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We were in his office, looking at some images on his computer, when he pulled off the shelf a small pile of amadou hats, made of felt pressed from mushroom fibers. The hat was surprisingly soft and almost weightless, but I felt a little silly with a mushroom on my head, so I carefully packed it in my luggage.
Early Sunday morning we drove west toward the Pacific Coast and then south to the Columbia River, where it flows into the Pacificstopping for lunch and camping provisions in the resort town of Long Beach.
This being the first week of December, the town was pretty well buttoned up and sleepy. But what I can say is that there are three public parks bordering the wide-open mouth of the Columbia—Fort Stevens, Cape Disappointment, and the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park—and we stayed at one of them. As soon as we unloaded and stowed our gear, we laced up our boots and headed out to look for mushrooms. Which really just meant walking around with eyes cast downward, tracing desultory patterns through the scrub along the sand dunes and in the grassy areas ading the yurts.
We adopted the posture of the psilocybin stoop, except that we raised our he every time we heard a car coming. Foraging mushrooms is prohibited in most state parks, and being in possession of psilocybin mushrooms is both a state and a federal crime. The weather was overcast in the high 40s—balmy for this far north on the Pacific Coast in December, when it can be cold, wet, and stormy. We pretty much had the whole park to ourselves.
It was a stunning, desolate landscape, with pine trees pruned low and angular by the winds coming off the ocean, endless dead-flat sandy beaches with plenty of driftwood, and giant storm-tossed timbers washed up and jack-strawed here and there along the beach. These logs had somehow slipped out from under the thumb of the lumber industry, floating down the Columbia from the old-growth forests hundreds of miles upriver and washing up here.
Stamets What does a hallucinogenic mushroom look like that Psilocybe azurescens might originally have ridden out of the forest in the flesh of those logs and found its way here to the mouth of the Columbia—thus far the only place the species has ever been found. Some mycelium will actually insinuate itself into the grain of trees, taking up residence and forming a symbiotic relationship with the tree.
Stamets believes the mycelium functions as a kind of immune system for its arboreal host, secreting antibacterial, antiviral, and insecticidal compounds that protect the trees from diseases and pests, in exchange for nourishment and habitat. I saw plenty of LBMs—little brown mushrooms—that might or might not be psilocybin and was constantly interrupting Stamets for another ID, and every time he had to prick my bubble of hope that I had at last found the precious quarry. After an hour or two of fruitless searching, Stamets wondered aloud if maybe we had come too late for the azzies.
In fact the technical name for this phenomenon is the pop-out effect. It was a handsome little mushroom, with a smooth, slightly glossy, caramel-colored cap. Stamets let me pick it; it had a surprisingly tenacious grip, and when it came out of the ground, it brought with it some leaf litter, soil, and a little knot of bright-white mycelium. Look at where we are: at the edge of the continent, the edge of an ecosystem, the edge of civilization, and of course these mushrooms bring us to the edge of consciousness.
At the end of many of those trails is apt to be a campsite, a car, or a Winnebago. I could swear it looked exactly like half a dozen other species I was finding. Stamets patiently tutored me in mushroom morphology, and by the following day my luck had improved, and I found four little caramel beauties on my own.
Not much of a haul, but then Stamets had said that even just one of these mushrooms could occasion a major psychic expedition. Within hours, the hot air had transformed a mushroom that was unimpressive to begin with into a tiny, shriveled gray-blue scrap it would be easy to overlook.
The idea that something so unprepossessing could have such consequence was hard to credit. I had been looking forward to trying an azzie, but before the evening was over, Stamets had dampened my enthusiasm. You could die of hypothermia. I was suddenly in much less of a hurry to try one. The question I kept returning to that weekend is this: Why in the world would a fungus go to the trouble of producing a chemical compound that has such a radical effect on the minds of the animals that eat it?
What, if anything, did this peculiar chemical do for the mushroom? But this strikes me as more of a poetic conceit than a scientific theory. I asked him if there is reason to believe that psilocybin is a defense chemical for the mushroom. Defense against pests and diseases is the most common function of the so-called secondary metabolites produced in plants.
Perhaps because that would quickly select for resistance, whereas messing with its neurotransmitter networks can distract the predator or, better still, lead it to engage in risky behaviors likely to shorten its life. Think of an inebriated insect behaving in a way that attracts the attention of a hungry bird. Eaten by whom, or what? And why? Beug says that many animals are known to eat psilocybin mushrooms, including horses, cattle, and dogs.
Some, like cows, appear unaffected, but many animals appear to enjoy an occasional change in consciousness, too. Presumably animals with a taste for altered states of consciousness have helped spread psilocybin far and wide. Such a notion would not strike Paul Stamets as the least bit far-fetched.
As we stood around the fire pit, the warm light flickering across our faces while our dinner sizzled in its pan, Stamets talked about what mushrooms have taught him about nature. He was expansive, eloquent, grandiose, and, at times, in acute danger of slipping the surly bonds of plausibility. I think they have a consciousness and are constantly trying to direct our evolution by speaking out to us biochemically. We just need to be better listeners. What strikes me about both Stamets and many of the so-called Romantic scientists like Humboldt and Goethe, Joseph Banks, Erasmus Darwin, and, I would include, Thoreau is how very much more alive nature seems in their hands than it would soon become in the cooler hands of the professionals.
These moves subtly changed the object of study—indeed, made it more of an object. Instead of seeing nature as a collection of discrete objects, the Romantic scientists—and I include Stamets in their —saw a densely tangled web of subjects, each acting on the other in the great dance that would come to be called coevolution. I suspect that imaginative leap has become harder for us moderns to make.
Our science and technology encourage us in precisely the opposite direction, toward the objectification of nature and of all species other than our own. Surely we need to acknowledge the practical power of this perspective, which has given us so much, but we should at the same time acknowledge its costs, material as well as spiritual.
Yet that older, more enchanted way of seeing may still pay dividends, as it does to cite just one small example when it allows Paul Stamets to figure out that the reason honeybees like to visit woodpiles is to medicate themselves, by nibbling on a saprophytic mycelium that produces just the right antimicrobial compound that the hive needs to survive, a gift the fungus is trading for Something yet to be imagined. You are probably wondering what ever happened to the azzies Stamets and I found that weekend. Many months later, in the middle of a summer week spent in the house in New England where we used to live, a place freighted with memories, I ate them, with my wife Judith.
Judith and I each drank half a cup, ingesting both the liquid and the crumbles of mushroom. I suggested we take a walk on the dirt road near our house while we waited for the psilocybin to come on. She told me her mind and her body seemed to be drifting apart and then that her mind had flown out of her head and up into the trees, like a bird or insect. I tried to reassure her as we abruptly turned around and picked up our pace.
It was hot and the air was thick with humidity. I was a little worried about her, but once she reached her base on the living room couch, her mood lightened and she said she was fine. I went out and sat on the screened porch for a while, listening to the sounds in the garden, which suddenly grew very loud, as if the volume had been turned way up. The air was stock-still, but the desultory sounds of flying insects and the digital buzz of hummingbirds rose to form a cacophony I had never heard before. It began to grate on my nerves, until I decided I would be better off regarding the sound as beautiful, and then all at once it was.
Whenever I closed my eyes, random images erupted as if the insides of my lids were a screen. My notes record: fractal patterns, tunnels plunging through foliage, ropy vines forming grids. But when I started to feel panic rise at the lack of control I had over my What does a hallucinogenic mushroom look like field, I discovered that all I needed to do to restore a sense of semi-normality was to open my eyes.
To open or close my eyes was like changing the channel. I thought, I am learning how to manage this experience. Much happened, or seemed to happen, during the course of that August afternoon, but I want to focus here on just one element of the experience, because it bears on the questions of nature and our place in it that psilocybin seems to provoke, at least for me.
I decided I wanted to walk out to my writing house, a little structure I had built myself 25 years ago, in what is now another life, and which holds a great many memories. I had written two and a half books in the little room including one about building itsitting before a broad window that looked back over a pond and the garden to our house.
However, I was still vaguely worried about Judith, so before wandering too far from the house, I went inside to check on her. She was stretched out on the couch, with a cool damp cloth over her eyes. She was fine. She made it clear she wanted to be left alone to sink more deeply into the images—she is a painter.
I stepped outside, feeling unsteady on my feet, legs a little rubbery. The garden was thrumming with activity, dragonflies tracing complicated patterns in the air, the seed he of plume poppies rattling like snakes as I brushed by, the phlox perfuming the air with its What does a hallucinogenic mushroom look like, heavy scent, and the air itself so palpably dense it had to be forded.What does a hallucinogenic mushroom look like
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