What does that even mean?
Walking to a friend’s house on Saturday night, the moon was huge and orange and low in the sky. I don’t know much about the moon, but I know the harvest moon. Way back in the early 1990s, a little band of budding psychonauts took that moon as their guide to shuffle around dawn fields wet with dew, seeking mushrooms. Sitting up all night, listening to The Beatles, Here Comes The Sun and then walking five miles to the lake, along the railway tracks, was in hindsight, a coming of age ceremony. Dredging up hills, scaring sheep, seeking the bell shaped fungi among the thistles, picking them, making sure to flick the spores for future harvests and harvesters. They were simpatico with the ancients.
What were they doing? Were they aware? Not really. Sketchily perhaps. All they had was a well thumbed copy of Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Yuan: A Yacqui Way of Knowledge and vague notions derived from endless spinning of The Doors’ LA Woman. It was a teenage kick.
In Michael Pollan’s excellent book – How To Change Your Mind. The New Science of Psychedelics, Roland Griffith asks Pollan ‘Are you aware that you are aware?’ Griffith, whose landmark paper – Psilocybin Can Occasion Meaning and Spiritual Significance, conducted, according to Pollan, the ‘first rigorously designed, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study in more than four decades – if not ever – to examine the psychological effects of a psychedelic…The paper reinforced the important distinction between the classical psychedelics – psilocybin, LSD, DMT and mescaline and more common drugs of abuse with their demonstrated toxicity and potential for addiction.’
Those little mushrooms and the potent power they possessed blew their minds. Dropping on the little hills on the edge of our lake, the spires of the Cathedral of their hometown in the distance. Man, it was a portal. It was Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole, it was the Frodo Baggins ring, it was CS Lewis’ wardrobe. And none of the citizenry in their sleepy country town appeared aware of it. To them, marooned as they were, no one was aware, Castaneda told them that it had been hidden for centuries until the 1950s when the psilocybin mushroom was discovered in southern Mexico, where Mazatec Indians had being using it in secret for healing and divination since before the Spanish conquest.
Picking them and placing them in their Dunnes Stores plastic bags, they didn’t know that they contained a chemical compound so closely related to serotonin, the neurotransmitter, that it can slip across the blood-brain barrier and temporarily take charge of the mammalian brain. Cripes. Away from the material understanding of reality it brought them away to the Beyond.
Are you aware you are aware? Step in Paul Stamets, the man who wears a giant mushroom on his head as a hat. (Seriously. It is made from a fungus called amadou, used in ancient times to start and transport fire.) Stamets is the mycologist who literally wrote the book on the genus Psilocybe (pronounced sill-OSS-a-bee) in the form of the authoritative field guide Psilocybin, Mushrooms of the World. The subtitle of his book Mycelium Running is “How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World”. He announces on Joe Rogan, Episode 1035, ‘we separated from fungi 650 million years ago, basically we are descendants of fungi…we are fungal bodies, Joe Rogan, whether you know it or not, you are a fungal mass.’ Yikes.
According to Stamets, we may think we are the bosses but in reality mycelium are still running the show. The mycelia in a forest links the trees it in, root to root, supplying them with nutrients and serving as a medium that conveys information about environmental threats and allows trees to selectively send nutrients to other trees. Indeed, the biggest organism on earth is not a whale or a tree but a mushroom – a honey fungus in Oregon that is 2.4 miles wide or 2200 acres, the equivalent of 665 football fields.
Humanity may owe more to mycelium than we think. Take the stoned ape hypothesis, first presented by Roland Fischer and popularised by Terence McKenna, explained by Paul Stamets on Joe Rogan, “With climate change and as our savannas increased and our ancestors came out of the forest canopies and onto the savannas, and as hunters they looked for footprints and scat and the most significant fleshy mushroom growing out of poop in Africa (from the) hippo, elephant, antelope is a very large mushroom, you are hungry, you eat in and then you experience this incredible expereince.” The hypothesis dictates that the brain cavity doubled in size (over two million years), allowing our ancestors to develop language, to plan and strategise. It gave them empathy and greater courage. They were able to overcome the fear of conditioned response. This happened millions and millions of times over millions and millions of years. Perhaps, once again we are at a juncture and we are ready for the next quantum leap in human consciousness. Indeed, John Hopkins, UCLA and NYU are all running major clinical studies, involving psilocybin assisting us in overcoming fear response, fear of dying and PTSD.
Stamets, similarly experienced a coming of age ceremony. He had a congenital stutter, comparable to that of King Edward VI, as seen in the movie, The Kings Speech. He endured six years of speech therapy but with no improvement. One day, he bought psilocybin mushrooms, went into the woods, near his home in Ohio, climbed a tall oak tree, ate 20 grams (a normal dose would be less than 5). Climbed to the top of the tree, taking in the beautiful landscape. Boiling, black clouds of a summer storm marched across the sky and the winds picked up, the tree began to sway violently, he wrapped his arms around the tree, it became his Axis Mundi right into the earth, the storm raged all around him, lightening would hit and he saw fractals for the first time, the atmosphere became liquid, he saw liquid waves of multidimensional, geometrical patterns everywhere and the sparks of lightening created this amazing crescendo of secondary, tertiary fractals all around him. He felt in touch with Goya, the Universe, his heart opened up, he felt one with all, he roared, ‘stop stuttering now, stop stuttering now’, hundreds of times, when he awoke the next day, his stutter was gone.
Pollan questions, why does this 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? Is it, as Stamets suggests, that neurochemistry is the language in which nature communicates with us and is trying to tell us something important by way of psilocybin? Giorgio Samorini, in his book, Animals and Psychedelics: The Natural World and the Instinct to Alter Consciousness, outlines ‘depatterning factor”. There are times in the evolution of a species when the old patterns no longer avail, and the radical, potentially innovative perceptions and behaviors that psychedelics sometimes inspire may offer the best chance for adaptation. Is nature sending us these messages now?
Or perhaps, there is a more reductive explanation. Jason Slot, a mycologist at Ohio State University talking to Ed Yong in The Atlantic says, ‘Psilocybin affects us humans because it fits into receptor molecules that typically respond to serotonin—a brain-signaling chemical. Those receptors are ancient ones that insects also share, so it’s likely that psilocybin interferes with their nervous system, too. “We don’t have a way to know the subjective experience of an insect,” says Slot, “and it’s hard to say if they trip. But one thing is clear from past experiments: Psilocybin reduces insect appetites.”
Surely there is more a loftier reason? Stamets tells Pollan, ‘Mushrooms have taught me the interconnectedness of all life-forms and the molecular matrix that we share, I no longer feel that I am in this envelope of a human life called Paul Stamets. I am part of the stream of molecules that are flowing through nature. I am given a voice, given consciousness for time, but I feel that I am part of this continuum of stardust into which I am born and to which I will return at the end of this life.”
Today, psilocybin’s potential for use as a mental-health treatment for PTSD, anxiety and depression is gaining new attention after Denver and Oakland decriminalized their possession and voters in Oregon and California in 2020 may be asked to approve statewide measures. Mushroom advocates see many parallels between their efforts and medical marijuana legalization that has passed in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Users say mushrooms, most often eaten dried or steeped into a tea, help them see themselves and the world around them differently, allowing them to re-wire their brains in healthier ways. Dr. Yili Huang, director of the Pain Management Center at Northwell Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, New York, told USA Today he’s carefully watching how decriminalization unfolds. Huang said he’s been intrigued by several small-scale studies that appeared to show terminally-ill patients can benefit from treating their anxiety and depression with mushrooms combined with therapy. The federal government in June acknowledged that ongoing research indicates psychedelics hold promise for treating anxiety. Huang, who specializes in treating pain in cancer patients, said psychedelics like magic mushrooms work on the same brain receptors as prescription anti-depressants. He said the nation should be “very cautious” in opening the door to increased psychedelic use, but said more research could reveal opportunities to help sick people.
That same hill at the edge of the lake in our hometown had some history and some myth associated with it. King Malachy, Monarch of Ireland stuck the Danish warrior Turtesius in a barrel and rolled him down the hill into the dark waters of the lake. While, the story of The Children of Lir (an Irish version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the tale that inspired Swan Lake), was set here. The unfortunate children of King Lir were transformed into swans by their evil stepmother, Aoife, haunting the lake for 700 years. It was there, that they unwittingly conducted our coming of age ceremony. It was a perverse rite of passage, it did not ease them into the adult world, rather it landed them in a world that few adults had any idea even existed. The effect on them was, to put it mildly, disruptive. Wordsworth says it best -‘to be alive that dawn was bliss, but to be young was Heaven!’
Reality was no longer limited to the perception that they had traditionally used. Where are they now? Are they aware? It seemed that as they got older, the less they knew. But as Yeats who wandered Coole Park not far from our stomping ground, said ‘God keep me from ever being a wise old man praised of all.’