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As above, so below

An exploration of magic mushrooms, the psyche, and the forest

On September 23, I ate approximately two grams of psilocybin mushrooms, commonly known as magic mushrooms or shrooms. I had taken psychedelics before, but this was my first time taking shrooms. I wanted the life-changing experience that LSD had given me. I was not disappointed. I continue to learn the lessons I was taught that day: about mushrooms, about fungi, about connection and communication, about oneness. This essay is a meditation on the lessons I learned while tripping, intercut with the fascinating nature of mushrooms and fungi.

I start with an understanding of the history that brought the magic mushrooms into my presence. According Andy Letcher, the author of Shrooms: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, it was Gordon Wasson, vice president of J.P. Morgan, who catalyzed the psychedelic movement of the 1960s and brought magic mushrooms into Western consciousness. Wasson travelled to Oaxaca, Mexico in 1955, where he met Maria Sabina, a Mazatec shaman, or curandera. Sabina introduced Wasson to the psilocybin mushroom through a sacred Mazatec ritual called the velada. In 1957, Wasson published a 17-page photo essay in Life, titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in which he described his experience with the psilocybin mushroom.

Letcher contends that it was Wasson’s essay that popularized magic mushrooms in contemporary Western culture. In fact, Wasson’s essay brought a massive amount of unwanted attention to the Mazatec people and region. The 1960s saw hordes of hippies, tourists, and celebrities flooding the Mazatec city of Huautla de Jiminez in search of the mushroom. Among them were John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and psychologist Tim Leary (who would continue researching the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs).

The curandera Maria Sabina became an outcast in her village, according to Wesley Thoricatha of the Psychedelic Times. She was seen as a traitor to her people for sharing their sacred rituals. Many Westerners did not treat the Mazatec’s sacred rituals and plants with the respect and reverence that they require. I want to acknowledge that the psilocybin mushroom came to me through this violent history of colonization and cultural appropriation.

In 2002, Tim Weiner travelled to Huautla with the New York Times to talk to a local curandera, Aurelia Aurora Catarino. Of the mushrooms, Catarino told Weiner, “They have the power to cure, to heal, to deliver understanding. They are not a drug. They are a sacrament.” She continued, “Foreigners come here without thinking, looking for a cure from reality. The purpose of these sacraments is to purify, and to open the road. When it opens, it’s as clear as the blue sky, and the stars at night are as bright as suns. But in the wrong hands, it can be a disaster. It can send people to hell.”

Interestingly, Catarino’s words echo those of Humphrey Osmond, who coined the term psychedelic in the verse, “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.” Both Osmond and Catarino note the potential of shrooms to either transport you to the heavenly spheres or to the most hellish place you could imagine.

The word psychedelic derives from the Greek words psyche (soul/mind/spirit) and delos (manifest), translating to “soul-manifesting.” Wasson wrote that during his shroom trip in Oaxaca, he felt “as if his soul has been scooped out of his body.” With these words of wisdom (or warning?), I embarked on my magic mushroom trip.There were three of us taking shrooms on September 23. We poured about six grams of mushrooms into a bowl, broke up the caps and stems with a wooden spoon, boiled water for Moroccan mint tea, and mixed the shrooms into our cups. We sat around casually drinking our magic tea, talking and listening to music, waiting for the drop. I had heard it could take 40-60 minutes to start feeling the effects. While we were waiting, my friend got a call from her parents, wishing her happy birthday from Pakistan, where it had just turned midnight. She went to talk to her parents while I moved myself and the speakers out onto her porch. My other friend came out to sit on the porch as well, and I noted that I had started feeling nauseous and my head was feeling light. Shrooms are known to make you feel a little sick to your stomach, and many people throw up while they are coming up on their trip. This is due to a combination of the relatively indigestible nature of the mushrooms, and the motion sickness that may come with tripping.

Out on the porch of this 12th floor apartment, I also noticed my intense desire to be outside, on the ground. Once my friend finished up on the phone with her parents, I quickly rushed us out of the apartment building and onto the street. As we were walking towards Jeanne-Mance Park, I realized something: I was already at my destination. When I looked around, I saw that I was outside, felt that I was close to the ground. All I had wanted to do was be outside and lo and behold, there I was! I turned to my friends, to explain this thought to them.

“I just realized that we are surrounded by our destination,” I said, “All I wanted was to be outside and now we are here! Outside! Everywhere we go today, we will always already be where we are trying to go.” This became the theme of the trip: the destination is now, the destination is here.

We meandered toward the mountain with the vague goal of hiking towards the top. I felt drawn into the forest and up the hiking trails. All the while, my trip was building. Near the base of the mountain, I came across a tree, its roots exposed and running over the forest floor in a complex, interweaving pattern. I reached down to run my hand over the roots. I could feel the forest talking.

In her TED talk, “How trees talk to each other,” Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, explains how trees communicate with each other. Her research with birch and fir trees shows that they send each other carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defence signals, allele chemicals, and hormones—what Simard calls “information.” By delivering each other chemicals through their roots, these trees help one another grow and survive. In the summer, when the birch has more leaves, it will send more carbon dioxide to the fir, especially if the fir is shaded. In the winter, when the birch is leafless, it will receive more carbon dioxide from the fir. A chemical exchange is taking place between these trees, and this exchange is a conversation! They are talking! Moreover, it’s not only the birch and fir trees that are talking. Other plants communicate through their roots too!

And do you know how they do it? They do it through fungi. The most familiar part of the fungal organism is its fruiting body, the mushroom. But the majority of the organism is actually found in vast underground networks called mycelia, made up of thousands of fungal threads called hyphae. The mycelium penetrates or surrounds the roots of plants, forming mycorrhizal (from the Greek mykes and rhiza—fungus and root) relationships. Where fungal cells interact with root cells, there is a transfer of carbohydrates (sugars) for nutrients. The fungus needs carbohydrates for energy since it cannot make its own. In turn, it transfers essential nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as water and other chemicals, to the plant. The fungus is able to take up these nutrients by growing its dense network into the soil, soaking up water and nutrients. “The network is so dense,” Simard says, “that there can be hundreds of kilometres of mycelium under a single footstep.” This is how the birch and the fir communicate: the mycelium acts as an agent for them to transfer information to each other. In fact, 90 per cent of land plants form these mycorrhizal relationships.

A mycelium can occupy as minuscule a space as the body of a dead fly, or it can be one of the oldest and largest living organisms on Earth. An Armillarea ostoyae in Oregon’s Strawberry Mountains spans an area of 8.8 square kilometres and is believed to be the largest organism in the world. It is estimated to be 2400 years old. Because mycelia can be so large, they form various mycorrhizal relationships, connecting plants that can be hundreds of metres apart. Suzanne Simard has likened this vast and complex network to the Internet.And eating magic mushrooms plugged me right into it. I was with this tree, running my hands over its exposed root system, spending time with the roots, listening to what they had to say. I slowly moved towards the base of the tree. I saw that several bugs were trapped in the resin dripping down the treeís trunk. I thought of how the resin would one day be amber, of how I was watching amber form, and of how if I sat by this tree for thousands of years this resin would eventually harden and become something new, something else, slowly, ever so slowly. From there, my thoughts became harder and harder to articulate. I began thinking in images, in moving pictures, in feelings. I felt the tree telling me stories; stories of carnivals and love, of heartbreak, of softness and hardness, of ages and epochs and epic adventures. The bark of the tree swirled before me, its gorgeous purples, greens and browns shimmering, swaying and pulsing. The tree became an elephant, became a snake, it was moving, it was dancing, and I was dancing with it. I listened to the stories the tree had to tell me, enraptured. Without realizing it, I had begun to cry. I could not move, could not do anything but squat by the tree, my head against its trunk, quietly listening as tears streamed down my face and mucous collected in my nose. I lost myself. I lost my body. I became the tree and the tree became me. For a moment that felt like an eternity and also a split second, there was no separation between us. I died at the base of this tree. I became trapped in its resin. I turned to amber, I turned to stone, I dissolved into a million particles, and all of me was blown away with the wind, with the breath of the Earth. I lived lifetimes through this tree. I died and was reborn thousands of times.

I do not know how long this lasted; where I went, time was of no consequence. There was no difference between a second and a century; both were just moments, just bright bursts.

When I had collected myself, when I had come back into myself, I breathed a deep breath. My face was wet with tears and snot and I felt simultaneously like a newborn child and the oldest being on the planet.

How can I describe to you what I have trouble articulating even to myself? In the past, people have described this experience as “ego death.” It is the death of the self, or rather, the death of the borders we put around ourselves. It is interesting to me that mushrooms can help us transcend our egos and recognize our continuity, or our one-ness, with the world around us, and that fungi simultaneously acts as the great connector of the forest. It is as if the mushrooms—the reproductive bodies of the fungi—plant spores in our souls and grow their mycelium inside us.
Simard’s research demonstrates how trees are connected through the mycelium into a network of hubs and nodes. She found that lots of activity in the mycorrhizal network would be concentrated around certain trees, which she has dubbed “mother trees.” These mother trees send extra carbon to smaller trees, especially to seedlings. When a mother tree is injured or dying, Simard says that it sends “messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings.” Using isotope tracing, Simard and her team have tracked mother trees sending carbon and defence signals to seedlings, increasing the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses. They work together to increase the resilience of the whole community. And it is the fungi that allows them to do this.

On the taxonomic tree of life, fungi are more closely related to the animal kingdom than the plant kingdom. This makes biological and physiological sense.But it also makes sense on an emotional level. It seems that fungi is sentient. It is acutely aware of its environment and rapidly adapts to changes in its surroundings. In his TED talk, mycologist Paul Stamets seems a poet when he says, “The mycelium is sentient. It knows that you are there. When you walk across landscapes it leaps up in the aftermath of your footsteps trying to grab debris.” In all seriousness, fungi are magic.

Fungi are the decayers of the forest, breaking down dead plants and allowing for new vegetative growth. They can heal scarred landscapes. Bioremediation is the use of biological organisms to restore balance to an environment. Mycoremidiation is a branch of bioremediation that uses fungi to do this work. Paul Stamets works in mycoremediation. He wrote a book on the topic, Mycellium Running. Stamets researches how mushrooms and fungi absorb and break down harmful substances like jet fuel, heavy metals and radioactive material like cesium. Planting mushrooms in a toxic landscape will allow mushrooms to absorb the harmful substances. As the mushrooms grow, they attract insects, which leave larvae, which attract birds, which bring seeds. A whole habitat can be restored using mushrooms! Stamets describes fungi as a “gateway species” that pave the way for entire living communities to grow in a space. Fungi can be used to restore brownfields–old industrial sites where the soil is full of toxic waste. They can also be used to clean up wastewater. Stamets feels that mushrooms can save the world.

Another mycologist, Robert Rogers, likens the work that fungi do in mycoremediation to alchemy. In the book Mushroom Essences, he writes, “[M]ushrooms and lichens recycle, transmute, and transform. Harmful matter is turned into something of value.” Much like the alchemical process of turning lead into gold, fungi turn toxic environments into places full of life. If fungi can do this for soils, what do magic mushrooms do for our souls? What good seeds do they plant in our pscyche? How do these seeds detoxify the environments of our minds?

I find it interesting that Rogers connects mycoremediation to the work of alchemy. There is a phrase associated with alchemy that really resonated with me after tripping shrooms: “As above, so below.” Or, as translated by Dennis W. Hauck from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus: “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing.” What this phrase means is that whatever happens on one level of reality (physical, emotional, mental) also happens on every other level. In other words, everything is everything. The mountain is found in the rock. The apple is found in the seed. The branches are found in the roots. This is the recognition of the continuity between all beings. This is the recognition that I am the tree and the tree is me. This is the understanding that when trees send carbon and nutrients to each other through the mycelium, they are talking. The psilocybin mushrooms allowed me to join that state of being, to access all levels of reality. The mycelium, the great connector of the forest, allows the forest to act as one big organism. It is the miracle of the One Thing. It is the continuity of us all.Rogers also identifies working with mushrooms as “shadow work.” It is working with our darkest selves. The shadow has many different names: the alter ego, the id, our demons. Mushrooms put us in touch with our shadow aspects because their energy is dark and mysterious. The majority of the fungal organism is found underground, thus the mushroom brings that which is subconscious, that which is repressed, to the fore. This can be difficult to contend with, but our shadow selves can also be our most important teachers. It can be important to befriend the dark, inky selves we contain and listen to what they have to tell us. Magic mushrooms tune us into crepuscular and complex frequencies. When I was tripping, I felt the forest become my mind and my mind become the forest. Exploring the forest became an act of exploring my mind. A reminder that that which occurs on one level, occurs on all. In the introduction to his book, Rogers warns his readers that engaging with mushrooms requires work and that this work is not easy.

As Osmond wrote, “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.” But going to hell or heaven is not easy work either. Dying is hard work. Being reborn is hard work. Contending with our shadow selves and letting ourselves be reformed through them can be incredibly painful. We’ve all heard of people having really awful shroom trips. These mushrooms are to be met with care and reverence. They can be our greatest teachers; as Catarino said, they can open the skies to us. But they can also be our harshest teachers.

The mushrooms are a reminder of the ways in which the world is intimately connected. The experience of ego death is a memory. It is a reacquaintance with that which we already know: that the self is a falsehood, that the ego is a lie, that we were always already everything and nothing.

Since eating the magic mushrooms on September 23, I have revisited the place where I died three times, to spend time with the tree and the roots that showed me everything. This may sound bizarre (although perhaps not, in the context of this essay), but I now consider this tree a friend. I like to spend time with it, to communicate with it, to learn from it. As I said to my friends near the end of our trip: “The trip is only over when you allow it to end.” Revisiting the tree is a remembering of that which was already a memory: that I am you and you are me and that this essay is the forest and that the forest is your mind, which is my mind, which is nothing, which is everything.