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‘Always happy to introduce another psychoactive plant’ [book review]

A review of This Is Your Mind On Plants by Michael Pollan

Midway through the second chapter of Michael Pollan’s This Is Your Mind On Plants, I was struck by a sudden thought. ‘Perhaps,’ I mused, ‘I should be drinking more coffee.’ That this was startling is putting it mildly, but the thing was, he’d just made coffee sound so enjoyable. Whether or not this was the intended effect is something only the author himself can answer, but it is indicative of his work as a whole: a book that is nothing if not surprising.

Cover image This Is Your Mind On Plants

In well-researched and engaging, often downright chatty prose, Pollan sets out to illuminate and dispel some of the many myths surrounding three of the world’s most infamous plant-based drugs: opium, mescaline and caffeine. To take any of these drugs in whatever form is, Pollan believes, to be ‘engaging with nature in one of the most profound ways possible’, and his book takes the refreshing (though not risk-free) approach of presenting them in a relatively neutral manner, viewed not necessarily through the social lens of ‘drugs’ – a word that is heavy with connotations – but merely in terms of their effects on the brain and the various historical, cultural, political and religious positions they have come to occupy. (It is worth noting at this stage that a lengthy disclaimer at the front of the book stresses how neither the author nor his publisher wishes to encourage any reader actually to experiment with drugs.)

The idea is an intriguing one: most contemporary drug narratives are violently dissuasive and, while this is for good reason, there is much to be said for offering a more sober view of plant substances themselves – particularly these three, which have all in their own way had a major socio-political impact on more than just their direct users. It is a shame, then, that the book seems lost almost before it has begun. Following a brief introduction, the first section, which looks at opium, proves to consist largely of an essay that Pollan wrote for Harper’s in the mid-1990s. At this time, the USA’s war on drugs was at its height, and Pollan had managed to implicate himself criminally by planting opium poppies in his back garden. It was – and still is – a complex legal situation that the essay endeavours to elucidate, at the same time as giving voice to the general paranoia which swept the country and was felt especially by the many largely innocent gardeners who suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The story is an interesting one, and Pollan writes compellingly, yet somehow it feels as though something is missing. If the premise of This Is Your Mind On Plants is to explore their effects on the human mind, then it is sadly lacking here: I learned much about legal and political wrangling, and little about opium itself. (Even a discussion of the Opium Wars and nineteenth-century drugs trade is rather glossed over, popping up again more coherently in the caffeine chapter.) Pollan has tried to reframe his original essay within the contemporary context of the opioid crisis – the point being that while the DEA was focused on poppy gardeners in the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies were beginning to sell the OxyContin that would go on to kill thousands of Americans – but this too is discussed fairly lightly, assuming prior knowledge on the part of the reader. As Pollan makes plain, opium has a fascinating history, and it continues to wreak havoc on national and global scales. It could, at least to my mind, have been slightly better served.

Following the opium section, Pollan moves on to caffeine and mescaline (a psychedelic substance that occurs naturally in various cacti and has considerable religious importance within the Native American Church – outside this group, it is illegal within the United States), and it is here that the book really begins to pick up. Now the author seems to have found his thread, and now we are treated to an immersive and thought-provoking discourse on how caffeine radically altered Western society following its widespread introduction in the seventeenth century, since which time it has been consistently promoted by capitalist-oriented governments for the efficiency it causes – despite (or rather because of) the fact that it is a mind-altering drug. Pollan’s own experiments with caffeine, which mainly involve giving it up, are a neat exercise in willpower, addiction and social convention, while the facts he employs around the cultivation and export of coffee are often quite shocking. Coffee and tea are so omnipresent in our homes, but despite being well acquainted with their preparation and production, I had never considered the all-round impact of caffeine in quite these terms before.

Adopting a tone that is by turns light and then serious – ‘I’m always happy to introduce another psychoactive plant to my garden,’ writes Pollan of the Wachuma cactus – the final section turns the spotlight on mescaline. Again combining a mixture of historical research and personal experimentation, drawing on other literature and incidentally chronicling various aspects of the pandemic for posterity, this is an insightful, often troubling account of the violent repression of people and beliefs. At its heart is mescaline’s significance within the Native American Church and how this has traditionally been suppressed: previously very brutally, but now in more subtle ways (various rules around trading in peyote, a major cactus source, mean that they are often in limited supply, despite being legally obtainable for members of the Church). Pollan is aware that in seeking to describe this sacred plant and its importance, he is taking on the role of just ‘another in a long line of white discoverers’; he is open about the fact that much of his research – including interviewing several spiritual leaders – threatens to step over lines he shouldn’t be crossing. The result is a well-balanced, informative account that doesn’t shy away from questions about cultural appropriation – though the author’s decision ultimately to take part in a ceremony of sorts does lead us back into a greyer area.

Pollan’s mind is evidently an active one: as a writer, he is intelligent and enthusiastic, pushing lines of reasoning and offering his readers new ways of looking at subjects they may not have given much previous consideration. Though at times he seems to become distracted – a botanist catching sight of an unusual-looking specimen – This Is Your Mind On Plants is a thoroughly entertaining read. A healthy dose of fresh insights packaged in a trustworthy, accessible narration, it remains critical of humanity, in awe of nature, and all the while pleasingly willing to accept that some things in this world can’t or shouldn’t be explained.

This Is Your Mind On Plants by Michael Pollan is published in the UK by Allen Lane. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.


2 thoughts on “‘Always happy to introduce another psychoactive plant’ [book review]

  1. Hi Eleanor, thanks for this super well written and informative review. I’ve always been amused and intrigued by the fact that caffeine is such a widely used ‘drug’ and how/why this happened. I hadn’t thought of the link between the rise of coffee’s popularity in the West and the rise of capitalism (I think of coffeeshops in 18th century London, drunk by merchants etc. as they read the papers), how coffee promotes efficiency etc. Interesting stuff!

    Sounds like the book could have used some further depth and consideration at certain parts, but overall that the style and the subject sound intriguing. I always enjoy reading your reviews! Thanks again, Carly

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Carly – lovely to hear from you, and I’m really glad you enjoyed the review! I hadn’t thought of that link before either, but he goes into some really interesting thoughts on how caffeine may have ‘influenced’ some great works of literature, philosophy, scientific discoveries etc., many of which began as ideas in exactly those coffeeshops. It was a new take for me and has certainly made me look at my regular cups of tea and coffee a bit differently . . .

      Liked by 1 person

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