After a cool August morning searching vainly for chanterelle mushrooms within an aspen forest on the high slopes of the San Juan Mountains surrounding Telluride – I had reluctantly given up.  Turning back towards town empty handed, I came upon a mossy glade in the dark forest. Suddenly, there they were! The little yellow, cone-shaped, leathery mushrooms had shown themselves to me. I had succeeded in tapping into their hidden visual pattern, and they now appeared throughout the landscape. I proceeded to collect some prized  and tasty specimens.

With my forest booty in tow, I made my way back down to the high valley Colorado town to surrender my harvest to the small gathering of amateur collectors, naturalists, and scientists who were attending the Telluride Mushroom Festival. This motley crew worked together to classify the mushrooms spread over large display tables in the town park. Each person was intently focused on examining and grouping dozens of different specimens into larger families. Wild looking creatures, these mushrooms! They came in diverse shapes and colors. Uncommon in our everyday urban landscapes, these fleshy fruiting bodies seemed to have arrived here from some strange alien realm. And indeed they had.

Mushrooms are a kingdom all unto themselves, totally separate from both the plant and animal kingdoms. And though there are many more species of mushrooms than the number of plant species – estimated to be as high as a few million fungi species – they are still not understood or recognized for who they truly are. These humble creatures are nothing short of being the primary sustainer of terrestrial life on earth.

Fungi were the first multi-cell organisms to colonize terra firma sometime over 1.3 billion years ago. They proceeded in breaking down geological rock into a life supporting habitat for the colonization of plants. To this day, our complex living world of soil and plants are enabled by underground mycelium, the ever-expansive substrate of fungi. The largest and oldest living organisms on earth are represented by the fungi kingdom. They populate thousands of individuals under each step we take in the forest. And yet we have little awareness that they are even there.

“Mycelium running” are the complex fungi networks connecting diverse species in much the same way as our own world wide web. Fungi are everywhere within our natural topsoils (excluding fields poisoned with agricultural chemicals) and they maintain mycorrhizal symbiosis between fungi and tree root systems. From the fungi, the plants receive nutrients and minerals. In exchange, the fungi receives the needed sugars that are produced by plant photosynthesis. The fungi breakdown these sugars and store the carbon underground, serving as a worldwide carbon sink. The fungi also provide antibiotic protection for the health and longevity of old growth forests.

Fungi are decomposers and are necessary for breaking down and recycling the biomass of the forest – the fallen trees and dying undergrowth – so that ecosystems can rejuvenate and begin life anew. Fungi are essential in the remediation and restoration of clear-cut forests, toxic oil spills, and industrially damaged habitats.

The fungi kingdom includes microscopic yeasts that convert sugars to ethyl alcohol in the process of  fermentation. Yeast feeds on the grains and fruit, producing beer and wine. Ever since early modern man first discovered the technical secrets of brewing, and the domestication and cultivation of grains and fruits – society has experienced an intimate if troubled relationship with these alcoholic beverages. They have bestowed upon man the joyous gifts of Dionysian celebration and intoxication.

Since yeasts are everywhere in nature, it was only natural that man would learn how to use them as cultures for baking bread and creating such foods as fermented vegetables and meats, as well as the diverse number of fermented dairy products. These fermented foods are beneficial for maintaining the homeostasis of healthy microorganisms in our own digestive tracts.

Molds also belong to the fungi kingdom, and form multi-cellular hyphae. Molds secrete chemicals that attack and damage the walls of bacteria. The accidental discovery of one of these chemicals, penicillin, ushered in the age of antibiotics during the last mid-century. The development and mass production of penicillin saved untold lives since they were first introduced during the Second World War. The Allies gained a distinct health and morale advantage over the German armies who were deprived of this modern miracle drug.

Ever since the early nineties, I was drawn to these eccentric topics and the nascent underground subculture that mushrooms provided. So naturally, when the Telluride Mushroom Festival was scheduled a week before the Telluride Film Festival that I had been attending each Labor Day weekend, I cleared my schedule so I could experience both events. And I wasn’t disappointed. Each day, the display tables in the town park filled up after the morning forays with exotic Rocky Mountain specimens of every shape and color. The various edibles were segregated and shuffled over to the outdoor grills where volunteer chefs were grilling and sautéing the day’s harvest for our sampling.

The natural leader of this well organized operation was a man with a round jolly face and a full grey beard. Andrew Weil, one of the festival’s directors, engaged us with tales of wild forays and of gourmet adventures. I was familiar with the teachings of this now renowned naturopathic doctor from his first book, ‘The Natural Mind’ which he published soon after studying botany at Harvard University under naturalist and legendary Amazon explorer Richard Schultes, and then having graduated from Harvard Medical School in the early seventies.

While at Harvard, Weil had apprenticed as an undergrad with those infamous sorcerers themselves, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who later became Ram Dass. Both professors had been thrown off the faculty for their experimentation with LSD and psilocybin. Now years later, my participation in the festival brought me in close proximity with Andrew Weil. I felt that I had arrived in the inner sanctum of this esoteric mushroom cult – tasting multiple varieties during the day, and sampling the psychedelic mushroom teas being passed around the campfires at night.

One of the speakers at the festival, Paul Stamets, has gone on to become a major force within the mycological world. He is an author and the founder of the medicinal supplements company, Fungi Perfecti. Stamets believes that our ecological crisis could be healed if mushrooms were only given a chance. For decades now, Paul has grown and supplied specialty mushrooms for individual health. He has also lead the innovative research for the remediation of decimated natural habitats for planetary health. Fungi Perfecti, in the Pacific Northwest, is on the forefront of education, health supplements, and supplies for home propagation. 

The new documentary Fantastic Fungi shows at the Naro on Wednesday, Dec 11 in our ongoing ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ series. We will be joined in our discussion by Theresa Augustin, a course instructor in mushrooms from Norfolk Botanical Gardens, and by Tom Crockett, an artist, an author, and a teacher in the shamanic traditions. 

This stunning film by cinematographer and filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg in collaboration with Paul Stamets, has unfolded over a period of ten years. For years, Schwartzberg has pioneered cinematic work in time-lapse nature photography, and has utilized this technology to showcase the explosive growth of the mushroom fruiting bodies in their short-lived splendor.

Mycologist Paul Stamets, featured in “Fantastic Fungi”, with filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg

Along with the film, a companion book has been published, ‘Fantastic Fungi: How Mushrooms can Heal, Shift Consciousness, & Save the Planet’. The myriad scientists and experts who were assembled to appear in the movie are also featured in the richly illustrated text which is divided into three designated thematic sections.

The first section of the book, titled ‘For The Planet’, groups topics of ecology, myco-remediation, biomimicry, and myco-literacy – together with instruction from expert practitioners. Researchers are using mushrooms to help biodegrade oil spills and and to digest toxic wastes at sites previously considered poisonous for all living things. In another example, certain fungi are now being used as antibiotics to inoculate the guts of bees whose colonies have been devastated by mites and immune diseases. The initial results have been encouraging. Bee colony collapse is epidemic, and there’s no time to lose.

We learn from the naturalists that forest ecosystems are sustained through the symbiotic relationship between the root systems of trees and mycorrhizal fungi. The fungi provides needed nutrients for the trees, and since fungi do not perform their own photosynthesis, the trees provide in exchange, the needed sugars and carbohydrates. The bulk of the carbon that is absorbed from the atmosphere by trees end up stored in the ground by fungi. The survival of old growth forests as carbon sinks to draw down greenhouse gases is essential for the planet’s homeostasis.

Bridal Veil mushroom from “Fantastic Fungi” film

The next section of the book, ’For The Body’, celebrates the multitude of culinary virtues of edible mushrooms with chef specialists. But less well known is the medicinal value of fungi for maintaining personal health and for healing disease. Andrew Weil, MD, who also appears in the film, explains that the pharmacological wonders of mushrooms may come from our relatively close genetic relationship to them. Both mammals and fungi come from the same branch of the evolutionary tree. Particular species that promote immune system health include turkey tail, cordyceps, agarikon, lion’s mane, chaga, and reishi. They are all made available as extracts, powders, capsules, and topicals.

In the third book section, ’For The Spirit’, psychologists and therapists explore altered consciousness under the influence of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound produced by over 200 mushroom species found throughout the world. During the 1950s, the reports of profound mystical and spiritual experiences from the ingestion of these mushrooms spread throughout academic communities when they were first encountered by researcher Gordon Wasson among the indigenous Mazatec Indians of Mexico. Their introduction in the sixties to the awakening youth culture catalyzed a consciousness movement that so threatened the country’s political, military, and religious establishment, that the use of psilocybin was soon legislated illegal as a Schedule I drug, deemed to be deficient of any medical value. And that remains the legal status of psilocybin to this day.

Popular scholar and author Michael Pollan, whose most recent book, ’How To Change Your Mind’, is featured in the book and the film. He recounts in the spiritual section of the book, ’Fantastic Fungi’, that during the early days of fully legal, well-funded research programs utilizing psilocybin, that many benefits were documented for the treatment of psychiatric disorders, for personal and spiritual development, and for creative enhancement. This important research was halted by the government after psilocybin was banned in 1970, and was shut down for over thirty years. So much for academic freedom and cognitive liberties in the land of the free.

Today, there are dozens of studies taking place to evaluate the medical safety and efficacy of of psilocybin, and its potential medical benefits for the treatment of cluster headache, anxiety, alcohol and drugs addiction, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Roland Griffiths, who has been researching the health effects of psilocybin on patients since 2000 at John Hopkins University, has just announced the formation of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. 
The approval process for research with Schedule I drugs is expensive, complex, and hindered by the political influence of the war on drugs. Because of this, the research evaluating psilocybin’s beneficial uses does not receive funding from academic or government institutions. Instead, it relies on nonprofit organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the Beckley Foundation, and the Heffter Research Institute.

Localized political movements have been growing that advocate for cognitive liberties – the right for adults to have control of our own bodies and minds, and the right for the use of mushrooms as a sacrament in our spiritual experience. Policy groups like SPORE in Colorado have won decriminalization of psilocybin in Denver, as well as in Oakland, California. Oregon will vote on legalization of  psilocybin-assisted therapy that is conducted by licensed therapists next year. And in Congress this past summer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has pushed for an amendment designed to declassify psilocybin for the purposes of research. As to be expected, it was readily shot down on the House floor.

The importance of psilocybin therapy in the treatment of terminally ill patients cannot be overestimated. We are conditioned in our culture to live our lives under the illusion that we’ll live forever, that death is something that only happens to others. But receiving a cancer diagnosis shatters all that. When facing our own death, we experience a conflict between our clinging to an ego-centered reality, and the process of letting go, a surrendering to the underlying ground of non-being. Depression, fear, and anxiety can settle in and inhabit the patient’s last days. Our journey into death does not fall under the limited expertise of modern medicine, and the patient and their loved ones may deny and struggle against death until the very end.

In contrast to a lifetime of somebody training that we receive from our culture, the psilocybin experience dissolves the ego and the boundary between our self and that which lies outside our sense of self. After taking a strong dosage, our resistance is futile, the universal forces being so much greater than we are, and we are gifted an experience of mystical transcendence. Cancer patients report having their fear of death subside as they are subsumed into a greater reality of oneness. Psilocybin opens one’s heart to the authentic experience of truth, safety, purpose, and unconditional love.

Why do mushrooms and psychoactive plants produce the complex molecules that fit hand-in-glove into the receptors within our nervous systems and brain? Did our nervous systems co-evolve with these medicinal plants and fungi? Which came first, the complex alkaloids from plants and fungi that are analogous to serotonin molecules and are thus recognized and received in our neuron receptors as fully as our own neurotransmitters? Have the plant and fungi kingdoms co-evolved to enable man’s mystical experiences?

These questions have generated much theoretical speculation. Since the seventies, authors and scholars, Terrence and Dennis McKenna, have grappled with the rapid increase in size of the cerebral cortex of homo sapiens within a short evolutionary time span. Along with the epigenetic influence of the early domestication of fire, the brothers’ ‘stoned ape theory’ argues that the ritualized ingestion of psychoactive mushrooms catalyzed and enabled the growth in brain size of early hominoids.

Most of the massive increase of the brain resides in the neural structures that generate language and allow for symbolic interpretation of guttural sounds. Mushroom intoxication is shown to enhance the cognitive functions employed in self-reflection, awareness, communication, sensory perception, and abstract meaning. Could mushrooms provide the missing link in man’s physical and conscious evolution?

There is still much left unknown about the mysterious fungi kingdom. For example, their diverse and complex sexual reproduction cycles make it exceedingly difficult to cultivate and propagate most species of mushrooms that otherwise thrive when left alone in the wild. Further research by Paul Stamets and others is needed to foster the mass cultivation of keystone species that are rapidly being depleted in forests throughout the world.

We close with an excerpt from the gospel according to Paul (Stamets). “Humans indulge the idea that we’re the highest species, the top of the food chain, and that the main purpose of the biosphere is to support us. This illusion of biological grandeur is the cause of our suffering because of the egocentricity it covers up. We’re still very much in kindergarten when it comes to understanding how to create a sustainable future for all beings – and all beings are necessary to make that future possible.” Amen.

Paul Stamets, renowned mycologist shown with indigenous mushroom stone relics – featured in “Fantastic Fungi” film