In the early 1950s, a Polish immigrant and self-proclaimed philosophy teacher called George Adamski announced to the world he had established contact with an extra-human intelligence, in the middle of a deserted landscape –the kind of location where ancient prophets would have their mystical experiences– and he wrote a book about his story which was largely dismissed as pure fantasy by scientists and academics, despite its popularity. Many others with similarly grandiloquent claims followed, but they were never taken seriously by modern society; perhaps because they had no tangible proof of those encounters with the Other, aside from tall tales and grainy pictures of alleged interplanetary spaceships. By the 1970s most of these ‘Contactees’ had been discredited and forgotten.
It was also in the 1970s, that a group of hippie kids that took themselves to be scientists and were led by two brothers from Colorado, took a similar ‘initiatory’ quest; but they chose the humid jungles of South America instead of arid Mojave. Like Adamski, they too claimed to have established contact with a non-human intelligence, and they also wrote an immensely popular book which was largely dismissed as deranged fantasy. But unlike the Contactees who befriended Venusian Space Brothers at the dawn of the Cold War, these young hippies returned from their quest with tangible proof of their encounter (well, sorta) and the influence of their experience is still felt to this day all around the globe.
Those two brothers were Terence and Dennis McKenna, legendary names in the contemporary counterculture –especially Terence, who after his untimely passing in 2000 has attained the closest thing to a digital immortality our current technology can provide, thanks to the myriad of videos and recorded lectures freely available on Youtube and the Psychedelic Salon podcast. And the 4th of March marked the 50th year of that fateful quest to the Colombian rainforest, known among psychedelic fans worldwide as ‘The Experiment at La Chorrera.’
(Yes, the vague resemblance of the magic mushrooms to flying saucers was not accidental, but we’ll get back to that…)
Last Thursday I joined in the live Crowdcast event organized by the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy to commemorate the anniversary. And when I say the influence of La Chorrera is still felt all around the globe, I am not exaggerating: The final countdown registered by the Crowdcast server were 642 participants from Lisbon, Israel, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, England, Sweden, Vancouver and Sydney, to name just a few.
The moderator (Abby Navarro, from Puerto Rico) cheerfully greeted everyone while she prepared the stage for Dennis (who last I heard is now living in Vancouver after fleeing Minnesota in the middle of the Trump regime). The streaming was divided into two segments, beginning with a pre-recorded ‘fireside chat’ between Dennis and Graham St. John –a young cultural anthropologist who is is now working on a biography of Terence– followed by an all-too brief Q&A session plagued with a few technical problems. In the edited video Dennis, who did most of the talking, gave a detailed account of what compelled his brother and him to undertake what to many would have been a foolhardy adventure into the heart of the Amazon, along with everything that transpired during their stay at the mission of La Chorrera and afterwards.
Having read The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, the biographical book Dennis wrote a few years ago in which he explained what it was like to grow up with his brother Terry, this story was not new to me; but it was still fascinating nonetheless to listen it ‘from the horse’s mouth’ as it were. Basically, by 1970 the McKennas and their companions were young bohemians who had already dabbled in LSD (like any self-respecting child of the Summer of Love) and were very interested in the properties of DMT, the most potent psychedelic compound known to man –which we now have confirmed is naturally secreted by the brain, and could be directly involved in the mystical experiences of those prophets of old.
DMT seems to have the potential to ‘launch your consciousness into hyperspace’, an alien domain inhabited by strange denizens that are, as Dennis put it, “always eager to impart information.” Only problem is that smoking DMT gives you a ‘blast-off’ that last just 20 minutes or less; so in seeking to find a way to ‘boost’ the experience, the McKennas found an old academic reference to virola (a family of Amazonian trees rich in alkaloids and tryptamines) written by Richard Evans Schultes, the famous ethnobotanist.
The virola leaves are used by Amazonian tribes to create several psychoactive compounds which had never been analyzed by modern science at that time, like the (now famous) Ayahuasca brew and oo-koo-he –an ingestible pill used by the Witoto tribe in their shamanic ceremonies (to keep things in perspective, we are talking about an age in which the structure of serotonin wasn’t fully understood yet).
It was in the search of oo-koo-he that the McKennas and their companions set their aims when they left the comfort of the American society they had grown disillusioned with –a similar disenchantment experienced by the Contactees of the 1950s– and followed the siren’s song of what they referred to as ‘the Secret’. In a tongue-in-cheek manner, this group of psychedelic adventurers called themselves ‘the Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss’ –which in retrospect sounds more respectable than George Adamski’s ‘Royal Order of Tibet’.
This small brotherhood of psychedelic seekers was literally trying to get abducted by aliens. And, for a while, they succeeded…
As is often the case when one is trying to establish contact with an other-worldly intelligence, things did not turn out as planned. The Brotherhood arrived at La Chorrera, the secluded ancestral home of the Witoto tribe, whose only contact with the outside world constituted a small religious mission; before the McKennas, the only westerner who had visited La Chorrera in search of the chemical secrets of the Amazonians had been William Burroughs, who went looking for Ayahuasca but couldn’t find any –it seems Burroughs never had any luck when forcing a rendezvous with ‘the Others’, seeing how years later he also visited the cabin where Whitley Strieber had the experiences narrated in his best-selling book about alien abductions, Communion; but the old beatnik writer never managed to have a close encounter of his own while staying there.
When the priest in charge of the mission learned of the McKenna’s reasons for visiting such a god-forsaken place, he became horrified and urged the reckless gringos to take great care before asking the natives about one of their most guarded secrets –“they’ll probably kill you if you go around talking about this!” he warned them. Undeterred, the Brotherhood opted to alter their tactics and make discreet inquiries about the oo-koo-he; but in the meantime, the young seekers found that thanks to the zebu cattle brought by the missionaries, and their serendipitous arrival at La Chorrera after the rainy season, that all around them were growing a rich amount of Stropharia cubensismushrooms –a natural psychedelic they had never tried before and thought it to be a good way to pass the time.
Like in the Rolling Stones song which had been released just two years prior, “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes/Well, you might find/You get what you need…”
The Brotherhood started to eat the mushrooms. A lot of them. They soon became convinced this, and not the orally ingested DMT, was the ‘Secret’ they had been looking for all along. Like Dennis explained in the broadcast chat with Graham, a high dosage of psilocybin is not unsimilar to DMT due to the close resemblance of the two chemical compounds. Soon a sort of dialogue ensued between the group and some sort of intelligence that either emanated from the mushrooms themselves, or were using them as ‘channels’ to communicate with the McKennas.
‘The Teacher’, as they began to call it, would tell them all sorts of crazy explanations about the nature of Reality. Under the effects of the mushrooms, the Brotherhood would hear a sort of musical tone or electrical buzzing inside their heads –something also very common in paranormal experiences– which the ‘Teacher’ said was the sound of the “electron spin resonance of the tryptamine molecules as they were chemically binding to their own DNA” – how many times were the Contactees of the ’50s imparted with ‘knowledge’ from their Ufonaut friends, which in closer examination turned out to be total nonsense as well? – and when they tried to reproduce that tone with their own voices, it would trigger all sorts of interesting phenomena which Dennis didn’t bother to specify in the pre-recorded video –he even flatly refused to repeat the tone, when asked by one of the participants in the Q&A session because, as he jokingly put it, he didn’t want to “destabilize the Space-Time continuum”.
Which is exactly what they set out to do in 1971, when it occurred to them that if they managed to ‘sustain the frequency’ of the mushroom tone long enough so it could permanently bind itself to their genetic structure, they would manage to perform a sort of ‘psychosurgery’ on a human subject –namely, the younger of the McKenna brothers– that would eventually bring about a perfect object made of Mind and Matter that would respond to your very thoughts and manifest whatever you could imagine: The Prima Materia of esoteric tradition; the Philosopher’s Stone of the Medieval alchemists; the Logos made living flesh; or, as they eventually baptized it, ‘the Transcendental Object at the end of Time’ because –the way they ‘rationalized’ it– such an object would bring about the Eschaton or ‘End Times’ prophesized by religious mystics –and more than a few Contactees.
Adamski & Co. would have simply called it a flying saucer.
This is the essence of what became known as ‘the Experiment at La Chorrera’. Again, the parallels between the McKennas and the Contactees that preceded them are hard to miss –how many of them burned their barns or houses to the ground when trying to follow the instructions of the Space Brothers on how to build ‘antigravity machines’ or ‘free energy devices’?
The results of the McKennas’ attempt to build a psycho-biological UFO were less dramatic but, in a way, much more profound in the long run at the same time: for days Dennis became completely dissociated from consensus reality –an outside observer might have judged it as a full blown schizophrenic episode– while Terence became hypervigilant of his condition, adamantly refusing to heed their companions’ advice to take his brother back to civilization so he could get medical treatment. “Just let it play out!” was Terence’s decision, which would no doubt be perceived as callous at the time; but now that half a century has passed, Dennis expressed to Graham the gratitude he felt because his brother would not budge, otherwise he might have ended up institutionalized for the rest of his life.
As it turned out, Dennis did manage to ‘reconstitute’ himself and gradually returned to normal after spending what to him were eons lost in hyperspace. After he went back to the US, he threw himself into Science as a way to ‘ground’ his psyche, and became a renowned psychopharmacologist and ethnobotanist whose work has become instrumental in understanding the pharmacology of Ayahuasca.
Dennis has never gone back to La Chorrera; he does not see the point in it and feels he would be disappointed if he retraced the steps of his youth. Yet to this day he still regards their stay in Colombia as an important healing experience for him, even though by now he rejects most of the early interpretations he and his brother reached of what transpired during their ‘psycho-alchemical’ work, as it was initially publicized in the book The Invisible Landscape. In a way, Dennis’ decision to refocus his study of psychedelics under the umbrella of scientific research is somewhat reminiscent of how Ray Stanford renounced his early career as a Contactee and psychic channeller of the Space Brothers, and tried to use scientific tools to better study UFOs.
Ironically, Terence was the one who somehow never managed to return back to normal after La Chorrera, because he renounced his original goal of becoming an academic; he dropped out of Berkeley after returning to the United States, convinced that Science would never be able to fully understand their experiences they had gone through; for a while he became a smuggler and an outlaw, and during the interim between his escaping the authorities and his eventual transformation as the most notorious figure in the psychedelic subculture –thanks to his Irish ‘gift for the gab’ that would earn him the nickname ‘the Bard’– he developed a ‘theory’ that would explain why the promises made by the ‘Fungal Brother’ in Colombia failed to materialize (when prophecy fails you either walk away or double down on your beliefs, I guess).
Terence’s conclusion is that the experiment did succeed, but the ‘transcendental object at the end of Time’ would become fully manifest into our plane of existence at a future moment. In order to determine that date, he devised what came to be known as the Timewave Zero theory: a brilliant combination of mathematics and the ancient I-Ching as an attempt to chart the ingress of novelty in human history, and the apparent acceleration of Time itself towards a ‘Singularity’ –which nicely seemed to coincide with the end of the Mayan baktun cycle on December 21, 2012– that ultimately proved to be as unfalsifiable as Helena Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, or the Urantia book.
George Adamski died in 1965, six years before Terence and Dennis ever set foot in the jungles of Colombia. By then many of his followers –including Ray Stanford, who met the old ‘professor’ with his twin brother Rex when they were still teenagers– had already learned the Polish expat’s photos of Venusian ‘scout ships’ were nothing but hoaxes created using vacuum cleaner hubcaps (in this Radio Misterioso episode, Ray told Greg Bishop how old Adamski went so far as to show him how he painted his models with radioactive paint to make them glow).
As a young curious kid, Terence McKenna became interested in the story of the old Contactees, only to became disenchanted over time with their tales of leisure trips around the solar system, and their stories which were too steeped in B-movie sci-fi aesthetics for his taste. That did not prevent Terence from witnessing a bona-fide Adamski-like flying saucer coalescing from the clouds during his stay at La Chorrera. The event was so unbelievable and farcical at the same time, McKenna got the impression someone or something was making fun of him; perhaps it was then the first time he began to formulate a concept he further insisted upon years later, after he became a famous lecturer: that the mushroom intelligences disguise themselves as an alien invasion in order not to alarm humans.
If the McKennas had just stuck to writing a book about their liminal experiences, chances are that by now just a handful of devoted fans would remember them, the same way just a marginal subsection of the UFO community still care to remember the names of old Contactees, after the classic flying saucer conventions at Giant Rock dried out in 1978. By then the darlings of UFOlogy were people like Betty and Barney Hill or Travis Walton, with their stories of having been kidnapped by bug-eyed little humanoids. In the book The Interrupted Journey by John Fuller, the reader learns how Betty requested to the head of their captors some sort of proof she could take with her; the leader gives her a book with strange inscriptions, but at the last minute he takes it back, leaving poor Betty empty-handed.
The McKennas had something better than an alien book or a star map in order to validate their experiences: they brought back with them spores from the psilocybin mushrooms, and wrote an anonymous book explaining how to grow them so anyone could have an encounter with these extra-human intelligences, if they so choose to –imagine a DIY alien implant that only requires a bit of heat and cow manure!
This is the real ‘secret’ of La Chorrera that eventually ended up having a true impact in society now that psilocybin is finally beginning to lose its stigma, and clinical trials are currently underway in order to show these medicines can help treat depression, and alleviate the anxiety of terminal patients. Instead of a scientific experiment, what the young seekers performed instead was a shamanic initiation of sorts –an alchemical ritual on a global scale.
Or maybe it could be perceived as a gentle alien invasion –not the kind favored by Hollywood blockbusters– in which Terence, with his Irish ‘gift for the gab’, became the bardic ambassador to the mushroom intelligences seeking to catalyze the evolution of our species; a process that might have occurred in the past many times before, as he proposed in his 1993 book Food of the Gods. Two decades later, these ideas –popularly known as ‘the Stoned Ape Theory’, are also beginning to be taken seriously by orthodox academics.
But the tale of La Chorrera is not without its cautionary elements. Like the Contactees who preceded him, Terence McKenna became someone who enjoyed his celebrity status, and after his death devoted fans have transformed him into a cultural icon. But one little known aspect in the McKenna legend is that during the last part of his life ‘the Bard’ refused to ingest psilocybin mushrooms; he became terrified of his trusted ally and teacher due to a deeply negative experience with the ‘heroic dose’ he regularly recommended to his followers. Perhaps that hallucination of the Adamskian saucer all those years ago contained a warning buried beneath the absurdity: a reminder that the message should always remain more important than the messenger…
And there is also the danger of the message becoming commodified and hijacked by economic interests, something that is hard not to contemplate now that Big Pharma is getting ready to exploit this new psychedelic revolution, and these ancestral medicines are at the risk of following the same fate of yoga and meditation –another fad used by privileged people to ‘increase their productivity’. But no one ever said ‘the Teacher’ had all the answers, and that psychedelics were a panacea for all the problems of society.
“If mushrooms have given us a gift,” Dennis McKenna said in his final remarks of the pre-recorded presentation, “it is that they taught us how to have an imagination.” No one can solve an intractable problem by sticking to the same state of mind that caused the problem in the first place. If we humans have a chance of saving our civilization from our own mistakes, we will need to perceive the world –and ourselves– from a different perspective. We have become the dominant species on this planet by using our brain power in order to bend the natural forces according to our will; in doing so, we have told ourselves that we exist ‘outside’ of Nature, and that the other species co-existing on Earth have a right to live just as long as they serve a purpose to our benefit.
If you think about it, the message of the old Contactees is not that dissimilar to that of the mushroom teachers and their appointed ambassadors, when you boil them both down to their bare basics: Our planet is out of balance due to our short-sighted greed, and the idea that we are separate from the rest of Nature is merely an illusion. The biggest difference between a George Adamski and a Terence McKenna (aside from the fact Terence never tried to fool his audience with blurry photos of glowing hubcaps) is that instead of seeking a salvation from high above, Terence proposed instead a solution from down below: an ‘archaic revival’ of our old relationship with these plant medicines –a symbiosis, his brother Dennis would call it; or perhaps a communion?– in order to bring back a balance to the world… by first restoring it in our own minds.
There is nothing plants love more than spreading out into new territories, and among Terence McKenna’s most fascinating ideas was the suggestion that mushrooms were interstellar emissaries, using their resilient spores to travel to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Even if this hypothesis turns out to be as incorrect as Adamski’s claims about life on other planets, perhaps because of the long-lasting impact of the experiment at La Chorrera, centuries from now our descendants will be able to leave our planetary cradle and spread into the stars –bringing their mycelial mentors with them.