All artwork by Oli Dunlop
Beginnings: Reckless experiments with Brugmansia x candida at Mum and Dad’s…
When I was about eleven years old I found a pamphlet warning of the dangers of common poisonous plants in Australian gardens. I found the whole subject morbidly fascinating. I committed the information to memory and described the plants and their toxic side effects to anyone in my family who would listen. My eldest brother had delved into occultism, so when I explained to him that one of the plants in the pamphlet, Datura X candida (popularly known as “Angel’s trumpet” on account of the large, perfumed, trumpet-shaped flowers) caused “hallucinations,” he informed me further that such plants had been used by witches in the compounding of hallucinogenic ointments that caused the illusion of flight in those who rubbed themselves down with the drug dissolved in fat and soot. My curiosity went into override, but try as I might, I couldn’t find a single specimen of Datura X candida to further my investigations, so I put it “on the back burner” and misspent most of my remaining youth in other ways.
I finally performed my Datura experiment some time around 1990. I had spied a magnificent Datura X candida tree (now reclassified in the closely related genus Brugmansia) in full bloom in a moist over-grown gully on the edge of a private garden in my home town. I surreptitiously obtained one of the flowers and spirited it home. I had to wait until Mum and Dad were out of the picture before proceeding. Unlike me, they had to go to work, and I didn’t have to wait long. I boiled the flower in water for fifteen minutes before straining the clear greenish yellow liquid into a glass. My plan had been to sip this liquid slowly, although, as a tendency to amnesia is one of the more ubiquitous side effects of Datura poisoning I can’t recall exactly how much I consumed and over what time period. In retrospect I had overdosed.
I do remember that it tasted quite pleasantly like potato water. I remember waiting a short time for the effects and I also remember that the initial sensation was a stretching of the width of visual perspective accompanied by a rising euphoria, a badly-behaved excitement that rapidly escalated into outright hysterical panic. I then lost consciousness for a long while. I had sipped the Angel’s Trumpet tea in the mid-afternoon but don’t recall being conscious of anything until my parents returned in the early evening. I had been restlessly busy while unconscious. My parents recall coming home to absolute Pandemonium.
I had been somnambulating in a complete stupor for three or four hours when they returned. I had left the shower running; several kitchen drawers ajar; chairs upturned; the refrigerator door wide open; the television on (but with all the knobs removed); and the living room curtains askew. I was also huddled between some furniture completely naked and mumbling incomprehensibly. My pupils had become so dilated that neither the whites nor the irises were any longer visible. My parents could peer into the vacant twin ports and look all the way down to Bedlam.
My first full-blown delirium memory was of my concerned and distorted father repeating this bizarre versicle: “put your pants on, put your pants on, put your pants on.” Never mind that I was profoundly poisoned, no, propriety must come first and let us always remember Genesis 3:7 “And the eyes of them both were opened and they knew that they were nekid.”
It was just about dinner time now so, after I had been dressed, despite my obstinate resistance, it was time to continue with routine. Even though I couldn’t pick up a fork or find where my mouth was, Mum served up tea and put the cutlery into my dumb hands. I also needed help sitting down in the correct vector: I tended to be about thirty degrees out in all my motor activity causing me to stumble into the walls adjacent doorways and to fall on the floor next to chairs. I was getting quite bruised. My mouth was also unbearable dry. But no, it was dinner time and my parents believed that eating would do me good or was at least the normal thing to do at this time. Well, I couldn’t manage it. And they were trying to make light conversation with the occasional leading question about my condition.
I was still unable to talk properly. “Eat up now” Mum would say.
“Uuughmth ent urngry” I would reply.
“What have you done to yourself? Dad would ask. I could tell from his tone that he thought I could not understand anything he said. I resentfully bellowed “Arrph nar were yerrrsaaaaynn!!!” Certainly, I was having extremely realistic hallucinations of people I thought I knew who were mumbling and wandering about the room before melting silently into the walls. But my awareness also fluctuated to moments where I was marginally lucid and I had a fairly clear idea of what was happening around me. But then the room would fill with whirling yellow fog and I would see scampering animals. My mouth was painfully dry, but I couldn’t make it clear to my parents that I needed help getting water. I was “wool-gathering” by this stage: quite literally plucking at little bits of stuff that only I could see.
In those days I smoked tobacco. In my delirium my mind created the cigarettes I craved but was too physically incapacitated to find. These little yellow cigarettes seemed completely solid for a few seconds, despite being spun from a fog of obsessive longing wrapped in a dream. They even provided a few moments of psychological satisfaction, but would always dissolve into a tarry goo that stuck to my fingers before evaporating in a stream of phantasmal smoke. I had by this stage so lost my bearings that my imagination had convincingly populated the rooms of the house with ghost-like simulacra of people I had known, usually people who might somehow be able to help me return to normal functioning. Truly, I had lost my chops.
Eventually normal functioning did return, although it would be a long night for me and a long night for my parents, who took turns standing sentry to protect me from further mayhem. Eventually I felt sane enough to descend into dream and after a deep and restful sleep I woke next morning with my normal levels of sobriety and good sense regained.
There were still a few unpleasant physical side effects the next day. When I woke my vision was still very blurred. This is another common symptom of poisoning with Datura-like drugs. It is caused by paralysis of eye muscles known as the “muscles of accommodation.” My entire visual field also had a peculiar yellowish tint. I was able to clearly tell my parents what I had done. My Mother wanted me to see a medical doctor, I suspected not so much to check my recovery, but in the vain hope that a friendly chat with a respectable medical professional would discourage me from further wanton experimentation with drugs. So later that day I found myself gazing around a doctor’s office with my blurry vision. Mum left us alone for our solemn discussion. I described my recent activities. The Doctor gave me a stern look, then smiled and winked.
“I know how you feel. My friends and I used to experiment with atropine sulphate all the time when we were med students!” he confided.
Deliriants, a brief overview
This personal experience of Datura-like drugs was extremely unpleasant and altogether typical of the class. It is basically an exceedingly bad trip. Nonetheless, there are features of the experience that continue to fascinate me and I have become very, very fond of the Daturas and the entire class of Datura-like drugs. The Brugmansia plant that I ingested has a fascinating history, of which I was largely ignorant at the time. Brugmansias are unknown in the wild and have, it seems, been especially bred by humans as medicines and entheogens. At least twenty other genera of plants belonging to the same family, the Solanaceae or “Nightshade family,” contain similar active constituents – tropane alkaloids such as scopolamine, atropine and hyoscyamine. They have been used all around the globe by different cultures to facilitate altered states of consciousness for shamanic healing, rites of passage, out-of-body journeys, and communication with spirits. Solanaceous plants such as deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna); henbane (Hyoscyamus niger); and mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) played psychoactive roles in European magic and witchcraft.
While these were most important in western Europe and the Mediterranean, Scopolia and Atropanthe figured also in eastern Europe; while in central Asia plants of Anisodus, Phsyochlaina, and Przewalskia entered into folklore and pharmacy alongside various species of henbane. Psychoactive Solanaceae are well-represented in the Americas by the widespread and closely related genera Datura; Solandra and Brugmansia and by the Chilean endemic Latua pubiflora. Datura is now widespread on all continents but the detail of its phytogeography remains controversial, with most authorities agreeing that with the sole exception of Datura metel in India, all other Daturas are native to the Americas.
Pharmacologically, the active principles are known as anticholinergics on account of their antagonism of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and the biological and neurological functions that depend on it. There are also scores of chemical substances with anticholinergic effects. Atropine and scopolamine are widely used in medicine, in ophthalmology, anaesthesiology, and as travel sickness medications. These, together with the antihistamines diphenhydramine and dimenhydrinate are sometimes used by desperados or the ill-advised as recreational drugs. Very potent anticholinergic drugs, notably Ditran and BZ (3-quinuclidinyl benzilate) were tested as chemical weapons by the United States Army during the 1960s.
The effects of anticholinergics can be intense and debilitating, as described in my earlier account. They resemble a delirium that blurs the boundaries between waking and nightmare, and between life and death. Even relatively mild doses, such as that achieved by smoking dried plant material, can produce experiences that confront our normal concepts of reality.
Uncanny experiences facilitated by a Datura bonfire
The episode I most wish to relate concerns “uncanny” experiences that were weird to the point of being almost inexplicable. They could easily be dismissed as hallucinations caused by Datura smoke inhalation, except that hallucinations are defined in part by their nature being beyond intersubjective confirmation – that is, they are personal impressions which cannot be correlated by another person – whereas the seemingly paranormal experiences that follow were shared by several individuals.
The episode occurred many years ago, when some friends and I decided to escape the city and spend a weekend camping. There were five of us all in our early twenties. Hannah and Josephine were sisters and members of my largely student share-house. Both were creative young women of contrasting temperament. Hannah was starting out as a commercial artist and presented a composed, polished, clean-cut, stylish and innovative façade, but underneath she was wicked in a warm, friendly sort of way. Josephine was also an artist, but not one to concede to the marketplace. She emanated the mystery of a Gothic heroine, with long dark hair and odalisque eyes. She had an unconventionality offset with a deftly wielded threat of emotional brittleness that was somehow sexy, yet not to be trifled with.
Hannah’s boy friend of the moment, “Booter”, had decided to join us for the weekend. He was dark, thin and sex-obsessed with the added charms of being withdrawn and strung-out on every drug he could focus his erratic attention on. My Mother met him once and, noticing all the little, scabby needle-marks running the length of his arms asked, not at all innocently “Did you run into a barbed-wire fence dear?” He was that sort of boy. He was not right for Hannah, which I think made him exactly right – for a while, at least. Then there was Muriel, a dear friend of mine from school who helped to keep me good. I could tell you many stories about Muriel but I won’t because she will read this.
We arrived very late, in typical city fashion, to raise a tent and set up camp while shadows lengthened at day’s end. We had decided to camp at a place called Mooloo, which is an Aboriginal name for the highly venomous red-bellied black snake Pseudechris porphyriacus. Mooloo or “Black Snake” enters into many Eastern Australian place names such as Mooloolaba and Mooloolah. Mooloo is heavily forested with Araucarias, virtually unchanged since the Jurassic period, especially the enormous Bunya-bunya trees (Araucaria bidwillii). Every three years Bunya-bunya trees produce a massive crop of giant cones full of edible nuts which when roasted taste of creamy chestnuts. I had been told by local residents that, before the early 1800s, thousands of Aborigines had assembled at Mooloo every three years to celebrate and to feast on Bunya-bunyas, but that the Colonial Government had outlawed the Bunya-bunya celebrations and cut down many of the valuable food trees.
It is a strange feeling to move around in a forest, in a place that was once the site of feasting and celebration, to see the trees and to try to imagine how they had once nourished a people. All I can see now are ghosts.
So here we were in a gloomy but beautiful forest, with no amenities whatsoever. Soon, however, we found a very faint trace of an old campfire in the centre of the largest clearing. Muriel and I had our tent up fairly fast, so we split up and went to look for firewood among the colossal trunks of the Bunya-bunyas. These trunks were covered in an amazingly regular diamond pattern formed of scales and the leftover scars where branches had once been. Again the eeriness of the forest impressed itself upon me.
Muriel had not been gone long when I heard her scream. I raced over to find her flat on the ground past a low brick wall, looking up into empty skull sockets framed in bleached bone. The skull had once held the brain of a cow or bull. What a strange tableau we had stumbled on. It wasn’t so remarkable that we should find a bovine skull in this ancient Bunya-bunya forest; a veritable haven for renegade wildlife. What was remarkable was that the skull had been carefully set in the middle of a crude cubicle altar made of mouldering brick. An old colonial cottage had once stood in this little clearing, far from other habitations. The remains of the walls formed a low brick outline approximately nine metres square. The altar had been built a foot or so within the furthest wall from the opening to the clearing. All around the clearing were the dried remains of metre-high shrubs of the highly toxic entheogenic nightshade Datura ferox. The overall effect was bucolically Satanic. We’d had clearly found the perfect spot to set up camp.
We soon had the bonfire ready to go. Our tents were set up, the sun was nearly down and the night was balmy. Everything was idyllic – except for one thing: Hannah’s boyfriend Booter was edgy. He didn’t have any pot. Nor did anyone else. Imagine, camping without pot! We told him to relax, he didn’t need it. But no, he had to have something. Hannah had some aspirin – not good enough. Maybe there were some mushrooms around? Booter, Hannah and Josephine had already looked when they arrived without success. Minutes later I caught Booter and Josephine trying to siphon some petrol out of Hannah’s car in order to get high from the fumes.
“That’s enough!” I thought. I’d rather we all trip together – and that we all got something lasting and meaningful out of it. This was far more likely with time-honoured entheogens like Datura than it was with BP unleaded. It also seemed much more respectful to the place we now found ourselves in to make use of the entheogenic plants that had lived and died in the nearby clearing. Indeed, it seemed somehow appropriate to use a close relative of one of the Witches’ baneful herbs of the Sabbat to induce a spiritual journey in this place of awesome history and diabolic aura.
Suddenly there was purpose to the madness and everyone seemed happy, if apprehensive. I had warned them of the extremely dangerous side-effects of Datura at high doses, and that even inhaling the smoke, as we were about to do, could produce deleterious effects such as dry mouth, high temperature, panic, hallucinations and incoordination. Muriel gulped. Hannah stared. Josephine looked worried. Booter said “Bring it on!”
Muriel and I gathered some of the better preserved Datura ferox herbs from the nearby clearing where the cottage had once stood. The dried seed capsules were still laden with copious seed – generally the most potently psychoactive part of Datura plants. Darkness soon fell and with it the change in forest tempo that accompanies the night: territorial bird calls, hurried rustlings, furtive burrowing, things that go bump. We soon had a nice fire going, and after perhaps an hour of casual conversation we began to add Datura branches and seed pods to the fire and to cautiously inhale the pale, fetid smoke.
I soon felt light-headed. Then heavy-headed. Somewhere, something throbbed. In the orange light of the bonfire I saw the people with whom I sat around the fire change, become more animal and more infantile. Their hair hung in flat strands and their eyes were glittering obsidian telescope dishes. Their gaze conveyed menace in abeyance. Then, I saw them. Other people. While we were seated about the fire, phantoms stood around us, forming a circle of about ten or twelve beings. They were tall, each about two metres high, and thin. They wore long sleeveless robes. They had an ethereal, incandescent quality about them. Fire was woven through their robes in interlocking diamond or herringbone columns, a little like an angular pattern of double helix strands.
But the most impressive thing about them was their heads. They had stern oval faces, rigid and mask-like and their hair consisted of zigzagging rays that resembled stylised lightning bolts. There was something of Medusa to them, but the hair was static and they seemed very male. Disturbingly, I saw that everyone else in the circle seemed to be reacting to them, too. Hannah looked extremely apprehensive and was making a face of utter disbelief. Booter looked deranged. Muriel seemed to be in shock. Josephine was almost in tears.
“Octopus Men!!!!!!” she screamed.
Indeed, Octopus Men seemed exactly the right term for these beings. They did, in fact, appear to have eight zigzagging locks radiating from their heads and they had the same sense of being from a completely different environment that you also get from Octopi.
“Yes,” Hannah said. “Octopus Men.”
“Octopus Men” wailed Booter. Muriel and I said it too. It felt better simply to have a name for them. We started a chant: “Octopus Men, Octopus Men,” and as we chanted they briefly became more solid-looking, and then seemed to flare brightly before turning as one and vanishing on the air.
We were extremely dazed by what we had experienced. Comparing notes we found that all five of us had experienced precisely similar visions of figures with eight rays emanating from their heads, suddenly coalescing about us, pulsing there for about a minute, before they all vanished into the night. With their departure the spell of the Datura smoke seemed to have been broken. We all felt shaken and a little poisoned, but our senses were relatively normal again.
But for Muriel and I there would be one further uncanny event that night, something that neither of us will likely ever forget, nor be able to adequately explain. The Datura smoke had left us all very thirsty. I asked Muriel if she would come with me to the car to collect a bottle of water. It was a very dark night and the car was parked about sixty metres away. I wanted company while I tried to find the car. Muriel and I held hands and set out. Our free hands were held in front of us to avoid colliding with trees in the dark. One step, two steps – and then suddenly we felt the metal and glass of the car. We had travelled sixty metres in two steps and because we were holding hands at the time we could confirm that each had done so!
Our sense of reality was in tatters as we turned around to look at the distant fire we had just come from. It was as if we had donned ten-league boots out of a fairytale and flown the distance in two strides. Nonetheless, we gathered the water and walked back to the fireplace, this time counting the number of steps ― at least 50― to make the return journey. I don’t think anyone quite believed our story, and indeed, what were we to make of it ourselves?
Devils, broomsticks and ten-league boots…
The shared visions of Octopus Men are easily accounted for using rationalist models drawn from cognitive psychology and sociology. Perhaps, after inhaling the Datura smoke we had become inebriated and confused, and we each experienced an existential crisis which sent our brains into a panicked scanning of the environment in search of an agency or agencies that might be causing our state of extreme apprehension.
In his book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Altamira Press, 2004) Justin Barrett argued that agency detection functions of the brain have evolved as the result of intensive evolutionary selection, and that in order to have survived thus far, our brain has developed to hyperactively perceive more agencies in the environment than are genuinely present. When we are stressed we see beings who are not present or hear illusionary voices. Our “hyperactive agency detection” system has ensured our survival, but as a consequence has made it easy for us to believe in “false positives” that are the basis of religions.
So, as we all panicked, we all detected the presence of “agents”. We may have all detected similar agents (the Octopus Men) simply because we had all shared in similar preparatory experiences and had similar moods and expectations. The diamond patterns I saw on the torsos of the Octopus Men resembled the scaly bark on the trunks of the Bunya-bunya trees among which we had spent the afternoon collecting firewood and setting up camp. The zigzagging snaky hair of the Octopus Men bore a passing resemblance to the spiralling, angular branches of the Bunya trees. Or perhaps our initial perceptions of agency were really quite varied, but as we began to describe what we had seen we quickly built up a synthetic construct and edited our memories to conform to a collective socially-constructed model of reality.
In the case of the experience that my friend Muriel and I shared of travelling sixty metres in two steps, the most orthodox explanation would be that we both had perfectly synchronised amnesiac episodes so that we remembered our first step away from the fire and our final step towards the car and simply forgot all of the intervening steps. The chances of having the same highly anomalous perceptual malfunction at exactly the same time seem extremely improbable, and when I recently suggested this possibility to Muriel she was not at all convinced. She knew what had happened.
We had travelled through space in a totally anomalous way courtesy of Datura, just as the European witches had flown with the aid of potions made of henbane and mandrake; just as Shuar Indians in Ecuador had travelled abnormally through space with the help of Brugmansia.
And that, she felt, was as close to an explanation as we were ever likely to get.