Co-Evolution with Cannabis
An Interview with Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan is the author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, winner of the James Beard Award, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006), which was named one of the ten best books of the year by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, Pollan is the recipient of numerous journalistic awards, including the James Beard Award for best magazine series in 2003 and the Reuters-I.U.C.N. 2000 Global Award for Environmental Journalism. Newsweek named Pollan one of the top-ten new thought leaders of the decade.
Julie Holland: The idea that we co-evolved with cannabis for 10,000 years is fascinating. You’ve written about cannabis helping you forget, as sort of a helpful strategy or adaptation, and there’s a line in Botany of Desire about forgetting as a prerequisite to human happiness and mental health.
Michael Pollan: We understand the evolutionary utility of memory, but we don’t often think about the utility of forgetting. It’s almost as important to be able to forget as it is to remember. Forgetting, in this case, is not just a fading of a memory, but an active process for editing, because we take in far more information than it would be useful to retain. There’s just so much detail in our visual field (not to mention the other senses) at any given moment that a lot of what our brain is doing is separating out and figuring out what is worth remembering, what can be shucked, and what should just be remembered for a little while and then let go of.
JH: There’s no doubt that short-term, working memory is temporarily diminished when somebody gets high. But what I think is enjoyable to people is this idea of dehabituation, that they’re seeing things with a fresh eye. Memory is the enemy of wonder. When people get high, everything is new and intense because of this forgetting, because it’s dehabituated.
MP: It’s a childlike way of looking at the world; Wordsworth’s child. He sees everything for the first time, and of course, to see things for the first time you have to have forgotten that you’ve seen them before. So forgetting is very important to the experience of awe or wonder.
JH: That sort of perception provides breaks in your mental habits, the power to alter mental constructs and offers new ways of looking at things, so drugs can then function as, you use the phrase, “cultural mutagens.”
MP: What I’m speaking of there is, looking at the whole history of drugs and culture, whether you’re talking about music, or art, or writing, there’s this very rich tradition of artists who have availed themselves of various drugs and have attributed great insight or creativity to their experience with those drugs. And one of the mechanisms that might explain this is that it’s shifting of ordinary perception, allowing you to see things from a new perspective and that is kind of mutagenic.
JH: Yes, I agree. Interesting . . . I feel like our culture is so separated from nature now, that it’s a big part of our problem. People everywhere seem to be reaching out, wanting more--more meaning and searching for spirituality, though half the time we settle for materialism or consumerism. What do you think that we can do to reconnect more with nature? Do you see plant-based medicines having an effect on that?
MP: I think they do. We have this inbred idea of nature and culture and mind and body standing on opposite sides of the big divide. One of the things that’s really striking to me about all plant mood-changing substances is that they refute this idea. If things out in the natural world could change the content of your thoughts, what would it mean that you have viewed matter on one hand and this thing called spirit on the other? It really suggests that the categories are messier and more intertwined than we’d like to think. There’s a whole tradition in the West of suppressing plant-based drugs of one kind or another, and also plant-based knowledge. That’s what the story of the Garden of Eden is all about. It’s not the content of the knowledge that Eve got in the garden; it was the fact that she got any knowledge from a plant. What was a big part of earlier religions, which often had a drug component to them, was that there was wisdom in nature, and that was the way it came to you. That was a very threatening idea to monotheism, which wanted to have this one God up in the sky, and wanted to take our eyes off nature as a place where we might find wisdom and comfort. The whole Judeo-Christian tradition has a history of a strong anti-nature component to it. Nature is to be subdued, nature is what we are different from: we distinguish ourselves from animals. It’s always about inserting that distance between us and the other animals, us and the trees, because people were worshipping trees before. So, to the extent that you wanted to erect this new kind of God, you had to reject nature and natural experiences of all different kinds. So I do think there is the potential to return to this appreciation of the fact that our consciousnesses can be affected by the plant world, not to mention the fungal world.
JH: I love the idea of a garden being a place of sacraments. In Botany of Desire you wrote, “Letting nature have her way with us now and again brings our upward gaze back down to earth.” This idea of nature as teacher and as healer . . . a plant as medicine is so basic to our culture, but we’ve gotten away from that to a large extent.
MP: Indeed. And it’s been our great loss.