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.
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 followed 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 surprises 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.
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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.