A Couple of Book Nuggets From the Cannabis World
I've been reading a lot on pot, and I mean that in at least two senses, but nonetheless: there are a lot of fascinating books on cannabis that have appeared in the past five years. A week or so ago I finished a sorta New Journalism-style book called The Heart of Dankness, which is good if you want to know more about the front lines of underground botanists and the stakes for winning the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. (Your strain will sell a lot of seeds and you stand to make some hairy coin; the voting seems questionable, it's very political, but of interest if only for the attempt to describe different strains of indica and sativa as if they were fine wines.) It's a picaresque non-fiction book, with Mark Haskell Smith going from Amsterdam to different parts of LA (in one chapter, meeting an enigmatic genius who has big plans for isolating certain psychoactive chemicals that engender certain effects, in order to learn about the mind), to Northern California, with "Hempfest" forays into places like Toronto and finally ending up back in Amsterdam, when, stoned on Liberty Day (May 5th, celebrated for liberty from the Nazis), Smith hears a commotion and wanders out to the edge of a canal, works his way to the front, and sees two very large TV monitors set up across the canal, which will show the Queen and her family on a boat sailing its way toward this point. Also across the canal: the Royal Dutch Philharmonic. And as the Queen gets closer, the music begins to swell gorgeously. Smith is very stoned and intrigued: he's not much of a classical music fan, but this music is beautiful and seems vaguely familiar. It gets louder and suddenly he realizes it's Lou Reed's "Perfect Day." (!)
The entire book is a search for the best definition, or a clarification of just what "dank" means. I find the entire premise a tad artificial, but at least he's trying to write about some aspect of quality, which plays to our sensual-sensory-continuum worlds...It does make for a memorable title, too, eh.
Friend: What have you been reading lately?
OG: Something about the world of gourmet pot called The Heart of Dankness.
who lived from 1834-1879
The bizarre thing about reading Smith's book: it's a recent release, but even more recently the Dutch have made it difficult for Unistatians to travel there and smoke in the coffeehouses; they've rolled back a bit on their famous tolerance. And Obama and Holder have reneged on their word; they've been repressive like Bush43 towards the medical pot movement. I imagine Smith assembling/writing his book, and cursing at the morning news, which seemed to be making the very book he was writing sound a tad dated.
This is all very maddening and dramatic, but more and more Unistatians of all ages are in favor of legalization; one would think it's only a matter of time...
But how many times are we gonna get our hopes up, only to feel like some federal government Lucys have pulled the football once again away from us stoner Charlie Browns? (And believe me when I say "good grief!" to sum up my feelings about the totally insane War On Certain People Who Use The Wrong Drugs. Sometimes two words are enough, and 10,000 are just plain agonizing.)
An even more recent book, Jonah Raskin's Marijuanaland, subtitled "Dispatches From An American War," is about the Emerald Triangle of Northern California, where the best and most cannabis is grown in Unistat. It's a sine qua non bit of reportage from this area of the world, with historical context, lots of digging and interviewing (from sheriffs to growers and everyone in-between), and anecdotes that make this tiny but dense book by a wise and well-seasoned radical journalist a must for those who wish to grow their own counterculture libraries.
Raskin himself seems a marvelous figure to me. From a long line of leftist intellectuals and political radicals, he studied under Lionel Trilling at Columbia, left East Coast academia to be a West Coast radical journalist, was heavily involved with SDS and then the Weathermen, taught at Sonoma State University, and is still, with Marijuanaland, doing probing radical journalism in addition to his earlier books on people like Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, the enigmatic figure B. Traven, and Jack London. Two years ago I read back-to-back-to-back-to etc the memoirs and autobios of as many SDS and Weathermen figures as I could find, and I really liked Raskin's autobio, Out of the Whale, which first appeared way back in the still-pretty-crazy days of 1974! (1) Raskin turned 70 in January of this year, and he knows his pot.
For me, the most palpable vibe in Raskin's pot book is the paranoia combined with a strong, old-fashioned libertarianism amongst the growers. One must understand that loggers of redwood trees gradually lost jobs; those loggers and truckers had to do something to maintain a decent standard of living, so why not grow pot? There's certainly demand and it's the biggest cash crop in the country. And further weirdness: a lot of these ex-loggers and truckers and diesel-pump attendants are "rednecks," who listen to Rush Limbaugh! The culture of cannabis in the Emerald Triangle: (Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, and probably a lot of Lake County) makes for odd bedfellows, literally: some of these rednecks meet very liberal Earth Woman and hippie chicks and they get together. The economics and politics of cannabis - if not the smoke itself - gave me a contact high in Raskin's stories. (2) Other highs, not quite contact, are even weirder. Here's one short anecdote from Raskin:
"For a brief time, the only real function the old lumber mills played was to incinerate tons of pot confiscated by the sheriff. (Now, confiscated pot is buried in the ground.) In the 1980s, I watched as thousands of plants caught fire and burned. I saw the wind carry the smoke into the air toward the town of Willits, where citizens smelled it and, just by breathing it, got high - a real-life incident that inspired me to write the story for the marijuana movie Homegrown." (pp.25-26)
Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture?
(1) Other books I consider wellworthsomewhiles about this epically wild period of Unistatian history:
Fugitive Days, by Bill Ayers. 2008. I finished this just as the ditzy fascist named "Sarah Palin" started to repeat what her handlers had told her, about Obama "palling around" with terrorists like Ayers. Aha! It was coming together! I had only known about Ayers from reading in other books on the Weather Underground. This was one well-written book, from his POV.
The 2002 documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, The Weather Underground is tremendous. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2004.
Carl Oglesby's Ravens In The Storm gives us the memoirs of possibly the most "balanced" individual involved in those radical factions. He was a leader in SDS but thought the splinter faction Weather Underground was a bad move, and he was probably right. Oglesby - like most of these writers about their time in SDS/The Weather Underground - went on to become an academic, avoiding prison. After the craziness of the late 1960s/early 1970s died down, Oglesby wrote one of my top ten most intriguing conspiracy theory books, The Yankee and Cowboy War, which really should be brought back into print. I have written at least four publishers trying to convince them to bring it back, but so far, nada. HERE is something that reflects on this a bit. It contains most of the text of the book...but why did someone have to type it up? Read it and I think you'll agree, there's almost something "fishy" going on as to why this book isn't back in print. (I personally do not enjoy reading a long non-fiction book on a screen and would happily buy a new edition - possibly with Intros and Forewords by Peter Dale Scott and Michael Parenti? - for $15 or whatever. Make it paperback, I don't care. Just bring this thing back into print!)
Kirkpatrick Sale wrote a thick and truly, seemingly exhaustive history and analysis of SDS, and I looked back in it recently and am still impressed. He's since gone on to be at the forefront of radical ecological wisdom, of the kind that might bring a smile to Kaczynski, languishing in a SuperMax federal prison. Or, as I understand him lately, Thomas Pynchon? For me, Sale is never boring, even if I don't agree with him.
In 2009 Mark Rudd's Underground came out. Starting with the occupation/sit-in/takeover at Columbia, Rudd liked the radical limelight maybe a bit too much, and went for a wild ride. This one read a lot like Ayers's book.
David Gilbert's Love and Struggle came out earlier this year, and he's in prison until 2056 (if memory serves), for a 1981 Brink's job made up of former Weathermen and members of the Black Liberation Army. This dude was hardcore. (In the documentary, it's difficult for me to watch him talk and reconcile that person with his deeds.) Four people died, including two cops and a Brinks guard. When I undertook my studies of these leftist outlaw-radicals, I was quickly struck by how passion, resistance, idealism and education at our best universities binds all these leftist-outlaws. Gilbert really got caught up and paid the price. I'm about a quarter way through his book...
Flying Close To The Sun by Cathy Wilkerson (2007) shows a side the of this movement that the others barely touch upon: that despite the radical left equality ideals spouted by the leaders, the women in the movement were not treated as equals. Also, despite the propaganda victories, there were lots of egos caught up in the romanticism of the underground and some incompetencies. Also: the Weathermen set off a LOT of bombs that damaged structures (they were fairly scrupulous about not killing people, warning them you better get outta there by zero hour!), but they didn't carry off their revolution. This we all know, but Wilkerson is more blunt about these little details.
I also liked Ron Jacobs 1997 The Way The Wind Blew and Dan Berger's scholarly Outlaws of America. Berger is a young radical activist who has researched this time, and it's the best thing I've yet seen written by someone who was not on the scene.
There are many others...
Robert Anton Wilson, who lived and wrote amidst the craziness of the times of SDS and the WeatherUnderground (this latter group helped his friend Timothy Leary make a daring and successful prison escape), had read Ezra Pound very closely, and knew that, by fighting against injustice or for some high-minded ideal, one can lose one's center. It seems that their very educations warped their senses of their own centers, and some just jaw-dropping craziness ensued. While I admire these figures, reading their stories, the stories they tell about their lives and why they did what they did, I see them as ultra-romantic figures, all of them. But I do see RAW's point about one's center, too, and all of these books serve as cautionary tales, among other bits of True Wisdom one finds there...
(2) Truth be told, almost all of the books I read give me contact highs, whether they're about pot growers in the Emerald Triangle, or some dense theoretical text on Being and Nothingness, or a graphic novel/comic book on the history of economics.
Here's Jonah Raskin riffing on his book Marijuanaland. It's 7 mins.
Here's Mark Rudd talking about his book, the SDS, and the Weathermen. 3 mins.