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Yet even some of Stamets’s airier notions turn out to have a scientific foundation beneath them. For years now, Stamets has been talking about the vast web of mycelia in the soil as “Earth’s natural Internet”—a redundant, complexly branched, self-repairing, and scalable communications network linking many species over tremendous distances. (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.) Stamets contends that these mycelial networks are in some sense “conscious”: aware of their environment and able to respond to challenges accordingly. When I first heard these ideas, I thought they were, at best, fanciful metaphors. Yet in the years since, I’ve watched as a growing body of scientific research has emerged to suggest they are much more than metaphors. Experiments with slime molds have demonstrated these organisms can navigate mazes in search of food—sensing its location and then growing in that direction. The mycelia in a forest do link the trees in it, root to root, not only supplying them with nutrients, but serving as a medium that conveys information about environmental threats and allows trees to selectively send nutrients to other trees in the forest.* A forest is a far more complex, sociable, and intelligent entity than we knew, and it is fungi that organize the arboreal society.

Stamets’s ideas and theories have turned out to be far more durable, and practicable, than I ever would have guessed. This was the other reason I became eager to spend some time with Stamets: I was curious to find out how his own experience with psilocybin had colored his thinking and lifework. Yet I wasn’t at all certain he would be willing to talk on the record about psilocybin, much less take me ’shroom hunting, now that he had a successful business, had eight or nine patents to his name, and was collaborating with institutions like DARPA and NIH and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In the more recent interviews and lectures I could find online, he seldom talked about psilocybin and often omitted mention of the field guide from his list of publications. What’s more, he had just received prestigious honors from the Mycological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Paul Stamets, it seemed, had gone legit. Bad timing for me.

• • • THANKFULLY, I WAS WRONG. When I reached Stamets at his home in Kamilche, Washington, and told him what I was up to, he couldn’t have been more forthcoming or cooperative. We talked for a long time about psilocybin mushrooms, and it soon became clear they remained a subject of keen interest to him. He knew all about the work going on at Hopkins—in fact had consulted with the Hopkins team when they were first looking for a source of psilocybin. My impression was that the revival of legitimate university research had made Stamets more comfortable reopening this particular chapter in his life. He mentioned he was in the process of updating the 1996 psilocybin field guide. The only discordant note in the conversation came when I casually dropped the slang expression for psilocybin when asking him about going hunting for ’shrooms.

“I really, really hate that word,” he said, almost gravely, adopting the tone of a parent upbraiding a potty-mouthed child.

The word never crossed my lips again.

By the end of the call, Stamets had invited me up to his place in Washington State, on the Little Skookum Inlet at the base of the Olympic Peninsula. I asked him, gingerly, if I could come at a time when the Psilocybes were fruiting. “Most of them have already come and gone,” he said. “But if you come right after Thanksgiving, and the weather’s right, I can take you to the only place in the world where Psilocybe azurescens has been consistently found, at the mouth of the Columbia River.” He mentioned the name of the park where he had found them in the past and told me to book a yurt there, adding, “Probably best not to use my name.”

• • • IN THE WEEKS BEFORE my trip to Washington State, I pored over Stamets’s field guide, hoping to prepare myself for the hunt. It seems there are more than two hundred species of Psilocybe, distributed all over the world; it’s not clear whether that’s always been the case, or if the mushrooms have followed in the footsteps of the animals who have taken such a keen interest in them. (Humans have been using psilocybin mushrooms sacramentally for at least seven thousand years, according to Stamets. But animals sometimes ingest them too, for reasons that remain obscure.)

Psilocybes are saprophytes, living off dead plant matter and dung. They are denizens of disturbed land, popping up most often in the habitats created by ecological catastrophe, such as landslides, floods, storms, and volcanoes. They also prosper in the ecological catastrophes caused by our species: clear-cut forests, road cuts, the wakes of bulldozers, and agriculture. (Several species live in and fruit from the manure of ruminants.) Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, the most potent species occur less often in the wild than in cities and towns; their predilection for habitats disturbed by us has allowed them to travel widely, “following streams of debris,” including our own. In recent years, the practice of mulching with wood chips has vastly expanded the range of a handful of potent Psilocybes once confined to the Pacific Northwest. They now thrive in all those places we humans now “landscape”: suburban gardens, nurseries, city parks, churchyards, highway rest stops, prisons, college campuses, even, as Stamets likes to point out, on the grounds of courthouses and police stations. “Psilocybe mushrooms and civilization continue to co-evolve,” Stamets writes.

So you would think these mushrooms would be fairly easy to find. In fact after I published an article about psilocybin research, I was informed by a student that after the December rains Psilocybes can be found on the Berkeley campus, where I teach. “Look in the wood chips,” he advised. Yet as soon as I began studying the photographs in Stamets’s field guide, I began to despair of ever identifying any mushroom as a member of the genus, much less learning how to distinguish one species of Psilocybe from another.

To judge from the pictures, the genus is just a big bunch of little brown mushrooms, most of them utterly nondescript. By comparison, the edible species with which I was familiar were as distinct as tulips are from roses, poodles from Great Danes. Yes, all the Psilocybes have gills, but that isn’t much help, because thousands of other mushrooms have gills, too. After that, you’re trying to sort out a bewildering array of characteristics, not all of which are shared by the class. Some Psilocybes have a little nipple-like knob or protrusion on top—it’s called an umbo, I learned; others don’t. Some were “viscid”—slippery or slimy when wet, giving them a shiny appearance. Others were dull and matte gray; some, like azurescens, were a milky caramel color. Many but not all Psilocybes sport a “pellicle”—a condom-like layer of gelatinous material covering the cap that can be peeled off. My fungal vocabulary might be expanding, but my confidence was rapidly collapsing, much like the mushroom that, in the course of a single day, decomposes into an inky puddle.

By the time I got to chapter four, “The Dangers of Mistaken Identification,” I was ready to throw in the towel. “Mistakes in mushroom identification can be lethal,” Stamets begins, before displaying a photograph in which a Psilocybe stuntzii is seen growing cheek by jowl with a trio of indistinguishable Galerina autumnalis, an unremarkable little mushroom that, when eaten, “can result in an agonizing death.”

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