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Dennis McKenna’s Heroic Mushroom Journey

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Dennis McKenna’s Heroic Mushroom Journey

Here’s a research question that’s waiting for the right industrious grad student: How many of today’s psychedelic industry leaders, researchers, therapists and activists were motivated to enter the psychedelics field after binge listening to lectures by the late Terence McKenna? Smart money says that it’s a good percentage. Terence and his brother Dennis did much to lay the groundwork for the current psychedelic moment, from sharing inspirational visions to publishing the first popular, practical handbook for cultivating psilocybin mushrooms, the 1976 “Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide.”

So it was only appropriate that New York’s latest home for mind-manifesting culture, the Psychedelic Athenaeum, launched this weekend with a celebration of a new edition of Dennis McKenna’s memoir, “The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss.” Housed in one of the surviving brick buildings between glass towers in the unlikely location of midtown Manhattan, the PA is a funky co-working space for Big Apple journeyers hungry for community after three years of pandemic isolation.

Indigenous stewards. Before the day-long program of talks by luminaries like Alex and Allyson Grey began, I sat next to Dennis on a cozy couch and asked what he thought about psychedelic mainstreaming. Typically reflective, he took the 30,000 foot view. “It’s a process of co-evolution between society and these plants, and the synthetic compounds which derive from the plants. You’re talking about processes that play out over hundreds or thousands of years.” But he does find the acceptance of psychedelics by the medical field encouraging, as well as the gradual lifting of prohibition.

He noted that “Indigenous societies have been the stewards of these plants for so long, they should be appointed to be the steering committee to bring them to the rest of the world. Because these plants do have the potential to heal many of the ills that our society faces. Psychedelics are medicines for the soul; they can work individually and collectively. They can heal the soul of our species, maybe even of our planet. But it has to take place in a certain context.”

What context? “These things usually take place in group situations with a shaman, someone who sets the tone. This is the right model. Rather than go to a clinic, each community could have a wellness center, a holistic healing center that includes psychedelics. It should be a community oriented thing that’s able to help you to prepare, have an experience, and then integrate your experience. These three phases are very important.”

Now 71, McKenna speaks with the insistent gravitas of a confident elder. He expressed concern that some of the companies developing psychedelic medicines for FDA approval might cut corners when it comes to the before and after parts of the psychedelic session. “I don’t think these medicines are ever going to be take-it-at-home-and-call-me-in-the-morning. They need to be used under intense therapy, and the most expensive component is the therapist’s time. The drug alone without the therapy is not going to do the job. It’s got to be the context of the set and setting, which includes the therapist.” 

An epic journey. McKenna’s 40-year career devoted to the science of ethnopharmacology has culminated in the BioGnosis project, an effort to preserve and digitize a unique collection of 150,000 biological specimens housed at an Amazonian herbarium in Iquitos, Peru. With the health of the Amazon rainforest under threat, the project seeks to capture vital knowledge of how the indigenous people use the plants for healing for future generations.

This comprehensive, academic approach is a long way from where Dennis started with psychedelic plants in the 1970s. Back then “we wanted to be able to grow the mushrooms to have access to the experiences. There was also, you know, the mercenary motivation, but that wasn’t really the reason. We wanted to make the mushroom experience more widely available to people so that they could confirm – or not – all this crazy stuff. We wanted to create a consensus that this dimension or landscape, whatever is out there, is not just the delusion of two brothers. It’s actually something that everybody can explore.”

As for the grower’s guide? “Well, it did make mushrooms the major psychedelic of the latter part of the 20th century, right up until now. And it’s interesting that of all the psychedelics, it emerged to be the perfect clinical psychedelic. It’s nontoxic, it’s compatible with human physiology. Many companies are trying to improve on that molecule, but their motive is to get a proprietary derivative. These are venture capital driven companies that want to cash in. But it’s hard to improve on psilocybin.”

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