THE POET OF PLANTS
by Emily Green
Oct 19, 2003
Los Angeles Times
Dale Pendell Has Written Two Books on Botanical Pharmacopeia That
Resonate With a Lusty Wit. He May Be America's Answer to Blake,
Coleridge and Wordsworth, Right Down to the Opium.
The first conversation with Dale Pendell is like an overseas telephone
call with a lag on the line. I speak. He listens. He thinks. Then he
responds in such perfectly formed sentences that I can almost hear the
The stilted speech is surprising. As a writer, Pendell is so fluent
that he can make a list of drug side-effects sound interesting, a feat
he routinely performed in his two books. Delve deeper into his work and
you find poetry, beautiful poetry.
Pendell, 56, has been writing since the 1960s, but his work is little
known. I discovered it last spring while serving as a judge for the 2003
Pen Awards overseeing the "Creative Nonfiction" category. As a case
containing 57 books arrived at the office for consideration, two things
worried me. The amount of reading and the "creative" part. Nonfiction is
hard enough to get right when it's written the old-fashioned way,
straight up: who, where, why, when.
As it turned out, the books were at least 50% hard-luck stories, most
of them trenchant. There was a war correspondent who got shot, an
equestrienne whose leg was crushed by her horse, a profoundly moving
brace of Korean stories of search for identity after diaspora. Daniel
Ellsberg was there, recounting the events that led to the leaking of the
Pentagon papers. There were a couple of biographies, wisecracking
sociology from a newspaper columnist and ruminations on the essence of
Then there was Pendell. In his 2002 book "Pharmako/Dynamis," he merrily
rolls out the pharmacology, history and botany behind a host of
mind-altering drugs, including Psilocybe mushrooms, peyote, coffee, tea,
heroin, Ecstasy, wine, tobacco and absinthe. They are classed by the
nature of the high: "phantastica," "exitantia," "inebriantia" and others
or, in plain English, tripping, speeding, drunk and so on. Almost every
drug is taken back to a plant source, and that plant's trading history.
At the outset of judging, I wondered if Pendell was in the right
category. Three months later, as the judging committee argued over
finalists, I became convinced that his was the only book that actually
met the brief of creative nonfiction. Yet, on the face of it, it was a
dictionary, mainly of controlled substances. "A reference," read one
You can certainly look things up in it, including safety measures for
taking Ecstasy, or how to score an opium poppy and apply the harvest in
interesting places. But it wasn't like any reference I'd ever seen.
Pendell borrowed just as freely from pharmaceutical industry texts as
medieval herbals. He used poetry, classical plant taxonomy, chemical
equations, prose, anecdotes, jokes, slogans--whatever worked. The prose
was indecently interesting, angry and eloquent, like that of a young
Christopher Hitchens. The poetry was enigmatic one moment, lusty the
next, witty, passionate--whatever it felt like.
Structurally, however, it was odd. It was, arguably, half a book, a
continuation of Pendell's companion volume, "Pharmako/Poeia." When this
appeared in 1995, the good and the great of the Bay Area Beat movement
came out in support of it. Allen Ginsberg wrote a review for the jacket,
calling it, among a long string of things, "an epic poem on plant
humors." Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gary Snyder supplied the
introduction. The synthesizer of Ecstasy, Berkeley scientist Alexander
Shulgin, gave his imprimatur to the chemistry. Yet there were no reviews
in the major press. It has sold 12,000 copies in eight years, which
would be a handsome figure for a Junior League cookbook.
The publication of "Pharmako/Dynamis" last year received slightly more
recognition. Richard Gehr of the Village Voice called Pendell "the best
writer on drugs to come along since the late Terence McKenna charted the
beautiful and terrifying 'invisible landscapes' revealed by DMT and
Drug writer. Hard to argue. But what does that make his book? It reads
so smoothly, its structure almost escapes notice. Under autopsy,
however, there it is. The element that keeps the various information
flowing is poetry. There is a narrator, like a Greek chorus, or in this
case, a heckler, who prompts the greater text to sing in different
voices. How many books manage witty asides that can jump into chemical
signatures, then take off into a hallucinatory odyssey about crack
The voting was long over, and my argument for Pendell as a finalist had
prevailed, before the obvious dawned on me. Ginsberg was right in his
volcanic blurb for "Pharmako/Poeia." It was an epic poem. So is the
sequel. I went back and pored over the construction of both books. The
author of the head shop encyclopedia began to look less like a writer on
drugs and more like an original Western Romantic, an American answer to
Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth, right down to the opium.
We meet on a july afternoon on the porch of his new cabin in the
Sierra. He's just moved to the mountains from Oakland. Most of his
belongings are still in packing boxes. It's midday, 100 degrees, the
valley opposite shimmers with heat and a licorice-like scent hangs in
the air from the baked scrub.
Pendell is taller than the jacket pictures suggest, lean, a born
climber who hops easily from boulder to boulder on a stone outcropping
near his house. I expect a wild woodsman, but instead he's more textbook
Berkeley, with twin earrings and slightly bushy eyebrows, the sort
usually found on Englishmen in Victorian cartoons. When he listens, he
tilts his head graciously toward his guest, like an interested minister.
He is, it turns out, the son of a minister. He has just returned from
Orange County from a memorial service for his father, Thomas Roy
Pendell, a life-long Methodist pastor who served at seven Southern
California parishes. He seems relieved to be home, but apologizes for
what he says is a cold he caught on the plane.
He suggests that we set ground rules for when the interview turns to
illegal drugs, but then he doesn't ask for any. Eventually, he has two
specific requests. Could we not name the town where he lives and could
we point out that though he spent time in jail for smuggling marijuana,
he asked for and received a full presidential pardon? It was from Ronald
Reagan and signed by a Justice Department official named Rudolph
We have been speaking for an hour before the first stutter erupts. It
happens when the subject turns to the city where he spent puberty. "The
Methodists move their pastors around," he says, "so we moved to various
places, including SSSSSSan Diego."
Later, when I ask him about it, he says that he stuttered strongly as a
child. "I never committed suicide, but I thought about it," he says. "I
wouldn't use the telephone. I never wanted to introduce myself to
anybody. I was morbidly shy."
His father's household was run according to scripture. Drink was off
limits, as in: "It Is Good Neither To Eat Flesh Nor To Drink Wine, Nor
Any Thing Whereby Thy Brother Stumbleth, Or Is Offended, Or Is Made
Weak." Romans, 14:21.
However, Pendell couldn't help but wonder what Paul meant in Romans
14:13: "I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing
unclean of itself" and Verse 20, in which he reiterates, "all things are
indeed pure." In 1964, age 17, still legally a minor, Dale Pendell left
home and plunged headlong into all that purity out there.
Enrollment as a physics major at UC Santa Barbara lasted only a
semester. He was rapt at the sheer elegance of physical equations, but
already slipping toward poetry, raunchily. "I was at the southern end of
the filthy speech movement," he says. "It wasn't filthy speech, though.
It was just good erotica that I would post in my dormitory window.
People would come by and read and think, 'Oh, this is today's offering,'
" he says. "Anyway, I ended up in the dean's office." The stutter
disappeared in front of the dean, he says. "Something about deans and
police brings out my eloquence."
He left Santa Barbara thumb-first. First stop, Berkeley. Then he
crossed the country to New York with the writer Larry Beinhart
(Beinhart, he explains, wrote the book "Wag the Dog," adding
appreciatively, "Good mystery writer.")
By 18, Pendell was a heroin addict and had begun smuggling marijuana
from Mexico to the U.S. He was so high while trafficking 200 pounds of
Gold Brick, or enough pot to make a donkey groan, alarm bells didn't
sound when a window blind opened in a motel room next to his and he got
a glimpse of a wall-mounted tape-recorder. Two separate arrests led to a
four-month jail term in a Mexican prison, and a year-long one in Texas.
The addict's whisper opens "Pharmako/Poeia."
I hear you.
(any cops around?)
These are just words.
(yeah right ...
I don't want to hear this
(then why did you call me?)
Back in Berkeley by 1967, Pendell says, "I finally realized that heroin
was affecting my luck." He retreated to the mountains. "I hiked up as
far as I could. I wanted to be as far away as I could from people. I
stayed there as long as I could. I took as much LSD as I could. All of
the hatred kind of fell into the earth."
He spent the next 14 years in and out of the California mountains,
first on a mining claim in the Trinity Alps, near the Oregon border. He
panned enough gold to make jewelry and gather material for his first
anthology of poetry, "Gold-Dust Wilderness." He hiked among the
ponderosa pines and became friendly with an old-timer named Red Barnes,
who Pendell couldn't help but notice used to mentholate his tobacco
using a local plant, Salvia sonomensis.
This, he says, is when it struck him that he didn't know anything about
the plants that covered the hillsides: their names, their properties, if
you could smoke them, what happened then. "I wanted to know what the
most common plants were," he says, "the ones that didn't have showy
flowers, or any flowers at all, and weren't in any of the those
He began charting the anatomy of the hillside, collecting, pressing and
drying plants, beginning what would become over the next 10 years a
large herbarium. In the process, he got the idea for a book. He wanted
to look at power plants, plants whose fruits are so dominant in our
society we don't even see them, or think of ourselves as taking drugs,
like when we jolt ourselves awake with coffee.
In 1974, Pendell moved south, to the central ranges and Nevada County.
Here a group of back-to-the-landers, led by poet Gary Snyder, the
inspiration for Jack Kerouac's "Dharma Bums," were forming a poetry
community. The following year, Snyder would win a Pulitzer Prize for for
his poetry anthology "Turtle Island."
Pendell used his plant know-how to start making and bottling an organic
spruce root beer. The proceeds went to start a poetry magazine,
Kyoi-Kuksu: Journal of Backcountry Writing.
Pendell studied Buddhism with Snyder, a discipline that to Western
Romantics was what Unitarianism had been centuries earlier to Coleridge.
Still, the most touching moments in the Pharmako series capture Pendell
and Snyder not meditating, but partying. This is buried in the reference
section of "Pharmako/Dynamis": "Illustrating how any song written in
ballad meter could be sung to any ballad tune, Gary Snyder once sang for
me Blake's 'Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire Rousseau' to the tune of 'Mary
Hamilton,' 'Barbara Allen' and the 'House of the Rising Sun.'
"Actually," Pendell adds gleefully, "Blake violates the fourteener in
the second line and it works better if you drop the second spondee."
It was Snyder who helped a then-28-year-old Pendell finally subdue the
stutter. "We were going to do a reading as a benefit for the magazine in
Nevada City at the American Victorian Museum," Pendell remembers. "Gary
agreed to read at it, and a number of other fine poets. I was terrified.
What was I going to do? Gary said, 'Don't worry, just read from the
gut.' " Words came. Since then, says Pendell, fluency has been a "a
continuous practice. If I start, I have to keep a channel open to where
it all comes from, or I can't talk at all."
Hence, the long-distance effect, those perfect sentences.
In 1974, Pendell married Snyder's assistant, Merle Goodkind, and became
a father to her 2 1/2 year-old old son, Isaac. Asked what she did for a
living, Pendell responds, "Her specialty was grace." Later they had a
Pendell wrote this for Goodkind in 1975, a year after they met. It is
called "Spring Song" and reads like a wedding vow.
open with the first sun;
crack the drudgery,
quick as they can.
know water won't last,
no time to waste
in the hasty spring.
songs rise with the morning.
Come let's kiss the greening-
tomorrow's feet are lost to labor-
Brush our backs against the sun;
lie together, let these mountains
Rush, beneath us, back to sea.
Poetry is like modern art. A lot of people can't tell whether it's good
or not. Allen Ginsberg thought that Pendell's was good, and admired the
pluck behind the root beer journal enough to contribute his own work.
"We were first publication of some of Allen's poems," says Pendell.
"Then he would send certain people my direction."
Pendell kept the journal going six years. He built a cabin on rented
land. His family got byâ€"just. By 1981, he says, his "allotted
time in heaven" had expired. Merle had lupus and needed better health
care. They had two young children. He shut the magazine, sold the root
beer company and moved to Santa Cruz to pursue a double major in
creative writing and computer science at the UC campus there.
It led him to his second great mentor, philosopher Norman O'Brown.
Pendell was in awe of O'Brown's 1966 book "Love's Body." After a chance
meeting, the philosopher pursued a friendship with Pendell because he
was interested in plants. "We walked together a great deal," says
Pendell. "I used to show off by quoting poems by heart. He would answer
back in Greek."
This time as a student, Pendell finished both university degrees, with
honors. When he graduated, a linguistics professor suggested, "Why don't
you support your poetry habit with programming?" For the next four
years, Pendell wrote paper jam recovery programs instead of poetry. He
scolded his now teenage son Isaac for smoking pot. It took Isaac to
point out that he was becoming conventional, he says.
"I'd say, 'Well, pot's much stronger now.' "
In 1989, a three-week trip to the Amazon reminded Pendell of the old
Trinity Alps idea for the book on power plants. It would be a
pharmacopeia, a Greek term meaning "book of drugs, with directions how
to make them." Conventional pharmacopeias deal with what would have been
in Pendell's father's medicine box. Pendell's would embrace his, and
beyond. He had only one line playing in his head like a mantra.
"Tobacco, marijuana, then you're in the jungle."
He programmed by day and wrote by night. "The idea was that through
immersion in each plant, something would come across in my style that
would create a signature for the plant," he says. "For example, the
stimulant chapter turned out to be the longest."
In January 1993, the book was almost halfway written when Isaac, then
22, died in a snowboarding accident. There is a gut-wrenching passage in
"Pharmako/Poeia," when Pendell, terrified and tripping, finally faces
his son's death. His marriage to Goodkind was never the same after Isaac
died, he says.
When Pendell finished the first half of the book, Gary Snyder's editor,
Jack Shoemaker, sent sample chapters to Mercury House, a nonprofit San
Francisco press. Pendell thought it was a prank when its publisher, Tom
Christiansen, phoned to accept the book. "I said, 'Come on, who is
The commission enabled Pendell to take a sabbatical from the software
job to finish writing. Six months later, as rough drafts circulated
among Pendell's friends, there was confusion and shock. There was even a
chapter on huffing solvents. Norman O'Brown asked him to take it out.
"He said, 'Everyone will know it's a drug book,' " says Pendell.
Pendell left it in. "I thought of the information that I came across
"that not all solvents are alike, some are much more dangerous than
others" as harm reduction. I may reach somebody. The message: "use
toluene not gasoline, or better yet, nitrous oxide. Use ether, not
The text unnerved Mercury House sufficiently to affix this cautionary
note: "A manuscript draft of Pharmako/Poeia caused us some concern. The
author of this remarkable work was clearly exploring perilous terrain
along his 'Poison Path.' This is a route we strongly advise others not
to follow (except through this book, and through other approaches that
lead in the direction of wisdom without dangerous self-experimentation)."
Pendell had his own definitions of danger, which come across plainly in
the chapters that follow. "Huffers," he speculated, "probably have an
interesting terminology to describe the subtle differences of effects
[between solvents], and it would be worth recording, if you could find
an informant who is still articulate." The chapter is the only one in
his books where readers will find the words, "get off and get help."
But with other drugs, he experimented freely on himself. Salvia
divinorum, or "diviner's sage," only really kicked in, he reported, when
he accidentally doubled the dose. The entry for wormwood begins, "The
first effect was loosening of the sinuses . . . . Much stronger than the
Japanese wasabi horseradish . . . . After some minutes I noticed that I
wasn't writing anything. I was just staring off into space. And the
space was beautiful. The light was brighter. Mottled sunlight filtering
down through the walnut tree. . . . The light was different, softer and
more intense at the same time. I felt great, actually. I gazed around my
studio and spent a lot of time looking at my painting . . . . A little
tightness in the head and around the eyes."
There is a recipe to make absinthe from scratch, and a time-saving
alternative where you only have to doctor the Pernod.
The potential for ridicule is not lost on him. "Timothy Leary had a
joke about LSD research," he says. "You couldn't write about LSD with
any authority if you hadn't tried it. On the other hand, if you had
tried it, then how could anyone trust what you said?"
But for Pendell, the more ridiculous thing would be reporting on LSD
without having taken it. "The approach is phenomenological," he says.
"We're trying to work with what's happening in real time and somehow
convey that." The science behind play is tricky territory. Pendell is
not above trotting out ten-dollar words for instant authority.
As the book was revised and finally published, it was dedicated to
Isaac. Along with Ginsberg and Ecstasy chemist Shulgin, actor Peter
Coyote supplied a jacket blurb. Their task: somehow prime the public for
I suggest to Pendell that he's still trying to shock the dean. He nods
and laughs in agreement. "I stated at my father's memorial service that
maybe I'll emerge from adolescence in the next decade."
Then I ask if he's not also trying to shock us. Why he doesn't do drugs
the understood way? Secretly? Is he not simply a reflexive contrarian?
Again, an acknowledging laugh. "Norman O'Brown gave me a lot of trouble
that way," he says. "He said, 'At least I'm not working out my Oedipus
complex with drugs.' "
But as the door opens for a defense of drugs, Pendell has one ready and
it's serious. The stumbling brother debate may have started with his
father, he says, but now it's with the world. It's at the heart of his
work. It's over what gets banned, what doesn't, and the War on Drugs.
"It's not that if you make a place for Dionysian energy, this kind of
wild and unpredictable God, that everything will go OK," he says.
"That's not true at all. But the cost of trying to suppress it is even
worse. Then you sacrifice your own children.
"In the United States today we now have more people in prison than any
other country on a per capita basis. The majority of these are for drug
crimes. It's a war against ourselves. It's a war against our children.
It was problematical for the Greeks but at least they came to recognize
you have to admit a certain amount of chaos. You can't try to live risk
free. If you try to live completely risk free you're going to destroy
what you had. What's a really secure environment? San Quentin is pretty
Society, he says, is police enough. "The solution is to let it be
worked out by the culture. Peer pressure. Societal norms. Everyone knows
that if you take a drink first thing in the morning, it's not a good
But aren't his books encouraging people to do drugs? "Encouragement is
the big full-page ads in High Times," he says. He has plenty of readers
who don't do drugs at all, he says. Bye the bye, he adds shortly
afterward, he's not exactly stoned all the time, either.
The irony, says Pendell, is that writing books about drugs largely
requires staying off them. Plus, we grow out of them, he thinks. Heroin
affected his luck. He's at an age where he's got to think of his liver
when it comes to alcohol. LSD was a "great blessing" in his life, he
says, but one of its teachings is to stop doing it. Marijuana can be
useful on very rare occasions. He has one tobacco cigarette a day. But
he won't say no to an afternoon glass of home-brewed absinthe.
He offers one to illustrate the benignity of the drink, and I think to
see if I'll accept it. I do, curiously. After an hour, though it is
getting later, everything seems just a little brighter. "There's
something about mottled light," he says. "The change to the absinthe
drinkers, you suddenly have light breaking out of everywhere." Pendell
reckons you can explain all of expressionist painting with absinthe. In
a future project, he says, he wants to do a "pharmacological study of
philosophy. Not enough attention has been paid to what philosophers have
been drinking or imbibing."
As he began writing the sequel, "Pharmako/Dynamis," in 1996, his
22-year marriage ended. He moved to Santa Rosa and wrote furiously. The
theme of the new book: speed. It began with a mischievous look at the
teetotaler's stimulant of choice, coffee. By the middle of the text, he
is describing the metallic taste of freebase cocaine.
to get back
to where things were clear
Then there is a spirited defense of Ephedra, and a paean to Ecstasy,
part-and-parcel of an ebullient horniness that permeates the second
book. There is attention to sexual side-effects of drugs, which ones
"give good lead," which take it away. The Ecstasy chapter merrily
contrasts a middle-aged generation of users who first used the drug in
marriage counseling, whom Pendell fondly describes as "mush pile"
sensualists, to the stomping ravers of the early 1990s. One anecdote has
three friends admitting their feelings for each other while on the drug,
a week later becoming lovers, dubbing themselves a "truple" and looking
for things that came in threes.
His mood throughout was euphoric. While writing the second book,
Pendell was in love. In 1998, living in Sonoma, he met Laura McCarthy, a
visiting poet and book-binder from New York, who moved west and married
him. McCarthy has an easy warmth and a ready, musical laugh as she
describes her old East Coast longing for a place where leaving the house
means emerging outdoors instead of into an apartment building hallway.
An excerpt from Pendell's poem "The Dream Walker," from the 1999
anthology "Living With Barbarians," captures his wife as a refugee from
Looked for songs in the dry moss trees;
Picked them up where flames swirled.
Her thirst frightened the flowers;
Only the cacti survived.
She made her home in a land dry and barren as the moon.
Of course she grew lonely.
Someone who loves poems should take her home.
Her curling breath so dry would crack the tongue.
Pendell took her home. When she appears halfway through our interview,
he hugs her and demands, "Aren't I lucky?"
Over the next several days, in phone calls between Los Angeles and the
Sierra, Pendell reports that what he thought was a cold turned out to be
pneumonia. A friend tells him lungs equal grief. There has been a lot of
death in the last five years. Ginsberg died in 1997, O'Brown last year,
and Merle Goodkind succumbed to lupus in the spring. Then, in June, his
But as antibiotics kick in, and he and McCarthy unpack their moving
boxes, he's feeling better. Twenty two years ago, he left the mountains
reluctantly, for his wife and children. Now he's back. Each day, he
feels ambushed by joy.
He's debating which to finish first, a book about his hero, Norman
O'Brown, or the third drug book, "Pharmako/Gnosis." [Note Nov 2005: This
is just being released by Mercury House] He
is toying with a "free the drug plants" campaign, complete with a green
ribbon. "This is a DIY operation," he says. "The first step in trying
to clean up the mess of the drug war is free the plants."
He also wants to circulate "Boycott Companies That Drug Test" bumper
stickers. America's office workers are drug free on a wink, he argues.
They are routinely given two weeks' notice before marijuana tests, so
the drug can clear their systems. Once they take up jobs, inside every
office is "a shrine to a coffee pot," and outside, a bar.
But where another opponent of the war on drugs would be stumping for
Ralph Nader, America's poet of the second pharmacy is converting a
country barn to a library to accommodate what he estimates are 10,000
pounds of reference books and botanical specimens. Part of him wants to
be heard, not just by his father, but by every Methodist in America, by
scientists, the DEA, his jailers. The other half wants to disappear into
Dale Pendell's life adds up only if you give it enough columns. He's a
study in contradictions. He devoted his most lucid moments to recording
his most stoned ones. He's a mountain man-cum-computer programmer, an
exaltant stutterer, Hamlet on absinthe. He insists on defending
substances that even liberals abhor. He signed up with a publisher
ideologically opposed to making money. He wrote highly technical
reference books as epic poems. He wants to change the world without
When pressed about why he sought a presidential pardon, he bristled
that all the Los Angeles Times wanted to know about were his teenaged
crimes, then dismissed the long fight for the pardon as a theatrical act
of no merit. He wants credibility, and to be incredible.
The single underlying theme always returns to the Bible, to Romans, to
Paul and the stumbling brother. Pendell questions if the world can
reasonably be asked to slow down to the pace of the slowest walker.
Witness the stutterer who found his voice. Today, for the pastor's
prodigal son to speak at all, he has to believe what he's saying. When
that happens, the poet can't help but find a pulpit.