Fly Agaric

If you’ve hiked in the woods in Colorado, especially near timberline in the late summer, you’ve probably seen a majestic mushroom with white spots on its red cap.

That’s likely Amanita muscaria, known as the Fly Agaric. Even if you’re one of those mycophobic people who stays as far away from mushrooms as possible, you’re drawn to this fungus. It’s like a flag in the forest signaling that life is good.

Whether this mushroom is good for your health and your brain is another question. For some, it is. For others, it’s not.

In fact, among the many beautiful things about the Fly Agaric are all the questions that pop up with it.

Was it the divine inspiration for Hindu religious texts? Is it poison or a psychoactive agent (or both, depending on preparation and other factors)? Should the government allow it to be sold commercially as a “poisonous non-consumable?” How was it used by shamans? How do its chemical constituents interact with each other and the human body?

A truly entertaining and informative volume about Amanita muscaria, titled Fly Agaric: A compendium of History, Pharmacology, Mythology, and Exploration, edited by Kevin Feeney, is now available that addresses these questions and more, many of which cannot be answered without further research.

Who knew that the bright mushroom under the spruce tree by the trailhead was so complicated and touched so many avenues of the human experience?

The 500-page book is a paean to the Fly Agaric, with chapters contributed by dozens of authors (including me), covering where to find it, how to identify it, and how people have used it as food, medicine, and as a psychoactive substance, both today and historically.

Chapters cover topics you could not possibly imagine could all relate a single mushroom, including “Psychoactive Amanitas of North America,” “In Pursuit of Yaga Mukhomorovna: The Finno-Ugric Connection and Beyond,” “Speckled Snake, Brother of Birch: Amanita muscaria Motifs in Celtic Legends,” “Travels with Santa and His Reindeer,” “Cooking with Fly Agaric,” “A Search for Soma in Russias Kamchatka Peninsula,” (our chapter) and “The Experience.” You can order from Amazon or download parts of it in a free PDF version.

There’s so much here, it’s hard to know where to start, but, as editor Feeney advises, it’s not a book that you’ll want to read cover-to-cover, but instead, you’ll jump around to the sections that interest you.

My own favorite chapters include Feeney’s interview with Mark Niemoller, who picked, dried, and sold the Fly Agaric for many years until authorities shut him down.

In Colorado, the Fly Agaric grows prolifically in rainy years, so you’ll want to read Feeney’s chapter on “Cooking with Fly Agaric” to get info on how to eat the shroom without any psychoactive or poisonous effects, just for food.

In another chapter, Feeney provides suggestions for its use as a psychoactive agent. They come with the warning that it isn’t much like the common street psychedelic mushroom, so-called psilocybin, and some consider it outright poisonous, even if it almost certainly won’t kill you directly. But the book is full of testimonies of people who enjoy the mushroom as a drug.

“While every ‘psychedelic’ experience is different, the above accounts suggests that there are some fundamental differences between the visual effects produced by ‘classic’ psychedelics and those produced by the Fly Agaric,” writes Feeney in his “The Experience” chapter, which reviews scores of accounts of folks who’ve eaten the mushroom for recreational use. “The experiences shared here suggest that the brightly colored kaleidoscopic visions typical of psychedelics are less prominent, or even absent, but that the visual world takes on a surreal or dream-like quality that defies clear description, on that may be interrupted by visual disturbances or actual hallucinations. The differences do not stop with visual experience, however.”

Some of the contributors to the book, including myself, Feeney, Trent Austin, and Peter McCoy, founder of Radical Mycology, will discuss it Tuesday.

The “Fly Agaric Roundtable” will be live-streamed Tuesday, starting at 7 p.m. MST here.

UPDATE: See a recording of the panel here. My section starts at 107 min 45 sec: