© Kat Morgenstern
December 2003/January 2004
This newsletter was supposed to go out before the holidays, but, alas, it was not to be. Instead of a Christmas edition you are now getting a new year's edition. This year this newsletter will be published bi-monthly. The next edition will be out at the end of February/ beginning of March.
Well, I hope everyone had a wonderful Yuletide and joyous New Year celebrations and is now swinging along on a happy start to a fresh new year. It is a season of peace, love, friendship and sharing and to be thankful for the gifts of the past year. It is also a season for contemplating the coming year and to choose the seeds we wish to sow for the future. In this spirit I wish everybody a peaceful, happy, healthy and prosperous new year filled with joy, good friends, plenty of love and laughter. I also wish you all a bountiful growing season and success with all the new plans and projects you are sowing this coming year. My prayer this year is for more respect for mother Earth and more tolerance and peace among all her children. I hope you will join me in celebrating the diversity of life in all its wondrous manifestations.
Peace and Happiness
Kat Morgenstern, January 2004
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Once the winter has settled in there is little out there to forage and for the most part we have to rely on previously gathered supplies. Yet, if we live in a temperate climate there may at least be one element-defying herb that can bring fresh vitamins and a fresh green color to the dinner plate.
Chickweed - one of those herbs most gardeners love to hate. What don't they do to try and get rid of this persistent 'weed' that seems to jump up just about anywhere without invitation any time humans toil to cultivate the ground. It is only natural. Chickweed is one of those protective herbs that rushes to mother earth's defence wherever the soil is exposed to the elements and in danger of getting washed away, dried out or otherwise degraded - frequent consequences of modern gardening practices. As soon as this little healer arrives the gardener grits his teeth, grabs his picket and starts a crusade against what he perceives as an 'invader' on his little plot.
But for those who appreciate the gifts of nature and don't just try to impose their will on their garden patch and for those of us who like to forage, chickweed is a true blessing. Not only does it provide a natural ground cover, but one that offers nutritional and medicinal benefits without requiring the least amount of work. To reap its benefits all we have to do is clip the tender tops. Chickweed spreads and sprawls low to the ground. Occasionally, when it grows particularly vigorously it also sends up erect little stems. It is quite resistant to the elements, which turns out to be a blessing in the depth of winter when little else can be found.
It is frequently the only fresh green thing available during the winter months and early spring and its rich vitamin C, chlorophyll and mineral content make it a welcome nutritional supplement to the winter diet. Chickweed has a mild flavor and is incredibly versatile to use. It is great as a sprinkling green that can be used like alfalfa or other sprouts to garnish sandwiches, soups and salads. It is best used fresh, though should be minced finely as the stems can be somewhat stringy. It can also be incorporated in omelettes, fillings, sauces, dumplings or quiches - the possibilities are endless. When cooking with chickweed bear in mind that it disintegrates to practically nothing in no time at all, so just add it at the last moment and don't cook it for long. Overcooking would only diminish its benefits.
Apart from its' nutritional rewards, chickweed also offers a number of noteworthy medicinal properties. The old herbalists describe its effect as ‘cooling’ and ‘soothing’. It can be used as a medicinal food, for example as a healing soup to treat bronchial and pulmonary afflictions such as irritable coughs, for which it is excellent. The same cooling and soothing properties also lend themselves to external applications for inflamed sores, rashes and itchy skin conditions or burns. Traditional herbalists used to make ointments and poultices to treat eczemas, boils and abscesses.
Some herbalists prepare a tincture from this herb or dry it for later use, but in my humble opinion the greatest benefits are derived from the fresh plant. If a highly concentrated effect is desired, the herb may be juiced. The juice may be frozen to preserve its benefits, but freshly prepared juice will always be more potent.
Warning: some people have reported allergic reactions to chickweed collected from chalky soil.TOP
That all the earth is fragile and that we must not take from her beyond what she can sustain. Overharvesting, particularly due to commercial collection of medicinal plants has brought many once plentiful plant species to the brink of extinction. As 'plant people', we should adopt an attitude of green guardianship for mother earth, who so plentifully provides for us.
Here are the rules that every forager should live and breath by:
Get to know the plants that grow around you on a personal, first name basis: familiarize yourself with the herbs, bushes and trees in your neighborhood, try to learn as much as possible about the ecosystem of which you are a part and the plant members of your 'extended family'. Learn to identify them correctly and investigate all their uses. Try to understand it as part of a larger ecosystem. Which animals like it or dislike it? With which other plants does it form communities? Is it native or invasive? Does it protect the ground or deplete it of any of its nutrients? How does it 'fit' into its environment? What can you learn from its chemistry? Building this kind of holistic knowledge base will give you a much deeper insight into the nature of a plant and its role within the ecosystem. Its a lengthy process, but vital if you want to truly get to know your plant friends and the habitat you share.
It is especially important that you learn to identify the poisonous plants you are likely to encounter, lest they inadvertantly end up on your dinner plate, which could be most unpleasant or in the worst case scenario, even lethal. The importance of this point is completely obvious, but cannot be stressed enough. Some people hold the false and dangerous belief that what can be found in nature cannot harm them. DO NOT EAT ANYTHING YOU CANNOT POSITIVELY IDENTIFY AND DEEM SAFE. When you think you know a plant, think again and see what other, non-edible look-alikes might be fooling you. This is even more important when it comes to collecting mushrooms, as there are many poisonous mushrooms out there that have evolved to be masters at fooling unsuspecting mushroom hunters. There are also many more potentially deadly mushrooms with edible look-alikes than there are deadly plants with edible look-alikes.
Familiarize yourself with the plants that are listed on the endangered species list for your area. Apart from being unethical, it is also highly illegal to pick endangered plant species. Instead of taking rare plants, consider sowing their seeds in the wild.
Only pick as much as you need and never take ALL the plants of any one kind in a given patch. After harvesting an area give the plants plenty of time to recover before returning to the same patch. Be especially conscienscious when it comes to harvesting roots and barks. Remember that often harvesting roots means the death of the plant, so before you start digging ask yourself if this plant is really plentiful and if it can sustain a harvest of its roots. If in doubt, don't collect. Consider growing some in your garden rather than depleting natural stands. Collecting barks can also be fatal to a tree. If you must collect this part, try to collect it from smaller branches rather than the stem, from branches that have fallen, or from trees that are due to be cut for other purposes.
However tempting it may look, never pick in places that are subjected to pollution from roads, industry or heavy spraying of farm chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers etc.). And don't collect from nature reserves either - these are areas set up to protect wild species, so give them their space and let them be!
Cast seeds of native species to the earth and to the winds once in a while - as a way of giving something back. Consider adopting a little patch that you are particularly fond of. When you are out and about, never leave any litter behind, but try to bring some back with you - I always carry two bags, one for foraging and one for litter picking. Give thanks to the plants and to Mother Earth who has provided them.
Hailed as a vegetarian alternative to meat, soybeans have rapidly climbed to the top of the ladder of industrially produced crops. Today they are no longer just some exotic bean that offers a healthy alternative to people who prefer soymilk to cow's or tofu to hamburgers. Soy derivatives, like corn-derived products, are versatile substances that have managed to infiltrate the entire food industry. From baby food to pharmaceuticals and vitamin pills - soy insidiously creeps onto our shelves and we have no idea from where it is derived. Read the label of just about any product found on an ordinary supermarket shelf and you will see that soy is everywhere these days. And therein lies the problem. But ironically it is not the vegetarian movement that fuels the current soy boom, but the meat industry. Soy is the primary crop used to manufacture animal feed and with meat consumption having soared to dizzying heights during the last 50 years, more and more land is continuously turned over to soy to satisfy the rising demand for cattle feed.
Until recently soy figured high in the list of 'most sprayed crops'. This not only means that consumers, who perceive it as a 'health food' are inadvertantly subjected to the residues of intensive agrochemical treatments, but it also spells large scale agro-chemical pollution and soil depletion where it is cultivated.
Naturally, recent research in bioengineering has focused on the most commonly utilised and versatile crops, since these are the most profitable. Soybean ranks high on the list of research species and gene manipulated soybean varieties were among the first crops to be cultivated commercially on a large scale. Today more than half of all soy produced in the US is gene-manipulated and their derivatives can be commonly found in numerous products. Since there is no law that requires the food industry to specifically label any products containing gene-manipulated ingredients, the consumer is left completely in the dark. The fact that the US agricultural department has developed joint patents with some seed giants on certain gene manipulated crops might have something to do with the FDA's reluctance to enforce a clear labeling policy. So much for consumer protection or freedom of information.
One of the most significant developments in the gentic alteration of soy has resulted in a variety that is less fussy about climatic conditions and more resistant to pests. This variety is targeted as a new cash crop for farmers in tropical countries. The proclaimed benefits are an end to hunger but the reality is an end to farmer's freedom and long term dependency on the seed giants and their agrichemical allies. GM crops are subject to stringent patent laws which are vehemently enforced. Monsanto and others are claiming huge amounts of royalties on what they claim are illegally saved and propagated seeds - even if the altered genetic traits are due to pollen pollution rather than 'theft' as in the well publicised case of the Canadian farmer who found himself batteling against the corporate seed mafia.
To add to the already complex demise, there is now another environmental scandal attached to the incessant progress of soybean cultivation and it spells rainforest destruction. Soybeans are the latest cash crop craze among Brazilian farmers. Thousands of acres of rainforest are daily turned to dust, as they have to make way for the advance of the soybean, most of which is exported to industrialized countries for the production of cattle feed. Vast stretches of land at the frontiere to what was previously a pristine rainforest wilderness are newly under cultivation. Nobody knows how this total change of land use will affect the surrounding rainforest ecology, let alone the people who live there. For the moment government and farmers are only interested in the money and that promises to be good. Brazil is now only second to the US in soybean production and the profit margin is big.
Brazil persues a policy of resettlement aimed at the poorest of the poor, former shanti town dwellers from urban environments who know nothing about farming and even less about rainforest ecology. These are the people who are settling at the frontiere of the rainforest wilderness with the task of 'developing' this vast 'untapped' wilderness. Favourable loans and land gifts provide the lure to giving up the miserable lives of poverty they had before. But will their future look any brighter? Rainforest land that has been turned over to cultivation rapidly degrades and turns to desert. If cash crop prices sink farmers can not sustain their families on the little profits they reap from their harvests. More forest has to be cleared for cultivation to continue. The forest is disappearing at an even greater speed than ever before. Along with it the habitat of countless species of animals and plants is lost forever, not to mention the bleak futures of the indigenous tribes who call the rainforest their home - nobody much cares what will happen to them either.
It is sad that so called 'development' and 'progress' always seems to bear the very seeds of destruction. Perhaps it is time to ethically re-examine the very concept of what we consider 'successful development'. 'Development that by its nature is exploitive and destructive is based on greed and brings disaster and devastation in the long run. The success of any development project should be measured against the beneficial and sustainable effects for all those concerned, plants, animals and people alike, and not just be counted in terms of monetary benefits for those poised to reap the profits of their greed.
It is easy to point the finger at poor third world farmers who may have little concept of conservation issues, or at governments that encourage this kind of destruction. Poverty is a major root cause of environmental degradation. Lack of education and lack of choice it what drives people to destroy their environment, and the false promise that cash crops can offer a way out of that poverty. In practice we all know that it does not, but the myth is continuously perpetuated. Consumers rarely stop and think about it, they support it unwittingly on a daily basis. Chocolate, sugar, coffee, tea and now soy beans are among the crops that are predominantly grown in third world countries. They are traded at rock bottom prices, resulting in pitiful wages for the workers who are thus kept in their poverty trap forever. Its a form of modern slavery, though we call it 'free market economy' and it is conveniently far removed from our own doorsteps. We don't see the misery of the farm workers in some third world country, we are just happy that we can have coffee, tea and sugar available in endless quanities for just a few cents or dollars a pound.
If we truly want to do something about environmental destruction, whether it is the rainforest of Brazil or our own rural countryside, we must opt for responsible consumer choices. They may not always come cheap, but it is the only power we as consumers can exercise. Don't support the corporate giants, support your local organic farmer instead, or grow your own organic food (while it is still legal to do so). Support the fair trade networks which trade with farmers co-ops for cash crops such as coffee, tea and chocolate, and ensures that workers get a reasonable wage for their labour. Many of the co-ops supported by the Fair Trade networks grow their crops organically, the benefit is three-fold: the destruction to the earth is limited, workers get a fair wage and you get a healthier and better product.
For more info on these issues, especially with regard to coffee, sugar and chocoloate check out the 'stimulants' section in the Ethnobotany part of the site or click here
Fair trade links:
Environmental Impact of Soybean production
With its huge expanses of tropical rainforest, the Isthmus of Panama is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. Its unique ecology stems in part from its connection to two continents. Birds are a primary indicator of biodiversity and Panama takes a grand prize: it has 936 species of birds, more than the United States and Canada combined. Until 1996 Panama held the Audubon Society's world record for identifying the most species of birds in a single day: 357 species were counted in one 24-hour period. There are 125 animal species that are found only in Panama. Panama is also privileged to be home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), the world's primièr tropical scientific investigation center, which has been cataloging and monitoring this vast ecological heritage for nearly a century.
When the world was still young and the gods still walked among the people, the healing arts still fell under the domain of the sacred. Back at those distant beginnings of history the people still regarded themselves as a part of a magical universe, in which 'dead matter' was an unknown concept. The natural world was alive with supernatural beings and each animal, plant, rock, tree, mountain or spring was endowed with its own spirit, some friendly, some unfriendly. Even long dead ancestors were a force to be reckoned with. To keep the universe in balance and avert disasters, it was important to maintain a harmonious relationship with all the spiritual powers of this magical world. If the universe slipped out of equilibrium disease or disaster were bound to ensue. It was the task of the shaman to readjust the cosmic balance if ever it threatened to become unstable. A shaman denotes an expert in spiritual matters who is adept at traveling between the different dimensions of existence and knows how to communicate or fight against demons and spirits. He is the link and messenger between the world of wo/man and the world of the Gods.
Shamanism is indeed as old as mankind. In many societies it continues as a living tradition to this day, yet, it is often poorly understood. In recent years shamanism has attracted much attention among the younger generations, particularly among 'psychonauts' and lost souls in search of a spiritual home. However, shamanism is not, as some mistakenly believe, a religion or some kind of mystical path. There is a deep gulf between ancient and modern practices and it seems necessary to draw certain distinctions. Traditional shamanism has nothing whatsoever to do with new ageism or neo-paganism and cannot be taught or learnt at a weekend workshop, though no doubt such practices or workshops may have their own merits.
Today the word ‘shaman’ is often loosely used to denote a ‘witch doctor’, ‘medicine man’ or ‘sorcerer’, yet, such uses of the term are misleading. Originally the word was borrowed from the Tungus language and literally means ‘to shake’, or ‘to fall into trance’. It referred to a type of Siberian holy man who could enter and leave a state of trance at will and who did so in order to access the supernatural world. Since the practice of ’shamanism‘ is a trans-cultural phenomenon the term is now used more universally and describes a person of any cultural background, who employs a technique of divine ecstasy or trance for magico-religious purposes.
In most traditional tribal contexts the skills and techniques of shamanic practices are passed on through the family line: from father to son or mother to daughter. Sometimes the Gods themselves ‘choose’ a candidate by giving him or her special ‘initiation’ experiences. These often come in the form of serious illness or near death experiences. In traditional societies shamanic knowledge is never pursued for glamour, riches or fame, nor for spiritual enlightenment. It is not a devotional practice and it does not rely on the principle of faith. Shamanism is a very active practice and can at times be rather dangerous or even violent. It demands special qualities of the candidate, the first of which is self-sacrifice (as opposed to new age practices, which emphasize self-realization). It is a calling that must be heeded, as an obligation to one's community. It is an unavoidable task. Often it brings social isolation, since those who converse with the spirits possess special powers, powers that can be dangerous, and which inspire both awe and fear. Traditionally it is against the ethics of shamanism to charge money for spiritual services, though an appropriate gift exchange usually does take place. But in order to earn his living, the shaman must tend his herds or fields besides performing his spiritual tasks.
Healing is one of the tasks of a shaman, especially where supernatural causes are suspected. The diseased person may be under attack from evil spirits caused by jealousy, grief, avarice or guilt, he may have lost his spiritual balance or his soul may have become displaced or confused. In modern lingo we might speak of psychological imbalances. In modern societies, the traditional role of the shaman has been transferred to and divided between doctors, priests and psychotherapists. However, unlike their modern equivalents, the shaman recognizes the fundamental unity between body, spirit and soul. He recognizes the fact that the causes of physical symptoms must be sought in the spiritual sphere. ‘Psychosomatic disease’ is a label modern medicine likes to give to certain symptomatic conditions. However, modern medicine rarely actually acknowledges the reality of the soul and it's suffering, but instead interprets 'psychosomatic' as basically 'imaginary' and therefore non-existent. In today's material world a human being is reduced to his/her physical components, while the spiritual aspect is simply denied. There is usually no attempt to treat the soul. Instead, it is attempted to treat the physical symptom and suppress the feelings of emotional distress with ‘relaxants’ or ‘anti-depressants’.
The shaman on the other hand does not focus on the physical symptom, but instead seeks their causes in the spiritual world. The treatment consists of a ritual or series of rituals, which places the patient at the symbolic centre of the universe and attempts to re-establish the psycho-spiritual equilibrium. The shaman enters a trance. He finds the underlying cause of trouble and the means of treating or neutralizing them. Sometimes this implies a spiritual battle with the demons of disease; sometimes he has to search for a lost soul, which may have become displaced, e.g. due to emotional shock etc. and he has to coax it to return with him to its rightful physical body. Sometimes he has to transfer or banish intruding spirits, which may manifest themselves as irrational fear or depression.
Depending on the cultural background, the shaman employs a variety of techniques to enter the healing trance. Chanting, drumming and dancing are frequently encountered. Entheogenic substances also play an important role as mediators between the upper and lower worlds. Siberian shamans were well known for their use of fly agaric mushrooms while in the Amazon a psychotropic liana, Banisteriopsis caapii is used as the magical healing plant. The methods and techniques differ depending on the cultural context, but the principles remain the same.
In some cultures the shaman also knows and uses healing herbs, whilst in others herbal treatments are carried out by herbalists, who usually are not shamans. When the shaman uses herbs in the healing ritual, he may give these to the patient, consume them himself, or he may simply invoke the spirit of the healing plant. The healing session often begins with some form of inner and outer cleansing, fasting or abstaining from certain foods, or induced sweating or vomiting as a means of helping to rid the patient of stagnant emotional debris, that could hinder the growth and development of his soul. Sometimes the shaman 'draws' the intuding force out of the patients body with a strong element of drama. Western scientists have often taken such drama as 'proof' that shamanism is little more than quackery and mumbo jumbo. What they fail to realize is the impressionability of the psyche. By personalizing harmful emotions such as excessive fear, hate or jealousy as demons the patient has a chance to dissociate himself from them and participate in his own psychodrama, batteling as it were with the shaman to extract and bannish the demons that are causing the anguish. Likewise, when plants are involved in the healing ritual less emphasis is placed on any 'active ingredients' of a particular botanical remedy than on setting the emotional conditions for healing to take place. The healing ritual can take one or several sessions and sometimes involves not just the individual but his whole family or clan. The crucial point is the co-operation between shaman, patient and community to help an individual regain his psycho-spiritual balance as opposed to western systems of medicine in which patients are expected to assume a passive role while the doctor wields absolute power.
For a long time shamanism was too obscure and incomprehensible to modern scientists to be taken seriously. In western societies it still is, though in some more traditional societies medical doctors and shamans are attempting to work together. There are some things pills just won't cure, and equally, there are certain conditions where modern medicine has the most effective remedies. The wisdom of a true healer lies in knowing his or her own limits.
Bold and undeniably conspicuous, the bright red cap with its white flaky speckles characterizes this infamous mushroom known as ‘Fly Agaric’. A familiar image in popular culture, it is known as the ‘Glückspilz’ (lucky mushroom) in Germany and there represents one of the five quintessential symbols of good fortune, (along with pigs, 4-leaved clover, chimney sweeps, and horseshoes). Innumerable decorative replica trinkets, variously cast in chocolate, marzipan or plastic proliferate in the window displays, especially around New Year. Even the most conventional of suburban lawns proudly display the gaudy fungus as plaster cast dwellings of jolly old plaster cast gnomes, smoking their plaster cast pipes. Every child has made its acquaintance via countless illustrations in seemingly innocent fairy tale books. Fly Agaric continues to serve as a classic symbol of enchanted forests and magical groves - the kind of places where fairies, gnomes and witches dwell.
These ‘kitsch’ clichés are remnants of a once potent magical sacrament. Mythologies from around the world echo with the distant memory of Fly Agaric as a semi-divine being associated with mighty thunder gods and cosmic fire. In India for example, the mushroom was sacred to Agni, the god of fire. His devotees made sacrificial offerings of Fly Agaric, while partaking of the sacrament to commune with their god. In Mayan dialects Fly Agaric is known as ‘Kukulja’, which also means thunder, while the Lakandon Indians call it ‘Eh kib lu'um’, meaning ‘Light of the Earth‘ (Rätsch). In parts of northern and eastern Europe it is sometimes called ‘Raven Bread’ in allusion to Wodan's companions. The wise ravens travel on his shoulders and whisper hidden secrets in his ears of things that are yet to come. Wodan /Thor too, is a thunder-god, a wild, shamanic god of nature who commands the elements. He gallops across the sky on his brave and loyal mount Sleipnir, the eight-legged stallion, who runs swift as the wind, and kicks up storm clouds in his trail. As the wild chase gathers speed the horse starts foaming from his mouth and where the foam drops onto the rain softened earth beneath, the Fly Agarics magically rise from the ground…
Familiar and conspicuous, yet mysterious and magical. The Fly Agaric represents THE archetypal mushroom per se - even to those who don't know it by name. Most people, conditioned by western culture, are possessed by an instinctual fear that frequently extends to all mushrooms (a condition known as ’mycophobia‘), except perhaps those found on supermarket shelves. Some people may have been introduced to this species by means of one of the commonly available mushroom guides that mark it as 'highly poisonous and tag it's picture with the deadly scull and bone symbol. Yet, despite this reputation, evidence from around the globe suggests that humans in the past (and, in certain places to the present day) have actually enjoyed a very intimate relationship with this 'very dangerous' mushroom. Apparently, this is no ordinary, poisonous toadstool, but rather a powerful psychotropic entheogen with a very rich and colorful history and folklore….
Amanita muscaria, better known as Fly Agaric, is a relatively small toadstool, growing to between 5 -12cm tall. It falls into the general category of ‘gill-baring’ mushrooms. When young it is covered by a white membranous veil, which tends to rip as the stem pushes up and the bright red cap expands. The remains of the veil skirt the stem and also leave white, wart-like flakes covering the cap, though these are sometimes washed away by heavy rain. As it matures the cap opens up like an umbrella, forming a depression around the center. Its red skin can easily be peeled off. The stem is bulbous at the base and discontinuous with the cap. The mushroom flesh is white and has no particular smell when fresh. Upon drying it develops an unpleasant musky-acrid smell, which erroneously has been claimed to ward off flies. In North America a closely related species, A. americana is often mistaken for the Fly Agaric. Its' cap tends to be more yellowy-orange. Less similar and more toxic in nature is A. pantherina, whose cap tends to be more yellow-brownish and its stem more slender. All these species are generally regarded as poisonous and even deadly.
Curiously though, while they undoubtedly are poisonous and can be deadly if ingested, very few fatal incidents of Fly Agaric ingestion have ever been recorded. The popular angst seems to be rather disproportionate to its actual toxic potential. So what is it about this mushroom that we fear so much? To answer this question we have to examine its chemistry and effects. Modern research has revealed that the chemical make-up of Amanita muscaria is actually quite complex. Early chemists had mistakenly assumed that the psychoactive principal of Fly Agaric was to be found in a tropane alkaloid known as muscarine. This substance, related to a group of alkaloids present in other 'Witches Herbs' such as Henbane and Belladonna, causes very unpleasant effects on the CNS, including profuse salivation, lachrymation, and perspiration. However, its concentration in the mushroom is actually very low (approx. 0.0003%). Furthermore, it does not cross the blood/brain barrier easily, and nor does it have any psychotropic action - thus it is hardly a likely candidate for the principle involved in producing the mushroom's reputed mind-altering effects.
It wasn't until the mid-sixties that the true entheogenic compounds of Amanita muscaria were positively identified as ibotenic acid and muscimol, its decarboxylised derivative. Research concluded that the actual psychotropic effect is most likely produced by muscimol (Chilton, 1975) since 50-100 mg of ibotenic acid produces the same effects as 10-15 mg of muscimol. The symptoms of inebriation are characterized by muscle twitching, dizziness, visual distortions (macropsia and micropsia) and altered auditory perception. (Chilton, 1975).
The potency of individual mushrooms tends to vary widely, their power being modified by environmental factors, such as seasonal variation, the weather, the phase of the moon and the pH level of the soil. The Kamchacals, a peoples from northern Siberia, who have a long history of Fly Agaric use, maintain that those that dessicate while still in the earth and remain attached to the stalk tend to have a greater psychotropic effect than those that are picked fresh and strung up to dry. They also claim that the smaller ones, whose bright red caps are still covered with many white spots, are said to be stronger than the larger ones with paler caps and fewer spots. Those picked in August are said to be the strongest. It has been suggested that a dose of 9 - 10 caps could be considered potentially lethal, though no specific data supports this claim. Apart from environmental factors that affect the mushrooms relative potency, obviously the physical and mental condition of those who consume them also plays an important role. Case studies have shown that people who mistakenly ingested the mushroom, believing that it was highly dangerous and that their lives were thus in peril, reported much more severe symptoms of poisoning than those who had intentionally partaken of it, but misjudged the dose (Ott 1976a).
Archaeological and linguistic evidence traces Fly-Agaric use back at least some 3000-6000 years ago. Some scholars believe that it may stretch even further into pre-history and that it may in fact be the most archaic entheogen known to mankind.. It appears that Fly-Agaric was known, but not universally used throughout Siberia. Some tribes apparently never used it, some only consumed it ritually, while others used it medicinally, ritually, or even simply for pure entertainment purposes. The custom is best documented for northeastern Siberia, where in some communities it persists to this day.
Mircea Eliade, the world foremost authority on Shamanism, described Fly Agaric ceremonies among various Siberian tribes, but considers such practices (and for that matter any ceremonial drug use) as a decadent trend. (Eliade 'Shamanism' 1951) Many modern scholars disagree with his point of view, which sharply contrasts with the actual historical evidence and seems to more closely reflect his personal ethics and the moral norm of his era. (Rutledge). However, casual use does seem to be a more modern development. Where this is practiced, Fly Agaric's status as a ritual substance is gradually declining and is increasingly replaced by a relatively recent introduction: Vodka.
Nevertheless, to Siberian shamans Fly Agaric represents the focal point of their mysteries and the means to the experience of divine ecstasy, a trance-like state that enables them to fly into the world of their gods, battle with demons and obtain fantastic visions - just as it always has. It is this magical flight that is alluded to by the common name 'Fly Agaric', not, as has often been suggested, its alleged power to ward off flies, for which it is quite useless.
The German ethnologist Enderli spent 2 years among the Chukchee and Koryaks of Eastern Siberia towards the latter part of the 19th century. During his stay he had an opportunity to witness first-hand one of these much fabled, mushroom induced trance sessions. According to his report the task of preparing the dried mushrooms fell to the women, who usually did not consume them themselves. After selecting a few suitable specimen they began to chew them thoroughly so as to make them pliable and moist. They then took them out of their mouths, rolled them into sausage shapes, and gave them to the two men who proceeded to place them deep down their throats and swallow them whole. After the fourth mushroom had been ingested in this manner the first effects began to show. The men started to tremble and twitch as though they had lost control of their muscles. Their eyes took on a wild glow, quite unlike the glazed look of alcohol inebriation, though the men apparently remained fully conscious throughout this phase. The agitation increased until they suddenly fell into a trance-state and began to sing monotonously in low voices. Gradually their chanting became louder and wilder till they had worked themselves into a frenzy, their eyes glaring wildly, shouting incomprehensible words and both of them going quite literally 'berserk'. They demanded their (ritual) drums, which the women brought immediately. At once they began a wild, unbelievably frenetic dance accompanied by equally wild and ear-shattering drumming, yelling and singing while both men ran about the yurt in a manic fury which left nothing untouched. Everything was thrown about, kicked over and turned upside down until the place was in a state of total chaos. Eventually, almost as if struck dead, both of them collapsed exhaustedly and fell into a deep sleep.
For the shaman this phase is the most important aspect of his exhausting ritual. It is in this trance-like sleep that the gateway to the 'Other-World' is opened, and he experiences vivid, even lucid dreams and ecstatic visions, often of a strongly sexual and sensual nature. In this state he can diagnose the causes of diseases, determine the whereabouts of lost objects, retrieve lost souls, fight with demonic forces or gleam visions of things to come. This otherworldly state however, does not last long. After about half an hour of sleep the shaman briefly awakes to full consciousness but soon the inebriation sets in once more and continues in gradually weakening cycles of excitement, frenzy, exhaustion and sleep.
The most curious aspect of this ritual is the fact that the inebriating power of the mushroom is not destroyed by normal metabolic processes, but instead is passed into the urine with almost no loss of effect. This has given cause to a rather unsavory habit described by some of the early ethnologists recounting their field experiences in Siberia:
Those who had partaken of the mushroom would collect their own urine and without a moment's hesitation drink the liquid down, with the result of reinforcing the inebriation and starting the cycle all over once more. Sometimes the urine was saved in a special vessel for a later occasion or even shared with others who might not have been able to afford the mushrooms for themselves. (The rate of exchange in areas where it is not common is one reindeer per dried mushroom cap!) Even after passing through the body in this form substantial amounts of muscimol will again be passed into the urine unchanged. Thus it is said that the same mushroom can be 'recycled' 6-8 times.
During the phases of frenzy the inebriated person feels tremendously strong. They are also affected by what is known as 'macropsia', or micropsia, a visual distortion that lets objects appear much larger or much smaller than they really are. Thus a blade of grass might appear the size of a tree trunk or a small hole can turn into the entrance of a cave. Many unbelievable feats of strength and endurance have been accomplished under the influence of Fly Agaric. One man reportedly carried a 120-pound load for 10 miles without stopping, something he could never have done under normal circumstances. Some historians have proposed that the notorious raids of the Vikings/Norse men may have been carried out under the influence, turning them literally into 'Berserkers' with inhuman strength. However, there is no concrete evidence to support this theory.
(It is interesting to note that Lewis Caroll in his classic tale, Alice in Wonderland, lets his heroine encounter the magic mushroom at the gateway between solid and lucid realities: It is the abode of the stoned caterpillar, who explains some of the oddities of Wonderland to the confused Alice, who had already experienced the wondrous effects of 'macropsia', and micropsia, which happen to be a typical symptom of Fly Agaric inebriation. One wonders what those ‘Eat Me’ and ‘Drink Me’ bottles really contained and what kind of ‘Wonderland’ Lewis Caroll was really describing…)
Among the Koryak the mushroom was prepared by several different methods, the commonest of which was the one described above. On occasion though they boiled the fungi to cook a mushroom soup - though this is said to reduce its potency and thus more mushrooms were needed. Sometimes dried mushrooms were soaked in distilled Bilberry juice - obviously a fairly modern method since distillation only arrived in Siberia in the 1500. Occasionally they were mixed with the juice of Willow-Herb. No research is known to have investigated the possible synergistic action of this combination. Medicinally it was used for 'psychophysical fatigue' and for bites of venomous snakes. (Saar, 1991) It was also applied externally to treat joint ailments (Moskalenko, 1987). In Afghanistan a fly agaric smoking mixture known as tshashm baskon ('eye opener') is used for psychosis (Mochtar & Geerken, 1979). In Western medicine Fly Agaric serves as a well known homeopathic remedy, used for tics, epilepsy and depression, and in conjunction with homeopathic Mandrake tincture, is used to treat Parkinson disease. (Villers & Thümen 1893, Waldschmidt 1992).
The casual and experimental use of Fly Agaric in Western cultures has steadily increased since the 1960s. However, it is said that the effects of Amanita species found in North America and Central Europe are not equal to those found in Siberia. It is often claimed, though not proven, that the North American and European species tend to be more nauseating and not as lucid as their Siberian cousins. It is unlikely that Fly Agaric will ever become a popular candidate for drug abuse among casual thrill seekers, as the inebriation is often accompanied by intense nausea and vomiting (some people have reported no other effect from the ingestion). While shamen often regard vomiting as a way to cleanse the body of impurities thus preparing it for possession by gods or spiritual beings, casual users tend to regard vomiting as a rather unpleasant side-effect. Furthermore, Fly Agaric inebriation results in a severe hangover the following day, which makes it also less appealing to casual users.
However, people who have subjected themselves to self-experimentation often report visions of gnomes, not unlike those found in the suburban gardens mentioned above. These reports parallel mushroom lore from Siberia, which tells of ‘mushroom-men’, small stocky, sometimes neckless beings, who move swiftly and lead the shaman on his journey to the 'Other-World'. This curious lore is substantiated by a number of Siberian cliff drawings that strongly resemble descriptions of these Fly-Agaric men. The number of these little men is said to correspond with the number of mushrooms consumed, which is why the Yurak always take 2 ½ mushrooms. They say, that the 2 ½ mushroom men run ahead along convoluted paths, and the shaman can only keep up with them because the half man runs more slowly.
It would be neglectful not to mention Gordon Wasson in any discussion of ethnomycology, as he probably has done more to stimulate research in this field than anyone else. In the course of their extensive research into the folklore and folk-uses of fungi, him and his wife came upon some very interesting findings, which let them to believe that many of the mycophobic attitudes present today can be attributed to remnants of an ancient mushroom cult. According to their theory, subsequent layers of political and religious successions had long since demonized the once 'tabooed' sacraments and holy icons of this cult (the mushrooms).
Needless to say, most of the academic establishment of the day did not welcome his suggestions and point blank rejected many of his findings. Nevertheless, he persisted and eventually met some scholars who were more receptive to his revolutionary ideas. It is in no small part due to Wasson's pioneering work that the idea of psychotropic substance use (and in particular psychotropic mushroom use) as an integral part of magico-religious practices among 'primitive' cultures has gained much more widespread acceptance.
In particular, Wasson conducted extensive research into the 'Rig Veda', a collection of sacred hymns composed by the Indo-Aryan peoples who swept down into the Indus valley of India some 3500 years ago. The ‘Rig Veda’ is one of the most ancient sacred texts known to mankind and it is full of references to sacred and medicinal plants. One substance, known as ‘Soma’, is mentioned with particular reverence- its praise is sung in more than one hundred verses, describing its potent powers and referring to its divine origin. It is generally accepted that Soma is some kind of psychotropic plant, though scholars have long argued over its precise botanical identity. Unfortunately, the authors of the ‘Rig Veda’ omit to mention any details regarding its leaves, flowers or fruit. Like most religious texts the hymns are written in a rather poetic language, which does not tend to elaborate on botanical details. Instead, it allusively refers to Soma as ‘the one-legged’, ‘thunderborn’ and similar terms. Wasson concluded that this was an indication of the fungal nature of this mysterious plant, and proposed that Soma was in fact Fly Agaric. He argued that surely, if the Soma plant did display ‘mighty roots’ or ‘sweetly smelling flowers’ or any other such noteworthy features, no doubt the authors of the ‘Rig Veda’ would have given them a poetic line or two. However, since none of these structures apply to mushrooms the absence of their mention in itself provides a strong hint.
Wasson studied the 'Rig Veda' in great detail and came up with a number of other supporting factors for his theory, which he published in his book 'Soma' in 1968. However, most of the scientific community at the time never quite accepted his proposals. Today scholars are split into two camps, those who support Wasson's findings, and those who are still doubtful and continue to search for the true identity of Soma.
Certainly it is hard to interpret such ancient texts beyond reasonable doubt. However, one has to ask the question of how and why such an obviously important substance could have been 'lost'. The only plausible answer lends support to the Wasson camp: the Aryan people, who came from the north, brought with them only the cultural memory of this magical substance, but not the actual plant. It is impossible to cultivate Fly Agaric and since it does not occur naturally in the Indus valley, it is likely that it gradually passed into the mythical realm. If one accepts the fungal nature of Soma then Fly Agaric really emerges as the most logical choice, even though other psychotropic mushrooms are native to the homelands of the Indo-Aryan people, their use is not as widespread and common, and to this day hardly anything is known about them. Still, who really knows what these people once might have known? Their knowledge has passed into oblivion. For all we know today, their sacred soma plant, fungus or not, may even have long since become extinct.
The quest for soma continues to present a fascinating enigma - in keeping with the mysterious nature of the archetypal magical mushroom known as Fly Agaric.
Fly Agaric is a powerful fungus, whose effects can be extremely variable and dangerous in the hands of fools. Self-experimentation is not recommended. In particular all amanita species with a white or greenish cap should be avoided, as these are definitely very deadly. The information provided in this article is intended for educational purposes only and should not be used as medical advice. The author takes no responsibility for any events that may occur as a result of self-experimentation.
Source: SMA Update 4 December 2003
The Tarahumara and Tepehuan people of Mexico's Sierra Madre have been under siege for generations. Their lands and forests have been seized. Tens of thousands have retreated to remote and desolate areas, choosing a life of silent suffering over integration in Mexican society. Many have been able to sustain a rich traditional life, but others find themselves caught between two worlds: the old world which is disappearing with the forests and the new world where they find discrimination, poverty, and depression. Corruption, drug trafficking, and violence all contribute to the suffering of these indigenous peoples.
Uncontrolled logging has taken ninety-nine percent of their forests, destroyed vital high-altitude watersheds, and threatened the forest plants they depend on for food, medicine, and ceremonies, as well as a number of endemic and endangered species.
The Sierra Madre Alliance and our Mexican partners have been working to improve the environmental and social conditions in the Sierra for more than ten years, with indigenous community participation. We focus on conservation-priority areas in the Sierra, where both endangered species and endangered communities struggle for survival.
For more information, please contact:Sierra Madre Alliance 1650 Sioux Dr. CH44-119 El Paso, TX 79925 USA
Chihuahua, Mexico Field Office:
The report of the UK Commission on Intellectual Property Rights is now
available in Arabic, Chinese, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
press statement of the Indigenous Peoples delegation to the UN WSIS (United Nations World Summit on the Information Society), Geneva, 11 December 2003.
The Coalition Against Biopiracy is seeking nominations for the next Captain
Hook Award "For Outstanding Achievements in Biopiracy 2004". A Cog Award is
granted at the same time to outstanding achievers in fighting biopiracy.
Winners of both will be announced at the Seventh Conference of the Parties
to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kuala Lumpur, 9-20 February
2004. Deadline for nominations is 21 January 2004.
The Worldwatch Institute a not for profit organisation that acts as an environmental monitoring agency and publishes the 'State of the World Report each year, has a special focus on consumerism this year:
In this 2004 edition, the Worldwatch Institute examines how our world consumes, why we consume, and the impact that our consumption choices have on the planet and its people. With chapters on food, water, energy, the politics of consumption, and redefining the good life, State of the World 2004 asks whether a less-consumptive society is possible—and then argues that it is essential.
For more information, or to order a copy of State of the World 2004, go to www.worldwatch.org/pubs/sow/2004/. Phone orders and support: toll-free in the U.S. at 1.888.544.2303 (or 1.570.320.2076 outside the U.S.).
Read the press release: www.worldwatch.org/press/news/2004/01/08/
and visit their consumerism resource page on line: