News & Notes
Talk about the Burning Shore! At least a dozen folks I know were evacuated because of the fires in Northern California, though no-one has lost their homes (yet). The air in San Francisco could be worse, but it still sucks. Given the already copious offerings on this year’s smorgasbord of shit, the catastrophe fatigue is palpable. Things feel unprecedented and unpredictable because they are. These maniac fires raged even without the devil winds bearing down this time, and while the tinder-box they consumed is the indirect result of climate change, we can’t blame the ignitions on PG&E.
With or without freak lightning storms, however, California has always been a fire ecology. For millennia, it was artfully managed by indigenous landscape-crafters. But if you lose those life-ways, and turn up the volume on that climactic cycle, and the needle skips the groove and runs like wildfire across the whole side of the disc. I hope the state will radically change its relationship to fire by actively and aggressively pursuing controlled burns. Maybe hire some Indian wild-tenders to boot. Or at least listen to fire-fighting Metallica, Bay Area boys who also had to Ride the Lightning:
Today we are all letting go much of the old world we called home just half a year ago. Some hope today’s new grinds are temporary, which they will be, because the Buddha wasn’t kidding around about all that impermanence stuff. “Temporary,” though, often hides the hope of “return to normal.” I dunno. Seems like wise money bets on a New Abnormal, an open-ended smear of challenging and unpredictable novelty that asks us, at the very least, to unburden ourselves from expectations of how things should be, to cut bait, and to pare down our intentions to the gold.
Last summer, I put the much-loved Expanding Mind podcast “on hiatus” after nearly a decade of running the thing. It’s been over a year now, and I don’t see the drive for a weekly interview show returning. One reason is that the EM format kept me really focused on other people’s stuff. I am one of those interviewers who actually reads the whole book, which is part of what makes the conversations deep, but it also ate up a lot of time and energy. Now I am busy with The Burning Shore, a couple of book projects, extended dialogues with colleagues, and the preparation for some university classes I’ll be teaching this winter. I have also tried to jiu-jitsu the fog of plague by committing to a variety of daily personal practices. Whatever extra juices I gather I intend to pour into this newsletter: writing more posts per month, including reviews of obscure Cali literature, and beginning to record podcasty chats with other Californians who fascinate me. For now I am happy to know that the Expanding Mind archive is still available, on my website and podbean (which includes older shows). My only regret is that I lazed too long before upping the sound quality. Other than that, it’s been bummer-free.
Another reason I am not so sad to close the Expanding Mind chapter is that folks keep interviewing me for podcasts, documentaries, and writing projects. While this means I don’t touch on the full variety of topics that appeal to my foxy mind—no hedge-hog here—it does allow me to continue refining some core ideas in dialogue and in public.
This last month saw a particularly smoking conversation with my friend Jeremy Gilbert, a UK writer and psychedelic disco maven who got Mark Fisher turned on to the whole “acid communism” idea in the first place. For our “microdose” episode of #ACFM, we talked about the Cosmic Right, conspiracy theories, gnostic psychology, and that old “California Ideology.” Lotsa folks dug it on Twitter, which felt good, because I think these things are particularly important now.
• On Saturday, September 5, I will once again convene the San Francisco Psychedelic Sangha online at 6pm PT. The event will combine a talk, a practice, and plenty of time for discussion among the interesting folks who have been gathering. This month I want to explore how to concretely engage with the tricksy and transformative sense of the passing present, since learning to surf the frothy Now is a crucial bit of training for meditators and psychonauts alike. Sign up here; any dana donations for the event should be tossed into the SF Dharma Collective bucket.
• On Tuesday, September 8, from noon-2 PT, I will be hosting a three-way conversation on Sacred Plants, Religious Freedom, and the Future of Psychedelic Spirituality. Organized by Chacruna, the event lets me talk with two of my favorite people in the world of psychedelics. Ethnobotanist and Botanical Dimensions cofounder Kat Harrison is a deep plant person, subtle and wise and grounded, and her approach to psychedelic spirituality is equally informed by indigenous ceremonies and informal California freakiness. Bob Otis Stanley is cofounder of Decriminalize Nature Oakland, a life sciences business guy, and the holder of a Master in Divinity from the University of Chicago. He currently serves as the Garden Steward and Pastor for the Sacred Garden Community, an Oakland-based plant medicine religious collective. In planning the discussion, feisty but friendly disagreements about “spirituality,” “religion,” and the like already arose, so I suspect the discussion will be juicy.
I really don’t wanna sound like an old grump, because I’m not really that old, but after twenty years as a marginal but hopefully amusing and occasionally illuminating talking “head” on the psychedelic circuit, I am pretty much done with it (though not, it should be said, with tripping). Everything is going down now, but it’s all starting to look like hustle to me—corporate hustle, research hustle, therapy hustle, jejune influencer hustle, neo-shaman hustle, even social justice hustle. But what really strikes me is how boring the public discourse has become (with some exceptions, like Kilindi, but then he was slain by Covid, which was clearly engineered in the labs of boredom). Information, communication, transparency, studies—those things are good, sure, but without poetry, jokes, magick, salt, or freaky-assed, moon-melting weirdness, I don’t even know what we are talking about anymore.
Bett Williams’ new book, The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey (Dottir Press), enters this parched desert like a flash flood raging down one of the dusty arroyos that lie near Williams’ home in northern New Mexico. It is hard to lasso this puppy, and that’s a good thing. The book begins as a memoir, with Williams taking up the mushroom while weathering some heavy lesbian drama kicked up by a vindictive ex and false accusations ricocheting through social media and the courts. We get some genteel shroom trips early on, but about a third of the way in, the whole book enters the Zone. The language loosens, and we find Williams wrestling with illuminati octopi and having a conversation with her dog Rosie—rendered in the format of a dramatic script—in which Rosie introduces her to Project Lambchop, a CIA operation that’s been secretly grooming Williams into becoming a trip-guru, which will help the government institute the mass use of psychedelics in controlled clinical settings, delightfully rendered here as “lizard stalls.”
This fantasia not only gives you a sense of Williams’ psychedelic politics—an anti-authoritarian distrust of the “experts” now lining up between us and the mushroom teachers—but also her willingness to go gonzo. Like a trip, the book builds and plateaus but never settles down. Though Williams tells us she doesn’t travel much, we visit Standing Rock, Huatla de Jiminéz, Marfa, and a Black psychedelic conference in Detroit. We jump tracks between blog post, diary, public service announcement, queer social studies, experience reports (the good, the bad, and the wacky), cultural criticism, science fiction, and mushroom chants. This range of scenes and genres is matched by an almost ADD polyphony of voices. Williams can be brainy, funny, wounded, macho, nurturing, self-absorbed, reverent, and absurd. (“They said Grimes needs to come over too,” she blurts out during one trip. “We’ll give her an extension cord and a sandwich.”) It gets murky at times, but just when the prose starts to hit the Botts’ dots, she’ll whip out a phrase of startling clarity, a micro-download like
Human beings are either going to die out or link up with robots.
Not knowing what the fuck is going on is the shared purgatory we all now live in.
Doing drugs with clowns is never a waste.
The Wild Kindness reminds me that the poison path is not really about pursuing psychedelic experience, or psychedelic healing, but about living a psychedelic life as a psychedelic person. In Williams’ articulation, that person is plural, genderqueer, allied with plants and animals and incense, and avowedly on the spectrum. She is Gen X, but as addicted to the Internet as any millennial. She is a witch and a wit, a roots ceremonialist “allied with the tribe of stoners.” She is 1/8 Cherokee, but that “doesn’t make me not a white person.” She is lesbian and allied with people of color, but her social justice talk is banked on vulnerability, the courage of self-critique, and the not-knowing that is central to any authentic embrace of the Mystery. (When she visits Huatla de Jimenez, Maria Sabina’s village, she does not bemoan the ruin caused by hippie colonialists, but asks: “What do white Westerners gain from promoting the idea they ruined Huatla de Jiménez?”) She trips mystic but distrusts epiphany as an “ecstasy of vertical structure.” She is humble and wise and broken.
For the sake of all those newbies seeking psychedelic transformation out there, I almost hope she becomes a guru. But she’d hate it, and that’s why she’s awesome.
If I could time-slip a single documentary back to the 1990s and let all those nerd evangelists know how weird and sinister “net culture” would grow down the line, I would send them Feels Good Man. The film, from first-time director Arthur Jones, tells the tale of Pepe the frog, a slacker comix character who then morphs from 4chan icon to alt-right totem to chaos magick idol to Hong Kong freedom buddy to copyrightable IP. Besides the Zelig-like Pepe, the doc’s other main character is Matt Furie, the gentle and sometimes dazed cartoonist who created the frog and then lost him to the Stygian depths in the years running up to Trump’s election.
Furie is clearly a sweet guy, with cool friends and a good heart, and his own evolving attitudes towards Pepe the meme—from passive naiveté to guarded fascination, to anxious despair, and finally to a modest reclamation of creative control—offer a mostly sweet counter-point to the otherwise nihilistic carnival on display, with its trolls, incels, vapid influencers, racist pranksters, conspiracy nuts, and Trump operatives. Helpfully, Jones illuminates this murky mediascape by chatting with a number of fine and sometimes unexpected talking heads, including the British skeptic Susan Blackmore, the sparkly arch-druid John Michael Greer, and the slick and creepy Matt Braynard, a data-lord who helped cram Trump into the White House. So #SavePepe everyone, and vote for the other guy!
I am always on the hunt for atmospheric journey records that are simultaneously cosmic and earthy, accessible and sophisticated, delightful and pensive, trippy and subtle and more analog than not. It’s a high bar—heh, heh, he said high—but I am happy to report that Voyage au Soleil, the first release of a downtown New York trio called Numün, soars beyond the limit. Taking a page from Brian Eno’s great Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, Voyage au Soleil imagines a gentle solar system cruise where acoustic guitars and country twang provide some of the propulsion. But it’s not just Americana—the expansive opener, “Tranceport,” includes the subtle microtonal reverberations of a gamelan gong alongside some plucked lute thing that sounds like it was dug out of the Gobi desert. The gong makes sense—two of the Numün trio are in NYC’s Gamelan Dharma Swara, while the third guy, Bob Holmes, of the ambient country band SUSS, adds the high lonesome Lynchy stuff. The stand-out track here is “Tranquility Base,” whose sweet drift layers classic NASA radio chatter (which I first heard sampled on down-tempo tracks in the nineties) on top of some plaintive melodies that recall the melancholic naturalism of Boards of Canada, who helped set that high bar for me in the first place.
I hope you enjoyed this flicker of The Burning Shore. Please consider a paid subscription if you can. As a bonus you will get a paid-subscriber-only audio recording of all new posts. The Burning Shore only grows by word of mouth, so pass this along to someone who might dig it. Thanks!