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Ask a Ranger: Sacred Datura of Southwest part of history of hallucinogens

Ask a Ranger: Sacred Datura of Southwest part of history of hallucinogens

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For centuries, Native Americans of the Southwest have prepared special teas from sacred datura leaves, seeds and roots. This beverage is imbibed — or the potent chemicals of datura otherwise consumed — during rites of passage or other ceremonies, but only under the guidance of a knowledgeable tribal elder.

All parts of the datura plant are highly toxic, and can easily prove fatal. Datura plants grow naturally all around the Flagstaff area, and around much of the Southwest.

If you are of a certain age, you may have partaken of Carlos Castaneda's popular writings — "The Teachings of Don Juan, A Separate Reality," etc. — which detailed his initiation and training in shamanism. Alongside peyote and magic mushrooms, datura extracts were a featured botanical hallucinogen in Castaneda’s imaginative and partly imaginary ethnobotanical explorations of altered consciousness and power. Under the powerful influence of datura, Castaneda turned into a crow and flew.

To this day, young, solo-aspiring Castanedas occasionally expand their consciousness with datura, acquire the power of flight, but not — alas — the corresponding power of sticking a safe landing, whereupon they also occasionally experience violent injury or death.

But the Don Juan books produced more than dangerous brushes with hallucinogens; their plots and vivid imagery also inspired the young George Lucas to create the Star Wars mythology we all know well: the Force, Jedi knights, and especially the wise shaman/initiator Yoda (also, chew on the mention of “young solo” a paragraph back).

The genus datura comprises nine species of hallucinogenic-to-poisonous flowering plants in the Solanaceae, aka Nightshade, family. They are also known by various common names: jimsonweed, moonflower, devil’s trumpet, devil's weed, thornapple, hell’s bells. As implied by "Nightshade," daturas flower at night, the white blossoms closing around mid-morning of the following day.

And as implied by those common names, daturas' potent brews of chemicals are dangerous, easily the least friendly of Don Juan’s psycho-pharmacopia. The brews are dominated by powerful alkaloids like atropine and scopolamine, chemicals more conducive to poisoning than to feelings of euphoria. But like other chemicals from the 1960s, they can also generate strong hallucinations.

A few years back, I dined at the Twin Rocks Café in Bluff, Utah, with fellow river-runners, prior to launching the next morning on the San Juan. Good and hungry, I wolfed my Navajo tacos down, and then strolled outside to admire the sunset. I was sitting by the café’s sandstone hoodoo, watching the sky turn pink and baby blue, when a Mexican free-tail bat swooped down to a datura plant four feet from me, and proceeded to sip nectar from each of its several white blossoms in turn. It was one of those moments that turn time magically crystalline, while you silently gaze in awe.

Bats are important consumers of datura nectar and ergo pollinators between daturas, joining a variety of insects that also sup from the beautiful blossoms.

On a Grand Canyon group river rafting trip that I had organized (thus securing myself a free trip, so long as I babbled sufficient geology), our boatman told the tale of his brush with daturas. Normally J-rig boatmen sleep on their boats, to catch the cool river breeze, but that evening being windy, Mark opted to drag his bag ashore for the night.

In the dark, he failed to register that his little campsite lay between two blooming daturas. That night, and all night long, Mark had the most colorful, vivid and memorable succession of dreams he ever experienced. So if you ever feel the need to approximate a vision quest, but risking life and limb isn’t your cup of tea, simply camp a bit close to a blooming datura -- if you don’t mind bats.

I am happy to acknowledge (and heartily recommend that everyone visit when it reopens) the Verde Valley Archaeology Center (385 S. Main St., Camp Verde) and director Ken Zoll in particular, for assistance compiling this column, and permission to reproduce photographs of their Sacred Datura effigy jars, currently on display. When VVAC reopens, their normal hours are 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Bill Wade is a 13-year Roving Ranger and semi-to-effectively retired geologist.

The NPS/USFS Roving Rangers volunteer through a unique agreement between the Flagstaff Area National Monuments and the Coconino National Forest to provide interpretive ranger walks and talks in the Flagstaff area each summer.

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