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True Conversations: An interview with Dennis McKenna> by Rak Razam

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Dennis McKenna is one of the leading figures in the global psychedelic and scientific communities investigating plant entheogens and indigenous plant medicines. He was involved with the “Hoasca Project” studying ayahuasca usage by members of the Church de Vegetal and recently issued the manifesto “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny”. Along with his late brother Terence, Dennis co-wrote the book “The Invisible Landscape” which revealed their psychedelically influenced insights into the nature of reality and spacetime they received during “The experiment at La Cholerra” in South America in 1971 (later recounted in Terence’s book “True Hallucinations”). Here, he talks at length about what happened at La Cholerra and how that influenced his later work with ayahuasca.


Rak> Dennis you received your doctorate in 1984, so you’ve been studying plant entheogens for over twenty years now professionally. I’d like to backtrack just a bit to talk about how you got into the psychedelic and plant sacrament culture. In your brother Terence’s book “True Hallucinations” he details your adventures into Amazonian shamanism, could you tell us a bit about those times and how you and Terence began?

DENNIS> Right. [True Hallucinations] was Terence’s book but I was one of the main subjects in it. We wrote together a book in 1975 called “The Invisible Landscape” which we were co-authors on. That was an attempt to kind of lay out in scientific terms and make sense of our experiences at La Cholerra. But True Hallucinations was more like a novel version of that. The Invisible Landscape was like a pseudo-scientific screed in a way, and True Hallucinations was more like a travel novel of our adventures in the Amazon kind of thing.

Rak> I guess what interested me about all this is that you’ve become a leading scientist in this field but before that as the books reveal there was this thirst for adventure, this calling to know more about indigenous people and the plant medicines. Both The Invisible Landscape and True Hallucinations reveal some intense encounters with plant medicines, could you explain what happened there at La Cholerra?

DENNIS> Yes... What happened at La Cholerra... (laughs) What happened is a very long story. I guess the first thing to make clear about what happened at La Cholerra is that it didn’t occur in the context of any indigenous use of psychedelics, or ayahuasca, or any of these things. At the time we thought it did, but we were deluded in many ways. I was 20, [Terence] was 24. We were at that stage where you know everything (laughs).

And yes, we had a thirst for adventure but our adventure at La Cholerra really grew out of our preoccupation with DMT. We were both hippies in the 60s, in Berkeley and the Haight-Ashbury and all that. Like everybody at that time in that sort of countercultural movement we were interested in psychedelics. We took LSD and thought that was interesting and so on. But unlike a lot of people, for various reasons that I now view as fated, in a way, DMT came down the pike.

So we began to look into the ethnobotanical literature on this, and I don’t know what even lead us to ethnobotany... maybe it was Carlos Castenada or something like that. LSD and all those psychedelics were not used in the 60s in the context of any shamanic tradition, it was, if anything, it was in the Leary Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out kind of ideal. [But] through various routes we found out that DMT was the active ingredient in a lot of South American hallucinogens that were in use.

When we got to La Cholerra we were, if not exactly welcomed, at least not thrown out. And so we settled in, and at this scene, this mission, they had cleared maybe a couple of hundred acres or rainforest and they had brought in cows. So these cows were everywhere and as a result the pasture was literally dotted everywhere with psilocybin mushrooms. Everywhere you looked out of cowpies there were these huge clusters of psilocybin mushrooms growing. We had actually had a previous encounter with the mushrooms on the way in at Puerto Leguizamo, which was the first time either one of us had taken any mushrooms.

RAK> They weren’t big in the States at the time?

DENNIS> They weren’t big and they were unheard of in the States at the time.

RAK> They didn’t exist in the States or they just weren’t being used widely?

DENNIS> No. Not really. Psilocybin was a legendary substance that never really showed up on the streets. Things showed up on the streets that purported to be psilocybin, but they were LSD basically. Nobody knew how to grow mushrooms at that time. It wasn’t happening. What you got was frozen store bought mushrooms that had been sprayed with LSD. It was totally fake, nobody knew about it.

So we started taking these mushrooms and having lively conversations all the time fuelled by mushrooms and fuelled by liberal ingestion of cannabis at all times of the day and night. Cannabis was virtually legal in Colombia at that time. We brought in a pound and a half of the best native bud we could lay out hands on.

... And one of the aspects of taking the mushrooms was this sound that we could hear at high doses. You could hear a sound at the edge of detection that seemed to be a kind of high-pitched, electronic buzzing and popping sound. It’s the sound you can hear very strongly when you smoke DMT. The sound of ripping cellophane, people describe it that way, or crumpling cellophane or things like that.

We developed this idea that if you could listen to this sound, and not only listen but imitate the sound, you could sing it, it was something that you could imitate and if you tried to imitate it you reached a point where it sort of locked on to this internal resonance. Initially it sounds stupid, y’know, you’re trying to follow a tune along and you’re not getting it very well, but at some point you would lock on to this, and then it would just pour out of you. You couldn’t even stop it.

What we were doing was not science - it was magic    . We thought we were doing science but we didn’t know anything about science at the time. We set up what we called an experiment, but what we should have really called a ritual. Honestly it was a ritual but we had the idea that if we took a large dose of mushrooms, along with ayahuasca and heard this sound, that we could generate this standing wave form and that we could actually transfer that into the body of a mushroom in a stable way so that it would be outside the body and it would be sustained by it’s own superconducting circuitry, and you would be able to see it and be it at the same time. It would be, in a sense, an artifact from beyond that you generate out of your own head. It would be a super, transbiological artifact, translinguistic matter that would be meaning itself fixed into a biological matrix.

RAK> And do you think it succeeded, the experiment?


DENNIS> (hesitates)... No... (laughs) No, not exactly… What we were trying to do, essentially, if I can harken back to the basis of this in myth and history, I mean the closest analogy to it is the Philosopher’s Stone. We were trying to recreate the Philosopher’s Stone, which in some ways is the ultimate artifact. That thing that exists and is both mind and matter and responds to thought and is you and can do anything you can imagine, literally, anything you can imagine.

And so we performed the experiment and what we postulated was going to happen – didn’t happen, obviously. How could it happen? It didn’t happen that the mushroom would explode on a cloud of super-condensed glowing crystals and leave a glowing violet disk in front of us, no. That’s not what happened, y’know. That was the whole for result. That we’d just be able to get in the saucer and fly away. And end History in the process.

RAK> It’s a very grand ideal there, and I guess the immediate result was that your MAO inhibitors were mixed up for a while there?

DENNIS>
Totally fucked up for a while, that’s one theory. I was completely out of it for two weeks.

RAK> But were you in that zone, that completely hallucinogenic DMT zone inside your head for two weeks?

DENNIS> No, no, what happened was... Well one theory is the MAO permanent disruption of MAO brain chemistry for weeks, and that’s one possibility. I’m now not so sure that that’s true. Because other people take mushrooms and ayahuasca or they synergize mushrooms with beta-carbolines and things like that any they don’t go crazy. Invariably they don’t go crazy.

I had this feeling that I had been literally smeared over creation by this experiment that we’d done. I was literally a space cadet. What was happening to me was I was experiencing this slow collapse over each 24 hour period from the edges of the universe to a concentration. So that over each period, like the first time, the first 24 period I was in the whole cosmos. And then the second one it was like the galactic cluster...

And I’ve thought about it, of course. I’ve thought about it a lot since then, and really the only model that really fits is not a biochemical model or a pharmacological model. The only model that fits is a shamanistic initiation. That’s what happened to me.

I didn’t ask for it. I wasn’t prepared for it. But that’s what happened. Because in shamanic traditions in all cultures all over the world, there is this notion of being literally torn apart and put back together - in a better way than you were before. And I feel -- and I’m not a shaman, I’m not claiming to be a shaman, I didn’t ask to be a shaman -- but I got the initiation and I do feel that ultimately it was a very integrative thing. It was a healing thing that happened to me.

RAK> Do you think that then has influenced your future career as a scientist, which is the Western shaman, in a way.


DENNIS> Oh, totally. Totally influenced my future career.

RAK> Could you then tell us a bit about the “Hoasca Project” and some of the other scientific explorations you’ve done with ayahuasca? What were the results, that the receptors of the brain were improved? The serotonin receptors?

DENNIS> In 1991 [I was] invited to a conference… that the UDV [Unaio de Vegetal, a legal ayahuasca church] had organized. And the UDV had a medical studies section at the time. Although they’re quick to deny that ayahuasca is a drug but they still had a medical health section. They were under scrutiny from the Brazilian government who was looking at their practice and wondering should they allow this? Or should we prohibit it? And what’s going on, is this harmful of not? So they wanted to do an actual biomedical study, and they wanted foreign researchers to do it.

I came away from that field trip with that idea, that we could develop a bio-medical study [that eventually showed that] the receptors of the brain were improved. Maybe we thought they would have an improved immune function, we didn’t really have any idea what it might be .


RAK> There seems to be a growing influence by science in general and Big Pharma – big pharmacological companies to engage in ‘bio-piracy’.

DENNIS> Uh, yeah, yeah. There has always been some degree of interest from Big Pharma to look into Amazonian plants for potential sources of new medicines. At one time I wanted to develop a standardized preparation of ayahuasca and file an IND in the United States and do a clinical study to look at it’s potential for the treatment of alcoholism... But then I had an epiphany a while back. The FDA is never going to approve and IND, that is, an Investigational New Drug application for a plant that, for a medicine that not only is a plant, but a plant that contains a controlled substance.

I’m still curious about ayahuasca and I still think science can tell us a lot about ayahuasca. But I have given up my pharmaceutical ambitions to turn it into a drug, or a drug that can be used clinically. I’ve gotten a strong message that… ayahuasca is a sacred thing and I don’t want the pharmaceutical industry to co-opt it. I think that those who need to find ayahuasca will find it. I think ayahuasca will find those it needs to find.

RAK> How much of you as a scientist believes that the chemical structure [of ayahuasca] can be replicated versus how much of it is the spirit of the plant, the shaman or the practioner administering the plant that is involved in the outcome?

DENNIS> Well... Um... I think that in the practice of ayahuasca a lot of it has to do with the shamanic practice and the spirit of the thing.

RAK> Apart from the science, how do you feel about the countercultural interest in ayahuasca and indigenous medicines that’s really booming at the moment globally?

DENNIS> I’m not sure how I feel about it. I think that it’s sort of inevitable. I think that in the global culture, in the world culture a great many people are spiritually bereft. I think that the conventional religious institutions and other type of institutions that have normally sustained society are now seen to be simply empty, and without meaning, or actually inimical to the survival of our species.

And I think there’s a great deal of anxiety, whether it’s expressed or not, about the global crisis that we’re in. And I think the people are turning to indigenous traditions in search of something, something more meaningful.

RAK> You wrote the recent document from 2005, “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny”, and I guess for me reading that it seemed a bit of a positive manifesto of the potentials of ayahuasca for Westerners.

DENNIS> Absolutely. I don’t think you can arrest this. I think it is a positive manifesto. The agenda that’s been manifested is not our agenda -- it’s ayahuasca’s agenda. And it works in a co-evolutionary way. I don’t believe that you can fence indigenous people in and protect them from the outside world, that’s not the right message. It’s not even possible because people are going to inevitably come down to places like this [Iquitos] and look for whatever it is they can’t find in their own traditions. There’s always been this cross-cultural fertilization. I mean, shamans have websites now, and things like that. And that’s okay, I’m okay with that.

RAK> Do you think that the West is perhaps getting what it needs? In the last 50 years or so of Western history there’s been the beatniks and marijuana, acid and the hippies in the 60s, rave culture and ecstasy in the 80s and 90s, and now in the 00’s ayahuasca is coming in? It seems that every successive generation needs to reconnect via some drug, and now it’s going back to an indigenous way?

DENNIS> In some degree I think by increments we’re learning maybe how to do it better. I think that the thing that maybe distinguishes the global interest in ayahuasca from these other movements is that they lacked a context. They lacked a tradition. The reason so many people got into trouble with psychedelics in the 60s was that there was no context. It just sort of appeared on the scene and the chief spokesman for the whole thing was Timothy Leary. And he was in some ways hardly an admirable figure. He had his own agenda, which was fame and recognition, and he’s kind of a trickster figure. But there was no context. The same with rave culture in a sense.

RAK> Your late brother Terence was quite a prominent figure in the 90s representing psychedelics in the rave scene, and he had a very positive agenda as well.

DENNIS>
I think ultimately he had a positive agenda. I think even Timothy Leary had a positive agenda. But I think the rave culture... there was a Spanish [doco maker] here before and he said it’s really cut loose in Spain... And people go to these venues and they dance all weekend and they’re totally loaded on ecstasy all the time and it means nothing. They get nothing out of it.

RAK> The West is actually bereft of elders in an indigenous sense and we hunger for them. It doesn’t have that structural history and people like Terence became an elder of the global tribe...


DENNIS> Yeah, and really urging people, I think, to rediscover the sacred. His whole notion of the Archaic Revival was right on, in a sense. And I think that’s what you’re seeing with ayahuasca, it’s not just the substances that you have to rediscover, it’s the sacredness and the context of their use, the traditions. And so I think the interest in ayahuasca is encouraging in that people are waking up to the fact that you have to rediscover not only the substances but the context for their use and are looking to these archaic traditions where people have developed over millennia ways to relate to these plants and these substances.

RAK> It seems like a lot of the indigenous cultures are chasing the Western dream of materialism at the moment, yet at the same time in the West people are chasing the indigenous dream, so maybe it’s balancing out.


DENNIS> That’s right. And then there’s the whole other aspect of the global culture, what I call the Corporatist Fascists who basically want to control everything and want to suppress both of these things because they think that they should own the world. And that the rest of the world, that their job is to be consumers and workers and shut up and not cause trouble.

RAK> You call ayahuasca in your manifesto, “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny”, a “Holy Grail for our species”, or a potential Holy Grail for our species. Do you think it can heal the world?

DENNIS> (pauses)... I hope so, because something needs to (laughs)... I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean I think it has the potential to. But I’m a worried optimist in a sense. I think the world is in serious need of healing and in serious need of waking up. I think there are a lot of trends happening at the same time...

Some very positive trends like the global ayahuasca movement and the rediscovery of the Archaic. I think this is an encouraging thing but there are a lot of bad things happening, too, in the world. The destruction of the environment, the changes we’re making to the global climate, the unwillingness of the powers that be to even acknowledge that this is going on, let alone do something about it. The implementation of the global police state, the implementation of a state of perpetual war. I mean terrorism, c’mon! This is a smokescreen.

RAK> It’s Dominator Culture having it’s last wrestle trying to control the steering wheel.


DENNIS> Exactly. And they’re very powerful, very dangerous and very ruthless.

RAK> Does it seem sort of ironic and yet balanced again that while Dominator Culture’s trying to wrest control, the spirit of the earth or of nature is actually seeding all these things and going out again to try and regulate the human monkey out of control?

DENNIS> Yeah, well, totally. I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is exactly what it’s doing.

 

 

 

This has been an excerpt from a larger interview from the forthcoming "Ayahuasca Sessions" anthology featuring conversations with curanderos, shamans and Western plantworkers. It was first published in this format by High Times magazine July 2007.

Dr Dennis Mckenna will be in Australia in November speaking at the Entheogenesis Australia 2007 conference.


Surfing> by Rak Razam

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Reefer Madness> by Rak Razam

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In the classic 1936 propaganda movie 'Reefer Madness', a good young man is seduced into the ways of "marihuana… the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America", and descends into a nightmare of crime, rape, murder and eventually madness. According to the movie, now a cult classic on the stoner circuit, 'Marihuana is... [a] drug – a violent narcotic – an unspeakable scourge... ending often in incurable insanity." Well, at least they got the last bit right. Over seventy years since the first wave of marijuana demonising, the “incurable insanity” has well and truly set in with politicians worldwide, and shows no sign of abating. Around 39 per cent of our population are reported to have tried the devil's weed, and crop sales are worth an estimated $5-8 billion Australia-wide. With the clash between official rhetoric and the cultural experience as wide as ever, a fresh wave of ‘Reefer Madness’ is sweeping our nation, fuelled by stories of mind-bending ‘hydro’ cannabis and drug war clichés that hide deeper-seated issues.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the sleepy hippie town of Nimbin, in the Lismore Shire of NSW’s North Coast. Walk up and down Cullen Street in Nimbin on any day of the week and you’re sure to be asked if you need any weed, mull, pot, green, ganja, smoke, marijuana or any of the other colourful names the most prolific cannabis plant is know by. The green dollar is what supports all the businesses here and it's the foundation of the economy. Local traders estimate half a million tourists come to the town each year, drawn by the scent of marijuana. But while Nimbin might be Australia’s answer to Amsterdam, it’s also in all-round Aussie heartland, half redneck and half hippie, or that blurring line between the two cultures you have to expect after a generation of interbreeding. The footy’s on in the pub and the Tabaret’s doing a roaring trade, about equal to the Hemp Bar. Bearded blokes with big potbellies in t-shirts and thongs chat to weatherbeaten farmers in their utes as Japanese and European backpackers in tie-died gear and big bloodshot eyes wander by. It’s just another country town – that happens to grow and smoke dope.

And despite 25 years of sustained cannabis use, I can’t see any of the psychotic casualties that the propaganda films warn about. Okay, there’s a wizened old dude with no front teeth and a long elven beard walking by, a cheerful relic from the Rainbow Days of the 1970s when Nimbin was overrun by idealistic hippies from Sydney hosting the 1972 Aquarius Festival. The alternative culture that settled here considers cannabis to be a sacrament. It’s a hardy plant to cultivate and grow, and a whole generation of hippie farmers soon discovered it could generate a cashflow to make them happy, healthy and self-sustainable. But local outrage and conservative drug laws quickly saw the media popularise the town as a drug culture, which drew people to the town for drugs and helped fulfil the negative stereotype.

 

To combat this Nimbin also became home to the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) movement and the Hemp Embassy, the stoned nerve centre for this idealogical war, established in 1992 to promote drug law reform. Today the Hemp Embassy is a rainbow-trimmed wooden building with a hand-painted mural above the street level, where most mainstream businesses have their logo. Underneath an Egyptian Eye of Horus in a rainbow pyramid, a green hemp goddess holds a perfectly rolled joint, standing on a sign, which reads “Holy Smoke”. At exactly the same level as the rainbow eye in the pyramid hangs the black lens of a surveillance camera, conspicuously attached to an eight metre long metal pole on a forty-five degree angle. Directly under its gaze this morning there’s a scruffy guy in his 40s in an orange jacket and green army camo pants nonchalantly dipping into his bag of weed spread out on the sidewalk and doing a deal for a passing customer.

He’s underneath one of six surveillance cameras monitoring the action and piping the footage to the police station 500 metres away, to a security room where a watchman presumably looks on in bored familiarity at the largest and most sustained act of civil disobedience in Australia by the most surveilled town in the nation. If the cameras are any indication, Nimbin could well be ground zero for the war on marijuana currently being zealously waged by the NSW government, like so many worldwide. Since the 1961 United Nations Convention, which prohibited cannabis cultivation, this war on nature and those who use the cannabis plant has cost untold billions of dollars and made criminals of millions of people. The convention is policed by the International Narcotics Control Board who regularly advise and stir up regional and international governments on the issue.

In 1998 the Control Board urged signatory nations, including Australia, to “devise strategies for the attempted elimination of cannabis use within 10 years”. In June, 2006 Morris Iemma’s NSW state government seemed to comply when it introduced legislation first mooted in 1999 to create a separate offence for the indoor cultivation of hydroponic or ‘hydro’ marijuana, which they claim is up to seven times more potent than organically grown ‘bush buds’, with further allegations that it has a direct link to mental illness. Penalties and fines of between $395,000 and $550,000 or 15 years imprisonment for the cultivation of commercial quantities of indoor-grown drug plants are now in force. NSW Premier Iemma quotes “Canadian research” for his claims, which are unsubstantiated and refuted by academic and health professionals, as well as growers and users themselves.

“The THC might be slightly higher today than 20 years ago due to various strains, but it's only a few percentage points stronger,” says Kog, a friendly, beer-bellied local in his 60s with red cheeks, a greying ZZ Top beard and long curly grey hair. “The scare campaign for hydro weed just isn't true. This whole Prohibition thing's based on fear. The police try to get the fear into you. What I'm on about lately is turning that fear around and showing no fear under any circumstances. Grow your plants with love and have no fear. No fear. If you do that, you'll beat them. “

Kog has that righteous look of a man who stands by his convictions, even if they lead to the wrong side of the law. He’s been growing pot for over 24 years, but after being busted and serving time in jail 12 years ago he became a spokesperson for the legalising marijuana movement. He’s recently released a book and DVD called Marijuana: A Grower's Lot, to help other people learn how to become sustainable growing the cannabis staple crop.

“I'm basically a farmer, and the crop I grow is green. It's a simple process, you've just got to take a seed and plant it. I've tried growing commercial quantities of potatoes, carrots, cabbages – I used to be an organic vegetable grower, I tried all that and the only thing worth growing is marijuana (laughs). By a mile. I've never made a fortune, but I do earn $20-30,000 a year. It pays the bills and I live pretty simple. I have the farm with the wife and four kids, and it's enabled me to survive. And there's a lot of people just like me. The majority of people I met in jail were in there like me, for growing pot. We're all prisoners of war.”

Speaking of war, there’s oil in those there hills, but it’s hemp oil. At a time when other Aussie farmers are being hard hit by climate change and other pressures, these grassroots success stories only hit the headlines when they're busted and their crops seized and burnt in the ongoing War on Drugs that fuels an extremely profitable black market economy. It's all about supply and demand, and according to research the business of marijuana is roughly twice the size of the wine industry and second only to beer as Australia’s favourite consumable.

A 2006 study by the University of Western Australia’s Business School by Professor Kenneth Clements and co-author Xueyan Zaho of Monash University examined price variations for marijuana around the country, bulk buying and expected revenues if governments could tax the plant. They found that the average annual household spending on marijuana was $758 per household per year, or near $8 billion dollars annually Australia-wide, all of it funneled into the black market economy that prohibition creates and sustains. But if it was legalised, and grown like any other staple crop, like tomatoes, it would be worth the same – about $5.99 a kilo instead of somewhere between $3000-5000 kilo as it is now, and the bottom would drop out of the market.

“The Australian hydroponic industry is the biggest per capita in the world, and we have the highest amount of [cannabis] users per capita in the world,” says Tim Wells, editor of the new cannabis magazine Stickypoint. “There's a lot of growers out there and a lot of stigmas and stereotypes which come with it.” One of the stigmas politicians and the media help perpetuate is that or large-scale organised crime. Yet most of the millions of cannabis users are everyday people forced into criminality by archaic laws that trace their origins back to the 1930s propaganda campaigns designed to oust marijuana and hemp production in the US, which only became illegal with the marihuana tax act of 1937.

Some of these so-called criminals are people who have applied for and are still waiting to use marijuana for health reasons. Rock, a dreadlocked local medical marijuana activist, suffers from constant migraines and other pain resulting from an accident he had several years ago. “I believe in cannabis and I'm standing up for it because it works for me. It might not work for everyone but it does for me,” Rock says, and [the NSW government] is interfering with my medical rights. It's my right to choose.”

There are provisions for the use of medical marijuana to relieve pain for approved patients, but the deck is well and truly stacked against anyone implementing the provisions, Rock says. “[The provision] is so hard to find, so buried, and such a money-spinner plot. It's all about money. If you're a volunteer organisation it's only $15 to apply for a cannabis license, $55 for an institution, and a whopping $495 for an individual. That’s just for the application, though, there’s no guarantee your application will be approved.” Official figures of how many people then succeed in their requests for legal marijuana medication are still unclear.

“Think of how much it costs them to bust people,” Rock tells me. “They can spend millions of dollars but you can't stop people getting high no matter how hard you try. Prohibition doesn't work – we know that. It didn't work in America and it's not going to work here.”

John Kayes, the recently elected Greens member of the NSW parliament (Upper House), agrees. ““The War on Drugs is a failure,” he says, “and its prohibition is destroying our society.”


Then why, one must ask, after all these decades, is marijuana still illegal? Cui Bono – who profits? Not the users who risk arrest and stigma at worst, and paying artificially inflated prices to a black market economy at best. As has been mooted many times before, governments of the world could tax cannabis, like cigarettes, but instead they’re going down the prohibition path in earnest, despite seventy years of unsuccessful banning and mounting evidence of the ease of use of hemp for fuel, fibre, food, medicine and recreation.

Tim Wells from Stickypoint magazine says that Australia's far worse than the US with it's drug war at the moment, where “marijuana is decriminalised in around 16 states in the US, with upwards of 70,000 medicinal permits given out in California, and more states getting on board every day. Europe is extremely liberal towards it, as is Canada. Yet here in Australia we're stuck in the dino-ages with government messages parroting the Ainslinger reports from the 1930s,” Wells says.

Steve Bolt is a Lismore solicitor and the unofficial lawyer for the Nimbin Hemp Embassy. He’s also the author of ‘Rough Deal: A Plain English Guide to Drug Laws in New South Wales’, an indispensable source of information on the sweeping drug law changes and how they affect drug users. He says that the NSW North Coast region is by far the highest in Australia for [marijuana] drug busts. “But despite that, the general population is probably not aware that [prohibition] is really not working. The demand is too high and it's not going to go away, and all you do is influence how people use drugs, normally in a negative way, rather than stopping them using drugs at all. If you're going to use, you're going to use.”

NSW has invested millions into the prohibition approach, and one of it’s new tactics is the controversial saliva-testing drug bus which tracks for “the presence of [cannabis], not [evidence] that you’re intoxicated,” says Associate Professor Dr Michael Dawson, the head of the University of Technology, Sydney’s Department of Chemistry, Materials and Forensic Science. “This is an unjust and unfair piece of legislation,” Dr Dawson says. Not only that, it doesn’t always work. Out of hundreds of samples taken at one of the drug bus’s few outings, the Byron Bay Blues Festival, there were only three test positives. The INTRA outreach drug service later field-tested smokers with the new THC-breathalyser devices that cost $40 per initial test, and had repeated cases where a negative result was returned by people that had smoked, and a few cases where a false positive was returned by people that didn’t.

“I don't think you have a chance of fighting it legally,” says Bolt, and as a solicitor he should know. “I think your only chance is fighting it politically and through civil disobedience. But civil disobedience is a tool of last resort. Unless you've got the political climate right and you're sure that you're not going to be hung out to dry, it's something you've got to think about very, very carefully.”

NSW State Greens MP John Kaye agrees. "I think we have a very long way to go in terms of reforming cannabis laws in NSW. And I think freedom of speech always plays an important role. I can't think of any major gain we have made in the last two hundred years that's been made directly by politicians... First and foremost you need to build a groundswell. You need to educate the community on the issue of cannabis. We're talking a lot more to the community basically so we can overcome the cannabis hysteria that's going on, particularly in the outer suburbs in places like Sydney.

“Our first task is to undermine the propaganda that's coming out of the right wing that says if their kid smokes a joint he's going to go psycho. We've got to get over that. Secondly, we've got to get over the idea that the way to deal with the problem associated with all of these drugs is to have tougher law and order penalties. We have strong evidence that both of those things are not true. And we need to get that evidence out there and make it part of the common conversation. At the same time we're challenging the law, and we need to work out clever ways to challenge this so people don't end up going to jail, but we need to be challenging these laws.”

Which is where the infamous Nimbin Mardi Grass festival comes in. The Nimbin ‘Mardi Grass and Cannabis Law Reform Rally 2007’ celebrates fifteen years of Australian civil disobedience that can only happen when a community rallies round what it believes in. “The Hemp Embassy was started in 1992 by a guy called Bob Hopkins, who initiated Mardi Grass, too, after a particularly bad year of police harassment,” says Michael Balderstone, the grey-bearded spokesperson for the Hemp Embassy and the unofficial ‘mayor’ of Nimbin.

We’re out on the downstairs back verandah of the Hemp Embassy as he rolls a lunchtime joint, surrounded by Salty, the Embassy webmaster, Andrew Kavasilas, hemp activist and author of ‘Medical Uses of Cannabis – Information for Medical Practitioners’ and a few of the other local boys all chillin’ with Bob Dylan one fine weekday afternoon.

“The first Mardi Grass was such a success residents vowed to do it every year till the laws change," Michael says with a youthful exuberance, looking like a bush Santa Claus. “It's a real unique scene here, clearly. We're empowered and I don't think we realise it. People have been on a long, strong journey to get here [to Nimbin]. And throwing a bunch of pot smokers all together... we'll, were all criminalised. But we've got the numbers in the town now.”

They sure do. On the Sunday of the annual May Mardi Grass festival, as six boys in blue look on from the front of the cop shop with tight grimaces, arms folded aggressively, the Plantem, Nimbin’s very own cannabis-powered superhero walks by in his green longjohns with a group of local children carrying the emblem of the Hemp revolution, the Giant Joint. Dozens of Nimbin women, and a few blokes dressed as green-hued Ganga Faeries, amass around peace flags, all of them wailing like banshees to celebrate the humble marijuana plant.

As is the custom, the parade is led by the Ganga Faerie Queen, this time a seven-and-a half-months pregnant local woman who represents the re-birth of the seasons – and “perpetuation of the movement to bring about cannabis law reform”. It feels like a medieval harvest festival as the Big Joint takes off down the main street of Nimbin, flanked with thousands of happy, stoned revelers and locals either side. Take a deep breath: this Nimbin strain of reefer madness is just as infectious as those of the politicians, but it’s a lot more fun.

 

first published in Australian Penthouse, August 2007

photos: Rak Razam


The Rael World> by Rak Razam

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So I call up the prophet Raël on Skype, talking to him over the internet in far-off Switzerland, where he’s staying in some chalet or something while he pushes ahead with his mission to preach the word of the aliens to save us from Armageddon – if, like, we live righteously and stuff, and give Raël the money to build an embassy for their arrival.

Raël’s assistant has the sweetest, sexy French voice. Her name is Li-Li. She sounds delectable, and if that’s really her avatar on the Skype dial screen she's a hot, caramel-skinned honey. If I was dialing up the Pope, or the Dalai Llama, or any other global religious leader it might be wrong to think lewd thoughts about their personal assistants, but this is Raël, man, ALL his personal assistants are gorgeous, and at the core of his religious teachings is a simple recipe of free-love and feelgood vibes. Like, if I was there in the chalet I’m sure he ‘d be offering me Li-Li and a one-way ticket to the mothership, he’s just that kinda guy. So don’t be so hard on him, y’know, I mean all people with just one name are a bit weird – Cher, Madonna, Prince, Raël, it comes with the fame, I guess, or the enlightenment.

“ALLO, how are you?” the voice of the prophet Raël booms across the internet as I sit here staring at his publicity shot, a star-shaped pendant round his neck, his neat black beard with streaks of grey, balding head and side hair up in a topknot, to be a better cosmic antenna for the subtle vibrations of the aliens’ telepathy, he claims. “You are Rak Razam, and you work for Australian Penthouse?” Raël asks in warm tones. Well, this sure doesn’t sound like the “leader of an alien cult” with “worrying apocalyptic tendencies” as dozens of global media outlets have reported. His voice has a French accent and a light-hearted tone, like a cheeky schoolboy brimming with good humour, like he’s about to burst out laughing at his own joke. “If I may say something about Penthouse? I really love this magazine and I think this magazine ... is very important and has a very big role and responsibility to change the society and destroy the guilt created by the Judeo-Christian civilsation. I am happy to see in many countries more people are joining sex shops than churches. You have more people visiting sex shops in France than visiting church. And that’s great.”



It sure is, isn’t it? How down-to-earth is this guy, hey? I feel like I’m talking to my ribald uncle, not the ‘Guide of Guides’, the founder and leader of the international Raëlian movement, a purportedly 60,000 strong UFO worshipping religion that hit the headlines a few years ago when they claimed to have successfully cloned a human baby named Eve. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Raël says he’s also the Messiah (which properly translated means ‘chosen one’); that his real father was the elder alien we know in the bible as Yahweh; that the bible has mistranslated ‘God’ from the plural ‘Elohim’, which does, in fact, originally mean “those who come from the sky”; that he’s been taken to the Elohim’s planet; cloned; met Jesus his half-brother, Buddha and Mohammed and a few other guys you might remember from the history books; and now he hangs out with a rotating bevy of supermodel Raëlian ‘Angels’ in his own private harem, practising sensual meditation. Like, is that totally Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or what? Did I mention that he also had sex with biological robot women on the aliens’ home planet? Way cool, dude. Raël is truly a pop-Messiah for a media-saturated world.

It’s early Monday morning in Switzerland, and I wonder if Raël’s wearing white, that 60s Star Trek inspired new age number he parades in the publicity stills, or maybe he’s still in his pyjamas and dressing gown, who knows? If you were a prophet, y’know, and not just any prophet but the last of all the prophets, entrusted with the message of our space fathers and the responsibility of the world’s first post-modern global religion, you’d stay in your pyjamas all day, too, if you wanted to, wouldn’t you? Damn straight. Why, it’s good enough for Hugh Hefner. And when Raël was invited to the Playboy mansion a few months back, he brought along his own sexy Raël’s Angels to stack up against Hef’s playbunnies, like two boys sharing toys. “We had a great encounter – he's a wonderful man,” Raël says. I wonder if they compared their stats? Hef claims to have slept with over 1,000 women, but the prophet Raël is just “a poor young guy, so [has slept with] maybe only 400.” Wow. Like, what a life, eh?

Ah, so, how did this 60-year-old Frenchman end up as the prophet of an advanced alien civilisation? Well, it was like, the 70s and all, and Raël says that everything was “organised upstairs to make it the right time to happen.” After the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima in 1945 there was that wave of UFO sightings across the world, which also parallelled the growth of television and shows like the Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Religion stated to decline just as science and consumerism started to rise. Raël’s now buddy, Erich von Däniken, known as the ‘father of the ancient astronaut theory’, was the author of ‘Chariots of the Gods’ and over two dozen books on this theme that popularised the idea in the early 70s that space aliens seeded life on Earth. Raël says Däniken’s bitchin’ that he had all the big ideas but the aliens never chose to reveal themselves to him, but that’s why Raël’s the Messiah and Däniken’s just some wacko.

Raël, or Claude Vorilhon, as he was known back then, had been a minor pop star, releasing a few records throughout the late 60s. By the early 70s he was married with two kids and was almost living his childhood dream of racing cars by running a small motor racing magazine. But one day, he says, he received a telepathic command to go to an inactive volcano called Puy de Lassolas near the capital of Auvergne, France, where in a crater he claims he “saw a very strong flashing light in the sky and then [a] UFO came down and a trap door opened and...” And, well, the rest is history. Our parents from space came down and gave him their message of peace, love and friendship on earth, and invited us, their experiment in genetics, to reach our full potential, experiencing “love, real love.” They charged him to be their latest prophet, waiting for us to be scientifically advanced enough to see the truth of their message, of the science behind creation. On their second visitation they took him to their planet and he had sex with beautiful biological robot women, a blonde, brunette and a redhead. Oh, I already told you that, didn’t I?



Raël claims Yahweh gave him a bible-school intensive on his space ship over six days, explaining the translation problems and the poor understanding of modern and still futuristic sciences like cloning and genetics, space travel and telepathy, amongst others. Raël gathered together all this knowledge in his 1975 tract, ‘The Book Which Tells The Truth, The Message Given to Me by Extra-Terrestrials’, which is like an elementary reader of the Old Testament spliced with 70s sci-fi, but over the last 30-plus years has reportedly sold over one million copies in various repackagings. That may include free downloads as an e-book off his website, exact figures are unknown. Anyway, that’s not the point, is it? Sure, book sales stats can be fudged, so can membership numbers, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. This is a growing worldwide religion with literally, universal themes. Many of the core beliefs of old religions like Judaism, Catholicism and Islam have been retained, like loving one another and our creators. But instead of belief in a supernatural God, Raël brings us another way. “When I checked with what the Elohim claim and compared it with the rationality of the message I received, I think it's a better transmission because it's so rational,” Raël says, with a gravity to his voice like he’s comparing brands in his shopping. “There's absolutely no belief in a supernatural God, or anything like that, so it's more natural.”


 

“Like, wicked, prophet Raël. But do you think that's just changing the icing on the cake, that instead of saying God created us we can now say aliens created us? Don't we now have to have faith in aliens that still won't reveal themselves to us?” I feel sorta bad for asking questions like this, like I’m going to burst Raël’s bubble or something, but no, he doesn’t mind, he’s been facing skeptical journalists for over 30 years and is used to such incendiary questioning. “And there’s been thousands of reports of UFO sightings over the last few decades, so what makes yours so special?”

“I think what makes it special is that I am supposed to be the only messenger,” Raël says mirthfully, like he’s explaining it to little child. “A lot of people, millions of people may be seeing UFOs, what people on Earth call UFOs, but the Elohim told me that I am the only messenger.”

That’s funny, because there’s also a black guy from Vegas who calls himself the prophet Yahweh and who also claims to be a messenger for the aliens, and you can see him on YouTube calling down shining lights for reporting TV cameras – maybe they’re different aliens, I don’t know. Raël does say there’s a galactic brotherhood out there, and the Elohim aren’t our only space brothers. But Raël is definitely the one and only prophet of these aliens, and they’re the only ones offering to save us from our own ignorance if we blow ourselves up with our atomic weapons, so don’t diss them, alright?

“We have a lot of people watching us on the ‘Cosmic You Tube’ right now,” Raël chuckles,“ and they are laughing so much. It's like being a primitive tribe when the coke bottle comes from the sky. For primitive people right now, and I think it’s very famous in Australia, the cargo cults in the Pacific Islands where they are awaiting the return of the Americans who created their religion. You know about the cargo cults?” Raël pauses to make sure I’m still following him.

“Yes,” I say, wondering just who are the primitive people, exactly.

“It’s the same thing – everything coming from the sky must be Gods. There is a movie that I love – I don’t know if it was made in Australia or Africa, I don't remember – The Gods must be Crazy.”

“Cheech and Chong! Yes!”

“You have seen this movie?”

“Yes, I have seen this movie.” For a second I wonder if the prophet likes a smoke himself, but then I remember Raëlians don’t do drugs, including tea, coffee and alcohol. Except that red wine is okay, y’know, ‘cause he’s a Frenchie and all. Gambling’s bad, too, except maybe for that time Raël was video-tapped betting by two amateur documentary-makers at the casino in Vegas after a spiritual awakening seminar. I dunno, maybe some things are ok, we’re all human, after all.

“When the Coca-Cola bottle falls from the sky in the plane?" Raël chortles, holding back a giggle. "And the primitive people think the Gods must be crazy to send us this thing!” and finally he laughs. "And this is the same process. When you are primitive everything you see in the sky is Gods. And then when you evolve, then you place satellites around the earth and you go to the moon and you don't think things around you are things connected to a God or something supernatural."

Haw, that’s my favourite scene, too. I feel like slapping my knee and having a good old laugh at the way we always get things so wrong. Raël is so gosh darn funny. It’s like he’s always telling a joke and the whole world is in on the punchline, and as I bask in the warmth of his humour, I get the same feeling I got as a small boy looking at the watercolour pictures in my children’s bible. Like Jesus was my big brother, and maybe now Raël could be, too. Which makes sense, kinda, since they’re related and all.

For such a cool dude, he seems to have made a lot of enemies, but that’s jealousy, I guess. Raël says the Catholic church is real pissed at him, y’know. ‘cause not only does he and his religion promote gay rights, contraception, divorce… and cloning, my mate Raël is also personally responsible for the de-baptising of over 20,000 Catholics, which requires a permission slip from the Vatican. “As well as the Israelis all the Christian people are afraid to lose all their power. It’s very simple. They see it as a market and there’s a new competition, which is very dangerous,” Raël says.

Then there are the Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders who have come down real heavy on the Raëlian company CloneAid, saying it encroaches on the power of God, who “created Man in his own image.” There was also a little mix-up over the use of the swastika within the Star of David as the central Raëlian symbol. Raël says the star-swastika symbol “is formed by interlocked triangles which means ‘as above, so below’ enclosing a swastika which means ‘all is cyclic in infinite time.’” The swastika really is an ancient religious symbol which predates the Nazi’s appropriation of it, but it didn’t go down Raël well, heh, when the Raëlians wanted to build their space embassy as the Third Temple in Jerusalem.


 

“I am surprised every morning to be still alive,” Raël says, but maybe the aliens are helping him there, as always. “The Moslems, also, you know what they think … I’m surprised also that they haven’t decided to kill me yet. There was also a fanatic Buddhist group that were threatening me with death threats. At a hotel in Bangok just before a public speech I received a letter that said 'if you talk tonight about Buddha in your public speech we will kill you'. I was rolling on the floor laughing.”

Y’know, maybe there is hope to unite the world, after all. If the four main religions can finally unite over something, even something bad, like killing the prophet Raël, then maybe the aliens’ plan of global enlightenment is coming to fruition after all. Who knows, maybe it’s not just the message, but the medium that’s important. Maybe the real meaning is in the way that ideas themselves can stir up a planetary hornet’s nest and shape our world.

“You know what I don’t understand with any of these religions, Raël? The way they all get fixated on the messenger, and not the message. Does it really matter who says it, or where they got it from, if the message is good?” I bemoan, and Raël seems to know where I’m coming from. Does it matter if it was a long white bearded dude in the heavens or an olive-skinned alien from the stars, that Raël is a loveable rogue or the long-awaited Messiah the Jewish faith has been waiting for? I dunno. Maybe. As Raël says, “There was a study for the top rabbi in Israel talking about me, and saying, 'we don’t agree with him, but let's be careful, in case he's really the Messiah!’" he chuckles.

“Have you seen that movie, 'Monty Python's Life of Brian?’” I ask. “Where they say, "He's not the Messiah, he's just a very naughty boy!"

“I love it,” Raël says, and laughs. “I love it, all these, all the Monty Python... The Meaning of Life is one of my favourite movies, also...”

Y’know, it’s not only sex-shops that are better attended than churches, it’s television, the internet, shopping malls and consumer culture. And in an over-stimulated global village, a unifying, digestable idea like space alien saviours is the type of thing that could just about float as a global religion. Like a planetary cargo cult the Mcpopulace is ready for the new message of Raël, of spiritual truths synthesised from old religions, for the free love, for the expansive cosmology that integrates and puts science at its core as the driver. Raëlianism might just be the religion of the 21st century, because in the end you get what you’re ready for.

“Raël, I know what you should do, dude. It’s all about target markets. You need to update the message of the Elohim with some advertising spin, yeah, override the old religions and reach new audiences who are into new mediums… like Reality TV.” Get some TV company to fund the embassy and get those Raël’s Angels hotties out there with some boobie action and let’s just see if those aliens don’t come down for some good lovin’!



“You are right on. And that’s exactly what we are preparing. We sign a contract, which is still in negotiation with a Hollywood company...” Raël says excitedly.

“You’re kidding?! I just had this idea the other night for the 'RAËL WORLD’!”

“Yes, we are really talking about it. The internet is our best tool now. Before, there were Raëlians everywhere spreading pamphlets and all that, but now that's finished. With the internet we have thousands of people reaching us in 27 languages, and we have the future, because the future's of us.”

Listen, I know what you’re thinking, but who knows? Wouldn’t you like to live forever and have sex with aliens? Dreams can come true, and if you build it, they’ll either come, or you can sell people the t-shirt and DVD and make a good prophet at the same time. The media is the medium IS the message, and as Raël so happily epitomises, we are all UFOs.

And I’d like my biological robot super-woman to be blonde, thanks.

 

 

originally published in Australian Penthouse, June 2007


Over the Rainbow> by Rak Razam

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Friday morning, day one - "Hippies, hippies... they want to save the world but all they do is smoke pot and play frisbee!" – Eric Cartman, South Park



I wake to the sounds of a cluster of Japanese girls camped next door, their voices mixing with Spanish, German and thick Aussie accents. Renegade soundsystems pump out thumping electronic beats that fill the dusty air. The ever-present doof doof doof of the music is so ubiquitous you eventually forget it’s even there. We’ve run out of beer, but it was only a slab between three thirsty blokes and it should have been expected. All around us party crew are camped next to their vans and cars, an endless gypsy village covered in layers of dust. The camps touch upon each other in every direction, a vast, fractal tent city that folds in on itself like architectural origami. It reminds me of the way insects make their homes, of a hive consciousness. North American tipis and flags of all countries are mixed in with ancient symbols and psychedelic images. It looks like civilization after the fall, after the oil peaks and the power shortages kick in.

I’m here with my friends Matty from Byron and Kaptain Khaos from Paris and a slew of aging dancers that have come out of retirement to celebrate the 10th anniversary Rainbow Serpent Festival, a four day celebration of “soul and technology”, according to the organizers. Here in Australia the outdoor party scene has been flourishing for over a decade at bush ‘doofs’ (named after the bass beat of the electronic music), where ‘doofers’ revel in Trance music, community and enhanced states of mind. “Since the first gathering in 1998, Rainbow has become a popular annual get-together for thousands of like minded people,” says Frank Venuto, one of the festival’s founders. Rainbow Serpent is a landmark of the Global Trance music calendar, where semi-retired doofers like myself mix it up with the young turks of the dancefloor and the old hippies that can still shake it.

As I walk down by the edge of the property I marvel at the thousands of punters still streaming in from the main road, waiting in bumper-to-bumper gridlock to get in. By the peak of the festival there's over seven thousand people from all over the world living together like counter-culture refugees, gathered together here in the Aussie bush. Yet there’s an unspoken thing about Global Trance culture and the Trancers that carry the beat. For the festival is not just about music, or art, or any of the things advertised. The real essence of Rainbow Serpent is the people, and the vibe, and what they do in the time and space outside the normal rules and mores of civilization. This is a wild space, a ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ as anarchic philospher Hakim Bey has called it, a ‘liminal’ space on the edges of possibility where anything goes and everything is possible. A hedonistic orgy of the senses where designer states of mind blend with the electronic music and wild psychedelic art, and all I have to do is dance… if I still can.



The beautiful people are here – the cream of the crop of the global tribe, twirling their staffs and playing Frisbee in the morning light. Ferals, suburban groovers, mums and kids and beer drinking bogans, faeries and freaks all in loud clothes and knitted cardigans, bedspread pants and capes are milling about in hedonistic orbits, their hair adorned with feathers. The bush groovers are swathed in earthy tones of brown and black and green on clothes with an Eastern cut, overlaid with stencils of trees, birds, and nature prints. There’s a sea of bare chests and fisherman's pants, straw hats and five-dollar petrol station sunnies crossed with an 80s-retro chic; mad trippers everywhere except when everyone's doing it, it doesn't seem that mad at all.

This is the great counter-cultural dream, mate, forget the 1/4 acre block of land and the AV Jennings house and the Hills Hoist – these revelers have embraced the market area dancefloor as their temporary home. Banana lounges litter the edge of the dirt floor, pockets of hard leisure going on, punters drinking and smoking and consuming like hungry caterpillars fuelling an alchemical transformation as speakers pump out mega-bass and the crowd sways rhythmically to the music. Hundreds of multi-coloured doofers are bumping and grinding out there, thumping up a storm. This is the “Archaic revival” – a tribal mode of living, coasting from festival to festival across the world in search of the perfect beat.

“People are having some profound experiences out in the bush amongst the trees, dancing,” says DJ Krusty, a Trance tribal elder with wise eyes and long dreadlocks who has been involved with Rainbow Serpent since the early days. “This kind of stuff has been going on for centuries – people going out and dancing outdoors. It doesn't matter whether you're an African culture, a Middle-Eastern culture or a European culture, a North-American culture, a South American culture, an Eskimo culture; whatever. They're all dancing, all the time. Western dominator culture doesn't like that because it's all about control. The dance frees the body up and moves it around, allowing consciousness to expand into a larger state, or to go within to find the universe inside.”


Right now the crowd is chattering and buzzing and quicksilvering around each other on the dancefloor, hot skin sweating as the dancers pump and pound the dirt and clouds of dust plume up and layer us all in the skin of the earth. I shouldn’t have worried; dancing is like riding a bike – you never forget how. The music floods through us like the wind and we are all connected together, here, now, in this single moment in the heat of the day, until it feels like we're all dancing on the skin of the sun…



Saturday, day two - "Never take a drug named after a pound of your ass," – Matty L, Byron Bay




It's cold and rainy today but a cloud of dust still hangs in the air. "I love life! Life is a party!" says Kaptain Khaos as he puts on a Mexican wrestling mask under his hoodie, like Dr. Doom in the bush. "His face was scarred with acid", I tell the startled revelers he’s terrorizing by dry humping a fluffy five-foot blue chimp in the bushes.

The doofers are on the dancefloor, of course, moving to the syncopated beats like trees in a storm, their limbs blown this way and that by the sounds. They gesticulate wildly with their hands, surfing the music with them to express what words cannot: the secret language of the dancefloor. There's little verbal communication because that's one of the lower forms of consciousness; instead everyone looks, they stare at others staring at the others, all of us groking one another over and over in all our multi-faceted diversity. And every face you see has the same look on it, mirroring and reflecting each other. Our bodies are 60 percent water and as the sound travels through them we become one big skin, sexing through the dirt.


Roving performers snake through the crowd: mermaids, harlequins, faeries with painted faces and Japanese girls with white angels wings, to name just a few. Three beautiful tribal goddesses in white are dancing a dance of purple veils, looking like pinups from a 1970s macrobiotic lifestyle calendar, eco-sex symbols. They’re flanked by all-Aussie farmer boys in thongs and acubras and girls in bellbottom denim pants with fluro trim and your mum's 70s hand-knitted organic wool jumpers with Mayan glyph necklaces. To my right on the edge of the dancefloor a beautiful blonde girl is making love to a hula-hoop as it gyrates around her hips and breasts and up to her neck in an endless spiral, and I’m loaded; everything’s organically melting into everything else, people looking at people watching people in a human kaleidoscope.

As night falls the Main Floor opening ceremony starts with some haunting digderidoo and a cleansing by the local Aboriginal custodians. They sing sacred chants and smudge the whole dancefloor with smoke and sound, making it ready for the dance. "While dancing their Dreamings, Aborigines spiritually connect themselves to the land and to the Dreamtime,” the RSF website reads. “The drumming of feet during the dance draws the earth into dialogue with the dancers, allowing the ceremony to bring the power of the Dreaming to life." Aboriginals have their own festivals and tribal gatherings, too – corroborees they call them, or sacred meetings. They are places to tell the sacred stories that have been handed down through music, singing and dance, stories like the tale of the Rainbow Serpent itself.



In the Dreamtime, the world was flat, bare and cold. The Rainbow Serpent slept under the ground with all the animal tribes in her belly waiting to be born. When it was time, she pushed up, calling to the animals to come from their sleep. She threw the land out, making mountains and hills and spilled water over the land, making rivers and lakes. She made the sun, the fire and all the colours. And the energy of the Rainbow Serpent lives on in all of us that connect to the land, that dance on its skin and feel the pulse of life running through. Aborigines used hand made paints to act out these stories, just as the doofers dress in their own archetypes and costumes and flair. The fact that this ancient culture is mirrored by a modern electronic one is all the more natural when you consider they’re both doing the same thing: connecting to the spirit.

“It's so awesome this community, the creative community coming together like this...” says Ganga from Ganga Giri, the tribal percussion dance act that’s opening up the night and raising the vibrations. “Thank you for letting us be here on this beautiful dance ground and letting us come here to celebrate life. This is why we're gathered together yeah, to celebrate life!” he shouts down the mike.


“You know it you know it!!!” screams the crowd, crying and clapping.



In the wee hours of the morning the crew and I stumble across a film zone on a little hill near the market. They’re screening a history of LSD, the first flowering of the Summer of Love and expansive consciousness, surrounded by a blur of faerie lights. Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters kicked off modern dance parties in the 1960s with the 'Acid Tests' – a multi-media extravaganza that overloaded the senses and experimented with collective consciousness. Walking through the market after the doco and stepping into a sea of crusty hippies young and old – mostly young– it strikes me that we're living in the world that Kesey and his ilk helped create, that the 60s hippies pioneered, but now Trance/dance culture is a planetary thing.

In the moonlight I bump into an old friend, Kathleen, a dreadlocked woman with chunky Roy Orbison sunglasses and a striped top under a denim jacket, who wants to bend my ear about the culture here: “To me the crux of what makes us a bit different from hippies and other subcultures is the technological growth that has happened...” she says. “These types of gatherings are definitely a seed of revolution in peoples thinking. And I say peoples thinking because it is definitely more than a party. This is definitely more than recreation… There’s a growing connection to earth and tribalism, a greater respect and understanding of humans place on the earth.”

As I look up at the stars Comet McNaught blossoms into life and lights up the night like the tail of a cosmic peacock. It's biblical–thirty million miles long and tonight it shines down on us like an auspicious omen as the party tribe revels under the stars. The sound of drumming reverberates through the night as a green laser pointer cuts through treetops. Cosmic, it’s getting cosmic, man…


Sunday, day three – “étais là, halluciné ça" – Col. Kurtz, Sydney



A dozen feral drummers in earthy tones and dreadlocks have melted out of the night and congregated in the Chai Tent as the bushniks sip drinks and roll endless joints. The drummers thread themselves into rhythms within rhythms, weaving their primal tattoo around the warmth of the tribe. A bald, Buddha-like gypsy called Arizona slips out into the middle of the drumming circle and shakes a tambourine as he begins a belly dance, mesmerizing the crowd like a snake charmer.

Col. Kurtz, a mid-40s uber-tripper from Sydney dressed in a princess tiara and a Kylie Minogue necklace, is holding five tall peacock feathers like plumed staffs as he focuses his red headtorch beam at them and stares into the infinite eyes of God. The drumming goes round and round in peaking waves, a dense tribal temple beat that scoops up all the stoned minds and carries them away on journeys of the spirit.

COL. KURTZ: There’s a neat French phrase, "étais là, halluciné ça".
RAK: Which means?
COL. KURTZ: Which means, "Been there, hallucinated that". But in French it sounds better.

I know what he means. There are the bits of the culture you can only understand after being in a big acid mosh pit for three days. “Do you know what I think? I've developed this theory that the dancefloor is a canvas full of something akin to junk DNA in the body of the species. When it's 3am in the morning and you're all there, coagulated into a group mind and your sweaty little bodies are doing what they do to the beats, everyone's getting on that same wavelength. And everyone's looking around and doing the vogue thing, but in those lookings it's like the beast with a thousand eyes, it’s one fluid consciousness... And something jumps from person to person like a wave packet in the quantum foam, some essential essence that we're all channelling out there in the mix...”

“I get that all the time on the dancefloor, all the time,” Col. Kurtz says, staring at me with big, dilated eyes, his $2 shop tiara glinting in the light. “We reflect each other – it’s the group mind. That's what the whole dancefloor experience is about, really.” And then he’s lost in the eyes of the peacock feathers and the sound of the snake dance all around, the smell of hashish.


A dark-haired girl in Prada-feral wear and a big smile yells out, “Yavoo makoshhhey....!” and spills her cup of chai. It’s Serbian for: "It’s the only way it can be,” she tells me. “That’s the way it is. That’s the way it should be.” She’s right, of course. It's probably anti-capitalist, but the tribe seems to share whatever they've got on them – water, beer, tobacco, joints, smiles, freely offering tribe-mates and the extended friendship circles their abundance. Right here, right now, all of us hanging out here in the bush, on the same wavelength, we all know we’re part of something special. And all we have to do is live it.


Monday, day four - "We are all of us a mirror to the sky" – Japanese Trancer, Tokyo



The potporri tent city stretches out ahead of us in the Monday morning sun, but it’s giving away to entropy as campers pack up and head back to the city. Everybody’s starting to burn out. The pressure of four days of relentless, full-tilt partying is getting to even the best of us. But the psychic pressure has been building, the invisible essence of the group mind has been rising and this is the day it all goes OFFFF.

We’re on the market floor again as the dancers shimmy across the dirt and merge into a single groove, fuelled by disco biscuits and liquid states of mind. A huge mosh pit hundreds of people strong coalesces under the mushroom petalled ceiling as the sprinklers threaded throughout the webwork turn on and dose the crowd in instant rain and the light catches the water in the air and rainbows shine around us. The dancers' feet hit the earth and their hips hug the beats, thumping electronic Trance that goes right through you and holds you up out there in the primal mix, lost amongst a sea of smiles and grinding bodies wrapped in the cast-off fashions of the global village, all of us in a shared state of no-mind, like a single-cell cosmic amobea on the dancefloor, that's what we've become. Looking around with a thousand eyes and thousands of feet that communicate the single message of our group consciousness: dance.

And just as I'm having that thought about us mirroring each other on the dancefloor and the group mind is peaking, feeling the sprinkler water fall down and drench us all on this hot Monday afternoon in paradise, this Japanese girl tugs on my arm and tells me that my white kung-fu style top is lettered with Japanese calligraphy.

“Do you know what this says?” she asks in delicate geisha tones. I shake my head and keep dancing to the beat. “It is a Buddhist text, like a prayer, many prayers, all of them to God. The first line says something like: ‘We are all of us a mirror to the sky’”. And voom! The satori moment hits, and the group consciousness gels. All of us a mirror, and as the remembrance burns through we shine and shine and shine... It’s us, all of us. We are the Rainbow Serpent, snaking through the dirt in our colorful costumes, channeling the earth spirit. And this old doofer is back home at last, on the dancefloor, where we are all One.

 

 

Originally published in Australian Penthouse magazine May, 2007

all photos by Firdaus Emir aka Webgrrl www.ozdoof.com


Talking with Kevin

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Kevin Furnas was a Western shaman from San Francisco who had been training with ayahuasca and other plant medicines for over a decade. He dieted extensively with plants at the Sachamama Ethnobotanical Gardens retreat outside Iquitos for nearly two years, receiving knowledge and wisdom from the plant doctors directly. He was an ayahuasquero and vegetalista in the Amazonian tradition, performing healing ceremonies with ayahuasca and other plants.

Kevin died in Cusco, Peru, in late April, 2007. His ashes were distributed among the Sequoias and Redwoods of Big Sur, California.

This 24 page PDF interview is an excerpt from the forthcoming book The Ayahuasca Sessions, Conversations with Amazonian curanderos and Western shamans by journalist Rak Razam. An excerpt is below; click the attachment to download the full interview.

 

RAK> Kevin we’re here in Iquitos and we’ve been at the Second Annual Shaman Conference... And I guess your area of expertise in vegetal reality, or plant consciousness or plant spirits. So could you tell us a bit about how you came into this and what you’ve learned about the plants?

KEVIN> I originally came to South America looking for ayahuasca. I had read about ayahuasca many years back, however when I arrived in Iquitos I discovered there was a process, a process whereby human beings were trained by plants. It’s called the diet process. In the Amazonian system human beings are trained by the higher energetic selves of plants and trees.

Thus I entered this process, this process of shamanic initiation if you will, in the Amazonian system. I dieted with the plants for 20 months here in Iquitos.

RAK> And what do you think that dieting process was doing internally to your body, mind and soul?

KEVIN> This process, the diet process, this initiation process is very thorough. Basically the higher energetic selves, the spirits, if you will, of the plants, enter into a relationship with the student, the human student. They work on a physical level -- we have a physical body, but we also have energetic bodies associated with the seven major chakras in our body. So on an energetic level the higher energetic selves, the spirits of the plants come and heal us -- they remove
blockages. They clean our soul, if you will. They also prepare us, they organise the lines of our energy, the rivers of light that flow through our body. They untangle these lines and they help to open up these centers so that we have... we
have different abilities, for instance the ability to talk to plants and trees, or see different vibrational dimensions.

RAK> In the western perspective we see the external world and plants and the creatures within it as sort of products of an external reality, and as things that don’t communicate and aren’t “sentient”. How do you perceive [the plants] and how would you communicate that to a western audience what we’re calling spirits and what you’re calling essences to the western mind?


KEVIN> In the Amazonian system they believe that each plant has a mother, if you will, a spirit. What is a spirit then from a western point of view? Oftentimes we need an understanding, an explanation. So what is a spirit? Well to understand the spirit of a tree it helps to first understand who we are as human beings...


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talking_with_kevin.pdf3.71 MB

Still Seeking> by Rak Razam

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50 years ago a New York banker’s trailblazing story of participating in a holy, age-old ritual in the mountains of Mexico with Indians who “chew strange growths that produce visions” was published, sparking off the psychedelic revolution of the 60s and a new horizon for neuroscience today


May 13, 1957, during the height of the post-war Eisenhower years, an article written by the influential banker and amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson, 'Seeking the Magic Mushroom', was published in Life magazine, part of the Time-Life stable. In homes across the nation, everyday Americans weathering the poles of luxury capitalist growth and communist menace were rocked by the strange article, part anthropology and part-adventure narrative, that introduced proof of a hitherto speculative practice by indigenous Mexican Indians, who "chew strange growths that produce visions". A serpent was set loose in suburbia. The chain of events Wasson’s story unleashed popularised knowledge of altered states of mind and, some say, was the first spark of what was to become the psychedelic revolution. Now, fifty years later, Westerners are still seeking the ‘magic’ mushroom, as the time-honored sacrament of Mesoamericans comes out of the fields and into the medical fold as a valuable tool in the burgeoning field of neuroscience.

1957 was the year that Sputnik was launched into orbit, Leave it to Beaver premiered on CBS, and, conversely, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published. It was a world with only a dim memory of the role of mind-altering mushrooms as religious sacraments, and even then it was codified and ambiguous, or wrapped in mythology and fairy tales. The mushroom’s role in the history of Western culture had been effectively extinguished from memory when Gordon Wasson and his photographer, Alan Richardson, came to the remote Oaxacan village of Huautla de Jiménez in mid-1955 and chanced upon the Mazatec curandera, or shaman, Doña María Sabina. On the night of June 29-30 she led a velada or vigil, what Wasson likened to a ‘holy communion’, where ‘divine’ mushrooms were first “adored and then consumed”.

As Wasson wrote in the Life article: “The mushrooms were of a species with hallucinogenic powers; that is, they cause the eater to see visions. We chewed and swallowed these acrid mushrooms, saw visions, and emerged from the experience awestruck. We had come from afar to attend a mushroom rite but had expected nothing so staggering as the virtuosity of the performing curanderas and the astonishing effects of the mushrooms. Richardson and I were the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms, which for centuries have been a secret of certain Indian peoples living far from the great world in southern Mexico. No anthropologists had ever described the scene that we witnessed.”

Wasson's dramatic announcement was intended as advance publicity for a lavish, privately printed book he was about to publish that same year, Mushrooms, Russia and History. An editor of Life magazine had overheard Wasson’s Mexican adventures over lunch at the Century Club in New York and invited him to contribute to their True Life section with free reign to write it as he wished. The editor, however, may be the one to thank for branding this ancient indigenous sacrament with the term is has forevermore been identified: ‘magic’ mushrooms.

Wasson described his experience with the mushrooms as a “soul-shattering happening”. The sacred mushroom, he said, allows one to see “more clearly than our mortal eye can see, vistas beyond the horizons of this life.” How unusual must such a claim have been in the cultural milieu of 1950s America? And how unusual a man was Gordon Wasson, who has been described as part businessman, part adventurer and part scholar, a real-life Indiana Jones type adventurer?

Wasson was born 22 September 1898 and brought with him a Victorian sense of intellectual curiosity and a relentless love of knowledge. His father was an Episcopalian clergyman and he started his career as a journalist before entering the banking profession in 1928, working his way up to become vice president of J.P. Morgan, a leading New York bank. Wasson was also an amateur scholar and a pioneer 'ethnomycologist' – one who studies the cultural use of mushrooms, as he had coined the term with his wife, Valentina, a white Russian with a passion for the mushrooms born of her ethnic heritage.

On their honeymoon in 1927, on an afternoon walk in the Catskills in upstate New York, the newlywed couple had come upon “a forest floor carpeted with mushrooms”. While Valentina scooped them up lovingly and cooked and consumed them for dinner, the wary Wasson saw a fundamental division between their two reactions. Emboldened, he traced the reaction to the mushroom throughout all available folklore, literature and mythology for three decades to explore what he termed ‘mycophobes’ – those who have an aversion to the mushroom, and ‘mycophiles’ – those who eat them.

Wasson wove together clues from across inter-disciplines: history, linguistics, art, archeology, mythology and religion in a methodic, scientific way. Spanish records indicate that the Aztecs had called the ‘magic’ mushroom teonanacatl (‘flesh of the gods’), but ceremonial use in modern times had not been proven. Allusions were all through European folklore and global mythology, like the mushroom and the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, and in sporadic accounts from medical accounts throughout the Victorian era of unsuspecting English picnic-ers becoming bemushroomed with laughter and “intoxicated of the senses”. And then, digging through the world’s holy books and historical records, Wasson claimed to have found something even bigger: a key to understanding the religious interface which he believed lay at the base of many of the foundational world religions.

Wasson went on to posit the sacred mushroom as the active ingredient in the hallucinogenic 'Soma' mentioned in the Hindu holy book, the Rig-Veda, around 1500 B.C. Soma is a still controversial, unidentified sacred substance with mind-altering properties that is mentioned many times through the ancient Sanskrit writings. Wasson argues, as convincingly as one can from evidence of mushroom iconography at the time but without, unfortunately, any extant biological record, that the most likely active ingredient in this elixir was the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria, the red-capped, white-stemmed fly agaric.

He further reasoned, backing it up with archeological clues, that the ancient, mind-altering Greek Mystery Rites of Eleusis (which included such Hellenic ‘trippers’ as Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle, and possibly Homer) were laced with a fungus containing ololiuqui, or morning glory seeds, which produce a milder version of LSD effects. His provocative theories upset multi-disciplinary applecarts and remain unproven to this day. But Wasson gained many adherents and helped catalysw1e new fields of research in cultural anthropology, comparative theology and enthnomycology.

Wheras earlier cultures had preserved the secret of the mind-altering effect of the mushroom and its plant cousins, draping them in ceremony and ritual to support initiates into an experiential communion with the ‘divine’, the culture of the 1950s reacted in a more traditional way. Wasson funded all his mushroom expeditions (of which there were dozens throughout the 50s-70s) himself, but as a banker he was always shrewd with money, and conversely knew the true value of things. He put out for grant money to help finance one of his later trips in 1956 and the CIA responded, using a front group called the Gerschickter Fund for Medical Research.


This was the heyday of MK-Ultra, the secret mind-control program that dosed soldiers, unwitting government agents and ordinary citizens with LSD over a dozen years, according to declassified documents released in 1975. Under the banner of project ARTICHOKE, which scoured the world for psychotropic plants that could prove useful mind-control agents, the CIA reasoned that possession of, and samples from, the hallucinogenic Mazatec mushroom could help in their cold-war mind battles. They assigned James Moore, a nervous, uptight CIA chemist from the University of Delaware to accompany the expedition.

Moore secured a supply of the sacred fungi but failed in his attempts to isolate the chemical ‘spirit’ in the mushroom. Thus it was that the CIA, one of the world’s most powerful organisations, was beat to the punch yet again by Dr. Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD-25, who isolated, identified and synthesised the active principles of the mushrooms: psilocybin and psilocin, from samples Wasson made available in 1958. The chemical giant Sandoz patented them, and man replicated in little white pills the sacred “spirits in the mushroom” the Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina had first revealed a scant few years earlier. Psilocybin proved itself non-addictive and related to the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, as the nascent field of neurochemistry boomed along with the decade.

Wasson’s groundbreaking work with the mushrooms soon spread like information spores in the global psychotherapy network. An up-and-coming Harvard psychologist named Timothy Leary tried ‘magic’ mushrooms whilst on holiday in Mexico in 1960, inspired by a colleague whom had read Wasson’s article. What followed was the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which experimented with Leary’s early work with the psychology of game playing. In 1961, after a period of controversial self-experimentation upon other Harvard faculty and students, Leary instigated psilocybin tests for alcoholism and personality disorders at Concord prison. Leary was famously quoted as saying “Let’s see if we can turn the criminals into Buddhas.” The results, which used psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to help reduce recidivism with prisoners, had dramatic effects, reducing the number of prisoners returning to jail after six months from a national average of 67% to only 25% – but the experiment has yet to be retested.

In concert with Walter Pankhe, a physician and a minister, Leary later conducted a further controversial psilocybin experiment in 1962, where the mushrooms’ active ingredient was given to a double-bind group of 10 of the 20 Harvard Divinity students present to induce religious states. On Good Friday, 1962 at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, the group participated in a worship service, and reported profound religious experiences that seemed to provide empirical support for earlier academic connections between psychoactive substances and the roots of religion. In a few short years the sacred mushroom had traveled from the wild hills of Mexico to the honored halls of Harvard, as the Western fascination with the nature of consciousness – and the knowledge and power it represented – escalated.

Wasson, along with fellow writers and scientists, including Ott, Schultes, and Hofmann, was later responsible for the popularisation of the word ‘entheogen’, which is Latin for ‘evoking the Divine within’. They coined the term in 1978 to steer the sacred use of these substances away from the stigma the word psychedelics had created, and towards religious use. The theory that Wasson and his coterie developed on the use of psychoactive plants in pre-history and their connection to a Gnostic form of spirituality is described in his book, The Road to Elusius:

“As man emerged from his brutish past, thousands of years ago, there was a stage in the evolution of his awareness when the discovery of a mushroom (or was it a higher plant?) with miraculous properties was a revelation to him, a veritable detonator to his soul, arousing in him sentiments of awe and reverence, and gentleness and love, to the highest pitch of which mankind is capable, all those sentiments and virtues that mankind has ever since regarded as the highest attributes of his kind. “

It was the type of message that the sprouting counter-culture of the early 60s embraced, as the readers of Wasson’s tale of initiation into the secrets of the ‘magic’ mushroom went through their own psychedelic initiations. Western thrillseekers came to the remote Oaxaca village in search of the mystical connection Wasson wrote about. Such was the power of curandera Maria Sabina’s allure, mixed with the psychedelic-inspired movement of the time, that rock legends such as Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Pete Townsend all made pilgrimages to trip under her guidance. From the late 60s to the mid-70s, Huautla was literally besieged by Western seekers. The police did their best to seal off the little mountain hamlet from curious hippies, and the government went as far as to close off the village to outsiders for a time.

Wasson was against the masses taking the mushrooms without a foundational support like tribal societies provided in their religious ceremonies. Yet he was also one of the founders, unwittingly or not, of the psychedelic movement, by bringing the sacred knowledge of the Indians to the masses in the first place. “I had always had a horror”, he wrote, “of those who preached a kind of pseudo-religion of telepathy, who for me were unreliable people; if our discoveries were to be drawn to their attention, we were in danger of being adopted by such undesirables.” And while the hippies banged on the village door, the locals had their own problems.

Maria Sabina’s house first house was eventually burned down, presumably because she lived with the stigma of being the curandera who let the sacred mushroom be tainted by the West. Now, decades later, the mushrooms have become items of commercial value and trade in shops from Amsterdam to Tokyo. Before recent changes to UK laws, ‘magic’ mushroom growing kits and spores were widely available across Britain, and European stores still sell them over the internet. In 1971, Wasson read an interview with María Sabina, which appeared in the European magazine L'Europe, published in Milan. It reported that when the village official had requested her aid in helping the foreigners, she did so because she felt she had no choice. But she also declared that when she was asked to meet them [Wasson and Richardson] that she "should have said no."

Psychedelic author Daniel Pinchbeck visited the town of Huautla de Jiménez while researching for his 2002 book, “Breaking Open the Head: A Contemporary Journey into the Heart of Modern Shamanism”. Decades after Wasson’s groundbreaking and sacred mushroom ceremony, Pinchbeck participated in a mushroom ritual that catered to the spiritual tourist market that still draws seekers to the remote village. But the set and setting were much different than half a century ago, and Pinchbeck found that the power of the ritual had faded. Maria Sabina herself said as much herself, noting that some ephemeral ingredient seemed to be missing ever since Westerners were brought into the secret.

Some indigenous critics suggest that in talking about the mushrooms Wasson had profaned them, and broken a sacred trust, desacralising the sacred by taking it out of context. Yet as Wasson himself said in his 1980 book, The Wonderous Mushroom: "I arrived [among the Mexican Indians] in the same decade with the highway, the airplane, the alphabet. The Old Order was in danger of passing with no one to record its passing." And as the modern world collided with the archaic, an exchange happened. They got the technology and we got the mushroom – and maybe an old way of knowing for a modern world, if we have the courage to face it.

But since that fateful day Wasson encountered the sacred mushroom our cultural jadedness has also increased. In our modern technological age, having lived through the days of flower-power and widespread drug experimentation, we’re now a global village that’s been there and done that. The idea of changing our brain chemistry is not only nothing new, it’s now one of the biggest businesses in town, with millions of people worldwide one brand or other of antidepressants. But is there room on the market shelves for a psilocybin brand drug? It’s sure looking that way.

Almost 40 years since psychedelic medicine was last explored a medical resurgence in the use of psilocybin for treating depression, alcoholism and other addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder and in relieving pain and anxiety for the terminally-ill is underway around the world. A number of legal studies have been approved or are awaiting approval by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). One of the most prominent of these clinical trials is being spearheaded by a team of Harvard doctors exploring the use of psilocybin for treating patients with an extreme form of migraine called a 'cluster headache'.


Dr. Charles S. Grob, M.D., has conducted psilocybin research with late-stage cancer patients at the Harbour-UCLA Medical centre in California, and Dr. Rick Doblin, Ph.D., the founder of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), a registered non-profit organisation in California, assists researchers worldwide in facilitating government approval for beneficial psychedelic research in humans.

And in July 2006 a follow-up study to the Good Friday divinity tests was conducted by John Hopkins researchers under controlled scientific procedures. This breakthrough study was co-sponsored by the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), and points towards a thaw on the 40-year freeze on clinical psychedelic research. Like the original volunteers, participants in these modern mushroom-derived tests said that the experience led to “positive changes in attitude and behavior”, and a third of them cited it as one of the single most significant experiences of their lives. The long-term ‘spiritual buoyancy’ of a carefully controlled dose of psilocybin, and the catalyst it may provide for mystical or religious states of mind is now a pressing neurological issue for 21st century researchers – as well as society at large.

Wasson died 23 December, 1986, at his home in Danbury, Connecticut. By acting as the archetypal Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods, he was often held to blame for some of the spot fires that broke out in the intervening years from his bringing of the sacred mushroom to a profane world. But as he said in his book, The Road to Elusius:

"[The mushroom] made [me] see what this perishing mortal eye cannot see. What today is resolved into a mere drug ... was for [early humans] a prodigious miracle, inspiring in [them] poetry and philosophy and religion. Perhaps with all our modern knowledge we do not need the divine mushrooms any more. Or do we need them more than ever?"


shazaman

Member for
13 years 51 weeks

Jungle Fever > by Rak Razam

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We're 45 kilometres out of Iquitos, deep in the Peruvian Amazon, in the great green web of nature with our native Shaman, Percy Garcia. He has the boyish enthusiasm of a physical education teacher, which is reinforced by his western garb - Nike sneakers, tracky dacks and soccer shirt, but he's been trained since he was a boy in the world of the spirits, and of the great plant medicine - ayahuasca.

The night is alive with the sounds of insects and animals, like a constant hum of electricity. The maloca - a wall-less jungle hut - is lit by candles and mattresses litter the floor for the gringos to crash on as their bodies surrender to the pull of the medicine, and their spirits soar.

Percy's gotten changed into his ceremonial garb, a curious mish-mash of western clothes and indigenous bling bling that visually sums up the changing nature of Amazonian shamanism. Jaguar t-shirt, silk spotted pants and trainers, a feathered parrot hat with blue, red and yellow feathers around his forehead, offset with Christian rosary beads and a chacapa leaf fan in one hand.

He sits behind a makeshift altar, a wooden box covered with an intricate, geometrical patterned cloth that the local Shipibo Indians weave to represent the patterns one sees on ayahuasca. The altar is covered with ceremonial objects, little rainbow bead dolls, wooden cups, giant mapacho cigarettes filled with organic jungle tobacco, Nicotinia rustica, a smoke that cleanses and purifies and banishes bad spirits. Percy's got about a hundred mapacho cigarettes on the altar like he's expecting a horde of demons tonight, or he's having a stoner party with Cheech and Chong as the honoured guests. And last but not least, in plastic two litre San Luis water bottles, a thick, dark brown liquid - ayahuasca, the 'vine of souls'.

 



"When you have the cup in your hand, ask the spirit of ayahuasca to guide and show you your personal visions. You may see forms in the darkness - these are the night doctors, the plant teachers. I am the intermediary for them through my icaros," Percy says through a local translator, puffing away on his pre-ayahuasca mapacho. Percy's icaros are shaman songs, infectious melodies that roll over and over in your head, imprinting on you and giving you paths to follow in the hallucinogenic shamanspace ayahuasca takes you to.

We drink one by one, going up to the altar and taking the medicine in little wooden macca bowls. The brew is dark and phelgm like, and like all medicine it tastes foul, an earthy flavour that hits the quick of you and threatens to come up again. People burp and rinse their mouths. The sounds of the jungle deepen, monkeys screech, parrots call, and the ubiquitous sound of insects , as always, are switched on. Now, so are we.

And as the minutes go by and the dozen gringos collapse into the weight of their mattresses, the sound of vomiting fills the air. 'La Purga' the natives call it - The Purge. Wracking heaves of spew usher forth from us all, as the ayahuasca reads our energetic bodies, finds the sickness within us and brings it up and out, sometimes from both ends.

After the purging, the ayahuasca starts to come on slow, snaking in and out like a lover, tantalising me. The spirit in the plant is playing hard to get - or, more like it - she's finding me hard to get. She's interfacing, overlapping energy fields as this jungle medicine comes on strong. There's a flash of vibrant green, jungle vision as something starts to happen, as I fall into a curious circuitry like pattern, lines of energy that are called 'ayahuasca rivers'. And beyond that - well, each journey is unique. The spirit of the vine comes alive, it guides and teaches and heals you, and on the other side, nothing is ever the same.

Ayahuasca is legal in South America, protected as an indigenous medicine. It's only when the active ingredients - N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and MAO inhibitors are extracted does the plant become a chemical, and subject to the law. But ayahuasca is not a drug, not in the Western sense. It cannot be abused like recreational chemicals because the taste and experience are so demanding, and the hallucinogenic effect is never the same twice. Rather, it develops a relationship with the drinker, sometimes healing the body, other times illuminating the mind, and deeper still, taking the soul on journeys beyond.

 

 

But it will do none of this without the participant putting effort in - it's not just pop the red pill and escape the 'Matrix'. Serious students have to give up their western ways and embrace a rigorous diet low in foods containing tyramine, a chemical which can react badly with the MAO inhibiting properties of the vine. No red meat, pork, sugar, salts, fat, caffeine, acidic foods, alcohol - or sex, all of which affect the body's sensitivity to ayahuasca. Tell that to a bunch of western thrillseekers looking for some jungle kicks.

Nor are ayahuasca's practioners shamans in the sense that the West has constructed them to be. The word 'shaman' comes from Siberia as a cultural import via anthropologists studying indigenous medicine men, and is thought to reflect the root of the word 'sham', perhaps reflecting the lack of psychoactive plants for much of the frozen Siberian winter. Throughout the Amazonian tradition - one of the longest unbroken threads of connection with the earth - the locals refer to these plants doctors as 'curanderos', from the Spanish - to cure. And surrounded by the mighty Amazon, the 'lungs of the world', where over 80% of the planet's biodiversity lives, these healers draw upon that diversity to work their magic.

Thousands of indigenous healers populate every village, town and city throughout South and Central America, with many sub-specialities to the craft for those populations big enough to support it. There are 'vegetalistas', those who diet and work with many medicinal plants, who believe that each and every plant and tree has a spirit in it, and the spirits can be contacted to give advice on their properties, what they cure and how they can be used. Then there are tobacco healers, the tabaquero who use the Nicotiana rustica exclusively to cleanse and cure, perfumeros, those who work with flower essences, and stone healers, who work exclusively with the strong, deep power of special stones, and a raft of others.

It's worth remembering that in the jungle, the vast majority of locals have no access to western medicine. If their curandero can't cure them, they die. And if he can't make sick people better, not only will he be out of a job, but he's the one who bears the brunt of the cost of supplying the medicine. The sick person can most likely only pay once he is well. Suprisingly for outsiders, the jungle medical system seems to work pretty well, so well in fact that ayahuasca use is catching on with the upper classes in the big cities from Buenos Aires to Lima.

 


 

And it's not all light and angels, either. The nature of life here - the constant jungle heat, the sweat, the beautiful caramel-skinned women oozing sex appeal - and the lack of televisions - creates a culture permanently obsessed with sex. All of the curenderos agree that abstinence from sex before and after an ayahuasca ceremony is paramount to conserving your energy and transmuting it to work with the spirits, yet, in practice, this seems like another taboo that many do not keep.

Norma Arguila Panduro Navarro is a gentle, soft spoken shamana, a female curandero who was healed of tuberculosis at 17 by a village shaman and started on the long, male-driven path of plant healer. She runs the Estrella Ayahuasca, a lush, tropical retreat open to all, especially those  in need of the nurturing  a feminine touch can provide.


Norma is like everybody's grandmother, dressed in her two-tone dark and light brown Shipibo robe and beads, seed head dress and glasses. She sits in her chair at the head of the maloca and doles out cups of sweet ayahuasca brew to the men and women in search of the female touch. She also believes that sex is sacred and that it's okay to have sex before and after a ceremony, that the spirits like and enjoy it and see nothing wrong with it. Perhaps it's the difference between a woman's orgasm - which deepens and replenishes, and a man's, which most often spends and drains, but Norma is the only curendara who comes out with this wisdom, and her Westerner-friendly pronouncements draw the ire of every other male shaman.

In reality, the art of shamanism is all fuelled by the power of the will interacting with the power of the plants, and it seems all to easy for some shamans to warp that power to dark ends, to the shamachismo that drives them to serve selfish ego desires. Power corrupts, and the spirit world can corrupt absolutely if it's not approached from a perspective of openness and servitude.

Some curanderos practise brujeria, the dark side of the force. The rumour around town is that there are more witchdoctors than curanderos in the Amazon - and one reason for this is that it's the best paid job. Men flock to the brujos to get back their girlfriends, women to make men fall in love with them, and some people to revenge themselves on their enemies. So the brujos work their black arts, projecting their will via virote, magic darts that hit their opponents and lodge in their spirit bodies, causing physical pain, and oftentimes, death.

"I could kill you if I wanted to. I could kill President Bush," Don Juan Tangoa Paima, a respected local curandero says to me one morning in his back yard. "But I wouldn't do that. I'm not that sort of person." From his humble home near the airport, Don Juan and his American apprentice Carlos Tanner treat the local community with powerful ayahuasca sessions twice a week, and any gringos that want to be healed as well. Juan doesn't set a price on his work, and anyone who is sincerely in need of healing is free to come - the spirit of ayahuasca won't let him refuse those in need.

Juan doesn't dress in shamanic gear to attract the tourists, he's a simple man in pants and a t-shirt, often wearing a baseball cap, the village doctor on the outskirts of town. He has a great sense of humour and an amazing amount of compassion, but he too has been touched by brujeria. "Ayahuasca has it's dark side, too, all the plants do", he explains. "It's 30% bad, or drug, and 70% good, or medicine, and some people are using the drug side, looking for hallucinations and power within themselves," Don Juan says.

 


A growing number of tourists in search of spiritual enlightenment are pouring American dollars into the Amazon, and shamans are falling over themselves to compete for the international business. On the outskirts of Iquitos, along the sole highway that joins this most isolated jungle city of 400,000 to the neighbouring towns and villages, one of the most famous Shipibo shamans, the grandmaster of the art, Guillermo Arevalo, has built a sprawling multi-maloca complex to host his shamanistic retreats.

Guillermo is descended from a long line of healers, and trained as a traditional doctor in his hometown of Pulcallpa before being initiated into the shamanic world in his 20s. He's used his business know how alongside his healing arts to build a formidable botanical sanctuary, "Espiritu de Anaconda'" - the Club Med of Ayahuasca. There he can host upwards of thirty seekers into the mystery at between US $50 - $75 a pop, per night, making him more money that most Peruvians can dream of.

But really, why not? Capitalism has long since invaded the jungle, ever since the rubber boom here back in the late 19th Century. And Guillermo invests portions of the proceeds back into his community, and into connecting with the West and touring Europe and North America, leading ayahuasca retreats to spread the word of the vine. And he is a maestro - a master with the brew, leading the seekers into deep unchartered waters of the spirit world, piercing the dark with his short, sharp icaros, like stairways to Heaven. His fame led him to Hollywood, or more precisely, to French director Jan Kounen's 2004 feature film Blueberry, a psychedelic western that pretty accurately conveys the visual hallucinations and experience the spirit of the vine can bring.

Sitting in his maloca in the dead of night, I'm stoned on Guillermo's powerful brew, full of chakrapunga leaves that potentiate strong DMT visions alongside the healing spirit of the ayahuasca. Around the circumference of the maloca roof a thousand thousand eyes are staring down at me like the tail of the world-peacock, blue-green and black and shimmering in the dark. Suddenly the darkness errupts with a thundering growl, bigger than us all, big enough to hold the world in it's jaws. Snakes, crocodiles, writhing anaconda spirits and jaguar eyes imprint from my subconscious onto the canvas of the night, all my fears spewing forth with them. This is the power of the 'vine of souls'.

Some locals fear that the West is changing the nature of indigenous shamanism, and where once local youth wanted nothing to do with the old ways, now they're seeing a lucrative career path out of poverty, but not necessarily towards true spiritual practice. Iquitos recently held the second Amazonian Shaman Conference, organised by local businessman and sometimes curandero, Alan Shoemaker, and his wife Mariella. It's what drew me to Peru, like many of the 100 plus ayahuasca gringos in town, and in some ways it epitomised the best and worst of the West's fascination with shamanism.

It was held at the Hotel Parthenon - the biggest convention space in Iquitos, at an open-air conference room surrounded by palm trees and a large swimming pool. It's all very Melrose Place, and when the gringos amass to listen to the lectures by and about shamans, it has the feel of a Florida Amway meeting. Choosing your shaman is a bit like that game show, 'Wheel of Fortune'. There's various options, all with scaling payoffs, but only one top dollar - and of course the bankrupt booby prize. And in a town where every man and his dog claims to be a shaman, the booby prizes are out there.

One such sham-man is Sayre Tupac Wiracocha, a showman who claims to be a descendant from one of the last Inca families of Peru. This globetrotting spiritual salesman wears tight fitting brand label tank tops, designer jeans and has the clean-shaven, poster-boy looks of Antonio Banderas crossed with the relentless salesmanship of motivational speakers like Anthony Robbins. He is the Armani Shaman, and his workshops are filled with the beautiful and the cool in their matching sunglasses and latest season fashion, those who can afford US $100 a session for his hallucinogenic cactus-inspired wisdom.

He comes on with the machismo of a self-help guru, forcing the crowd to their feet to do spiritual aerobics while he pummels their egos down like a drill sergeant in the army. Unfortunately, his massive ego still gets in the way of sharing enlightenment. He's the maestro, the awakened one - and you're either with him or against him. He'll enlighten you - his way - or you'll stay asleep, "one of the unplugged in the hamburger universe," he bellows at the shocked convention crowd.

It's all quite ironic, as Tupac conducts his ritual circles from within his lush hotel room, and at one point sits everyone down and forces them to watch key scenes from the Matrix while tripping off their dials on San Pedro cactus. Wisdom of the Ancients, hey what? Dollar signs and bling bling, but where's the service, the spiritual connection?

 


Elias Mamallacta, a shaman son of a famous Ecuadorian curandero family, said at last year's conference that "Ayahuasca is the sacred mother of humanity and that is why we must take care of her. She can't be sold. Many use her as a business. These are not pure, true people."

Yet the business of shamanismn is booming. Up there on stage at the convention are Ron Wheelock, a down-to-earth American shaman living in Iquitos with his three year old son, a kid shaman in training, Percy Garcia, Guillermo, Norma Panduro, Elias Mamallacta, Roberto Merinho from Brazil, Sayre Tupac, Don Juan and Carlos, and a host of western scientists and academics discussing various facets of shamanism. All the shamans smile and make out that they can stand each other for the cameras, because a unified front is good for business, but the truth is much different.

"Not everyone wants to participate in the 'We are All One' ceremony," Kevin Furnas, a gringo plant curandero explains later, his piercing green-blue eyes looking right into me. "It's all political, y'know. Some curanderos are jealous of each other - it's a business to them and they're all chasing the gringo dollar, or they just don't get along, whatever. There's not much co-operation - it's all competition."

So it is in the Amazon, where the law of the jungle still pervades. Eat or be eaten, shaman or be shamanised. And as this indigenous plant spirituality is consumed and digested by the West, it's also transforming an ancient, indigenous culture.

Ultimately the real winner is ayahuasca itself, whose vine is spreading throughout all corners of the globe, turning on the world. And maybe the spirit in the vine knows that, and we humans have to stop thinking we're in control, and just sit back and have faith.

Or maybe it's the jungle fever.

 

 

This story first appeared in Australian Penthouse, Nov 2006

To read the book that this story seeded visit AYA by Rak Razam.

photos courtesy of Vance Gellert

 


COMING OUT OF THE WOODWORK> by Rak Razam

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wall of doom
Twelve years after forest blockading began, conservation activists and loggers are still at odds amongst East-Gippsland's old growth forests, says Rak Razam. But the odds are changing.

"Last summer about 1:30 in the morning I was about 50 metres up [a sit in Ferntree forest] on a very big tree. A logger climbed up on top of the machine cabled to the sit and jumped on the cable. It flipped me over like a pinball machine, threw me into the tree and left bruises and stab wounds all up this leg - it was one massive bruise. And there I was hanging upside down with everything I had in the sit gone, and I'm screaming 'f--- offff... help, camera, camera!" Everyone else is 150 metres up the hill and I'm alone without a torch in the pitch dark, half way up a tree - and I'd just attached the safety, I mean, just, seconds..."

'Hobgoblin' - all the activists have 'bunny' names to protect their true identities - is a thirty something punk rocker with a shaved head and dreadlocks, a bull chain in his nose and fierce, piercing almond eyes. Despite nursing a swollen leg from yet another protest injury yesterday, he looks like the stunt double for Keith from the Prodigy, lost in the bush for a few years and gone feral. He's been putting his life on the line for over a decade now to stop the logging of old growth forest in East Gippsland. "I've been beaten, tortured, pulled out of sits..." he says with a proud smile, but, "like, what choice do you have, really? If you see the lies, how do you walk back out and smile and make out everything's okay?"

He's one of hundreds of activists who have fuelled the Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) over the years, an independent, grassroots environment organisation dedicated to protecting the remaining old growth forests of the region. Entirely self-run, GECO receive no official government funding, although a lot of the 'DIY conservationists' that have been through have been students or the unemployed. They predate the national work-for-the-dole scheme by a good four years, however, and some locals even say that they have the most valuable job of all - protecting old growth forest and the ecosystems they nurture.

GECO have been networking with other environment groups and traditional owners and helping to raise public awareness campaigns since the summer of 1993/4. They conduct surveys on endangered species and monitor logging operations for correct forest management, often liasing with loggers and the police. And, when immediate action is needed to protect the old growth, they engage in non-violent direct action, locking themselves onto giant metal earthmovers and occupying tree-sits high in the forest canopies.

treesit

The GECO environment centre is nestled between the Errinundra and Snowy River National Parks and overlooks the majestic Mt Ellery. GECO HQ itself has seen better days, but activists have built a tree-house, a greenhouse and a compost toilet and a greywater system to it's facilities. A few broken down cars litter the slopes around the driveway and blend into the undergrowth around the house. Behind the carport and the 'green not khaki' GECO truck that takes the activists on their midnight missions to save the forest is a bombed out pink and white Mr. Whippy Van.

Half a dozen crew are sitting round chilling out after a full-on time blockading yesterday and a very late night. They're spread out across two hard rubbish couches and several plastic chairs, cooking damper on an open grill. With their faded tops and pants, baseball caps, browned skin and beards, tattoos, sandals and thongs, or just bare feet caked by the dirt and earth, these are the children of the cities gone bush and gone to the green edge.

This dreadlocked collection of forest activists has a tired, burned out air about them today. Hobgoblin hurt his leg in the dark before the loggers even arrived, and is getting about on a pair of crutches. Drummer and Rain got locked onto the machinery and eventually cut off by forestry officers and arrested. Just another day at the office for these extreme conservationists.

Drummer is a tall and stringy lad in his early twenties with the beanpole physique of a student in a punk rock band. "I've been doing actions around here for about a year and a half," he says, taking a drag from a shared ciggie and brushing long black hair out of his eyes. "Every time you come here to East Gippsland you look around and you realise - it can't go. It's too precious to go. Something's got to be done about it, even if it comes down to an action. Someone has to make sure it's stopped. Enough's enough."

Is his eighteen months of duty, Drummer has been locked on twice, endured a few forest sit-ins high up in old growth trees, and been on forest blockades too many times to remember.

'Sits' are prolonged occupations by activists on DIY platforms up in the treetops, constructed from planks, beds or frames with supports and rigged with ropes to the trees about to be cut and sometimes entrances and other strategic points. Logging cannot continue without endangering the tree-sit activist's life, nor can authorities dismantle the sit without potentially harming the sitter. A cherry-picker crane has to be called to safely remove the activist.

"There is only one line between the trees and the loggers and the government, and it's us," says Rain, a young GECO activist as she rolls a cigarette. "They'll stop at nothing except when it's election time, do you know what I mean? [Yesterday at Centre Road] was my first lock-on. I thought I was a pretty environmentally aware person and all, but... I didn't realise the reality of what the fight was about..."

forest_fems

She smiles, remembering the feeling of being chained to the maw of a giant earthmover. "Yeah, it was good, man. Oh mate, straight away I'm like -- get me back on, get me back on! Because when they cut you off and you walk away you hear the bang crash bzzzzz and the machines are back on. And the trees that you were looking out for are falling, y'know. The pain of it..."

The hidden gullies of East Gippsland are thick with lush, verdant rainforests that support glider possums, the long-footed potaroo, forest owls and even the endangered tiger quoll. Right next to a coupe being logged is the home of Victoria's largest tree - an Errinundra Shining Gum nicknamed the 'Touchwood Tree'. In all there are over 300 rare and threatened plant and animal species nestled amongst hundreds of year old trees, waterfalls and water catchment areas, and the oldest undisturbed forest community in Victoria.

Old growth forests also act as prodigious 'carbon sinks', storing carbon in the trees and other vegetation and in the top six inches of soil mulch on the forest floor. According to the Australian Wilderness Society, younger growing vegetation takes in carbon released by decaying trees, but when old growth trees are felled up to 20% of the standing carbon value is released into the atmosphere, adding to the problem of global warming.

As well as being natural ecosystems, our forests are also a renewable resource if they are managed sustainably. There is wide community support for sustainable forest management, backed up by the Environmental Policy for Victoria's State Forests, which "reinforces the need to consider our forests from an environmental, social and economic perspective." Yet despite promising an effective Environmental Management System (EMS) for State forests, conservation activists continue one of Australia's longest community campaigns to highlight ongoing breaches and threats that would otherwise go unreported.

culture clash

It is estimated that there is less than 5% old growth forest left in East Gippsland unaltered by human hands. The state government proposed East Gippsland for World Heritage listing in 1987, but despite protection zones for national parks, exhaustive logging continues of old growth trees. Biodiversity is threatened and interdependent ecosystems are being destroyed as native forests are progressively clearfelled because they fall outside the narrow political definition of 'old growth'. Partial bushfires or other minor interference in a robust elderly forest can make them statistically illegitimate and eligible for felling and export.

"This place is alive, yeah," says Hobgoblin, looking out at the Goongerah horizon from base. "Yet they log the old growth and the result is 90% glossy magazines, toilet paper and refresher napkins, depending on the grade of timber that they're actually taking. And it's subsidised by the government. It's not a viable industry," he says, disgusted.

Timber harvested from Victoria's native forests and plantations is used for house construction, hardwood flooring, high quality furniture, fencing materials, composite wood products, and fibre for paper, says the recently released Victorian State of the Forests report. It goes on to say that revenue generated from hardwood sawlogs and residual logs from State forest in Victoria totalled almost $30 million in 2002/03. Yet the national Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) sets no limit to the amount of export woodchips which can be taken from East Gippsland, much of which is pulped for paper markets. An estimated 120,000 tonnes of sawn timber and up to ten times that amount of woodchip material is produced annually by clearfelling forests in this region.

The forestry sector is still one if the biggest employers in East Gippsland. It is estimated that Victoria's native forest industries had an annual turnover of approximately $540 million and directly employed over 4,000 people in 2001. Yet the Department of Forestry also admits that RFA's are designed to help the forestry industry as it "[faces] a staged, but sometimes substantial reduction in resource supply as a result of reducing harvesting to sustainable levels."

"This was a timber town, so with the cutbacks there's quite a few people affected," says Lee, who runs the Orbost camping shop. But as [jobs] get lost in forestry other things are coming up. The population's actually increased in the last few years as this becomes more of a tourism town - it's balancing out."

There are also other options being put forward both by the government and environmentalists to nurture the logging community towards more sustainable forestry practices. Plantation work for sustainable timber is the next growth industry and an increased focus on eco-tourism would help spread awareness of forest issues as well as an increased tourist dollar.

"Everyone loves timber," says Jenny, the lady running the opp-shop next to Marshall's Commonwealth Hotel. "But...I want old growth forests to be there for my grand-children, too. I think it needs to be more carefully managed than it has in the past."

While some people feel the inevitable shift coming, others are bunkering down to profit out of what they know before it's gone. Rod Wells is an all-Aussie, fifty-ish bloke with a tanned face and a buzzcut slash of grey hair. Rumour is he's the richest man in all of East Gippsland. His company - Rodwells - received a payout from VicForests to stop logging a few years back, and he moved across the border to log in southern NSW for a while before returning to East Gippsland as his competitors closed down and a niche opened up.

"You must appreciate... we've lost time, and money, for our blokes. And it's not just us. We've got three trucks on each operation. So there's another six drivers. We've all got kids, families... Everybody is here to make a bob in a respectable, legal manner with all permits and licenses in place. We earn our right to be here," he says with a type of wounded pride.

"And that's all there is to it. All this other bullshit that goes with it, like I put to some of the protestors yesterday, they should take it up with the pollies in Spring Street. That's what you've gotta do. They've drawn a line in the sand. As far as we're concerned the lines there, and until there's a political change, that's the right procedure. "

stop bracks logging

Yet while trees provide vital roles as carbon sinks, ecosystem hosts and water catchment filters, they do not vote. Someone has to speak for them, and GECO activists and other environmental groups are leading the way. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released it's annual forest audit last month, as well as a long awaited Special Audit conducted into logging breaches reported by the public - including activists from GECO.

The EPA report found that the Department of Sustainability and the Environment (DSE) and the government-owned company VicForests, were responsible for repeated instances of illegal logging breaches that strayed into special protection zones, including the Errinundra National Park. EPA chairman Mick Bourke said the East Gippsland breaches were "signs of a systemic problem" in the department, including the belief that staff could simply change coupe boundaries without prior approval. Breaches were found in 44 out of 45 logging coupes.

Because of a precedent set by the long-running Dingo Creek court case involving GECO activists, a breach of the Code of Forest Practice is now a breach of the law, with penalties of up to $240,000. The EPA, however, decided that VicForests should merely improve the boundary delineation when logging coupes and increase staff training.

Yet with new State government laws coming into force in June that protect more old growth and mixed forests - at least on paper - logging has been conducted at a "furious rate" in the last few months, environmentalists say. Many coupes have been brought forward two years on the logging schedule, which will see them felled before the rezoning that could protect them becomes active. "The coupe on the Bonang River and contains a rare rainforest type as well as 600 year old trees. It is likely that the coupe would not be able to be logged under new prescriptions for rainforest protection in the draft Code of Forest Practices, which will come into force mid-year," says Fiona York, a local environmental spokesperson.

Current logging of old growth in a coupe off Rising Sun Road is also stirring up the whole Goongerah community. "What we're blockading at the moment is the top of the local water catchment," explains Fern, a mid-twenties single mum and long-term forest activist. "A lot of the locals in the area are on our emergency tree phone list if we get busted. And that's never happened before."

There have been eleven forest blockades in East Gippsland in the last two months, all in old growth forest, with 29 people arrested so far. Protests against the continued logging of old growth forest in East Gippsland have also occurred in Melbourne, Vicforest offices in Orbost and at the Eden woodchip export mill in NSW.

Still, Fern believes that overall, things are starting to change. "Despite attitudes handing down from one generation to the next with some loggers, we're generally more welcome now in Orbost. You can notice the difference with shopkeepers, particularly. When I was first coming down here seven years ago I was warned not to walk down the street by myself."

Truth be told, when the lock-ons happen some of the loggers don't seem to mind all that much. They've been known to smile and share a joke, and a few other things besides with the 'enemy.' It's all reminiscent of some American Hillbilly comedy, the Hattfields and the McCoys, all banging it up in the bush, both with their jobs to do.

"Our perspective isn't that different to loggers," Hobgoblin explains. "The boys that work out here they love the bush, yeah? They don't want to be in an office. They don't want to be tied down to something like that. They actually love what they do. I've seen them."

photos courtesy of GECO

More information:
www.geco.org.au
www.wildernesss.org.au
www.dse.vic.gov.au

Read 'Voices of the Forest', an ongoing blog by GECO forest activists here.

deforestation