How a little monkey business shaped our world |

How a little monkey business shaped our world

John Colson

Midafternoons at The Aspen Times are interesting, sometimes hilarious interludes in the frenzied pace of the day.

I usually find I need to get up from my desk, slipping the bonds of servitude for just a moment to wander downstairs for a cup or two of coffee and a little energizing conversation.

It’s either that or slump face first onto the keyboard and take a nap, as the strain of digesting lunch overcomes the nervous need to meet some damned deadline or another.

Apparently others often feel the same need, because there frequently is a small crowd around the massive blue-topped table that dominates the central room of the Times’ building. Sipping the high-test brew that passes for coffee in our place, discussing topics so eclectic and random you have to wonder what these peoples’ dreams are like, you can take the measure of the day, the epoch or the planet.

One day last week, for instance, we somehow got on the topic of the Origins of Man. Or, more precisely, the descent of humanity from the trees, back when we decided that being monkeys, while fun, wasn’t getting the job done. I think we were discussing what it was that made us take that leap into consciousness, and how on earth could we have been so shortsighted ” or something like that.

One of our co-workers wandered by, caught the gist of the conversation and immediately offered, “I’ve got a theory about that.”

This was Steve Johnson, the man who is in charge of putting together our second-section packages of wire stories around one theme or another in the daily editions. He also plays a mean banjo, among other instruments.

His “theory,” though, was a bit off the beaten track, even for a musician. He believes that a monkey, or perhaps a clan of them, got hold of some psilocybin, mescaline, or some other psychotropic herb, fungus or substance, ate it and had a sudden epiphany about how life should be. He later told me he was citing the beliefs of one Terence McKenna, a writer, philosopher and ethnobotanist who grew up in Paonia, Colo., but survived his high school years in southern California, reportedly graduating from the same school as Frank Zappa. A lifelong experimenter in psychotropic substances, McKenna inherited the mantle of Tripster King from Timothy Leary after Leary died. McKenna himself died in 2000 of complications related to a rare but deadly brain tumor.

Anyway, it was McKenna’s thesis that at the end of the last ice age in North America, a lucky bunch of “Stoned Apes” came down out of the forest and started following the deer and elk herds around the grassy plains, eating whatever they could kill or pluck. Stumbling on psilocybin mushrooms growing out of the dung of the ungulates, they naturally ate it. That changed their outlook, led them to invent language, and generally developed consciousness for a brief period of Nirvana-like enlightenment.

Of course, about 12,000 years ago the ‘shrooms disappeared, victims of climate change, according to McKenna. We lost our psychedelic edge and, perhaps due to the influence of monkeys that never tasted the ‘shrooms, fell back into the bad old ways of nomadic, violent savages.

Well, I guess that could explain a lot of things, such as why we twice sent Ronald Reagan to the White House. It cannot have been coincidental that his most famous movie had a monkey as its central character.

I aired this theory with my spousal unit, who, while not entirely convinced, noted that it’s too bad that not all monkeys got a taste of psychedelicized enlightenment. If they had, the world might be a better place.

Her assumption is that it is the descendants of the enlightened monkeys who now prefer organic foods grown on small farms, bicycles over cars, a life of exercise and outdoor fun over the kind of sloth and piggishness that seems to have gripped the culture, and the like.

Following that logical trail, if all the monkeys had munched on mushrooms, we might all be wearing sensible shoes and hemp clothing, buying hybrid cars or insisting on jobs within walking distance of home, refusing to eat the crap turned out by corporate farmers and their fast-food partners, and generally treating the planet with a little more respect.

Hey, it’s just a theory, but I kind of like it.

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