Tao of Terence

One Version of 'One Version of Terence McKenna’s Life'

The public story of Terence McKenna's life—in my view, and by my estimates—is a 450-page book, which could be titled 'One Version of Terence McKenna's Life.' The following is my 8-page, fractal-inflected, short-story-esque version of that biography.

Tao Lin

Tao Lin

Image by Matthew Leifheit

The public story of Terence McKenna's life—in my view, and by my estimates—is a ~450-page book, which could be titled One Version of Terence McKenna's Life. It's composed of Terence's memoir, True Hallucinations (1993), his essays "I Understand Philip K. Dick" and "Among Ayahuasqueros," certain sentences and anecdotes in dozens of his interviews and talks, and ~15% of The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss - My Life with Terence McKenna (2012) by Dennis McKenna, Terence's younger brother by four years.

In a lecture called "Surfing Finnegan's Wake," Terence referred to a book of literary criticism that told James Joyce's 656-page novel, Finnegans Wake (1939), in a one-page version, a ten-page version, and a 200-page version. The following biography (which to some degree presupposes knowledge of Terence McKenna's Memes) is my eight-page, fractal-inflected, short-story-esque version of One Version of Terence McKenna's Life.

"The world which we perceive is a tiny fraction of the world which we can perceive, which is a tiny fraction of the perceivable world." – Terence McKenna, 1987. ["Understanding and Imagination in the Light of Nature"]

1. Paonia, Colorado (1946-1962)

Terence Kemp McKenna was born on November 16, 1946, in "a Colorado cattle and coal-mining town of 1,500 people named Paonia," he said in an interview in 1993. He elaborated:

"They wanted to name it Peony but didn't know how to spell it. In your last year of high school, you got your girlfriend pregnant, married her, and went to work in the coalmines. An intellectual was someone who read TIME."

It's not known whether Terence read TIME magazine, but he did, at least for one issue, read LIFE magazine. The May 13, 1957 edition featured a first-person narrative, "Seeking the Magic Mushroom," by Robert Gordon Wasson, a vice president at J.P. Morgan, about his experiences eating psilocybin mushrooms in Oaxaca, Mexico. The feature included watercolor paintings of the seven types of psychedelic mushrooms then known. In the unassuming, vaguely subliminal position of third—not first, second, fourth, or fifth—was a painting of four pale mushrooms, golden and bluish in areas, with this caption:

"FIRST DISCOVERED in Cuba in June 1904,
Stropharia cubensis Erale grows on cow dung in

Terence was age ten when the mushroom—with characteristic charm and earnestness, appearing bluntly in an unlikely venue via a mushroom-obsessed, New York banker—introduced itself, but he would not eat it for another 14 years.


Growing up, Terence was "the persecuted, bespectacled type," he told San Francisco Chronicle in 1993. He subscribed to the Village Voice and the Evergreen Review—a literary magazine that published Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and others from 1957 to 1973. He wrote, in True Hallucinations, of his childhood:

"My interest in drugs, magic, and the more obscure backwaters of natural history and theology gave me the interest profile of an eccentric Florentine prince rather than a kid growing up in the heartland of the United States in the late 50s. Dennis had shared all of these concerns, to the despair of our conventional and hardworking parents."

Dennis, Terence's only sibling, wrote in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss that their parents enjoyed drinking alcohol. "But in our father's mind, alcohol was not a drug; its effects were on the muscles, in his thinking, and not the brain," wrote Dennis. He continued:

"He viewed drinking as essentially benign... All drugs, on the other hand, he equated to heroin—all were addictive, destructive, and evil. Part of his attitude toward drugs resulted from an experience he had during the war (so he said). On a bombing mission over Germany, one of his crewmates had been badly injured by flak shrapnel, but when his buddies broke open the medical kit to give him a shot for his terrible pain, they found that, as Dad said, 'Some hophead had stolen the morphine.'"

2. California (1963-1967)

When Terence was 16, he convinced his parents to let him move to California, where he finished his last two years of high school at two different locations while living with an uncle and aunt in Los Altos, then a family friend in Lancaster. At age 18, in 1965, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. He was admitted into the Tussman Experimental College, a new program that, for 150 of Berkeley's ~27,000 entering students, replaced the first two years of normal undergraduate curriculum. Dennis wrote about the program, founded by Joseph Tussman, a philosophy professor, in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss:

No grades were given; evaluations were based on intense dialogues with faculty members and fellow students, and extensive, eclectic reading lists that participants were encouraged to develop on their own.

By the end of his second year of college, Terence had amassed a library of 1000+ books. Three years later, in the summer of 1970, this library would be destroyed in a fire. Terence's second library, which, at the time of his death in 2000, also contained 1000+ books, would also be destroyed by a fire, on February 7, 2007. The contents of this second library can be browsed here.

3. New York City (Fall 1968)

After leaving his undergraduate studies and traveling in Europe and North Africa, living for a time in an archipelago in the Indian Ocean called the Seychelles, Terence found himself in New York City, trying to sell a book he had written. He referred to this book in True Hallucinations as "a rambling, sophomoric, McLuhanesque diatribe that was to die a bornin', fortunately."

Seated at an outdoor restaurant in Central Park with the only person he knew in New York, Terence, as he wrote in True Hallucinations, talked about an idea his brother—"some sort of genius"—had "that some hallucinogens work by fitting into the DNA." The idea was startling and had "a ring of truth" he couldn't ignore. "The political revolution has become too murky a thing to put one's hope in," he told his friend, referred to as "Vanessa" in True Hallucinations. "So far, the most interesting unlikelihood in our lives is DMT, right?"

"Reluctant agreement," said Vanessa.

"Reluctant only because the conclusion that it leads to is so extreme," said Terence. "Mainly that we should stop fucking around and go off and grapple with the DMT mystery." But he had already committed to a "hash thing in Asia in a few months."

4. Asia (1969-1970)

Terence lived and traveled in South Asia for around a year, studying the Tibetan language and smuggling hashish. Late in August of 1969 one of his Bombay-to-Aspen shipments was intercepted by US Customs. Terence's reaction, from True Hallucinations: "I went underground and wandered throughout Southeast Asia and Indonesia, viewing ruins in the former and collecting butterflies in the latter."

He lived for a time in Taipei, then taught English in Tokyo, then lived in British Columbia for three months, during which (1) he and his brother, along with two friends, planned a trip to South America in search of the DMT-containing plant preparation oo-koo-hé and (2) his mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer six years earlier, died.

5. La Chorrera (1971)

On February 22, 1971, in the Colombian Amazon, a little more than 24 hours after arriving in La Chorrera following a "four-day walk through the jungle," Terence and his brother had their first Stropharia trips. "I knew only that the mushroom was the best hallucinogen I had ever had and that it had a quality of aliveness I had never known before," Terence wrote in True Hallucinations. "It seemed to open doorways into places I had assumed would always be closed to me because of my insistence on analysis and realism."

On March 4, the McKenna brothers performed "the experiment at La Chorrera," which involved using ayahuasca, psilocybin, and the human body's vocal cords and DNA to create, as Terence in True Hallucinations quoted Dennis' journal entry from that day, "a solid-state hyperdimensional circuit that is quadripartite in structure."

Terence returned to Berkeley on April 13, but three months later, in July, went back to La Chorrera with his girlfriend, named "Ev" in True Hallucinations. Stropharia cubensis was scarcer this time. He gathered spore prints and brought them to America.

Terence McKenna, 1976. Photo by Kathleen Harrison.

6. Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide (1976)

In 1976, five years after "the experiment at La Chorrera," an intriguing book, Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide by O.T. Oss and O.N. Oeric, appeared. The book was written by the McKenna brothers under pen names. In less than 100 pages it provided "precise, no-fail instructions for growing and preserving" Stropharia cubensis, "the starborn magic mushroom."

This was their second co-written book. The first, The Invisible Landscape, which was published a year earlier—and sold "no more than 1500 copies," Terence said in 1993—examined what happened at La Chorrera and introduced Timewave Zero. "I regard Timewave Zero as a fascinating model of a previously unmodelled system—which is human history," said Terence in a 1996 interview.

7. "Ranting and raving" (1980s)

In the early 1980s Terence began giving talks at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, California as well as at other venues and events around the country. How did this begin? An interview from 1993 offers one answer:

Interviewer: So you lived on the royalties of the Magic Mushroom Growers Guide alone?
Terence: And something which we should probably describe as "consulting."

Interviewer: I see [laughs].
Terence: [laughs loudly]

Interviewer: [regaining composure] Well, I guess that's what I was shooting for with that question.
Terence: Yes, there was a lot of "consulting" in the '70s [laughs].

Interviewer: How did your success with the Magic Mushroom Growers Guide steamroll into a career?
Terence: As the new age got going, say '80, '81, '82, I just found it incredibly irritating, and I was busy consulting and staying home and I also had small children, but I just thought it was such a bunch of crap.

Interviewer: Talking about crystals and such?
Terence: Yeah, the crystal, aura, past life, channeling business, and I said, you know, why don't these people check out drugs? What's the matter with them, my god? And finally someone persuaded me to say that in a public situation, and it's been constant ever since.

By the late 1980s he was married, with two children. Due in part to his "innate Irish ability to rave [which] had been turbo-charged by years of psilocybin mushroom use," he wrote in True Hallucinations, his popularity had increased—he sometimes spoke now to audiences of around 1,000 people—and publishers were "suddenly interested in his work."

8. The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History (1992)

The first book Terence published without his brother's collaboration was a collection of six interviews, four transcribed talks, and seven essays: "Temporal Resonance" (in which Terence observes: "The experience we have of time is much more closely related to the description that we inherit from a tradition such as Taoism [than Western science]"), "Among Ayahuasqueros" ("a reflective diary" of Terence and his future wife Kathleen Harrison's 1976 trip to the Amazon), "Mushrooms and Evolution," "The Voynich Manuscript," "Wasson's Literary Precursors" (on Gordon Wasson, "the Abraham of the reborn awareness in Western civilization of the presence of the shamanically empowering mushroom"), "Plan/Plant/Planet" ("The notion of illegal plants and animals is obnoxious and ridiculous"), "Virtual Reality and Electronic Highs (Or On Becoming Virtual Octopi)."

Terence explained the book's title:

"When the medieval world shifted its worldview, secularized European society sought salvation in the revivifying of classical Greek and Roman approaches to law, philosophy, aesthetics, city planning, and agriculture. Our dilemma will cast us further back into time in search for models and answers."

9. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge - A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution (1992)

Terence's second book expanded on an idea introduced in "Mushrooms and Evolution," that hallucinogenic mushrooms have been used by humans for "perhaps tens of millennia," and that the interaction "is not a static symbiotic relationship, but rather a dynamic one through which at least one of the parties has been bootstrapped to higher and higher cultural levels." It also elucidated the histories of sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate, opium, tobacco, heroin, and cocaine.

10. True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author's Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil's Paradise (1993)

With his third book, "a chronological narrative of a story that is both true and extraordinary"—a beautiful, poignant, delightful memoir, in my opinion—Terence finally, at age 46, externalized the version of the story of his life that most people now know. True Hallucinations, which Terence called "the easy-to-read narrative anecdotal version of what The Invisible Landscape is the no-holds-barred, all the footnotes, all the citations [version of]," focused on his experiences at La Chorrera, but also explored the years before and after that, and briefly examined his childhood. He wrote of "the every-colored stars." He wrote of "imagining what one can imagine." In one passage, he described what he felt while smoking a joint in 1971 on a boat on the river Putumayo:

"The flow of the river was like the rich smoke I inhaled. The flow of smoke, the flow of water, and of time. "All flows," said a beloved Greek. Heraclitus was called the crying philosopher, as if he spoke in desperation. But, why crying? I love what he says—it does not make me cry. Rather than interpret pante rhea as "nothing lasts," I had always considered it a Western expression of the idea of Tao. And here we were, going with the Putumayo's flow. What a luxury to be smoking, again in the tropics, again in the light, away from the season and places of death. Away from living under Canada's State of Emergency, on the edge of war-bloated, mad America. Mother's death and coincidentally the loss of all my books and art, which had been collected, carefully shipped back and stored, and then had burned in one of the periodic brushfires that decimate the Berkeley hills. Cancer and Fire. Fire and Cancer. Away from these terrible things, where Monopoly houses, waxy green, go tumbling into fissures in the animated psychic landscape."

On May 22, 1999, Terence had a brain seizure and collapsed at home. A CAT scan revealed a tumor in his right frontal cortex, which was diagnosed as a "glioblastoma multiforme," a rare form of brain cancer. He died on April 6, 2000 at age 53.


"I'll try to be around and about," he said in September 1999, addressing an audience at a psychedelics conference in Kona, Hawaii. "But if I'm not, then you know that I'm behind your eyelids, and I'll meet you there."

Where is Terence McKenna now? What is death? Is it, as Terence once suggested, "a kind of release into the imagination in the sense that, for characters in a book, what we experience is an unimaginable degree of freedom"? What is the imagination? Next week, in a post titled "Death and the Imagination," I'll try to answer these questions.

From the column 'Tao of Terence'

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