Herb lore

Weed, herb, smoke.

In some countries, like Tunico, marijuana grows readily by the roadside. Where it does, people tend to ignore it, as a bother to the mind. Who wants to invite lethargy and slowness when one would be better off alert to meet the tough requirements of life, like survival in poverty or enduring a regime of suppression?

In Dunedin, when I was growing up, a chirpy hobbit far from the concerns of the larger world, smoking pot was widespread but to obtain it was the challenge of every young friend I had. Now, with a recent change of governmental leaning, the rumour stirs that marijuana may be legalised (for medicinal or recreational usage isn't yet clear), but it's a tepid stir, with a half of a drowned rat lifting to the surface of that turpid, simmering gumbo. I should note some of my childhood friends were imprisoned for their fondness for marijuana, so, I suppose, the state could be blamed for ruining their lives (if it turns out what they were doing was not really worth punishing). In countries that allow the usage of marijuana, commerce has not ground to a stop, culture has not sunk into rampant ignorance. In CitySkylines, a town simulation game, allowing the digital populace to imbibe recreationally boosts tourism by a small amount, but also drives up police costs. Here in New Zealand, the solution to full, understaffed prisons is to stop arresting people.

In fantasy fiction, it's usually a point of humour to have characters imbibe a smoke or even mushrooms (whitecaps are the prevalent psychotropic in Dunedin in the creeping start of the southern winter). There's something reassuring and disarming about a scholarly, robed old wizard calmly mulling over a wadded pipe like a vaper wreathed in voluminous clouds. Centuries after the fact, the wood-carved or oil-painted herbalist selecting a plant or root with a potency to change their state of mind, just shy of the boundaries of poison, and drawing both the plant and visions it produces, becomes a fitting representation of his time, even to people who have no relative experience in taking drugs. In 'primitive' cultures, drugs have long been associated with drawing out dark spirits, and giving access to inner sanctums (but if your local witch doctor wants to blow smoke on you and sing a song when you know something's wrong with you, you should probably get a second opinion at a hospital).

Even if it is legalized, no drug is innocuous. No jerk who is high is less of a jerk. No romance of mind expansion fully covers up the tawdry titillation of a narcotic buzz. But to each their own. For some, to take drugs is to court psychosis and invite the angels and demons of the schizoid realms, while some purportedly enjoy a sense of introspection and calm they do not usually feel. There are arguable medicinal benefits in drinking wine, but wine can increase your chances of crashing your car, so with increased freedoms come increased responsibility.

Notably in The Wizard's Harvest, Modest grows averse to weed as his own experiences become more extreme than he ever expected:

Cloud, resolutely loyal, snuffled Modest’s cheek from time to time and looked at him with her oddly fluid eyes, small in her massive head but almost as large as his hand. They were silver and reflective, tuned to an intelligence bred to outstrip the fastest predators. He could see himself as he peered into them, inverted and diminished, a lesser master of a creature who had borne warriors and vigilantes into battle in pursuit of glory. “Why do I feel so down on myself?” he asked Cloud, who offered a puff of consolation. “Maybe it’s the damned weed in these parts.”

Opole, already weak, grew faint towards the end of the day. Noticing his discomfort, the group stopped early to make camp well before dusk. Balkan left Opole to snooze with Cloud while the sailors played music. He and Modest clambered down to the shore to observe the lake. The waters were chalky, mineralised by the mountain rock, and flowed green and fast. Fed by rivers and streams from all directions on the surrounding ranges, they cut through rock where they met.

“At the end of this lake I believe there must be a mighty waterfall,” Balkan said, watching river weeds streaming over a branch lodged in the rocks, tickling little fish in its shadow. The current was noticeable even so high up the valley. The fish swam against it to maintain their position. “Demons notwithstanding, how fortunate we are to be in a place where there is so much life.”

Modest was inclined to agree, lighting a smoke, although after a while he said, “Everything is different though. Even this weed is different to ours.” He meant that of Dunedin, to which he attributed Balkan life-long kinship. “I venture that when you’re naturalised to a thing, particularly a habit, you might become sensitive to even small changes. To smoke normally brings a sense of levity and relaxation, but this makes me somehow agitated and doubtful.”

Balkan nodded. “Maybe it is not the herb but your changing circumstances. The mind accustoms itself over time, but we’re bound to see many new things. Many claim with wisdom comes sorrow.”

“It certainly has a kick,” Modest agreed.

“This is stronger, wilder stock than the herb cultivated and bred over generations for its smoothness and flavour by our good citizens. It does burn a little harsh.” He coughed.

“You don’t seem to be put out at all,” Modest went on. “I have a sensation not unlike a dream where everything you do is entirely ill-suited to the purpose, so you struggle, struggle to do the right thing, only now the dream has shifted underneath you, and what you’ve done is again ill-suited to the purpose.”

“What purpose?”

“It doesn’t matter, it’s just a point of frustration, like one of those long conversations where you start out talking about something you can’t recall by the time you reach the end. Whatever the first point was, it’s going to wind up somewhere else.”

Because the Wizard's Harvest Table includes some wizards and demons, and some drug references, and some episodes that involve visions, shared minds, possession, and extensive philosophical mind wandering, you might wonder how much of the writing is propelled by the fuel of actual drug taking. Regrettably, none at all. Long ago, before those Pink Floyd years got behind me, I had some epic highs, but I also didn't have a lot else to do with myself. The last time I tasted the unique dank puff of weed was quite a few years before I wrote the book, while in Malaysia, where a local on the beach shared some with us as we sat watching the night sink into the sea. He might have been jailed for life there, for that, and us too I guess. As it happened, I didn't get much of a kick, but my American colleague ranted with utmost sincerity about the time she was abducted by aliens on a plane trip and losing her memory for a good portion of the flight, an alcoholic mind you, so hardly a reliable source.

I've often thought I would love to kick back and have mind-blistering hallucinogenic trips in the vein of William S Burroughs, Hunter S Thompson, Philip K Dick, Robert Crumb, Jim Morrison, Timothy Leary, Bill Hicks, those kind of contentious literary superstars known for their brazen misbehaviour, after all I'm prone to misbehaviour. I'd probably come off poorly though, paranoid and babbling with leaks and disconcerting expressions and gestures, wandering in ill-chosen garments in public spaces warning of the impending end times. On the other hand, if you keep it to yourself, you can float around all day high as a balloon and nobody else will look twice. So there's hope yet, or sleep, which remains unbeaten in the world of escapes and pleasures.