In considering caffeine, Pollan also introduces the possibility that the effects of drug plants are relative. This relativism can be economic. Cultures and countries differ greatly regarding the benefits they reap from coffee and tea. But, more intriguingly, this relativism can extend to the effects of the drug on the body. Pollan argues that in the wake of the Western industrial revolution, caffeine came to serve primarily as an aid to work, a way to compensate for the body’s weaknesses, one that could help us accommodate our industry-inspired workdays and sleep patterns. Conversely, during Japanese tea ceremonies caffeine has a very different effect, one of encouraging tranquil “concentration and attention to the present moment.” One plant and its chemical can be used to vastly different effect depending on the context.
Pollan returns to the idea of relativism in the last third of the book, “Mescaline.” This is the only section that has not been previously published. It is organized around the Odyssey of Pollan — ever the lotus-eater — to sample and understand peyote, one of the two types of cactuses in which mescaline is found, during the pandemic.
Peyote has been used for its mind-bending effects primarily in what is now Mexico for no fewer than 6,000 years. Initially, that use seems to have been mostly confined to the small geographic area in which the plant grows in the wild (arid Mexico and the borderlands of Texas). But in the late 1800s, a new and more widespread peyote culture developed with the emergence of the Native American Church, a fascinating story in and of itself that many readers will no doubt learn about here for the first time.
Pollan planned to take peyote with a “group of Native Americans from several tribes on their annual pilgrimage” to Texas to gather the plant. That trip was foiled by Covid. Pollan ultimately found a Japanese American woman (here called Taloma) who was willing to lead him and his wife through a ceremony employing not peyote, but instead San Pedro, a relatively easy to grow and harvest Andean cactus that also contains mescaline. The book concludes with the story of that experience.
Invariably, the challenge of personal stories about self-experimentation is that the experiences the writer is relaying are ones the reader does not share. By the end of the book, Pollan convinced me so fully of the relativistic effects of mescaline that I was left wondering what sort of general truth his own story represents. Can we generalize from his own drama? Surely his experience does not tell us much about the Native American use of peyote, a culturally contextualized practice that he was told by Native American interviewees “had done more to heal the wounds of genocide, colonialism and alcoholism than anything else they had tried.”
Pollan seems to bet, and he is probably right, that readers will relate to his dabbling with drug plants because of one aspect of their usage that does happen to be nearly universal. To varying extents, we are all trying to negotiate the challenging interplay between our own brain’s chemistries and a number of converging factors: the struggles of having consciousness and being a part of a culture, anxiety, fear, trauma and figuring out life’s meaning. And, as Pollan notes, “there is scarcely a culture on Earth that hasn’t discovered in its environment at least one such plant or fungus, and in most cases a whole suite of them, that alters consciousness.” As the worst of the pandemic recedes, it seems likely that the number of readers interested in reading about, altering and exploring their anxiety-riddled, quarantine-addled and, in many cases, traumatized minds will be immense.
Ultimately, Pollan does not answer whether individual readers should partake in the plant drugs he discusses; this is not part of his project. But he does skillfully achieve what he set out to do. He has left the reader with some “more interesting stories about our ancient relationship with the mind-altering plants,” stories likely to trigger new debates and discussions as well as, no doubt, a fair amount of illicit gardening.