Excerpt from the Conduit Interview
Talking Plants and Dale Pendell
Dale Pendell is the author of the Pharmako trilogy: Pharmako/Poesis: Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft; Pharmako/Dynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions, and Herbcraft; and Pharmako/Gnosis: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path, as well as Inspired Madness: The Gifts of Burning Man and, most recently, Walking with Nobby: Conversations with Norman O. Brown. He has also published several volumes of verse, and has been anthologized in the Wisdom Book of American Buddhist Poetry. He lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills with his wife, the poet Laura Pendell.
sarah fox: You have been called "The Poet of Plants," and your work described as "epic entheogenic poetry." Could you talk about the influence your relationship with plants has had on your writing? Do plants talk to you?
dale pendell: I do depend heavily on plants to give me words and messages.
conduit: How did you know they were going to give you words and messages?
pendell: I didn't know, but that's what I asked for. Like all poetic practice, the key is being ready to answer the door when you hear the knock.
conduit: Did plants knock on your door?
pendell: Actually, I knocked on their door. In my young life, I went up into the mountains in Northwestern California, to the Trinity Alps, where I had a mining claim. I needed to heal, and I wanted to get as far away from people and everything else as I could. So I went back into the mountains and stayed for awhile. It was like the earth was able to absorb my poison. Eventually I started to notice all of these green things around me, and I wanted to know what their names were, and I wanted to know what they did.
conduit: Did you feel like you had to release the poison into the earth before you could begin to notice these green things around you? Was that part of the process?
pendell: I think it was. I was pretty fucked-up. Back in the mountains, I took a lot of LSD. In the past I always had a problem coming down, the re-entry part, coming back to who I was—it seemed like I wasn't really anybody. And back there in the mountains, I never had to come down. There was nothing that called me to have a "personality," to have that kind of a social edifice. The healing power of the earth, that red and orange dirt that you get in the Trinities, and the black bedrock, and the wonderful water, that was enough. I let the rock be my medicine. I became more and more interested in all this stuff that was around me. I found a couple of teachers who introduced me to herbs, both in the Western tradition and in some of the Native American traditions.
conduit: And these were just people who happened to be around in the Trinity Alps at the same time that you were?
pendell: Yes. Dear Mrs. Ruth Alley had a "health food store," as they called it in those days, in Weaverville. And there was an old hermit named Red Barnes, who really offered me my first experience with ethnobotany. He smoked yerba santa, which he called "mountain balm," to extend his tobacco, and the "camphor plant" when he ran out of Copenhagen "snoose." Ruth Alley introduced me to yerba buena, comfrey, mullein, prince's pine, all of which I was able to collect myself. Jo Peters in Hoopa Valley got me started with power plants.
conduit: Do you feel like your relationship with nature, with plants, is almost indistinguishable from your relationship with poetry?
pendell: That's a very good question; I hadn't really thought of it that way. But certainly erasing that boundary has been the key. That was an important step of dropping into poetry, and what I've been working on in various ways ever since.
conduit: When you say "erasing that boundary," do you mean the boundary between poetic language and natural language?
pendell: No, the boundary between what we might call an external objective reality and consciousness. And maybe, just maybe, they aren't really separate.
conduit: Do you believe there was a time when that separation didn't exist, when humans and plants and animals openly communicated?
pendell: Yes, we call that the First World, when animals could speak and plants could talk and everybody interacted. That's the way they tell the story out here. Vico called it "The Golden Age," he got that from the Greeks. This question of why we took a separate course is what the Buddhists might call the primal delusion. They have developed sophisticated techniques of spiritual training to help students see through that delusion, called maya, the idea that "everything is happening to me, I'm all alone here, I don't really have anything to do with what's going on."