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As we walked in widening spirals and figure eights over the grassy dunes, Stamets kept up a steady mycological patter; one nice thing about hunting mushrooms is that you don’t have to worry about scaring them away with the sound of your voice. Every now and then he paused to show me a mushroom. Little brown mushrooms are notoriously difficult to identify, but Stamets almost always had its Latin binomial and a few interesting facts about it at his fingertips. At one point, he handed me a Russula, explaining it was good to eat. I only nibbled at the ruddy cap before I had to spit it out, it was so fiery. Evidently, offering newbies this particular Russula is an old mycologist hazing ritual.

I saw plenty of LBMs that might or might not be psilocybin and was constantly interrupting Stamets for another ID, and every time he had to prick my bubble of hope that I had at last found the precious quarry. After an hour or two of fruitless searching, Stamets wondered aloud if maybe we had come too late for the azzies.

And then all of a sudden, in an excited stage whisper, he called out, “Got one!” I raced over, asking him to leave the mushroom in place so I could see where and how it grew. This would, I hoped, allow me to “get my eyes on,” as mushroom hunters like to say. Once we register on our retinas the visual pattern of the object we’re searching for, it’s much more likely to pop out of the visual field. (In fact the technical name for this phenomenon is “the pop-out effect.”)

It was a handsome little mushroom, with a smooth, slightly glossy caramel-colored cap. Stamets let me pick it; it had a surprisingly tenacious grip, and when it came out of the ground, it brought with it some leaf litter, soil, and a little knot of bright white mycelium. “Bruise the stipe a bit,” Stamets suggested. I did, and within minutes a blue tinge appeared where I’d rubbed it. “That’s the psilocin.” I never expected to actually see the chemical I had read so much about.

The mushroom had been growing a stone’s throw from our yurt, right on the edge of a parking spot. Stamets says that like many psilocybin species “azzies are organisms of the ecological edge. Look at where we are: at the edge of the continent, the edge of an ecosystem, the edge of civilization, and of course these mushrooms bring us to the edge of consciousness.” At this point, Stamets, who when it comes to mushrooms is one serious dude, made the first joke I had ever heard him make: “You know one of the best indicator species for Psilocybe azurescens are Winnebagos.” We’re obviously not the first people to hunt for azzies in this park, and anyone who picks a mushroom trails an invisible cloud of its spore behind him; this, he believes, is the origin of the idea of fairy dust. At the end of many of those trails is apt to be a campsite, a car, or a Winnebago.

We found seven azzies that afternoon, though by we I mean Stamets; I only found one, and even then I wasn’t at all certain it was a Psilocybe until Stamets gave me a smile and a thumbs-up. I could swear it looked exactly like half a dozen other species I was finding. Stamets patiently tutored me in mushroom morphology, and by the following day my luck had improved, and I found four little caramel beauties on my own. Not much of a haul, but then Stamets had said that even just one of these mushrooms could underwrite a major psychic expedition.

That evening, we carefully laid out our seven mushrooms on a paper towel and photographed them before putting them in front of the yurt’s space heater to dry. Within hours, the hot air had transformed a mushroom that was unimpressive to begin with into a tiny, shriveled gray-blue scrap it would be easy to overlook. The idea that something so unprepossessing could have such consequence was hard to credit.

I had been looking forward to trying an azzie, but before the evening was over, Stamets had dampened my enthusiasm. “I find azurescens almost too strong,” he told me when we were standing around the fire pit outside our yurt, having a beer. After nightfall, we had driven out onto the beach to hunt for razor clams by headlight; now we were sautéing them with onions over the fire.

“And azzies have one potential side effect that some people find troubling.”


“Temporary paralysis,” he said matter-of-factly. He explained that some people on azzies find they can’t move their muscles for a period of time. That might be tolerable if you’re in a safe place, he suggested, “but what if you’re outdoors and the weather turns cold and wet? You could die of hypothermia.” Not much of an advertisement for azurescens, especially coming from the man who discovered the species and named it. I was suddenly in much less of a hurry to try one.

• • • THE QUESTION I KEPT returning to that weekend is this: Why in the world would a 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? What, if anything, did this peculiar chemical do for the mushroom? One could construct a quasi-mystical explanation for this phenomenon, as Stamets and McKenna have done: both suggest that neurochemistry is the language in which nature communicates with us, and it’s trying to tell us something important by way of psilocybin. But this strikes me as more of a poetic conceit than a scientific theory.

The best answer I’ve managed to find arrived a few weeks later courtesy of Paul Stamets’s professor at Evergreen State, Michael Beug, the chemist. When I reached him by phone at his home in the Columbia River Gorge, 160 miles upriver of our campsite, Beug said he was retired from teaching and hadn’t spent much time thinking about Psilocybes recently, but he was intrigued by my question.

I asked him if there is reason to believe that psilocybin is a defense chemical for the mushroom. Defense against pests and diseases is the most common function of the so-called secondary metabolites produced in plants. Curiously, many plant toxins don’t directly kill pests, but often act as psychostimulants as well as poisons, which is why we use many of them as drugs to alter consciousness. Why wouldn’t plants just kill their predators outright? Perhaps because that would quickly select for resistance, whereas messing with its neurotransmitter networks can distract the predator or, better still, lead it to engage in risky behaviors likely to shorten its life. Think of an inebriated insect behaving in a way that attracts the attention of a hungry bird.

But Beug pointed out that if psilocybin were a defense chemical, “my former student Paul Stamets would have jumped on it long ago and found a use for it as an antifungal, antibacterial, or insecticide.” In fact Beug has tested fungi for psilocybin and psilocin levels and found that they occur only in minute quantities in the mycelium—the part of the organism most likely to be well defended. “Instead the chemicals are in the fruiting bodies—sometimes at over two percent by dry weight!”—a stupendous quantity, and in a part of the organism it is not a priority to defend.

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