Another Life: Foraging for mushrooms and natural psychedelics

Michael Viney locates psychedelic fungi in the context of culture, therapy and danger

The most seductive soup I ever tasted was served in an elegant cup on a posh night out at Delphi House in Doolough Pass on the other side of the mountain.

Its intense, creamy essence was that of chanterelles, small, fluted yellow mushrooms, smelling of apricots, that grow in the wooded valley around the hotel. I had, in more innocent times, gathered them there myself, trespassing in what is now, behind the fence, strictly chef’s territory.

Chanterelles are probably the chief prize for this autumn’s mushroom gatherers, ahead even of ceps and blewits. And the chances are that the delighted cries of their harvesters will have frequent Polish intonations, since it is our eastern European settlers who make autumn expeditions to the woods.

There will also be, by all accounts, a sprinkling of Irish fungi-fanciers abroad, gazing at the ground in the hope of a quite different species: rather simple-looking little mushrooms that may or may not contain the psychedelic drug psilocybin.

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As with all mushroom gathering, wrong choices or guesses risk drastic impacts, so many devotees of “mushies, shrooms, liberties or magics” prefer to obtain them online. The accompanying good advice may still be no protection against wrong decisions on how much to swallow at a time.

In 2005, a 33-year-old man jumped to his death in Dublin after ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms at a party. Until that point, “head shops” had openly and legally sold them. After this, the government moved swiftly to ban them.

The Psychedelic Society of Ireland, founded by Ciara Sherlock, held its first, enthusiastic, 100-strong meeting in Dublin's Temple Bar in 2016. Its practitioners are adamant that psychedelic substances are safe if used responsibly and with a sitter to look after people. And the value of mind-changing psilocybic experience in treating depression has gained ground with reputable psychiatrists, notably at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Demons of the unconscious

The interest in psychedelic experience blossomed in the US in the 1960s as a largely hippy culture experimented with LSD, the hallucinogen found in ergot, a grain fungus affecting rye. They were strongly encouraged to “turn on, tune in, drop out” by Tim O’Leary, a Harvard psychiatrist.

Visiting San Francisco at that time, in research for a report on fringe treatments for schizophrenia, I was invited by a hospital psychiatrist to take LSD in laboratory conditions. I declined, being timid and wary of demons that might lurk in my unconscious.

Only recently, in his revelatory and much-praised book Entangled Life, the UK ecologist Merlin Sheldrake reported on his own monitored trip with LSD. Asked to assess the experience in a psychometric questionnaire, he was left confused: "How can one measure the experience of timelessness? How can one measure the experience of unity with an ultimate reality?"

In using the drug experience in modern therapy, Sheldrake concludes that “psychedelics open a window of mental flexibility”, offering escape from the toughened habits of addiction or depression.

Entangled Life traces the long history of use of psychoactive plants and fungi, often interwoven with spiritual beliefs and rituals.

In Ireland today, as reported in this newspaper by Peter McGuire (January 26th, 2019), members of the Church of Santo Daime dance and sing devotional music from Brazil before taking ayahuasca, made from the bark of a tropical tree. This, McGuire described, is "a potent and noxiously bitter tea containing the molecule dimethyltryptamine, which causes strong and intense hallucinations that users claim can bring insight, euphoria and heightened awareness".

Elves and fairies

Ireland does not supply the makings of ayahuasca, but it does grow a highly toxic and hallucinogenic fungus often first encountered in children’s story books. Fly agaric or Amanita muscaria is the mushroom with a bright red cap spotted with white warts, from the land of elves and fairies. Its particular abundance in northern conifer forests comes with bizarre accounts of its drug use – still current, says Sheldrake. among shamans in parts of Siberia.

In Ireland's Generous Nature, his encyclopaedic account of plant uses, botanist Peter Wyse Jackson quoted a more explicit Irish source for customs employing fly agaric.

In the 18th century, Oliver Goldsmith wrote that the poor Tartars of Koraki in northern Russia would gather around the huts of richer people getting high (or very sick) from eating the fungi. When these people came out for a pee, the poor kulaks would collect their urine – a "delicious fluid", wrote Goldsmith, and "of this they drink with the utmost satisfaction, and thus they get as drunk and as jovial as their betters".

Such second-hand imbibing of fly agaric’s essence is widely recorded in Europe, but Wyse Jackson could not find any evidence of parallel Irish endeavours.

Today, the dominant social platform on the internet is promising a “metaverse” in which, as defined by Wikipedia, “persistent, shared, 3D, virtual spaces [are] linked into a perceived virtual universe”.

It’s more appealing, I suppose, than rich man’s piss.