The Poet of Plants
The first conversation with Dale Pendell is like an overseas telephone call with a lag on the line. I speak. He listens. He thinks. Then he responds in such perfectly formed sentences that I can almost hear the commas.
The stilted speech is surprising. As a writer, Pendell is so fluent that he can make a list of drug side-effects sound interesting, a feat he routinely performed in his two books. Delve deeper into his work and you find poetry, beautiful poetry.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Nov. 9, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Name spelling -- An article in the Sunday magazine on author Dale Pendell misspelled the name of the late philosopher Norman O. Brown as Norman O’Brown.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 09, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 14 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
The article on author Dale Pendell (“The Poet of Plants,” Oct. 19) misspelled the name of the late philosopher Norman O. Brown as Norman O’Brown.
Pendell, 56, has been writing since the 1960s, but his work is little known. I discovered it last spring while serving as a judge for the 2003 Pen Awards overseeing the “Creative Nonfiction” category. As a case containing 57 books arrived at the office for consideration, two things worried me. The amount of reading and the “creative” part. Nonfiction is hard enough to get right when it’s written the old-fashioned way, straight up--who, where, why, when.
As it turned out, the books were at least 50% hard-luck stories, most of them trenchant. There was a war correspondent who got shot, an equestrienne whose leg was crushed by her horse, a profoundly moving brace of Korean stories of search for identity after diaspora. Daniel Ellsberg was there, recounting the events that led to the leaking of the Pentagon papers. There were a couple of biographies, wisecracking sociology from a newspaper columnist and ruminations on the essence of the West.
Then there was Pendell. In his 2002 book “Pharmako/Dynamis,” he merrily rolls out the pharmacology, history and botany behind a host of mind-altering drugs, including Psilocybe mushrooms, peyote, coffee, tea, heroin, Ecstasy, wine, tobacco and absinthe. They are classed by the nature of the high: “phantastica,” “exitantia,” “inebriantia” and others--or, in plain English, tripping, speeding, drunk and so on. Almost every drug is taken back to a plant source, and that plant’s trading history.
At the outset of judging, I wondered if Pendell was in the right category. Three months later, as the judging committee argued over finalists, I became convinced that his was the only book that actually met the brief of creative nonfiction. Yet, on the face of it, it was a dictionary, mainly of controlled substances. “A reference,” read one judge’s comments.
You can certainly look things up in it, including safety measures for taking Ecstasy, or how to score an opium poppy and apply the harvest in interesting places. But it wasn’t like any reference I’d ever seen. Pendell borrowed just as freely from pharmaceutical industry texts as medieval herbals. He used poetry, classical plant taxonomy, chemical equations, prose, anecdotes, jokes, slogans--whatever worked. The prose was indecently interesting, angry and eloquent, like that of a young Christopher Hitchens. The poetry was enigmatic one moment, lusty the next, witty, passionate--whatever it felt like.
Structurally, however, it was odd. It was, arguably, half a book, a continuation of Pendell’s companion volume, “Pharmako/Poeia.” When this appeared in 1995, the good and the great of the Bay Area Beat movement came out in support of it. Allen Ginsberg wrote a review for the jacket, calling it, among a long string of things, “an epic poem on plant humors.” Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gary Snyder supplied the introduction. The synthesizer of Ecstasy, Berkeley scientist Alexander Shulgin, gave his imprimatur to the chemistry. Yet there were no reviews in the major press. It has sold 12,000 copies in eight years, which would be a handsome figure for a Junior League cookbook.
The publication of “Pharmako/Dynamis” last year received slightly more recognition. Richard Gehr of the Village Voice called Pendell “the best writer on drugs to come along since the late Terence McKenna charted the beautiful and terrifying ‘invisible landscapes’ revealed by DMT and psilocybin mushrooms.”
Drug writer. Hard to argue. But what does that make his book? It reads so smoothly, its structure almost escapes notice. Under autopsy, however, there it is. The element that keeps the various information flowing is poetry. There is a narrator, like a Greek chorus, or in this case, a heckler, who prompts the greater text to sing in different voices. How many books manage witty asides that can jump into chemical signatures, then take off into a hallucinatory odyssey about crack cocaine, seamlessly?
The voting was long over, and my argument for Pendell as a finalist had prevailed, before the obvious dawned on me. Ginsberg was right in his volcanic blurb for “Pharmako/Poeia.” It was an epic poem. So is the sequel. I went back and pored over the construction of both books. The author of the head shop encyclopedia began to look less like a writer on drugs and more like an original Western Romantic, an American answer to Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth, right down to the opium.
we meet on a july afternoon on the porch of his new cabin in the Sierra. He’s just moved to the mountains from Oakland. Most of his belongings are still in packing boxes. It’s midday, 100 degrees, the valley opposite shimmers with heat and a licorice-like scent hangs in the air from the baked scrub.
Pendell is taller than the jacket pictures suggest, lean, a born climber who hops easily from boulder to boulder on a stone outcropping near his house. I expect a wild woodsman, but instead he’s more textbook Berkeley, with twin earrings and slightly bushy eyebrows, the sort usually found on Englishmen in Victorian cartoons. When he listens, he tilts his head graciously toward his guest, like an interested minister.
He is, it turns out, the son of a minister. He has just returned from Orange County from a memorial service for his father, Thomas Roy Pendell, a life-long Methodist pastor who served at seven Southern California parishes. He seems relieved to be home, but apologizes for what he says is a cold he caught on the plane.
He suggests that we set ground rules for when the interview turns to illegal drugs, but then he doesn’t ask for any. Eventually, he has two specific requests. Could we not name the town where he lives and could we point out that though he spent time in jail for smuggling marijuana, he asked for and received a full presidential pardon? It was from Ronald Reagan and signed by a Justice Department official named Rudolph Giuliani.
We have been speaking for an hour before the first stutter erupts. It happens when the subject turns to the city where he spent puberty. “The Methodists move their pastors around,” he says, “so we moved to various places, including SSSSSSan Diego.”
Later, when I ask him about it, he says that he stuttered strongly as a child. “I never committed suicide, but I thought about it,” he says. “I wouldn’t use the telephone. I never wanted to introduce myself to anybody. I was morbidly shy.”
His father’s household was run according to scripture. Drink was off limits, as in: “It Is Good Neither To Eat Flesh Nor To Drink Wine, Nor Any Thing Whereby Thy Brother Stumbleth, Or Is Offended, Or Is Made Weak.” Romans, 14:21.
However, Pendell couldn’t help but wonder what Paul meant in Romans 14:13: “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself” and Verse 20, in which he reiterates, “all things are indeed pure.” In 1964, age 17, still legally a minor, Dale Pendell left home and plunged headlong into all that purity out there.
Enrollment as a physics major at UC Santa Barbara lasted only a semester. He was rapt at the sheer elegance of physical equations, but already slipping toward poetry, raunchily. “I was at the southern end of the filthy speech movement,” he says. “It wasn’t filthy speech, though. It was just good erotica that I would post in my dormitory window. People would come by and read and think, ‘Oh, this is today’s offering,’ ” he says. “Anyway, I ended up in the dean’s office.” The stutter disappeared in front of the dean, he says. “Something about deans and police brings out my eloquence.”
He left Santa Barbara thumb-first. First stop, Berkeley. Then he crossed the country to New York with the writer Larry Beinhart (Beinhart, he explains, wrote the book “Wag the Dog,” adding appreciatively, “Good mystery writer.”)
By 18, Pendell was a heroin addict and had begun smuggling marijuana from Mexico to the U.S. He was so high while trafficking 200 pounds of Gold Brick, or enough pot to make a donkey groan, alarm bells didn’t sound when a window blind opened in a motel room next to his and he got a glimpse of a wall-mounted tape-recorder. Two separate arrests led to a four-month jail term in a Mexican prison, and a year-long one in Texas.
The addict’s whisper opens “Pharmako/Poeia.”
I hear you.
(any cops around?)
These are just words.
(yeah right ...
I don’t want to hear this
(then why did you call me?)
Back in Berkeley by 1967, Pendell says, “I finally realized that heroin was affecting my luck.” He retreated to the mountains. “I hiked up as far as I could. I wanted to be as far away as I could from people. I stayed there as long as I could. I took as much LSD as I could. All of the hatred kind of fell into the earth.”
He spent the next 14 years in and out of the California mountains, first on a mining claim in the Trinity Alps, near the Oregon border. He panned enough gold to make jewelry and gather material for his first anthology of poetry, “Gold-Dust Wilderness.” He hiked among the ponderosa pines and became friendly with an old-timer named Red Barnes, who Pendell couldn’t help but notice used to mentholate his tobacco using a local plant, Salvia sonomensis.
This, he says, is when it struck him that he didn’t know anything about the plants that covered the hillsides: their names, their properties, if you could smoke them, what happened then. “I wanted to know what the most common plants were,” he says, “the ones that didn’t have showy flowers, or any flowers at all, and weren’t in any of the those wildflower books.”
He began charting the anatomy of the hillside, collecting, pressing and drying plants, beginning what would become over the next 10 years a large herbarium. In the process, he got the idea for a book. He wanted to look at power plants, plants whose fruits are so dominant in our society we don’t even see them, or think of ourselves as taking drugs, like when we jolt ourselves awake with coffee.
In 1974, Pendell moved south, to the central ranges and Nevada County. Here a group of back-to-the-landers, led by poet Gary Snyder, the inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums,” were forming a poetry community. The following year, Snyder would win a Pulitzer Prize for for his poetry anthology “Turtle Island.”
Pendell used his plant know-how to start making and bottling an organic spruce root beer. The proceeds went to start a poetry magazine, Kyoi-Kuksu: Journal of Backcountry Writing.
Pendell studied Buddhism with Snyder, a discipline that to Western Romantics was what Unitarianism had been centuries earlier to Coleridge. Still, the most touching moments in the Pharmako series capture Pendell and Snyder not meditating, but partying. This is buried in the reference section of “Pharmako/Dynamis”: “Illustrating how any song written in ballad meter could be sung to any ballad tune, Gary Snyder once sang for me Blake’s ‘Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire Rousseau’ to the tune of ‘Mary Hamilton,’ ‘Barbara Allen’ and the ‘House of the Rising Sun.’
“Actually,” Pendell adds gleefully, “Blake violates the fourteener in the second line and it works better if you drop the second spondee.”
It was Snyder who helped a then-28-year-old Pendell finally subdue the stutter. “We were going to do a reading as a benefit for the magazine in Nevada City at the American Victorian Museum,” Pendell remembers. “Gary agreed to read at it, and a number of other fine poets. I was terrified. What was I going to do? Gary said, ‘Don’t worry, just read from the gut.’ ” Words came. Since then, says Pendell, fluency has been a “a continuous practice. If I start, I have to keep a channel open to where it all comes from, or I can’t talk at all.”
Hence, the long-distance effect, those perfect sentences.
In 1974, Pendell married Snyder’s assistant, Merle Goodkind, and became a father to her 2 1/2 year-old old son, Isaac. Asked what she did for a living, Pendell responds, “Her specialty was grace.” Later they had a daughter, Marici.
Pendell wrote this for Goodkind in 1975, a year after they met. It is called “Spring Song” and reads like a wedding vow.
open with the first sun;
crack the drudgery,
quick as they can.
know water won’t last,
no time to waste
in the hasty spring.
songs rise with the morning.
Come let’s kiss the greening-
tomorrow’s feet are lost to labor-
Brush our backs against the sun;
lie together, let these mountains
Rush, beneath us, back to sea.
Poetry is like modern art. A lot of people can’t tell whether it’s good or not. Allen Ginsberg thought that Pendell’s was good, and admired the pluck behind the root beer journal enough to contribute his own work. “We were first publication of some of Allen’s poems,” says Pendell. “Then he would send certain people my direction.”
Pendell kept the journal going six years. He built a cabin on rented land. His family got by--just. By 1981, he says, his “allotted time in heaven” had expired. Merle had lupus and needed better health care. They had two young children. He shut the magazine, sold the root beer company and moved to Santa Cruz to pursue a double major in creative writing and computer science at the UC campus there.
It led him to his second great mentor, philosopher Norman O’Brown. Pendell was in awe of O’Brown’s 1966 book “Love’s Body.” After a chance meeting, the philosopher pursued a friendship with Pendell because he was interested in plants. “We walked together a great deal,” says Pendell. “I used to show off by quoting poems by heart. He would answer back in Greek.”
This time as a student, Pendell finished both university degrees, with honors. When he graduated, a linguistics professor suggested, “Why don’t you support your poetry habit with programming?” For the next four years, Pendell wrote paper jam recovery programs instead of poetry. He scolded his now teenage son Isaac for smoking pot. It took Isaac to point out that he was becoming conventional, he says.
“I’d say, ‘Well, pot’s much stronger now.’ ”
In 1989, a three-week trip to the Amazon reminded Pendell of the old Trinity Alps idea for the book on power plants. It would be a pharmacopeia, a Greek term meaning “book of drugs, with directions how to make them.” Conventional pharmacopeias deal with what would have been in Pendell’s father’s medicine box. Pendell’s would embrace his, and beyond. He had only one line playing in his head like a mantra. “Tobacco, marijuana, then you’re in the jungle.”
He programmed by day and wrote by night. “The idea was that through immersion in each plant, something would come across in my style that would create a signature for the plant,” he says. “For example, the stimulant chapter turned out to be the longest.”
In January 1993, the book was almost halfway written when Isaac, then 22, died in a snowboarding accident. There is a gut-wrenching passage in “Pharmako/Poeia,” when Pendell, terrified and tripping, finally faces his son’s death. His marriage to Goodkind was never the same after Isaac died, he says.
When Pendell finished the first half of the book, Gary Snyder’s editor, Jack Shoemaker, sent sample chapters to Mercury House, a nonprofit San Francisco press. Pendell thought it was a prank when its publisher, Tom Christiansen, phoned to accept the book. “I said, ‘Come on, who is this?’ ”
The commission enabled Pendell to take a sabbatical from the software job to finish writing. Six months later, as rough drafts circulated among Pendell’s friends, there was confusion and shock. There was even a chapter on huffing solvents. Norman O’Brown asked him to take it out. “He said, ‘Everyone will know it’s a drug book,’ ” says Pendell.
Pendell left it in. “I thought of the information that I came across--that not all solvents are alike, some are much more dangerous than others--as harm reduction. I may reach somebody. The message: use toluene not gasoline, or better yet, nitrous oxide. Use ether, not chloroform.”
The text unnerved Mercury House sufficiently to affix this cautionary note: “A manuscript draft of Pharmako/Poeia caused us some concern. The author of this remarkable work was clearly exploring perilous terrain along his ‘Poison Path.’ This is a route we strongly advise others not to follow (except through this book, and through other approaches that lead in the direction of wisdom without dangerous self-experimentation).”
Pendell had his own definitions of danger, which come across plainly in the chapters that follow. “Huffers,” he speculated, “probably have an interesting terminology to describe the subtle differences of effects [between solvents], and it would be worth recording, if you could find an informant who is still articulate.” The chapter is the only one in his books where readers will find the words, “get off and get help.”
But with other drugs, he experimented freely on himself. Salvia divinorum, or “diviner’s sage,” only really kicked in, he reported, when he accidentally doubled the dose. The entry for wormwood begins, “The first effect was loosening of the sinuses . . . . Much stronger than the Japanese wasabi horseradish . . . . After some minutes I noticed that I wasn’t writing anything. I was just staring off into space. And the space was beautiful. The light was brighter. Mottled sunlight filtering down through the walnut tree. . . . The light was different, softer and more intense at the same time. I felt great, actually. I gazed around my studio and spent a lot of time looking at my painting . . . . A little tightness in the head and around the eyes.”
There is a recipe to make absinthe from scratch, and a time-saving alternative where you only have to doctor the Pernod.
The potential for ridicule is not lost on him. “Timothy Leary had a joke about LSD research,” he says. “You couldn’t write about LSD with any authority if you hadn’t tried it. On the other hand, if you had tried it, then how could anyone trust what you said?”
But for Pendell, the more ridiculous thing would be reporting on LSD without having taken it. “The approach is phenomenological,” he says. “We’re trying to work with what’s happening in real time and somehow convey that.” The science behind play is tricky territory. Pendell is not above trotting out ten-dollar words for instant authority.
As the book was revised and finally published, it was dedicated to Isaac. Along with Ginsberg and Ecstasy chemist Shulgin, actor Peter Coyote supplied a jacket blurb. Their task: somehow prime the public for the book.
I suggest to Pendell that he’s still trying to shock the dean. He nods and laughs in agreement. “I stated at my father’s memorial service that maybe I’ll emerge from adolescence in the next decade.”
Then I ask if he’s not also trying to shock us. Why he doesn’t do drugs the understood way? Secretly? Is he not simply a reflexive contrarian? Again, an acknowledging laugh. “Norman O’Brown gave me a lot of trouble that way,” he says. “He said, ‘At least I’m not working out my Oedipus complex with drugs.’ ”
But as the door opens for a defense of drugs, Pendell has one ready and it’s serious. The stumbling brother debate may have started with his father, he says, but now it’s with the world. It’s at the heart of his work. It’s over what gets banned, what doesn’t, and the War on Drugs. “It’s not that if you make a place for Dionysian energy, this kind of wild and unpredictable God, that everything will go OK,” he says. “That’s not true at all. But the cost of trying to suppress it is even worse. Then you sacrifice your own children.
“In the United States today we now have more people in prison than any other country on a per capita basis. The majority of these are for drug crimes. It’s a war against ourselves. It’s a war against our children. It was problematical for the Greeks but at least they came to recognize you have to admit a certain amount of chaos. You can’t try to live risk free. If you try to live completely risk free you’re going to destroy what you had. What’s a really secure environment? San Quentin is pretty secure.”
Society, he says, is police enough. “The solution is to let it be worked out by the culture. Peer pressure. Societal norms. Everyone knows that if you take a drink first thing in the morning, it’s not a good thing.”
But aren’t his books encouraging people to do drugs? “Encouragement is the big full-page ads in High Times,” he says. He has plenty of readers who don’t do drugs at all, he says. Bye the bye, he adds shortly afterward, he’s not exactly stoned all the time, either.
The irony, says Pendell, is that writing books about drugs largely requires staying off them. Plus, we grow out of them, he thinks. Heroin affected his luck. He’s at an age where he’s got to think of his liver when it comes to alcohol. LSD was a “great blessing” in his life, he says, but one of its teachings is to stop doing it. Marijuana can be useful on very rare occasions. He has one tobacco cigarette a day. But he won’t say no to an afternoon glass of home-brewed absinthe.
He offers one to illustrate the benignity of the drink, and I think to see if I’ll accept it. I do, curiously. After an hour, though it is getting later, everything seems just a little brighter. “There’s something about mottled light,” he says. “The change to the absinthe drinkers, you suddenly have light breaking out of everywhere.” Pendell reckons you can explain all of expressionist painting with absinthe. In a future project, he says, he wants to do a “pharmacological study of philosophy. Not enough attention has been paid to what philosophers have been drinking or imbibing.”
As he began writing the sequel, “Pharmako/Dynamis,” in 1996, his 22-year marriage ended. He moved to Santa Rosa and wrote--furiously. The theme of the new book: speed. It began with a mischievous look at the teetotaler’s stimulant of choice, coffee. By the middle of the text, he is describing the metallic taste of freebase cocaine.
to get back
to where things were clear
Then there is a spirited defense of Ephedra, and a paean to Ecstasy, part-and-parcel of an ebullient horniness that permeates the second book. There is attention to sexual side-effects of drugs, which ones “give good lead,” which take it away. The Ecstasy chapter merrily contrasts a middle-aged generation of users who first used the drug in marriage counseling, whom Pendell fondly describes as “mush pile” sensualists, to the stomping ravers of the early 1990s. One anecdote has three friends admitting their feelings for each other while on the drug, a week later becoming lovers, dubbing themselves a “truple” and looking for things that came in threes.
His mood throughout was euphoric. While writing the second book, Pendell was in love. In 1998, living in Sonoma, he met Laura McCarthy, a visiting poet and book-binder from New York, who moved west and married him. McCarthy has an easy warmth and a ready, musical laugh as she describes her old East Coast longing for a place where leaving the house means emerging outdoors instead of into an apartment building hallway.
An excerpt from Pendell’s poem “The Dream Walker,” from the 1999 anthology “Living With Barbarians,” captures his wife as a refugee from Manhattan.
Looked for songs in the dry moss trees;
Picked them up where flames swirled.
Her thirst frightened the flowers;
Only the cacti survived.
She made her home in a land dry and barren as the moon.
Of course she grew lonely.
Someone who loves poems should take her home.
Her curling breath so dry would crack the tongue.
Pendell took her home. When she appears halfway through our interview, he hugs her and demands, “Aren’t I lucky?”
Over the next several days, in phone calls between Los Angeles and the Sierra, Pendell reports that what he thought was a cold turned out to be pneumonia. A friend tells him lungs equal grief. There has been a lot of death in the last five years. Ginsberg died in 1997, O’Brown last year, and Merle Goodkind succumbed to lupus in the spring. Then, in June, his father died.
But as antibiotics kick in, and he and McCarthy unpack their moving boxes, he’s feeling better. Twenty two years ago, he left the mountains reluctantly, for his wife and children. Now he’s back. Each day, he feels ambushed by joy.
He’s debating which to finish first, a book about his hero, Norman O’Brown, or the third drug book, “Pharmako/Gnosis.” He is toying with a “free the drug plants” campaign, complete with a green ribbon. “This is a DIY operation,” he says. “The first step in trying to clean up the mess of the drug war is free the plants.”
He also wants to circulate “Boycott Companies That Drug Test” bumper stickers. America’s office workers are drug free on a wink, he argues. They are routinely given two weeks’ notice before marijuana tests, so the drug can clear their systems. Once they take up jobs, inside every office is “a shrine to a coffee pot,” and outside, a bar.
But where another opponent of the war on drugs would be stumping for Ralph Nader, America’s poet of the second pharmacy is converting a country barn to a library to accommodate what he estimates are 10,000 pounds of reference books and botanical specimens. Part of him wants to be heard, not just by his father, but by every Methodist in America, by scientists, the DEA, his jailers. The other half wants to disappear into the wilderness.
Dale Pendell’s life adds up only if you give it enough columns. He’s a study in contradictions. He devoted his most lucid moments to recording his most stoned ones. He’s a mountain man-cum-computer programmer, an exaltant stutterer, Hamlet on absinthe. He insists on defending substances that even liberals abhor. He signed up with a publisher ideologically opposed to making money. He wrote highly technical reference books as epic poems. He wants to change the world without joining it.
When pressed about why he sought a presidential pardon, he bristled that all the Los Angeles Times wanted to know about were his teenaged crimes, then dismissed the long fight for the pardon as a theatrical act of no merit. He wants credibility, and to be incredible.
The single underlying theme always returns to the Bible, to Romans, to Paul and the stumbling brother. Pendell questions if the world can reasonably be asked to slow down to the pace of the slowest walker. Witness the stutterer who found his voice. Today, for the pastor’s prodigal son to speak at all, he has to believe what he’s saying. When that happens, the poet can’t help but find a pulpit.