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Full Review
Pharmako/Dynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions & Herbcraft
by Dale Pendell
Mercury House 
Reviewed by Gwyllm Llwydd, 7/26/2007

I’m a sucker for the “references” section in a book of scholarly design; I thrive on information—the more relevant, the better. If it moves further into the realm of cross-references, I am on my knees with delight. There are enough cross-references in Pharmako/Dynamis to enthrall me. The book is a cornucopia of arcane his/herstories of plants and their effects on human civilization. Information swims through these pages—information untold and unrevealed, except for the most curious amongst the connoisseurs of plant inebriants. Information to get lost in… information to find yourself in… information that reveals secrets… information to set a course for distant shores with…

You can literally open up this book’s pages anywhere and be on your feet with the text. I did not read it in the traditional sense the first time around, but scouted through the references, scooted over to the relevant chapter, read a bit here, read a bit there, then delved into the chapter in toto. Mr. Pendell suggests that you read it in any manner that you like, and I found my “random access” approach to be a rewarding exercise.

Excitantia: The book starts out with some of the more familiar inebriants—coffee, tea, and chocolate. Pendell traces the history of each from their regional points of origin, and then delineates the preparation, the chemical constituents, and the social impact, from native populations to the world at large. Along the way you discover that these plants aren’t so familiar as one assumes. As one’s knowledge of the plants’ history grows, the attraction to use them becomes all the more engaging. (Or are they using us in their agenda?) This section includes other less known plants and one infamous alchemical concoction: betel, guarana, kola, Ma Huang (Ephedra sinica), qat, coca, and even amphetamines are covered. The information on these runs from short to quite extensive.

I especially appreciated the chapter on guarana, which I used extensively in the early and mid-’90s. Because of this familiarity, I felt that the chapter devoted to it could have been longer, but I loved what was there.

The chapter on Erythroxylum coca is also well presented. Even though I was more familiar with this subject—due to the massive amounts of press it has received over the years—what made this chapter work for me was the poetic approach and reverential feel to the phrasings and pacing found there. It is a beautiful piece of work that restored the respect coca had lost in my personal pantheon of plants.

The Ma Huang chapter is absolutely fascinating, presenting elements of history and myth to suggest that Ephedra sinica may be the source of the soma of the Rig Veda. While this theory is in direct contention with R. Gordon Wasson’s popular proposition that soma was Amanita muscaria, whether or not you end up agreeing isn’t the issue here. Rather, the ride that Pendell takes one on while tracing this subject is a delight unto itself.

Empathogenica: This section covers nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), MDMA, and GHB. The section on nutmeg brought me back to an earlier part of my life—a time when “tripping” took on some interesting forms. Known for its use in correctional institutions and by kids who couldn’t score, I never tried nutmeg myself, but I knew many who did. It sounded like an intense body load fraught with some peril, but nonetheless it was there for those who needed it. This chapter covers some of the spice wars history: from the Arabs importing to the Venetians (who ran the whole ball of wax through the Renaissance until the Portuguese sailed into the picture), to the Dutch and English tangling over control of spices coming from the far east and the spice islands into Europe.

The MDMA chapter is exhilarating and exciting. The accompanying whirlwind of images pulses through it at 180 bpm. Pendell ends this section with a paean of devotion.

One of the main elements that attracts me to Pendell’s writing is his mastery of the poetic aside. Nuanced yet explicit, he evokes the muse so well that one finds it entangled in all of his writing, even the technical aspects. Yet for myself, the most satisfying parts are the explicitly poetic—those that captivate with the small flip of a word, placed just so. Poetry is an ancient key to deeper realms; Pendell knows this and exploits it to everyone’s benefit. He has honed his craft well, to the delight of this reader. If you pick Pharmako/Dynamis up in a store, go to these sections first. Of special note are the “Wandering and the Vision Quest” and “Dream Stutters ”chapters, as well as the shorter pieces entitled “Hecate’s Garden” and “Nigredo: A Turn of Darkening.” These are worth the price of admission. I have read them repeatedly, and gained from doing so.

Though the layout of Pharmako/Dynamis is similar to its predecessor Pharmako/Poeia, they are truly separate works. Yes, the theme is carried on, but the impact and much of the transmission is different. Both books stand firmly on their own. The impact of Pharmako/Dynamis is very much in league with The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, but with added gifts. After reading these works, you begin to look at plants in a far different way. We are inculcated to think that we have dominion over the flora and fauna, but do we? After reading Pollan and Pendell, I am not so certain. If you follow the underlying logic of both books, you may come to the conclusion that we have been doing the bidding of the plant world, albeit unconsciously.

Pharmako/Dynamis a welcome edition to my library. I believe that most readers of The Entheogen Review would share in this assessment.

Originally Published In : in the Winter Solstice 2002 issue of The Entheogen Review
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