If my best effort here to accurately describe the psilocybin journey fails to fully convey the profundity of the experience and the landscape of the psychedelic realms I’d traveled, imagine my returning home, having been gone, TRULY gone, for 12 hours, and being faced with the task of describing it to others. And, in addition to the shortcomings of language, there was an unexpected impulse to protect the information, as if in the telling it would be diminished somehow. Or I’d discover that it was all just a story induced by a mind-altering substance and that it would reveal itself to be smoke and mirrors once I returned to my day-to-day existence; like those times in college when I would write in my journal after smoking a joint, feeling like I was tapping into a well of creativity not normally accessible, only to read what I’d written the next day and discover a load of incoherent rubbish.
Once home, I stumbled my way through a recap, acutely aware that this first attempt at the story did not match the ebullience I experienced driving back from B.C. I felt a brief moment of disappointment, thinking the magic might indeed be slipping away, but then I realized suddenly that there was another explanation: I was totally exhausted! With fatigue being one of the primary symptoms of ALS, it would have been a HUGE day for me had I simply driven to and from Vancouver, the day spent doing just about anything else, perhaps chilling in a café reading and writing, no nap, etc. But, a 5-hour psilocybin trip is a rigorous experience for the body and its nervous system. It hit me then and there, feeling like I’d worked eight hours digging ditches or something.
I finished the report with a description of the owl revelations, which included the only details that, as I shared them, evoked a brief rush of the bliss I’d enjoyed when they happened. Then, with one last output for the day, I pushed on through a shower — I’d perspired so much throughout the day I couldn’t bring myself to get into our bed stinking like a men’s locker room – and then fell swiftly into the deepest and least interrupted night of sleep I’d had in a LONG time. For some reason, maybe because I’d used up my mind’s supply of vision-making for the day, it was a dreamless sleep.
I awoke in the familiar comfort of the bedroom, the just barely emerging daylight illuminating the thin curtain closed over the window, casting a soft glow, a gentle welcome to the day.
I’d made arrangements to have the day of and the day after the journey off from work, a Thursday and Friday, and so, with absolutely nowhere else I had to be, nothing I had to do, and an empty house, I indulged myself by wallowing in that cozy cocoon, basking in just how amazingly good I felt. Another first since my diagnosis: My initial thought upon waking was NOT, I’m eventually going to be unable to get out of bed without assistance.
Then, an extraordinary sequence of events occurred.
After my morning meditation, I checked my phone for the first time, and there was a text from my wife waiting for me:
Now, I loved Mary Oliver’s poetry, but it had been years since I’d read her work, and so an impulse just came to me…
…I googled “Mary Oliver owl”
I had no memory as to whether I’d read anything by her on the subject, though the memories were as clear as could be that she wrote prodigiously about animals of many kinds and their natural habitats.
The very first search result yielded this poem:
White Owl Flies Into And Out Of The Field
Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings—five feet apart—
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow—
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows—
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us—
as soft as feathers—
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.
“maybe death isn’t darkness, after all, but so much light wrapping itself around us.” Yeah, wrapped in light sounds nice. Sounds like the antidote to the terror I’d stood up to just the day before. Sounds like how I felt after each wave of fear subsided. Sounds like the owl is exactly the spirit animal that I need right now. Symbolic of wisdom in some cultures, may the owl give me the wisdom to avoid spending time anywhere but in the present moment; symbolic elsewhere as a harbinger of change, may I weather the immense changes I’m facing; and finally, symbolic of the journey toward death and the afterlife, may it accompany me on that final journey, that I might not be lonely.
Still buzzing from the Mary Oliver owl synchronicity, I followed my curiosity and within a few clicks came across that old nonsense ditty by Edward Lear, The Owl & The Pussycat:
Never mind my lizard brain chuckles about a “lovely pussy.”
The owl is playing a guitar. A guitar!
Then my phone came to life with an incoming call from my old buddy Keith. A close friend since high school, he knew my psychedelic adventure was scheduled for the previous day, and he was eager to hear all about it. Fortunately, contrary to how bumpy the first telling was the previous night, I was excited to jump in and spill all the juicy details, including that morning’s owl incident.
Keith was inquisitive and very interested and so I spared him no details. When I was done…
“Hey, have you ever read a book titled I Heard The Owl Call My Name?”
“No, but I think I might need to.”
“I think you very much do need to! I read it in college and remember loving it, though I admit I don’t recall the details or even the author’s name.”
We wrapped up and said goodbye. By then I’d been awake and still in bed for an hour. I was very much in need of some breakfast. However, I immediately googled I Heard The Owl Call My Name, was stunned by what I found, and texted Keith:
Then I called my favorite used bookstore, Eclipse, asked if they had I Heard The Owl Call My Name, I was told they did, and I asked them to set it aside for me.
The cover of the book, as it turns out, features…an owl, and the book was published by a Dell Publishing imprint: Laurel!
The doctor said to the Bishop, “So you see, my lord, your young ordinand can live no more than three years and doesn’t know it. Will you tell him, and what will you do with him?”
The Bishop said to the doctor, “Yes, I’ll tell him, but not yet. If I tell him now, he’ll try too hard. How much time has he for an active life?”
“A little less than two years if he’s lucky.”
“So short a time to learn so much?”
— Margaret Craven, from I Heard The Owl Call My Name
The ordinand, a young Anglican vicar, Mark Brian, is diagnosed with an unidentified terminal illness that could very well be ALS, given ALS’ 2-5-year life-expectancy from time of diagnosis. In a marvelously vague manner, the Bishop says he’s concerned that the vicar still has so much to learn and that he’d try too hard if he knew he had so little time left. And so, the young priest, instead of being informed of the diagnosis, is sent to a mission parish in a small First Nations village, specifically of the Kwakwakaʼwakw people, on the British Columbian coast, 200 miles north of my home in Bellingham.
This is an extraordinary contrast with most modern and post-modern takes on the role religion played in the brutal European conquest of North America, and of indigenous peoples all over the world. One could almost argue that it amounts to dangerous revisionist history, and yet Craven does write about how the Kwakwakaʼwakw were slowly seeing their culture disappear, and at the heart of the story is the depiction of how the Bishop and the vicar learned far more from the First Nations than the other way around.
Prior to the vicar’s departure to the village of Kingcome, the Bishop describes it to him:
“The Indian knows his village and feels for his village as no white man for his country, his town, or even for his own bit of land. His village is not the strip of land four miles long and three miles wide that is his as long as the sun rises and the moon sets. The myths are the village and the winds and the rains. The river is the village, and the black and white killer whale that herds the fish to the end of the inlet the better to gobble them. The village is the salmon who comes up the river to spawn, the seal who follows the salmon and bites off his head, the bluejay whose name is like the sound he makes—‘Kwiss-kwiss.’ The village is the talking bird, the owl, who calls the name of the man who is going to die…”
Later, toward the end of the book, when the Bishop comes to the village, there’s this exchange:
“Always when I leave the village”, the Bishop said slowly, “I try to define what it means to me, why it sends me back to the world refreshed and confident. Always I fail…But when I reach here and see the great scar where the inlet side shows its bones, for a moment I know.”
“What my lord?”
“That for me it has always been easier here, where only the fundamentals count, to learn what every man must learn in this world.”
“And that, my lord?”
“Enough of the meaning of life to be ready to die”, and the Bishop motioned Mark to start the motor, and they went on.
It was not until the seaplane set down on the water that the Bishop found the courage to say to Mark, “Your work in the village is almost done. When I have found the right man to take your place, I shall write you, and when you come out, you will come to me.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Finally, as the vicar returns to Kingcome from his last rounds by boat to the various other villages nearby…
All day long, on his way back to Kingcome, because he was alone and receptive, the little questions, the observations he had pushed deep within him, began to rise slowly toward the door of the conscious mind which was almost ready to open, to receive them, and give them words: “You are tired. You have told yourself that it was due to the winter which was hard on everyone. Deep inside, haven’t you known it was more than this?…
He went slowly up the river. In front of the vicarage he anchored the boat and waded ashore. He trudged up the black sands to the path and stopped. From the dark spruce he heard an owl—once, and again—and the questions that had been rising all day long reached the door of his mind and opened it.
He went up the path and the steps, through the living room and into the kitchen. The lights were on. At the stove Marta (a village elder) was preparing his dinner.
“Marta, something strange happened tonight. On the bank of the river I heard the owl call my name,” and it was a question he asked, an answer he sought.
She did not say, “Nonsense, it was my name the owl called, and I am old and with me it does not matter.” She did not say, “It’s true you’re thin and white, but who is not? It has no importance.”
She turned, spoon still in her hand, lifting her sweet, kind face with its network of tiny wrinkles, and she answered his question as she would have answered any other.
She said, “Yes, my son.”
The vicar never went full-on Dances With Wolves, but he does eventually hear the owl — harbinger of death — call his name, and he understands and accepts his fate, just as I had hoped to understand and accept my own, with the help of the forest spirit medicine, psilocybin, a mushroom very likely consumed for millennia by indigenous peoples for medical and spiritual purposes.