Meeting The Shepardess: (La Pastora) Salvia Divinorum
During the late 1990s, my partner and I grew salvia divinorum. A friend brought us a cutting, which we easily cloned. Saliva thrives in Seattle weather and soon our rear windows were lined with shelves of salvia plants. Later, we grew a big patch behind the house. Salvia was legal and purportedly psychedelic. I tended it carefully and read everything I could about the supposed effects. During this time many people in the Pacific Northwest were interested in psychedelics. We considered ourselves urban shamans and psychonauts. I undertook my relationship with salvia divinorum, The Shepardess, during this time of curiosity and permissiveness.
The primary active component, salvinorin A, is found in the leaves. The Mazatec indigenous tribes of Mexico use it for divination. During the 1990s researchers asserted that salvinorin A was the strongest natural hallucinogen known to man. I wanted to approach the salvia with care.
Seasoned psychedelic users know that some psychoactive substances have more of a presence than others. LSD feels somewhat clinical; users experience themselves as the author of their trip, which seems to come from within them. Psilocybin mushrooms, on the other hand, have more of a “personality” or presence. The mushrooms can feel like witnesses, or guides during the trip. Everything I read attested to the striking presence of the salvia spirit, which made me a little nervous. Salvia isn’t known for being a pleasure or recreational drug. I hoped she would like me.
What follows are a series of trip reports I made during these explorations.
Salvia Trip report #1 ~ August 14, 1997
(Three large bong hits in succession)
It began with a physical sense of motion, of unidirectional rotation. This turning was not just in my body superficially, but in every molecule and even in the air surrounding my form. I was in awe, overwhelmed by this feeling that everything, all of creation, was turning on an axis of celestial proportions. The persistence and profundity of the rotation were mildly disturbing because it also produced an additional effect: Waves of electrical energy passed through my body at rhythmic intervals, like an alien force scanning me with invisible lasers. The field of electricity passed through me like a pulse, moving from left to right, just like the rotation.
I was convinced that these energies were impinging on me at a sub-atomic level. The rotation was constant, pervasive, overarching — something unchanging, as if it had always been there. What had changed was my ability to sense it.
Looking around I saw that the geometry of the room was wrong, warped, two-dimensional. It was still a room, I just wasn’t seeing it as I normally did. The spatial oddities didn’t alarm me because I remembered that I was in a safe, familiar place. The presence of the salvia was not overt, it didn’t anthropomorphize itself for me, or “speak.” If anything I felt its disinterest or at least the lack of an emotional component. Despite the strangeness, I found myself fascinated by the effects.
After a few moments, I noticed that the shapes and colors before my eyes did not change regardless of whether or not my eyes were open. I experimented with this for a while, opening and closing my eyes. The images persisted either way. How had my eyelids become superfluous? What “eye” was I looking through?
But, the rotation was ceaseless and I could not ignore it. The waves of quantum bombardment were relentless, I felt my form being sliced through a billion trillion times, always in one direction. The asymmetry of it made me both physically and psychologically uncomfortable. Left to right, without end! I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I shifted a quarter turn to the left, facing directly into the rotation, so that my body received each collapsing waveform head on. Relieved by the symmetry I’d achieved from re-positioning my body, I stretched my arms upward in a gesture of worship and awe for this inexplicable source of motion and energy. I wondered if it was the literal spin of the earth on its axis.
About 15 minutes later, a pinpoint appeared in the air before my eyes. It grew slowly, spinning and opening to the size of a small hole. Like the rotation of my trip, the pinpoint had a centrifugal force. It seemed to be a drain-hole in the fabric of space-time for this swampy glow my body had begun to emit. The glow left my body and brain, moving like an ethereal liquid through the air, toward the hole in front of my eyes. It swirled a little as it approached the exit point, then disappeared into the tiny vortex. This spot held its position just a little to the left in my field of vision, until all the glowing ether was gone. I laughed and my lover looked at me quizzically. “I can see myself coming down,” I told him.
The sense I had of the earth’s rotation affecting my physical form lingered for another 20–30 minutes and then finally faded. I was grateful when it was gone, and I’m not sure I ever want to feel it again.
Salvia Trip report #2 ~ September 21, 1997
I’d traveled with a friend to the Okanogan Barter Faire in central Washington, he’d given me a small tent to use as my own. On a relatively quiet and cloudy afternoon, I crawled inside it alone and decided to try smoking salvia again. I drew three large bong hits and lay on my back. The colors and shapes comprising the roof of the tent began shifting into a beautiful kaleidoscope pattern. I closed my eyes and the trip changed. My body became the earth and a field of salvia plants grew up from my body. Their roots plunged down into my flesh, and their leaves rose above me. They grew taller and taller then fell over into my form, sending fresh roots down and rising up again. I witnessed the cycles of their growth. The life cycle sped up and I experienced generation upon generation of salvia plants living, taking nourishment from my fertile body, growing, falling, dying, and being reborn as new shoots burst up through the soil, my body. The salvia’s mood this time felt happy, joyous, and I did too.
The kaleidoscope of the tent’s interior resolved into recognizable patterns again, the breeze made a beautiful song in the trees that faded as I came down. The effects were gone within 30 minutes.
(In December of the year 2000, my partner and I went to the 3rd World Conference on Salvia Divinorum at the Breitenbush Hot Spring Resort in Oregon.) It was there that I learned the proper way to ingest salvia, according to the Mesoamerican tribes that grow and use it. They take it orally, chewing it as a quid, and they experience it in total darkness and silence, concentrating on the visions “La Pastora” provides them. When we returned home I decided to follow the instructions as closely as I could to see what would happen.
Salvia Trip Report #3 ~ December 18th, 2000
The day before I’d taken eight fresh leaves from our salvia plants, carefully washed each one, and matched it with a similar-sized leaf. Face to face, I stacked them in pairs, couplings that are meant to symbolize intercourse. I carefully wrapped them and placed them in the refrigerator.
At 5:30am the alarm woke me and I readied the room for my ceremony. I selected three items of importance from my altar and placed them on the bedside table. I quieted the environment and meditated on my intentions: “healing and being a healer.” I would take the salvia in the way of the Mazatec people who cultivate it and use it for divination.
I took the first two pairs, 4 leaves, and rolled them into a cigar shape. I began to gnaw on the cylinder of leafy greens until it became a slurry in my mouth. It tasted disgusting and bitter, but I held onto the solution for approximately 5 minutes then spat it out. Rolling the next four leaves in the same manner, I chewed and swished that solution around for an additional 5 minutes, then spat it into a cup. Afterward I turned off the light, laid on my back in silent darkness, and closed my eyes.
A turning spiral feeling began on all sides of my body, my hands sunk into my thighs, and the planes that define the perimeters of my form changed. I felt like a bird or flying creature moving in swirling, circular patterns swooping over a desert landscape. I was watching the bird while also experiencing myself as a bird. I seemed to be omnipresent. Suddenly, it turned upward and headed straight for the sky. I was viewing its ascension from an extra-terrestrial perspective, looking down as it sped toward me.
The vision faded and some judgmental part of myself began to wonder, had I chewed the quid long enough? This irritating thought made me sit-up, find the cup, and reintroduce its bitter contents into my mouth. I lay for another 10 minutes or so with the quid lodged between my teeth and gums, then I swallowed it all in one big gulp. Yuck.
Closing my eyes, now I sunk deeper into salvia space. The bird was still there but was now moving about in the vast inner space of my mind. I sensed it wondering about the nature of its confinement. It flew off to my left in the space of my inner eye, as far as it could go, seeking the edges of my psychic perimeter. Having found the limits, it swooped in front of me and shot off to the right as far as it could go. I felt it plumbing the boundaries of my conscious mind. Those boundaries slowly came to my awareness as the strange bird scouted. It helped me get a sense of this odd psychic dimension, and interestingly there was no hard edge. Rather, this “space” was cloud-like fading gradually at the perimeter, it was also quite large, much larger than my proprioception of physical mass and volume. The bird flew swiftly on its reconnaissance mission, and I was with it — both bird and witness.
Almost immediately after the bird’s flight resolved, I saw a clear image of a plant. The image was simplified, more like a drawing or animation of a plant. It reminded me of ‘Seymour’ in “Little Shop of Horrors” and then, without hesitation, it ate me. I was chewed up and consumed by the plant. Surprisingly, I found the experience quite pleasant. The nature of this reflection was clear to me. I ate the salvia, and now it had eaten me. This made me happy and more comfortable. I felt that now the salvia and I were better friends.
The plant multiplied itself, dividing into four smaller plants. They reminded me of fresh soybean pods with fuzzy teeth, but they moved like caterpillars. There was a ledge along with a window and the four plants seated themselves, nodding and smiling at me with cartoon style expressions. They were reminding me that they had been cloned and then lived as potted plants in our back window. I felt their acknowledgement, if not quite approval, for the way we’d raised them.
The salvia enjoyed being my body. It was enjoying the playground of my human form. Their movements gave me these funny itches and my mind attended to them, chasing them as they scampered along the surfaces of my skin. I tried to catch them pursuing one until it lodged on my right nostril. Another scurried to the outer side of my labia. I had to scratch…
…The salvia found my erogenous center, and I suddenly became aroused. Even pressing into the bed sent little bubbles of pleasure all throughout my body. It seemed that the impetus came not just from me, but the also from the salvia. My body sought its satisfaction without my conscious consent, and within a few seconds, I climaxed. No psychedelic experience I’d ever had before provoked a spontaneous orgasm. I lay in afterglow, one with the salvia as subtle information passed between us. This was the teaching I’d sought.
I had asked salvia a question about healing, but the plant does not answer in words: It plays a movie for the mind’s eye. It reflected the parts of myself that are insecure, my soft spots, which somehow helped me see myself better. There is nothing mammalian about the interface between salvia and human consciousness so interpretation of the experience can be hard to put into words. My inability to describe the nature of these salvia insights was obvious even before I came down. Trying to capture what was most sublime about this experience would prove to be a difficult and somewhat futile exercise.
The plant did not seem overly concerned about my question, or “healing” — although the orgasm might be considered a gift along those lines. Eating the salvia in the traditional way was better. As salvia is neither human nor animal, communication with it feels awkward and alien — as plant to human interaction would be.
(In the year 2001 my partner died of pancreatic cancer. I moved out of our home and downsized into a one-bedroom city apartment. It was a dark time for me. I barely worked and stayed home alone, grieving in solitude.)
April 15, 2002 ~ Salvia Trip Report #4
(Smoked three successive bong hits.)
I decided to try it again, home alone. I took three hits and then expectantly looked around. My room appeared normal. Nothing changed, I wondered what was happening with the salvia and a tiny bit of disappointment entered my mind. In my stream of consciousness a thought rose to the surface of my mind mutely asking, “Is that all?”
Compared to my trip a couple of years ago, I guess it didn’t seem like much.
“Is that all?”
Suddenly, the salvia seized upon the thought and turned it against me, like a giant club. It struck my brain, the words became a weapon, a heavy bat and it slammed back into my consciousness again and again and again:
“IS THAT ALL! IS THAT ALL! IS THAT ALL! IS THAT ALL! IS THAT ALL! IS THAT ALL! IS THAT ALL! IS THAT ALL! IS THAT ALL! IS THAT ALL! . . .” it shouted back. The salvia hit me with the words over and over, the sensation was physical, not auditory. It went on and on, with no sign of stopping or slowing. It was both physically and emotionally painful. I was grateful when about 10 minutes it became quieter, 10 minutes after that it was only a murmur and eventually it faded away.
That was the last time I did salvia. “Set and setting” are a big part of our psychedelic experiences and I was depressed when I took it this final time. Also, I smoked it, rather than carrying out a traditional ceremony as I had before. Whatever the reason, it was traumatic enough to permanently extinguish my curiosity. I have a deep respect for The Shepardess, but I don’t need to meet her again.