Button Down

In the deserts of Texas, the race is on to save peyote from extinction.


This piece is featured in Gossamer Volume Five: the Flower issue. Order your copy here.

The sun is just warming the winter chill out of the dry West Texas air when Dr. Martin Terry and I begin our ascent up the still-dark side of a rocky hillside, strewn with spindly shrubs, tawny grasses, and the occasional clutch of prickly pear. It’s early morning, two days after a snowstorm blew through this little corner of big-sky desert some 30 miles from the Mexican border, and every- thing seems to be taking its time to wake up. Except for Terry.

An ethnobotanist and conservationist, Terry is bespectacled, white-haired, and stoop-shouldered, but he sails up the slope, carving a makeshift path by barreling through the thorned and barbed bushes, pausing to detail the surrounding flora. There’s the wax-producing plant that bees harvest and use to seal their hives shut, upsetting beekeepers. Or the grassy antisyphilitica, wishfully named by Spanish conquistadors. Or the corncob cactus, which looks like what it sounds like: a dried-up corncob, complete with tiny spiky clusters that cling to it like overgrown burrs.

The past 20 years have seen the United States’ peyote population drop by at least 30 percent, and it’s not regenerating fast enough to recover.”

If you don’t live in the desert, it’s easy to forget that such mesmerizing and novel species call this arid and deceptively sparse landscape home. But that’s exactly why we’re here in the first place, scrambling to crest the peak where the brightening sun promises to illuminate an even more elusive form of flora, peppered across this ridge like stars: Lophophora williamsii. Peyote.

Peyote, of course, needs no introduction. The unassuming bluish-green, button-like cactus is well-known as a powerful psychedelic, capable of producing intense visions or journeys that are central to the religious practice of many Native Americans and other indigenous people. But these days, that sacred tradition, and the plant itself, are under threat. Against the backdrop of a complicated tangle of environmental, legal, and cultural settings, the past 20 years have seen the United States’ peyote population drop by at least 30 percent, and it’s not regenerating fast enough to recover. Despite the best efforts of scientists, peyote could be on the path to extinction.

“Looking for peyote is like stargazing,” he tells me. “Once you see one, suddenly they all come into view."

Terry is one of a handful of researchers trying to stop this from happening. This is what led him to move to Alpine, Texas, on the edge of the 1,250 square miles in the Chihuahuan Desert that comprise the entirety of peyote’s natural habitat in the U.S. It’s what led him in 2004 to found the Cactus Conservation Institute, which, despite its more comprehensive title, is focused primarily on the preservation of the psychedelic cactus. And it’s what led him to become the only person in the country licensed by the DEA to cultivate peyote for research purposes. It’s not just his passion, but his life’s mission. And following him up this craggy ridge in a location I’ve sworn to secrecy to protect, his enthusiasm for the plant is contagious. “Looking for peyote is like stargazing,” he tells me. “Once you see one, suddenly they all come into view. And they only show themselves to certain people.”

Within a minute of reaching the top and turning our attention to the gray, graveled earth, I spot my first: it’s about the size of my palm, nearly perfectly round, and indeed something like a star. Then I see another and another, a constellation crisscrossing this small mountain. But for how long?

Though it’s not known for certain, archaeological and historical threads suggest that peyote has been used by indigenous tribes in Mexico and the American Southwest for anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 years. But in the last century, peyote’s use swept across the U.S., largely due to the rise of the Native American Church (NAC), a religion that weaves together elements of Christianity and Native rituals and centers on the sacramental use of peyote. The NAC is also known as Peyotism and Peyote Religion. In the ’60s and ’70s, the rise of New Age and hippie culture also contributed to the plant’s popularity.

Though only members of the NAC are allowed to purchase the plant, anyone can be a peyotero... That has created peyote’s biggest threats: overharvesting, improper picking techniques, and poaching.”

The NAC—itself a remnant of the mostly failed colonialist attempt to convert indigenous people to Christianity—rose in prominence in the wake of the forced migration of eastern Native American tribes from their ancestral lands to territories west of the Mississippi River in the late 19th century. Here they were introduced to western tribal traditions, including the use of peyote. With an estimated 250,000 members, the NAC is now the most widespread religion among Native Americans in the United States. (The NAC remains controversial among some Native American tribes who question whether the religion has usurped tradition and reinforced stereotypes about indigenous people.)

Despite ongoing efforts by the U.S. government to stamp out peyote rituals, its use among the Native population was largely unregulated until the ’60s, and most of those who used it would harvest it themselves. But in 1967, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) banned the possession of peyote, and, in 1970, it was included as a Schedule 1 drug in the DEA’s Controlled Substances Act. Eventually, however, religious freedom took precedence. The NAC was deemed exempt from both laws, allowing members to harvest, possess,and consume peyote for ceremonial purposes. The catch was that both the DEA and DPS required NAC members to purchase peyote from licensed distributors. That led to the creation of peyoteros—those who harvest and sell the plant for profit. And that’s where the problems really started. Peyote transformed from sacrament to business—and a complicated one.

Though only members of the NAC are allowed to purchase the plant, anyone can be a peyotero. (Of the four remaining peyoteros in the state today, none are Native.) The DEA and the Texas state government also offer no oversight of the business. Once the peyotero pays for the license, they’re free to harvest as much as they want. That has created peyote’s biggest threats: overharvesting, improper picking techniques, and poaching.

Back in the peyote gardens of West Texas, Terry tells me to imagine the peyote plant like an ice cream cone. Bubbling out of the rocky earth is the round, pudgy scoop—also known as the button—with a mild green color reminiscent of pistachio ice cream. It’s here that the mescaline is produced, and it’s the only part that needs to be harvested. Below ground is the cone, known as the subterranean stem. When done right, slicing off the top actually initiates the propagation of more peyote—in addition to mescaline, the button also contains a hormone that stops the stem from sprouting. When the button is removed, so is the hormone, and the cone wakes up, shooting out baby buttons that will eventually lay down their own roots and begin the process again.

Peyote growth is a slow process. A button two inches wide can take five years to grow. It can take that long to produce its first flower, too, which is its only other chance for propagation. Mature peyote produce pink-petaled blooms that send seeds to float and tumble precariously through the arid air in hopes of finding a place in the earth to call their own. But out here, the chance of a peyote seed finding an amenable resting place is not guaranteed. “If you look at the substrate we’re standing on, there’s only so many places a plant can grow,” Terry tells me atop the rocky limestone ridge.

These are important things to know when you’re harvesting peyote. If you take the buttons too young or clear a peyote garden bare, there are no seeds left to replenish it. Couple that with the removal of roots and the garden goes from bare to barren with no chance of resurrection. Peyoteros and poachers alike have been inadvertently making these mistakes for decades. To make matters worse, nearly 100 percent of peyote’s natural habitat in the U.S. is privately owned, and much of it has been destroyed by root-plowing, a process that prepares land for cattle-ranching and that some landowners have done purely to rid their property of peyote. To harvest the remaining shrinking growth, distributors strike agreements with landowners, who ultimately serve as the gatekeepers between Natives and their sacrament.

With the yield lessening, habitat shrinking, and an increased interest in peyote in the wake of a psychedelic renaissance, poaching has also become a huge problem. Peyoteros themselves are often the culprits, but sometimes it’s Native people who (understandably) feel it is their right, or black-market peyoteros, who will sell their harvest to anyone out of the back of their trucks. Other times it’s probably just some hiker, excited by the discovery of this mystical cactus. (Right before my visit, Terry received word from a fellow conservationist that a prehistoric peyote garden in Big Bend National Park had been poached to extinction.)

Supply isn’t meeting demand, and the price per peyote button, no matter how small, is rising.”

All of this has converged to create a peyote crisis. According to DPS data, the number of buttons sold in Texas has declined every year since 1997, when sales topped out at 2.3 million. (In 2016, for unknown reasons, the DPS stopped requiring peyote distributors to report their harvest and sales numbers.) At the same time, revenue numbers have increased, drawing a clear picture: supply isn’t meeting demand, and the price per peyote button, no matter how small, is rising.

Some 1,500 miles north, Dawn Davis saw the effects of this first hand. Davis was raised in the NAC as a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe in Idaho. Peyote ceremonies defined her upbringing; her earliest memories involve attending the meetings with her grandmother. As she got older, Davis noticed that the buttons her family received from a few states over were getting smaller and fewer, sometimes not arriving at all. Something was off. “I remember specifically one ceremony where it came to me. I realized there was something happening with this plant,” she says. “And whether it was the plant or, as I’ve now come to realize, the habitat, something was causing it to become endangered.”

Now a doctoral candidate at the University of Idaho where she studies peyote conservation, Davis has spent the past 14 years researching the issue, working with Native Americans, peyoteros, landowners, and policy-makers to try to bring this Anthropocene crisis to light. “It’s all human-caused,” she says. More specifically: it’s caused by colonialism. “There’s been a disconnection between the users and the plant for some time,” she says. “Even though the dealers have provided a great service, they've also caused a huge disservice to peyotists.”

In Texas, Terry told me that the first time he showed the peyote gardens to a group of Dené people—a First Nations tribe that has been dispersed throughout North America, including in the Southwest—they wept. They hadn’t seen peyote growing in the wild since their grandparents brought them to the fields decades earlier. Though her grandfather used to travel to Texas to harvest the peyote himself, even Davis didn’t see it in its natural habitat until she started fighting to save it. “If we want the plant to survive,” she says, “we need to recreate and reestablish that connection.”

A scientist at heart, Terry’s fascination with saving peyote started as an issue of biological conservation that evolved into one of religious preservation. He describes a trip he and his friends took in 1968 from Austin to the peyote gardens in the southern part of the state. It was there that he first encountered the cactus in the wild.

The earth was so thick with the plant that he had to be careful where he stepped for fear of crushing any. “That picture of the density of peyote was engraved in my mind,” he says. “The seed was planted at that point, but I didn't know what to do with it then.” Forty years later, Terry launched the landmark study that found that improper and excessive harvesting was endangering the species.

To him, the solution is simple: cultivation. While he’s passionate about disseminating knowledge about proper harvesting techniques and holds this as an important part of peyote’s future, cultivation, he says, is what will ultimately save it. After all, if wild peyote can’t propagate fast enough on its own, why not help it along? But buried deep in Texas DPS’s peyote law is a stipulation that Terry has made it his mission to remove: no peyote can be cultivated and no seeds can be used. “That legislature is going to cause the extinction of a species and possibly the extinction of a religion,” he says. “If they’re serious about protecting people’s religious rights, they really need to get rid of those two lines of legislation.”

For Davis, cultivation is an idea she’s just coming around to. A last-ditch effort when all else fails, maybe, and only on the land—no greenhouses. “By removing it from its habitat in that way,” she says, “you’re also removing a part of the plant’s spirit.” To her, the most important thing is to bring peyote back into the hands of indigenous people.

For now, this involves education. She teaches tribal members about peyote’s endangered status, helps them understand its biology, and encourages them to self-regulate when buying from peyoteros—don’t buy the immature buttons and only take what you need. But she’s also recently become a more staunch activist. When the organization Decriminalize Oakland added peyote to its list of plant medicines that they wanted the city of Oakland to decriminalize, Davis fought back. “Peyote has already been decriminalized for use by Native American people,” she says. “By decriminalizing peyote, it’s giving the false impression that it’s now legal for white people to partake in it. And that’s not true.” When I ask if that means she’s against white people taking peyote at all, she says simply, “I am.”

The scars of colonialism still run deep, and questions about who has the right to claim expertise and speak on behalf of something so contentious remain open for debate.”

Like peyote itself, Davis often finds herself straddling the dissonant worlds of the spiritual, the scientific, and the bureaucratic, speaking for all sides as a translator between realms—which is rarely comfortable and isn’t always effective. The scars of colonialism still run deep, and questions about who has the right to claim expertise and speak on behalf of something so contentious remain open for debate. Both Davis and Terry have found themselves in situations where their expertise was called into question based on long-standing tensions between Native Americans and white Americans. On top of that, they’ve both also come up against the common Native belief system that Davis describes as, “if we’re meant to have this, then it will always be there for us.” In a 2018 Vice article, Salvador Johnson, arguably the most well-known peyotero in the state, is quoted saying, “We can only harvest what God gives us. We have no control over it.” Terry and Davis have both found themselves frustrated with this line of thinking.

Out in the desert, Terry and I spend hours wandering this small mountain with our eyes cast down, hoping to spot another button blooming from the earth. And with each new discovery, we lean in, ooh-ing and aah-ing at its intricate details. There’s the one that looks like an amoeba splitting in two, or the one that grew squished and plump out of a crack in the ground. Then there’s the huge one, the biggest we see all day, the size of my hands when I touch my fingers together to form a big, empty “O.” It’s growing sideways out from beneath a large boulder and has probably been there for decades. Terry gets down on his hands and knees to see it up close, and shakes his head. “You never learn all the tricks that peyote can do,” he says. “The more you walk around in a peyote garden like this, the more things surprise you.”

If part of what’s killing peyote is its mystery, the future of the plant may depend more on its relationship to worlds beyond this one. For many, the scientific dissection of a spiritual ritual may seem sacreligious—some things are better left unknown. But science isn’t without its magic. The more I came to understand about peyote’s biology and ecology, the more mystifying the plant became. Perhaps then the question isn’t how to save it, but what exactly we’re trying to save.