I was twenty years old when I first ate peyote. I knew a lot about things, mechanical things. I thought I knew a lot about the behavior of people in their society, and I was just beginning to learn some little bits about the inner workings of people themselves. I ate peyote out of curiosity and boredom. I had taken a few other, mild drugs; marijuana, hashish (my drug of choice), opium. I had never drunk alcohol. I avoid man-made chemicals on principle, thinking this to be drug vegetarianism.
Most other people with whom I ate peyote experienced nausea soon after they took the drug. Some threw up. I never felt sick, though. I even remember eating a toasted cheese sandwich at a diner on the main street of Hanover, New Hampshire, while in the early stages of a peyote experience, although people who have taken peyote almost never feel the desire to eat anything until the drug wears off.
I find that words do not serve well to describe the things I experienced when I ate peyote. Even the word "things", as used in the last sentence, is a poor choice. There were feelings, impressions, thoughts, sounds, ideas, curiously few (though very satisfying) emotions, and no visual hallucinations. But these things I have just listed are the same things one experiences in normal, everyday life. I guess I would say that peyote was the music of Mozart, and it was walking and talking with God.
It was as though a window had been opened in the top of my head, and through the open window I could feel the wind, hear the sounds; and the sights of the world outside myself were seen in the clear air, where before I had seen them only through the window glass, which had also protected me from the wind and the sound. And with the glass removed, I apprehended not only the world. I was also aware of the great universe beyond, in the way one can make out the galaxy in the night sky when in the wilderness.
I saw, I understood how the things of the universe; the rocks and trees, the suns and planets, the two-legged and the four-legged creatures, the winged and the crawlers, how all of these fit together. And I saw, I understood how I am part of this, how it and they support me and how I affect them. I understood that it is my part to have right thoughts and right actions, that all these of the universe might walk on in their paths; that I might not in my greed, anger, or foolishness wreck the sublime, fragile thing I saw; for goodness and beauty in the universe are strong, and at the same time fragile. They are strong in their effect on the minds of men and women who see and value them, and fragile in that a very few evilly-disposed or careless people can mar them forever. We all talk about these things I have just said. You say they are nothing new, hardly a revelation. We know these things intellectually and we mouth the words to our children and say we are teaching them, but after I ate the peyote I didn't just know these things; I saw them, I felt them, not as one feels impalpable emotions, but as Thomas felt Jesus' wounds with his fingers; I understood these things on the same level of understanding that I understand primal things, like hunger, like joy, like the love of my mother.
And the clarity of this vision, this sight and understanding of all of these things did not leave me when the peyote wore off. They have never left me. I have them still. I cry tears as I write this, tears of joy, that my vision is with me still, that I know the essential worth of the universe, tears of awe and hope, that I see the beauty of all nature, even the parts men have damaged, and tears of ecstasy at the nearness of God.
I said eating peyote was walking and talking with God. Around the world and throughout history people seem to want different things from their Gods. Some want prosperity and power over nature. Others want protection from trouble and evil. The protestants in whose church I was raised wanted assurance of their redemption from hell by a stern, but merciful God. Since I was a child I have wanted assurance that there is order and purpose in the universe (even if the order is of a higher level than that I can perceive with my senses five). I have wanted knowledge; of this universe, of others, of myself. I have wanted to know of the possibility of the occasional triumph of those old favorites, peace with and love of one's fellow men and women, peace with and love of all creation. I wanted answers, and companionship. After I ate the peyote, I remember walking along the beach of the world (though it was only Occum Pond, a little glacial pothole in upstate New Hampshire), I remember walking along the strand of this world, hearing the world-ocean roar and recede, and I would look out and wonder, frame a mental question about some aspect of the nature of things that had heretofore been a mystery, and the answer would come as from someone unseen who walked there with me. I heard the explaining words and I saw that part of creation about which I wondered, stripped of mystery, more of its working order revealed to me than I could before have understood. I stood on the edge of the vast universe, and I learned and understood things which I have not yet forgotten, and I knew I was not alone, that I would never be alone again. Many times since, when by myself, usually in the wilderness, I have walked and talked with God.
I must remark that while under the influence of peyote I felt curiously few emotions. This is for me unusual, for I am a highly emotional person, and in my youth I had no understanding of, and thus much less control over my emotions than I do today. I remember feeling peace, awe, understanding, (though I am not sure the things represented by these nouns qualify as emotions). I do remember elation and, most of all, I remember the feeling of quiet confidence. I remember with particular fondness some long periods of calm, such as I experience after playing a passionate excerpt of Italian opera on a wind instrument.
Which brings me around to the music of Mozart. As a young man I found the music of Mozart to be trivial and all very much the same. The moment of revelation came one May afternoon in my cinder block dormitory cell when, having eaten peyote earlier in the day, I decided to play something on the stereo. I have always loved overtly emotional music, and this time I chose an old favorite, the violin concerto of Peter Tchaikovsky. I found I could not listen to it for long without becoming uncomfortably anxious (I, who had lived with a high anxiety level since childhood!). I removed the record from the platter half-played (one of the very few times in my life I have ever done that), and put on in its stead the piano concerto number 27, K.595, of Mozart. I had always found the opening movement of this piece to be marred near the end of its first theme by a silly, trill-like turn, much like the braying of Bottom with his ass's head in Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music. That little turn of phrase represented to me the ridiculous logical conclusion of the effete, "pandering to aristocratic patrons" prostitution of European music that came to a climax at the end of the eighteenth century. Anyway, I put the disc on the turntable and, to my joy and surprise, my anxiety evaporated as does the morning mist. The music was pure and correct, beautiful and in harmony with itself and with the universe. I even saw, without much more surprise, the fitness of the little comic turn which is, coming as it does at the end of a long, sober, two-octave descending scale, the angelic thing to say at that point in the melody. I will not run through the rest of the list of adjectives, for you can find them in any musician's discussion of Mozart, but I knew then that all those musicians had been right all along, while I had persisted in my historico-intellectual clutter, which was now swept away like the learned cobweb it was. One of Mozart's contemporaries said "In our music we aspire to heaven. Mozart's music comes from there."
I have said that words do not do well to describe the things experienced when eating peyote. Perhaps music is the best likeness. Again and again I was aware of the deep note of the world turning on its great axis, the thing I fancy the easterners refer to when they speak of the cosmic monosyllable "OM" that pervades the universe. It is a platonic ideal in which all music is contained, in which all notes and all combinations of notes are always being played. Someone tunes out some of the notes and writes down what is left, and we have Mozart. Another hears a different part of the stream of notes and we get your favorite musician. What few tunes I can call my own were given to me whole as I listened to this world-music, and my most satisfying playing on any musical instrument is done when I can get the instrument, my fingers, my breath, my whole being in sympathetic vibration with this "OM". I had heard it since childhood, though with only dim understanding. I heard it most clearly when eating peyote. It was insistent. It would not be denied. I hear it now, when I am quiet and still, almost whenever I want to. I hear it best in the desert, where nature is so quiet you can hear the blood flowing in your eardrums. It is particularly strong in the silence of the Grand Canyon. I can not describe it in words; and music, as I have tried to explain, is but a transcription of selected parts of it, but I could hear it in the clacking of the hubcap fasteners of my 1966 Buick when I got it up to cruise speed. I could hear it in the idling of the newly rebuilt engine of my VW beetle, there in the doctor's office parking lot, after I had the wax removed from my ears. And I once heard it for two hours as a seven note pattern generated by the beat frequencies of the three jet engines of a 727 on the flight from Atlanta to Boston. I tried to explain it to the businessman sitting next to me, but he had never heard it, and he looked at me like I was one of Them.
The only physical effect of peyote eating that I remember was dehydration. I urinated a lot, and I ate very little and drank almost nothing. After a couple of days the drug began to wear off and when I looked at myself, I appeared to be very, very thin. Since that time my desert travels have made me familiar with dehydration.
I have not eaten peyote for nearly a score of years. It takes three, sometimes four days before you want to go back to your job again, and I don't have that leisure now. I have become cautious about drugs ever since I took a course of anabolic steroids to combat a wicked case of poison oak. The steroids affected my brain (as the doctor warned they might) and I became a hypochondriac, obsessed with the functioning of my heart. After a time the obsession abated, but I am still wary of consuming anything which alters my heartbeat. I gave up hot chocolate because the caffeine in it induces beat irregularities. I will not say "never again" to peyote. Someday I may again have the time, and if a callow youth can learn so much, who knows what an old man, bringing with him his wisdom and experience, might see?