San Francisco Guardian Review

This review just in from the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Drugs Issue. Nice.

The elephant in the shroom

THE DRUG ISSUE: It's time to start being realistic about magic mushrooms

By Ari Messer


DRUG LIT The psychedelic experience is perfectly, if unintentionally, expressed in a poetry collection: Too long I took clockwork as a model instead of following the angle my inclinations make with the ground. So writes Rosmarie Waldrop in A Key into the Language of America (New Directions, 1994), a book based on Rhode Island founder Roger Williams's 1643 guide of the same name. The most "meditative" poets, from Milton and Blake to James Merrill and Denise Levertov, are often those who have reworked historical texts. The same could be said about scholars of psychedelics. Forget about Aldous Huxley's exaggerated diatribes and everything by Carlos Castenada. The "doors of perception" aren't opened by self-indulgent rambles of the "I'm a spiritual person" variety.

In 2007, sick of the ingrained pop mythologies surrounding psychedelics (and realizing, it seems, that such pseudoscience isn't helping make the case for legalization), British scholar Andy Letcher published Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (Harper Perennial, 384 pages, $14.99). Though he spends quite a bit of time debunking myco-myths that I'd imagine are only actually believed by people while tripping — Santa Claus is a giant, speckled variety of the Amanita genus; Stonehenge was like a Dead show without the music — the double-PHD Letcher gives a solid sense of magic mushrooms as they moved through history, and we moved with or tripped over them. Letcher uncovers how little we can possibly know.

Because mushrooms can "simply be picked and eaten," Letcher explains, there is "not a single instance of a magic mushroom being preserved in the archaeological record anywhere." Drugs and apparent representations of magic mushrooms that have been found have had other, nonintoxicating uses, from food to insulation, or have been doctored up to appear trippy, as with one example of Neolithic rock art widely distributed through self-declared visionary Terence McKenna's books — McKenna's then-wife, Kat Harrison, actually made the drawing from a photo, adding her own interpretation.

I once heard prankster Paul Krassner relate the tale of his first psychedelic escapade. After his mind returned, he said, it seemed like a good idea to call his mother and express his elation (the rational part of his mind must have still been distracted). Her hilarious response was perhaps culled from the jumbled logic of the war on drugs: "Watch out," she pined into the phone. "I've heard that LSD can be a gateway drug to ... marijuana!"

Letcher shares this realistic sense of humor about the life of drugs. Before picking apart proponents of the otherworldly "ancient mushrooming thesis," he offers them room to breathe. He is ultimately interested in the cultural evolution of the West's "yearning for enchantment" in response to changes that have occurred since the industrial revolution. "That we in the West have found value in those remarkable mushroom experiences, where almost all others before us have regarded them as worthless," he notes, "means that in a very real sense we could claim to be living in the Mushroom Age." He explores how McKenna's death in 2000 left the psychedelic movement without an "obvious figurehead" and how the need to paste our modern sensibilities onto "a pre-historic religion or tabu" (as shroom-popularizer Gordon Wasson wrote in a letter to Robert Graves in 1950), is just an urge.

Post-McKenna, what is the destination of the psychedelic movement's next trip? A new book, Mushroom Magick (Abrams, 144 pages, $19.95), is respectable for its clear motivations and gorgeous, thorough design. It's a little too much fun, consisting of over 100 lush, full-page watercolors by Arik Roper, whose shrooms "grow from the tip of my pen without much effort." Incomplete but clear field notes by Gary H. Lincoff and an essay by Erik Davis offer tasty morsels, and the short bibliography points to useful resources such as Paul Stamets' field guides. But Daniel Pinchbeck's foreword follows the same trajectory that Letcher so carefully deconstructs. I'm afraid that Mushroom Magick ultimately presents as recreational something that, with or without New Age revisionism, clearly has a deeper, revelatory role to play in human affairs. And that's not furthering the discussion, that's a little irresponsible.

Wednesday August 19, 2009


  1. Hi Andy this is totally off the wall, I hear you are based in Oxford and play the bagpipes. Is this true? As im looking for a local plyaer to play for 30 minutes for my partners birthday. Would you be interested? I have a budget of max £50. Please do email me on Many Thanks Vicky Jewson

  2. Great book mr letcher.. although it is hard to say who is wrong and who is right when talking shrooms.

  3. Hey Andy.

    You seem to thrive on conjecture in your work.

    I want to know how you can sum up what was in the Dead Sea scrolls, when in fact most of them have not even been released to the public at large. on Page 162 of 'Shroom' you say "These worries eventually proved unfounded - the Scrolls did not form a missing link to such" ... What is your plan to rectify leading the witness (reader) with your own vision which does not equate to reality. Another book to label FICTION. A very painful read for all the half dug rabbit holes you provide. But I won't take it personally because I see through you.

    1. Oh dang, I should have read the Blog post! This sums it up ! - "Letcher shares this realistic sense of humor about the life of drugs." ohh hahah it's your SENSE of humour I missed!

    2. On the contrary, friend, you see little for had you bothered to read my blog, you'd realise that I am always ready to revise my position in the light of fresh evidence. That you have none to offer is clear by the fact that you resort to cheap name-calling, an approach that demeans our subject and belittles you.

      I am a heathen and so have no emotional investment in the origins of Christianity - let Jesus be an alien from Zeta Reticuli for all I care. But didn't he say something about removing the plank from one's eye before criticising the speck in another's? When you've finished with Allegro you might want to go back to the gospels.



Featured post

Shroom: ten years on

I find it hard to believe but it's exactly ten years since my book Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom was published. Thou...

Popular Posts

Twitter Updates