Short pieces

The experiment at Herdsman Lake

1.     The Lake

Herdsman Lake is quintessentially Perth. From the northwest corner, you can look over the half a dozen buildings of the CBD, and from the right angle, it looks like they’re emerging from a swamp. It’s called Herdsman Lake, but really, it’s a swamp. It’s a reminder that Perth is built on swampland.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Herdsman Lake.

The first people to use this lake were the local Noongar people, the Yellagonga. They called the area Ngurgenboro.

The local mob would’ve used the lake for food and shelter. When I was a teenager I’d come to the lake with my mates and we’d use the lake to get drunk and smoke weed. If no one had a free house on the weekends, we’d tell our parents we were going to the movies and go hang around the bottle-shop until we’d convinced a passing adult to buy us a goon-bag and a six-pack. Then we’d get drunk on the grass of the lake and text girls.

It takes about two hours to walk around the lake. In the west are the well-to-do suburbs with their expansive front yards, and two-car garages, and freshly mown lawn, and balconies with outdoor settings that never get sat on. To the north are the industrial suburbs. You can see the semi-high-rise office blocks, and the workers in trousers and polo shirts smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee on their breaks. Around to the east and the south are the playgrounds and the cheap units. Over on that side are the big Indian families, and the shifty looking twenty-something couples.   

Last year, when I was wading through the murky depths of a deep depressive episode, I would stroll down to the lake every morning, so I could sit and meditate by the water. There’s over a hundred different species of birds that inhabit the lake. I would sit on the grass and close my eyes, letting the sun warm my skin, and listen to the birds conversing with each other. I would allow myself to feel my pain, my sadness. I would let the tears gently slip down my cheeks. And then I would smile and acknowledge that pain is important and beautiful part of being a human. And then I would visualise what I wanted my life to become.

Herdsman Lake went a long way to keeping me alive.

Herdsman Lake is also teeming with Tiger snakes. Just the other day I was wandering around the lake, having just finished listening to a recording of Bruce Damer on the Psychedelic Salon Podcast. Bruce was discussing the symbology of the snake in human history. He imagined a time when humans were little tiny mammals huddling together in clumps, perched onto trees, and sucking sugar out of dew. The snake for us, he said, was a mesmerising and dangerous creature. The snake would have been of monstrous size compared to our feeble little ancestors. The snake was the master of the trees that we had made our homes. And the sliding, moving scales of the snake would’ve hypnotised us.

Anyway, I was walking through the bush, visualising Bruce Damer’s historic and hypnotic snake, and entertaining this curious take on mammalian-reptilian evolution, when I came to a bridge that crossed a gently flowing stream. As I passed over the bridge, I glanced to my left and spotted a black circular object. I ceased all unnecessary movement. I slowly twisted my body so that I could face the black object. Sure enough. A snake! It was curled around into a tight knot. I knelt down lower to catch a closer glimpse. I peered over my shoulders, checking to see if anyone was around to share this sighting with. But I was alone. When I rose again to my feet the snake slithered into the undergrowth.

2.     Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising!

 Robert Anton Wilson has had the greatest impact of any writer, on the way that I think about the world. So, it is not without a great sense of disappointment, that most people have never heard of him. Wilson was a self-described guerrilla otologist and is most famous, probably, for his writing on conspiracy theory, his role as an editor of Playboy in the 70s, and for the Illuminatus! Trilogy he wrote with Bob Shae. But what interests me most about Wilson, is his work with consciousness change.

The reason I mention Wilson is because a couple of months ago I was reading Prometheus Rising! – a book which outlines Wilson’s model of consciousness and serves as a manual for self-induced brain-change – with the hopes of gaining a greater understanding of my own mind. In Chapter One, Wilson quotes Dr. Leonard Orr: ‘the human mind behaves as if it were divided into two parts, the Thinker and the Prover.’

The ‘Thinker’ can think of just about anything. History shows that it can think, ‘the earth is suspended on the backs of infinite turtles, or that the Earth is hollow, or that the earth is floating in space…’  The ‘Thinker’ can regard itself, ‘as mortal, as immortal, as both mortal and immortal (the reincarnation model), or even as non-existent (Buddhism).’

My ‘Thinker’ can think that fate brought Prometheus Rising! to me, coincidence brought Prometheus Rising! to me, or synchronicity brought Prometheus Rising! to me. Your ‘Thinker’ could think that Satan brought Prometheus Rising! to you, via me, and so on.

The ‘Prover’ is a much simpler mechanism: ‘Whatever the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves.’ Whatever it is that the ‘Thinker’ thinks, the ‘Prover’ will locate evidence in the world and arrange it such that it supports what the ‘Thinker’ thinks.

I’ll give a personal example to illustrate.

When I began taking magic mushrooms on a regular basis and my creativity began to explode, I was convinced that all artists must have taken psychedelic drugs to develop their art. I began to see references to psychedelics everywhere. I saw the references in Disney films like Alice in Wonderland and Fantasia, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, in The Dark Crystal, Heavy Metal, Being John Malkovich… Then I saw the references in history. Santa Claus and his reindeer seeking out the Amanita Muscaria mushroom, The Mysteries at Eleusis, Ancient Indian Soma, Native American Peyote… Then I saw evidence of the psychedelic experience on the graffiti on the walls of my neighbourhood, in just about every painting I gazed upon, and then in the trees and flowers and bees and plants and simply, everything in the world.

It’s likely that many of the artists I encountered were inserting references into their art, but the point is, I believed that they were: my Thinker thought they were, so my Prover arranged all the stimulus that I received each day into evidence that would reinforce this idea.  

At the end of Chapter One of Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising! he gives a list of ‘exercises’ to complete in order to illustrate and bring to life the concepts discussed. As I had decided to fully embrace Wilson’s ideas, I felt it necessary to also embrace his challenges. The first five ‘exercises’ at the end of Chapter One, revolve around this general experiment:

Visualise a quarter vividly, then go looking for a quarter on the street, see how long it takes to find one. Explain this for yourself according to ‘selective attention’, ie. there are many lost quarters out there, so I was bound to find one eventually.

Then go find another one.

Explain this for yourself according to a ‘mystical’ explanation that your mind manifests the quarter. Go find another one.

Compare the times differences for each experiment. Come up with your own experiment to compare coincidence vs psychokinesis.

So, that’s what I did.  

3.     The experiment

I decided to combine Wilson’s exercise with something that I read by Grant Morrison (Scottish comic book writer, see: The Invisibles). In Morrison’s article: POP MAGIC!, he discusses a magical exercise where you look around the room as if everything is magical, to see if that affects your mindset and/or the universe. It helps if you are stoned or have been stoned before and can draw on the memory of being stoned to help you. It also helps if you are a child (before twelve years of school) and the world is magical for you already. Morrison says that this also works by going for a walk and treating everything as if it is magical.   

I decided to take this magical exercise on a walk around Herdsman Lake. Rather that visualise Wilson’s quarter, though, I decided that for my experiment, I would visualise a snake. I felt that the probability of running into a snake down at Herdsman Lake was probably on par with spotting a coin on a city street.

After sitting in my living room and meditating on both the image of a snake and also the concept that everything is a magical projection of divine energy from the great source of the universe, I skipped out the front door to greet the day. And as you might imagine, everything was magical!

Well in certain parts of the walk it was.

In other parts the magic wore off (especially when I was closer to the main roads and cars… nothing like traffic to dissolve magic!).

After only ten or so minutes I stopped to observe a murder of crows in a tree. These are very intelligent birds, they know just how much distance to keep. I was watching one crow in particular, shuffling around on the branch of a tree, when a great squawk came from over my left shoulder. I turned quickly and saw that a large white cockatoo had perched itself on another branch of the tree, to the left of the crow, and slightly raised. The white cockatoo had announced its arrival to me in no subtle terms. I stepped back and observed the contrast between the two birds. Standing tall and proud, pure white, extended crest, curved beak, bobbing up and down, the white cockatoo. On the other side of the trunk: jet black, hunched over, sharp pointed beak, black eyes, smooth feathers, the black crow. The cockatoo looked at me and squawked again loudly:

‘Are you paying attention, Alexander?’

Next to cross my path were a gaggle of purple swamphen, which look like miniature dinosauric ‘Skeksis’ birds. The appearance of the swamphen Skeksis was, of-course, a trigger from the divine. This was a personal reminder of times gone by, of my childhood, and of the film: The Dark Crystal. As well as resembling Jim Henson’s fantastical creatures, these birds highlighted and reminded me of the process of evolution. Though we have common ancestors (if you go back far enough), the birds represent a separate line to us mammals. These creatures have been both liberated and at the same time forever restricted by their ability to fly. They can ride the winds yes, but with their wings, they will never have the ability to clutch, to hold, to manipulate. They have missed the evolution of hands and arms. And they are trapped in this existence, to peck, to scratch, to claw, to squawk, to fly yes, but never to grasp life and take control of it.

But birds were not the specific creature I was looking for. I sought another relative of the great dinosaurs. Another ancient relic. Reptilian and prehistoric. Hypnotic. But what were the chances, really, of spotting one of those highly elusive, highly secretive creatures…

A few steps later I encountered two intertwined trees: one dark, one light. They’d grown so close together that their roots were surely intertwined. The dark tree had thick, chunky bark and the light tree’s trunk was smooth. I considered these two trees.

Were they making love? Or were they in fierce competition? Were they dancing? Or were they fighting?

Just as with the black and white birds at the start of my exploration, this was a symbol. This was no accident. It represented a synchronicity. A meaningful coincidence. An opportunity for reflection and an encouragement to seek deeper meaning. It was a manifestation of the essence of the universe — presenting itself to me.

‘Consider the two birds, Alexander,’ said the divine and magical voice of the universe. ‘And these two trees. How are these two events linked? Make the connections.’ 

I stood and pondered.

Well, it’s the balancing and forever connectedness of the forces of lightness and darkness in the universe. The Yin and the Yang. At once, this event linked together my exploration in a thread, and offered an overarching principle for it, achieving a balance between the forces of light and dark, but it also highlighted the ever-magical nature of… nature, provided one opens oneself up to it sufficiently.

I pressed on.

Through an endless and enveloping paperbark forest I floated until I came to a wooden bridge. I heard something rustle and slither down through the cracks of the wooden planks! Was it a snake? It could’ve been a lizard. I stood in the lookout, noticing the insect life that had overtaken the place.

… And then I spotted some scales slither through the undergrowth!

Alas, only a Bobtail Lizard.

But my senses were sharp now. I was hyper-aware of my surroundings. I was one with the divine spirit of the universe and its magical voice that speaks to those who are willing and able to hear it. I pressed on further, a seeker completely integrated with the environment. And that’s when I spotted it! Just beside my feet, on the edge of the path.




… The Snake!

A cosmic joke you see. Proof that there is a universal divine energy and that whatever it is, it has a sense of humour. My heart swelled with love and appreciation. The experiment was a success.

The universe is magical.

Alexander Toums