BOOK REVIEW: Magic Mushrooms by Hank Bryant & Israel Bouseman

Magic Mushrooms: The Psilocybin Mushroom Bible – A Guide to Cultivation and Safe UseMagic Mushrooms: The Psilocybin Mushroom Bible – A Guide to Cultivation and Safe Use by Hank Bryant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As a neophyte on the subject at hand, I can’t say how many books are on the market on this subject. However, I’ve read one other (one I’m led to understand is famous in relevant circles, entitled “Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide” by O.T. Oss and O.N. Oeric [pseudonyms / nom de plume for the McKenna brothers]) and I will say that I found this book to be a more beneficial read. Only part of the advantage of this book is to be found in its more substantial length. The McKennas’ book was more narrowly focused on cultivation, and to the degree it touched on other aspects of psilocybin mushrooms, it engaged in a more mystical approach. What I liked about Bryant and Bouseman’s book is that it takes a scientific approach and a pragmatic tone. Also, it seems to be one-stop shopping for anyone interested in the how-to of psilocybin mushrooms, even if one doesn’t intend to cultivate one’s own.

This book is divided into four parts. The first part of the book is designed to give the reader an understanding of what psilocybin mushrooms are, what varieties they come in, what effects they have, and how they can be safely used. It should be noted that this doesn’t mean that the sum of all knowledge is provided. The authors repeatedly state that the best practice with respect to both foraging / identifying as well as consuming these mushrooms is to have an expert on hand. There is only so much that can be passed on by way of a book, and picking mushrooms as an amateur can result in deadly mistakes. (Which is not to downplay the advice to have an experienced guide, but knowing oneself goes a long way for an inexperienced consumer – whereas being an inexperienced forager can get you killed.) The book does provide descriptions and pictures for a variety of the most common psilocybe species to give the reader an idea of the differences. The first part of the book is useful whether the reader has any intention of engaging in fungiculture or not.

The rest of the book, is geared toward those who have an interest in how mushrooms are cultivated. Part II discusses the basics that might be employed on a small scale at little cost by an inquisitive beginner. There is more sterilization than one might expect, and the book describes the equipment (e.g. pressure cooker) and processes that must be applied. (Compared with gardening, with which I have a little experience, mushroom cultivation involves some amount of added complexity – though both this book and the other suggest it’s not a daunting process. And for gardeners who can their produce, it’s probably not much more extensive.) Part III delves into more advanced techniques for those who are considering growing on a larger scale, over a longer / continuous span, or outdoors. This book offers a number of more options on varying scales than the McKenna brother’s book. However, the processes seem quite similar. That said, I can’t really comment on the technical merits of any approaches to fungiculture, and I presume from the clear and well-written instructions that the authors know of what they speak.

The last part of the book discusses problems that one can run into with these processes, as well as the varying legality across the US and abroad. (The latter is bizarre and changing landscape. In many places having and consuming mushrooms is perfectly legal, but if the psilocybin or psilocin were extracted and put into a capsule it would become a Schedule I drug with immense potential consequences. Which is how it is where I currently live.) The last section also has sources for additional information.

The book has graphics (drawings and photos) as are quite beneficial in a book of this nature. I found the graphics to be clear and well-presented.

I’d highly recommend this book for individuals who are interested in exploring fungiculture. For those who aren’t interested in cultivation, part I will be quite useful as will be much of part IV. (Though there may be books that are more focused on non-agricultural issues, if that is your case.)

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BOOK REVIEW: How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of PsychedelicsHow to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Psychedelics have been coming back into mainstream interest of late. Until recently, this renewed interest mostly occurred quietly through a continuation of scientific study, a promising line of inquiry that was aborted in the late 1960’s. There is growing evidence that these substances may be useful for combating depression, anxiety, and addiction – as well as their other, long-known benefits. (It should be noted that while it seems the writing is on the wall for these substances to become medically legitimate, it remains controversial whether they will be legalized for use by well individuals – though some were legalized in the US for a small religious group that takes them as a sacrament of their faith.) This book by the immensely popular immersion journalist, Michael Pollan, has brought the topic front and center into mass awareness, and may help turn the tide of a sullied public image.

Because these substances remain widely unknown or misunderstood, allow me to present some background — much of which Pollan discusses in varying degrees. Unfortunately, the term “psychedelic” has become so loaded with layers of meaning that it’s not optimal for discussing the topic at hand. Literally, psychedelic means “mind manifesting,” but its common meaning is tied up in notions of 1960’s counter-culture and even with styles of art and music. However, alternative terms are also troublesome. “Psychoactive substances” (i.e. chemicals that change mind states) encompasses a much broader selection of molecules and medicines – though it’s probably the most neutral term used popularly today. “Hallucinogens” is also problematic because a large portion of consumers of these substances don’t have hallucinations – at least not of the full-blown variety people normally associate with that term (i.e. seeing sights that one genuinely believes exist, but don’t.) Pollan opts to largely stick with the loaded term of psychedelic, and thus will I throughout this review.

Psychedelics are chemical substances that change one’s mindset, typically creating euphoria, shutting down “I”- centric parts of the brain such that one feels a “oneness” commonly described in the mystical traditions from around the world, and which, yes, often generate sensory experiences that aren’t reflective of the actual environment (hallucinations.) The downside is found in the fact that the substances produce constructive experiences, which means they amplify what’s in the subject’s mind, and, therefore, can result in “bad trips” in which people hallucinate terrifying products of their own subconscious mind. Pollan focuses heavily on three of the most popular psychedelics: psilocybin (naturally produced in a common species of mushroom), LSD (a chemical synthesized from ergot fungus that grow on rye), and DMT (which is most famously an active ingredient in Ayahuasca, a concoction long brewed by Peruvian Shamans.) Mescaline, which is well known from the writings of Aldous Huxley, is another popular psychedelic, but one which Pollan only mentions in passing.

To wrap up the background portion of the review, a little history. Psychedelics have been used by shamanic traditions around the world since time immemorial. In 1938, Albert Hofmann, a chemist for Sandoz Laboratories, accidentally synthesized LSD. That marked the (re-) introduction of psychedelics to the modern Western world (the ancient Greeks were believed to have mixed something with their wine that sounded like it had psychedelic properties.) Unbeknownst to most, between Hofmann’s invention and the late 1960’s, there was a promising line of research on the use of psychedelics for various conditions as well as in non-medical domains – e.g. relating the psychedelic experience to religious / mystical experience.

Unfortunately, there was a two-pronged turn of events that would end in these substances being made illegal and categorized “Schedule I” (which deems them not only risky / requiring care of use, but also denies they have any legitimate medical use – the latter seems to be proven demonstrably incorrect.) The well-known prong in the death of psychedelics resulted from the substances becoming tied into the 1960’s counter-culture, at first through shoddy scholarship by academics – most famously Timothy Leary – and then through recreational use that typically stripped away the rituals and “protocols” that had allowed shamans and mystics to safely use these substances for millennia. The second prong was government-sanctioned shenanigans in which LSD was used and misused in an attempt to create everything from truth serums to mind-control agents – most famously the MK-Ultra Program, and its sub-projects such as Operation Midnight Climax during which the CIA illegally used prostitutes to “roofie” their customer’s drinks with LSD so that a spy could covertly watch to determine whether the johns got loose-lipped or not. (Note: Pollan writes at length about the former aspect [i.e. Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, et. al.] though not as much as books like Lattin’s The Harvard Psychedelic Club or Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. However, Pollan only gives passing mention to MK-Ultra.) Psychedelics might have remained out of the popular consciousness and only of interest to the fringe of society that was involved with “hard drugs” had it not been (in addition to renewed scientific interest) for a blooming interest by Silicon Valley engineers and executives who took to “micro-dosing” psychedelics to obtain creativity gains.

Now, I’ll get to the review, proper: As I mentioned, Pollan refers to himself as an “immersion journalist,” which means that he provides a two-in-one book. The first element is what one would expect in a popular science book on psychedelics, i.e. he reports on the scientific findings, the key history and background information, and delivers quotes from people he interviewed. The second element, however, is description of his own psychonautic journey. Pollan consumed psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca (DMT), and also a substance excreted by a toad that lives in Mexico and the Southwestern US. The reader gets both Huxlian “trip reports” (though Pollan remains much more scientific-minded and less mystical than Aldous Huxley) as well as the objective overview of the topic.

The book consists of six chapters as well as front and back matter. The first chapter discusses the psychedelic “renaissance,” i.e. how it came to be that these substances brought back from the dead – i.e. being purely of interest to “druggies” and far-flung shamanic traditions. Chapter 2 deals largely with mushrooms, and specifically psilocybe mushrooms that are the most popular and common type of psychedelic mushroom. Pollan spent time with Paul Stamets, a world-renowned expert on all-things fungi and the man who – literally – wrote the book on psilocybe mushrooms. Chapter 3 focuses heavily on LSD, including its development and rocky history. The fourth chapter is a “travelogue” in which Pollan discusses his own experiences in taking these substances. The penultimate chapter is about the neuroscientific findings. There is much that remains to be known, but yet somethings are well-known. These substances generally mimic the neurotransmitter serotonin (though mescaline, for example, mimics dopamine.) There is also a fascinating discussion of how these substances may temporarily reduce activity in the default mode network, which is prominent in generating one’s sense of self. The final chapter examines the findings of research into the use of psychedelics as a treatment for medical conditions – particularly depression, anxiety (especially death anxiety of terminal patients), and addiction (contrary to a widespread notion, resulting from these substances being lumped in with “hard drugs,” psychedelics not only aren’t addictive, but – in many patients – they counter addictions to more dangerous drugs, such as alcohol – yeah, you read that right.)

The book contains the usual ancillary matter, including: a glossary, bibliography, and notations. As the approach is narrative, graphics are minimal.

I found this book to be highly informative and extremely readable. The use of stories to convey information makes it engaging while it educates. I would highly recommend this book for any readers who are interested in psychedelics as medicine or a mystical experience.

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BOOK REVIEW: Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide by O.T. Oss & O.N. Oeric

Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide: A Handbook for Psilocybin EnthusiastsPsilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide: A Handbook for Psilocybin Enthusiasts by O.T. Oss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This booklet, at around 80 pages, offers step-by-step guidance about how to grow mushrooms – specifically psilocybe cubensis, which are referred to as stropharia cubensis throughout this book. (The book was published in the 1970’s and the mushroom has since been reclassified.) This species is known to induce hallucinations, euphoria, and altered perception in those who ingest it because of the presence of psilocybin, which – converted to psilocin — interacts with serotonin receptors. Most of the information presented could be applied to cultivation of any mushroom (excepting information about identification in Ch. 1, which applies to that one species, and the information about dosage in Ch. 5 that doesn’t matter for edible mushrooms.) The authors did specifically develop this process, but I think that had more to do with the need for a process in between the vagaries of foraging and the large-scale agricultural approach that couldn’t be exploited for the “hobbyist,” than it had to do with the specific needs of this fungi.

The body of the book is divided into five chapters, which follow the progression of steps required to cultivate mushrooms. The first chapter covers locating and identifying psilocybe cubensis as well as how to collect and germinate the spores. The second chapter is about growing mycelial cultures on sterile agar. One of the major challenges presented in the book is keeping mold and other undesirable species from growing on or amongst one’s mushrooms. In the third chapter one learns how to grow the mycelia on sterilized rye. The penultimate chapter explores covering the mycelia infused rye with soil in a process that commercial fungi agriculture calls “casing,” which ultimately results in the generation of the fruiting bodies that we traditionally think of as mushrooms (though in the wild most of the organism is below ground.) The last chapter is about harvesting the mushrooms, preserving them, and determining dosage.

There is a substantial amount of front and back matter book-ending the aforementioned chapters. The front matter gives the reader some history of psychedelic mushrooms as well some insight into their effects. (The Preface and Forward are explicitly written by Terrence McKenna, but it’s said that the entire book is written by McKenna and his brother, Dennis.) The Forward and Introduction are where the book feels less like an agricultural how-to manual, and more like a guide to psychedelics, but the reader should be aware that this book is – first and foremost – a how-to guide. The back matter includes a range of helpful appended sections including a glossary, a bibliography, a timeline of psilocybin mushroom happenings, and a section to help one make conversions — particularly between volume and weights for various materials that are used in cultivation.

There are many graphics employed throughout the book. Most importantly, there are several series of black-and-white photos that help clarify the process being described textually. There are also some line-drawn artworks that depict psychedelic mushroom in their cultural context – both in the ancient shamanic tradition and the more recent wave of use.

This is a quick read that gets into all the processes needed to cultivate mushrooms. The authors compare it to canning preserves in terms of the degree of complexity. (That rings true as both processes rely heavily on sterilization.) It is a how-to guide, and if one isn’t interested in the process of cultivation, one might find the book a bit dry. I found it interesting to learn about the cultivation process as well as the information from the Forward, Introduction, and Chronology about psychedelics, specifically. If you’re interested in cultivating mushrooms or are very curious about fungi, I’d recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin

The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for AmericaThe Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The title and subtitle say it all when it comes to Lattin’s controversial thesis that four individuals who were at (or — in Smith’s case — “near / working with”) Harvard University single-handedly (octa-handedly?) gave birth to the sixties’ counterculture through their research and advocacy of hallucinogenic substances (first psilocybin and later LSD.) Before I obtained a copy, I was perusing the reviews, and one overarching criticism stuck out amid a sea of generally complimentary comments. Having now read the book, I’d have to agree with both that criticism and much of the praise.

The criticism is that Lattin arbitrarily lumps four individuals together and emphasizes their connection to the prestigious Harvard University in order to support a [sub-titular] claim whose reach exceeds its grasp. Now, some critics may be defending their alma mater. No matter one’s perspective, Harvard gets a black eye from the story of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass.) For some people, that black eye results from the fact that the pair of psychologists were able to carry out such wild and woolly experimentation in the first place. For others, it results from the fact that the university ultimately fired the two and ended research into the benefits and hazards of hallucinogenic substances [and how to tap the former without succumbing to the latter] — a line of research just starting to show results. (To be fair, the CIA’s shenanigans with hallucinogen experimentation [i.e. MK ULTRA] likely did more to kill this line of research than did the firing of Leary and Alpert.)

As one can see, tying the stories of Leary and Alpert together is reasonable. They were faculty members who worked together, were ultimately fired together, and for a while after said firing they continued to work together to advance their agenda outside the constraining halls of academia. Smith and Weil have roles in this story, but presenting them as though they were working shoulder-to-shoulder to advance psychedelic substance use is a bit of a stretch. While Weil’s work eventually suggested that marijuana wasn’t particularly harmful and could be beneficial, as his story intersects with the Leary / Alpert story his role was adversarial. As an undergraduate and writer for the school newspaper, Weil was the one who broke the story that Leary and Alpert were giving at least some undergraduates hallucinogenic substances (a big no-no as per their agreement with Harvard.)

Huston Smith’s story is yet more tenuously connected. While he was on faculty at MIT, he worked with Leary and Alpert on a study with divinity students to determine how psychedelically-induced mystical experiences compared to ones that weren’t influenced by mind-altering substances. While Leary followed his own advice to “drop out,” becoming a counterculture / hippie bad boy, and Alpert went on to pursue the mystical life of a spiritual seeker under the alter-ego of Ram Dass, Smith had a long career as a mainstream academic – retiring as Professor Emeritus from Syracuse University. Weil had some karma pains early in his career, being marginalized by his colleagues for his work with controlled substances as Leary and Alpert once had been, but ultimately he became a health food / holistic medicine celebrity and co-director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.

While I agree that Lattin overstates his case on the book’s cover, once one delves into its pages, I think he does some intriguing and honest reporting of the stories of these four men. It’s certainly a story with a lot of tension. There’s the strained relationship that ultimately develops between the polar-opposite partners of Leary and Alpert. The two psychologists’ differences were complements in some ways, but the partnership was ultimately doomed. Of course, both of the above men had a problem with Weil, and the latter’s attempts to reconcile with them is integral to the post-Sixties part of the book. As suggested above, Smith’s is a side story that exists outside this drama, and only really has the one point of intersection.

This book kept me reading. Timothy Leary and Ram Dass were only vague pop-culture references to me, and I knew nothing of Weil or Smith before reading, but the overarching story (as well as the individual ones) is a fascinating one. While these four men may not have birthed the Sixties into being, they did have interesting stories while living through an interesting time. I’d recommend this book if you want to learn about the early civilian (i.e. transparent) research into hallucinogens (note: there is only a small reference to the parallel, secretive, government-sponsored work on LSD, and this isn’t the book to learn about that subject.) It’s also a good book to get a view of how the sixties unfolded, and the states of mind that led to it. As I said, these four men weren’t particularly integral to the Sixties being what it was. Aldous Huxley’s essays were out there; the Vietnam War, political mistrust, and other ingredients of the counter-cultural tide were all present. But, while the Sixties might have transpired without a glitch if none of these men had ever been born, they did have front row seats to what was going on, and one sees in their actions (drug use, spirituality, radicalism, etc.) the era in miniature.

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