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Event Report:
A Symbiotic Relationship
Erowid Staffs an Information Booth at the Symbiosis Gathering
by Jon Hanna
Oct 2009
Citation:   Hanna J. "A Symbiotic Relationship: Erowid Staffs an Information Booth at the Symbiosis Gathering". Oct 2009.

TOP TO BOTTOM: Wooden sculptures by the lake; Archway to the main music arena; A moss mandala; Butterfly in trees; Booth neighbor at MAPS table; Erowid volunteers Jack, Joao, and Insect Surfer Dave enjoying grilled cheese sandwiches; Visionary art gallery; Shady sets up his booth in the morning; Psychedelic artist Alex Grey; Tryptamine Palace author James Oroc; Dumpert's dream chart; Erowid volunteer Maria (right) listening to presenter Alicia Danforth (left); Dragon-snake sculpture

Lakeside view; Symbiosis attendees pay tribute to a unicorn; Giant birdhouse; Amazing bronze statue from the main music field; Stacked rocks; The Erowid booth; Adam Scott Miller's art; Alex Grey banner; Glass painting; Trees make hanging art easy; More art decorated the outside of the bathrooms; Dreamer Jennifer Dumpert; Hubcap Prayerwheel at the
Erowid booth

September 17-21, 2009, Erowid Center ran an information booth at the fourth Symbiosis Gathering, held at Camp Mather near Yosemite National Park in Northern California. Symbiosis celebrates transformational art, music, and culture, with an emphasis on environmental consciousness and sustainable living. I had previously attended two Symbiosis events as a speaker, but this was the first time that Erowid has had a presence at the gathering. Despite hang-ups at the gate and a few other organizational hiccups, there were many ways in which this Symbiosis was superior to past productions.

The Site
The environment at Camp Mather was worlds better than any prior Symbiosis. Set in a magical forest of giant trees, a nearby lake allowed folks to take a dip and cool off. The landscape was peppered with fantastic sculptures, as well as multiple stages for music and lectures. A tribal marketplace established near the waterfront provided opportunities to shop for clothing, jewelry, semi-precious stones, music CDs, vaporizer pipes, and more. Another huge improvement was the selection of food vendors. The fact that there was a ban on camp-cooking, due to concerns about attracting foraging bears, likely didn't hamper anyone's culinary enjoyment. For people who eschewed roughing it in a tent, cabins were available at an extra cost. A plush lodge was also nearby, located a short walk up a steep hill. Maria, an Erowid booth volunteer, and I ate a few meals at the lodge's restaurant, which had excellent food and mediocre service.

Erowid Booth
To the right of Erowid Center's booth was a MAPS booth, generously providing free hot grilled cheese sandwiches to passersby. To our left was a booth filled with the amazing art of Adam Scott Miller, whose work--I learned from Adam--is featured in Erowid's Visionary Art Vaults. We were just a stone's throw from an open-air gallery within a circle of trees where large reproductions of various artists' works hung: Alex Grey, Robert Venosa, Martina Hoffmann, Carey Thompson, and several others. Nearby was Shady's booth of psychedelic ephemera, featuring autographed blotter art, posters, books, and other collectibles.

Attendees frequently asked questions of our volunteers. Several queries came in about 5-MeO-AMT, a relatively uncommon psychoactive compound that has been appearing on blotter paper. Not knowing much about it, I recommended that querents look it up on the site. Perhaps because we brought a large-screen monitor with accessible on DVD (there was no Internet on site), many more attendees used the website at this event than at others we have been to where we have only brought laptop computers.

At one point, I misunderstood a question being asked. A young woman, appearing a bit nervous, asked me, "How long does LSD last?" Thinking that she might be under the influence at the moment and concerned about whether or not she would ever come down, I smiled and calmly responded that it usually only lasted about eight hours. "No," she replied, "I mean, how long does it last from when it is first manufactured? What is its shelf-life?" Obviously that question called for a very different answer!

Difficult Questions
The demographics of attendees was reinforced by the fifth time a young mother, baby on arm, asked whether or not psychedelics pass through into breast milk. Other than sharing the old chestnut about Huichol babies getting their first taste of peyote via the teat, and noting that THC is fat-soluble--and hence likely transferred through breast milk--I admitted that I was at a loss to do anything more than speculate. I remembered reading some years ago about studies that had detected traces of over 200 toxic chemicals in breast milk; most of these were probably in such small amounts that they would be of little concern. But what about psychoactive doses of drugs? Which drugs might affect a nursing baby? I recalled that when my daughter was nursing the doctor mentioned the possibility of effects caused by alcohol, caffeine, and chocolate. Inadvertently dosing an infant through breast milk seems possible. In discussing this topic with the mothers who asked, I made it clear that I was only guessing out loud, and that I had no hard facts. It struck me as being an easy enough thing to test for, if someone were to get funding and establish a protocol. Mothers could pump milk at various intervals after dosing on assorted substances and then anonymously mail in frozen samples to a researcher running a project.

In a similar vein, one Symbiosis attendee--a midwife--asked about the teratology of psychoactive drugs: "Which ones cause birth defects?" While noting that I did not think we had a vault specifically dedicated to this topic, I explained that with many of the drugs discussed on our site, there would be information posted regarding known negative effects, which might in some cases include birth defects. When looking up LSD as an example, there was nothing to indicate that it is teratogenic, but the site did mention that it can cause uterine contractions and therefore is probably best avoided by pregnant women. Having the opportunity to speak face-to-face with people at events such as Symbiosis provides us with valuable feedback regarding areas of Erowid that could be developed further.

An Erowid Crowd
Perhaps more than any other event where I have run an information table, it was clear that the crowd who attended Symbiosis makes up a primary audience of Erowid. Countless people stopped by simply to thank us for the work that we are doing. The festival attendees were largely a younger crowd; most of them appeared to be in their early twenties. Numerous people related the idea, with complete sincerity, that Erowid had saved their lives. "Fucking Erowid saved me so many times!" quipped one user of the site. Another person remarked, "I learned everything I needed to know as a kid from Erowid." A 23-year-old mentioned that he had been using the site for the last decade, and that the reason he appreciated it was that it was neither against the use of drugs nor promoting the use of drugs. A young woman related, "I like your site. It's comforting." Over the course of the event, it was comforting for me to see what a positive difference Erowid has made in the lives of people worldwide. Folks from Australia, Canada, Ireland, Spain, and New Zealand all made a point to let me know how much the site is used in their countries. Considering my own youth--when a near total lack of reliable information was the norm (in the era of "Just Say No"), when bookstores no longer carried "drug" publications, and when such titles had been stolen from libraries (or had the pertinent data razor-bladed out of them)--it was heartening to see how the Erowid website is contributing to the health and well-being of young people. Although it would be a stretch to suggest that all users of illicit drugs are careful with every use, many users unquestionably benefit from having access to truthful/factual information. Time and again, the thoughtful, concerned nature of those who visited the booth impressed me, making our presence at this event quite inspiring.

Talks, Events, and Music
Early Friday evening word spread that Alex Grey's talk would be delayed until Saturday, since he and Allyson had been caught in traffic. We were surprised, therefore, when his voice wafted through the trees later on that night, and we saw that he was indeed speaking to the small crowd who apparently hadn't heard about the purported postponement. We missed both James Oroc's talk and Daniel Pinchbeck's talk, due to shuffling time slots. Eventually, we abandoned any attempt to catch specific presentations and just went with the flow of whatever ended up happening. I enjoyed a talk by Erowid friend Jennifer Dumpert related to dreaming, and the complexity of a chart she brought showing various brainwave states during sleep made me chuckle. We also caught a fun workshop by Alicia Danforth regarding what kind of a future the psychedelic community might envision for itself. A panel talk on Sunday night, featuring the physicist Nassim Haramein, as well as the Greys, Pinchbeck, and Oroc, was unfortunately lukewarm, due to the lack of interesting questions from the crowd. Haramein, who is well-loved by the "2012 crowd", struck me as a bit New Agey, and I was surprised when he repeated the urban legend that water spins down drains in opposite directions on different hemispheres of the planet due to the Coriolis effect. This guy is really a physicist, right?

After a couple of nights, one of the Erowid volunteers, Insect Surfer Dave, boldly announced that the person running the bass speakers should be shot. The non-stop rumble made sleeping on site difficult; "Worse than any time in my fourteen years attending Burning Man," Dave grumbled. However, overall the producers of Symbiosis deserve credit for pooling a diverse selection of musical acts. While players like Shpongle, Glitch Mob, CocoRosie, and Bassnectar, might be expected, Dave was stoked to catch the old-school 1960s Brazilian psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes, and I was surprised to see Les Claypool on the bill. The last time I saw Les perform was with Primus at The Cattle Club in Sacramento, over a decade ago. Les is still the twisted king of bass guitar, and most of the tunes he played were new to my ears. I looked around a bit for Alex Grey, who had told me that he would be doing live painting during Les' set, but I was unable to find him anywhere--another schedule change, perhaps.

I look forward to the next Symbiosis Gathering, and I want to thank all of our volunteers, as well as Zariat and Kevin for making it possible for Erowid to have a booth at this event.

Revision History #
  • v1.0 - Oct 1, 2009 - Published on