It was not quite midnight. The bleached out ball of the Alaskan sun was drooling over the Chugach while the summer waters of the North Pacific were licking the pebbles on our salty strip of beach. We had a ripping bonfire sending a twist of blaze into the washed out twilight and I had a joint in one hand, scrabbling elbow deep in my backpack with the other, looking for that lighter I hadn’t used in four weeks…

    That’s right, four weeks. A whole month since I’d packed a bowl, licked a paper, hit a pen and reset those synapses. Someone else, some kind soul, saw my plight and produced a book of matches with only one lonely match left and that felt right, that felt monumental. I had just completed (survived, endured) a month of seasickness, utter isolation and sunless drudgery onboard a factory trawler in the Bering Sea. I had made it. I stuck the joint in my lips, ripped the dip-tipped stick, bent the cardboard back on itself and tore the flame out on the scratch pad. The cherry glowed and it was like an old friend I had halfway forgotten had wandered the firelight edge, sidled up beside me and said “Hey. I’m back.”

We are a species of innovators. Of artists. Inside each of us, a universe of multifold perceptions within our skulls, a constellation of concepts and creative potentials whizzing by at the speed of neural impulse. Our imaginations carved the heart wood from tree trunks and crossed wild expanses of ocean, dragging our dumbfounded bodies along in the wake. We have erected cities, countries, and convictions that persevere through millennia. Painted ceilings with oils and pigments, created language, written operas, brought life to stone with hammer and chisel. All of it, only the product of our species’ being, that evolutionary anomaly, imagination. That same ability to see beyond what sits within our vision spurs us to the peaks of Tibet, to the chasmic black of the Marianas Trench, down to the infinitesimal diffusion of our own neurotransmitters. We are a species of the curious, the seekers. Yuval Noah Harari’s notable, thought-provoking book Sapiens explores our species’ stratospheric leap from off the forest floor, swinging from the vines of our own creative power, calling astute attention to this most intangible, most crucial element of our evolutionary success. Adventure begins in the squash of pulpy encephalon, that soft organ inside our bony heads, peering out of our eye sockets. And if exploration begins in the brain, it shouldn’t be that outlandish that back to the brain we turn when we seek that final, that ultimate and wonderfully untouched frontier.

I was wandering that night. Sure, I stayed with my buddies, watching the bonfire fight for dominion with the sinking sun and then the half-gone sliver of moon, but I myself tripped and trudged, hiked and traipsed through the corridors and mountain passes of my own jungle explosion of a brain. That joint was slicing down new trails, slinging bridges suspended between new peaks, sending submersibles down to my skull’s own deepest trenches. It was revelatory. It was sensational. And it was provoking of a whole new series of questions when I set out for another month living remote and far away from any place, I could get my hands on a shred of bud.

So, what is it about Cannabis sativa that sparks the plug separating us upright bipeds with our overactive imaginations from the more unidirectional lifestyles of, say, Pongidae troglodytes? Why does creativity sometimes seem to ignite into its own blazing bonfire, rampaging in a profusion of directions, with a single hit of a sparkling sativa?

BONFIRE AND THE MATCH, Illustrations by seth williams

Sure, abundant creativity is tied into those cheery, chiller neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine.  A compelling and verbosely summarized study by University of Florida researchers tacked depression and creative innovation together, suggesting that individuals with higher creative potential, may have a “special ability to modulate the frontal lobe-locus coeruleus (norepinephrine) system.” They also found that creative innovation was more likely to occur with lower levels of norepinephrine, allowing for a “co-activation across modular networks” (Heilman, et al 2003). In other words, if you’ve got a knack for taking the imaginative dive that leaves others bewildered (but possibly inspired) you might actually have your frontal lobe and a relative lack of that happy stuff, norepinephrine, to thank for those wacky, divergent leaps of logic. And of course, it’s common knowledge that that glittering, crystalline compound, tetrahydrocannabinol, spawns’ changes in both dopamine and norepinephrine, though debate still rages concerning the specifics. The ominously insidious writer’s block (applicable to any form of creativity, any action of life, any moment when the brain runs out of steam and says: Meh, maybe tomorrow) has been linked to occurrences of depression, and without question, depression is an indicator of something misfiring up there in that largely uncharted brain space. But it’s not that simple. It can’t be.

We are the brave adventurers who know the world is flat. We tout knowledge concerning the landscape and mechanisms of the brain as though all findings will never change. We divulge the secrets of cannabis use as fact, though in truth the studies that have been done are largely vague, swayed and stayed and boiled down by popular science until they fit contemporary consensus. In part, this is due to the federal listing of THC as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, thus condemning it to scientific studies led by only the most tenacious (and perhaps imaginative) individuals who must look for and leap through unimaginably high hoops. The backwash of these limiting factors is that a relatively small amount of scientific research has actually been completed and what findings there are, are for from unified or conclusive. Researchers can’t seem to come to any concordant or consistent agreement on whether weed is actually making us happier. We want it to. That much is obvious.

That night by the bonfire, I had a good high. A really good high. The lupines were blooming, the twilight in that northern stretch of our planet lasted and lasted until it was replaced in the briefest of hours by a blue-black fistful of powdered-up stars. That is not to say, however, that I always experience cannabis this way. I’ve had some dark, twisting, terrible moments that make me say, “Nope. Nah. Never again.” But I come out of both experiences with a new set of perspectives clenched between my hands like a telescope and map, wondering, where next?

    Imagination, creativity. Both are reputed to be of higher firing power in individuals who experience an array of the less pleasant of mental conditions, swinging from depression, to mania, a pendulum that smacks both. But is it thanks to the very presence of despondency and dejection, guilt and shame, those nasty markers of depression? Or is it the relief of the lit end of the endless tunnel that precipitates the creative explosion in the previously crushed and hitherto hopeless? One study found that elevated norepinephrine activity while using cannabis may lead to a minor dependency (Fitzgerald, et al 2013), suggesting that the ability of our brain to pick up the neurotransmitter plummets post-cannabis use, potentially leading to depressive symptoms. It’s no secret that some highs feel wonderful, and leave you feeling wonderful. You know what I’m talking about. And some highs have you throwing up your hood, cinching it tight and not quite looking anyone in the eye. And yeah, I know you know what that one is like too. So where does creativity come in?

 

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As a species and throughout the histories of all past and present societies, the leaps of science, art and all brands of innovation are spawned when our shivering backs are up against the proverbial wall. Early peoples of the planet were forced to spread and expand by the pressures of persecution and hunger, were riveted by deities and led by the concept of royal hierarchies. Penicillin was discovered and brought into roaring use in the post-industrial world, when bacterial infection threatened to sweep cities into darkness. Steinbeck wrote Grapes of Wrath when the country was desiccating, and the plains and its people were tearing themselves apart. Frida Kahlo gained global prominence painting self-portraits influenced by her own crippling illnesses and injuries. You took that job pushing papers and wearing khakis that drags your eyes up to the wall clock every two-point-five minutes because, well, rent was steep and student loans asphyxiating and it was probably better than living in your car. Though this is up for debate. Sure, weed probably had little to do with any of this. The latter potentially more than the first. But I’m talking creativity here. I’m talking desperation. I’m asking, what is it that makes us do what we do? Makes me, me and you, you?

Perhaps, it is the walls we come up against. The hurdles we jump, in the material world and the abstract. The tangible and the cerebral. Cannabis builds them up and breaks them down. Brick by flowery brick. You’ve felt it. I’ve felt it. The good highs along with the bad. Within our minds, within our own beings, the unfathomed experiences of getting stoned, stupefied, totally befuddled in the best and the worst of ways, releases the same sort of fight or flight chemicals that the darkest times of the world’s history can offer us. Right there. Right inside the meat of your skull, you have the power to explore the previously untrodden ranges of emotion. And come back home with your own new telescope, your own new interpretations.

The bonfire was dead, and the salt tide was eating the last of the embers. Dawn came early, chasing out the deepest gloom of night. Most had gone already, walking back around the westward curve of the island through weather torn pine trees. Bald eagles, those fierce eyed dumpster divers, rode the morning’s first thermals and I sat with a few other stragglers, passing a twisted up rag of a joint and somebody’s vape pen up and down the line of us, boots in a tangle of seaweeds, jackets zipped up full. The earth had spun on its summer axis and the sun was milking the eastern horizon, turning the breaking waves to a confusion of gold and pink and bleeding on the alpine ranges. We were silent, we were stoned. The day was new and the dawn light sparking at the end of that black night was ours.