Mesopotamia. Poppy has been used in medicine for thousands of years and appears on Greek and Roman coins. It was a vital trade commodity, and the 19th century opium wars between the Qing Dynasty and the British and French enabled control of opium trade and territory.

The U.S. government has waged an unequal drug war against narcotics; for instance, while there is a stiff penalty and jail time for growing Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, seductive disinformation from manufacturers about the safety of oxytocin led to over-prescription and widespread addiction. Pollan skirts a cautious path around the legality of poppy cultivation. He grew it in his garden for a time and sipped its bitter, nauseating tea, which makes the “sadness leave”.

Ideas from a café

You would be surprised if I called you an addict of something potent that changes the state of your mind. 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, or ‘caffeine’ in coffee, tea, or soda, is a widely used psychoactive consumed by almost everyone. Pollan is hilarious when he describes his attempt to forsake his soothing daily routine of coffee and tea. He misses caffeine’s energising and confidence-raising effects but plods on gamely. First discovered in Ethiopia, coffee was traded across the Arabian Peninsula and drunk in the Arab world. Spreading west and north with the Ottoman Empire, coffeehouses nurtured conversations, news and gossip.

The first coffeehouse in Europe came up in 1629 in Venice and in 1650 in Oxford, England. These enclaves shaped scientific and financial revolutions of the modern world by creating a new space for the exchange of ideas, commerce and political intrigue. Earlier, the governor of Mecca and later, Charles II, had tried to close them down. The French linked coffeehouses with sedition. “The mob that ultimately stormed the Bastille assembled in the Café de Foy, roused to action by the eloquence of political journalist Camille Desmoulins and intoxicated not by alcohol but by caffeine.” Coffee provides “focused, linear, abstract, and efficient cognitive processing”. The Enlightenment writers were invigorated by coffee, and Honoré de Balzac relied heavily on it for his creative outputs. “What work of genius has ever been composed on chamomile tea?” Pollan laments in his decaffeinated state.

The secrets of tea production were stolen from the Chinese by Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, and grown on land seized from peasant farmers in Assam. The East India Company began growing tea and opium in India. Pollan speculates that the disparity in the drinking cultures of coffee and tea must be due to their different histories.

Moving on mescaline

The third section covers mescaline, a psychedelic that naturally occurs in some cacti. Pollan recalls Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, which describes his experience with mescaline. He wonders if the indigenous communities’ consideration of nature, “not merely as a symbol of spirit but as immanent — a manifestation of it”, was due to their intake of mescaline. Pollan realises that he has been unknowingly growing San Pedro, a cactus with mescaline, in his yard. The Huichol or Wixáritari, an indigenous people who live deep in the Sierra Madre of Mexico, have used peyote for thousands of years. Their ritual practices using peyote were complex and interwoven into their culture. These observations made me wonder about ‘soma’, highlighted in the Rigveda. Were its poets also enraptured by mind-altering plants?

Psychedelics and therapy

In carefully delivered doses, psychedelics can dissolve structures of the ego, unlock and expand the consciousness and on occasion create mystical experiences. Their use by certain communities and in more recent studies has reopened research with psychedelics, especially for those with depression or terminal disease.

Why is the free-flowing expanded consciousness not our natural state? Huxley’s impression was that the role of “ordinary consciousness is to protect us from reality by a process of reduction or filtration”. Human consciousness has been shaped by natural selection to maximise our survival, not necessarily to represent reality scrupulously. We do not see “the truth,” just our version of it — always.

This is your Mind on Plants is worth burying oneself in even as the planet burns and drowns in floods and humans have lost touch with their connectedness with nature.

This is your Mind on Plants; Michael Pollan, Penguin Random House, ₹665 (Kindle price).

The reviewer is a scientist who studies science, technology and development policy.


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