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But while Stamets urges extreme circumspection in amateurs hoping to identify Psilocybes, he also equips the mushroom hunter who hasn’t been completely discouraged with something he calls “The Stametsian Rule”: a three-pronged test that, he (sort of) assures us, can head off death and disaster.

“How do I know if a mushroom is a psilocybin producing species or not?”

“If a gilled mushroom has purplish brown to black spores, and the flesh bruises bluish, the mushroom in question is very likely a psilocybin-producing species.” This is definitely a big help, though I wouldn’t mind something more categorical than “very likely.” He then offers a sobering caveat. “I know of no exceptions to this rule,” he adds, “but that does not mean there are none!”

After committing to memory the Stametsian Rule, I began picking promising-looking gilled LBMs—in my neighbors’ yards, on my walk to work, in the parking lot of the bank—and then roughing them up a bit to see if they would turn black and blue. The blue pigment is in fact evidence of oxidized psilocin, one of the two main psychoactive compounds in a Psilocybe. (The other is psilocybin, which breaks down into psilocin in the body.) To determine if the mushroom in question had purplish-brown or black spores, I began making spore prints. This involves cutting the cap off a mushroom and placing it, gill side down, on a piece of white paper. (Or black paper if you have reason to believe the mushroom has white spores.) Within hours, the mushroom cap releases its microscopic spores, which will form a pretty, shadowy pattern on the paper (reminiscent of a lipstick kiss) that you can then try to decide is purplish brown or black—or rust colored, in which case you might have a deadly Galerina on your hands.

Certain things are perhaps best learned in person, rather than from a book. I decided I should probably wait before making any irreversible decisions until I had spent some time in the company of my mycological Virgil.

• • • AT THE TIME OF MY VISIT, Paul Stamets lived with his partner, Dusty Yao, and their two big dogs, Plato and Sophie, in a sprawling new house on the Little Skookum Inlet that is constructed inside and out of a small forest’s worth of the most gorgeous clear Douglas fir and cedar. Like many species of fungi, Stamets has a passionate attachment to trees and wood. I arrived on a Friday; our reservation at the campsite wasn’t until Sunday night, so we had the better part of the weekend to talk Psilocybes, eat (other kinds of) mushrooms, tour the Fungi Perfecti facilities, and ramble the surrounding woods and shoreline with the dogs before driving south to the Oregon border Sunday morning to hunt azzies.

This was the house that mushrooms built, Stamets explained, launching into its story before I had a chance to unpack my bag. It replaced a rickety old farmhouse on the site that, when Stamets moved in, was slowly succumbing to an infestation of carpenter ants. Stamets set about devising a mycological solution to the problem. He knew precisely which species of Cordyceps could wipe out the ant colony, but so did the ants: they scrupulously inspect every returning member for Cordyceps spores and promptly chew off the head of any ant bearing spores, dumping the body far away from the colony. Stamets outwitted the ants’ defense by breeding a mutant Cordyceps-like fungus that postponed sporulation. He put some of its mycelium in his daughter’s dollhouse bowl, left that on the floor of the kitchen, and during the night watched as a parade of ants carried the mycelium into the nest—having mistaken it for a safe food source. When the fungus eventually sporulated, it was already deep inside the colony and the ants were done for: the Cordyceps colonized their bodies and sent fruiting bodies bursting forth from their heads. It was too late to save the farmhouse, but with the proceeds from the sale of his patent on the fungus Stamets was able to erect this far grander monument to mycological ingenuity.

The house was spacious and comfortable; I had a whole upstairs wing of bedrooms to myself. The living room, where we spent most of a rainy December weekend, had a soaring cathedral ceiling, a big wood-burning fireplace, and, looming over the room from across the way, a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall skeleton of a cave bear. A painting of Albert Hofmann hangs over the fireplace. Overhead, beneath the peak, is a massive round stained glass depicting “The Universality of the Mycelial Archetype”—an intricate tracery of blue lines on a night sky, the lines representing at once mycelium, roots, neurons, the Internet, and dark matter.

Displayed on the walls heading upstairs from the living room are framed artworks, photographs, and keepsakes, including a diploma signifying the successful completion of one of the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests, signed by Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady. There are several photographs of Dusty posing in old-growth forests with impressive specimens of fungi and a colorfully grotesque print by Alex Grey, the dean of American psychedelic artists. The print is Grey’s interpretation of the so-called stoned ape theory, depicting an early, electrified-looking hominid clutching a Psilocybe while a cyclone of abstractions flies out of its mouth and forehead. The only reason I could make any sense of the image at all was that a few days earlier I had received an e-mail from Stamets referring to the theory in question: “I want to discuss the high likelihood that the Stoned Ape Theory, first presented by Roland Fischer and then popularized/restated by Terence McKenna, is probably true—[ingestion of psilocybin] causing a rapid development of the hominid brain for analytical thinking and societal bonding. Did you know that 23 primates (including humans) consume mushrooms and know how to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’?”

I did not.

But the brief, elliptical e-mail nicely prefigured the tenor of my weekend with Stamets as I struggled to absorb a torrent of mycological fact and speculation that, like a rushing river, is impossible to ford without being knocked sideways. The sheer brilliance of Stamets’s mushroom’s-eye view of the world can be dazzling, but after a while it can also make you feel claustrophobic, as only the true monomaniac or autodidact—and Stamets is both—can do. Everything is connected is ever the subtext with such people; in this case what connects everything you could possibly think of just happens to be fungal mycelia.

I was curious to find out how Stamets came by his mycocentric worldview and what role psilocybin mushrooms, in particular, might have contributed to it. Stamets grew up in an Ohio town outside Youngstown called Columbiana, the youngest of five children. His father’s engineering company went belly-up when Paul was a boy, the family “going from riches to rags pretty quickly.” Dad began to drink heavily, and Paul began looking up to his older brother John as a role model.

Five years his senior, John was an aspiring scientist—he would receive a scholarship to study neurophysiology—who kept “an exquisite laboratory in the basement,” a realm that was Paul’s idea of heaven, but to which John seldom granted his little brother admittance. “I thought all houses had laboratories, so whenever I went over to a friend’s house, I would ask where the laboratory was. I didn’t understand why they would always point me to the bathroom instead—the lavatory.” Winning John’s approval became a motive force in Paul’s life, which perhaps explains the value Stamets places on mainstream scientific recognition of work. John had died, of a heart attack, six months before my visit and, as it happened, on the same day Paul received word of his AAAS honor. His death was a loss from which Paul hadn’t yet recovered.

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