by Amy Glynn
Under the skin of what we call reality, there are other realities that elude “normal” human perception. We’re arrogant about our limitations, our blunt-instrument sensory organs. Arrogant enough to call what we see and hear and smell “the world.” To acknowledge the numinous will get you accused of things. Being “woo.” Being whimsical. Being a witch. Being a weirdo, a whackjob. Never mind that what we reverently call science continues to find that whimsy and witchcraft are indeed repeatedly borne out in the consensus-illusion we have the hubris to call empirical reality. It’s not poetic to say plants communicate or birds have cognitive intelligence, or that your cat is manipulating you or that we can sense changes in the weather before they happen. We don’t have the sensory organs to “see” ultraviolet light or radio waves, but we can definitely prove they’re there, and we “prove” more and more of the woo-world to be the real world as our technologies become subtler and more far-reaching. Knowing this does nothing to dissuade us from mocking people for saying “thoughts become things” and meaning it. As the poet Richard Kenney once quipped, “I’m not saying I don’t believe in neutrinos. I’m just grateful that I won’t have to justify them to the 25th century.”
Thoughts do become things. Go ahead: mock the concept and see how that works out for you.
All the same, if time is a construct, and I have no reason to say it isn’t, why didn’t we engineer a better construct than this tyrannical force that takes ten things for every one thing it gives? That’s a veil that’s truly hard to pierce, and the real reason might be that we don’t truly want to. We accept aging and senescence and loss and fading to–whatever–because we get tired, or because sticking around feels like too heavy a responsibility; I’m not sure.
They say everything dies. That might be the myth, or, if you like, the hypothesis, that Sequoia sempervirens stands to disprove. So it’s arguably the perfect place to confront the PTSD, the mysterious chronic pain, and the inability to stop thinking about death. My own, my parents’, my children’s, my friends’. Mostly my own. Always with a bottomless, carsick kind of terror, but increasingly these days, also with an even creepier sense of longing.
The coastal redwood forests of west Marin County are dark, with a ferrous floor of discarded needles. Even when you’ve grown up in this landscape—and I was born a few miles from where I’m now standing—they never quite stop being shocking in their austere grandeur. (If you’ve never seen a redwood forest in person, think of the landscape of the Moon of Endor from Star Wars–those scenes were shot in Marin County). The canopy of a coast redwood grove admits very little sunlight, so there’s a limited range of compatible understory plants—deer ferns, sword ferns, thimbleberry and trailing blackberry are common; tough customers willing to go to extreme lengths to make it work. Redwoods tend to reproduce asexually because their tiny seeds won’t likely field enough light to trigger germination. They often grow in rings–and often, the empty center marks the original iteration of the tree, and the circle of younger trees have sprung from the same original root ball, making it debatable whether they’re individuals at all—or mortal. Hypothetically a redwood can live forever, and non-hypothetically, there are specimens alive right now who were already adults when Julius Caesar was assassinated.
The traditional paradigm of forestry is that trees in forests “compete” for resources. For sunlight, for water, for nutrients. If you have always had a strange inner sense that this view is at best oversimplified and more than likely plain incorrect, you’re onto something, and standing in a sequoia grove challenges the idea almost instantaneously. Those trees aren’t talking to us (though there are plenty of species that do)—to a redwood, you’re less than a mayfly; you’re an irrelevant blip. That doesn’t mean they aren’t in community with each other. They are. That’s not a poetic flight of fancy; it’s a fact, observable even to our blunt, stupid senses if we bother to use them. And it goes beyond a ring of seemingly individual trees turning out to be a series of literal carbon copies of one original tree. Despite their tendency to give off a strong vibe of lofty insularity, redwood groves are communes—or perhaps “intentional communities.” The grove shares information, and resources, by interlocking roots–both with the roots of nearby trees and with the mycelial mats of local fungi, which they appear to use as a kind of fiber-optic network to extend the range of their communication over strikingly long distances.
That’s what I’m looking at, out the window of an ad hoc office fashioned from a fancy trailer, as I recline under fluffy blankets on a narrow daybed. I’d imagined this happening in a place that registered more as “medical facility” and less “hermitage,” but it’s a very pleasant surprise. The doctor is in the other cabin, trying to find the WIFI password. I’ve pulled four cards from an “animal medicine” oracle deck on the floor. I turn the cards over and see I’ve selected “Horse,” “Hummingbird,” “Otter” and “Mountain Lion;” the cards are numbered, respectively, 35, 44, 8 and 17.
“Look,” I say, handing the fanned-out cards to the doctor when she comes back. “They’re all eights.”
“They are! Does that mean something to you?”
I show her my keychain, which has the Rider-Waite “Strength” card on it—the eighth Major Arcanum, attributed to the sign of Leo, where a maiden in a white gown garlanded with roses is leading a lion, her hands in the animal’s mouth and a lemniscate over her head. I turn the keychain sideways, so the infinity symbol re-forms as a numeral 8.
“Ah!” This particular doctor is delighted by convergences—I doubt she’d call them coincidences, and I can’t either—which is one of the many reasons I love her.
She explains that I will have to hold the lozenge under my tongue for a full fifteen minutes, and warns me that it’s bitter. She asks if I’d like her to read the interpretations of my cards while we wait. I nod.
The thing in my mouth is, in fact, revolting, and acrid spit is rapidly pooling under my tongue as she tells me that Otter spirit is about play, self-exploration and “balanced feminine energy.” Hummingbird references joy and love of life, rekindling a sense of the magical. Horse means power.
Something is happening to the trees outside. They seem to be swelling like water balloons, only the water isn’t water, but sunlight. Then I see what looks like a sort of old-timey Green Man skulking around in the woods, and become faintly concerned because I can’t tell if he’s real or not. But I can’t speak. She asks if I’d like a pen; I nod.
“This shit is disgusting. Also: strange man in woods—hallucination?”
“Like Father Time in sweatpants?” she suggests.
I nod, with an emphatic “Mmmmm” through the vile liquid in my mouth, and she laughs.
“No, that’s not a hallucination. That’s my husband. I keep telling him to get a haircut but since we moved out here he’s gone completely feral. Is he making you nervous?”
I shake my head, take back the pen and write “Nope, just literal reality check.” And she laughs again. In the back of my mind there’s some half-thought forming about “boundaries.” Most psychiatrists, for understandable reasons, don’t have “boundaries” so much as the personal space equivalent of Kevlar: they don’t disclose information about themselves, they don’t expose you to their family members and they certainly don’t treat you at their homes. This doctor is very much a Western-trained psychiatrist—she just happens to share my suspicion that the boundaries aren’t always in the right places, and that’s part of what both of us are testing right now.
Mountain Lion, she reads, can be a difficult energy medicine, because it indicates a leadership energy that will make one a target for the problems and projections of others; it demands the ability to be “a leader without followers.” These animal spirits all seem, to my increasingly dissociating mind, to be strikingly appropriate, a combined message of turning inward to locate various parts of oneself, because you have no other choice. And that is precisely what we’re doing here.
By the time the 15 minutes are up, my tongue has thankfully gone numb, so I no longer particularly taste the revolting spit in my mouth—this makes swallowing it slightly less horrible, but not much. Having satisfied herself that I’m “tolerating” the medicine, she leans over me, pulls the neck of my sweater to one side, says “This will sting for a second,” and pushes a syringe full of ketamine into my deltoid.
“If you are aligned with Cat medicine,” she reads, “you are considered to be ‘king of the mountain,’ and are never allowed to be vulnerable or human. The pitfalls are many, but the rewards are great.”
I am aligned with cat medicine. There’s no question there. For a second I hear “catamount” and “ketamine” as something like the same word. Then what’s left of my thinking brain discards it as noise.
After that, I’m pretty sure she stops reading. There is music: warped, wavering, buzzy. I’m watching the trees. I’ve been told I’ll probably want the black eyeshade she’s placed on the countertop behind my head, because ketamine has a tendency to cause high photosensitivity, but I’m not experiencing that, at least not yet. If anything, the normal eternal-twilight feeling of the redwood grove feels suddenly dappled. The strange swelling and un-swelling of the trees is still happening, and even though my glasses are off, I have the distinct sense that I’m seeing them in high-resolution detail. My hands and feet start buzzing—I’m not sure what else to call it. Not a sound, but a vibration. If I focus on it, I discover I can amplify it, and make it move. Up my calves, up my forearms–a slow progression that seems headed for my chest.
A coast redwood can grow to nearly 400 vertical feet, making it the tallest living organism on Earth. A single tree can sequester 250 tons of carbon. For all that height, you might imagine an equally formidable root depth, but you’d be wrong. A coast redwood’s roots are shallow, but they extend some hundred lateral feet, in a branching structure that looks a lot like dendrites in the brain (unsurprising, since “dendrite” comes from the Greek word for tree in the first place). Their intertwining roots allow them to share nutrients, and information: nearby trees can keep the stump of a felled neighbor alive for hundreds of years by supplying it with glucose it no longer has foliage for synthesizing its own. Trees in a fire can telegraph warnings to those farther away, giving them time to fortify their bark. In some groves of coast redwoods, you can find “ghost trees,” small, lank, waxy-leaved albino redwoods with spectral white leaves. Ghost redwoods appear (and were long thought to be) parasitic, sprouting from the rootball of a healthy tree and siphoning off nutrients since they lack the chlorophyll to make their own. One could be forgiven for wondering why the “healthy” trees put up with this arrangement, and science has long dismissed them as an evolutionary experiment that didn’t work. Because humans aren’t very good at looking past the surface of a thing, science has only recently noticed that ghost redwoods’ needles are saturated with high concentrations of toxic heavy metals—some branches of ghost redwoods down the coast in Santa Cruz county have been found to contain levels of cadmium, nickel and copper high enough to kill a normal tree. The emerging conclusion, which makes a lot more sense in the overall context of a redwood’s essential nature, is that the ghost trees are effectively arboreal sin-eaters: they sequester toxins in exchange for their companion trees keeping them fed. Not parasitic: symbiotic.
Psychedelic-assisted therapy happens in a number of ways, for a number of reasons and with a number of substances (vegetal, fungal, and synthetic). Some people refer to it as “journeying,” but it’s definitely not a trip you can fully share with others, even when it feels like that’s what you’re doing. Like childbirth, or death, it’s a solo flight. I’m doing it with an off-label dissociative anesthetic because ketamine has been increasingly recognized as having the potential to kill off PTSD and chronic pain, and since a botched anesthetization was probably the inciting incident for mine, it seems like anesthesia is the reasonable arena in which to confront the whole mess.
I’m not sure exactly how or why it works, and I’m not sure science fully understands it either. Ketamine is what some researchers call a “dirty” drug, which they should mean as a compliment–dirt’s powerful stuff—but they mean it as an obnoxious synonym for “irritatingly complex and hence labor-intensive to validate reductive claims about how it works.” Ketamine interacts with multiple systems, and can do so in different ways at different dosages. It primarily works with glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter involved in brain plasticity. Ketamine has been seen to induce synaptogenesis, effectively giving the brain more ways of moving chemical signals around.
Chronic stress—physical pain, unresolved trauma, the psychic torment of unrelenting depression or panic—can be as debilitating to the nervous system as environmental stresses like flood and drought and blight and fire are to forests. Just as trees will conserve their energy in winter by dropping their leaves, or self-amputate branches in a prolonged heatwave, a brain under prolonged stress will start killing off its own dendrites. Neurologists refer to this as synaptic “pruning,” by the way. Part of why I’m here is that I suspect my synapses have been pruned to the point where there’s no “fruiting wood” and that’s why I feel so blank. The psychiatrist has a slightly less poetic explanation: “Amy, you’re not only intelligent, you’re also insightful. So I feel a little weird saying this. But I don’t think you remotely understand how much narcissistic damage you’ve actually sustained in your lifetime.”
Perhaps I don’t. Or perhaps I do but assumed it was what everyone experiences, and that only my reaction to it has been atypical. All I know is, I often don’t feel capable of thoughts anymore. And it scares the hell out of me. As much as I’ve been saying for years that I’d pay good money to have parts of my limbic system scrubbed like a hard drive, what I meant was that I wanted to stop re-experiencing traumatic memories, not that I wanted to be nullified.
Thoughts become things. Things become thoughts. It always goes both ways. I close my eyes.
The entire room is vibrating, as if it is the instrument creating the otherworldly music I’m hearing. But almost immediately I know this is wrong, an illusion: I’m creating the music with my mind. I can move the music around, change it, rearrange it like tiles, add and subtract instruments from the composition, anticipate every chord. With my eyes closed, it intensifies, along with a persistent buzzing I dimly imagine is the actual presence of the ketamine in my system—a sound as much as a sensation and one I associate with being given nitrous oxide at the dentist. (Later, the doctor will note that I’m spot on, that nitrous oxide also works on glutamate so they do sort of share an energetic signature.) It’s high-pitched, thin, metallic. I start to see strange rooms. I don’t control them; they just appear, and I travel between them—or, rather, they travel around me and assemble themselves at will. One tessellates like a kind of electric mandala. Another inhales and exhales. Another has the kinds of spatial distortions Escher liked to draw. They all move; they’re all alive. And they each seem to have a specific color: there’s a purple room, a black room edged in magenta, a room of cadmium yellow. At the same time, black and pink and purple all begin to seem like the same color. Things tend to proliferate in these rooms; one that seems to be full of leaves keeps growing new ones even though it’s pitch-dark; the leaves are glossy and pure black, with the wet vitreous luster of obsidian. Another has a ceiling that telescopes upward into infinity, moving faster the more I focus on it. These rooms don’t seem, in the moment, to be places in my mind. They seem entirely external to me. If I open my eyes they vanish, though the real-world room I’m in also looks distorted (the wood paneling is definitely breathing). But when I close them again it’s as though I’ve pressed a button and taken a slideshow off pause. The world beneath the skin of my eyelids is there, waiting. It seems all the more real because there’s no distracting myself from it: if my eyes open, the reel stops, and if I close them it picks up where it left off.
The dissociative trip itself isn’t “the treatment,” I’m told. Or, it might be. It might also be a side effect, something that happens in your mind while the ketamine does its real work, inducing new dendritic spine growth and allowing the rebuilding of robust synaptic connections between neurons in the prefrontal cortex (and probably elsewhere). The notion is that essentially, ketamine is the neurological equivalent of an operating system upgrade and a defragging program on a computer. But honestly, I’m not sure it’s that straightforward either. The ketamine space is not—at least at this dose—social; in fact, having taken it in a therapeutic context, I can’t think of a more wretched club drug. Unlike, say, MDMA, which leaves you lucid, in control of your muscles, and inclined to feel a rush of loving connectedness to others, the ketamine space is deeply interior and private. While it’s technically possible to talk (at least some of the time), you’re unlikely to want to—and moving is legitimately difficult; even at low doses I find it hard to walk for several hours afterward. It’s a hermitage of the psyche—I try to describe it to the doctor afterward and find myself wanting to say something about it being “like being at the bottom of a well,” only in a pleasant way. There’s a lot of darkness (not in a psychological sense, just a chromatic one). There’s a sense of being contained in a small space but simultaneously flying through universes: Ground Control to Major Tom kind of stuff.
I see a densely starred night sky, and notice a sense of floating in it. I have a memory of learning the word “firmament” and being perplexed that it referred to the sky and not to the ground, like terra firma. At the same time I flash on an image from the old X-Files episode “The Blessing Way,” where David Duchovny has a trope-y Navajo vision quest moment in a near-death delirium, and floats on a bed, covered in evergreen branches, amid a pointillist riot of stars, and speaks to his dead father. Yes, the part of me that is still “me” thinks. That’s what this is like. But by the time I’ve had the thought, the scene has changed. Black and purple, which for now are still the same color, flicker around my peripheral vision, then explode into something that branches and forks like radially symmetrical lightning. Black foliage glistens in the foreground again; dark trees pelted by rain. Then it all contracts, and I’m left only with the impression of purple and black as one color. Everything goes black. Then I see something that looks remarkably like… well, like mitosis. Cells dividing and replicating. They look like bacteria stained for a microscope slide; alien but logical. I think I laugh. I’m not sure. By the time I’ve metabolized what I’m seeing it’s already something else–something glinting and gibbous and wavering–it looks like documentary footage of coral spawning under a full moon. I think. If I am in fact thinking.
Dissociation and “depersonalization” seem to be separate or separable phenomena. There’s definitely still an observer “me” experiencing the distortions or hallucinations (if that is indeed what they are). But it’s a little disembodied (which for a person who lives with chronic pain isn’t a bad thing at all). To the extent I have a physical body right now, it feels as if it’s both flying and confined. The purple-black space I’m in is like a dark cave, only it sparkles even without a light source. Like being in an amethyst geode.
By whatever combination of felicitous accident and intuitive directive, the last two books I’ve read before this experience were (for the first time) Richard Powers’ genuflection-inspiring novel The Overstory, and (for the first time since I was probably twelve) Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. So both the trees and the enclosure inside a geode feel completely rational, even, perhaps, foreordained, or, it occurs to me later, engineered. I find myself seamlessly interpolating both narratives into my own; I’m simultaneously inhabiting those worlds, as well as the world on the other side of my increasingly hypothetical eyelids. I’m simultaneously in the head of Mary Stewart’s Merlin and Richard Powers’ disabled Silicon Valley programmer-god Sanjay (whose company, I also recall afterward, was of course called Sempervirens, the taxonomical name for the coast redwood, from the Latin for “ever-living”).
In the part of me that still knows things, I know that we assume redwood trees don’t have sentience because they don’t have things we recognize as sensory organs–and I know we’re wrong. The trees “see” and “hear” and “feel;” just not by the same mechanisms we do. They communicate, they strategize, they assist each other, they make choices. It’s not fanciful to say this: it’s arrogant and ignorant not to. I’ve known that for a long time; plenty of people have studied it and the fragile consensus machine we call “science” has vetted it again and again. Honestly I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why we cling so desperately to an obviously limited perception of what “real” is. We know we’re hampered by our specific sensory organs. The redwoods don’t have what we think of as seeing organs, but they understand light; they respond to photons.
In the Rider-Waite deck, the Hermit appears as a robed old man standing alone on a mountaintop. In one hand, he has a staff, representing stability. In the other, he holds up a lantern, within which glows the seal of Solomon, the six-pointed star, representing illuminated wisdom. As with all tarot cards, the meaning is context-dependent and malleable, but in general the card speaks about understanding gained through introspection and solitude, and in some cases austerity. In a spread, many readers will pay specific attention to whatever adjacent card the figure appears to be illuminating, using it as a clue about what the querent might need to focus on. The Hermit can indicate the need to find a mentor, or to become one. It can suggest prophecy, counsel, non-distraction. It might call for a more contemplative mind, or suggest your erudition is important in the matter at hand. It’s associated with the element of earth, the astrological sign of Virgo and the planet Mercury. The Hermit has clarity of sight, a kind of learned neutrality, and no need for orthodoxy, tradition or society. For me, at least, and probably for many, the figure on the card is Merlin, the wizard of the Arthurian legends and the narrator of The Crystal Cave–a figure who, in several versions of the stories, lives backward, aging in reverse and able to know the future not by prophecy but simply because he’s already lived it. The supernatural abilities attributed to King Arthur’s advisor vary from interpretation to interpretation; he is characterized as a shape-shifter, a prophet, a conjurer, a healer, and a savvy political advisor. In virtually all of them, there is a connection between his power and his separateness from society, from the consensus-illusion of reality. And in most versions, he ends up killed or permanently entombed alive by the Lady of the Lake, a young female apprentice with whom he falls in love—further suggesting that detachment from other humans is intrinsically tied to his abilities.
A brain scan taken of a person on ketamine will show that the neocortex is mostly offline, but that the hippocampi are lit up like Roman candles. If functions of the brain were as siloed as we like to imagine, it would suggest that the “thinking” brain is switched off but the limbic brain isn’t, or that we might not be processing the moment but we can to go back into certain memories. But if anything meets the scientific study criteria for “dirty,” it’s the brain, so it’s hard to say in real time whether I am “considering” Merlin’s crystal cave as the hexagonal purple columns multiply around me, or whether I am remembering the mental image that formed when I first read that book when I was twelve. The hippocampus is considered the manager of long-term memory, and spatial memory. In people with PTSD, the hippocampus is often significantly smaller than “normal,” though I’m not sure if that’s correlation or causation, or in the latter case, if smaller hippocampi heighten risk for PTSD or if the disorder causes them to shrink (from what I’ve read and heard, the former seems likelier). What I do know, in this moment, in no particular order because space-time doesn’t exactly exist in the ketamine universe: whatever is or isn’t “real,” there is still something experiencing it that is definably me. The potentially terrifying total dissolution of ego I’d imagined? Nothing as extreme or as straightforward as that. I know that I am, and basically who I am. And if I think about it, whatever thinking currently is, I know where I am, though that feels either hypothetical or irrelevant in the moment.
Underground, debate continues, on the nature of community or society or reality—but there’s solid consensus around ramification. The grove is one tree or many, it’s immortal or it isn’t, but the roots spread out and interweave in a predictable pattern that allows for diverse and multivalent points of connection. This dendritic growth is echoed by the hyphae that form mycelial mats, which also intertwine with the redwood’s root system—the mycelium gets access to some of the tree’s sugars, in exchange for making nutrients in the soil more bioavailable. In the brain, the same thing is happening, at least theoretically: dendritic spines are multiplying, increasing their numbers of synaptic junctions, and possibly, over time, causing new pathways for thought and sensation. An end to pain that isn’t death. An end to anxiety and depression. Maybe an end to the overwhelming fear of nonexistence that’s haunted me since childhood. It’s occurring to me, if it’s fair to say things are occurring to me in real time right now, that if this is what death is like, it’s not so bad. In an effort to find the boundaries of my own self in this space, I find I’m poking at things, deliberately pinging old pains, old traumas, to see if they bring me careening back into normal reality. I think of my children, but the ketamine tells me they’re safe, they’re fine. I think of my parents dying. The ketamine tells me it’s nothing to worry about right now. I move my neck to see if the pain reaches its miserable cat-claws into the back of my skull. It doesn’t. I think about nonexistence, but it doesn’t seem meaningful right now. I think about love and loneliness and abandonment and get the clear message, at least for now, that these are also not things I need to worry about. I’ve already proven to myself that I can live with, or without, any of those things. That my own life is inherently enough because it’s what I have, and I’m here.
Under the skin of what we call reality there’s a realm of pure pattern, a landscape of crystal caverns in which things expand and contract, like lungs, or universes. If the universe is expanding, or contracting, it occurs to me as I watch trigonal and hexagonal structures proliferate behind my eyelids—rooms of quartz and chalcedony, dolomite and onyx, amethyst and citrine, and also rooms of starlight, and leaves, glassy and backlit and tessellating—that means it has to have edges, boundaries. If the universe has an edge, a boundary, there is by necessity something on the other side of it. We can’t get to the other side of it, so how are we supposed to understand any of this? It’s all so much bigger, deeper, darker, more interconnected than we’re able to perceive. How can we possibly claim with certainty that anything we see is “real?”
Maybe what we’ve always called “magic” is nothing more than the ability to tolerate, and leverage, the reality that there is no consensus reality. Maybe “hallucinations” show us things that aren’t real. Maybe they show us that what we think is the real world is not actually real. Maybe they lift a veil and show us the true nature of reality; maybe they don’t. But “psychosis” or “mental illness” is defined by the fact that most people, most of the time, aren’t experiencing it in concert. Saying something is true doesn’t make it true. It’s just that saying something isn’t true equally doesn’t make it false. Each of us abides in a cavern of the mind, in a permanent, impenetrable discreteness, even as we’re each also intrinsically connected. We share certain consensus illusions because they give us a sense of safety, but the Hermit understands that the imaginal realm is the “real” world, and knows there’s no such thing as nonexistence; phenomena exist; phenomena are observed. Patterns exist and are observed. Something is there observing and experiencing them.
About the Author
Amy Glynn is a poet and essayist whose work appears widely in journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry. Measure Press published her first poetry collection, A Modern Herbal, in 2013; her second, Romance Language, is forthcoming. She has received the Troubadour Prize, the SPUR Award of the Association of Western Writers, Poetry Northwest’s Carolyn Kizer Award and scholarships to the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers Conferences among other honors. She is a two time James Merrill House Fellow and was the inaugural Poet Laureate for the cities of Orinda and Lafayette, CA.
Photographs taken by Glynn.