Terence McKenna, a psychedelic pioneer, radical raconteur and passionate promoter of the mind-expanding powers of drugs, has died at 53.
McKenna succumbed to brain cancer at a friend’s home in San Rafael on Monday.
A student of shamanism, virtual reality and the botany of the Amazon, McKenna was a proponent of the use of psilocybin, commonly called magic mushrooms, and believed human civilizations developed after early hunter-gatherers accidentally ingested psychedelic drugs.
He doggedly promoted that belief, as well as the idea that warfare developed only after the original hallucinogenic plants began to disappear because of climatic change.
“Our dilemma is that, halfway on the way to becoming angels, we stopped taking our medicine,” he once said.
His notions on the power of the drug experience drew a loyal following among members of the counterculture, including members of the Grateful Dead rock band.
“Most of us who have been involved in the psychedelic experience wish we had the discipline and rigor of Terence McKenna,” Jerry Garcia, the late lead singer and guitarist of the Grateful Dead, once said. "[He’s] the only person who’s made a serious effort to objectify the psychedelic experience--and done a good job of it.”
McKenna, who grew up in Paonia, Colo., moved to Los Altos, Calif., while in high school. He attended UC Berkeley for two years and traveled extensively through Asia, Europe and South America before completing a self-tailored degree in shamanology at Berkeley in 1975.
After college he made his living dealing in Asian art in the East and as a professional butterfly collector.
He expounded his controversial theories claiming that psychedelic plants, most notably psilocybin mushrooms, were the key to the evolution of human consciousness in books including “Food of the Gods,” “The Invisible Landscape” and “Psilocybin: The Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide,” which he wrote with his brother Dennis. Another title was “True Hallucinations,” a narrative of spiritual adventure in the jungles of the Amazon.
From his home base in Hawaii, McKenna also founded and operated Botanical Dimensions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the investigation of “ethnomedical” and sacred plants. He also established a gene bank of rare species near his home.
A celebrity on the Southern California rave scene of the early 1990s, McKenna often appeared at all-night dance clubs where he delivered his pro-drug message. He also gave lectures in more formal settings, such as UCLA’s Wadsworth Theater.
McKenna explained to a Times reporter some years ago why he got stoned a lot.
“My style of involvement [in drugs] is analytical and rational,” he said. “Most people would think that that would melt the mystery away. That’s not the case, actually. If you keep a rational mind when you explore the more peculiar edges of things, you will find odd possibilities.”
While calling for the legalization of controlled substances, he also noted that they were not for everyone, including the immature or mentally ill.
“Drugs are heavy equipment and you have to learn how to operate heavy equipment,” he said. “We have driver’s education; we should teach people how to operate drugs.”
He is survived by his longtime partner, Christy Silness; his two children, Finn, 22, and Klea, 19; and his brother Dennis.