The story of the psilocybin-containing ‘magic’ mushroom, of which there are hundreds of varieties worldwide, is in many respects a mysterious one. While their ancient use can be attested to some degree in South America, it is only in the mid-twentieth century that the Western world woke up to their presence in our environment — specifically through mycologist R. Gordon Wasson’s article in Life magazine in 1957. The article described the author’s experience of the mushroom’s ritual use with the shaman Maria Sabina after an expedition that was partially funded by the CIA.
Indeed, although psilocybe semilanceata (colloquially, the ‘liberty cap’ mushroom) grows in the British Isles (and elsewhere), its cultural history in Great Britain begins with some purported use by the 1950s Beats, who were likely awakened to it by news of Wasson’s article. There is no mention in the literature of an intentional use until the 1970s, according to Andy Letcher, author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. Therefore, the story of the magic mushroom is one of disclosure and of revelation.
On the one hand, it is a cultural history revealing itself, sometimes in a self-aware manner, sometimes not, but on the other hand — and this is true of all psychedelic substances — it has a mystery at its very heart, which is to say in one’s experience of consuming them. It is not just eyes able to discern the liberty cap in the grasses and identify which genus it belongs to, it is an intentionalised experience, an altered state of experience, that has emerged into a society that is ill-equipped to deal with it (and arguably the first to be in this rather child-like, naïve, state).
Moreover, the Western culture that psilocybe mushrooms have emerged into is arguably the most environmentally alienated culture to have existed to date. The post-industrialised West has, for several hundred years, viewed nature and the environment with utilitarian eyes, as an object to exploit; whether this be for increasing profit, progressing civilisation, or simply good old fashioned colonialisation. Interestingly, just as knowledge of the ‘sacred mushroom’ proliferated, the modern environmental movement also began to emerge alongside it. For instance, Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson, which explored the destruction of wildlife through the widespread use of pesticides:
“The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth [i]”
Carson’s seminal text was published the same year as a slew of important psychedelic works, such as The Joyous Cosmology by Alan Watts, Island by Aldous Huxley, and My Self and I by Constance A. Newland. The driving concept of these texts was the idea of breaking down the ego-identity of the individual, and allowing those experimenters in question to understand themselves within larger, interconnected frameworks. And, moreover, one can discern similar environmental seeds in psychedelic literature: Huxley describes an oil-hungry world destroying his island Utopia, and Watts becomes enamored with ‘the fairy architecture of seeds and pods [ii]’. Not only did psychedelic and environmental awareness arise at the same time, but they shared certain ideas about the alienation of humankind from its environment.
Although the majority of the aforementioned texts dealt with LSD and psychedelics generally, Huxley proposed a fictional toadstool called ‘moksha’ (meaning ‘liberation’ in Sanskrit). However, it would be d-Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) that would largely capture society’s attention throughout the 1960s, and become a politically-charged countercultural symbol. The rise of the mushroom, in Britain at least, was a slow burner, emerging with intrepid countryside explorers in the 1970s, along with the underground classic: A Guide to British Psilocybin Mushrooms (1977) by Richard Cooper. The mushroom, unlike LSD, and without wishing to make a crass pun, really did have its roots in the underground.
Knowledge of local magic mushrooms proliferated in Britain as a sort of folklore for the initiated and the curious. Indeed, a loop-hole in the law allowed the picking and consumption of fresh mushrooms (the ingredient chemical psilocybin being on the naughty list). Eventually, fresh magic mushrooms began to be openly sold in shops in the early-to-mid 2000s. The predictable result, however, from a society still uneasy and unable to incorporate the psychedelic experience into mainstream culture, was heavy-handed. First the media, and then politicians, began to rile against their sale, and the law was amended in order to prohibit the sale of fresh mushrooms.
One of the strongest, independent voices to come out in the defense of the mushrooms was Simon G. Powell, who actively campaigned for their sensible regulation. We shall return to this element of the story later, but suffice to say that although his independent report – The Powell Report – was discussed in Parliament, it was unable to prevent the tide of popular politics putting an end to the, albeit brief, popular mushroom craze. Rightly or wrongly (though I strongly suspect wrongly), the liberty cap left its folklorist, underground territory and was, overnight, politicized as a mainstream concern.
In many respects, the theories and trajectories of the psychedelic and environmental movements find their perfect coupling in the works of Simon G. Powell. Previously authoring The Psilocybin Solution (2011) and Darwin’s Unfinished Business (2012), his latest work Magic Mushroom Explorer: Psilocybin and the Awakening Earth (2015) is an expedition around his use of magic mushrooms; the ‘wilderness’ areas of Britain; and the potential for these two elements to radically change the way our society functions in regard to its relationship with the environment and within itself. What is of most interest here in this review is the manner in which Powell’s theories of ‘natural intelligence’ have arisen from his use of magic mushrooms. To understand this we need to take a look at what he believes the magical action of the psilocybin-containing mushroom is.
Powell notes that he prefers a Jungian approach to the action of mushrooms, one that involves the emergence of unconscious imagery into the light of consciousness through archetypal symbolism. However, his ontological basis for the unconscious differs from Jung, and is more in tune with the development of psychedelic theories in the mid-twentieth century. He discusses, for example, the concept of the ‘fovea of the mind,’ which describes the widening of attention. This is his explanation of ‘mind expansion’ and appears to owe a debt to Aldous Huxley’s famous Bergsonian adaption of the ‘mind-at-large.’ For Powell, the unconscious, and that which emerges from it, is indicative of a wider form of intelligence in itself: natural intelligence.
The lesson of ‘interconnectedness’ is an important one in psychedelic literature, and has become a focus in the field of ecopsychology as well, a field within which Powell sits rather well. In an article I wrote for the European Journal of Ecopsychology titled, “Preparing the Gaia Connection: An Ecological Exposition of Psychedelic Literature,” I said the following:
“…there is a capacity for one to experience a new level of connectedness outside of one’s individuated, or isolated, self. Subsequent literature explored this idea and increasingly identified other levels of awareness, such as the cultural and universal, and one of which was an increasingly ecologically-tempered level. [iii]“
Largely due to psychedelics becoming illegal, however, and these particular texts disappearing in favor of politically-minded and countercultural ones, the interconnectedness of a planetary level experience never became fully explored within a Western context. Although, it should be added, that this sort of discourse did emerge through work on indigenous cultures in the intervening period. Under the theory of coherency, it underpins Powell’s discourse. He writes: ‘In other words, through the illuminating power of psilocybin, one can become consciously privy to the interconnected coherency of the world and everything in it [iv].’
There is a chapter, which will be featured in the next volume of the PsypressUK journal, titled “The Sacred Pattern.” Throughout his life, Powell witnessed a specific pattern within the objects he perceived when bemushroomed. The regularity of this perception forms part of Powell’s ontological explanation of nature as understood through his experiences of mushrooms and the wilderness. When taking the text as a whole, one begins to see the story-telling capacity of the magic mushroom as a pattern throughout. It is as if the symbiosis between the fungal and human worlds — the very interconnectedness itself — is about giving voice to the grand ecology of the planet. Indeed, this capacity has long been recognized by anthropologists examining indigenous cultures who employ mushrooms:
“The Mazatecs say that the mushrooms speak. If you ask a shaman where his imagery comes from, he is likely to reply: I didn’t say it, the mushrooms did. No mushroom speaks, that is a primitive anthropomorphization of the natural, only man speaks, but he who eats these mushrooms, if he is a man of language, becomes endowed with an inspired capacity to speak. The shamans who eat them, their function is to speak, they are the speakers who chant and sing the truth, they are the oral poets of their people…[v]”
Of course, Terence McKenna also wrote of the mushroom speaking, but Simon G. Powell, rather than ascribing the mushroom with a particular voice, invests it with the ability to reveal the unconscious — in line with psychedelic theory — and thus, like the aforementioned quote makes clear, becomes the story-teller himself, communicating the revelations of his own experiences as ecological lessons embedded through interconnected experience. Magic Mushroom Explorer is primarily the weaving together of Powell’s mushroom experiences in order to outline a particular environmental discourse. In this sense, the book is an embodiment of the two aforementioned forces of psychedelia and environmentalism, and is imbued with the urgency of both movements: that society needs to adapt in order to survive itself. A increasingly prevalent and important story.
“And yet within this handful of tasteless earthiness lies spiritual bliss, the likes of which most humans are oblivious to. I have repeatedly marvelled over this fact. It drives home the fictional nature of this story of life on earth that we are woven into, in that the mushroom is a kind of plot device that has been expertly engineered to embody all manner of symbolism.[vi]”
Powell investigated the source of the fresh mushrooms that were being sold in the early 2000s in Britain. He befriended a gentleman who was the “head of a quasi church from Switzerland that allegedly used the psilocybin mushroom as a sacrament.” This gentleman was also responsible for the commercial distribution of the mushrooms, and claimed that : ‘The producer was a Swiss man (or maybe Dutch) who was growing massive quantities of Psilocybe fungi in warehouses.” Moreover, the producer had never taken the mushroom, “yet he was selling millions of them and raking in massive amounts of cash [vii].” The over-riding point is that as magic mushrooms became increasingly commercialized, without proper regulation, they became a commodity that not only mystified the effects that Powell describes elsewhere, but became tainted with an intention that bought right into the very forces that have conspired to destroy the planet.
If society embraces the mushroom through regulation and provision of literal trip spaces then, writes Powell, “I predict that a new cultural climate would take hold, one that places great value on creating healthy relationships with one another and with the biosphere and one in which ever new connections are forged between humanity and the larger cosmos [viii].” In this sense, society has a chance to take on board the lessons of the mushroom within a socio-cultural framework that is constructive, safe, and ecologically-minded. If not, old, negative connections will be reinforced — magic mushrooms would become the servant of the very ideas Powell believes they challenge.
There are many levels to Magic Mushroom Explorer that will keep the reader both entertained and informed. The wilderness elements bring to mind psychedelic psychogeography, and Powell’s theory of natural intelligence is carefully woven through the narrative of the text, and wonderfully exemplified through his descriptive passages. Moreover, the book does not fall into the trap of wistful, disconnected discourse, and manages to deftly position the mushroom, and the mushroom experience, within wider society that both challenges popular, mainstream understandings, whilst also offering thoughtful alternatives.