Please take the following quiz with your mates. Do not look up the answers. Ponder it, discuss it, and make your best educated guess. Afterwards, read the stories.

Addendum to plant pathology chapter

St Anthony’s Fire: Back in the middle ages farmers grew a lot of rye and barley for food, for alcohol, for fodder (animal food). Some years the rye seeds would get a browny black purple fungus growing on it. The fungus was called ergot Claviceps purpurea. If you were rich, you could afford the high end contaminant-free rye. If you were poor, you might be stuck eating it. If you ate it and was poisoned by this fungus-ridden rye, then you would get seizures and spasms, throw up, and go crazy. As the blood vessels tightened and narrowed and constricted you would get dry gangrene of the limbs, and hallucinate – feelin’ like all the demons of the world were tearing you apart. And sometimes you would die. From the 1500’s up to the 1800’s, ergot was also used as a medicine in a smaller dosage to induce labor and speed up childbirth.

Around the 1940’s, a plant chemist at Sandoz Labs in Switzerland was investigating ergot for other medicinal uses when he accidentally self experimented and ingested a form of the ergot alkaloid called lysergic acid. It was during WW II and automobile use was restricted so he rode his bike home with his assistant, the whole time tripping hard. The hills streamed by in distorted and curved shapes, rainbows of geometric colors drummed through his mind. The world became conscious, alive, and animated. Plus, he had a strong urge to faint. It was down right frightening for an educated man of science. Time became non existent or at a standstill in an infinity loop.

Well later this drug became known as acid for short. It was used as some kind of a truth serum and interrogation aid by the military and CIA; was sold at grateful dead concerts on blotter paper by folks yelling ‘family crest’; was stuck to the forehead of Jimi Hendrix as he played guitar, and become a ritual for folks like Timothy Leary or the Merry pranksters of the sixties. It is still a schedule I drug here in the USA. Like its discoverer called it, it was his “problem child”.

Roquefort cheese: Old time story says a young french shepherd, playing his flute and herding his sheep, ducked into a cave to wait out a rain storm. Sitting there, hungry, he chowed down on the cheese and bread he had tucked in his pockets. Then the rain stopped, a rainbow shone bright in the sky, and he went running outa there all happy singing “alouette” and “frere Jacques” and “une souris verte”. He forgot his half a chunk of cheese and left his crumbs all over. He returned to the cave a few months later with his sheep, and found his cheese. By now that cheese was full of streaks of blue and had a stinky smell. Well the boy being a boy, a French boy endowed with natural curiosity and a fearless palette, took a nice big bite of that cheese. Um um good it was! There you go – Roquefort cheese. A union between the milk of ewes, and a mold of the caves.

Fly Agaric: The peoples who lived in the arctic, like people everywhere, would taste test plants animals lichens and fungi to see if it was edible. Or medicinal. Sometimes a person would die after chewing some white root with the purply splotches. The others would remember this, and pass on this knowledge to future generations. In addition, they might start experimenting with the particular plant, to see if maybe it would be useful as an arrow poison.

In ancient forests of the arctic there was big ol stands of birch trees alongside the spruces larches and firs. In the winter time next to the trees would pop up these red capped mushrooms with white button specks all over. Was this good to eat? What were its properties? So they ate it raw, ate it dried, threw it in the soup, smoked it, chewed it in quids, stuck it up their orifices, ground it to powder, etc. What they found was that with proper preparation, eating the red fungus turned them into super human beings. It gave them unheard of strength and vigor, and you would be laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing. Tromping through stomach deep snow with a hundred pounds of moose meat relaxed on your shoulders. All of this in the depth of winter when there was hardly any sun in the sky all day long, and you were mostly confined to a bark shack or a house of ice with your family herd of stinky human beings. Eating dried walrus guts, sucking on whale heart, and chewing chewing that seal blubber.

Even back then, there were rich folks and poor folks. The haves and the have nots. Only thing is, being in close proximity to one another, you had to get along, and there had to be ways to equalize this pressure and inequality. So they started drinking piss, each others piss. You like wait, pause, you are serious? Yes very serious business.

When the mushroom eaters would go outside to take a leak, the folks who didn’t have mushrooms would be there with a wood bowl, catching that yellow liquid. With a sparkling glee they would down it. So the funny thing about the so called magical properties of the red capped mushroom is that it is not metabolized (broken down) in the body, and so it passes through into the pee. Still with its potency. After a while of this, the whole sad and depressed village was all out playing in the snow. They got their arms around each others shoulders, singing songs and smiling telling jokes. This goes on all winter long…

Even the animals found the urine delightful. After the partying humans went to bed at who knows what hour cause it is the arctic in winter, the reindeer and squirrels would come for a lick and a slurp. Under that pulsating aurora borealis they would be on the ice, feeling like they too were of divine origin.

Eventually the tales of this mushroom and its power spread to other parts of the world. The vikings ate em before going into battle, the hindus venerated it as sacred, while some folks just soaked em in milk to kill flies out at the farm house. And Super Mario. Well you know about Super Mario. As the Russian explorers dog sledded across their territories, they recorded the strange and wild peoples and their mushroom rituals. Their journals document a reindeer charging across the floes, killing a man who was taking a piss, and then begin to slurp slurp slurp. Really, this was too much for civilized people to bear, and in time vodka replaced the mushroom as the inebriant of choice.

This change happened all over, as old sacraments gave way to new ones. Truly, who would have dreamt up such a scenario?! So the mushroom went under cover, underground. Nature gods gave way to monotheistic God, and rivers and mountains became saints and symbols only. One particular Germanic saint, Saint Nicholas, was the bestower of winter gifts, light and joy. He was a chunky round figure clothed in red, specked with white buttons, and flew in the sky with prancing reindeer. These days we see him at Walmart or outside of Safeway around December, ringing bells and asking for milk and cookies or spare change. Santa Claus we call him. If you think about this for a little bit, you will understand the origin and tracks that flow from one era into another.

Just so you don’t get any weird ideas. The fly agaric grows in a mycorrhizal fashion with pine trees Pinus radiata in our area. If we get some good rains, and you are out hunting foraging, you may see them. For some one reason or another they are not ‘magical’ here. They will put you in a comatose sweaty state, or worse, and it is nothing to be happy about. Do not go down the rabbit hole! So the recommendation is: “Don’t try em, don’t eat em!” Simple. If you want to go flying in the sky and get ‘high’ there are any number of other legal substances. Or, try running or meditation or fishing or another access route to awaken that – divinity within.

Fungus. Wow. Gotta love em.

For full credit, please also read one of following stories about fungus, bacteria, or virus.

Biggest organism in the world from the BBC

Blue green fuzz at the US National Library of Medicine,findings%20in%201929%20(3).

Corn smut at NPR

Rhizobium from Wikipedia

E coli from the North Carolina Department of Public Health

West nile from Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito & Vector Control District

Tetanus at Journal of Urgent Care Medicine about man who got tetanus from pruning bushes

small pox from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention