In Case You Missed It… Sasha Shulgin Has Left The Building

Although I am always sad to hear when a culture warrior has passed on, I am also secretly thrilled to see the New York Times obituary because it’s exciting to me to see my  counter-cultural heroes celebrated in the mainstream press, even when that exposure is post-mortem. In this instance, I heard a few days ago of the death of Alexander Shulgin, a psychedelic researcher, chemist, “neuronaut” of the psychoactive frontier, and synthesizer of more than 200 psychoactive substances, including MDMA and many related compounds.  (MDMA was originally produced by Merck pharmaceuticals in 1914, but when the company failed to find a way to monetize the substance, they allowed their patent to lapse, thus allowing Shulgin to re-synthesize the substance about half a century later.) Although I would not describe myself as a drug user per se, I have been long fascinated by the effects of psychoactive plants and chemicals on the human (and animal) psyche, by the variety of the chemicals and plant substances that have been traditionally used to alter reality, and by the lengths to which humans and even other animals have gone for eons to chemically enhance or alter their  reality, whether for spiritual, therapeutic, recreational, or other reasons.  (Among the more unique small books in my collection is the aptly titled, Animals and Psychedelicswhich anecdotally explores “the natural world and the instinct to alter consciousness,” according to its subtitle.) Most people who know me at all, even superficially, know of my fascination with herbs, supplements, and other natural substances, both with the rainbow of available options and the effects of these substances on the healthy functioning of our brains and bodies. What is less well-known — and really, this is partly by design because of the stigma that usually surrounds such subjects — is how I came to the study of herbs and medicinal substances at all.  I never set foot in a health food store, that I can remember, until the day I went into one to apply for a job.  As a child I was a student of the outdoors, and I always enjoyed learning about wild things.  In summer camp, I had a healthy fascination with outdoor crafts and learning survival skills, but really none of those experiences properly prepared me for my later encounters with wild foods, foraging, or the immense power of some innocuous-looking flowers, trees, etc. to heal or harm when used correctly or incorrectly.  At camp, we pressed flowers and butterflies, learned how to start a fire without matches, how to shoot a bow and arrow, how to make rudimentary shelters, even how to make crafty things out of plants, rocks, etc., but I don’t remember a single syllable being uttered about how I should feed myself or give first aid if I found myself in the wild without food or a first aid kit.  Truthfully, our instructors geared any early preparedness training  more toward what we should bring from home to properly protect ourselves from the elements until help could get to us, not how we should feed ourselves if we became separated from our food supply or first aid kit. So how did I  come to the study of medicinal and edible wild plants?  Partly as a function of all the reading I did in high school about cultural upheaval in America in the 1960’s, I fell down a number of literary rabbit holes, digressing to dig deeper into various subjects and into the lives and literary works of  culture warriors and iconoclasts.  I read extensively about the lives and lively interactions of the Beat poets, spending a lot of quality time on Allen Ginsberg (an early gay hero of mine), William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac.   Kerouac led me to Neal Cassady, who led me to Ken Kesey and the Acid Tests.  Ginsberg led me to the gay counterculture and to Bob Dylan.  I was already listening to the Grateful Dead, the Doors, and other bands, and it was thrilling to me to read about how Ginsberg, Cassady, Kesey, Dylan, and the Dead collided in psychedelic space and helped to catalyze one sphere in an already chaotic countercultural universe.  Reading a biography of The Doors’ Jim Morrison, I learned about Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and the French literary counterculture that swirled around them.  Everywhere woven  through these literary conversations was the creative use of plants, absinthe, alcohol, or other substances.  In many cases, as early as high school English, I learned how substances like these influenced the life and creative output of artists, writers, and other cultural icons.  (Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s use of opium springs to mind; reputedly, “Kubla Khan” was reputedly written under its influence .) Throughout my early forays into these controversial subjects there was always the background chatter from  Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign.  The chatter suggested that no matter how many writers and artists produced great works while under the influence, their success was almost accidental, and their work was of dubious value because of how they created it. Imagine my surprise when I had my first psychedelic experiences in college and realized that not only do a lot of these substances “work”, but they work well and there is not necessarily anymore likelihood that you will die the first time you try them than if you over-consume alcoholic beverages, which are legal.  In some cases (weed, for example), there is even less chance that you will overdose than with alcohol.  True, they aren’t for everyone, and there is a chance of psychological damage or physical injury if one is too casual or doesn’t pay proper attention to what is known in the psychedelic world as “set and setting.” (1) In any case, I was sad to hear that Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin had passed on but glad to see The Times give his life and work a nice review and give him a final send-off.

(1) Note: [Set is short for mindset.  In other words, how is your attitude?  How are you feeling?  Are you mentally prepared to ingest the substance you are about to consume?  Are you ready to face whatever personal demons you might stir up?  If you can’t face these questions, proceed cautiously, if at all.  Then, there is the other part of the equation, setting.  Are you going it alone or hanging out with friends?  Would you prefer sitting on a quiet starry hillside, playing frisbee on a sunny day in the park, or dancing all night at a banging dance party in a crowded, high energy club?  Not every altered experience is micro-manageable to this level, but learning that your preferences or safety needs are different from what you expected or planned for has consequences, ranging from seriously inconvenient to even downright dangerous under some circumstances.]