Merry Christmas, and would you pass some of that delicious mushroom stuffing, please?

...but it's not as deadly as phalloides

I've always been a fan of plants, but spending four months in Antarctica, where none save a few microscopic lichens live, has raised my appreciation of them to a new level. This now seems obvious just from looking over my last two posts, but I'm not sure that I had quite twigged just how deprived of greenery I felt on the icey continent until this morning, when we once again found ourselves standing in the jungle, filming the wind as it rustled in the foliage.

A card-carrying treehugger, I love the idea that plants have minds of their own, so it was with interest that I stumbled on a copy of Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird's The Secret Life of Plants a couple of days ago, at a rather shabby books-for-a-dollar table sale in a mildewed masonic hall here in Opotiki. Somewhere in the deep recesses of the brain I seem to be able to dredge up something to do with this book; it must have passed through my consciousness around the time it was a bestseller in 1973, when I was nine years old and Nixon's people were rampaging through the Watergate Hotel. I suspect the book sold well because it is full of information that, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s, was just too delicious not to be believed. Plants, according to Tompkins and Bird, clearly demonstrate a capacity for Extra-Sensory Perception, and they show empathy. They display grief at the death or maiming of neighboring plants and animals, and even in response to the loss of any tiny quantity of living cells by whatsoever a fellow organism.

This is the book that propounded the delightful idea that plants flourish when played Brahms; they enjoy abundant growth under the influence of the melodious tones of classical music but wither and hunker down when subjected to hard rock. Plants, the authors contend in their introduction, "have now been found to be able to distinguish between sounds inaudible to the human ear, and color wavelengths such as infra-red and ultra-violet, invisible to the human eye." They are, in their peacefulness, tranquility and ability to communicate wordlessly, far superior to we humans. This euphoria at the exceptional qualities of plants must have been short-lived, for the convinced would have felt awfully guilty about eating the friendly and sympathetic carrots and potatoes from their gardens. Presumably already vegetarian, those readers wary of eating sentient beings would after reading this scientific account have had little nourishment to turn to apart from rocks and sand.

I would love always to believe, like santeros and vodouists do, that shrubs and trees and herbs are the repositories of long-passed souls, homes for spirits from whom permission must be sought before harvesting their berries or lumber or leaves. I would love to believe what is said in Cuba, that in the middle of the night in Camaguey gigantic ceiba trees uproot themselves and wander through the forest, meeting in gangs for midnight gossip parties. I would love to believe that plants isolated by lead-lined laboratory walls nonetheless communicate with one another through space and feel pain at the suffering of the other. But it would be remiss of me not point out that Tompkins and Bird's contentions were discarded as pure bunkum and unadulterated horsepucky just as soon as some real scientists with a bit of free time got around to trying to replicate the results of the duo's principal source, "America's foremost lie-detector examiner," Clee Backster, a guy who in an idle moment had attached his polygraph machine to a potted plant in his office in Times Square and made a deep spiritual and electrical connection with the vegetable world. To make a long story short, The Secret Life of Plants is nothing but proto-new-age twaddle. But a pleasant diversion nonetheless. And cheap, at one Kiwi buck.

The psychoactive, and therefore mystical properties of plants cannot be denied, even if Tompkins and Bird's attempts to attribute to them an extensive intellectual life now reads as rather exuberant. This morning on the floor of a plantation of majestic conifers I found growing mushrooms, reminding me of another book, published just about the same time as The Secret Life of Plants, a massive volume which I recall my father buying and reading with great enthusiasm. This was Robert Gordon Wasson's Soma, the Divine Mushroom of Immortality a prototype for the sort of exhaustive investigation of a natural product or substance since made popular by Mark Kurlansky (the fabulous Cod, which explores the role of that fish in centuries of the world's economic development, and Salt, which made George W.'s publicized reading list, a list I tend to imagine being the product of a nice long afternoon of brainstorming by a group of image consultants--there will be a quiz at the end of your term, George).

Amanita muscaria aka the fly agaric aka "the divine mushroom of immortality" aka Soma aka "the monk's pee will set you free"

If I remember correctly, Soma was Wasson's life's work, hundreds of self-published pages of painstakingly researched and meticulously annoted investigation into a single species of mushroom, the horribly poisonous and spectacularly hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric. Despite our tender ages I remember my father sharing the book's more exotic observations with my sister and me. I was fascinated to learn that an entire caste of buddhist monks had trained themselves to eat the poisonous soma, painstakingly developing antibodies to the toxins so that their monk brethren might enjoy the psychedelic effects of the 'shroom by drinking the resulting urine, still full of the psychoactive substance, but stripped of the poisonous component by the hard-working livers of their elders. This was around the same time that my father was calling on his pre-internet contacts worldwide in what proved to be a successful quest to obtain a supply of fresh ox-gall (I believe this to be the liquid that in its natural state one would find contained within the gall-bladder of a male bovine), an ingredient crucial to the creation of authentic marbled endpapers as used in bookbinding in centuries prior to the one in which you were born. Dad's persistence and follow-through in the matter of the ox-gall (I remember a small glass bottle sitting in the under-the-stairs cupboard and glossy sheets of paper touching down lightly on a swirling liquid surface of multi-hued inks) has always made me wonder whether he ever managed to find a soma-chomping monk willing to part with some pee. Today of course, it's much easier: there's eBay.

I'm hoping Dad will step forward at this point and give his opinion, in the comments section, as to whether or not my identification of this fungus, known, I believe, from each and every one of the continents save Antarctica, is correct.

Don't try this at home

And a very Merry Christmas to everyone; I wish I was with you all, wherever you are!


Anonymous said...

Distracted by the fairly elaborate preparations for the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I am a little tardy picking up on this.

However I am prepared to state, without the slightest fear of successful contradiction, that you have correctly identified the Amanita muscaria, alias fly-agaric. Your bibliographical information is likewise impressive, as far as it goes, which is not far enough. One positively MUST mention Wasson's greatest book--"Mushrooms, History, and Russia"--which has much valuable information not available in his best-selling "Soma". I think that both books have the crucial information concerning the most efficient way of safely ingesting the hallucinogenic essence is via reindeer urine, human urine being the fallback.

Merry Christmas and lots of love.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the intelligence or communicative abilities of our square-celled neighbors: I think of a random Science magazine article just skimmed over while waiting in an office. (Sorry no specifics, it will heal eventually.)
The article highlighted social complexities of single-celled organisms, spores in this case, I didn't think possible.

Found an article online speaking of "...a compelling case for yeasts to be categorized not as free-living unicellular eukaryotes but as 'social, colonial organisms with cell-to-cell communication.' There is more- much more- to these amimalcules than a solitary, uncommunicative habit."


Requiring a giant leap from possessing filaments to having intelligence, debunking abound, I like to think my plants prefer the Beastie Boys.

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