Wednesday, 12 November 2014

On walking with plants

Recently a post appeared on one of the Facebook groups I follow, wondering why it is that ayahuasca, an hallucinogen from "another very distant culture" has become so popular in Europe. There is, it went on, "virtually no evidence for any such substances having been used by native spirit workers to achieve altered states of consciousness. The Native European tradition seems to have been similar to that of Siberia, where you were regarded as a pretty poor shaman if you needed drugs to get you into an altered state in order to do your job".

Needless to say, the post prompted a lot of debate. Many agreed with the author, adding that the use of hallucinogens in shamanism was certainly a shortcut, a kind of cheating we should all frown upon. Some defended it, pointing to the plethora of psychoactive plants in our indigenous flora and the possible lines of evidence for prehistoric usage, while others pointed to the pressure that entheotourism exerts on indigenous cultures and ecologies.

I suppose a glib reply would be that having borrowed (or appropriated – take your pick) rattles, drums, power animals, journeying, sweat lodges, tipis, animal chants, soul-retrieval, tobacco-offerings, animism, dream-catchers, medicine-wheels, tracking, pain ordeals, vision-quests and smudging, why draw the line at power plants?

More seriously, with the notable, and perhaps uncomfortable, exception of opium, for which there is evidence of an unbroken chain of usage stretching back to the Neolithic, the post's author is right in saying there is little evidence for such substances being used in European prehistory. More correctly, there is a yawning absence of evidence, for or against, such that we are free to imagine the ancient past as drug-free or drug-filled according to taste.

When I was writing Shroom, I concluded that indigenous psychoactive plants, but particularly psilocybin mushrooms, had played little part in British prehistoric religion. In the ten years since, I've revised my position and I now think it inconceivable that no one ever tripped intentionally until modernity, such are the timescales involved. It's just that they left no trace of their having done so.

Be that as it may, we must be careful not to impose our modern Western notions onto people distant in space and time. The idea, common to many indigenous cultures, of plants as other-than-human persons, or teachers even, with whom one must forge a respectful relationship, has little to do with our typically pejorative discourses surrounding 'drugs' and 'drug-abuse'. Likewise we should remember that the term 'shamanism' is itself a Western construct, applied to the many cultural practices around the world that we, in our wisdom, have deemed similar enough to be worthy of the name. If we must use the term, and surely we are stuck with it, the best we can do is speak of many shamanisms. The idea that there was or is an original 'pure' shamanism from which others are ersatz and degenerate copies is untenable (not that that's stopped Western scholars and writers from repeatedly making that judgement).

Is a Native American Church peyote ceremony less shamanistic than a Neo-Pagan sweat-lodge simply by virtue of its using a teacher plant? Is a modern Druid smudging themselves with mugwort the more authentic for not inhaling? To answer yes is to do violence yet again to indigenous worldviews, to judge them by our own implicit, yet questionable, moral standards and to fail to listen to what they might have to teach us.

Speaking as someone who has walked and worked with teacher plants, I can attest that to do so is not a shortcut to anything. It is its own path (though if the numbers of attendees of events like Breaking Convention and Kew's Intoxication season are to go by, one that is increasingly popular). 

There is always a danger of sanctimony in these kinds of debates, a risk that we remain mired in that ugly kind of Protestant self-regard where piety, as an ostentatious form of work, is taken as an outward measure of inner spiritual capital. But I would say this, that walking with teacher plants is far from easy. Their purgative effects can be punishing on the body, while they are nothing if not existentially and ontologically challenging. Many cultures regard the experience as something of a moral interrogation, where one is forced to review one's actions and their consequences from the standpoint of others. One's failings are typically brought to the fore. Perhaps that's why the path tends to be self-selecting.

I am quite sure that traditional, indigenous shamanisms, have always been rife with envy and competitiveness (not to mention sorcery and bad mojo, though that's another story). Surely, it's time we moved beyond such mundane human concerns because time seems in very short supply right now. The appeal of the many shamanisms to the West at this moment is that their varied techniques seem to offer a profound way with which to reconnect both with the other-than-human world and the parts of the self from which the mad march of modernity has sundered us. If this is so, and it is my profound hope that it is , then all shamanisms of all kinds have their part to play. We should judge them by their results and not their methods.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Seven-league boots

In what's like a curse from some forgotten fairy-tale, I seem quite unable to find a pair of shoes that fit. My feet are narrow to the point of girliness, and slightly different lengths, such that they deviate wildly from the average size 9 to which they're supposed to conform. While I can always get one shoe to fit perfectly, the other crushes my toes, bruises my arch and sends sciatic pains up my leg. Perhaps I was unkind to a cobbler in a previous life? A poorly-fitting pair of shoes brings quiet misery.

Well, I've finally given in to common sense and had a pair of boots made to measure and while my purse took a hit, the knowledge that I shall stride through the next ten years stoutly shod puts a spring in my step and knocks such paltry concerns to one side. In any case, I like to support the artisan where I can.

I went to a local Devon company, Green Shoes, and I can't recommend them highly enough. As a local this meant I could drop in to get my feet measured in person, and they gave me not one but two fittings. When it transpired that the left shoe was, indeed, too tight, they took it away and resoled it without hesitation. It was a very different experience from anything you'll find on the High Street. If you'll forgive the pun, they put the soul back into shoe-making.

In the end, I went for the Dartmoor Boot in chocolatey brown leather with a car-tyre sole (for ease of re-heeling), though the options were many.

I don't know if I've paid off my dues to the cobbler of yore but I'm exceedingly happy. They may not quite be seven-league boots but I'm relishing the thought of walking many miles in their company.

Raga for a wet morning in November

Curl up. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Intoxication at Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have been running their Intoxication season, all about psychoactive plants, and last weekend I was invited to speak on the cultural history of the magic mushroom.

Aside from the weird and wonderful plants in its collection, there's something Sergeant Pepperish about Kew, so it was a doubly appropriate place for such an event.

The aim was to draw people's attention away from drugs, per se, back to the plants from which they're derived, and to make the point that people around the world have conceived these plants and their effects differently.

For example, plants that are seen as sacred by some indigenous cultures are regarded by ours as so dangerous that they can only be displayed in cages.

Others, meanwhile, remain quite legal...

...but all came with a warning...

My talks consisted of a condensed version of Shroom and I'm pleased to say they went down well. Other speakers included Bryn Dentinger talking about the mycology and taxonomy of Psilocybe species; Monique Simmonds on Kew's advisory role to the Police on plants and drugs; and the indefatigable David Luke on mushrooms and psychic abilities. It was all held together by curator, Mike Jay. Huge thanks to everyone involved for creating such an excellent and vibrant weekend.

Demand was such that on Sunday we were moved to a bigger venue. Two hundred seats proved insufficient and I'm told at least another hundred people were turned away. Here's part of the, ahem, 'kew', which stretched around the building.

What's clear is that despite the pariah status of the magic mushroom, and psychedelics more generally, interest in the subject grows unabated.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Depicting the past

I'm full of admiration for those illustrators who bring the past to life. When watching Time Team – a guilty pleasure, I freely admit – I was always dazzled by Victor Ambrus' uncanny ability to peer at some sketchy archaeological remains, then paint them as they might have been. His people were believable because he made them seem like us. Different lifestyle, different clothes, but just like us.

Not all artists are so diligent and I've noticed that when it comes to the ancient British past, many fall back on the weary stereotype of the uggish caveman. Whether it be the Stone Age or the Iron, our forebears are all too often shown as dirty, dishevelled, long-haired, bearded, wrapped carelessly in skins, crouched low or imprecating madly to the sky, and clearly suffering from an unhealthy obsession with sharp pointy sticks.

Last week's BBC documentary, Operation Stonehenge, was a case in point. While otherwise excellent, its tiresome reconstructions trucked out the same stereotypes.

These jokers would've been dead in a week.

Such depictions make the past distant, other, and have the effect of elevating us at its expense. We look on condescendingly, safe in the knowledge that the slow march of cultural evolution has made us different. We are civilised. They were not.

The discovery on Dartmoor, in 2011, of the beautifully preserved remains of a Bronze Age kist burial ought to scotch such stereotypes once and for all. The prize find consisted of two spindle wood discs. They turned out to be ear plugs. Whoever had been buried there had stretched earlobes, a fact that makes me think our ancestors were far more like the indigenous hunter-gathers of today than the convenient oafs of stereotype. 

For take a look at extant tribal cultures and you'll find that they are, by necessity, resourceful, keen-witted, fit, ripped and equipped with the skills and wherewithal to survive.

They are also proud and vain, adorning themselves in pelts, feathers, piercings, paint and tattoos. They are, in other words, and no matter how alien their moralities, lifeways and worldviews, just like us, a fact I wish the history-makers would remember.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Pagan Britain

It must have been the summer of 1995 when I had my mind blown in a field in Oxfordshire. I was at the very first OBOD camp and went to a talk by the historian Ronald Hutton. In the space of forty minutes, and with his trademark élan and erudition, Ronald demolished every foundational belief of my naive paganism. I was left reeling with cognitive dissonance, and yet, come the end, I didn't want him to stop. On my return home, I immediately bought and devoured his Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, a summary of the archaeological and historical evidence for what was then known about pre-Christian religions in Britain.

It's possibly a universal human tendency to bend the past to our contemporary desires. We start with a theory, then cherry-pick the evidence to fit with how we want the world to be. Thus, throughout the twentieth century, all manner of evidence was assembled to support the Victorian idea that paganism was an ancient fertility religion, one with licentious and often heinous rites, and one that somehow persisted in secret against all odds and despite concerted efforts by Christianity to eradicate it. This was what had made the idea of paganism so thrilling to me, though like most other pagans I thought the heinous rites bit a dreadful slur and chose to ignore that part of the story.

Hutton's approach was so refreshing because he turned this approach on its head, assessing all the available evidence to find the most plausible interpretations, or being big enough to admit we don't know in the many cases where the evidence was too equivocal. Under this kind of scrutiny the lurid Victorian view of paganism I'd inherited crumbled. The pre-Christian religions of Britain turn out to be far more rich, complex and nuanced than this simplistic story allows.

Published over twenty years ago, The Pagan Religions, was well due a rewrite and that's exactly what Hutton has done with his Pagan Britain. I can't recommend it highly enough.

In this magisterial and interdisciplinary work, covering everything from the Ice Age to the Vikings, Hutton makes many of the same points as before but brings the evidence up-to-date. The chapter on 'The Legacy of British Paganism' justifies the cover price alone and is required reading for anyone interested in the subject. It's all written in a far more accessible style than its academic-oriented predecessor, an acknowledgement of the fact that in the intervening period he's garnered a keen, non-academic audience. To them his message is clear: within the generous limits imposed by the evidence you're free to imagine the past how you like.

Interestingly, the two volumes have bookended my academic career. Back in the 90s, meeting Ronald heralded my return to academia. He encouraged me to embark on my second PhD and indeed ended up being my external examiner. I think his influence on my own work should be obvious and I remain extremely grateful to him.

Now, with our relocation to Dartmoor, I have left academia (never say never, though I can't imagine returning) and I found on reading Pagan Britain that I am less interested than I was in defining the boundaries of what we know about the past, much more interested in dreaming up what lies in the gaps.

As I havered about doing a second PhD, Ronald's advice was this: if you don't like it, you can always go back to the fields. I did like it, but the fields got me anyway.