TELLURIDE MUSHROOM FESTIVAL 1994
I don't remember now where I first saw the notice for the upcoming Telluride Mushroom Festival in Telluride Colorado, but when I got a brochure back I noticed that the Telluride Chamber of Commerce was listed as supporting it. Hmm.
After a long seven hour drive from Boulder, we arrive in Telluride, tucked in a dramatically beautiful mountain valley. Downtown is ten blocks long and about four blocks wide. We were greeted by the fiftyish registress, sitting in the grass and shade at Elk City Park in the center of town, just outside the local Elks Lodge. She informs us that the lectures have been moved out of the Elks lodge and into the Opera house due to the large attendance this year. 190 have arrived and twenty or so more were turned away, at least from registering, though they will be allowed on the "forays". We waltz over to the opera house, and the photography presentation is yet to start. People are straggling in, men in their thirties and forties with neatly trimmed beards, women in hundred degree summerwear, and a handful of tie dye shirts on younger guys.
Reading the souvenir Wild Mushrooms of Telluride book, given us on registration, we find that the festival has been in Telluride fourteen years, and several years before that in Aspen. There has been a parade of pharmacologists and drug legalization stars through the festival in past years - Ethan Nadelman, Thomas Szasz, Alexander Shulgin, Terence McKenna, and regular faculty member Andrew Weil, who is back this year. The souvenir book is filled with recipes and guides to various shrooms found in the area. There is also a great official t-shirt with Mayan designs incorporating mushrooms, done in very electric colors.
We've missed the "mushroom identification for beginners" session with Gary Lincoff, author of the Audobon Guide to Mushrooms, and John Corbin's mushroom cultivation workshop. Our first speaker is Lee Gillman the official festival photographer, and husband of Linnea Gillman, Forest Service specialist and mushroom identification expert. Lee finds photographing mushrooms a challenge - they are small, you have to deal with the elements, etc. Gillman gets best results from lying down and getting at the mushroom's own level. He shows a variety of photos, including some microphotography, but there are several dramatic shots utilizing eerie lighting or interesting subjects such as the "tooth fungus" that looks like you might expect, and clusters of jolly looking mushrooms.. He showed a bag of shutterbug tricks that were lost on me - I'm an instamatic man myself. Gillman did show us, early on, the informal nature of the conference by recognizing a new acquaintance in the audience - "she's got on computer a digital version of the largest "pleurotis ostreatis" I've ever seen." No one else stifled a laugh at this - I was among true believers.
We are sitting in the Sheridan Opera House, built in 1891 to clean up the image of the mining town that was founded just 15 years before (Telluride was named after tellurium, the non metal substrate that silver and gold were found in.) A big rush of seventy more people come in to hear some entheogenic talk - it's a more fervent buzzing around than that raised by mycologists of a naturalist bent.
A bearded gentleman by the name of Paul Klite takes the stage to introduce Jonathan Ott, author of the truly encyclopedic Pharmacotheon, to speak on ayahuasca. Klite quiets the audience by whispering "Aya, aya, aya" and when the crowd grows quickly silent, he finishes in a rushing whisper "huuasssca", and then calls the audience to follow, until the whole 120 odd people are chanting "aya-huasssca", then he says, "OK we're in the Amazon jungle, and now we hear the insect noises," and cups his hand to ear, and sure enough a couple of people in the audience start doing cricket noises , while most everyone keeps chanting "aya-huasssca". Klite then says, "and now we hear birds," and a few more audience members do an admirable variety of bird calls, over the cricket noises, and the continuing "aya- huassssca". When he calls for the animal noises, I lose it and so do a few others, but a bunch of people have great fun with monkey and elephant noises and lion roars. Klite then gets everyone together for a final aya-huasssca, brings them down to silence, and introduces Jonathan Ott to wild applause.
Ott is the special guest faculty for the festival, and he proceeds over the course of four presentations in three days to give a virtuoso display of scholarship in phytochemistry, ancient literature, religious art history and the central role of entheogenic substances in human social history. (Entheogen means "god within" - Ott uses the term as a replacement for "psychedelic or hallucinogen", which he believes have negative connotations.) Delivered off notecards, and taking all sorts of informative digressions, Ott is spellbinding. Summaries of Ott's remarks do not give the flavor of his delivery, the density of information conveyed, and his occasional dry wit.
In his first lecture, Ott asks "what's the connection of ayahuasca to mushrooms?" The chemistry is different, but the visionary experience is the same. Ayahuasca is used in Meso and South America, and psilocybin mushrooms almost certainly used in in precolumbian times. There are a number of psilocybin bearing species that are likely candidates.
Historical records of the Jesuits in the Seventeenth C. refer to a "diabolical potion". The early 1850's saw the first botanical collection of ayahuasca by a botanist who partoook of the "nauseous beverage" but didn't get much of an effect. He named it Banisteriopsis caapi. An Ecuadorian geographer several years later experienced the full effects in 1868. It was eventually found to be a pan-Amazonian phenomenon Ott recommended Eduardo Luna's Ayahuasca Visions as a good modern sourcebook.
There are many different kinds of potions, and different additives to the vine. Three broad methods of preparation are used, ranging from the Columbian method of cold water infusion for less than an hour to the Ichitos Indian method of cooking for twelve to fifteen hours, leading to a very concentrated brew. There are ninety seven admixtures used in yage, and not all are psychoactive. Admixtures fall into 3 categories, therapeutic, stimulant and entheogenic. Yage is used by healers to administer therapeutic additives for non entheogenic purposes, and as a stimulant beverage when it includes caffeine or coca. For entheogenic purposes, yage admixtures serve a specific chemical purpose. Without them, the ayahuasca vine is not psychoactive because the psychoactive tryptamines get broken down in the stomach before making it to the brain. Admixtures contain inhibitors which prevent that breakdown. Dennis McKenna in his PhD work provided the scientific verification of a fairly sophisticated shamanic knowledge.
Ott then talked about his chemistry work and forthcoming book Ayahuasca Analogs, a compendium of legal chemical combinations that will serve the same entheogenic function as ayahuasca potions. Ott is self-publishing the book as part of what he calls the "disembodied eyedrop conspiracy" (for a characteristic iconography of entheogens), and hopes co-conspirators will remain unindicted. There are lots of these analogs available in commercially used compounds, with higher concentrations even for some - e.g., syrian rue grows in U.S. and is commercially available. This led him to mention funding problems, and the fact it stigmatizes one's career to be involved in this area of research; one should take his phytochemistry with grain of salt because we have so few papers and data points, due to the effective suppression of such research. Ott discussed his use of the "psychonautic bioassay" - self administration of drugs to ascertain their psychoactive effects (he also called it the Heffter Technique, after an early 20th Century researcher - a new research institute has been named after the same man.) He quoted R. Gordon Wasson's rejoinder to those who think it disreputable to sacrifice objectivity by taking the drugs oneself, "I don't believe scientific knowledge is possible in this field if self experimenters are disqualified by subjectivity, and the rest of you are disqualified by your total ignorance on the subject." This ends a solid hour tightly packed with information.
Next up is Andrew Weil. He'd been reading an article about fungal diseases that are becoming increasingly harder to treat due to resistance to treatments. The author said that's especially because of similarity between fungal organisms and us, and speculated the reason is we are descended from fungi. Weil noted recent evidence that animals are more closely related genetically and chemically than animals and plants. (This recalls the theories of Terence McKenna.)
Following up on the ayahuasca theme, Weil echoed Ott's mention of the Indian discovery of MAO inhibitors as a sophisticated discovery. So much so it's mysterious. When he has asked, shamans tell him that they add admixture, "to make the visions brighter." When he asked how did you know, they told him "we learned it in visions, that showed us the other plant", and so it was not the trial and error way he was taught in school. This is not necessarily outre thinking; when people live close to nature, it can lead to tapping the unconscious as a way to learn about plants and their use, especially useful since schools and especially medical schools penalize rather than encourage the use of intuition. (Weil, by the way, took courses from Richard Evans Schultes, the dean of ethnopharmacology in America, at Harvard. Weil is now afffiliated with the Harvard Medical School.)
Ayahuasca's psychoactive ingredients are chemicals called tryptamines, closely related to melatonin, which is endogenous to the human brain and which is now promoted as effective treatment for jet lag, and regulator of sleep patterns. Because tryptamines are so close to part of our brain regulating cycles, they interact more smoothly than other more complicated sorts of chemicals. In the sixties, DMT was a street drug, taken by injection. It led to nightmarish experiences for many. Recently, Weil has been getting reports of people smoking toad venom. As it turns out, a primary constituent of the venom is 5-methoxy dimethyltryptamine. This toad has an enzyme that converts bufotenin, present in many toads but not really psychoactive, to 5 methoxy dmt. You can extract, dry and smoke the venom. Weil's friend he calls White Dog tells him it's good, and he doesn't appear badly affected physically or mentally.
Of course all this has become publicized in the last few years - Weil got a call once from a prosecutor in California who was excited about a recent bust - he had been waiting for a "Toad case" for years. Interestingly enough, it's bufotenin that is illegal, not the five methoxy dmt! Of course, the law is starting to catch up - there are "toadariums" in New York, but they now must have license and are limited to having five toads at any given time. White Dog was in full page ad in the New York Times Magazine a few months ago - he's a media star. Even Rush Limbaugh was speaking about toads a few weeks ago, so it's quite a phenomenon.
As his political comment, Weil noted that nature showers us with substances people can use for these purposes; if the government restricts access, they'll turn to more toxic forms (e.g. crack); plus the idea of government agents chasing hopping toads thru desert is a silly waste of taxpayer money.
Weil's closing remarks were that in terms of unifying themes of research, he's fascinated by the fact that what changes in here (pointing to his head) changes what's out there. Researchers that didn't believe in LSD-aided cure of alcoholics and or that it eased suffering and acceptance by terminal cancer patients were the ones that didn't use it themselves and understand set and setting. As pharmacologists, they thought all the power was in the drug, and didn't realize how much the mind had to do with it. The disappearance of emergency room visits due to LSD tapered off in the1970's even though surveys showed use was still going up. The simple answer was that people figured out set and setting. Weil then said "I never disown my psychedelic experience when speaking to health audiences because it informed my ideas about health (Weil is a respected member of the AMA and published writer on health care); the healing system inside us along with set and setting play a role in whether any health treatments work." He is working on a book called "Spontaneous Healing".
We ate a communal dinner of Indian food (meat optional) at the Telluride elementary school, sitting with a local who can't afford to live close to town because jet setters like Ralph Lauren and Christie Brinkley have driven up real estate prices - the same phenomenon drove people out of Aspen to Telluride in the first place. Then we went over to the Nugget Theatre for poetry and music. Conference coordinator Art Goodtimes (real name), who is also arts editor for the Telluride newspaper, read a Gary Snyder poem with a long clause about mushrooms that got the crowd enthused. Then a guy with a guitar strummed a lovely little ditty about death called Dr Jack. A couple of women read some decent wild woman poems, informed by psychedelics.
Then it was time for Jonathan Ott again, who had noted earlier when apologizing he only had an hour for ayahuasca, that he usually presented these talks in three hour blocks, and had been known to go on for eight hours at times. After tonight's performance of three and a half hours, I believe him.
When writing Pharmacotheon (his encyclopedic work on mind altering substances), he had decided to leave politics out of it because he felt he couldn't get it published. But in compiling it politics was coming out at the seams, so he put politics back in and sure enough no one would publish it, so he published it himself.
Citing R. Gordon Wasson (with whom Ott collaborated on several books, and who was the forerunner of all ethnomycologists and who coined the word), the age of the entheogens preceding the bronze age. Theory says in the course of gathering food, early man was affected by entheogens, and Ott "tends to agree". In fact, these substances are actually de-hallucinogens, enabling you to see things more clearly in many ways. Carl Ruck, another Wasson collaborator, coined "entheogen". Ott refers to himself as practicing in the field of ethnopharmacognosy, asking of mind altering plants "where are they, how do I find them, and what do I do when I get my hands on them". This drew a hearty laugh from the audience, who I have by now figured out are mycologists second and entheogenophiles first. (Still, there are mycologists lecturing here who are of national stature in the straight scientific world.)
In a personal note, Ott told us "my life was saved by entheogens". He was unable to get into school, was violent, self destructive, and spent time in jail. Then he encountered entheogens, which gave him a reason to go on. Years later he told Albert Hofmann (inventor of LSD) the story and Hofmann told him he had heard the same story a thousand times.
In historical terms, Ott believes shamans eventually become priests and mystify and then forget what they know about sacred plants. Then to keep power, they institute what he calls the Pharmacratic Inquisition. And that inquisition has metamorphosized to the current War on Drugs. The Christian religion's main early problem was dealing with the Eleusinian Mysteries, the core religious experience of the Greek and Roman empires. Ruck thought, even further back, that Socrates was executed for profaning the mysteries. Christians in 496 C.E., destroyed the temple at Eleusis and the priesthood, and this was the beginning of Pharmacratic Inquisition. The destruction of sacrament, and it was replaced with symbols (bread and wine). European witch trials were the culmination of this inquisition, aimed especially at herbalists and midwives, to pretty much stamp out the competition. But in Mexico, entheogen use still survived, and not just still surviving but flowering as the state religion in Mexico. And so Europeans coming into the new world were suddenly confronted with their own past. The Spanish passed a law in 1620 to outlaw peyote and ololoqui (morning glory seeds) . There are disembodied eyes all over Olmec ruins, similar to carvings found at Eleusis.
Moving to the modern era, early twentieth century Mexican scholars said mushrooms were still being used. Schultes went with them to confirm, then published a Harvard leaflet on the subject. (Wasson later read it.) After WWII. Schultes was reassigned to the Amazon and Mexican mushrooms were forgotten when Wasson opened up the subject again with his visit in 1955, and subsequent Life Magazine article in 1957. Mazatec Indian curandero Maria Sabina only showed him the mushrooms because she thought the vice mayor had ordered it - otherwise they felt gringos should not touch them. Wasson invited French mycologist Roger Heim on the trip, and Heim brought the samples back to Paris. Heim showed the mushrooms to Albert Hofmann, who ultimately identified the psychoactive ingredient as psilocybin.
Wasson was a subject of CIA investigation for the MK-ULTRA project, the CIA's investigation of mind control through drugs which had been spurred by Korean War tales of Chinese interrogation and brainwashing. There was a CIA mole on his 1956 expedition. and the CIA actuallly offered to hire Wasson but he declined. Ott is editing a book, Linguist of the Inefffable, extracts from Wasson's writings which he hopes to publish next year.
After two and a half hours, Ott showed absolutely no sign of slowing, half the crowd was gone but the other half cried for more. I was physically (9,000 foot altitude) and intellectually exhausted, but I couldn't leave. Ott closed his marathon session on another personal note. In answer to a question about his earlier comment that he didn't use mushrooms to get visual effects, he said the entheogen enables us to perceive the universe more as energy than matter, energy also meaning spirit, energy as "eternal delight", and in that way it is de-hallucinogenic. We are hybrids of earthly matter and solar energy. The net benefit of entheogens for him is "a healing balm on the lesions of materialism." He still takes entheogens periodically, and sometimes he reminds himself that it's "time for my medicine."
It is midnight. We stagger home, physically and intellectually drained. Oh yeah, the weirdest thing is, Ott looks just like the English comedian, Mr. Bean, except with a bushy Afro hairstyle and Birkenstocks.
On Saturday, we skip the morning learning session to prepare for the Foray. Twice on Friday and once on Saturday the experts take attendees out to select locations around Telluride to hunt mushrooms. We are novices, so we join the wagon train about fifteen minutes drive away to the village of Ophir. We get out of the car, and then realize we are accompanied by Jerry of Ben and Jerry's and his son, who had been following our seven year old Plymouth Horizon in his late model Infiniti - a microcosm, in a way, of the whole crowd for this festival. The $200 entry fee, and the expense of B&B's in Telluride, seem to have discouraged all but a handful of young Deadheads - there are more of those on the street vagabonding than in Festival events, but they mix easily on the street with the aging hippies and me toting my notebook PC.
We scramble down a hillside to the creek, and commence to forage. My wife Carolyn is the first to find one, just a little guy, but it gets us excited. Then we find more and more, and like a story Weil had told the previous day, you can be looking right at mushrooms and not see them, and then in a way they reveal themselves to you and suddenly they are all around you. We end up with a dozen different types, including one very large, fist sized and heavy, boletus, the prize edible. But we rendezvous and find out, despite our excitement and pride in having found anything at all, we are indeed novices. One woman has a bag full of huge boletes, and sure enough, a couple of deadhead tie dye guys come back with a whole bag of amanita muscaria, the psychedelic mushroom often found as a parasite on pine trees - the Rockies of course are covered with pine forests.
Back in town, we take our finds to the ID tent, and Gary Lincoff, author of the Audobon Guide (and keynote speaker on Liberation Mycology,) then proceeds to admire, analyze, explain, and ridicule our various mushrooms. Carolyn was very proud of one unusual looking black character that turned out simply to be old and decayed. One of mine he identified as a deadly mushroom, maybe not one, but a plateful will kill you. He gives us the Latin names, and then laughs as we utterly fail to remember them. Tonite is the big mushroom tasting and cookoff. But that afternoon, since we haven't had enough, it's time for Ott on Amanita.
Launching right into history, Ott notes the use of amanita was first publicized in the 1850's, first by Mordecai Cooke and then in Johnston 's "Chemistry of Common Life". These were read by Lewis Carroll shortly thereafter, and the reported effect of becoming larger or smaller was borrowed for Carroll's Alice book.
Ott spent a lot of time on the chemical analysis of the mushroom, losing most of his audience, but even in this he was dryly funny, concluding one discussion with "this is what we call, in technical terms, 'paydirt'." He described one method of isolating ibotenic acid, a "standard" neurotoxin - there is a medical research market for it, and this is how Ott makes a living. It's used in neural mapping research, the world market is a couple grams a year, but "a little goes a long way."
Due to limited remaining time for this lecture, he briefly touched on sociohistorical points. As Wasson et al proved, the soma mentioned in India's holy books the Rg Veda is amanita. This is why there are sacred cows (it grows in cow pies), why Krishna and Shiva, like the psilocybin mushroom, turn blue. Ott has a post- Wasson study of soma in a forthcoming issue of Integration, a new European journal on entheogens. This leads Ott to summarize Wasson's "unified field theory of human culture" - due to mushroom enhancement, civilized humanity came out of Siberia, migrated west to the Indus River valley (hence soma), and then to Tigris/Euphrates and hence Indo-European civilization and Eleusis. In the other direction, humanity migrated east from Siberia over the land bridge to America.
In a final note for the crunchy granola segment of the crowd, Ott mentioned a mushroom that stuns nematodes with a neurotoxin and eats them, so he doesn't know if vegetarians technically should eat such mushrooms.
And now it's time for the annual Mushroom PARADE! My wife goes to take a nap, and I figure I'll just go take a few pictures and then join her. But when I get to Elk City Park, there is the motliest crew of crazies, dressed in various mushroom costumes, hats - there's even a truck painted red with white spots, Amanita autoincarnate. They follow a funky crew of classic marching drums mixed with African rhythm, bagpipes, and a guy playing Bolero on recorder. I snap an entire roll of pictures, and can't help but fall in with a shit eating grin and march down Main Street, as a motorcycle cop stops traffic and the tourists stare quizzically and we all shout and whistle and make noise all the way to the end of town and the city park where the mushroom tasting banquet takes place.
That evening, there is a panel discussion with Ott, Weil, Festival founder Manny Salzman, Rim Institute (for consciousness studies) director Jo Norris, and moderated by zany Paul Klite. Klite true to form introduced the panel after leading the audience in an OM chant in which he finished each rep by completing a word - OM-nipotent, OM-nipresent, - until someone finished for him with OM-niverous.
Jo Norris shared her experience of encounters with other-dimensional elves, and Weil introduced a young friend who related a tale of eating ten grams of shrooms to avoid arrest, and spending the trip in jail. These set the stage for frank discussion by all of their own experiences with entheogens. A member of the audience asks if any panelists have used mushrooms while snorkeling. Weil says yes, and segues into a story about being contacted by the Navy to help with drug testing - crews on nuclear submarines have stopped smoking pot because it shows up on tests, and now take acid. Someone in the crowd offers the comment, "Be All You Can Be". All in all, an amazing discussion among about a hundred people in a public auditorium about their very personal experiences and common lessons from using profoundly psychoactive drugs.
And after the panel, the New Alchemy Band appears, playing a combo of new agey electronic stuff and african percussion. With the music, an "evolving light show" - fractals and similar geometric patterns were projected on stage, and then dancers in white tights flowed onstage - soon, the dancers became invisible and it was only the light patterns playing over their bodies, changing and shifting like an oriental rug viewed under the proper influences. The whole effect is completely mesmerizing and entertaining - at the end, the audience is invited onstage to play in the light.
We went for a midnight walk with some good clean Kentucky green and decided the way mushrooms sort of make themselves visible to you if you look with the right kind of eyes is exactly the same as stars that become visible if you look long enough and right enough.
Sunday morning, we amble over to the auditorium for "Ott on Ergot", the last of the Ott quartet of lectures. Ergot, the source of LSD, is found in the fungus Claviceps purpurea, occurring principally on rye but also other cultivated grass species. Ergot means cockspur, describing its shape hanging off of grain. Even with modern harvesting techniques, the fungus still occurs often. Ergotism has an interesting history. St. Anthony was the first Christian monk - his bones were found by divination, and transported eventually to France for the founding of the Anthonite Order, who became known for caring for ergotism victims. The burning sensation associated with ergotism is why it's called St Anthony's fire.
Then Ott gave a short biography of Albert Hofmann - he solved an important chemistry problem in his first semester in University, having to do with chemical constituents of seashells, and so was given his PhD early and went to work for Sandoz Labs. Ergot product was sold by Sandoz, but Hofmann thought more could be done so he asked to be transferred to that work. Lysergic acid had been discovered as common to all ergot alkaloids. One ergot product synthesized by Hofmann, methergine, is used for treating post partum hemorrhaging, and is now used by midwives. So ergot use, which came from midwives (used in medieval times to aid childbirth because it causes uterine contractions), is now restored to them.
LSD-25 was created in 1938, tested on animals but there were no "psychonautical bioassays". So it was put aside as having no effect. (Incidentally, LSD would be the fifth product Hofmann had come up with, extraordinary for the career of any pharmaceutical chemist.) Hofmann had the intuition there was something in there they had missed. He started work again which led to the historic bike ride and first LSD trip. Hofmann's boss Stoll had a son who was a psychotherapist - he tried it in 1947. Then psychotherapeutic use began to spread, continuing until the 1960's.
Ott noted as an aside that Hofmann's book "LSD My Problem Child" never sold out hard or softcover, although it's gone through many editions in Germany and in Japan where there was no LSD phenomenon like that in the U.S. in the 60's.
There are two more cultivation and identification workshops, but that's all I can absorb. We wander off onto the street and buy the conference poster, a breakfast burrito, and head south to Mesa Verde to commune with the ancient cliff dwellers, and ponder the gift of this magical caravan of arts and sciences comprising the Telluride Mushroom Festival.