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CHAPTER TWO NATURAL HISTORY Bemushroomed AT THE END of my first meeting with Roland Griffiths, the session in his Johns Hopkins office where he engaged me on the topics of his own mystical experience, my assessment of the odds of an afterlife, and the potential of psilocybin to change people’s lives, the scientist stood up from his desk, unfolding his lanky frame, and reached into the pocket of his trousers to take out a small medallion.

“A little gift for you,” he explained. “But first, you must answer a question.

“At this moment,” Griffiths began, locking me in firm eye contact, “are you aware that you are aware?” Perplexed, I thought for a long, self-conscious moment and then replied in the affirmative. This must have been the correct answer, because Griffiths handed me the coin. On one side was a quartet of tall, slender, curving Psilocybe cubensis, one of the more common species of magic mushroom. On the back was a quotation from William Blake that, it occurred to me later, neatly aligned the way of the scientist with that of the mystic: “The true method of knowledge is experiment.”

It seems that the previous summer Roland Griffiths had gone for the first time to Burning Man (had I heard of it?), and when he learned that no money is exchanged in the temporary city, only gifts, he had the mushroom medallions minted so he would have something suitable to give away or trade. Now, he gives the coins to volunteers in the research program as a parting gift. Griffiths had surprised me once again. Or twice. First, that the scientist had attended the arts-and-psychedelics festival in the Nevada desert. And, second, that he had seen fit in choosing his gift to honor the psilocybin mushroom itself.

On one level, a mushroom medallion made perfect sense: the molecule that Griffiths and his colleagues have been working with for the last fifteen years does, after all, come from a fungus. Both the mushroom and its psychoactive compound were unknown to science until the 1950s, when the psilocybin mushroom was discovered in southern Mexico, where Mazatec Indians had been using “the flesh of the gods,” in secret, for healing and divination since before the Spanish conquest. Yet, apart from the decorative ceramic mushroom on the shelf in the session room, there are few if any reminders of “magic mushrooms” in the lab. No one I spoke to at Hopkins ever mentioned the rather astonishing fact that the life-changing experiences their volunteers were reporting owed to the action of a chemical compound found in nature—in a mushroom.

In the laboratory context, it can be easy to lose sight of this astonishment. All of the scientists doing psychedelic research today work exclusively with a synthetic version of the psilocybin molecule. (The mushroom’s psychoactive compound was first identified, synthesized, and named in the late 1950s by Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD.) So the volunteers ingest a little white pill made in a lab, rather than a handful of gnarly and acrid-tasting mushrooms. Their journeys unfold in a landscape of medical suites populated, figuratively speaking, by men and women in white coats. I suppose this is the usual distancing effect of modern science at work, but here it is compounded by a specific desire to distance psilocybin from its tangled roots (or I should say, mycelia) in the worlds of 1960s counterculture, Native American shamanism, and, perhaps, nature itself. For it is there—in nature—that we bump up against the mystery of a little brown mushroom with the power to change the consciousness of the animals that eat it. LSD too, it is easy to forget, was derived from a fungus, Claviceps purpurea, or ergot. Somehow, for some reason, these remarkable mushrooms produce, in addition to spores, meanings in human minds.

In the course of my days spent hanging around the Hopkins lab and hours spent interviewing people about their psilocybin journeys, I became increasingly curious to explore this other territory—that is, the natural history of these mushrooms and their strange powers. Where did these mushrooms grow, and how? Why did they evolve the ability to produce 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? Was it a defense chemical, intended to poison mushroom eaters? That would seem to be the most straightforward explanation, yet it is undermined by the fact the fungus produces the hallucinogen almost exclusively in its “fruiting body”—that part of the organism it is happiest to have eaten. Was there perhaps some benefit to the mushroom in being able to change the minds of the animals that eat it?*

There were also the more philosophical questions posed by the existence of a fungus that could not only change consciousness but occasion a profound mystical experience in humans. This fact can be interpreted in two completely different ways. On the first interpretation, the mind-altering power of psilocybin argues for a firmly materialist understanding of consciousness and spirituality, because the changes observed in the mind can be traced directly to the presence of a chemical—psilocybin. What is more material than a chemical? One could reasonably conclude from the action of psychedelics that the gods are nothing more than chemically induced figments of the hominid imagination.

Yet, surprisingly, most of the people who have had these experiences don’t see the matter that way at all. Even the most secular among them come away from their journeys convinced there exists something that transcends a material understanding of reality: some sort of a “Beyond.” It’s not that they deny a naturalistic basis for this revelation; they just interpret it differently.

If the experience of transcendence is mediated by molecules that flow through both our brains and the natural world of plants and fungi, then perhaps nature is not as mute as Science has told us, and “Spirit,” however defined, exists out there—is immanent in nature, in other words, just as countless premodern cultures have believed. What to my (spiritually impoverished) mind seemed to constitute a good case for the disenchantment of the world becomes in the minds of the more psychedelically experienced irrefutable proof of its fundamental enchantment. Flesh of the gods, indeed.

So here was a curious paradox. The same phenomenon that pointed to a materialist explanation for spiritual and religious belief gave people an experience so powerful it convinced them of the existence of a nonmaterial reality—the very basis of religious belief.

I hoped that getting to know the psychoactive LBMs (mycologist shorthand for “little brown mushrooms”) at the bottom of this paradox might clarify the matter or, perhaps, somehow dissolve it. I was already something of a mushroom hunter, secure in my ability to identify a handful of edible woodland species (chanterelles, morels, black trumpets, and porcini) with a high enough degree of confidence to eat what I found. However, I had been told by all my teachers that the world of LBMs was far more daunting in its complexity and peril; many if not most of the species that can kill you are LBMs. But perhaps with some expert guidance, I could add a Psilocybe or two to my mushroom hunting repertoire and in the process begin to unpack the mystery of their existence and spooky powers.

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