If you leave your boat to travel inland, into the wildly mountainous regions of Mexico’s heartland, you may find yourself among some unassuming organisms known for their power to wake us spiritually narcoleptic humans to the sacredness of all life. So, of course, they are illegal. This life form is famous for its psychotropic alkaloids and has long been considered the “divine messenger” and used mindfully and medicinally for over 5,500 years by many North American Indians. It is fragilely slow growing, taking up to 30 years to produce their first reproductive parts. This is where we gringos have inadvertently caused a big challenge to their continued existence. The illegal and unsustainably incorrect harvesting by psychonaut tourists from Europe and the USA has caused its numbers to drastically drop in recent years. The American War on Drugs unfortunately targeted the organism, deeming it illegal to raise, thus increasing the demand and total uprooting of wild individuals. The divine messenger is now found only on a few, small, unprotected lands and is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.
Just one of these lands is that of the Huichol (Wixaritari, in their own language) people in the Sierra Madre Occidental range of Mexico. These native people actively practice an Animist religion in which this organism is revered as one of the four deities. The Huichol have long sought autonomy by rejecting Catholicism and, more recently, persistent Protestant missionaries. Now, they have a new challenge to their way of life. Canada’s First Majestic Silver Corporation has purchased, over much protest, one of the Huichol’s sacred mountains, Wirikuta, where the people walk on holy expedition each year to ceremoniously harvest their divine messenger and re-awaken their spirits and minds. UNESCO has officially listed the site as protected for its cultural heritage as well as its abundance of other endemic flora and fauna. In spite of this, the Canadian mining company plans to use open pit mining and the hideously toxic process of lixiviation with cyanide at Wirikuta.
Have you guessed the identity of this divine messenger? Nope, not an animal like our dear Sonoran Desert Toad who is also facing challenges due to psychedelic tourism. And it’s not a type of hallucinogenic mushroom which is a fungus. The divine messenger is a plant: The Peyote (Lophophora diffusa) cactus possessing the hallucinogenic compound known as mescaline.
I used white clay to sculpt a peyote cactus in bloom as well as a spherical vessel to embrace it. The sculptural container is covered with what I imagine a biology-minded gringa like myself might envision via peyote: the ancient Cambrian era’s explosion of all the creepy-crawly varieties of animal life that gave rise to the mind-blowing biodiversity of today. The inside of the sphere is spirit-world-darkness in which the peyote flower contrastingly glows with biological and spiritual life. My sculpture was gifted to the Tucson-area Pascua Yaqui who also have, historically, a cultural and spiritual relationship with peyote and who were tortured and driven from their homeland in Mexico. Let us hope the same will not be the case for the Huichol people and for their sacred cactus.