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Shroom: The Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom

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Is Santa Claus really a magic mushroom in disguise? Was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland a thinly veiled psychedelic mushroom odyssey? Did mushroom tea kick-start ancient Greek philosophy?

Much stranger than the fictions it has inspired, the world of the magic mushroom is a place where shamans and hippies rub shoulders with psychiatrists, poets and international bankers. The magic mushroom was rediscovered only fifty years ago but has accumulated all sorts of folktales and urban...

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Overview

Is Santa Claus really a magic mushroom in disguise? Was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland a thinly veiled psychedelic mushroom odyssey? Did mushroom tea kick-start ancient Greek philosophy?

Much stranger than the fictions it has inspired, the world of the magic mushroom is a place where shamans and hippies rub shoulders with psychiatrists, poets and international bankers. The magic mushroom was rediscovered only fifty years ago but has accumulated all sorts of folktales and urban legends along the way. In this timely and definitive study, Andy Letcher strips away the myths to get at the true story of how hallucinogenic mushrooms, once shunned in the West as the most pernicious of poisons, came to be the illicit drug of choice.

Chronicling the history of the magic mushroom, from its use by the Aztecs of Central America and the tribes of Siberia through to the present day, Letcher takes a critical and humorous look at the drug's more recent manifestations. Since the 1970s scientists and others in major Western nations, the United States and the United Kingdom in particular, have identified hundreds of hallucinogenic species, isolated their active ingredients, learned how to cultivate them on an industrial scale, and spread them around the world. More than any other civilization that has come before us, and despite all the myths we have built, we, by all rights, are the true magic mushroom enthusiasts.

Informative, lively and impeccably researched, Shroom presents a unique and engaging study of this most extraordinary of psychedelic drugs.

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Editorial Reviews

Dick Teresi
… Andy Letcher’s Shrooms: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, is a near-transcendent experience. Well written and thoughtfully researched, the book works on the limbic system too: after reading it, one is tempted to hit the streets in search of a religious-experience-in-a-fungus. Letcher has contributed a delightful, journalistic addition to the genre known as trip lit.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Letcher, an eco-protestor who once lived in a tree house, wrote this exhaustive history in order to debunk the folklore in which mushroom munchers have rooted their appreciation of the hallucinogen. The "bemushroomed," he says, proselytize that the fungus inspired humans to construct Stonehenge, found Western philosophy and even think up Santa Claus. To demonstrate that the real story is "less fanciful and far more interesting," Letcher draws on biological and archeological studies, social history and even his own diaries to chronicle phenomena like Algerian cave drawings that look suspiciously like mushrooms and the plight of Siberian shamans. But he often buries his best material. It's startling, for example, to learn that a New York City banker helped kick-start the psychedelic '60s with a Life magazine article about Mexican mushrooms. But Letcher digresses for 18 pages before finally delivering the kicker: financier Gordon Wasson engaged in a grave deception to gain access to the goods and declared himself blameless as hippie hordes destroyed the ancient community Huautla. Major figures like Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg appear, but are also subsumed by Letcher's colorless, academic style. Readers expecting a druggie classic in the style of Aldous Huxley or Carlos Castaneda will be disappointed. (Feb. 27) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

In his first book, freelance writer, lecturer, and musician Letcher, who holds doctorates in both religious studies and ecology, examines the history and use of hallucinogenic—or "magic"—mushrooms since ancient times. Letcher's passion for his subject clearly comes through; his writing style is highly accessible and amusing, and the material he presents is thought-provoking. Extensively researched and engaging though it is, however, his book at times reads more like an advocacy piece than a scientific treatise, and countless descriptions of psychedelic experiences can become a bit tiresome. Appropriate for anthropology and public health collections in academic libraries but optional for public libraries.
—Mary Grace Flaherty Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Kirkus Reviews
An exuberant, approving account of psilocybin and its kin for those of us living in what debut author Letcher calls "the Mushroom Age."Others would put that magical time back a few decades to the period when Timothy Leary was running around with madcap subjects of the Psilocybin Project, among them Allen Ginsberg, who found in a good dose of magic 'shrooms authorization to become the Messiah. ("He intended to walk the streets of Cambridge instructing people to stop hating one another. Careful redirection persuaded him against this somewhat inadvisable course of action.") Still, Letcher ably charts the maiden voyages and great space-trucking expeditions of "myconauts" such as Gordon Wasson, the banker who took profound interest in the effects of mushroom consumption on history and ventured strange theories about Jesus, the Russians and suchlike topics in the course of his fungal odyssey, which began in the late 1920s. Wasson had heirs, of a sort, in Leary (who never met a weird idea he didn't like) and in the poet Robert Graves, who enjoyed sleeping with whatever hippie chicks crossed his path in the '60s even though he didn't much enjoy the drug himself. (Graves advocated mushroom tripping at key moments such as the onset of puberty and the approach of death, but added, "Not that I should care to enroll myself in any such cult.") Profiling with enthusiasm such relatively recent myconauts as the late Terence McKenna, who wedded psychedelia to cyberia during the 1980s and '90s, Letcher laments that there's no big, Leary-like figure to lead the mushroom charge today. He makes it clear, though, that many devotees around the world still enjoy the "chemical jiggery-pokery" of replacing alphawaves with beta waves, knocking down serotonin feedback loops and otherwise short-circuiting their heads in the interest of finding what lies beyond. Just the thing for a budding myconaut. A few copies will doubtless make the rounds at the DEA, too.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060828288
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/27/2007
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Andy Letcher is a freelance writer, lecturer, and musician with a doctorate in ecology from Oxford University, and a second in religious/cultural studies from King Alfred's College, Winchester. He lives in Oxford, England, and sings and plays the mandolin and English bagpipes in his own acid folk group, Telling the Bees.

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Read an Excerpt

Shroom

A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom
By Andy Letcher

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Andy Letcher
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060828288

Chapter One

The Mushroom People

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.
Sylvia Plath, 'Mushrooms'

Magic mushrooms are becoming hard to avoid. Once they were the preserve of the psychedelic underground—of hippies, freaks and travellers—the dedicated few who may still be seen in Britain and America every autumn searching diligently for the little goblin-capped mushroom, the Liberty Cap, Psilocybe semilanceata. Now, however, an underground army of net-head hobbyists grows more exotic species and strains away from the public eye, in jars and terrariums secreted in basement cupboards. Young Western travellers to Indonesia, Thailand and Bali, lured by the pull of the paradisiacal full-moon beach party, buy mushroom omelettes or cola-mushroom shakes from the surreptitious locals, illicit fuel for their all-night dancing. In Holland, where liberal attitudes to such matters prevail, magic mushrooms have become big business. 'Paddos', as they are called, can be sold quite openly from market stalls, in 'head shops' and in specialist 'smart shops', and inundations of tourists flock to Amsterdam to sample these unusual wares.

For a few short years, until the legalloophole was forcibly slammed shut in July 2005, mushrooms could be bought in Britain too, provided they were fresh and unprepared. Almost overnight, it seems, they erupted onto the marketplace to become the fashionable illicit drug of choice for young and old alike. For example, at 2004's Stonehenge summer solstice gathering—that great barometer of alternative tastes, lifestyles and ideas—the principal psychoactive being peddled was not cannabis, LSD or Ecstasy, as recent trends might lead us to expect, but cultivated Mexican mushrooms. That year's Glastonbury festival—now an established mainstream cultural event, in spite of the countercultural hype—saw one wholesaler alone shifting an excessive 70 kg of fresh mushrooms, a turnover that factors out at somewhere in the region of 3,500 individual trips. You could buy DIY kits with which to grow your own or, if that was too demanding, you could find flyers advertising websites from which to order mushrooms direct, delivered to your doorstep by return of post.

The surge in mushroom consumption has not been restricted to festival-goers, hippies, clubbers, artists, musicians and the other usual bohemian suspects. I have heard of businessmen, academics, geneticists, photographers, architects, doctors, farmers, council workers and journalists who all make regular mushroom excursions. To reflect this trend, the Oxford English Dictionary, that great bastion of language and meaning, has been forced to add 'shroomer' to its ever-expanding lexicon.1 From Scandinavia to Spain, from the Americas to Australia, from Ireland to Indonesia, shrooms are gathered and eaten with apparent relish, and with a total disregard for their prohibited status. Mushrooming is, well, mushrooming—and, it seems, pretty much everywhere.

From a historical point of view, interesting questions remain over how this curious state of affairs came to be, questions that this book attempts to answer: have people always consumed mushrooms, but secretly and away from the public gaze, or is this a modern phenomenon, and if so, why? Ask these questions of mushroom enthusiasts and many—at least those who are aware that mushrooms have a history at all—will tell you that psychoactive fungi have been used since ancient times.2 With great certainty they will detail how mushrooms were used in prehistoric religious ceremonies, inspiring the building of the stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge and the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacán. They will tell you how Plato, amongst others, drank mushroom tea at the ancient Greek rites of Eleusis; how mushrooms were eaten by the shadowy Celts and their Druidic priests, by the Vikings to access their jingoistic rages, and then later by the medieval witches in their secretive moonlit sabbats. They will happily explain that folk memories of Siberian mushroom-shamanism gave us the figure of Father Christmas, who is, in fact, a magic mushroom in disguise. They will blame a blinkered, patriarchal and nature-hating Christianity, or perhaps the scientific machinations of the industrial revolution, for the severance of this unbroken tradition and the wilful oppression of this throwback to the stoned age. And they will claim that by reviving mushroom use they are reinstating an ancient shamanic heritage, a heritage that is their natural birthright.

This book differs from all others that have come before by breaking with this received orthodoxy, for the real and as yet untold history of the magic mushroom is at once less fanciful and far more interesting. The history of the magic mushroom is much more than a good old tripper's tale. It is intertwined with and inseparable from the social, cultural, scientific and technological changes that have occurred since the industrial revolution, the forces that have wrought the modern Western world. Because of this entanglement, the story of the magic mushroom says something rather revealing about ourselves, about the ideas, hopes, fears, aspirations and desires that shape our time: not least about our yearning for enchantment in a barren scientific world stripped of magic and meaning. That we in the West have found value in those remarkable mushroom experiences, where almost all others before us have regarded them as worthless, means that in a very real sense we could claim to be living in the Mushroom Age. We are the Mushroom People. The story of the magic mushroom therefore provides us with a window, albeit from a quite unexpected viewpoint, upon the modern condition itself.

Mushrooms may not yet have inherited the earth, as Sylvia Plath ominously predicted, but what little fossil evidence there is suggests that fungi per se have inhabited it for at least 400 million years, since the Devonian period.3 It has been estimated that there may be as many as 1.5 million species of fungi currently in the world, of which only about 100,000 have been identified and formally described, with most of the new species being discovered in the tropics.4 Though people often label them as plants . . .



Continues...

Excerpted from Shroom by Andy Letcher Copyright © 2007 by Andy Letcher. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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