Hopeful Mushroom or Lonely Arugula?

©MAYA HAYUK, Mushrooms 1 – 6, 2009  http://mayahayuk.com/

One of the first things I do every day is delete stuff out of my email inbox: heartlessly I trash LAST CHANCE TO SAVE POLAR BEARS along with many other invited entreaties from MoveOn.org, Greenpeace, Alvarez, WWF Canada etc. When I’m feeling particularly buoyant I choose one petition to sign and sometimes I’ll even post it to fakecrack. If I fail to cull these worthy invitations I start to feel symptoms of my (self-diagnosed) 21st century malaise — Systems Overload Disorder ( SOD for short) which manifests as a feeling of being helplessly over-informed and correspondingly unhappy about heavy shit I can’t do much about. My email deleting ritual is one of my many coping mechanisms, devised, I might add, without the advice or support of either a health care professional or a second-hand self-help manual. I have also made a habit of drinking an early cup of strong coffee, which generally propels me first to the bathroom and then to a high-speed writing jag which may or may not yield useful material. Then I look online for jobs: after the exhausting process of variously imagining myself working as a receptionist for a holistic veterinarian in the Outer Sunset, telemarketing for a dubious outfit in the Financial District or answering phones for a gay porn studio in the TL  I apply to a couple of vacancies and then turn swiftly to my Hopeful Mushroom project to jolly myself up.

I spend the next hour researching my ambitious idea for a slow food co-op which is also a storefront ambient café incorporating  gallery space, a weekly flea market, monthly underground party venue, possibly therapy rooms and a modest on-site mushroom farm. My research runs along the lines of legal requirements, organizational features of co-ops, possible funding and vacant commercial properties. I call this pipe dream project The Hopeful Mushroom because mycelia seems to me more optimistic than mostly everything else on the planet.

There are literally millions of species of fungi on this planet, around 150,000 of these are specifically identified as mushrooms , so far we’ve documented around 50,000 of them and managed to give around 14,000 their own names. Paul Stamets is probably the greatest living authority and advocate of mushroom-kind  and he believes that mushrooms suffer from a kind of ‘biological racism’ where many cultures regard mycelia as dangerous, ugly and potentially poisonous, while others have nurtured a love and respect for them and an awareness of the very positive benefits they give us. Stamets thinks that this biological racism might have grown from our ignorance at how mushrooms live and grow: contrary to popular belief, mushrooms don’t grow at night, its just that we notice where they have popped up in daylight. Mushrooms are everywhere, mycelia cover most of the landmass on the planet and some individual fungal mats cover thousands of acres and are hundreds of years old. Mycological research tells us that fungi are smart: the way that fungi react to sudden environmental changes is a testimony to their intelligence and awareness. When mycelia detect the bacteria E Coli in the soil the crystalline entities which live on the edge of the fungal mat send a chemical signal back to the mother mycelium that, in turn, generates a customized macro-crystal which attracts the motile bacteria by the thousands,  — the advancing mycelium then consume the dastardly E. coli, effectively eliminating them from the environment. Bioremediation techniques using mushrooms are just beginning to be utilized in human orchestrated ecological rehabilitation – take the phenomenal success of oyster mushrooms being employed to “eat” heavy oil – they do it and then internally neutralize the toxicity!

Mushrooms, in the form of saprophytic and parasitic fungi help create the organic components of topsoil and mushroom composting yields not just excellent dirt but will generate free tasty nutritional mushrooms, good to eat and to use medicinally. Stamets believes that the way mushrooms communicate with each other reveals them as a kind of Gaian Internet, and says that our current computer technology mimics their biological model of network integration. What more might this incredible life form be capable of ?  Maybe they can negate radioactivity as well as petroleum contamination.

Then of course there is the psychedelic dimension to consider: the far out fungi that McKenna and Wasson championed and believed had profoundly affected the development of consciousness in us precociously curious  humans. I am just a neophyte in the study of mycology and untrained in scientific thought it takes me a while to comprehend this kind of meaty discourse. Always ready to expand my scant knowledge I happily purchased Andy Letcher’s Shroom: A Cultural History of Magic Mushrooms ( Harper Perennial, 2007) last Christmas Eve. The colorful psychedelic cover led me to believe I’d scored the perfect gift for our friend Clancy, who likes a good read, but as he forgot to take it home with him after Christmas dinner I started to read it myself. Before I’d even finished Chapter One I realized that Letcher was on a mission to discredit the existence of a historic relationship between mushrooms and humans. Blatantly on page five he writes that “most all others before us have regarded them [magic mushrooms] as worthless”  and this is what the ensuing three hundred odd pages are dedicated to proving- that we contemporary psychonauts constitute the first “Mushroom People” and this amounts to nothing significant. What “we” believe or achieve never gets discussed but the midriff chapters wade through Letcher’s anti-psychedelic thesis which sets out to discredit the major psychedelic theories of the twentieth century. Gordon Wasson, the self-funded and published author who documented the pre-christian use of psilocybin by the cunanderos of Huatla, Mexico gets a vote of no confidence from Letcher. Wasson’s theories about psychedelic mushrooms being part of human’s religious consciousness are dismissed as Wasson’s lack of academic rigor are highlighted. Letcher manages to overlook that for Maria Sabina and her contemporaries to have been practicing pre-christian mushroom rituals in the 1950s the logical inference is that those rituals pre-date the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. Because Wasson wasn’t an academic by profession doesn’t preclude him from having a good idea or two and as a wealthy banker he was able to fund research which otherwise might not have happened. Wasson was not summarily despised by all social and scientific theorists of the day, Claude Levi-Strauss was a supporter and so was Albert Hoffman. Terence McKenna was inspired by Wasson’s idea of early religious use of mushrooms and developed it further, continuing to research in the field and theorizing even more adventurously about the interrelationship of mycelia and men. Letcher doesn’t get deeply into McKenna’s many theories but he does rubbish his Timewave Zero algorithm which for him justifies writing McKenna off as little more than a talented “senarchie” a rather patronizing way of calling him a “storyteller”. Robert Graves, whose The White Goddess ( Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948) attempted to grasp the origins of poetic expression and considers Druidic and other ancient belief systems is written off in academic terms entirely.

Letcher’s tone is politely apologetic as he breaks it to his readers that their mushroom experiences have no historic validity or corollaries. While he is obviously fascinated and even personally experienced in psychedelic research he cannot accommodate any kind of meaningful historic context, consoling us with many  amusing anecdotes of historic textual references to accidental ingestions. This doesn’t fly for me as Letcher’s own methodology is as flawed as the theorists he condemns as determinist: he accuses Wasson, McKenna, Graves et al for simply fitting their data to their pre-concieved ideas about human/mushroom history, he even accuses McKenna of enhancing the mushroom-like aspects of ancient cave art. However Letcher chooses to totally disregard existing archeological evidence and makes nothing meaningful of the continuing religious practices of indigenous cultures which use natural psychedelics. The archeological record continues to expand and advances in technology mean we can now retrieve more meaning from the data. Just a few weeks ago I read about the discovery of cave art near the Spanish town of Villar del Humo ( New Scientist, 6 March 2011) which shows a bull and a row of thirteen psilocybin mushrooms, carefully painted to show the species’ distinctive caps and characteristically twisted stems. It is not only actual evidence that Letcher ignores but current trends in archeology which acknowledge that our conception of history is colored by our own self-created human ethnology. Take for example  long-held ideas about the Roman conquest of Britain: native Britons have long been considered as having a much less developed civilization that their dominators who supposedly modernized the territory with innovations like their superior road-building skills. A recent archeological investigation in northern England exploring a stretch of Roman Road dug down and discovered that the road had actually existed several hundred years before the Romans arrived- thus the incursionists had merely resurfaced the highway. This new data reinterprets our view of history, now we regard the fact that many ancient pre-roman sites are found on pre-Roman routes differently and see that the Romans were working with existing structures. Similarly a recent excavation of an ancient British pre-Roman cemetery yielded funerary goods which demonstrate the technological sophistication of indigenous craftsmen as well as the far-reaching trade routes which imported Phoenician glassware and Italian pottery to these supposed barbarians. We have relied on the opinions expressed in the Roman texts to inform our own ideas about history which are now being challenged. Unfortunately new interpretations of  ancient history do not filter into mainstream consciousness quickly which is why the suppositions of  disenchanted hippies like Letcher are all the more problematic: we don’t need pseudo-intellectuals shutting doors that really original thinkers are nudging open for us. John W. Allen, author of the oldest guide to magic mushrooms, Magic Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest ( Psilly Publications, 1976) which has sold over 100,000 copies  writes disparagingly of Letcher’s research:  Allen debunks the author’s unsubstantiated claims (eg. That English shroomers predated a modern North American tradition) and draws attention to many inaccuracies in Letcher’s 20th century timeline.

Personally, I keep an open mind to what may or mayn’t have transpired in the past, I believe humans will only survive if we are open-minded and do not cling sentimentally to ideas which may be irrelevant to us now. Our linear and human-centric apprehension  of world history needs close examination by vigorous thinkers ( not any chancer with a couple of doctorates, a word processor and the green light from a publisher fixated on potential best-seller material).

More useful ideas are voiced in  The TIME BEFORE History (Scribner, 1997) by Colin Tudge, a biologist who proposes we need to take a very long view of history to understand our human impact on the planet’s ecology over the last five million years. As Tudge points out, those civilizations which we consider ancient — the Assyrians, Eygptians etc are actually ‘modern civilizations’ coming along after our human trajectory of many thousands of years of existence on the planet.

There can be no justification for shutting down the creative suggestions of those who seek to understand our long-forgotten origins, our past which reveals itself in muddled mythological fragments. More thought-provoking than Letcher’s  revisionist denial of a psychedelic component in human history  is Alan Garner’s powerfully imagined novel Thursbitch (Vintage Books, 2007) a story about a remote English eighteenth century rural community which still uses standing stones as a seasonal almanac and pays respect to the unfathomable forces of nature through ingesting psilocybin.

And so to my lonely arugula, the sole occupant of my vegetable patch. When I’m feeling down I relate to it’s isolation, it’s bitter flavor, the unlikeliness of it ever becoming part of a tasty salad. Luckily I’m more of a hopeful mushroom type and just yesterday I planted two kale starts next to the lonely one. Underneath these three photosynthesizers the  dark earth teems with filaments of fungal mats: I was mistaken, that arugula was never lonely.

P.S. Clancy I have a copy of Thursbitch for you – merry chrimbo!

Art :

Maya Hayuk,  Mushrooms I-IV acrylic on paper   view more at  http://mayahayuk.com/


Andy Letcher,  Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (Faber & Faber [U.K.] 2006 HarperPerennial/Ecco [U.S.] 2007)

Colin Tudge, The TIME BEFORE History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact ( Scribner, 1996)

Alan Garner, Thursbitch ( Vintage Books, 2007)

John W. Allen, Magic Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest ( Psilly Publications, 1976, repub. Raver Books, 1997)

Robert Graves, The White Goddess ( Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948)

Online sources:

Paul Stamets website MYCOVA


“Earliest Evidence for Magic Mushroom use in Europe” 6 March, New Scientist


“What the Romans didn’t do for us” Mike Pitts, 16 March 2011