From the Archives: A Lifetime Supply of Peyote Magic (1977)

From the Archives: A Lifetime Supply of Peyote Magic (1977)

By J. F. Burke

Most of my life it’s been boo, booze and blow. I didn’t get into trips until I was 42, in 1957, when a friend of mine in Santa Fe introduced me to peyote. A Taos Indian had given a dozen peyote buttons to each of several persons in Santa Fe’s art colony. One of them a serigrapher who did realistic still lifes of mushrooms had been waiting for me to arrive and trip with him.

I knew very little about peyote at that time, but I did know enough to be aware of the problem of getting it past our palates, so I pulverized the dried buttons in a Waring blender and tamped the powder into gelatin capsules. Otherwise our soft palates might have reflexively ejected the peyote, which I’d been told was incredibly bitter. We washed the caps down with cold mountain well water.

My friend’s trip must have been very strange, for he spent the first eight hours wrapped in a Navaho blanket, curled up like a chrysalis in a cocoon and chanting in a language that sounded Indian to me. After eight hours he emerged from his cocoon smiling, looking beatific and saying nothing. Very mysterious.

Afterwards, when I asked him what language he’d been chanting, he said English. I objected that it didn’t sound remotely like English but very much like some Indian tongue. He said that was just my own mental confusion, a peyote hallucination. When I asked him what he’d been chanting about, he said he’d been chanting “in praise of everything,” as he put it. Just what an Indian shaman might do, I commented. He ridiculed the thought. But if he really believed he’d been chanting English, he was out of his tree. English it was not.

As for my own trip, I spent the first four hours laughing, just laughing, for everything was laughable. It seemed to me that laughter was the truest response to the world. Apparently I’d needed a good laugh for a long time.

The next time Mescalito came to me, I was with my wife Rosa. We ate peyote every day for 15 months. Mescalito stayed with us all that time. Sometimes I feel he never left.

Rosa and I sent to Smith’s Cacti Ranch in Laredo, Texas, for peyote, which was legal then and was being sold in the East Village for 25 cents a button. We got it by mail order at $10 per 100 buttons plus $3 postage. You received your shipment via parcel post with a U.S. Department of Agriculture stamp on the carton attesting to the purity of the contents. This was back in 1961—the good old days!

Our first shipment arrived on a Friday. A few of the buttons had rotten spots from being locked up in the mailing carton for several days. These were big, fresh, green, juicy buttons. We cut out the bad spots. Then we set the hundred buttons out around the apartment, wherever there was a horizontal surface. They were everywhere. They seemed to have presence, as we say in theater. They were fleshlike to the touch, and they looked lovely with their elegant little silvery tufts. We could smell them, too, an earthy smell, quite delicate. They looked like big, round living emeralds. Or perhaps imperial jade.

I cut a slice off one, and we tasted it. Words have not been coined for such unbelievable bitterness. So we had a problem. How to eat this little green god? You can’t pulverize the fresh, juicy buttons and cap them as with the dried ones. We knew that people had tried to minimize the taste by brewing infusions, boiling porridge, making milk shakes. We decided that somehow we’d meet the problem head-on. So we slept on it.

While we slept, Mescalito was everywhere in the room, 100 of him. Saturday morning we woke up knowing how to handle the eating problem. We removed the tiny silvery tufts, washed the buttons in cold water, dried them gently with soft towels and then chopped up a few of the biggest, fattest, juiciest. We minced them. We also ground some dark Brazilian beans and made a pot of strong coffee laced with honey.

Still, it’s no easy task chewing the bitter green mass prior to swallowing it. You chew like a rabbit, keeping it in the front of your mouth, well away from the soft palate. Then, when it’s ready to be swallowed, you put the cup of coffee to your lips, swallow the peyote and follow it immediately with the coffee so that you’re washing the peyote past the esophagus before the soft palate can react. Once it’s past the esophagus you’re home free, except perhaps for a queasy stomach.

Some people experience nausea, and some even throw up, but it’s no big thing, for the peyote comes up much easier than it goes down, and it doesn’t have to stay in the stomach long for the active principle (mescaline) to enter the bloodstream. I’ve never had more than a very slight queasiness, and I’ve never thrown up. The queasy feeling doesn’t last long. Anyway, I enjoy the initial toxic reactions, particularly the muscle spasms. Orgasmic.

Now, one of the most significant things that Mescalito taught us about ourselves during our 15 months’ regimen is that peyote itself does not taste bitter. This is not a paradox. If you continue eating peyote every day, and long enough, the bitterness decreases. Eventually it will go away altogether. But the peyote itself is a constant factor, so it can’t be the cactus that changes. If it was bitter, it will still be bitter. Ergo, the peyote wasn’t bitter; the peyote eater’s taste was.

Certainly peyote clears and heightens the senses, all of them, so that we see, hear, taste, feel and smell differently, more intensely, deeply, clearly. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the taste of the taster changes. To put it another way, Mescalito is not only a teacher. The little god is also a profound physician. For some of us, peyote can be a psychic purgative.

We’d done our homework, so we knew what was then generally known about Lophophora williamsii. Since the main active principle is the alkaloid mescaline, the dosage of which varies around 400 milligrams, depending on one’s body weight, we assumed the peyote dosage should be measured likewise. Being a small woman, Rosa ate only three of the buttons, big ones. I’m 5’11” and then weighed 175 pounds, so I ate nine. Then we smoked some reefer and waited.

In about 20 minutes, I became restless, so instead of waiting for the reaction I went out and spaded the new garden plot. We’d just moved into the apartment and had yet to start our first seeds. The arable part of our garden measured some 30 by 40 feet, but it took me only half an hour to turn the earth and weed it. When I was done, I was sweating so heavily I looked like I’d been standing in a cloudburst. And I smelled like a cab horse. I undressed and went into the shower. Rosa joined me.

When we came out, still naked and dripping wet, we saw with wonder the paintings on our walls glowing as if alive. The walls themselves seemed to breathe. The big tree in our garden was moving not only its limbs, branches and leaves, but its very bark seemed to undulate. Everything was in pulsating motion.

I felt like singing, so I picked up my mandola and began to tune it. And here Mescalito rid me of a very annoying problem. I’d always loved to play stringed instruments and sing, but I had no tone control. I was utterly incapable of tuning the instrument accurately, and I couldn’t sing on pitch. I could hear the awful sounds I made, all right, but I couldn’t help it. My habit was to play and sing only when I was alone, but of course from time to time someone would have the misfortune to hear me.

On this peyote morning I tuned the mandola accurately and sang truly for the first time in my life. I felt like a fledgling in first flight. Free! Rosa and I often sang duets after that, when we were tripping. She taught me her Portuguese songs, fados, and I taught her Mexican and Spanish songs.

On that first peyote Saturday we were so charged that despite our long shower we had to take our energy to bed, and there we merged, entwined like Aztec stone carvings into a single complex form, interpenetrating, so that we could not tell who was inside whom. For a time we seemed to be lying atop a great pyramid in Mexico, alone together under a high blue sky, our kaleidoscopic orgasms surging, ever changing, reaching into all parts of our bodies, filling us with brightness and sheer ecstasy.

It must have been early afternoon when our apartment and unplanted garden were suddenly transformed into a Mexican hacienda somewhere in Chihuahua, and we seemed to see golden chamiso bushes and a tall yucca with a yucca moth hovering among the pearly flowers. We could smell the desert and hear lizards and small birds chirping. The fantasy—or as Carlos Castaneda later would say, this other reality—was very substantial even though we knew we were in Manhattan and there were no chamisos or yuccas, much less yucca moths, in our backyard. And we saw much more, which later I set down in a poem.

Yucca welcomes her lover under the moon.

He hovers like pale kisses, fluttering. Silkworm weaves his mandarin cocoon.

Cat schemes by a groundhole, muttering.

Owl waits and watches, hooting mirth.

Hummingbird drinks nectar from the rose.

She opens her secret petals ardently.

Roots strongly embrace the warm and willing earth.

And all things love to be sweetly bound, not free.

Ask the yucca’s personal moth, who knows.

Of thoughts like these our waking dreams are spun:

We would be as flowers that follow the sun—

Oh, never count the hours!—As the river grows

from streams and flows to the sea, so would we be.

After our first four hours’ rush, we had four hours of very high euphoria and fresh perceptions and then four hours of gently settling back, except that we didn’t get all the way back to where we’d started. We never did. Not quite.

We went to sleep high that night, slept beautifully and woke beautifully in the dawn, ready for love and a good breakfast. We were in for a surprise. When we’d prepared our usual eggs and toast, we didn’t want the eggs. Couldn’t eat them. Though very hungry, we were nauseated by the smell of cooked eggs. What we really wanted, and what we ate with gusto, was fresh fruit, bread, cheese and coffee. We didn’t know it yet, but Mescalito was already turning us into vegetarians, curing us of smoking tobacco and giving us a distaste for alcohol. The little god also got us into reading yogic literature, but that came with time.

We ate peyote again at sunset that day, which was a Sunday, and made a night trip. Again we took it to bed and got deep into our inner spaces. Clinging together, entwined, floating freely in space that was both microcosm and macrocosm, we saw atoms and molecules as miniature solar systems and galaxies, and we saw the visible universe as a crystal of star systems, which of course we recognized as the mescaline molecule. When we’d reached the thumping conclusion that the universe was a colossal crystal of mescaline, we understood. Mescalito has a cosmic sense of humor. To put it philosophically, the little god was demonstrating oneness.

The following day was Monday, but I didn’t go to the office. I’d decided during the night to try working behind peyote, since we’d found it to be such a powerful energizer. However, discretion being the better part of valor, I thought I’d better run the experiment at home. I could imagine some pretty funny scenes if I should start tripping at Westpark Publications. I wasn’t sure what a working dosage should be, but that it was possible to work on peyote I had no doubt, for a seafaring friend of mine had once dealt craps in Las Vegas while on peyote, and he had to keep a lot of action sorted out in his mind. He said peyote helped him do it fast and accurately. Three buttons, he said.

Huxley had written in The Doors of Perception, “Mescaline… gives access to contemplation—but to a contemplation that is incompatible with action and even with the will to action, the very thought of action.” Well, I didn’t think so. That was his trip. Not my seafaring crap dealer’s. Certainly the Huichol, the Tarahumara and other nations get into a lot of action when they’re tripping on peyote. They sing, dance, run up and down mountains.

As it turned out, I could as well have made the test at the office. I ate three buttons of medium size and waited an hour, then got into some manuscripts. It wasn’t a trip, on this smaller dosage, but I still felt enormously energized. I was, however, allowing myself to get too deep into the work, deeper than it called for. This, I could see, was something I’d have to watch if I wanted to work behind peyote.

I’ve worked behind grass for over 20 years, and I recall that at first I had to learn how to handle, how to concentrate behind smoke. Well, concentrating behind peyote is a bit harder to learn, but once you’ve got it, you can concentrate better than before. Deeper, more focused. Or centered. By noon the work was done.

The next day was Tuesday, and I went to the office after breakfasting on three peyote buttons, medium size. A number of my associates commented on my appearance and mood. “You’re looking great. Been smoking something?” That sort of thing. The day went fast and I got a mountain of work done. When I got home I found that Rosa had spent the whole day, instead of her usual two or three hours, writing in her journal.

And that’s the way it went for the next 15 months: love first thing in the morning, peyote for breakfast, good work all day, together again for dinner and a quiet evening talking, then bedtime and more love and sleep.

Weekends we’d sometimes take larger doses and see how far out (or in) we could trip. And from time to time we’d abstain for a day or two, to check up. At first we found that peyote’s salutary effects seemed to last only two or three days before we developed a yen. Nothing heavy. Just a yen. But as time went by we also noticed that we needed less to get off, until at the end of 15 months I was taking a single large button in the morning, and Rosa a smaller one. Of course, we sometimes replenished ourselves during the afternoon with another button.

There was no comedown at the end of the day, no crash, only a pleasantly tired feeling and a readiness to rest. If we wanted more energy then, we simply ate another button. Why no crash? Where did all the energy come from? Not from peyote. The cactus acts like a catalyst. The energy comes from the peyote eater. We have a much greater energy potential than we’re ordinarily aware of. It’s like the mind’s potential, which, as is well known, we barely tap. Well, peyote taps it but doesn’t exhaust it. There’s always more. On occasion, say a weekend, we’d trip on and on, without sleep, eating a button or two from time to time, for 36 or 48 hours. How long we could have gone, I have no idea, but there seemed to be no reason to try and set a record on that count. We’d already set one by the end of our first month on peyote.

I soon began taking my lunch to work. I kept a basket of bread and cheese, fresh fruit and raw vegetables on my desk, and one of the fruits (vegetables) was always a large peyote button, in case I felt like recharging during the afternoon.

The first of my fellow workers to ask about the strange green fruit in the basket was Bob Shea, one of the swingier editors at Westpark. The dialogue went something like this:

“Is that some kind of tropical fruit? It looks like a cactus.”

“It’s peyote.”

“Heard of it. Mind if I taste it?”

“Please do.”

He took a tiny bite, very tiny, and put the rest back in the basket. He gave me an odd look and went to his office across the hall. In half a minute I heard him spitting and making guttural noises.

He came back saying, “You mean you actually eat that stuff?”

“Every day.”

“You’re pulling my leg. I hope to God it doesn’t make me sick.”

To allay his anxiety I took a fair bite out of the big button that he’d nibbled. I chewed it well and carefully, up front between my front teeth, and swallowed it without coffee. Bob looked at me as if I’d gone mad.

He knows better now, of course, for since then he’s co-written a book called Illuminatus, which gives clearly recognizable evidence that he’s found a way into his own head.

Mescalito certainly smiled on Rosa and me, for all those 15 months. The end came when some professional prohibitionists in Washington, D.C., decided that peyote was Indian medicine, fit only for Indians, not for whites. The official decision was that it could be used only for religious ritual by bona fide members of the Native American Church.

Smith’s Cacti Ranch and other legitimate suppliers weren’t willing to bootleg the buttons, which cut down the supply to the vanishing point, so that was the end of our 15 months. From time to time some buttons would show up in New York, and they still do, very poor plants compared to what we were used to.

Those 15 months were one of our highest times, though not, I hasten to add, the very highest. That high came soon after, when we received our first little sugar cubes from a beautiful psychedelic artist in the East Village.

High Times Magazine, December 1977

Read the full issue here.

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