One autumn afternoon in an off-grid area of the western United States, author Michael Pollan found himself on a steep trail slicing through redwoods along a ravine and a powerful stream. He thought of his wife, son, mother, sisters, late father, and difficult grandmother as tears slid down his cheeks in a flood of love and compassion.
While Pollan was indeed in the middle of nowhere in the American West, that vivid, emotional trek took place inside his own head while he lay in a yurt. With a psychedelic guide by his side, he was feeling—for the first time, at age 60—the effects of 100 micrograms of lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.
He took that acid trip while writing How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. It’s the latest in a long list of New York Times best-selling books, which also includes The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.
Pollan, who teaches writing at Harvard University and at the University of California, Berkeley (where he’s also the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation professor of journalism), is a rigorous researcher, not only asking questions of experts but also including a personal account wherever possible, probing the intersection of humans and nature. Sharing a first-person perspective has become a hallmark of his work.
For his book A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams, for example, he built a house. When he covered the meat industry for a New York Times Magazine cover story that ran in 2002, he bought a steer, tracking “No. 534” on its journey through the industrial agriculture system.
It only makes sense, then, that Pollan would have to experience psychedelics himself to write about their current renaissance, the substances being studied at respected universities like Johns Hopkins and Harvard. Besides LSD, Pollan tried psilocybin (a magic mushroom that in his case was almost six inches long, with a golf-ball-sized cap, the entire thing eaten with some chocolate) and 5-MeO-DMT, better known as “the toad”—specifically, the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, one of the most potent and fast-acting psychotropic drugs on the planet when smoked.
How else to come up with lines to describe the effects of 5-MeO-DMT’s “violent narrative arc” like: “Terror seized me—and then, like one of those flimsy wooden houses erected on Bikini Atoll to be blown up in the nuclear tests, ‘I’ was no more, blasted to a confetti cloud by an explosive force I could no longer locate in my head, because it had exploded that too, expanding to become all that there was”? (The trip was, indeed, at first “horrible”, only to end with Pollan feeling equally happy.)
Mystical seems too bold a word to describe his psychedelic exploration, Pollan explains in his book, but he does go so far as to call his experiences spiritual, having rendered him more emotionally available. He says he has always enjoyed “participatory journalism” and that his readers have come to expect it.
“Had I written a whole book on psychedelics without tripping, I think they would have been disappointed,” Pollan says on the line from the Berkeley home he shares with his wife, artist Judith Belzer. (His 26-year-old son is studying graduate-level architecture at Harvard.) “Frankly, I don’t know if I would have done it if I weren’t writing a book. I felt an obligation to do it.
“We often put ourselves in uncomfortable spots doing journalism, travelling to dangerous places or interviewing people in very uncomfortable encounters,” he says. “Sometimes what pushed me over the edge when I was having a lot of doubts and uncertainty was, ‘Hey, you need this scene or you’re going to blow up this project.’…I really like to write that way; I like to find a way to use the first person, and I think that there is a quality of perception you get that you can’t get any other way. You’re doing it for the first time, and that gives a quality of wonder that you don’t get any other time.”
Pollan has no plans to travel as a “psychonaut” again anytime soon, certainly not while the substances remain illegal, but he will visit Vancouver this month for UBC Connects, a new public-lecture series presented by UBC president Santa J. Ono featuring some of the world’s most esteemed thought leaders. He’ll be joined in conversation by Rickey Yada, dean of UBC’s faculty of land and food systems, and Dr. Evan Wood, executive director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use and UBC professor of medicine. Although the discussion will take its own course, it will undoubtedly range from Pollan’s recent psychedelic research to his long-standing interest in food and agriculture.
Pollan—named by Time magazine in 2010 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world—has always loved the art of writing and first got a taste for journalism as a teen, when he was the food and movie critic for his Long Island high-school newspaper. (“It would pay for dates,” he says. “I would go to the city with a girlfriend for dinner and a movie.”) Between high school and college, he worked for the Vineyard Gazette, in Martha’s Vineyard; his first profile was of a local garbageman, a philosophical gent who has remained in touch and attended Pollan’s father’s memorial service last year. Pollan then had a college summer job at New York’s Village Voice, doing service pieces about places to find good food at 4 a.m. and the nicest public washrooms.
From there, he began writing for the New York Times Magazine (his first cover story was about high-tech marijuana farming) while working as an editor at Harper’s magazine. Some of his early essays about gardening morphed into his 2001 book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Since then, several of his books have been adapted for television, and he consulted for and co-narrated an Academy Award–nominated 2008 feature documentary, Food Inc.
“Personal essays evolved into reported essays,” Pollan says, adding that what he loves about journalism is the ability to satisfy his curiosity, “getting paid to learn whole new subjects as an adult”. “With my last project, I got to learn about psychology, neuroscience, mycology: all these things I didn’t know. That’s the great fortune of being a journalist: you get continuing education. And the people you get to meet: an interesting assortment of characters come into your life, and they stay in your life, very often, if you haven’t pissed them off too much.”
Of all of his writing, Pollan has perhaps become best-known for his seven-word rules of eating: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
It’s a message that’s reflected in the new version of Canada’s Food Guide, and yet it’s one that still isn’t sinking in among so many North Americans. Rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease are up, while people generally spend far less time cooking now than they did decades ago. Pollan says that the one diet that would actually be effective is home-cooked meals, reminding us that those meals don’t need to be restaurant-quality but rather simple plates that can be prepared in less than 60 minutes. (His three sisters and his mom coauthored The Pollan Family Table: The Best Recipes and Kitchen Wisdom for Delicious, Healthy Family Meals, which gives practical advice on how to do just that, and the recently released Mostly Plants: 101 Delicious Flexitarian Recipes From the Pollan Family.)
If our relationship with food is in crisis, the actions and attitudes of U.S. president Donald Trump certainly don’t help. The man who is known to order steak well-done with ketchup and who, apparently, eats cheeseburgers in bed made headlines recently for serving cold fast food to the national college football champions.
“That was in the same room where Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move campaign,” Pollan says of the former First Lady’s initiative to combat obesity and change the way kids think about food and nutrition. “It was yet another ‘fuck you’ to the Obamas. The only thing he hasn’t done is remove the [White House kitchen] garden, but I think he’s forgotten that it’s there.
“He’s very disconnected from nature, it would seem,” Pollan adds. “He’s always lived in a high-rise without even a lawn or a yard.…How often have you seen him in a natural setting that wasn’t the border? I think the garden is just off his radar. But if someone reminds him, he’s going to rip it out.”
Despite the discouraging reality that so many people are disconnected from what is on their plate—more factory to fork than farm to table—Pollan is gratified by having played a role in bringing the subject of food and heathy, sustainable eating to the forefront.
“I see encouraging trends, but I don’t pretend to think that we have a revolution here,” he says. “One in three Americans still ate fast food today.
“I feel very fortunate that I was able to make some difference around food and agriculture and help promote a conversation that’s still going,” he adds. “As a writer, we don’t always get to do that. As journalists, we don’t create waves; we ride waves. Sometimes we spot them a little earlier than other people. I had a mentor, a magazine publisher, who said, ‘As a journalist, you want to be a short-term visionary. If you’re a long-term visionary, no one will know what in the hell you’re talking about and nobody will read you. You just want to see around one corner.’ ”
UBC Connects hosts Michael Pollan on February 11 at the Orpheum. The event is sold-out but will be live-streamed at the website; Those who want to participate online will be able to submit questions for consideration for the audience Q & A.