The Devil’s Weed

The Devil’s Weed

Expanding Your Mind the Hard Way

Image for postInside those standoffish jimson weed pods are tiny seeds that, when ingested, will break down the division in your brain between past and present and perhaps future, too. Simultaneous time is one of this severe plant?s teachings. The leaves and roots of the plant are psychoactive as well. Not recommended for recreational use.

(Author?s Note: I wrote this a couple years ago but never published it. Now, though, with interest in psychedelic substances on the rise, this account of a day spent with a substance definitely psychedelic but totally unpleasant might be instructive and even entertaining for those curious about such things.)

I?d done all manner of drugs by the time my thirty-third birthday rolled around in August, 1973. But my preferences remained where I?d started ? with the head drugs, the mind-expanders, principally marijuana and LSD. I had no interest in downers, narcotics, or speed. Quaaludes were fun but, as hypnotics, quickly became boring. My most reliable drug-related pleasure was to smoke a joint and think about Life, or talk about it with friends. More dangerous but potentially more rewarding was to do the same on acid.

At that time of my thirty-third birthday, however, a drug appeared which tempted me out of my comfort zone. It was probably no coincidence that my life had also come to a crisis. My hippy dream of a hallucinogenic paradise had proven ephemeral, at best. Pursuit of it had left me destitute, living in a shack at the end of a gravel lane on the edge of undeveloped woods which sloped down steeply to railroad tracks along the Susquehanna River.

Image for postPennsylvania Railroad tracks along the Lancaster County bank of the Susquehanna River

Yet while that shack was the end of the road for those of us who lived there, it also provided us with nearly exclusive access to acres of uninhabited woods, where the silent processes of Nature turned over and over through the seasons. The Susquehannock Indians once thrived there. Some of their carvings still remained in the rock outcroppings overlooking the river where I often sat, singly or with our communal group, imagining what it might have been like to have been an indigenous native living in that place.

We called our shack (plus two acres) Funky Farm after the real estate agent, a member of a vast local clan of Funks, who sold it to the grandmother of Pierre le Phlemme, one of our brothers. She, like a fairy godmother, allowed us all to live there. We distinguished our name from the agent?s by spelling ours differently. We were Phunquey Pharme, and our version stuck. I saw it once in finger-writing, pressed into the cement of a sidewalk in Lancaster, the nearest city where we did most of our business, usually hitch-hiking the seven miles or so into town.

By that August in 1973 our numbers were down from an earlier core of seven to just four ? me, my partner Mugzi, my sister Stella Vanilla, and Pierre le Phlemme, Stella?s estranged and soon-to-become ex-soul mate. Their crumbling relationship did not bode well for our collective future, especially after Le Phlemme?s grandmother turned the deed to the Pharme over to him.

In the meantime, I contributed to most of our support by selling my blood plasma twice a week at a commercial blood bank in Lancaster. I spent my proceeds sparingly on rice, beans, and flour at the organic food co-op, canned tuna, cheese, and sometimes cigarette tobacco at the Weiss supermarket on the way out of town, and every couple of weeks I?d walk or bum a ride from one of our guests to the self-service feed shed near Phunquey Pharme, where I?d pick up a 50-pound sack of Wayne dog food for our dog family. As always, our house stayed open to any who wanted a place to party, so long as they shared their party food and drink with us.

It was a precarious way of life approaching a head-on collision with reality.

Image for postAerial view of Columbia, PA, a bawdy river town with the Susquehanna River in the background

The agent of change was a young guy about twenty named Paul. He lived in Columbia, the nearest town about five miles up the river, and he showed up at the Pharme a couple days late to wish me a happy birthday. He was sorry he?d missed the party the other night, he said. He?d heard we?d had one helluva time.

He was right about that. I?d celebrated my 33rd with two other brothers born the same day. One of them, Indian Ray, lived in Columbia, so Paul had heard from him about that wild night when we all took acid, and then a storm blew in, cutting off the electricity for hours. Undaunted, we collected on the porch with a kerosene lamp and made music with a guitar, a harp, kitchen pans, and improvised vocals until the stereo came back on at three in the morning, and then we danced and hollered until the keg ran out at dawn.

Since he missed the party, Paul said, and since he, too, was a Leo (though not born on our day), he wanted to bring something down to keep the spirit going.

?You like to trip, don?t you?? he said.

?Yeah,? I said.

?You ever do jimson weed??

?No,? I said. But I?d heard of it in the context of witches, psychic visions, and supernatural apparitions.

?Well,? said Paul, ?I got some seeds here if you want to try ?em.? And he took from his pocket a folded-up envelope.

?What d?ya do with ?em?? I asked.

?You swallow ?em, and after awhile you get off.?

?You chew ?em up??

?You don?t have to. Just wash ?em down.?

?I thought jimson was a tea.?

?You can make tea out of the leaves or boil the roots. But the seeds work, too.?

?And you just eat ?em??

?Yeah. Put about a teaspoon in some food.?

?Where?d you get ?em??

?Jimson grows everywhere. You can find it all along the railroad tracks.?

?Really? Have you done it??


?What?s it like??

?It?s a trip. It?ll blow your mind.?

?Is it like acid??

?Not exactly. It?s . . . more real.?

?Wow,? I said, mesmerized for a moment by the thought of a natural psychedelic plentifully growing in our local countryside. For free!

?It can get pretty intense,? he said.

?Did you enjoy it??

There was a pause as Paul thought about my question. Then he said, ?You don?t actually enjoy it. You just . . . get into it.?

I waited for more, but nothing followed. ?What happens?? I finally asked.

A far-away grin formed over Paul?s swarthy young face. ?It?s the real thing, man. That?s all I can tell you. It?s got real information.?

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I didn?t know Paul well. I?d only ever met him at parties. He always seemed like a decent guy, had a good sense of humor. Others in our group who knew him better trusted him, liked him. They said he was one of the few true heads around.

?Maybe I?ll try it,? I said, accepting the envelope he handed me.

Image for post?Lammas River Hills,? by Magik

The next day, after Pierre le Phlemme left for town, Mugzi, Stella, and I sat down to our breakfast of cold spaghetti from the night before. On top of the spaghetti we sprinkled jimson seeds ? Mugzi a few, Stella a few more, and I quite a few, as I estimated a teaspoon none too carefully. It was, after all, my birthday trip.

The tiny seeds went down easily, their taste undetectable amidst the spicy, cold tomato sauce and pasta. We each ate a bowl of it, washing it down with fresh water from our well. Then we waited for the effects to come on. For an hour or more none appeared. Maybe this was another scam, like the weed the McClean brothers brought back in pillow cases from Indiana. They dried it at the laundromat the night they got back and sold to the desperate for ten bucks an ounce. It wasn?t even worth that. At least we hadn?t paid anything for the seeds.

It was a hot morning. We decided to go to the river for a swim.

Image for post?Babbling Brook?

With the dogs surrounding us we left the house and headed down the yard. I noticed I felt a little dizzy, and the bright sunlight hurt my eyes, but once we entered the shade of the woods that became less distracting. We reached the stream ? our ?babbling brook,? where we sometimes bathed ? hopped across it, and started up a rise into the forest proper. On either side of the well-worn path the woods thickened.

Image for postStar Rock. The couple shown came after our time, when the site became an unofficial destination for townies looking for an awesome place to chill.

At the top of the rise we could see the river through the trees. Here the path divided into two, one turning left toward the overlook known as Star Rock with its faintly carved inscriptions, and the other, which we followed ? a less-traveled zigzag path back and forth across the steep hillside in a descent to the railroad tracks.

Once out from under the green canopy of the woods, I couldn?t bear the intensity of full sunlight. I shaded my eyes with both hands as we crossed the tracks and scooted down another incline to a muddy tract at the river?s edge which we called Phunquey Beach. There we dropped our brief attire and waded naked into the murky but refreshingly cool water, our feet sinking into the squishy, pebbly bottom-mix of mud and coal dust, typical of the Susquehanna watershed.

I didn?t feel like swimming or cavorting with the dogs. Neither, apparently, did Stella or Mugzi. We stood waist-deep in the river, staring blankly at each other. I don?t remember when, but we?d stopped speaking. I could hardly sustain the effort to put coherent words together, to say the simplest things, like, ?Does anyone else feel really weird?? Meanwhile, the dogs paddled around us until, seeing how boring we?d become, they headed back for more interesting pursuits on shore.

Image for postSomething like Phunquey Beach

I began to feel nauseous. I tried to ignore it, but the sensation crept up into my throat. I tried to swallow it but instead it suddenly erupted in repeated abdominal heaves as I vomited every last bite of red, undigested spaghetti into the river and watched it disappear under the current on its way downstream toward Maryland and Virginia.

While I gasped, hacked, and spit between heaves, Stella and Mugzi looked on blankly, as if we always threw up in the river like that. Still, they didn?t get sick, since, unlike me, they hadn?t taken too much for their systems to handle.

None of us found the water in any way diverting on that steamy August morning. And the blazing light blinded us all. Before long we waded to shore with nothing better to do than return up the hill to the Pharme house.

My body felt like lead. I could barely drag my legs out of the water onto Phunquey Beach. My heart beat in rapid palpitations of several seconds before settling back into a normal rhythm. For a time I couldn?t understand how to put my clothes back on. Stella and Mugzi patiently waited. We didn?t crack jokes about how fucked up we were, as we usually did when we got down like this. Rather, we struggled just to keep a focus on our direction home.

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Like an exhausted beast of burden, I forced myself forward in the arduous climb up the steep, winding course we?d so blithely descended. The reflection of sunlight from the gravel as we crossed the railroad tracks pierced my eyes like needles of fire. Only through slits in my eyelids could I bear to glimpse enough light to see my way. I had to urinate continuously, but nothing would come out. Periodically my heart broke into its fierce palpitations, as if it wanted to fly loose in my chest. My throat went dry, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, and we?d brought no water with us.

Image for postSusquehanna River Hills near Pequea, a tiny town in the same rural neighborhood as Phunquey Pharme.

Stella went on ahead. Mugzi, far less intoxicated on the seeds than I, said it took hours for me to make it up that hill. She may have exaggerated, but only a little. I have an impression of an endless climb in which I?d walk a few paces, then sit down on the ground to rest. I remember the merciful green canopy of the trees high above me, shielding my eyes bearably from the blazing Sun. I remember frequent stops to try to pee. I remember searching through the contents of the side-pack on my belt for my hairbrush, refusing to believe it wasn?t there. I remember our dogs, especially the little beagle we called Boop-a-Doop, who stayed close by us all the way. I remember another favorite dog there, too, who couldn?t really have been there because he?d been killed two years before. I don?t remember at all arriving back at the house, and I don?t remember, as Mugzi does, the proclamation I made from the porch as if speaking to an audience of trees when I announced that ?this is the making of my fortune.?

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Over the next hour or two as the sun sank behind the western woods, the effects of the jimson began to waver between more normal sensations and the return of jimson moments when I actively participated in scenes in other times and places with people I didn?t always know. I?d speak to them ? sometimes friends, sometimes strangers, who appeared one moment and disappeared the next. I remember the kitchen at one point full of people drinking and laughing boisterously, I would?ve sworn they were there. But the next instant the scene vanished, and, with a snap like the click of a gear, I sat on the porch by myself again.

Over the course of the evening the heart palpitations became less frequent and pronounced, my eyes regained their ability to filter light, and the hallucinations faded back behind my eyelids, remaining active for several days before fading away. I kept a late supper down though I don?t remember what we had, and by the next morning I was able to urinate again. I slept poorly that first night and not well for several more. For months a vivid green, as if from a green sun, colored many of my dreams and even appeared behind my eyelids when I closed them at night. Yet it seemed, all in all, that I?d not suffered any physiological damage. Psychologically, though, things were a bit more touch and go.

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Obviously jimson weed is no casual designer drug. In fact, it tries to kill you, according to Yaqui shaman Don Juan Matus, who revealed its sacred properties to his budding apprentice Carlos Castaneda in the early 1960s. Castaneda subsequently shared the jimson information in Journey to Ixtlan, the third volume in his best-selling series on shamanic training, including the sacred use of mind-altering, indigenous plants and herbs.

But if jimson doesn?t kill you, Don Juan continues, it will strengthen your heart.

It?s never been clear to me whether he meant the heart muscle or the quality of heart or both, but the drug definitely shook my heart muscle in its cage with repeated episodes of rapid beating.

Image for postCarlos Castenada and Friends

Castaneda passed away in the 1990s, and I don?t think critics ever settled whether his Don Juan figure was a real man or a fiction. But I have no doubt the information he gave on jimson is accurate enough. Something dark and dangerous shimmers in the very aura of the weed with its exotic, trumpet-shaped flowers of white or violet that bloom only at night, pollinated by moths before closing up to the sun the next morning. The seeds eventually form inside a pod bristling with spines, like a warning to the curious to handle with care, or stay away.

Don Juan talks to Castaneda about a spirit which inhabits the jimson plant. He calls it the ally. To ingest some part of the plant or otherwise take it into oneself is to encounter that ally. If one can accept the ally and learn from its severe teaching, it will become a source of strength and support ever after, especially for works requiring strong physical endurance.

But failure or refusal to accept the ally could result in an impairment of the nervous system, including depression, seizures, insanity, and even death. Occasionally a suicide has been linked to jimson poisoning. In all such cases Don Juan might agree that the casualty failed to enter into right relationship with the ally.

Image for postA wild patch of jimson weed a/k/a Datura Stramonium

I never would discount the possibility that supernatural energies permeate the jimson weed. It?s not without cause that, among the many names jimson has earned in popular lore, we find ?the devil?s weed,? ?the devil?s snare,? ?the devil?s seed,? ?devil?s trumpet,? and even ?Beelzebub?s twinkie.? Only ?angel?s trumpet? represents the blessed.

We also find ?Jamestown weed,? from which the name ?jimson? derives. It seems early English settlers at Jamestown unknowingly made tea out of fresh jimson leaves and tripped for days, rendering the plant notorious almost immediately in United States history.

Yet, similar to Don Juan?s use of the plant, some Native American tribes reportedly used jimson in initiation rites in which an intoxicated candidate received secret knowledge sacred to the tribe. A high seriousness accompanied these rites, undertaken after a period of preparation, including fasting and prayer.

Nothing like that prepared me for my ?initiation? as I blithely swallowed an unknown, unsupervised dose of poisonous seeds, proving the old adage that fools rush in where angels fear to tread but also verifying another old adage that God looks out for children, drunks, and fools, since, after all, I survived relatively intact.

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Eventually I became curious about what I?d actually ingested into my physical body. I learned jimson is a member of the Datura branch of the large Solanum, or Solanacea, family of plants, also known as Nightshades. I?d never have suspected it, but the family includes our garden tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and eggplants along with the disgraced tobacco plant and, more believably, so-called poisonous plants like bella donna, henbane, and mandrake.

Jimson delivers three main ingredients, all alkaloids regarded as poisons. The most powerful is scopolamine, which produces the state of deep stupor and physical lethargy, with hallucinations. Atropine, the chemical used by optometrists to dilate the pupil of the eye, is the culprit which blinded us in the sun that day and contributed to excessive thirst and urine retention. Hyoscyamine produces some of all of the above, plus nausea. Taken together, there?s no mystery about why most people stay away from the jimson experience, or only try it once.

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I?ve long seen my jimson experience as marking a major turning point in my life. In the days that followed my trip, stunned like a man recovering from trauma, I faced the clear fact that if I didn?t soon take sole responsibility for my existence, I had no future worth living. I had to leave Phunquey Pharme, leave my sister with the drama of her desperate romantic collapse, perhaps even leave my partner behind. After nearly six years of traveling the same road, our hippy idyll had ended. I felt exposed as a monumental idiot ? perhaps even an evil idiot ? for ever suggesting our way of life could persist.

Yet after all we?d been through I couldn?t tell Stella or Mugzi that I had to leave. Finally, I simply walked away. I felt like the lowest piece of rotten mold on Earth, a casualty of all my bad choices ending with a disreputable jimson trip. I felt exiled into hell. The Devil?s weed, indeed!

But, as Paul advised before he handed me the jimson seeds, don?t try to like it, just get into it.

After a tumultuous readjustment my partner and I began a new life in town, abandoning the 1960s communal ideal and its severed ties to people I didn?t see or want to see any more. My sister found a new boy friend and moved in with him. Pierre le Phlemme lived in the house alone for awhile, dealing marijuana, pills, and cocaine, but after a close call with the law he cleaned up, married, and had a kid. And eventually I found my life path as a community writer and actor. Today, creeping up into my late seventies, I still get by writing and acting, along with some manual skills I learned along the way.

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Now, as I look back on that jimson experience, marking as it does a major turning point in my life, I think there must be something to jimson?s Native American reputation as an initiation drug, testing a candidate?s mettle.

My own physical strength and endurance improved significantly in the years after I ate the seeds. I relished hard, outdoor work, which I?d previously avoided, took up ballet and modern dance, wrote, produced, and acted in community plays, and became locally famous.

But I also think the strain jimson placed on my heart may eventually have taken a toll. Over time I developed mitral-valve prolapse which required surgery some thirty-five years later.

I agree with researchers that the state of consciousness jimson induces is similar to the hypnogogic dream state between sleeping and waking, where fragments of scenes both familiar and unfamiliar appear and vanish like clips from other lives.

I also agree with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration?s assessment that ?Jimson weed . . . is usually only a one-time experimentation, due to the adverse and largely unpleasant effects caused by Jimson weed ingestion.?

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There?s no denying those ?unpleasant effects.? Physically, jimson is a stone bummer, as we used to say back in the day.

Yet there?s no denying as well the unique hallucinogenic effect, which is not the same as with other hallucinogens. Compared to acid, as Paul said, jimson is ?more real.? It opens some sector of the brain/mind which weaves memory, imagination, and possibly psychic vision into a three-dimensional scene which the tripping host perceives indisputably as stone, cold reality.

It?s as if in the realms of the human brain/mind simultaneous time is no stranger. No other drug, including LSD, suggested to me the same idea in the same way. One half of the brain ? the conscious, rational mind we?re all familiar with ? categorizes time and time?s events as past, present, and future. It assumes dominance.

Image for postIn Two (or more) Places at Once

But in another part of the brain, the subconscious, subjective mind, which never sleeps, creates its own versions of reality. With perhaps infinite imagination it draws its scenes from the rambling narratives of the conscious mind as well as from its own storehouse of memories too full and rich to catalog or to count.

Many brain scientists consider subjectivity immeasurable and therefore not a proper study for scientific inquiry. Yet so much of what we humans are and where we come from has roots in this subjective mind.

That seems to be the mind which becomes accessible in a unique way on a jimson trip. In that mind people from all stages of my life co-exist, and with jimson they show up together in scenes popping in and out of my perceptions with the suddenness of an electric light switch. For all its rough handling, jimson expanded my awareness to consider the simultaneity of time as a reality beyond time as we know it.

Image for post?Simultaneous Time? by Alfred A. Dolezal

I imagine there are other ways to achieve jimson?s unique psychic benefits without feeling hit on the head with a hammer and staggering about in a semi-conscious stupor for hours or even days afterwards. But one must work with what one is given, and so, given jimson, I learned about a reality free from the constraints of the ticking clock, which still serves me well as, growing old, I see I?m running out of time.

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