Magic Mushrooms

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 an 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!

10 comments to Magic Mushrooms

  • Pearl Katz

    I didn’t know that you grew your hair long and stringy, kept all those strange creature. I thought you were born serious and never strayed!!!!


  • Gregg Erickson

    In 1952 My family collected a beautiful specimen from the Chugach foothills behind our home. Dad was excited, claiming it was the deadly poisonous Amanita. Mom & I were skeptical, but we agreed is sure was beautiful. We left the fungus on the railing by our back door pending a visit to the library to consult the appropriate reference.
    That evening my cat Whizzer ate a big chunk. Whizzer died the following day, exhibiting abnormal gait, and other strange behavior. We all felt terrible.
    As we later learned, the safe way to ingest the psychoactive components of the Muscaria is to feed the mushroom to a slave, and then drink the slave’s urine.
    Despite my later intense interest in homegrown psychoactive substances I never followed up on this use of an Alaska resource via round-about production. I doubt if Whizzer would have been interested either.

  • You take me places I have never been – and had no idea you had been.

  • Bill Peirce

    So, Polly, our paths almost crossed a half century ago, when I was already convinced by Henry George. Schultes and I were classmates (along with half a dozen others) in a course on the Finnish language taught by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., in 1959-60. Schultes made it a practice to take one course each semester in a field about which he knew nothing.

  • mathew forstater

    It seems that the Georgist approach has some potentially important contributions with regard to environmental issues (ecological tax reform, e.g.), so that links both of your interests. certainly no one can say you have sought out a conventional path!

    from a social economic view, hasn’t the war on drugs been a horrible failure? i often find myself thinking that many if not all drugs should be legal. the potential reduction in social costs alone would be immense (crime and a huge portion of the legal, prison system). Doesn’t U.S. policy bear some responsibility for what is going on recently in Mexico and some other nations, in terms of the cartel systems and associated violence?

  • How nice to have a personal touch and a vision. Thanks Polly. Interesting to reflect that Henry George was a popular fellow in his time. But how to get his ideas popular today is the challenge.

    America’s best kept secret is that we don’t live very long, despite the Declaration of Independence giving us the right to life. The desire to let the rich get ever rich is a key cause. Check out the website.


  • My brother hunts for those. I found a couple for him under a tree at my mom’s house. I was at an Alabama state park with him and his kids this summer, and he was finding them everywhere …. under logs, dead leaves, like he had a sixth sense for them.

    Hey, I have a new Georgist-themed blog. Come by, say hi!

  • Speaking of Nader, have you been in touch with him lately? He was on BookTV not long ago touting “Progress and Poverty” as one of his faves. What if a figure like Nader came out and said: the current system’s not working and we need a total, top-to-bottom tranformation of public finance, along Georgist lines? What if he started hammering on the point that we don’t need more privileges and subsidies, but to reverse the ones that have already been handed out? What if he came out in favor of decentralism not just rhetorically, but with a program that would actually promote it (i.e. decentralizing public finance)? That would have to have real resonance on the Left. And the Right, since many conservatives know that Ralph is a good guy and shares their concerns.

    Though establishing something like a “Single Tax” regime is a whole lot more complicated now than 120 years ago, it is just the sort of job that Ralph and his far-flung networks are made for.

  • Joseph Chiaravalloti

    I came upon your site when I looked up Homer Virgil Pinkley on Google. I took Shultes’ class a year before you and can still come up with most of the botanical names of ‘economic’ plants. Gualtheria Procumbens, anyone? Another Schultes student was Wade Davis who has a big list of publications including “One River” that is partially a bio of the man himself. Homer is mentioned in the book. When “One River” was published I prevailed upon a Boston lady who knew “Dick” socially and she boughta copy and had Schultes inscribe it for me. A blast from the past!