Saturday, September 14, 2019

"Blood Spore: Of murder and mushrooms"

From Harper's Magazine:
In July 2011, on the hottest day of the year, I received a fragile-looking Maxell compact cassette from a retired psychology professor and gerbil-aggression researcher named Gary Davis. I had been told the cassette contained a recording of two police officers discussing their involvement in the robbery and murder of one Steven Pollock, a physician and pioneering mycologist who — despite invaluable contributions to the field, including an improved technique for growing psychedelic mushrooms on Purina Dog Chow — remains largely unknown. Carefully labeled police crook 6/17/81, the cassette had for thirty years been stored in a toolbox under two dozen inoperative WWII-era Geiger counters in Davis’s mother’s house. I had offered to pay for the tape but Davis refused, insisting he just wanted it to be heard by as many people as possible, then backtracking and suggesting he wouldn’t mind terribly if I sent him twenty dollars for beer. I was worried about the tape’s integrity and had been reading anxiously about the myriad problems that befall aging magnetic media — binder embrittlement, remanence reduction, even fungal contamination — and the transaction was further charged by a stern warning from another source: “This information should be treated with due caution. Some of these cops, if still living, could be very dangerous.”

The warning was delivered by Paul Stamets, who had told me about the tape but never actually heard it. Once a friend of Pollock’s, Stamets has in recent decades become recognized as the foremost authority on medicinal mushrooms: a taxonomist, author, cultivator extraordinaire, and general fungal hype-man, Stamets travels the country giving lectures on the different ways mushrooms can save both the planet and the human race. It was at one of these lectures, titled “How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World,” that I first had the opportunity to question Stamets in person about the story of the tape. In a sold-out room with theatrically dimmed lights, Stamets begins by opening a specially designed carrying case and removing a large, concentrically banded cylindrical fungus, which he then hoists above his head. “This is agarikon,” he declares with Mosaic solemnity, “and it will prove to be as important for the survival of the human race as the discovery of fire.” In agarikon, which really looks very much like an unfrosted layer cake, Stamets has detected potent antimicrobial compounds that he predicts will protect us from intercontinental viral storms destined to sweep the globe. He tells the audience of how he cured himself of a stammer with Psilocybe, treated his mother’s breast cancer with Trametes, saved his aunt’s home from carpenter-ant infestation with Metarhizium, and how mycelium — the filamentous network that absorbs nutrients into the fungus — is both earth’s brain and the Internet’s natural progenitor. He does all this wearing a hat made of mushrooms.

Listening to Stamets speak about fungi I think this must be what it was like to listen to Thomas Edison talk about incandescence, the research so deliriously ambitious and diverse that it seems to teeter on the brink of insanity but, perhaps by virtue of its grounding in clinical studies and scientific publications, doesn’t leave one feeling to be in the presence of a mountebank — somehow quite the opposite — and when Stamets utters his concluding remarks he is rewarded by a rabid standing ovation. The audience wastes no time in swarming the stage in hopes that Stamets will be able to help them find fungal succor for their human woes, and I am, of course, no different. A man begins, in a somewhat accusatory tone, to inquire as to why his black-morel kit did not bear fruit, to which Stamets reminds him there are no guarantees of fruition, offers a diplomatic handshake, and turns to the next person in line, which is me. I am hesitant to bring up the subject of Pollock in public, but the press of mycophiles on either side of me leaves me no choice. I tell Stamets I have obtained the Pollock tape and I think I can solve the murder, in response to which his face changes. “You know, Steve was assassinated by the police,” he says, suddenly unaware of his surroundings. The dissatisfied morel-kit customer takes a step backward toward the door.

The tape, heavy with hiss and wow and flutter, was as Davis described, a forty-five-minute conversation between two men: one who appears to be a police officer from Castle Hills, Texas, named Wayne Merchant, the other a self-described “burglar” whose name is unclear. Officer Merchant joins The Burglar in a diner where cheerful muzak unwinds on the radio, dishes clatter, and a cash register rings and the drawer shoots open. Unbeknownst to Officer Merchant, he is being recorded. The Burglar is distressed because he has been “fingered” for the “bull moose job” and “shooting up a guy.” He is facing serious “federal time.” It can be inferred that The Burglar knows much of the Castle Hills PD personally and is acting as an informant in the pursuit of a reduced sentence. The two discuss their involvement in an array of crimes, both petty and violent, before the conversation turns to the unsolved murder of Pollock.
the burglar:  Ahrite, there’s one more thing that I don’t know how it got brought up, imma tell you what I heard. I heard on the street that you did it.
wayne merchant: I did what?
burglar:  Pollock’s death.
merchant:  Whose death
burglar:  Pollock — that mushroom doctor.
merchant:  I don’t even know the son of bitch, I don’t even know where he lived.
burglar:  They got — they claim — that I did it, that I went in and killed him, robbed him and killed him for two hundred thousand cash, and killed him.
merchant:  Hmmmmm.
In August 1977 Gary Lincoff had not yet authored the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, nor was he yet the president of the North American Mycological Association or the chair of their prestigious Mycophagy Committee. His first book, Toxic and Hallucinogenic Mushroom Poisoning, was going to press that winter and, despite a lack of formal mycological training (he held only a BA in philosophy), he was on his way to becoming a world-class authority on bioactive mushrooms. He appeared professional, wore a suit, and publicly discussed the hallucinogenic varieties primarily in regard to modes of treatment for those who had consumed them. Yet he was part of a burgeoning group of mycologists whose interest in “toxic” mushrooms, particularly those of the genus Psilocybe, extended to their possible therapeutic applications. It was in that summer of 1977 that Lincoff attended the Second International Mycological Congress in Tampa, Florida.

Lincoff was particularly interested in a talk titled “The Hallucinogenic Species of the Genus Psilocybe in the World” being given by the leading Psilocybe taxonomist Gastón Guzmán. There was another IMC2 attendee who shared Lincoff’s fascination with Guzmán, but unlike Lincoff he wasn’t waiting in the air-conditioned convention center; instead he’d chosen to stand outside, conspicuously sorting mushrooms in front of a hand-painted Winnebago Chieftain that he had converted into a rolling mycological laboratory. This was Steven Pollock. Young, hirsute, and wearing a Day-Glo T-shirt, Pollock fixedly examined mushroom specimens in the parking lot, totally oblivious to the withering glances of academic passersby. Intrigued, Lincoff approached Pollock to ask what species he’d been collecting, and Pollock brought him inside the Winnebago to have a look. Pollock had outfitted the interior with an autoclave, petri dishes, desiccators, and everything else necessary to culture and preserve mushrooms on the road, plus stacks of his first book, Magic Mushroom Cultivation (1977). Lincoff immediately realized that he had met IMC2’s most interesting attendee, and so he didn’t hesitate to forgo the rest of the afternoon’s presentations when Pollock invited him to go hunting for a species of bluing Panaeolus rumored to grow on the outskirts of Tampa.

While magic mushrooms were still obscure throughout most of the world, Floridian farmers were some of the first to experience what Steven Pollock would later call “the psilocybian mushroom pandemic.”....

See also: 
"...Eating mushrooms could slash risk of cognitive decline by 50%"
When The Apocalypse Comes Mushrooms May Save Your Life
"Her Royal Highness?... Magic mushrooms at Buckingham Palace"
"Is Fungus the Material of the Future?"
 I tried a chocolate bar that replaces sugar with mushrooms — and couldn’t tell the difference
"The Super Rich Are Investing In Magic Mushrooms And Fancy Batteries"

Possibly also of interest:
Hawaii's Orgasm Inducing Mushrooms