Read an Excerpt
The Call of the Secret
In which our cast of characters, including a mushroom, are introduced, and their peculiar interests sketched. The Amazon jungle is invoked and the descent of one of its rivers undertaken.
For thousands of years the visions imparted by hallucinogenic mushrooms have been sought and revered as a true religious mystery. Much of my thought over the past twenty or more years has been caught up in describing and contemplating this mystery. Closely guarded by the chaotically jeweled Angels "Every angel is terrible," wrote Rilke, and at once sacred and profane the mushroom has risen in my life much as it may rise at some future point in human history. I have chosen a literary approach to the telling of this tale. A living mystery could take any shape it is master of place and space, time and spirit yet my search for a simple form to convey this mystery brought me to follow tradition: to write a chronological narrative of a story that is both true and extraordinarily bizarre.
In early February of 1971, I was passing through southern Colombia with my brother and some friends on our way to an expedition into the Colombian Amazonas. Our route led us through Florencia, the provincial capital of the Departmento of Caquetá. There we paused a few days awaiting an airplane to carry us to our embarkation point on the Rio Putumayo, a river whose vast expanse is the border between Colombia and her two southern neighbors, Ecuador and Peru.
The daywe were to depart was especially hot, and we left the oppressive confines of our hotel near the noisy central market and bus station. We walked southwest, out of town, perhaps a mile. Here were the warm waters of the Rio Hacha, visible across rolling pastures of tall grass. After swimming in the river, exploring deep pools carved by the warm torrent in the black basaltic stream bed, we returned through the same meadows. Someone more familiar than I with the appearance of the mushroom Stropharia cubensis pointed out a single large specimen standing tall and alone in an old bit of cow manure. Impulsively and at my companions' suggestion, I ate the whole mushroom. It occupied but a moment, and then on we trudged, tired from our swim, a tropical thunderstorm moving toward us along the eastern edge of the Andean cordillera where Florencia is located.
For perhaps a quarter hour we walked on, mostly in silence. Wearily I hung my head, almost hypnotized by the sight of the regular motion of my boots cutting through the grass. To align my back, to throw off my lethargy, I paused and stretched, scanning the horizon. The feeling of the bigness of the sky, which I have come to associate with psilocybin, rushed down on me there for the first time. I asked my friends to pause and then I sat down heavily on the ground. A silent thunder seemed to shake the air before me. Things stood out with a new presence and significance. This feeling came and passed over me like a wave just as the first fury of the tropical storm burst overhead, leaving us soaked. The eerie sense that some other dimension or scale of being had intersected with the bright tropical day lasted only a few minutes. Elusive but strong, it was unlike any feeling I could recall.
In our sodden retreat, the extended, oddly shimmering moment preceding our frantic withdrawal went unmentioned by me. I recognized that my experience had been induced by the mushroom, but I did not want to let thoughts of it distract me, for we were after bigger game. We were involved, I imagined, in a deep jungle search for hallucinogens of a different sort: plants containing the orally active drug di-methyltryptamine (or DMT) and the psychedelic brew ayahuasca. These plants were long associated with telepathic abilities and feats of the paranormal. Yet the patterns of their use, which were unique to the Amazon jungles, had not been fully studied.
Once I had come down, I dismissed the mushroom experience as something to look into another time. Longtime residents of Colombia assured me that the golden-hued Stropharia occurred exclusively on the dung of Zebu cattle, and I assumed that in the jungles of the interior where I was shortly to be I could expect no cattle or pasture. Putting the thought of mushrooms from my mind, I prepared for the rigors of our descent down the Rio Putumayo toward our target destination, a remote mission called La Chorrera.
Why had a gypsy band such as ours come to the steaming jungles of Amazonian Colombia? We were a party of five, bound by friendship, extravagant imagination, naiveté, and a dedication to travel and exotic experience. Ev, our translator and newly my lover, was the only member of the group not a long acquaintance of the others. She was an American, like the rest of us, and she had lived several years in South America and had traveled in the East (where I had passed her once in the Kathmandu airport at a moment of great duress for us both another story). She was recently free of a long relationship.
On her own and having nothing better to do, she had fallen in with our group. By the time we reached La Chorrera, she and I would have been together less than three weeks. The other three members of the group were my brother, Dennis, the youngest and least traveled of us, a student of botany and a colleague of long standing; Vanessa, an old school friend of mine from the experimental college in Berkeley, trained in anthropology and photography and traveling on her own; and Dave, another old friend, a gay meditator, a maker of pottery, an embroiderer of blue jeans, and like Vanessa, a New Yorker.
Four months before our descent into the watery underworld of the lower Putumayo, my brother and...