Flashback Friday: Flesh of the Dead

Dedicated to all mycophiles who stalk the forests hungry for a taste of the unknown.
Flashback Friday: Flesh of the Dead
Photo by Bob Harris

The people of Mexico call it la carne de los muertos: “flesh of the dead.” Ethnobotanist Dr. Andrew Weil, author of The Natural Mind, learned to respect the mushroom’s magic one night in the smoky hut of a curandera of Oaxaca. The following adaptation from his book The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, ©1980 by Andrew Weil) appeared in the May, 1982 issue of High Times.

Gordon Wasson, who rediscovered the ritual use of psychedelic mushrooms in Mexico, wrote some years ago that people can be divided into mycophiles and mycophobes—mushroom lovers and mushroom haters. (1) There seems to be no middle ground. To some individuals and to some entire cultures, mushrooms are not fit for human consumption, and the idea of eating them is disgusting. This deeply felt revulsion might be linked with fear of being poisoned. Stories of mushroom poisonings evoke images of ghastly deaths, and I know some persons who shun even cultivated mushrooms in the fear that they might really be “toadstools.”

I am a longtime mycophile. To me, mushrooms are strangely beautiful, fascinating, delicious. I prefer wild ones to cultivated ones and find myself curious to sample some of the species that books call poisonous. To me, fear of toadstools looks irrational. The percentage of mushrooms that are deadly is very small, and the deadly species can easily be learned and avoided. As for some of the other “poisonous” ones—well, one man’s toxin is another man’s psychedelic. But I readily admit that mushrooms are strange, magical and, therefore, dangerous.

Perhaps because I do not eat meat, I am particularly sensitive to the meaty nature of cooked mushrooms. They resemble animal flesh more than anything vegetable, and I find them quite satisfying as the principal component of a meal. When I was eating many wild mushrooms, I was happy, healthy and creatively productive. Mushrooms filled my senses and thoughts and imagination. I spent many hours in the company of people who were similarly involved with mushrooms, some of them people with whom I had nothing else in common. Mycophilia cuts across all social, cultural, age and class lines, forging real bonds of communication among otherwise disparate individuals.

In view of the intensity of cravings that some of us experience for mushrooms, it is puzzling to read nutritional analyses of them, for nutritionists make mushrooms out to be very uninteresting. According to them, mushrooms contain only 66 calories per pound, mostly as protein, along with trace minerals and vitamins. This information leads many people to conclude that mushrooms have little worth as food and are merely useful as flavorful garnishes.

Now, the question of the food value of mushrooms really is a question about the energy content of mushrooms, for calories are a measure of available energy. Nutritionists are saying that mushrooms contain little energy relative to other foodstuffs. Yet it is clear to me that mushrooms are high in some kind of energy.

I have often eaten shaggymanes (Coprinus comatus). These delicate mushrooms and other inky caps are distinguished by the peculiar habit of melting into inky black liquid as they mature. Shaggymanes come out of the ground overnight in bunches that look just like white eggs. They elongate rapidly and may be a foot above ground by mid morning. By the end of the day, there may be nothing left of them but a puddle of black liquid. This tendency to dissolve is related to their high water content, which makes them tricky to handle. They must be gathered quickly, taken home and cooked almost immediately. Any delay or mishandling in their preparation will leave you with a puddle of black liquid in your kitchen. But these fragile mushrooms come out of the ground with such relentless force that they can push up asphalt. If a driveway is laid over one of their fruiting spots, it can be broken up by the emerging mushrooms. That is evidence of energy.

Once, in suburban Washington, D.C., I found an enormous mass of brilliant orange mushrooms bursting from the stump of a dead tree on a residential street. Each cap was six inches across on a long stalk that joined many others at the base. There must have been well over a hundred in the mass. I gathered an armful, took them home and pored over my mushroom books in hopes of making an identification. I was in luck because they were so distinctive in their appearance and habit of growth. They were the jack-o’-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius or Clitocybe illudens), and my book told me they should glow in the dark. I took a large cluster of them into a dark room. To my delight, the underside of each cap glowed with a brilliant blue luminescence; the light of the whole cluster was considerable. That is energy.

Mushrooms that can kill people provide further evidence of energy. Most of the deadly species are in the genus Amanita. They are large, beautiful mushrooms with white gills and pleasing tastes. They contain unusual chemical compounds that poison the most basic processes of cellular metabolism, leading to death through destruction of liver and kidney tissue. There is no antidote for their effects, and mortality may be over 50 percent. Symptoms do not appear possible until 12 to 36 hours after ingestion, making it impossible to remove much of the toxic material from the stomach. The devastating effects of deadly amanitas on the human organism are another clue to the nature of mushroom energy. That energy can overwhelm the balance of life.

Other mushrooms, mostly little ones in the genus Psilocybe, can precipitate us into the most profoundly different states of consciousness that can be utterly terrifying or inexpressibly beautiful. Anyone who has experienced their power will not dispute the statement that mushrooms are highly energetic things.

What nutritionists ought to be saying, then, is that mushrooms contain insignificant amounts of the energy nutritionists measure. That kind of energy, caloric energy, comes from the sun. Calories are simply units of solar energy bound by green plants or transformed chemically by animals that have eaten green plants. Mushrooms have little to do with the sun. Most of them are destroyed by sunlight and are best gathered in early morning before the light of day is too intense. Human societies in all parts of the world associate mushrooms with the moon. This association may not be fanciful. Friends of mine who lived near the village of Silvia in the Colombian state of Cauca told me that the growth of San Isidro mushrooms there was correlated with phases of the moon: Whenever rainfall was sufficient, a new crop would appear each time the moon waxed, disappearing just after the full.

Many people also associate mushrooms with water, the feminine or lunar element, as opposed to fire, which is masculine and solar. Not only do mushrooms contain high percentages of water, their growth is triggered primarily by rain. When I have picked mushrooms in wet forests on misty mornings after fall rains, they have seemed to me to be entirely creations of water.

Mushrooms are, above all, perfect symbols of the “other” side of consciousness, of what Robert Ornstein in his book, The Psychology of Consciousness, calls the “night” side, the nonordinary mode of the dreamer, the visionary, the artist, the intuitive thinker. Ornstein, a psychologist interested both in neurology and esoteric systems of mind development, presents evidence that the two hemispheres of the brain serve very different functions. One is the locus of language, of linear thought, of masculine or “day” consciousness; the other is the locus of nonlinear, nonrational, feminine, receptive, intuitional consciousness. Of meditation, Ornstein writes:

[It] is a technique for turning down the brilliance of the day, so that everpresent and subtle sources of energy can be perceived within. It constitutes a deliberate attempt to separate oneself for a short period from the flow of daily life, and to “turn off” the active mode of normal consciousness, in order to enter the complementary mode of “darkness” and receptivity. (2)

What we call a mushroom is the fruiting body of a form of life that exists in the soil as a vast network of microscopic cellular threads, invisible to the naked eye except in mass. The fruiting body is a gigantic, compact aggregation of these threads, the result of rapid cell division and growth. Some mushrooms can develop in several hours after a soaking rain. It is this character of springing up full-grown in all of their strange beauty that makes mushrooms such potent symbols of the workings of our unconscious minds. Intuitions, flashes of insight, mystical raptures all burst into ordinary consciousness in all their vividness from the dark, invisible substratum of mind that exists below and within the daylight world of everyday. Like mushrooms, they cannot long exist in the sun but must be taken advantage of as soon as they appear.

Mushrooms lack chlorophyll, so they cannot derive energy directly from the sun but must feed on live or dead organic matter. In nature they are vital intermediaries in the life cycle: They dismantle complicated organic structures to simplest constituents that can be used again to build the material shells of living things. Their fruiting bodies are works of great complexity compared to the simple strands of cells woven through the soil below.

It is hard to look at certain mushrooms without being struck by their phallic shape. Some species, the stinkhorns in particular, are so flagrant in this resemblance that they carry the word phallus in their botanical names. Here is another meaningful correspondence: The form of the mushroom is homologous with the form of a part of the human body that has very direct connections to the night side of the mind.

So it is not surprising that mushrooms are associated with mysteries, with flights of the soul from the body, and with death itself. (3) For all of these experiences are rooted in unconscious mental activity.

I have suggested that some mushrooms called poisonous in books might equally be called psychedelic. All psychedelics are intoxicants—that is, poisons. The decision to use a positively or negatively loaded term has nothing to do with the reality of the thing itself. Amanita muscaria is an example. It is called the “fly agaric” (agaric is another word for “mushroom”) because an infusion of it in milk was set out in olden times to kill houseflies. Nearly all books call Amanita muscaria dangerous, if not deadly, probably because it is a relative of a much more dangerous mushroom, Amanita phaloides, the death cup. Yet there is no question that A. muscaria can transport people quite safely to realms of powerful, nonordinary experience. At the present time, many people in Northern California are using it to take themselves on such trips, some by drinking infusions of it in milk.

A simple explanation of this disparity in the reported effects of the fly agaric in man is that people are differently set to interpret effects of this sort. Amanita muscaria does not kill, but it does make the body feel very unusual. This strong but neutral change may be interpreted in one of two ways: as a negative, outside force operating against the ego—that is, as sickness or intoxication—or as an opportunity to withdraw attention from ordinary things and pay attention to strange ones—that is, as an altered state of consciousness or high.

In other words, there is no line between poisonous and psychedelic mushrooms. Mushrooms are a pharmacological continuum, from the white cultivated variety that has no action as a drug to species like the death cup that can easily kill. If one likes to get high by eating mushrooms, he can choose species over a wide range of toxicity.

I was interested in tracking down cases of ingestion of the panther amanita in the Pacific Northwest and soon found that they were of two kinds. (4) Some people ate the mushrooms by accident. They were foraging for edible species and made a mistake. Thinking the panther was some innocuous edible, they took it home, cooked it and ate it. This mushroom produces an intoxication of rapid onset. Within 15 to 30 minutes, it made all of these people feel very peculiar.

Now, none of them had had any contact with the drug subculture. Their only prior experience with psychoactive substances had been with alcohol, tobacco and coffee. Also, like many mushroom hunters in the English-speaking world, these people were unconsciously mycophobic. When they began to feel peculiar, all of them decided they had eaten a poisonous species and were about to die. One woman first called her lawyer to change an item in her will, then summoned an ambulance. All of them got sick. All lost consciousness for varying periods of time, from a few minutes to a half hour. All were taken to emergency wards of hospitals, where they uniformly received incorrect medical treatment: large doses of atropine that made their conditions worse. They were admitted to medical wards and discharged in 36 to 48 hours, since it is the nature of this intoxication to subside quickly, usually within 12 hours. Most of these victims said they would never eat mushrooms again. One man said he could not look at mushrooms in the store for months afterward. When told some people ate the same mushroom for fun, they shook their heads in disbelief.

The other cases of panther amanita ingestion I uncovered occurred in members of the drug subculture who ate the mushroom deliberately because they heard it gave a high. These people had extensive experience with marijuana and hallucinogens, including psilocybin mushrooms. They believed that nature provides us with all sorts of natural highs just waiting to be picked in the woods. When these people felt the rapid effects of Amanita pantherina, they welcomed them as signs that the mushroom was really working. None of them got sick. (A few mentioned transient nausea but did not regard it as important.) None of them lost consciousness. None of them felt it necessary to summon help. All of them liked the experience and most said they intended to repeat it. Some had already eaten the panther a number of times.

When I present this information to groups of physicians, they try hard to come up with some simple, materialistic explanation for the difference in response to the two kinds of cases. A question they always ask is: “Might there have been a dose difference?” The answer is, yes, there was a dose difference; the people who ate the panther deliberately ate more of it than the people who ate it accidentally.

The only way to interpret this story is by reference to set. The panther mushroom produces a powerful but neutral change in psychophysiology. People with strong fears can turn this feeling into mushroom poisoning by concentrating on its negative aspects and, eventually, by putting themselves in the hands of others who actually do make them feel worse. People with strong hopes of a new high can turn the same feeling into a welcome state by ignoring the negative aspects and concentrating on the interesting changes in mood and perception.

Probably the best mushrooms to use as psychedelics are those containing psilocybin, a drug that is relatively gentle on the physical organism yet strongly capable of inducing visionary experience. A number of species contain this substance, many in the genus Psilocybe, for which it is named. Of the several kinds of psilocybin mushrooms available in Mexico, where their ritual consumption is an old Indian tradition, I tried only one: the species Psilocybe (or Stropharia) cubensis, known colloquially as San Isidro.

This mushroom grows widely throughout tropical and subtropical America. It has a light tan cap, darker at the center; dark gills; and a blackish veil around the stem. Any part of it that is bruised turns blue within minutes. It grows in open cow pastures at the edges of clumps of cow manure, and its size is variable. I have seen caps up to a foot in diameter. Because its appearance and growth habits are so characteristic, one can easily learn to distinguish it and collect it.

The San Isidro mushroom is eaten by Mazatec and other Indians in the Sierra Mazateca in the northeastern corner of the Mexican state of Oaxaca and by many outsiders who come to the area to “do mushrooms.” It is available during the rainy season from May to September and also at any time rain falls during the rest of the year. I arrived in Huáutla de Jiménez, the main town of the area, just after a fortuitous out-of-season downpour at the end of January 1972 and so was able to obtain and eat a quantity of San Isidro mushrooms.

I had the good fortune to be taken into the house of Julieta, a curandera (healer) who lives in a tiny village nearHuáutla and who uses mushrooms in religious services and medical curings. But the village council was not happy with my presence and told me I would be put in jail if I stayed beyond sunset. After much arguing (not easy, since almost no one spoke Spanish), I wangled a 24-hour permit to stay, and Julieta said she would keep me hidden away in her kitchen to minimize my visibility. Because her house was directly across the street from the little town hall, I was constantly aware of the tension surrounding my presence and of the need for secrecy in all things to do with the mushrooms.

The Sierra Mazateca is a breathtakingly beautiful area of Mexico, with steep green peaks, rushing rivers, and hillsides of coffee and banana trees. The little villages are clustered on the very tops of the mountains so that going from one to another means long and difficult descents and ascents over rough roads. From Julieta’s house one could see Huáutla on a neighboring peak and other settlements in the distance—a splendid vista. The house itself had three rooms: a tiny kitchen; a large, sparsely furnished living room; and a bedroom, where eight or nine persons slept at night. Julieta was the head of the household, and her husband seemed to defer to her in all important matters. They had five children. A young girl who tended the house also lived with them.

From morning to night, a constant stream of patients came to be treated by Julieta, to chat, to drink coffee. Mothers with sick babies, children with bad cuts, grownups with stomach trouble all wandered in, stayed for minutes or hours, got their medicine, and left. Julieta had a garden of medicinal herbs growing in back of her house. She talked much about hongos—sacred mushrooms—as the gran remedio that cured all ills, but in the everyday situations that confronted her she relied on modern drugs. A table in the living room was heaped with antibiotics and other chemicals, mostly in injectable forms. Like many curanderas in Mexico, Julieta is skilled in giving injections, and most patients who come to her want injections, even of drugs that can just as well be given by mouth. The Mazatecs have come to see injection as a magical technique, more magical than their traditional practices. Antibiotics and other powerful drugs (many of them dangerous, in my view) are widely available without prescription in Latin America and wind up in the hands of nonprofessional therapists like Julieta. Although I disagree with her methods of treatment, I must say that she knew what she was doing and that she inspired faith and confidence in people who had no one else to turn to when they were sick. There seemed to be a lot of sickness in and around Huáutla, fostered by inbreeding in an area long isolated from the outside by difficult mountains. Illness is also encouraged by the damp chill that permeates the region whenever clouds block out the tropical sun.

Shortly before my arrival, Julieta had picked a bunch of San Isidro mushrooms. They were obviously meant for me, she said, although I had arrived out of the blue with no forewarning. The mushrooms were wrapped in a sheet of newspaper, hidden in the bedroom, waiting for the right moment to be used. That moment came after midnight on the night after my arrival, which was also the night of the full moon in January, after the last patient had gone home, the children had been put to bed, and the house boarded up for the night. Julieta, her husband, the servant girl and I gathered in the kitchen by candlelight. Julieta unpacked a bag of paraphernalia for the ceremony while her husband set up a small altar on a low table. The centerpiece of the altar was a framed portrait of San Isidro.

San Isidro is the patron saint of agricultural workers and a popular household saint throughout Mexico. Julieta explained that he was her husband’s patron saint and that she used him to preside over her mushroom ceremony. It was just “coincidence” that the variety of mushroom we were going to use also bore his name. The standard depiction of San Isidro is striking: In the midst of a beautiful pastoral scene, an obviously holy man in brown robes kneels in prayer beside a cart and oxen, looking up to heaven. Above, through an opening in the sky, psychedelic rays pour down upon him from some other dimension. Julieta told me to concentrate on the picture while she got things ready.

In front of the altar was a small charcoal fire. On it Julieta burned incense—copal (a resin related to frankincense) and palo santo (an aromatic wood). She sat beside me on a woven mat, purifying her hands and face in the fragrant smoke while whispering prayers. She asked me to cleanse myself in the smoke in the same way. Then she took up the mushrooms in the sheet of newspaper, studied them for a long time, picking up one and then another, all the time praying and wafting incense smoke over herself. The mushrooms were about two days old by now, somewhat wrinkled and dry, with many larvae and little winged insects crawling over them. Julieta bathed them in the smoke, praying more fervently. Her husband and the servant girl retired several paces to a darker area of the kitchen and waited in silence.

When the incense was consumed, Julieta took a small dried chile pod and placed it on the glowing charcoal. She passed the mushrooms through the acrid smoke that went up from the chile, and instantly the larvae and insects crawled out of the mushrooms and died on the newspaper. The chile was removed and more copal put in its place.

Now the time had come. With great deliberation, Julieta took the two largest mushrooms (three-inch caps), arranged them on a little dish, and handed the dish to me. She told me the mushrooms were like the Eucharist and that taking them inside me would enable me to participate in the mystery of the service. Then she smiled sweetly and asked me where my parents were and whether it was all right with them that I was doing this. I told her they were in Philadelphia and trusted me. She seemed satisfied and told me to eat the mushrooms.

I began chewing the cap of the larger mushroom. It was a bit dry and surprisingly tasty: a strong, penetrating, wild mushroom flavor that became more intense as I chewed. I had not anticipated how good these things would be to eat. So many Indian drugs I have tried are intensely bitter, replete with warnings to the senses that they are not supposed to be eaten. But here was something delicious. Before I knew it, I had finished both, stems and all. Julieta now prepared another dish, this time with 7 or 8 smaller mushrooms. She bathed them in incense, praying as before, and handed the dish to me. I ate them one by one, chewing thoroughly. This operation was repeated two more times, so that I ate a total of about 20 smaller mushrooms. Julieta then fed several mushrooms to her husband and to the servant girl, asking them first to wash their hands and faces in the scented smoke and praying over them quietly as they ate. She then told me to sit still while she made sure all the children were asleep.

It must have been one in the morning. Through a crack in the kitchen window I could see that the lights of the town hall were still burning. Doubtless, the council was still debating whether or not to put the intrusive gringo in jail. But in back of the house, all was dark: the eerie blackness of the Sierra Mazateca and now the brilliant splendor of a full moon, high over the mountains in a cloudless sky. I sat watching San Isidro in the flickering candlelight, feeling extraordinarily content and well. Julieta’s husband leaned over from time to time, asking if I was all right and assuring me that his wife would soon be back. I told him I was fine.

By the time Julieta reappeared, I was just beginning to feel unusual. The effect of the mushrooms was very gentle, definite, and progressive, beginning as a sensation of lightness and well-being. Julieta placed more incense on the charcoal. Now her husband and the servant girl left us alone. I was kneeling in front of the little altar; Julieta knelt to one side, praying continuously to San Isidro and other intercessors to help me in my life’s work. She asked me to repeat the Lord’s Prayer three times. I began to see color hallucinations—pastel spots and gentle undulations of surfaces—all delightful.

My recollection is that we prayed together for some time during the peak of the effect of the mushrooms, probably from 45 minutes to an hour and a half after I had eaten them. I felt fresh, alert, healthy and cleansed. Then, the formal part of the service over, Julieta and I chatted for a long while about personal matters. She communicated to me much of her own vitality, optimism and goodness of spirit, leaving me elated and more confident in my own abilities and powers. Finally (it was now quite late), she told me to go outside and “learn from the moon.” She said she had to go to bed and that I should stay up as long as I wanted and then sleep late the next day.

Outside, the night was magnificent. I felt privileged to have arrived at such a spot on such a night, feeling the way I did. The mushrooms were still strongly working on me. I could taste them more powerfully than ever, and the taste seemed to be diffused throughout my body, making me feel in a very real way that the spirit of the mushrooms had entered into me. I recalled Wasson’s suggestion that the word bemushroomed would be a good term for this state. I was certainly bemushroomed.

I gazed at the moon and the landscape for perhaps an hour, then spent some more time with San Isidro in the kitchen. He, too, seemed bemushroomed out there in the field with all those heavenly rays raining down upon him. Then, after another interval, I went back outside. But now it was much darker, and a great many stars were out, whereas only a few had been visible before. I could not find the moon at first. Then I saw it, low over the western mountains: a crescent of silver along a dull gold disk. It was being eclipsed. I waited, breathless, as the eclipse progressed to totality—an unexpected, wonderful spectacle. The stillness of the night was complete; I doubt that very many people were awake to see the show in the sky.

Then the moon began to set behind the mountains, still in eclipse, and I felt tired for the first time. I went back inside, said good-night to San Isidro, blew out the candles, crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep quickly.

In the morning, I awoke refreshed, feeling better than I had in a long time, and went off for a day in Huáutla of shopping and negotiating with the military authorities. (The council in Julieta’s village was making more threats of jailing me, and I wanted some sort of safe-conduct pass.) When I got back, Julieta told me there were some mushrooms left over and that I might as well finish them that night. I really did not want to since I had just had a perfect mushroom experience, but instead of telling her that, I agreed. So that night we repeated the service with incense, prayers and San Isidro, and then Julieta went to bed. But everything was different. A heavy bank of fog and cloud closed in, the temperature dropped, and suddenly nearly everyone in the house was sick. There was much crying and coughing from the bedroom, and I began feeling unwell, too. A great sense of depression and isolation came over me. I could not get to sleep. The mushrooms seemed to be working against me, not with me, and I felt far away from where I was supposed to be.

Toward dawn, still awake, I began to understand that this experience, too, was part of the lesson: that mushrooms, like other agents of psychedelic experience, must be used in a proper context, that their magic is strong but neutral and can produce evil as well as good. To take them just because they are available, when the time is not right, is a mistake. The negative experience of this second night did not in any way detract from the goodness of the first night. If anything, it made me more aware of the value of that experience and more eager to retain it and use it in my life. I hoped that I would be able to be bemushroomed again, but I resolved to be patient until the right moment came.

At the first light of dawn, I got up and packed my things. We had decided it would be best for me to leave before the sun was up so that I could be out of the clutches of those officials who wanted no outsiders on their mountaintop. I said good-bye gratefully to Julieta and started down the mountain toward the world outside.

Colombia is a sort of cornucopia of psycho active plants. In addition to producing a multitude of exotic Amazonian drugs, like yagé, it is the main source of potent marijuana in western South America and a large coca producer as well. Now, it seems, it is a second home for psilocybin mushrooms. Psilocybe cubensis, the San Isidro of Mexico, has established itself in many parts of the country, and many people consume it. There is no tradition for use of mushrooms as intoxicants by South American Indians, so that knowledge of use of this species must have come from outside. Quite probably it came by way of hippies—North American, South American or European—who knew the mushroom from the Huáutla area of Oaxaca and recognized it in Colombia. In some cases, these people have recently introduced Colombian Indians to the drug, the reverse of the usual order of things.

Many stories about Psilocybe cubensis circulate among travelers in Colombia. One is that it grows wherever volcanoes, fireflies and avocados occur together. Another is that it follows Brahma cattle, which were imported into South America in this century because of their resistance to heat. But it seems to be growing all over the place without regard to any particular conditions and even fruits in great abundance in central Florida and along the Gulf Coast of the United States, where volcanoes, at least for the moment, are not much in evidence.

I first ate Colombian mushrooms outside Cali in an idyllically beautiful field with clumps of woods, a clear river and enormous, gray, humpbacked Brahma cows lying peacefully in the bright green grass. It was the beginning of the dry season, but there were enough hongos to bemushroom a group of us, and we ate them as we found them. To eat them fresh from the ground was a great treat to the senses.

We sat in the grass, about ten of us, and let the mushrooms transport us to a realm of calm good feeling in which we drank in the beauty of the setting. There were color visions, as I had experienced before with San Isidro in Mexico. In Mexico I had eaten the mushrooms late at night, in darkness and secrecy, in the very shadow of menacing police authority. Now it was broad daylight, in open country, with no one around but friendly fellow travelers. In Mexico I had felt like an early Christian pursuing the sacrament in a catacomb, wary of the approach of Roman legions; here everything was aboveground and open. The Indians of the Sierra Mazateca say that mushrooms should not be eaten in daytime, that they must be eaten at night. Yet here we were in full daylight having a wonderful time. In general, I prefer to take psychedelic substances in the daytime, when their stimulating energies are more in harmony with the rhythms of my body. I feel that way about mushrooms, too. Is it possible, I wondered, that the Indian habit of eating mushrooms at night is not so traditional as it seems but dates back only to the arrival of the Spanish and persecutions of native rites by the church?

After several hours, we wandered back through the imperturbable Brahma giants, across the river, and to the road where we had left our truck. Another nice thing about the mushrooms is that they wear off, gently, after 4 to 6 hours—a more convenient duration of action than the 12-hour trips of LSD, peyote, mescaline, and MDA. We had some extra mushrooms still with us, and these we dried for later use. Some days later, on the deserted shore of a lake in the eastern Andes, near the border of Ecuador, a few of us shared these dried mushrooms and again felt their magic. Though they still tasted good, it was not as pleasant to eat them this way as fresh.

I believe strongly that psychedelics merely trigger or release certain experiences that originate in the human nervous system and that one can learn to have these experiences without taking drugs. I believe also that psychedelic substances are useful in certain people at certain times. For example, when used properly they have great potential for bringing about medical as well as psychological cures of morbid conditions. Of the psychedelics I am familiar with, few approach mushrooms in overall desirable qualities, such as ease of consumption, lack of toxicity and manageability of effects.

At the same time, I must caution that the abrupt onset of major alterations in perception can easily cause panic reactions, especially in people who take the mushrooms casually in poor circumstances, rather than ceremonially. By standardizing set and setting, ritual and ceremony work to minimize the potential of drugs to cause negative experiences. Mushrooms have that potential and must be used with due respect.

(1) R. Gordon Wasson and Valentina P. Wasson, Mushrooms, Russia and History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1957).
(2) (San Francisco: Freeman, 1972), p. 107.
(3) The mushroom cloud is an archetypal symbol of death for the 20th century.
(4) Some of these cases were first described by Jonathan Ott in his article, “Psycho-Mycological Studies of Amanita: From Ancient Sacrament to Modem Phobia,” Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 8, no. 1 (1976) :27-35.

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