It was cold and early when I met Alf to go mushie picking. The conditions were perfect, he told me, as mushrooms only come up once a year and need a special arrangement of moisture and temperature. And as I was new to garden drugs, Alf said he'd show me the ropes.
Magic mushrooms contain the hallucinogenic compound psilocybin, which when ingested reduces brain activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the part of brain believed to contain our sense of "self." This effect was uncovered in 2011 by British researcher Robin Carhart-Harris from the Imperial College, London, and it's still considered the leading study in the area. What Carhart-Harris concluded was that when the brain's ability to interpret its own sensory inputs is reduced, the conscious mind is able to receive information that otherwise gets discarded. As Carhart-Harris told Time in 2012, psilocybin "shuts off this ruminating area and allows the mind to work more freely."
This decrease in brain activity can last six hours. If that's your thing, there are at least 30 types of psilocybin mushroom around Australia, although their cultivation, possession, and ingestion is strictly prohibited.
Possession or use carries a penalty fine of up to $3,000 and if you're unlucky can result in jail time. However this is unusual, with only two precedents in Australian history. The most recent case involved a Brazilian chef named Lauro Carrilho, who in 2013 received a 15-month suspended sentence for possessing 630 grams of mushies in a plastic shopping bag. He'd been growing them when someone he knew snitched, leading to a charge for manufacturing commercial quantities of a prohibited drug.
Despite this, the police usually just issue warnings that they'll be targeting known areas over the harvest season. Nevertheless Alf insisted that he's never actually seen any cops.
Just ten minutes from my house we stopped beside a tree-lined verge and Alf began looking. "It's the pine mulch scattered by the council that makes this a good spot," he said. "It provides carbon to feed the mycelium which then blooms into mushrooms." He explained this is why magic mushrooms grow in public parks and pointed triumphantly to a patch of brown caps. "There," he said, pointing: "blue meanies."
Alf squatted, cut them off at the stem, and showed me their identifying features. They had grayish-brown dome-shaped caps and thin stems, which turned a light blue if squished. The blue bruising was the all-clear signal, he explained, and deposited them in a paper bag. Alf continued picking while joggers and cyclists passed, until one shouted "mushies!" Then we moved along.
As we looked around we got talking about bad trips, and Alf told me about a particular friend of his. "She became animalistic," he said. She just got stuck repeating, the mother, the daughter, the father, the sister, the mother, the daughter, the father, the sister , again and again for eight hours straight. It was terrible."
Alf also acknowledged that he'd witnessed friends wetting themselves while on shrooms. "It isn't uncommon," he said. "And that's a huge wig-out, because, it's like, I'm toilet-trained and I just pissed myself ."
Aside from the dangers of a bad trip, the other risk is mistakenly picking the wrong species. Poisonous mushrooms can cause liver or kidney failure, which is a particularly slow and unpleasant way to go out. In January 2012 two Chinese nationals died three days after eating mushrooms at a New Years Eve party in Canberra. The story was widely circulated with heavy lashings of medical warnings, but still, every year, a few more people wind up in hospital.
In February this year the Illawara Mercury reported that ten people across NSW had been hospitalized when unseasonal rains kicked off an early mushie season. The article noted that they might not have all been trying to get high, but then why else would you eat blue shrooms? "If in doubt, don't take them," Alf shrugged, seemingly unperturbed. "They call it beautiful suicide," he said. "Because first it'll make you trip and then it'll kill you."
The woodland was littered with mushrooms, scattered under bushes and among the fallen leaves, and soon my eyes were calibrated for their shape. Along with blue meanies, there were a dozen other fungi that had been already uprooted and discarded. "People have already been picking here," said Alf, "pulling them up to see if they're meanies."
He explained that in the city some places get raided by 10 AM. This accordingly leads to some silly sort of picking politics, whereby people don't share their tried and tested spots. Some even become territorial, he explained, and they'll turf intruders off.
Before long, Alf was satisfied that we'd collected enough. While heading home, I asked him what he liked about tripping. "Some people like to escape reality, while others like to experience something more," he said. "For me, there's definitely an unknown spiritual element to tripping. I'm very aware that human consciousness is limited so taking something psychoactive releases that a little. I definitely think of it as a kind of a release. And it's just funny to see what your mind is capable of."
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