Last week, biologist and writer Merlin Sheldrake introduced Nautilus readers to Paul Stamets, a mycologist who preaches that mushrooms can save the world. “Give him an insoluble problem and he’ll toss you a new way it can be decomposed, poisoned, or healed by a fungus,” Sheldrake writes. Sheldrake focused on Stamets’ solution for colony collapse disorder, feeding bees a fungal potion that can squelch a virus they may carry from environmental toxins. Some of Stamets’ other mushroom remedies dissolve petroleum waste and transform cardboard boxes into tree seeds. Stamets is fast at work on how a fungal extract might treat COVID-19.
After reading Sheldrake’s profile, we got to wondering how Stamets’ magic mushrooms could improve the consciousness of Earth’s most damning species: humans. We’ve all read, and perhaps experienced, how psilocybin rewires our brains, and so were anxious to hear what the “fungal evangelist” had to say about the environmental impact of tripping.
Stamets gladly obliged. He’s been thinking about the interrelationship among mushrooms, consciousness, and nature for decades. It’s time for a revolution, he says. “We are at a new junction. To face today’s challenges, we need greater creativity and imagination.” In his 2018 book, How To Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan describes Stamets in the context of the Romantic scientists, the likes of Humboldt, Goethe, Joseph Banks, Erasmus Darwin, even Thoreau. Stamets is a scientist, writes Pollan, “an amateur in the best sense, self-taught, uncredentialed, and blithe about trespassing disciplinary borders.”
Who cannot be deeply affected by the enormity and the expansiveness of the universe?
The result is a scientific worldview that encourages looking at nature not objectively, not from the clean, well-lighted bench in the laboratory, but subjectively, from the unexpected path in the dappled forest—looking not at nature but as being part of nature; and with the help of mycelium, being able to imagine the view from within, the eye-view of the animal, plant, microbe, or fungus. The revelation to be gotten is the sense of an ecological oneness, or as Stamets would prefer to say, ever looking to properly name a larger context, a “unity of being.”
This evolving eco-consciousness is not Merry Pranksters stuff, but rather a clear and profound notion of a transaction, signed by nature and humanity, an exchange between the needs of mushrooms and the needs of the planet. In micro terms, think of the tree that needs immune system relief from all manner of pollution, which the mushroom can provide, in return for habitat and nurturing. That’s how Stamets sees it, anyway. We asked him to go deeper.
What is “evolutionary intelligence”?
Evolution is the evolution of intelligence. And one could make a very good argument we’re not acting very intelligently now. We’re destroying the very ecosystem that gives us life and will sustain our species for the future. The whole concept of evolution is that it spreads our genetic material into the future and preserves us as a species. Are we preserving ourselves as a species now? Are these pandemic zoonotic diseases emblematic of our intelligence or emblematic of our ignorance?
If you’re aware of your environment, you’re responsive to changes in your environment. You strategize to succeed and you protect your genomic destiny—that’s the lesson of evolution and the underpinnings of evolutionary intelligence. I think some could make the argument that we are not being evolutionarily intelligent at this point in time, given the fact that we are polluting and destroying the very foundation of the soils and the ecosystems that have given us birth and so will sustain future generations.
The problem is that people who have had one slice of the truth think that it’s the entire pie.
It just pains me that people have no appreciation for the importance of biodiversity. I could make the argument that those people don’t appear very evolutionarily intelligent to me. But that’s our task and duty. We have to bring everybody up the learning curve together, and we can’t marginalize people who don’t share our belief systems. They may not have been exposed to the lessons of nature in the same way that I have or that other people have. Once you live with the symbiosis of nature, you have a deeper wisdom and appreciation. I think it’s spiritual. I’m not religious, but I think there is a convergence of science and spirituality. Who could not become more spiritual by following astronomy? We have hundreds of billions of galaxies. Who cannot be deeply affected by the enormity and the expansiveness of the universe?
We suffer from scientific myopia. Understanding that we’re one form of a molecular configuration among a sea of molecules that’s reforming and disambiguating, and reforming constantly, gives solace when I consider death. I return to that from which I sprang. Now that seems biblical. But even that is a slice of the truth. The problem is that people who have had one slice of the truth think that it’s the entire pie. The hubris of religion and the hubris of authoritarianism is thinking your point of view is the only point of view and the whole point of view.
Do you think nature is sending us a message?
Have you tried psilocybin mushrooms?
Once, many years ago.
Well, you find the answer to that question in your journey. Many people who’ve had what’s called the hero’s dose of psilocybin mushrooms have come through that experience gratified, informed, happier, more creative, more compassionate, more satisfied with the concept of life and death. It comes with this oceanic feeling that you’re in this giant ocean of existence, and that life is a celebration. Organisms are singing out to us with praise but also deep concern. We’ve gotten here today because of biodiversity and the collaboration of other citizens and species on this planet. As we destroy biodiversity, we are removing citizens, and the democracy of nature is being undermined by human activity. Ultimately, nature will revolt against the species that is harming its foundation. It’s time for us to wear our responsibility as a species, as a good citizen within the biosphere. We’ve been not paying our dues. We’ve been extracting resources at the expense of biodiversity and not replenishing and re-supporting the foundation that have given us those resources.
How much does a psilocybin consciousness continue to inform you about the natural world?
I only journey on average about twice a year. But they inform me every single day that I re-remember my experience. I believe psilocybin mushrooms have made nicer people, more intelligent people, more creative people. These are Einstein molecules. How many Einsteins are we losing every day? And how many Einsteins would we not be losing everyday if psilocybin mushrooms and psychoactive substances were incorporated into part of our mental health wellbeing?
Hallucinogen therapy in clinical settings has been successful in helping people treat PTSD, depression, and addiction. How does that compare to tripping outside?
I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers. But I want to be out in nature on a cliff in Big Sur, which is where I had my first experience, seeing the ocean, hearing the wind and the birds, and to have that expansiveness feeling. Other people feel safer being in a hospital setting, with a mask, and listening to music, and having a highly controlled therapeutic setting. I think both are perfectly good approaches. I think the hospital setting is an easier entrance for people who are concerned about not having the strength, or the conviction, to feel they can weather this experience. But then they might use that as a stepping stone for doing it in nature, which is much more beneficial.
It just pains me that people have no appreciation for the importance of biodiversity.
Most people look at the stars in the sky as a two-dimensional plane. But when you’re on these psychedelics, you can see that Betelgeuse is bigger than Arcturus, you can see which is closer and which one is farther away. You experience the three-dimensionality of the universe. The air breathes. Rocks shimmer. Rocks speak. It just gives you a whole different perspective we’d never have with goggles, listening to music with headphones, at a hospital. But both avenues are justified. Psilocybin mushrooms are coming to us at a time when we need to have a paradigm shift in the evolution of the human species, and the medical science is rapidly catching up to this concept and supporting it.
You’ve written psilocybin can literally expand our minds. How so?
Psilocybin analogs, many of which are legal, like baeocystin and norbaeocystin, excite neurogenesis. Our studies were the first to show the proliferation of neurons from stem cells grown in vitro. We compared this growth to brain-derived nerve-growth, and discovered that baeocystin and norbaeocystin excite neurons over and above baseline, providing a proliferation of neurons within 12 days, up to 22 percent over controls. It’s thought by many that dementia is a slow slide, and is non-reversible, as is Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately this is the degeneration of synaptic junctions and the inability of growing new neurons. We all face this. But we are showing that these mushrooms stimulate neurogenesis.
You’ve said you’re just one voice in a long history of voices about the power of mushrooms. What do you mean?
There’s been mycological experts going back tens of thousands of years. But the problem with studying mushrooms is that unlike other plants and animals, which can be in your view for months or years, mushrooms can come up and disappear in four or five days. Some can feed you, some can heal you, some can kill you, some can send you on a spiritual journey. Then they disappear and you don’t see them for four or five years. Something that’s so powerful but so ephemeral speaks to the cognoscenti in certain cultures. They were the mushroom specialists, the mycologists. I am just one voice in a continuum of voices, calling out for nature, from nature, for people to wake up.
Mark MacNamara is an Asheville, North Carolina-based writer. His articles for Nautilus include “We Need to Talk About Peat” and “The Artist of the Unbreakable Code.”
Lead image: anitram / Shutterstock