Magic Mushrooms

by Polly Cleveland | August 31, 2010

It had been a rainy summer in Colorado. No surprise to find mushrooms as we hiked the Andrews Glacier trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. But these mushrooms! Three inches across, deep crimson with white splotches, glowing in the mountain sunlight! Amanita muscaria, the original deadly toadstool, the mushroom of fairytales, Alice in Wonderland’s mushroom. Not truly deadly—and safe to eat boiled—muscaria contains a psychedelic compound called muscimol.  Siberian shamans took muscaria to induce religious visions. Muscaria extract may have been the Soma of the Indian Rig Veda.

I first learned of psychedelic compounds in 1966, in a thrilling economic botany course taught by Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001). I can still recite the Latin names of dozens of useful plants. In the lab, supervised by Schultes’ student, Homer Virgil Pinkley, we extracted caffeine from coffee beans, made soap, paper and perfume and examined specimens in the Harvard Botanical Museum. Schultes himself, now known as the “father of ethnobotany” had spent over twenty years in the 1940’s and ‘50’s living among the natives of the Amazon, studying their use of plants, including hallucinogens. He collected thousands of medicinal plants, some of which were named after him. He published nine books, including Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use, 1979, with Alfred Hofmann. I didn’t know it at the time, but Schultes’ research set off the psychedelic revolution of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Schultes, proper Bostonian that he was, kept his distance. Schultes also first sounded the alarm about the destruction of the Amazon rain forest.

In 1970, I moved to Berkeley with my ex. I grew my hair long and stringy, kept two dogs, four cats, two chameleons from Israel, an African spiny lizard, a gorgeous brown and cream banded Sonoran kingsnake, and a three-foot spectacled caiman. The caiman was a gift from the laboratory of Alan Wilson, where it provided blood samples for research on the DNA clock—until it outgrew its tank. I kept my toothy little pet in the bathtub, and fed it surplus mice from the lab.

I also read Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge and its sequels. It was an enthralling account of anthropology student Castaneda’s experiences with a Mexican shaman, an account that expanded from a sober report to a poetic vision. I never actually tried any mind-altering substances. Not for lack of opportunity, but more from a sense that if I concentrated, I could find other ways of seeing, just around the next corner.

And I did find a new vision, a vision of social justice. In 1970 my ex and I worked in Ralph Nader’s project on Power and Land in California, studying how large landowners induced government to enhance their land values, notably by building unnecessary water projects. In the process, I encountered Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879). Now there was an eminently practical vision: social justice to arise from taxing the unearned income of wealthy property owners and untaxing the wages of the poor. That was the vision that sent me to grad school in economics, inspired my dissertation on inequality, and has kept me active ever since. No mushroom could do that!

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