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THERE WAS NEVER any doubt who could best help me on this quest, assuming he was willing. Paul Stamets, a mycologist from Washington State who literally wrote the book on the genus Psilocybe, in the form of the authoritative 1996 field guide Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World. Stamets has himself “published”—that is, identified and described in a peer-reviewed journal—four new species of Psilocybe, including azurescens, named for his son Azureus and the most potent species yet known. But while Stamets is one of the country’s most respected mycologists, he works entirely outside the academy, has no graduate degree, funds most of his own research, and holds views of the role of fungi in nature that are well outside the scientific mainstream and that, he will gladly tell you, owe to insights granted to him by the mushrooms themselves, in the course of both close study and regular ingestion.

I’ve known Stamets for years, though not very well and always from what I confess has been a somewhat skeptical distance. His extravagant claims for the powers of mushrooms and eyebrow-elevating boasts about his mushroom work with institutions like DARPA (the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and NIH (the National Institutes of Health) are bound to set off a journalist’s bullshit detector, rightly or—as often happens in his case—wrongly.

Over the years, we’ve found ourselves at some of the same conferences, so I’ve had several opportunities to hear his talks, which consist of a beguiling (often brilliant) mash-up of hard science and visionary speculation, with the line between the two often impossible to discern. His 2008 TED talk, which is representative, has been viewed online more than four million times.

Stamets, who was born in 1955 in Salem, Ohio, is a big hairy man with a beard and a bearish mien; I was not surprised to learn he once worked as a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest. Onstage, he usually wears what appears to be a felt hat in the alpine style but which, as he’ll explain, is in fact made in Transylvania from something called amadou, the spongy inner layer of the horse’s hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius), a polypore that grows on several species of dead or dying trees. Amadou is flammable and in ancient times was used to start and transport fires. Ötzi, the five-thousand-year-old “Ice Man” found mummified in an alpine glacier in 1991, was carrying a pouch in which he had a piece of amadou. Because of its antimicrobial properties, Fomes fomentarius was also used to dress wounds and preserve food. Stamets is so deep into the world of fungi there’s frequently one perched on top of his head.

Fungi constitute the most poorly understood and underappreciated kingdom of life on earth. Though indispensable to the health of the planet (as recyclers of organic matter and builders of soil), they are the victims not only of our disregard but of a deep-seated ill will, a mycophobia that Stamets deems a form of “biological racism.” Leaving aside their reputation for poisoning us, this is surprising in that we are closer, genetically speaking, to the fungal kingdom than to that of the plants. Like us, they live off the energy that plants harvest from the sun. Stamets has made it his life’s work to right this wrong, by speaking out on their behalf and by demonstrating the potential of mushrooms to solve a great many of the world’s problems. Indeed, the title of his most popular lecture, and the subtitle of his 2005 book, Mycelium Running, is “How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.” By the end of his presentation, this claim no longer sounds hyperbolic.

I can remember the first time I heard Stamets talk about “mycoremediation”—his term for the use of mushrooms to clean up pollution and industrial waste. One of the jobs of fungi in nature is to break down complex organic molecules; without them, the earth would long ago have become a vast, uninhabitable waste heap of dead but undecomposed plants and animals. So after the Exxon Valdez ran aground off the coast of Alaska in 1989, spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Stamets revived a long-standing idea of putting fungi to work breaking down petrochemical waste. He showed a slide of a steaming heap of oily black sludge before inoculating it with the spores of oyster mushrooms, and then a second photograph of the same pile taken four weeks later, when it was reduced by a third and covered in a thick mantle of snowy white oyster mushrooms. It was a performance, and a feat of alchemy, I won’t soon forget.

But Stamets’s aspirations for the fungal kingdom go well beyond turning petrochemical sludge into arable soil. Indeed, in his view there is scarcely an ecological or medical problem that mushrooms can’t help solve.

Cancer? Stamets’s extract of turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) has been shown to help cancer patients by stimulating their immune systems. (Stamets claims to have used it to help cure his mother’s stage 4 breast cancer.)

Bioterrorism? After 9/11, the federal government’s Bioshield program asked to screen hundreds of the rare mushroom strains in Stamets’s collection and found several that showed strong activity against SARS, smallpox, herpes, and bird and swine flu. (If this strikes you as implausible, remember that penicillin is the product of a fungus.)

Colony collapse disorder (CCD)? After watching honeybees visiting a woodpile to nibble on mycelium, Stamets identified several species of fungus that bolster the bees’ resistance to infection and CCD.

Insect infestation? A few years ago, Stamets won a patent for a “mycopesticide”—a mutant mycelium from a species of Cordyceps that, after being eaten by carpenter ants, colonizes their bodies and kills them, but not before chemically inducing the ant to climb to the highest point in its environment and then bursting a mushroom from the top of its head that releases its spores to the wind.

The second or third time I watched Stamets show a video of a Cordyceps doing its diabolical thing to an ant—commandeering its body, making it do its bidding, and then exploding a mushroom from its brain in order to disseminate its genes—it occurred to me that Stamets and that poor ant had rather a lot in common. Fungi haven’t killed him, it’s true, and he probably knows enough about their wiles to head off that fate. But it’s also true that this man’s life—his brain!—has been utterly taken over by fungi; he has dedicated himself to their cause, speaking for the mushrooms in the same way that Dr. Seuss’s Lorax speaks for the trees. He disseminates fungal spores far and wide, helping them, whether by mail order or sheer dint of his enthusiasm, to vastly expand their range and spread their message.

• • • I DON’T THINK I’m saying anything about Paul Stamets to which he would object. He writes in his book that mycelia—the vast, cobwebby whitish net of single-celled filaments, called hyphae, with which fungi weave their way through the soil—are intelligent, forming “a sentient membrane” and “the neurological network of nature.” The title of his book Mycelium Running can be read in two ways. The mycelium is indeed always running through the ground, where it plays a critical role in forming soils, keeping plants and animals in good health, and knitting together the forest. But the mycelium are also, in Stamets’s view, running the show—that of nature in general and, like a neural software program, the minds of certain creatures, including, he would be the first to tell you, Paul Stamets himself. “Mushrooms are bringing us a message from nature,” he likes to say. “This is a call I’m hearing.”

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