From the garden to the plate to the mind with author Michael Pollan
“I really prefer writing as an amateur,” Michael Pollan says. “Instead of writing as an expert.”
At first it seems odd coming from the best-selling author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “The Botany of Desire.” But what he means is that “after you’ve written a few books on a topic, you become an expert, as I had become on food and nutrition and agriculture. And it’s not as much fun to write that way.”
Writers often talk about trying to escape their comfort zone and there’s no better example than Pollan’s new book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”
After digesting the long-winded subtitle some readers might think - wait, the guy at the forefront of the sustainable food movement is now tripping on magic mushrooms?
Well, yes, kind of, but he’s doing it for all the right reasons, which in many ways are not that different from his other books.
“It’s about our reciprocal relationship with plants - how they change us and how we change them,” said Pollan, who appears Feb. 8 at the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa to talk about “One Writer’s Trip: From the Garden to the Plate and the Beyond.” “It’s about how plants get ahead by gratifying our desires. And one of the ways they do that is by gratifying our desire to change consciousness.
The book, which comes out in May, grew from a 2015 New Yorker article he wrote called “The Trip Treatment.” In the story, he followed experiments at NYU and Johns Hopkins University where scientists were “giving psilocybin to people who were dying, helping them overcome their fear and anxiety as death approached.
They were getting remarkable results from a single high-dose psychedelic journey.”
The experiments are part of what he calls “a psychedelic renaissance” as researchers study the positive effects of psilocybin - the hallucinogenic compound found in psychedelic mushrooms - in labs from the University of New Mexico to the University of Zurich.
The new research harkens back to experiments in the ‘40s and ‘50s - some of it still classified - before LSD inspired the ‘60s counterculture movement and became illegal nationwide in 1970.
A resurging fascination is echoed in pop culture today from author Ayelet Waldman’s latest book “A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life” to documentarian Errol Morris’ new Netflix series “Wormwood” about botched military LSD experiments in the 1950s.
For Pollan, there was also a deeply personal connection. “I got interested in this book at a time when I was approaching 60 and my dad had cancer for several years, so definitely morality was on my mind.”
Mortality is weighing heavily on his mind today as he talks on the phone from the East Coast, where he’s helping make funeral arrangements after his father died a few days before.
At the time he decided to write the book, Pollan was curious how “a single experience could totally reset your attitude toward your death.”
The result is not only his most ambitious work to date, but also the culmination of a profound, mind-altering journey that changed his belief system.
Pollan had never tried psychedelics, not even in college when others were experimenting. He wrote the New Yorker article without trying it. But while writing the book, “I was intensely curious about that experience because I hadn’t really had one. I was just kind of a stone-cold materialist and didn’t believe in spiritual things.”
Part of it was an obligation to readers. Just as he went pig hunting near Healdsburg for “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” or built a writing retreat for “A Place of My Own,” he decided to try psilocybin.
“For me, the key insight that came out of it was the fact that we’re not identical to our egos - you know this chattering voice in our heads, that we think is in charge and we couldn’t do without.
“One of the things that happens on these high-dose experiences is your ego dissolves and that can be a very frightening experience to feel your sense of self vanish and the sense of merging you have with your environment or the people around you. The thing you realize is, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have an ego, but I’m still here.’ I think it changes your relationship to your ego.”
While providing a deep inward-looking psychological awakening, it also inspired him to look outward at how we fit into our surroundings.
“It had a big effect on how I connect with nature, and I became aware of - this is going to sound spiritual - I became aware of the fact that we’re not the only subjects or subjectivity.
These plants and animals around us also have their point of view. And even though I understood that idea from a Darwinian point of view, kind of intellectually, I really felt it after these experiences.”
But his experimenting didn’t always result in profoundly positive experiences.
He got a taste of the dark side of psychedelics when he sampled a hallucinogenic known as 5-MeO-DMT, which is harvested from the venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad.
“It was a terrifying experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” he said.
“Luckily it was brief. It’s a drug that only lasts around 20 minutes, but it was a really difficult 20 minutes.”
But he wanted to at least try it - it goes back to that obligation he feels to the reader.
“I’ve always tried to immerse myself in whatever I’m writing about. Because I think there is something gained in your perspective when you do something, especially for the first time - a sense of wonder or awe that you get that if you’re an expert at something you can’t get.”
THREE QUESTIONS FOR Michael Pollan
Q. Have you ever eaten Turducken?
A. No, I haven’t. I’d be more afraid of that than 5-MeO-DMT.
Q. Do you ever take photos of the food on your plate at restaurants?
A. Very, very seldom. If I’m writing something and I need the notes, I’ll do it. But I find the practice kind of silly. I definitely do it on the QT.
Q. If you could invite three people to your dream dinner - who would they be? And what would you fix?
A. Well, I’d probably roast a chicken. I would have my family. I’m not interested in having a lot of celebrities for dinner. I would have my mother, my sisters - meals are for families.